I'm in a hotel room in London's underbelly of Soho. I met Bianca Del Rio here 20 minutes ago, and her hand is in my mouth. But I’m not brawling with the notoriously sharp-tongued drag queen, she’s just resting her hand as she gently brushes foundation onto my face to make me over.
Sorry to disappoint, but Del Rio is a delight. She may be an insult comic by trade, but offstage she is utterly charming, warm and happily co-operative - even when I repeatedly blink as she applies waterproof eyeliner, spreading it all over the wrong part of my eyelid.
“She’s fired!” she laughs, calling me a turd, then reassuring me: “it’s a rite of passage to have something go wrong when you have your first go at drag make up.” Later when I change into my gaudy golden floor-length gown to complete my look she rushes over, alerts me that my necklace is on backwards and reaches around my neck to fix it, as if I’m the star here.
Having spent two decades working as a theatrical costume designer by day and a stand-up in the gay clubs of New Orelans and New York City by night, Del Rio, 40, made her name as an international star after being crowned the season 6 winner of RuPaul’s Drag Race.
Debuting in US in 2009, the show finally started airing in the UK on TruTV late last year. The programme is an addictive marriage between competitive fashion shows Project Runway and America’s Next Top Model, given a twist with staples of drag culture including lip synching, sewing, and "reading".
The format means that the show is filled with the delicious moments you’d expect from reality TV, but it's also a sequin-drenched celebration of the artistry of all forms of drag; the support network of “families” and “houses” that queens operate in; and the civil rights struggle that has lead to such a show even being able to air.
Taking its title from its creator RuPaul - a 1980s club kid now affectionately referred to as “Mumma Ru” after bringing the art of drag into the US mainstream - it’s now in its seventh season.
But a quick scroll on forums shows that the programme's tight-nit group of fiercley devoted fans who had watched season 7 in the US were left wanting. Viewers complained that while the show was still wildly entertaining, some of the contestants were flat or didn’t appear to appreciate the history of drag culture.
After Del Rio, an enviably skilled former Broadway costume maker armed with cutting jokes from her self-styled “Rolodex of hate”, future contestants had a lot to live up to.
She was clearly a force to be reckoned with from the start of the show, and when in one episode RuPaul asks Del Rio if she is being helped by any of the other contestants she smirks: “Well, they're all helping me out by being horrible [at drag] and making me look better.”
However, in the two hours that we spend together it becomes obvious that Del Rio doesn’t have an ounce of ego, and takes each day as it comes. The queen is deeply grateful, and perhaps a little overwhelmed, by the attention she has received since winning the show in 2014. The race to get tickets to her sell-out comedy shows is just one example of this. The hoards of fans who follower her every move is another.
Del Rio is the creation of costume designer Roy Haylock, the fourth of five children in a family of Cuban and Honduran descent from New Orleans. First realising his love for costume design and performance in high school, his talents were recognised aged 17 when he won the citywide Big East Entertainment award for best costume design for the Snow Queen: an almost prophetic hint to the character that would give him stardom.
Del Rio gradually developed after Haylock’s first drag performance in the show Pageant at the New Orleans Opera, where he was working as a make up artist and costume designer.
“There was a small drag role in a play and they asked me to do it because I was already around doing costumes and makeup. So I did it and it just kind of snowballed into a drag career and it was like ‘OK let’s try this’.”
"Did I think I’d be doing it this long? Hell no."
Perhaps these beginnings - dressing performers as well as taking to the stage - are why Del Rio is so affable in person despite her onstage persona. On Drag Race she cannot help but be kind by boosting Trinity K Bonet’s waning confidence, and lending Adore Delano a corset when she is told off for not cinching in her waist.
As we chat, Del Rio doesn’t have a harsh word to say about anyone, even when I bring up Laganja Estranga, a queen who appeared on the show aged 24. She was painted as overly emotional, attention-seeking, and deeply irritating to Del Rio.
“She's actually a great girl. She lost her mind on the show but she’s a good queen. Everybody handles stress differently and I think that’s what people don't realise. It’s a very stressful situation, to accomplish all of that stuff in a very short period of time.
“I can only imagine what I would've been like at 20 so we’ll cut her some slack.”
