Not yet a clown, not quite a woman: In conversation with Bianca Del Rio
Female impersonation is an art form that has existed at least as far back as Shakespeare, though drag has never reached the same levels of historical attention as the Bard. Modern society, with its rigid gender roles and inherent need to categorize, has, until recently, viewed drag as contrary to mainstream entertainment, remaining in an LGBTQ niche. However, even the most casual consumer of pop culture should recognize a few icons in the art that stick out in the American cerebrum – particularly RuPaul Charles, Lady Bunny and Divine. If you haven’t already, you better add comedian Bianca Del Rio to that list.
The drag persona of New York-based costume designer Roy Haylock, Del Rio is the season 6 winner of cultural phenomenon “RuPaul’s Drag Race,” winning not only a $100,000 cash prize, but a newfound fame and legions of passionate fans. Del Rio serves up insult comedy with her brand of self-described “clown realness,” and is probably known best outside the drag community for the “not today, Satan” sound bite that went viral after her season aired.
Haylock is now traveling the country as Bianca Del Rio, stopping by the Royal Oak Music Theatre on Oct. 12 on the aptly named “Not Today, Satan” tour. Del Rio’s comedy is razor sharp and feeds significantly on audience interaction, and it’s hard not to laugh at even the darkest jabs. At 41, Del Rio is a seasoned comic who knows her biggest strength lies in the balance between the clowny nature of her drag look and the insults that leave her mouth.
“More people should wear a costume and release some of their craziness, too. It’s no different than Comic-Con, or Santa-Con,” Del Rio said in a phone interview with The Michigan Daily. “You work 9-5 in a cubicle, go out and have some fun.”
Del Rio’s style of humor is often compared to another comedy queen – the late Joan Rivers. Both are masters of the insult comedy routine, and both Rivers and Del Rio have been vocal about their distaste for political correctness. A meeting between the two was documented in an episode of Rivers’s YouTube series, “In Bed With Joan,” shortly before her death in 2014.
“She really embodied drag comedy without the drag,” Del Rio said. “She was the first comedian to do every possible thing you could do, and her work ethic was absolutely amazing, up until the end.”
Having seen several episodes of the series, it’s clear that the comedic chemistry between the two is genuine. Del Rio said she and Rivers were only supposed to film for about 20 minutes – however, the pair spent almost an hour, in her words, “laughing and talking shit.”
“I remember my 9-year-old little gay heart breaking when she cackled at something I said, I couldn’t believe it was happening,” Del Rio said. “I’m supposed to say winning ‘Drag Race’ was the best thing to ever happen to me, but meeting Joan is a very close second.”
Del Rio’s stop in Royal Oak coincides with the recent release of “Hurricane Bianca,” a film long in the making starring Del Rio, Rachel Dratch (“Saturday Night Live”), Alan Cumming (“The Good Wife”) and a conglomeration of queens from “Drag Race” fame. The comedy focuses on Richard Martinez (Haylock), a high school chemistry teacher in a small Texas town, who is unceremoniously fired after he is outed as gay. In a “Mrs. Doubtfire”-meets-“Lady Vengeance” situation, Martinez comes back unrecognizable in full drag as Bianca Del Rio to take the same position, and wreak havoc on those who wronged her.
Underlying the camp of the film is a much darker truth – in this day and age, it is still legal in 29 states, including Michigan, to be fired for being gay. Michigan is slowly working in the direction of equality, with active campaigns to amend existing work discrimination laws to include sexual orientation. Del Rio hopes to use comedy as a mediator to bring more attention to the problem, one that affects millions of people living in the United States today.
“One of the reasons I was drawn to the project is that it wasn’t done in a preachy, documentary kind of way, but it also isn’t completely campy,” Del Rio said. “There’s some charm to it, and there’s some heart to it.”
As drag gains popularity in more mainstream circles some queens have spoken out about the negative effects of the interest by non-LGBT people in the art. This was brought to the attention of many in a 2015 Slate article by Miz Cracker, another New York-based drag queen. In the piece, she laments the recent influx of straight women in gay clubs, historically a haven for the LGBT community. Miz Cracker has a problem mostly with bachelorette parties, as her personal experiences with them have been marred by rudeness and feelings of entitlement from the women.
Del Rio, on the other hand, encourages people of all sexual orientations to come to her show.
“There are no rules to anything. Sometimes 16 women walk into a [gay] bar and receive some side-eyes, but let me tell you, 16 gay men are no better,” Del Rio said. “I think it’s great, but I think in particular with my sense of humor, they need to be aware that if you have feelings, leave them at the door [laughs]. That doesn’t mean I’m just attacking straight girls, I’m attacking everyone.”
According to Del Rio, about 60 percent of her tour audience is straight women, likely because that demographic’s viewership of “RuPaul’s Drag Race” has grown immensely over the years. The show has gained fans of cultish proportions with every season, and is now in its 10th incarnation with no signs of stopping. Though Del Rio has benefited from the “Drag Race” empire, she has also proven herself as a multitalented seasoned comic, actor and educator on social justice, all with a little bit of a bite.
“Just know if you’re coming to my show, don’t wear your heart on your sleeve,” Del Rio said. “Because you’ll leave with no heart and no sleeve.”
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Bianca Del Rio
Wednesday, Oct. 12
Royal Oak Music Theater
Door open 7 p.m.