Love her, hate her, or fear her, Bianca Del Rio has skyrocketed to fame and established herself as a preeminent figure of drag and stand-up comedy in the United States and across the world.
Though most people know her as the winner of RuPaul’s Drag Race Season Six, Bianca Del Rio is a more familiar character to many in New Orleans, where her drag career began twenty-two years ago. Catching up with Del Rio, we discussed her early days of performance in New Orleans, transitioning to New York City, and the impacts of Drag Race and political correctness on the current drag scene.
Before the false eyelashes, clown makeup, and sold-out audiences, Del Rio started out at fifteen assisting in costume construction at a West Bank dinner theatre on weekends–a skill set that would prove invaluable throughout her career.
“It just kind of evolved from there,” Del Rio said. That evolution saw Del Rio begin acting and doing costumes more regularly across New Orleans in shows such as Cabaret, Rent, and Anything Goes.
Del Rio landed her first role in drag when asked to perform in Pageant, the 1991 musical spoof of traditional beauty pageants featuring an all-male cast.
Staff members of Oz New Orleans attended a performance of Pageant, and the former General Manager of Oz, Tommy Elias was one of the first to hire Del Rio in New Orleans.
“Then, I started a drag career,” Del Rio recalled.
Del Rio took a fairly traditional approach in her drag performance in the beginning. “I started out doing lip-syncing and dancing and all that kind of stuff that everybody kind of does, but it really wasn’t for me,” Del Rio said.
Over time, Del Rio became the go-to woman at the mic for Oz hosting talent shows on Mondays, drag shows on Wednesdays, and drag queen bingo every Thursday, Friday, and Saturday.
All the while, she maintained a career designing and constructing costumes for theater and opera throughout New Orleans during the day and becoming Bianca Del Rio at night.
Del Rio’s quick, acerbic wit was the basis of what would later become her stand-up act honed through years at the mic hosting at Oz.
“It was kind of like dealing with people and killing time. That’s when I found my niche of being hateful. You’re dealing with drunk people who really don’t want to hear you or don’t want to be bothered. They’re the people who come in during happy hour to have a drink. They don’t care about fucking bingo.”
After ten years of performing in New Orleans, Del Rio made the decision to relocate to New York City. Hurricane Katrina, “which was not so much a bad situation for me personally,” Del Rio said, presented a moment for her to reevaluate her career and time in New Orleans.
“I was calling [performing in drag in New Orleans] the ‘Golden Handcuffs’ because I was getting paid very well to do it, but I was unfulfilled. I knew there was something I wanted to do,” Del Rio remarked.
Del Rio originally intended to move to New York to work exclusively in Broadway costume companies, which she did successfully, but it was seeing a string of lackluster drag performers that drove her to break out her wigs, wit, and wardrobe for the Big Apple.
“I thought, ‘Oh god, I gotta go back to this.’ So, I went back to it, and was doing kind of the same thing. I was working during that day doing costumes and doing shows at night.”
The years Del Rio spent developing her talents in costuming and nightlife are what ended up paying the bills in New York despite the exhausting schedule. “That was the scary part–just living in New York because it’s so expensive. I had to maintain some sense of balance, so I would do both, which was taxing at the time.”
After ten years in New York, Del Rio was cast on RuPaul’s Drag Race Season Six, “which kind of changed the whole game for me,” Del Rio said.
New Orleans’ Drag Scene
Bianca Del Rio will always consider New Orleans home as she returns to the city periodically on tour and nearly every year for Mardi Gras–not simply because she was born and raised in the city, but also because the drag culture she came up in was one that was resoundingly supportive of her.
In conversation, Del Rio specifically mentioned iconic members of the New Orleans drag community who were influential in her desire to perform and particularly helpful once she began her career.
“Everyone was really supportive. Lisa Beaumann, Teryl-Lynn Foxx, Tiffany Alexander, and Raquel Chevallier–these were all people that I kind of grew up with. I was in the bars at seventeen or eighteen watching them perform. And then, getting to work with them a few years later was amazing,” Del Rio said.
