Drag Queen Trixie Mattel Tells All
How the joke-telling, cosmetic-slinging country music star Trixie Mattel sees the world.
Trixie Mattel, the multi-talented drag queen who rose to fame as the winner of the third season of RuPaul's Drag Race All Stars, might as well be called Midas. Everything she touches turns to gold. Whether it's her popular Internet show with fellow queen, Katya Zamolodchikova, The Trixie & Katya Show, or her chart-topping country music records, or her personalized line of cosmetics, Mattel (aka Brian Firkus), who is originally from Milwaukee, Wisconsin, has made a global name for herself. Recently, Netflix premiered a documentary about the drag queen, Trixie Mattel: Moving Parts. And soon Mattel will release a new book with Katya, called, Guide to Modern Womanhood.
Indeed, she has many fingers in so many pies. We caught up with Mattel to ask her how she keeps up with all that she has going on. Has the Coronavirus has disrupted her work? What's the favorite joke she's ever written? And much more.
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Hi, Trixie, how are you doing?
Good. I'm an introvert, I'm a video gamer and I'm a content creator, so I was built for this. Staying home? I was made for this!
I feel the same. As a writer, 90 percent of my life isn't all that different in these times. I'm just mostly worried about the older people I love.
I'm worried about old people, too. I checked in with Katya, she's fine! I don't know if anybody's heard from RuPaul, but… I mean, I'm supposed to be on tour right now. So, obviously, that's different. And for the first few days that was really sad. But I feel like we just have to focus on what we can control, you know what I mean?
I totally agree. There's also, like, less pollution. We have time to hunker down. There are some silver linings.
My boyfriend and I live in L.A. and we've been quarantined for at least two weeks and last night we were standing on my balcony. I live in West Hollywood and during the day I can see the HOLLYWOOD sign but at night I usually can't because it's so bright. It's partly light pollution but the air pollution being, like, nothing now we could see the HOLLYWOOD sign in the middle of the night.
It's pretty incredible. We're going to have to learn to live with this to some degree for a while, it looks like.
I've processed a lot of the initial shock and now it's just -- I wake up and I'm like, "What can I do or work on from this condo?" When I worked in cosmetics, we used to have this saying -- well, when I worked for MAC, before I owned my company, I used to work at a makeup counter at the mall and we used to have a saying, "Sell what we have today, today." Meaning, don't focus what we might be out of stock of or what products are discontinued. Literally, look at what we have in the drawer to sell and that's what we're focusing on. So, that's what I'm doing now -- what can we actually do?
Let's talk about music. Your grandfather taught you to play guitar. Do you remember a particular moment that from those lessons?
Yes. Okay, so I'm, like, 13 at the time, right? My brother, who's five years older than me, he loves -- he's obsessed with -- Blink 182. I mean, who wasn't at this time in history? We all were. And if you're smart, you still are.
But he wanted to play the guitar and he picked one up from one of his friends and tried to learn but quit, like most people do, within a week. My brother was also in the army and he couldn't march on beat. He had to watch the other soldiers' feet to make sure he was on beat. So, he's that white. I'm country music-white, which means at least I can clap. But he's can't even clap on beat-white.
So, I remember, I wanted to learn. I brought the guitar to my grandpa and said I wanted to learn and could he teach me? And he was like, "I'll help you a little. But if this is for you, you'll be able to pick it up and figure it out on your own." Because he taught himself, his thing was always, if you're going to be good at guitar or be a musician, you should be able to pick this up and figure it out.
So, I went off on my own and figured a lot of it out myself and came back and he met me in the middle. I think with a lot of things in life, that was a bigger lesson. You can be a little bit more objective, like, "Am I good at this? Should I be doing this?"
You seem like such a self-starter and you're involved in so much. So, that's an interesting window or lesson into your process.
Because I'm from the country, everything I'd always wanted to do I had no access to -- no money, no connections to people. I had to always figure things out. It really made me an autodidact. If I don't know how to do something, I will figure it out.
