"Can I get you anything? Are your needs being met?" Ben Putman asked me as we sat down for a chat in his living room. For just a moment, it was as though I was in the company of his close associate, the terminally delightful BenDeLaCreme, rather than Ben the artist/writer/performer.
Like most drag fans, Ben's still reeling from the last season of RuPaul's Drag Race All Stars, during which we witnessed him abruptly transcend the format of reality television. His decision to depart the show when he was the clear frontrunner must have created a massive headache for producers, but it presented Ben with a challenge as well: Now what?
Ben's a different man (and DeLa's a different woman) than a year ago.
In a wide-ranging interview, we touched on his Drag Race rebellion, his changing career plans, and the personal meaning behind the brilliant shows he's been producing in Seattle for years, including Homo For the Holidays (a Christmas show), Beware the Terror of Gaylord Manor (a Halloween show), and Inferno A-Go-Go (a playful but brilliant riff on Dante's Inferno).
As it turns out, those shows aren't just a delight for audiences—they're nourishing for Ben. They meet his needs. And soon they'll do much more. The question of what's next he'll be answering in collaboration with his fans, his colleagues, and his characters.
What are you looking forward to right now?
The end of this month is Drag Becomes Her with Jinkx Monsoon and Peaches Christ in LA, then I'm going to do DragCon for the first time which I'm very nervous about.
You're nervous about DragCon?
Well yeah, it's like a three-day, 24-hour meet-and-greet. I'm not NERVOUS. I'm just clenching. You're not performing, and that's my favorite part. You're smiling and taking photos for 12 hours. Then I get to tour Inferno a bunch, which I'm really excited about. I just announced the UK tour of Inferno. That'll take me though October, then I'll come back here and go into Gaylord Manor. And then I've got a new holiday project that is coming up this year.
Homo for the Holidays is such an institution.
Last year was my last year of Homo for the Holidays. I wish we'd had an opportunity to announce that ahead of time... We had a solid decade, and Kitten and Lou were incredible collaborators for a long time. They have a new holiday project they're going to be doing at West Hall, and I'm working on something new with Jinkx Monsoon that'll be a lot of fun.
I saw that Jinkx is saying bon voyage to Seattle and moving to San Francisco, which is a bummer.
I know. Except I see Jinkx more on the road than at home. When we're both here, we don't leave our houses.
How much can you tell me about the holiday show?
Not much yet. It's artistically and logistically in the works. Jinkx and I are both doing Provincetown this summer—we share a house and do our shows. We'll have five weeks to figure all the artistic pieces out.
Are you in like a drag queen artists colony?
Oh yeah. P-town is amazing. It's like a summer camp vibe. There's so much going on. There's all these tourists coming and going, but if you're there the whole summer you feel like you're the camp counselor. There's camaraderie to the people working in P-town that's really inspiring. I've formed friendships with people who are my heroes, which is very exciting. Like Peaches is out there in the summers now. Varla Jean is out there. Varla has been talking to me about a potential project which is a dream come true. It's all stuff that bubbles from that community of P-town.
How many years have you been going there?
It's been off and on for 10 years. For a long time it was with the Atomic Bombshells. Before Kitten and Lou met, Kitten was doing shows out in Provincetown—these little Bombshells shows that were just her and two other girls. A very miniaturized version of what she did here. The way I met Kitten was I walked up to her after a Bombshells show and I was like, "That was great. I hear you do summers in Provincetown. I think you should hire me to be your MC." And that was how we met.
Do you just walk up to people like that a lot?
I actually feel like I'm much more timid than that in my daily life. There are moments when things appear really clear to me, and I'm like okay we just have to make this. As you saw on [RuPaul's] show, I'm such a Libra, and I spend so much time weighing every option and thinking through things. And when something becomes really clear to me, it's like, take this opportunity right now. But it doesn't happen very often.
What's clear to you now?
I'm really excited to dig back into Gaylord Manor. Last year was the first time I've taken on a project of that size, and I didn't get to put the time I wanted into it. So I'm excited now I get to finesse it. And then Jinkx and I are just on the phone chatting about our ideas around this holiday project, and I'm excited to get in a house with her.