It would be easy to read the kindness of the seasoned queen as complacency and certainty that she'd win, but that would be wrong. She worked tirelessly on the show, never landing in the bottom. Those who find themselves in this position must lip-synch to a pre-learned song, and win the approval of RuPaul to save themselves from elimination.
If it’s not your cup of tea don't watch it, don't look at it, don't listen to it
“I learned every song just in case because you never know what’s going to happen. I was like ‘phew dodged that bullet, what’s next, what’s next?’ It wasn’t so much winning as getting through each day.”
“I’m appreciative of this opportunity. I think if this had happened to me at 20-years-old I would've had a different outlook and would have believed that I'm changing the world. I'm getting to do what I've always wanted to do, which is perform and travel and it’s now at a level that is global.”
The show has certainly propelled Del Rio onto TV and computer screens around the world, and her Rolodex of Hate tour has seen her playing locations from London to Amsterdam, Australia to Dublin.
As her star rises, is she tempted to tone down her acerbic, close-to-the-edge comedy often compared to that of Joan Rivers?
“I always say that if I didn’t wear a wig I’d be called a nasty, hateful fag, and then when I wear a wig I’m called hysterical. So for me it [drag] is the packaging to get away with murder.”
As a seasoned drag queen, Del Rio cut her teeth in the club circuits, long before social media and the pitfalls it brings.
“I was fortunate enough to do drag prior to Drag Race so I have a thick skin. Back in the day you just had to walk up to somebody and say 'I hate you' and run the risk of getting punched in the face. That was what I preferred.
"I think we live in a world now, thanks to social media, where you begin to hate people before you even know them because everyone has a f***ing opinion on something.”
“I can dish it as well as take it. In my opinion, people are little too sensitive. If it’s not your cup of tea don't watch it, don't look at it, don't listen to it. There’s nothing wrong with standing up for your rights and what you feel is important, but I think now it’s a little bit too much. You really can’t say or do anything without someone being offended and I think it’s so ridiculous”
“With doing insult comedy you have to start with yourself. You're the biggest joke there is. I'm a man in a wig, by no means am I changing the world or curing cancer. It starts with my owns sense of humor and self deprication.”
And as Drag Race spreads farther across the world, Del Rio may have to defend her humor more and more.
Drag Race first appeared as a platform for queens to celebrate, present, and defend different aspects of the artform. As it grew, it became a crash course in the tucking, padding and contouring that goes into creating a look for those new to the scene.
Last year the show's popularity hit new heights as a handful of Del Rio's fellow contestants performed alongside Miley Cyrus at the MTV VMA Awards.
Does she worry that drag, once largely confined to smoky nightclubs and seen as a form of activism by many, will lose its way in the mainstream?
“No I think it’s great! I think it shows another side of our [drag performers'] world. It [Drag Race] shows all sides of it [drag], it’s not just black or white."
Culture news in pictures
Culture news in pictures
1/30 19 July 2016
People apply wax on 'Le Penseur' (The Thinker), a sculpture by late French sculptor Auguste Rodin, to protect it from weather damages and pollution at the Rodin museum in Paris
2/30 18 July 2016
The painting 'Venus in Furs' hangs in the Picture Gallery in Park Sansouci in Potsdam, Germany. After having been missing for 70 years, the painting fom 1640 by a Flemish master was returned from private hands. The Foundation Prussian Palaces and Gardens Berlin-Brandenburg has been missing around 2,000 objects since the Second World War
3/30 17 July 2016
Artists of the French pyrotechnic company "Groupe F" perform during the show "A fleur de peau" (On edge) at the Venaria Reale Palace, in Venaria, near Turin
4/30 16 July 2016
Dancers of the British dance company Balletboyz perform in "Rabbit", choreographed by Pontus Lidberg, during the Malta Arts Festival in Valletta, Malta
5/30 15 July 2016
Singer Gwen Stefani performs on NBC's "Today" Show at Rockefeller Plaza in New York City
6/30 14 July 2016
People sit under illuminated giant raindrop-shapes at an interactive art installation to raise awareness of autism, in Shanghai
7/30 13 July 2016
