Backstage with Trixie Mattel
In a rare one-on-one interview, Trixie Mattel reflects on her journey before taking the stage at Milwaukee Pridefest. Pride Journey’s reporter Steven Binko shares his experience.
When my cousin Haley insisted we spend pride weekend together, I cringed at the thought of overpriced booze and bumping into exes. I've never been good in social situations, and generally speaking I'm terrible at keeping up with LGBTQ culture. Still, I begrudgingly agreed on the condition she’d let me squeeze in some work - for me, that’s my escape. Being the 50th anniversary of Stonewall, I saw a unique opportunity to discuss this with the new faces leading this generation in the movement.
Waiting backstage as fog and laser lights creep through the curtain, Haley squeals in anticipation. “I can’t believe we’re gonna meet Trixie Mattel” she says. Just moments before, we spent 30 minutes battling security while they scrambled to to verify our credentials. I’m flustered and trying to organize my thoughts as we now have to hammer out a meaningful interview in under 5 minutes.
I look down the hall and see a giant blonde wig emerge from one of the changing rooms. Styled in a pastel gogo dress and platform knee high’s, Trixie towers over us with a warm hug. “Are you guys ready for all of this?!” she says with a loud laugh, kicking her heel up and taking a mini curtsy.
Gesturing for her to take a seat on the distressed leather couch that’s held together with duct tape, I thank Trixie for meeting on such short notice and dive right in. I can tell my intensity is somewhat irritating, but she smiles and handles it like a pro.
Steven Binko: Tonight you’re taking the stage to celebrate 50 years since Stonewall. What does that mean to you?
Trixie Mattel: [Sighs] Oh wow. I mean, I’m sharing the stage with 6 other drag queens that all have massive followings. Oprah recently said something that really stuck with me. Basically, she said whatever freedom we enjoy right now is because someone got it for us. As gay performers (and gay people) that is especially true.
I’m comforted by how humble she is and relax into my seat a bit. I’ve done dozens of these interviews, but it’s rare a performer acknowledges their peers and predecessors with such respect.
SB: Do you feel a responsibility for the next generation because you’re kind of helping them to get there as well?
TM: I think a good person would, but I, Trixie Mattel, am more in it for the attention and booze. In theory Drag Queens are supposed to be like “I wanna challenge gender”, but we really just want free entrance to the club [laughs].
In all seriousness, I do feel pride in being the first drag queen to do some things though. Whether it’s the first to do XYZ, or being the first drag queen to get on a certain music chart, I do take pride in that - especially being from Milwaukee. Milwaukee’s not like, on the map and it’s one of the best cities in the world. I always feel very proud about that.
Usually, this is where the interviewer throws in a nod to their hometown and makes a joke about local food and sports... but time is ticking and a crew-member starts counting down. Music begins to play and another host stands by, waiting to enter. I’ve got 3 minutes left.
SB: What role do you think Drag Queens play in the importance of Pride festivals?
TM: I think we represent a wide spectrum of people. We are basically clowning the expectation of gender, sexuality, women, and men. We’re throwing all of these conventional signals of what that gender is “supposed to be” into a blender - reminding people that gender is literally just what society tells you and that it’s not that serious. Wear whatever you want, do whatever you want. That’s what we (drag queens) do.
SB: If you had a message for your followers or anyone who is new to the LGBTQ community, what would it be?
TM: I just think we’re lucky. I remember coming out and feeling like it was a big deal. My sister is 10 years younger than me and she told me she had a girlfriend in passing - it wasn’t even a thing. I remember thinking “that is crazy”, because I would never have felt like that in 2006. I was scared, you know?
SB: It’s amazing how much things have changed. Looking at how long it’s taken for things to get where they are now, what do you anticipate for the future?
TM: People like me are living proof that society is starting to care less and less about categories, names, and labels. It’s more about whether or not they like you or respond to you on an artist level, or on a human level. They don’t say “I’m gonna say my gay artist or I’m gonna go see a black artist”. Just go see an artist because you like it.
SB: Do you think we focus too heavily on those areas? People always ask if I’m LGBTQ, if I consider myself a twink, bear, or otter? I think there’s a lot of classifications which annoys me, but on the flip-side I recognize they give people something to identify with.
TM: As an artist and as a business person, I never make things “for gay people”. I’m just a gay person who makes things. I don’t pander, and I’m not like “this is a gay thing, drag is for gay people”. I mean, I own a makeup company, and that’s a product primarily for women.
SB: How do you navigate that, and what should people know about your line?
TM: Makeup is so serious right now. It’s all about YouTube, FaceTune, looking cunty, followers, and being fierce. I wanted to make products with a pro formula that are in packaging which reminds you that makeup is a toy - It’s basically body paint. You can be a grown adult, and every time you pull this out of your makeup bag it feels like you’re answering your beeping tamagotchi. It’s supposed to be fun. Drag has taught me that adults just want to feel like kids. It’s like Halloween every day!
Interrupted by fireworks and frantic stage crew, we pause to take a picture. Behind the curtain, thousands of screaming fans fill the bleachers. The energy is tangible. Fixing her hair and adjusting her dress, I watch as Trixie’s focus shifts. As a performer myself, I recognize the internal transformation that’s unfolding - also, my cue to wrap things up.
Thanking her, I watch as Trixie walks away and think to myself how nice it would have been to dive deeper into the cultural issues facing our community. Having never seen an episode of RuPaul’s Drag Race or heard her music, I had no idea what to expect from the interview but was pleasantly surprised at how deeply intellectual she was. Many times, the public sees what they’re shown, but in the brief moments Trixie shared, I got a look into the person behind the glam. In some regard, I’m glad this was my first introduction to her as an artist because it allowed me to see her essence without any preconceived notions.
As we walked by the trailers backstage, my cousin stops and grabs my arm. “We literally just met Trixie Mattel” she says with a sparkle in her eye, “Can we take a picture?”. We snag a selfie, and I realize the preciousness of this moment. It’s been a long year for the both of us, filled with heartbreak and disappointment, but for those brief few moments we were entirely immersed in eachother’s worlds. And best of all, it was everything we hoped for and more.
Returning to the audience area, I begin cyber stalking Trixie and realize the insanity that is her Empire. Regrettably, I wish I’d taken more time to research her art because it’s pretty impressive. On the flip side, I’m grateful she reciprocated the sentiment of a meaningful interview that extended beyond superficial questions she gets asked on the daily.
The following day, I bumped into Trixie while interviewing my next guest (Leland) who she is apparently close friends with. Explaining I knew little about their work, I extend gratitude for opening my eyes to some of the culture I’ve spent so much of my life rejecting. I spent years trying not to be defined by stereotypes while these two have become champions of the community, embracing it unapologetically.
I’m still learning, and because of her authenticity, vulnerability and aspirations, I now have a deeper appreciation for her work. Should we ever meet again down the road (or should you ever have the chance to exchange words with Trixie), I have one piece of advice:
Be yourself. We live in a world that’s obsessed with fame, which puts people who achieve their aspirations on a pedestal - not for their dedication, but for their notoriety. Don’t treat her differently because of what she’s accomplished, but appreciate the effort she’s put into making it possible. None of this was handed to her - she is a human just like you... she just works insanely hard at making her dreams reality.