Drag queens are all like that because we're used to doing an art form that, from the beginning, you're too big to fit clothes off the rack, and all that.
You're a toy collector. How did toys -- and Barbie dolls, in particular -- open your imagination to more possibilities in life?
I was always obsessed with girls' toys. I was always that kid who went to McDonald's and I wanted the girls' toy. But I wasn't really allowed to play with girls' toys. So, as an adult, it carried over. I was still really obsessed with things like My Little Pony and Poly Pocket and Barbies, and all that. I think the lesson with dolls, especially, is that every single doll is from the same mold -- the same body, same hands, same face.
But the clothing the doll wears is what it is. Like, oh, this one's a doctor and this one is a police officer, you know?
I think that's also a critique on society. We are what we're dressed as. You're successful if you're dressed successful. You're smart if you're dressed smart. We believe people based on what they're wearing.
I think that's what drag is. You dress as the richest, most famous, most beautiful person in the room. So, for the show's duration people believe that. Because you told them. You told them with your clothes, dressed the way you are.
Have you seen the Netflix show, The Toys That Made Us?
Yes I have. The My Little Pony one was cool. I've read pretty much every piece of non-fiction literature about Barbie that there is. I've even read the autobiography of Ruth Handler, who invented Barbie. I've done the deep dive.
You have this great, big laugh. Do you remember when it first burst out?
I don't know what happened! I never had a good laugh. My laugh was always, like, high and kind of shrieking? I think it used to be a little more stifled because I was younger and more insecure. Then it started becoming a part of drag. When I started really laughing the way I laugh now, which is, like, loud and awful, people started commenting that they liked it. I guess that was the turning point, because it's not a laugh you want, it's so loud and crazy. It's also changing all the time.
I just saw a clip of myself on my Instagram last night, laughing, and I was like, "What is this turning into? A witch cackle now?" I don't know.
It's disarming and charming!
It's shocking. You don't want to be within a few feet when it happens. It's definitely not attractive. It's definitely not the laugh you want. But, whatever! RuPaul's famous for her laugh. I'll take it!
Photo: Albert Sanchez / Courtesy of Shore Fire Media
Your creative drive is so impressive. But does it ever feel overwhelming?
Sometimes it is. Sometimes I have a lot of plates in the air and I'm just like, "Just pick a lane!" Do you know what I mean? Some days I'm just like, "Just focus on one thing." But, again, I think it comes from being a drag queen. We're used to having to do everything. I'm not afraid of writing a book. My book comes out in June. I'm not afraid of writing albums. I was a musician my whole life. I've been doing music way longer than drag. So, that came easy. Then, in drag, it's, like, yeah I'm in drag. But the whole act is standup.
It is weird because I'm in so many worlds, so many communities, you know? But the great thing about being Trixie is you can get your foot in the door with most people. People love Trixie.
It's one thing not to be afraid of singing or doing comedy. But it's another to do it well, as you do.
Comedy came really natural to me. Music, obviously, was natural, but music is developed. Doesn't matter how naturally good you are, you have to spend time doing it.
I went to school for music in college and writing jokes is a lot like writing songs. It's all real similar, I think. It's like, how do I take something really relatable that everyone's experienced and frame it in a way that maybe they haven't thought of that's clever. It's the same thing you do with music.
And then because I worked in cosmetics for so long -- I love cosmetics. I mean, owning a makeup company was always a dream. Because before I was a full-time drag queen I spent so many years behind makeup counters. I have these years and years of paid education of what it's like to sell makeup. As somebody who's going to go on and own a makeup company, there's no better experience than the 40 hours a week I was paid to watch people shop for makeup. It was a daily study of what do people want from products? I guess that experience never left me. So, when it came time to start my company, I remembered being a makeup artist.
It's sort of like a bartender, I imagine. You have this different banter and these different customers coming up for things.
It's just reading people. Some people they just want the fastest service. Some people, they hand you a bag of empties and have you give them refills on every single one.
