When I first heard that Bianca Del Rio had written a book, in true Bianca Del Rio fashion I thought, “Wrote a book? I didn’t even know she could read a book!” Cue the laughs. Undoubtedly the greatest success story that “RuPaul’s Drag Race” ever launched out of the starting gate, Del Rio consistently sells out concert venues for her live shows, has graced the silver screen in Hurricane Bianca and its new sequel Hurricane Bianca: From Russia With Hate (Hurricanebianca.com), and now has a new book of advice, Blame it on Bianca Del Rio (Dey Street, 2018) to her name. I spoke with Bianca about the book, “insightful prying,” and Drag Race.
Gregg Shapiro: As someone who just published an advice book, what’s the best advice you ever received?
Bianca Del Rio: It was really good advice, but I didn’t take it. Which was “Don’t do drag. It’s a trap” [laughs]. I found out later, they were right [laughs].
What’s the worst advice you ever received?
“Do drag [laughs]!” No. Advice is an odd thing, because you always think you know better yourself. In fairness, I think the best advice I truly did get was “Always laugh. Laugh at yourself. Don’t take yourself too seriously and keep moving. I think for me, in particular, when I was much younger I would get hung up on things for a long period of time. Now, it’s like, “Fuck it! You’ll live. Get over it! Have a drink. Life’s too short!” In the end, it’s that it’s not that serious. Or it shouldn’t be that serious.
What percentage of advice column questions do you think are legit versus made up by writers?
I grew up without having social media. I’m old enough to remember that world. It’s quite fascinating to me how much of their business people put out in the real world. Whether it’s Facebook or Instagram. When I was doing this book – obviously I’m doing it as a joke to give the worst advice possible, because if you’re seeking advice from a 42-year-old drag queen, something’s wrong with you. But I’m fascinated by the stuff people would share. I don’t know if they’re doing it for attention purposes or if it was actually real. It was fascinating to see how people’s minds work. People have no shame at all, none, I must say.
Can you please say something about the transition of your humor from the stage, where most people know you, to the page?
I think it’s a lot harder, as I realized when I was doing the book. There’s also an audio version. When I started to read it aloud (for the recording), I started to get nervous about a couple of things. I thought, “This in print comes across differently than my stage show.” I think you can get away with murder on stage, in a moment, by delivery. Whereas when you have something in print and someone is reading it for the first time, it may come across a little differently. There are some things I fixed in the end where I thought, “Maybe this won’t translate,” unless you got the audiobook. My first reaction was, “Whoa, this seems too far or a bit much.” Usually, for me, it’s no-holds-barred. Everything is funny. But I thought, “In print, it’s a little serious.” Some things I was like, “Go with it! You asked a ridiculous question, you deserve a ridiculous answer!”
You mention “insightful prying” in the author’s note. In what ways can that be a useful tool?
I think sometimes the answer is usually there and people know in their hearts what the truth is. Of course, what I’m doing here is comedy. In fairness, there is a lot of truth in comedy. Usually the funniest stuff is what you can really relate to. A lot of people are attention whores at this point in the world and they put things out there that they know are wrong. Or they have an idea of what the truth is, but they fail to recognize it. I thought that if I could give it to them in some inspirational way, it might actually help them. If it’s a real question. You never really know. When I posted stuff saying that I was interested in doing a book of this nature and “Send me your questions,” we had several duplicates. Usually drag-related. Everything from “What is RuPaul like?” to “What color is your eye makeup?” That kind of shit. Some of them, I was like, “This is insane! The answer is right there in your question!” But I had to point it out for them because they’re probably not smart enough to figure it out themselves.
Some of the more colorful and amusing parts of the book are the wonderful photos. How did you come up with some of the concepts?
Basically, the publisher said they would also like to include photos. But we live in a social media world and I post a lot of photos. Back in my day, you had to have a photo and you had to have it printed and you had to wait a week! This was a different process. I had to create new content for the book. I had to make myself appear a lot more established than I am. And also push the joke home, make it fun. Over four days, we did a photo shoot here in Los Angeles with a friend of mine who is a New York photographer and we hit the road. We thought, “What are the most ridiculous things we could do?” From that is where we came up with the captions and dialogue. I truly didn’t want to do a vanity project and write a book about myself. I thought this would be a good way to slide in my sense of humor, that I’m also making jokes of myself as well.