What did being on Drag Race All Stars change for you?
I don't know. I still feel so in it.
What do you mean?
It's so close. It's hard to back up and get the full scope. Ask me the question again.
What has All Stars changed about the work you're doing now?
It's such a hard thing to harness. After season 6, I had all these opportunities, but I didn't harness it. I didn't know to harness it in the way I wanted to. Part of me saying no [to returning for All Stars at first] was I was like "I'm really happy with what my life looks like." I was happier last year than I was the year after season 6. I was doing the work I like to do.
What's the work you love to do?
Producing stuff here in Seattle. Doing longer narrative stuff. Inferno and Gaylord Manor were so nourishing, and Homo for the Holidays as well.
What's nourishing about them?
Longform narrative work, the relationship you form with an audience, is much more exciting to me. Nightclub stuff is fun, but you're not building a relationship with an audience. The opportunity of having someone for an evening—you get to take them on a journey. Gaylord Manor is letting people into my brain for an hour and a half. And working with those people—those are artists I super love and respect and have a familiar relationship. The creative process leading up to it is hectic and crazy but that is nourishing. A lot of those people—Scott Shoemaker and Faggedy Randy—those are very like-minded people. And I don't meet a lot of like minded people. And they take what's silly seriously. For me, I'm exploring ideas about I'm passionate about in horror. Gender dynamics and queerness in horror and misogyny and feminism in horror and ideas of what are monsters metaphorically, what are ghosts metaphorically, how do people feel haunted by their pasts. The catharsis of horror. Gaylord's the only show I've ever made that doesn't have a happy ending. And it's because to me, with horror, the satisfaction is delving into the worst-case scenarios.
Peaches Christ talks about that too.
I feel like you make work and later you look back and you're like, "That's why I made that at the time." My turnaround time is getting shorter now, so I can figure it out before the show. Like Dante's Inferno, I was like, "This is the material I'm interested in, I don't know why." And when I started working on it I realized I was at a time in my life that was driving me towards that, and I was able to fold that into the work. I look back at when I was a club kid in Chicago and I always put together these very different looks, but I would be able to look at them a little later and think, "That's what I was going through then." I went through a horror phase with blood and stitches, and that was a time when I really needed people to see how wounded I felt.
Why did Inferno attract you when it did?
It was a time when I was going through some difficult stuff with people I was close with. We were having major disagreements. And I was struggling with the idea that people I loved so much and was so close with, I could feel that they were so wong, and they could feel that I was so wrong. And I was like: "How do I sort this out? I care about this so much and we absolutely do not agree on an objective truth of what is right and wrong." The story in Inferno—it's basically the opposite trajectory as mine. Dante gets more on board with the theology of it. As he's being led through the underworld he's at first sympathetic to the people in hell, and becomes less and less so. And my character in my show has the opposite experience. There's also the theme that people are responsible for their own suffering, and I was like, "I need to take responsibility in my life. Until I own up to what I have done in my life that has made me unhappy, I will not be able to fix it."
Did the show help you?
Writing the show really helped me sort out my thoughts. It was super valuable. When you're diving into art, making it runs parallel to your experience. I was at the time trying to figure out how to work on myself and make changes. I was doing personal work at the same time I was doing that work and they both pushed themselves forward. Gaylord Manor I think of it as a fully autobiographical story. Down to the setting—it's based on the house I grew up in.
What ideas are you exploring now?
Exhaustion. [She laughs.] One reason I'm not working on anything new besides the Christmas thing with Jinkx is partially because I've got to catch my breath. And I want to write a new solo show at the top of 2019. I'm excited that with the momentum of All Stars, I get to continue to dive further into Gaylord and tease more out. Last year was so much foundation-laying. The last couple years have been. Even just laying the foundation in my own brain that I'm capable of doing it. Now as much as this year is super busy, I feel like a bit of it is an exhale, like I did all this work and now I get to revel in it.
If you build too much foundation, you'll end up with a bunker. What's BenDeLaCreme building toward?