Something we say that we really believe in at Trixie Cosmetics is - when I worked at MAC we used to say, "We don't work in the beauty industry. We work in the self-esteem industry." Yeah, of course, we're changing the way people look. But it's like the Queer Eye thing where changing people on the outside is, ultimately, the fastest way to change the way they feel on the inside.
That's why people wear makeup, because they want to feel different. I mean, they do want to look different. But, really, they want to feel different.
You recently went on tour with the band, Lavender Country. What does that band mean to you?
We did a track together on my record, Barbara (PEG, 2020) which is the only cover song on the record. I'm a lot of people's -- especially gay people's -- first folk artist, first country-style artist. So, a lot of fans were saying, "Do you know about this other band, which is the first gay country band?" And I'd never heard of them at the time. So, I did my research.
[Lavender Country]'s record came out in 1970, I believe. Fifty years ago. And the first time I heard the song, "I Can't Shake the Stranger Out of You", I went, "Oh my god, this is amazing!" There are some songs, as a songwriter, when I hear them for the first time, I'm almost like, "I love it. But I wish I wrote this!" It's like how in the comedy world, the best compliment is when you tell a good joke and another comedian goes, "That is such a good joke." They're almost envious of the joke you thought of.
When I heard "I Can't Shake the Stranger Out of You", I thought, "This is amazing!" So, I always wanted to cover it. When I get a chance to work with Patrick [Haggerty of Lavender Country], I'd never covered somebody's music before and it just felt very personal. I couldn't imagine someone covering my music without me knowing about it.
So, I called him. I got his number I cold called him and he was really nice. He's definitely a little old man who is very saucy and very sassy. But he really sat in the booth with me and we sang it together. We sang it both times together. We actually have a version of it coming out for PRIDE month that's both of our voices. So, we cut a totally different version of it with both of us singing.
I mean, let's be honest. I'm a capitalist -- Trixie is sort of a critique on capitalism. But she's also, obviously -- I'm a brand and I'll put my face on anything and sell it. So, I was like, "We want to sell the record, we want it to do good." And Patrick was just like, "Okay. Those are your problems. I have friends who were murdered by the police for being gay. So…" It was just a bit of a reality check, to be honest. Also, when the cameras are on, I'm, like, on.
But talking to somebody who doesn't give a shit about money or being famous or cameras? But he's a musician, which, to me, part of being a musician was always about wanting to be successful. For him, it really wasn't. It was just really illuminating. I went there hoping I could get some, like, good Instagram stories with the guy who wrote this song! And I left having a transformative experience.
In Moving Parts, you quote Katya as saying, "Even at its best, drag is a failure because everyone knows the person is not a woman." But what does it feel like to work in a medium that requires such over-the-top "failure"?
It's comforting. That's the best thing about drag. You can just fail. Not every joke has to be the best joke you ever told, you know what I mean? I think the idea is that, like, at the end of the day, no one thinks you're a woman. So, a lot is okay. It's sort of like your license to kill because nobody is taking you that seriously because you're dressed like an idiot. For me, I like that.
I can't imagine doing standup and I'd just have to walk up there. I've done standup around L.A. I'll get in drag and test out some material with comedians and they just, like, fucking show up in their hoodies and they're little hoop skirts, or whatever.
They literally stand there and tell a story not in drag, which I think could be a lot harder, a lot more nerve-wracking. Whereas in drag, I walk on stage being like, "I'm going to be the most interesting part of everybody's night." Also I'm so beautiful and tall with beautiful outfits and nice hair and perfect makeup and I'm like, "I'm about to go up there and make everybody here obsessed with me." I love that.
I'm not a hot person. So, you get to wear hot person privilege like a costume for, like, an amount of time. Hot people have everyone rooting for them. When you're a drag queen, you can masquerade as a hot person.
Photo: Cyriel Jacobs / Courtesy of Shore Fire Media
Do you ever think about how fast your career has escalated?