Do you think you might have another book in you, perhaps a novel?
I am not opposed to it. Friends of mine who have read the book have looked at me and said, “What is wrong with you? You are absolutely insane!” Which I think is great. I guess that works for books. No one has ever said, “Stephen King’s a normal person.” (Publisher) Harper Collins has been extremely supportive, even discussing things in the future. I’m like, “Sure, sure, sure! But let me get through this week first [laughs].” When I have a minute to collect my thoughts, I would totally do it. Why not?
On a scale of one to ten, how would you rate the experience of your recent return as a guest on “RuPaul’s Drag Race”?
I would say it was a ten for me. I filmed the show originally in competition almost five years ago. It was like going back to high school. All the feels and smells were the same. When you film on the soundstage, there’s one side where the contestants are during filming. The other side is where the staff and Ru and guest judges stay. It was interesting to be on the other side of the wall. I didn’t realize how fabulous it was until Audra McDonald was in the dressing room next door. That made up for it. My little gay heart got excited and I realized that this is some legitimate shit!
What’s the single best piece of advice you would offer this season’s queens?
Oh! In seriousness, the best advice would be to be as honest and as real as you are. Even though we’re wearing wigs. Just be yourself. I think the audience, especially with a reality show, gravitate to people that are real. Knowing the pattern of “Drag Race” in particular, now that they’re in their tenth season, some of the most notable characters were people that were true to themselves. It’s very easy to get lost in the madness. It’s easy to get lost with cameras around you. To think, “I need to be this. I need to be that.” Shockingly, the audience can usually see through it.
In addition to your first book hitting bookstore shelves, your new movie Hurricane Bianca: From Russia With Hate is opening in theatres. What can you tell the readers about it?
It’s our second feature, which I’m excited about. The first film actually dealt with gay rights and a schoolteacher who was fired for being gay, which is completely legal in America in 29 states, which is insane! He loses his job and then gets it back. My nemesis in the film is the brilliant Rachel Dratch. In the second film, we pick up where we left off. I ruined her life and now she’s determined to ruin mine. And I end up in Russia! So, it’s topical and fun. We have some great cameos and supporting players, including the fabulous Janeane Garofalo, Cheyenne Jackson, and Wanda Sykes. We were lucky to gather a bevy of talented people. I’m really looking forward to it!
Fuzz Roark on Spotlighters’ 2018-19 Season
By Frankie Kujawa
Frankie Kujawa: In your own words, what can audiences expect from this upcoming 2018-2019 season at Spotlighters?
Fuzz Roark (Spotlighters‘ managing artistic director): Season 57 will bring Baltimore audiences seven productions of Strong Voices. Each production will speak to a specific area of our life and society. We begin with voices from 400 BCE from Aristophanes’ Lysistrata, in a new translation by Sarah Ruden; that has been called, “Lysistrata for the 21st century.” The voice of women taking power and control from a patriarchal society to bring peace and financial equality makes this not a show for the weak of heart. Ruden has translated the 2,400-year-old text into today’s language, and we have posted a warning for graphic language to ensure that the audience is ready to hear these powerful voices!
In our second production, we bring the music of Jason Robert Brown to our stage with Songs for a New World. Brown states that this production is about the moment when you are forced to make a decision, forced to choose left or right, stay or go, take the leap, reach for more. And not everyone makes the best decisions, the characters face new frontiers, regret, and the unknown – but it’s all about that moment.
For the holidays, December and January, we will enjoy the high comedy of Noel Cowards’ Blithe Spirit and listen to voices from beyond the grave. Noel Coward was a master of comedy, and sometimes we need the voice of laughter and farce to get through the dark days of winter.
Pygmalion, by George Bernard Shaw ,let’s our audience hear the clear well-spoken voice of Professor Higgins as he teaches Eliza the skills of diction and elocution … but does he listen to her voice? Or does he merely assume that as an upper-class man, he has all the answers. The audience will hear Eliza’s voice – and realize that there is more to character and being a lady, than diction and proper pronunciation.