An installation 'A wall of life jackets and their stories' by Andrew Wakeford and Fred George is on display at Johanneskirche in Saarbruecken, Germany. The installation is made of original life jackets found on the beaches of Greece and barbed wires, along with interviews and portraits of who have fled from the conflict in the Middle East to Europe. The exhibition runs from 15 July to 26 August
8/30 12 July 2016
Chinese artist Ai Weiwei poses next to a sculpture that is part of his installation "Circle of Animals/Zodiac Heads" in front of the Upper Belvedere palace in Vienna, Austria. From 14 July to 20 November 2016, the 21er Haus museum presents Ai Weiwei's solo show "translocation - transformation", with the central exhibit of a tea merchant family's ancestral temple from the Ming Dynasty, whose main hall will be reconstructed in the 21er Haus
9/30 11 July 2016
"Mediterranean Body", a monumental sculpture by COSKUN is seen at the 11th Taehwa River Eco Art Festival in Ulsan, South Korea. The artist, with his wooden monumental sculpture pays tribute to refugees who lose their lives at sea
10/30 10 July 2016
A festival-goer paints a mandala during the 2nd Samsara Yoga and Music Festival in the Toreki neighbourhood of Siofok, 102 kms southwest of Budapest, Hungary. Visitors can enjoy music performed on three stages and attend workshops, lectures and conversations with yoga trainers, instructors, therapeutists, psychologists, doctors and healers between 6 and 11 July
11/30 9 July 2016
Naked volunteers, painted in blue to reflect the colours found in Marine paintings in Hull's Ferens Art Gallery, participate in US artist, Spencer Tunick's "Sea of Hull" installation in Kingston upon Hull
12/30 8 July 2016
Mark Rylance (L) is returning to the West End stage in Nice Fish - and fans will be able to see him for free if they dress up as fish. Nice Fish, the critically acclaimed comedy by Rylance and prose poet Louis Jenkins, will have a limited run from November at London's Harold Pinter Theatre after a successful season in New York
13/30 7 July 2016
Women wearing summer kimonos, called yukatas, look at goldfish during the 2016 EDO Nihonbashi Art Aquarium exhibition in Tokyo. The 10th anniversary of the festival will start on 8 July and will continue until 25 September, displaying some 8,000 goldfish in various special art exhibits
14/30 6 July 2016
Musician Tim Lopez (L) and Tom Higgenson of the Plain White T's perform at the Grove's Summer Concert Series in Los Angeles, California
15/30 5 July 2016
Tourists walk through a lantern installation in Zhangjiakou, Hebei Province, China
16/30 4 July 2016
One of London’s most iconic venues has sent a pair of show tickets into space to celebrate the world premiere of Independence Day Live – a new film-and-orchestra event being held in September. The Royal Albert Hall has marked the occasion by blasting the tickets into the stratosphere on Independence Day itself
17/30 3 July 2016
People walk on the installation 'The Floating Piers' by Bulgarian-born artist Christo Vladimirov Yavachev, known as Christo, northern Italy
18/30 2 July 2016
Performers dressed as angels take part in the Place des Anges spectacle in Hull, part of UK City of Culture 2017 and the Yorkshire Festival. Up to 10,000 people have descended on Hull to watch Place des Anges. The aerial show sees white-clad angels appear on rooftops before taking off on suspended wires across the city. The event culminates with thousands of white feathers cascading onto the crowds below
19/30 1 July 2016
20/30 30 June 2016
The world's largest disco ball is installed at the Duke Studios in Leeds ahead of The Big Disco event. The event, which is part of the Yorkshire Festival 2016, will see thousands of people partying under the Guinness World Record holding disco ball - which measures 10.33 metres in diameter and is two and a half times the size of a double decker bus
21/30 29 June 2016
The first major solo exhibition by accessories designer, art director and fashion stylist Judy Blame has opened to the public and runs between 29 June and 4 September at the ICA, The Mall in London
22/30 28 June 2016
Prince Seeiso of Lesotho and Prince Harry on stage with the Basotho Youth Choir at the finale of the Sentebale Concert at Kensington Palace in London
23/30 27 June 2016
A woman looks at the Eugene Delacroix paintings made between 1849 and 1861 during a restoration at the Saints-Anges chapel inside the Saint-Sulpice church in Paris
24/30 26 June 2016
Chris Martin of 'Coldplay' performs on the Pyramid Stage on day 3 of the Glastonbury Festival at Worthy Farm
25/30 25 June 2016
Adele performing on stage at the Glastonbury Festival, at Worthy Farm in Somerset
26/30 24 June 2016