“That made a very big difference, supportive as far as being who I was,” Del Rio remarked of those performers with whom she maintains contact with still today.
Reflecting on the changes she’s seen in the city over time, Del Rio states, “Sometimes I’m like ‘Who is this new girl?’ Then the next thing, I’m like, ‘Oh my god, the same fag is sitting by the video poker machine.’ So, it’s kind of interesting, you know, in New Orleans, so much changes and so much doesn’t.”
Being the Biggest Joke
Known for simply not giving a fuck, Bianca Del Rio offers sharp insights on her relationship with political correctness and the hyper-critical commentary she faces as a public figure on social media in true Bianca fashion.
“Look at who we have as a president right now. I mean, honestly, you can’t say that the standard is really high. It’s really a fucking joke,” Del Rio said.
While Del Rio openly rails at everyone from the President to celebrities to members of her live audiences, she maintains a thread of self-deprecation that evens the playing field and opens herself up to the same level of insult or criticism.
“I’m the biggest joke there is, so I always make it a point to be an equal opportunity hater. I hate myself as much as I hate everyone else. Nothing is off-limits,” Del Rio said.
Del Rio states, “Let’s be honest. I’m not running for office. I’m not in the Senate. I’m not in Congress. I’m just some fag in a wig making jokes. If you can’t see that, then you’ve got a problem.”
Social media has become somewhat a necessary evil providing channels of immediate access and immediate, sometimes harsh, criticism; however, a true legend of comedy changed the way Del Rio approaches the various social media platforms.
“Joan Rivers was brilliant when we had an opportunity to film something together. She said to me, ‘Don’t read the comments.’ I was new to Twitter, Instagram, and all of that with Drag Race. She said, ‘Don’t read it. Don’t bother. The fuck does it matter?’”
That seemingly simple statement resulted in a revelation that continues to ring true for Del Rio as she said, “I thought, ‘You know what? That’s really kind of true.’ It doesn’t affect my life ‘cause I’m never gonna meet these people and they’re never gonna say it to my face. Nothing gets solved in the comments.”
Drag Race & Drag History
Bianca Del Rio put in the groundwork as a drag performer learning the history of drag–especially the icons of the craft. Having this greater understanding of the historical significance of those who came before her and those who continue to prosper alongside her not only humbles her, it contextualizes her position in the history of drag.
RuPaul’s Drag Race has brought drag into the mainstream since its premier in 2009, but it simultaneously leaves many of the foundational drag historical markers behind.
“I knew that there were people like Sherry Vine and Varla Jean Merman and Jackie Beat and Lady Bunny, and–even older than that–Charles Pierce and Jim Bailey who were brilliant performers that were doing this way before I even thought about doing it. I had a good history lesson of who was who and what was what. That benefited me,” Del Rio said.
Del Rio is surprised by the amount of access people have to drag history but also the lack of desire to explore that same drag history.
“For a world that has YouTube and research at their fingertips, it’s amazing how many of them don’t use it, and I think they would benefit from finding out a little more about the drag culture that existed prior to Drag Race,” Del Rio said.
Given that Drag Race has brought about a great shift in public perceptions of drag and drag performance, it has one issue of note for Del Rio.
“Not to say that Drag Race is bad, but you know it’s also taken some people who are assholes and made ‘em into stars, which is kind of a fucked up situation. But, you know, that’s the case. There’s good and bad with all of it.”
Blame It On Bianca
Bianca Del Rio returns to New Orleans on March 4th at the Orpheum Theater with her new stand-up comedy tour Blame It On Bianca Del Rio. It is her third time bringing a stand-up tour to New Orleans. Like previous tours, Blame It On Bianca Del Rio delivers brand new material as well as the ever-popular audience participation portion where it is nothing short of a privilege to be read to filth by the masterful hate queen herself.
Del Rio is releasing a book of the same title wherein she describes herself as “The Expert On Nothing With An Opinion On Everything.” You can bring the hate home with you this May by pre-ordering on Amazon.
Visit TheBiancaDelRio.com for more information and to get tickets.