The message found in the music of the Elvis, Ben E. King, The Drifters, and others comes to life with Smokey Joe’s Cafe, as we explore the birth of Rock & Roll with the music of Lieber and Stoller. This music revue will provide the audience a chance to experience this music in a fresh new way, and for some in the audience, provide a bit of nostalgia of a time when we were all young and beautiful, and life was so much easier!
No season at Spotlighters would be complete without a show that challenges the audience to take a look at our society – and what we do to each other in the name of “legal right.” Caryl Churchill’s Vinegar Tom was written in 1976, and tells the story of a 17th Century English village, where those in power (or near-power), use rumor, lies, and fear…. to control those with less power and to keep the status quo. The voices of the powerless strive to be heard, but can they be heard above those who want to keep the power?
We will end our season with the voices of friendship that become family, from Robert Harling’s Steel Magnolias. This staple of American theatre looks closely at a small group of women, as their friendship, faith, and sanity are tested. It will give our audiences an opportunity to celebrate the friendships that hold their world together.
So, in short, this season, Spotlighters’ audiences can expect us to bring them a wide range of theatre, with opportunities to see the world (and ourselves) from different perspectives; to hopefully experience something on our stage that will cause the audience member to stop and take a look at themselves and their feelings – and just maybe take a new action!
What goes into planning for a season of spectacular performances such as this upcoming 2018-19 season?
Our Artistic Planning Committee begins in October of the previous season, soliciting production proposals from local directors. We seek directors who are passionate about mounting a particular show. We ask them “Why at Spotlighters?” “Why now?” “Why this production?” Our team reads many scripts, looks at the production concept from the director, and we make decisions about can the show the done at Spotlighters, will it have an impact on the community, will it bring in an audience? We have to balance shows that are socially relevant and thought provoking, with those that will bring in a full house, and fund the operations of the theatre. Ticket sales are 40% of our operating budget.
We also consider the required casting for a production. Does the production require a large minority or ethnic cast? Do we believe that we can find the necessary number of actors for the production? If we are doing King & I – where do we find the necessary Asian actors for the numerous roles?
Our team also looks for shows that will bring new audiences to Spotlighters. We are seeking to have our audience demographic more closely mirror that of Baltimore city. This is a challenge that our board of directors fully supports, and we are seeing growth each season. Spotlighters supports color-blind and color-conscious casting.
What makes Spotlighters such a special and unique venue for audiences?
Spotlighters has been the small intimate theatre-in-the round since our first performance in October 1962. Working on a 13-by-13 foot square stage, with no seat more than 15 feet from the edge of the stage, and staging on the voms (the corners between seating sections) allows our audiences to be part of the show. Audience members are close to the actors and can feel the energy and emotion from the stage. They can’t escape it! It is also great for our actors, in that they can hear and see the audience respond to what is happening on stage. It’s a symbiotic relationship – each feeding on the energy of the other!
The intimacy of our space in a part of what Spotlighters is …. but, so is the feeling that every audience member is a friend, in our home for a visit. Our box-office staff, board, and even our ushers recognize and catch up with old (and new) friends at performances. Long-time patrons bring new friends into the theatre and introduce them to the staff like you would with friends at home. There is a real sense of being part of the family at Spotlighters. That was one of Audrey Herman’s gifts to us, she wanted everyone to be involved in the magic, and the joy that is live theatre.
For more info, visit Spotlighters.org.
Gregg Shapiro is the author of Fifty Degrees (Seven Kitchens, 2016), selected by Ching-In Chen as co-winner of the Robin Becker Chapbook Prize. Other books by Shapiro include the short story collections How to Whistle (Lethe Press, 2016) and Lincoln Avenue (Squares and Rebels Press, 2014), the chapbook GREGG SHAPIRO: 77 (Souvenir Spoon Press, 2012), and the poetry collection Protection (Gival Press, 2008).
He has work forthcoming in the anthology Reading Queer: Poetry in a Time of Chaos (Anhinga Press, 2018). An entertainment journalist, whose interviews and reviews run in a variety of regional LGBT and mainstream publications and websites, Shapiro lives in Fort Lauderdale, Florida with his husband Rick and their dog Coco.