US artist Joan Jonas poses during the presentation of her exhibition 'Joan Jonas: Stream or River. Flight or Pattern' at the Bitin Foundation in Santander, northern Spain. The display featuring experimental film and video-installation of pioneering Jonas will be open to the public from 25 June to 16 October 2016
27/30 23 June 2016
Evie Ferris and Georgia Scott-Hunter, Artists of The Australian Ballet next to one of Edgar Degas' iconic ballet dancer paintings 'Dancer with Bouquets' during the media preview for the 'Degas: A New Vision' exhibition at National Gallery of Victoria in Melbourne, Australia. The exhibition will run from 24 June to 18 September as part of the Melbourne Winter Masterpieces series
28/30 22 June 2016
Figures of characters from the comic series 'Uncle Walt' by US cartoonist Frank King are on display in the exhibition 'Pioneers of the Comic Strip. A different Avant-Garde' at the Schirn Kunsthalle museum in Frankfurt am Main, Germany. The exhibition that features the works of six primarily US illustrators created between 1905 and 1940, runs from 23 June 2016 to 18 September 2016
29/30 21 June 2016
(L-R) Actors Jonathan Holmes, Paul Moniz de Sa, Daniel Bacon, Chris Gibbs, Jemaine Clement, Penelope Wilton, Mark Rylance, Ruby Barnhill, Bill Hader, Rebecca Hall and Rafe Spall arrive on the red carpet for the US premiere of Disney's "The BFG," directed and produced by Steven Spielberg. A giant sized crowd lined the streets of Hollywood Boulevard to see stars arrive at the El Capitan Theatre
Getty Images for Disney
30/30 20 June 2016
Tony Bennett attends as the Friars Club Honors Tony Bennett With The Entertainment Icon Award - Arrivals at New York Sheraton Hotel & Tower in New York City
Seeing the show as an opportunity to humanise the LGBT community, she goes on: “I think its opening their eyes and minds to it [drag]. When you're filming the show for 70 per cent of it you're out of drag, so they [viewers] see you as a person and they realise where you come from.
“There’s so many misconceptions of it. People automatically think you want to be a girl but it’s not the case. Being transgender is completely different. That struggle is a little more personal, whereas drag is just being accepted for ‘hey this is my job this is what I do.’ I think that any time it’s out there and any time there's any discussion of it it's a good thing.”
“Gay men have been subjected to it [drag] all for so long. People who are watching it on TV are fascinated by it. The majority of the people that I meet, especially in the US, are girls that are hooked on the show, I think it’s fabulous.”
“It’s kind of unreal that all of this is being accepted by the world. I’m sitting in a hotel room in London talking to you. That wouldn't have happened twenty years ago for me.”
But at the same time, Del Rio isn’t interested in universal acceptance and approval.
“You don’t like it don't watch it. That’s how I feel when people say they’re against gay marriage. What does it matter? If you're straight you're not going to marry a gay person so don't worry about it.”
Del Rio's next project will see her explore homophobia in a feature-length film Hurricane Bianca, which tells the story of a man being sacked from his job in a conservative US town for being gay: something which is currently legal in 29 states. Crowdfunding for the project started before Drag Race, but the publicity has enabled her to collaborate with US comedian and actress Margaret Cho and Scottish actor Alan Cumming.
As our time together nears its end, I start to understand a fraction of the hard graft that goes into Del Rio’s job.
Nothing quite emphasises the effort that goes into drag like putting it on, attempting to function in it, and taking it off.
My head is getting hotter as I speak, and I squint through enormous lashes. When taking the makeup off, my usually trusty facewash is left in the dust as my lipstick is somehow on my head and streaking down my chin. My eyebrows are defiantly glued to my face and covered in foundation.
Can she see herself doing this for another ten years?
“Hopefully not in a wig,” she admits, “We’ll see. I didn’t plant these past ten years and that has kind of been the amazing thing about it.
“I'm looking forward to the future and, you know, if it means drag then great, if it doesn't then it has been an amazing ride. I have no complaints and it's just been a brilliant journey.
“I’ve never been one of those to sit down and say 'this is what I want’. I’ve also been good with saying 'this is what I don't want'. So we’ll see, we’ll see where the journey takes us."
RuPaul’s Drag Race airs on Mondays at 10pm on truTV, freeview channel 68 and Sky 198, followed by RuPaul’s Drag Race: Untucked at 11pm.Reuse content