I try not to think about it. When I was watching Moving Parts, there's that part where I'm sound checking and I'm tuning my auto harp and they keep panning out and it's a huge venue. I think it's in London. There were so many seats there. I don't know, I'm glad I don't think about that stuff in the moment because it would get too real. I can't think about how many people are out there or anything like that because I'll get scared.
It all happened so gradually and fast at the same time. Five years ago, six years ago I was still calling BINGO balls for, sometimes, ten people. So, it's not that long ago that things were vastly different. But I try not to notice that because it could make me lost my nerve.
Drag queens also feed off the mirror. So, I'll just look in the mirror until the last second I go on stage and then it's, like, you walk on stage feeling so good about yourself and you just ride that wave.
What is it like to hear that you've affected people's lives so profoundly?
I don't always relate to it. People are always like, "I was going to kill myself and then I saw…" Or, "Your depression really inspires me…" But I'm not depressed. So, I don't know. I just let people get out of it what they get out of it. And I try not to think about it because that's going to fuck up the way I work if I try to think about what people are going to get out of it in that way. I want it to be funny and I want people to get what I get out of it. But I'm not trying to be like, "Oh, if this show doesn't save people from killing themselves, it's over!" I don't care.
Also, if a YouTube show stopped you from killing yourself, I don't think you were going to do it. Sometimes I think they're just trying to say something really crazy so you'll just, like, pay attention to them? They'll have two minutes with me and they'll be like, "My dad used to hit me too!" And I'm like, "Okay…" I don't really have a lot of responsibility as far as therapy for people. I just let the work be the therapy and let the work be the gift and then, you know, chill.
I don't know what I think about. I try not to think about it. Like with the people making the Moving Parts movie, I didn't really get involved in the storytelling or the conversation about the movie because I didn't want it to affect the way I was in the movie. I wanted to live my life exactly the same and let them make the movie about it. Otherwise, I think I would have been different on camera, which is not the goal.
Do you feel different now that you've had years of professional success?
Yeah. Anybody who tells you they're exactly the same is lying. I feel different. Drag queens definitely treat me different. Honestly, drag queens are all, like, career hungry monsters from hell. And watching drag queens treat me different over the years -- or, like, when I don't see a drag queen for over a year and I see her again, it's like, "Oh my god, everything's really happened for you! You really have been doing things!" The way people and drag queens treat me -- usually because of Trixie I get to be the first drag queen doing certain things. I'll be the first drag queen on this show, or whatever. That's when it gets really real. Like, "Wow, I'm really doing something no drag queen has ever done." That's when it gets real.
Do you have a favorite joke you've ever written?
Yes. I have this joke that I wrote, like, fours years ago that isn't in any of my specials but I love it so much. I talk about how -- there's this section about how white people, we don't have real problems. So, our minds just fill with crazy things. That's why white people are so crazy. So, I talk about how white people invented puzzle stores. Stores that sell puzzles.
Only white people's lives are so charmed and so privileged that they're like, "What should I go do today? I'm going to go buy a problem!" And then I usually follow that by saying, "I'm white trash." White people are, I think, the only melting point right now. Like, everybody, including white, people love to laugh at white people.
It's retribution for past sins…
Boring, rich, privileged -- we represent all the worst things. Because it's the sins of comfort. It's like how hot people are sometimes really boring. I always like to make fun of hot people. Because everybody in life, no matter what they've done or said, everyone's an active listener when hot people are talking. Everything they say is so funny and interesting -- like, please say more!
It's like the Tiger King's second husband! [Tiger King: Murder, Mayhem, Madness on Netflix]
The Tiger King's second husband…? Wait, third!
Third husband? I was thinking about the guy who shot himself.
That was crazy. I couldn't believe that. My boyfriend and I were watching that, being like, "How is this guy getting all these, like, young dudes -- young, heterosexual men to sleep with him. What is this?"
I think they were all addicted to meth and he was providing it for them.
Is meth that strong that straight men will fuck gay guys for it?
In places where there's not much else, a little affection, a little meth can go a long way.
Photo: Magnus Hastings / Courtesy of Shore Fire Media