Over the past year, BenDeLaCreme has evolved from a Seattle burlesque star to a beloved contestant on RuPaul's Drag Race to a name-brand talent who just wrapped up an extended run of his solo show Terminally Delightful! in New York City. In advance of the show's return to Seattle, I grilled the man about his life, his art, and his close personal relationship to Our Lord and Savior RuPaul.
First things first—tell me about Terminally Delightful!
It really pulls from everything I've ever done onstage. There are video elements, live song, burlesque dance, and storytelling. Part of the narrative of the show is that Ben- DeLaCreme is grappling with the fact that the boy version of her is also a public entity. She has to learn how to deal with the fact that people know there are two personas inside her body.
Speaking of mindfucks, you hosted live screenings of your episodes of Drag Race at Seattle's Century Ballroom. What was that like, first experiencing the reality-TV distillation of your Drag Race journey in front of an audience watching you watch yourself while also watching you on TV?
It was awesome! Drag Race was an insane experience. It was really an emotional whirlwind, and this sounds hokey, but I've had this incredible sense of support in Seattle, and I knew the place I wanted to be was with those people, in that environment. Hallie Cooperman, the owner of the Century, has been such a supporter of my work. Back when there was no money, she'd say, "You need a space to rehearse? Here's a space to rehearse." So I knew I wanted to be in Seattle, with these people, to thank them for going through this experience with me—not just watching it on Drag Race, but for going through the whole experience, through all the years it took to get to the point where I was ready to try to be on Drag Race.
We all know reality shows are edited for maximal drama, with varying degrees of trickery involved, but RuPaul is a celebrity who I feel has a core of goodness, and I've always hoped the influence of RuPaul would somehow keep the reality-TV trickery in check. Having lived it and then watched it, what can you tell me?
I feel the same way about RuPaul, and it's one of the reasons that I decided to do the show. I don't really like the culture of reality TV. I think it's kind of gross. But there's something different about Drag Race. You really do feel that Ru—and Michelle Visage, too—really care for the queens. They're passionate about wanting people to be taken care of, and to move on from the show to a better place. But still, it's a machine, you're in Hollywood, there are producers and editors who just got off Top Chef and don't care about drag queens any more than any other reality contestant. They're just Hollywood folks doing their jobs. Personally, I had a great experience. I feel that I was well taken care of and well understood and well represented. But you know... what probably would've been best for someone like Laganja Estranja would've been a friend telling her, "Hey, maybe you need a few more years to ripen..." Laganja had a strange journey, and I think she's doing great stuff with it now, but her story arc on the show is maybe an example of someone being less looked out for.
You were there for the now-infamous "Female or Shemale?" photo challenge. How did that play out in real time?
Courtney and I really didn't want to do it. It's possible other people resisted, too. I just remember me and Courtney bringing up problems with the language, and even what it meant—are you actually going to be showing us pictures of trans women or pictures of drag queens? The producers explaining it... honestly, I'm not sure they were familiar enough with the subject to answer our questions adequately. I was kind of glad the reaction was what it was because... I wished I stood up more against it. There's only so much you can do in that environment. At some point, it's like, well, do you want to be on TV? That's what my values cost me at the moment... I kind of sold out. That was a hard thing to go through. But I was really glad the conversation snowballed. It feels like a few separate things that were happening culturally came together into this thing we're grappling with now, ideas about language around trans people and more general conversations about trans people coming to the forefront, which is exciting.
BenDeLaCreme performances are distinctive for your blending of bright shiny camp and political substance. How do you manage that mix?
I think it's natural that drag is political. Mess with gender assumptions and you're messing with the whole structure of society. That's key to my idea of what BenDeLaCreme is. She's this really positive energy, bouncing off all the ugliness and injustice. On Drag Race, I was challenged for putting things in a positive light. Sure, yeah, absolutely. We decide every day whether we're going to put something positive or negative in the world. Why is some bitchy drag queen calling everybody a cunt not being challenged for her decision to do that? That's my take on it. It's all just about what you're putting out there.