I used to have a really clear idea of five, ten years down the road. Creating a solo show a year, touring it to cities, doing Seattle annuals. It still looks like that to me, it's what I've always been working toward. But I'm seeing more possibilities, like this thing with Jinkx. A touring show that's just me and another person. I've been talking to performers in Seattle that I've never taken outside Seattle. I'm starting to feel like the world is open to me in more ways. I might not take those opportunities but I'm like, "What if?" I think five, ten years down the road continues to look like solo work and touring, but I feel like there might be a lot more things that blossom that I can't predict. I'm feeling open to them and feeling very empowered about being capable of doing them. I'm noticing it constantly more and more, even just little things. I think I'm dreaming big and I realize I put a ceiling on it. Like a run sells out in ten minutes and I'm like, "Oh I'm not thinking big enough." I feel super-duper blessed and and I'm balancing a combination of feeling lucky and proud of the hard work.
What are you most proud of lately?
I'm having a major moment of holy shit. What I'm most proud of is my life looks nothing like it had any right to ever look and it was completely invented. There was not a roadmap. As a child I was like, "I want to do make-believe for a living," and somehow I do. It's still very hard and I'm still very stressed out and overwhelmed and have a lot of feelings all the time. I have to keep reminding myself that my choices have paid off.
When's the last time you watched The Muppet Movie?
It's been a few years.
You know that scene where Kermit's in the desert talking to himself? It sounds like you're just at the end of that conversation, realizing that it's okay to have a dream.
I have to rewatch that film. I've been watching films that are about being a creator.
I just watched The Greatest Showman on a plane back from the UK and I just sobbed the entire time. Full-on ugly snotty crying the entire time. I watched that and Coco back to back so I cried for four hours. I've been having an intense experience of thinking about this life and the decisions I made and what I work for. I don't think I'm at the peak, but I'm on a ledge and I can be like, "Wow, I did all this." On Drag Race, when I left, I literally had a life epiphany live on camera that day. I came back from filming and I restructured things in my life. All of the stuff I'm talking about broke open for me in that moment. I felt like I had to do Drag Race [All Stars]—I was super upset about it, I had said no a bunch of times, they kept asking, and I was like, "I'm going to be miserable if I say no to this. But if I do it I'll be selling a part of my soul."
And then what happened to you once you were on the show?
There was a bizarre moment when I was like, "Holy crap, I've gotten this far. I've done way better than I ever expected to do." I just had this moment where I was like, "I don't have to fucking do anything I don't want to do." And it was like a big moment. Me realizing I can just do whatever the fuck I want. I don't know what I'm going to do. I feel like my mind is still a little blown by that idea. It can be fucking anything.
What happened the day after an epiphany like that?
They keep you trapped in a hotel for five days and make you vote for a winner.
What were you doing during that time?
Going fully insane. We all were. We were all stuck in the hotel at that point. I was like, "I have HAD it." I was done with the rules, and done with structure. So when I got back to the hotel [the night after my self-elimination], I had a moment where I was like, "None of you are in charge of me... I could walk out of this hotel room and down the street and into the forest if I want to. There's no power to this other than what I give you." So that was very weird. They were not happy with me. I was like, "No, I'm not staying in my room. What are you going to do, fire me? I already went home."
What are you doing now that's different from when you were first on Drag Race, during season 6?
The thing All Stars has given me is I'm experiencing three years ago all over again. But with three years of knowledge. It's a very bizarre timewarp, and the blessing of going on there again is the do-over on what happens after. It's not that anything went wrong before, it was just that now I'm more focused, I know more about myself, I know more about what I want. Sometimes there's a panic about how do we make things happen. And now it's a much more casual conversation. Like working with Jinkx—there's deadlines, but I'm more accustomed to that now. I'm not freaking out about it. I'm mapping out 2019—that used to feel so overwhelming. Now it's like, "I got this." I've learned that I can to do things I don't know how to do. In the last two Homo for the Holidays, Jesus is talking about how hard things feel, and God says "I designed people to be able to do things that are hard." It's something my therapist said to me early on. You can do things that are hard.
This interview has been edited and condensed for length and clarity.