Who is Trixie Mattel? According to her and her vast legion of fans, she’s a legend and an icon. Drag’s meteoric rise in popularity over the last decade has launched the careers of a handful of fortunate individuals, and Trixie is one of these people. As a disciple of RuPaul’s relentless entrepreneurship, she’s leveraged a persona equal parts Evian water and battery acid into a bonafide money-printing machine.
Almost everything she’s invested in as a creative endeavor – web series, TV shows, podcasts, books, cosmetics, any merchandise – has proven successful. Her signature beat, honed over years of practice, has inspired everything from Halloween costumes to genuine trends in beauty. She’s a true bearer of the Midas touch whose petite hands are covered in matching foundation.
In reality, she’s the creation of Brian Firkus, a gay man from a small town in Wisconsin whose natural charisma and drive refused to keep him confined to his origins. A youth spent practicing makeup at chain beauty counters and running drag shows at LaCage in Milwaukee led him to a game-changing appearance on RuPaul’s Drag Race, an opportunity that allowed his alter ego to flourish in the national spotlight.
Everything that makes Trixie the sensation she is comes from his personal cocktail of wit and workaholic. The mannerisms and the energy might be amplified on camera, but the man at the core of her larger-than-life presence is just life and, by extension, harder to pin down.
The question that keeps running through my mind as we chat is which person, exactly, I’m talking to. It’s a question you want to ask everyone who performs as a character, which happens more frequently now than ever. At what point does Brian end and Trixie begin?
The day before the interview, its organizer specified an audio-only conversation. As such, I have no image to go on other than knowing that the interviewee in question is getting in drag, preparing to attend the Tribeca Film Festival that night as Trixie. There, she’ll be supporting her father-in-law, a filmmaker whose work is running at the event. (“We’re probably gonna look like Anna Nicole and Howard,” she quips). At the same time, she’ll be answering questions about Trixie Motel, her new renovation program on discovery+. I happen to be present in a moment of cosmetic transformation: the hour or so when the quotidian morphs into the extraordinary.
Yet even a face bereft of eyeliner or a pair of quasi-matching eyebrows wouldn’t clarify anything. Even out of drag, the role of Trixie is assumed whenever the camera rolls, whether before a makeup tutorial or during the podcast she shares with fellow drag superstar Katya. As we talk, the sardonic, bubbly voice of Trixie seems to surface amid comparatively-grounded musings on life.
The answer to my question could very well be that I’m speaking to both people simultaneously. From what I know, they could be one and the same, like polarized images on a screen. But according to the person in question, the gulf between Brian and Trixie has been growing of late.
“I think I used to feel exactly the same in drag, and I thought that drag queens who felt like a different person were kind of ridiculous,” she confesses, “but now at this stage in my life, when I’m in drag, it does feel like a different person. It feels like I have two lives, which really affects my one life. My real life.
“It’s a weird thing, but I think it’s not unique. I think a lot of people feel like they have several of themselves and they feel like one part of themselves, negatively or positively, fucks with their other parts of themselves.”
That duality lies at the heart of The Blonde & Pink Albums, Trixie’s new double LP set. Like 2020’s Barbara before it, the records capture Trixie transitioning from dusty country to a more stylistically varied blend of pop-rock. Surf rock and garage rock surface frequently, especially on the lead singles, but the song structures still feel adjacent to 2000’s-era pop-forward rock acts like Blink-182 and Avril Lavigne.
“On this record especially you can tell I love the Shins and Fountains of Wayne and Weezer,” she says of the record’s feel. “You can tell that that’s sort of the foundation of how I learned music.” That’s evident from the opening moments of “Goner”, where her vocals make up the lead melody against easily digestible chord structures. There are a lot of “ooohs”, a lot of “dooos”, and a good deal of well-executed curveball vocal harmonies. Its 14 tracks act like acupuncture needles that penetrate the pleasure centers of your brain. They might be derivatives of their influences, but even highly-critical minds will have a tough time extricating some of these choruses.
The double LP is built around two separate discs, the first half being Blonde and the second Pink. If a logic exists behind how her songs were allocated, it seems to be more subconscious than planned. “I wrote all these together not knowing what would be what,” Trixie says of the split, “and then I listened to them as a batch and decided. It was the sorting hat, really, where I was like, ‘Gryffindor!'”
“I would say that the Pink album is a little more personal,” she explains. “‘Stay the Night’ is about the day I closed on this major business with my boyfriend, this life-changing thing. ‘White Rabbit’ is about being trepidatious in a relationship, and ‘Who Loves You, Baby’ is about being in an open relationship and fucking other people. Versus the Blonde album, which is a little more about drag. Those are songs that are just written more from the perspective of being Trixie, whether it’s from the voice of Trixie or from the POV of the person who makes Trixie and how that affects my life.”
The record’s first seven songs comprise one upbeat moment after another, with lead singles “C’mon Loretta” and “Hello, Hello” mirroring Trixie’s high-energy demeanor. Afterward, when the breezy indie beat of “White Rabbit” kicks in, the tone changes subtly toward introspection, even if songs like “Stay the Night” keep the energy up. That latter track is also the theme song for her new Discovery+ program.
If the difference between the albums reads a little tenuous, there’s a throughline connecting them besides the pandemic-based circumstances of their creation. “It’s really just about being Trixie, honestly,” she says. “Songs like ‘Hello, Hello’ or ‘Goner’ or ‘New Thing’, they’re all about being Trixie the character. And then songs like ‘Love You in HiFi’ or ‘Who Loves You, Baby?’ are all about how Trixie has affected my personal life.
“I would say in my relationship, most of the problems — if there are some — arise from the fact that David’s in a relationship with two people,” she continues about her partner. “He and I are both sort of in a relationship that revolves around the meter of a fake person. That’s a unique thing. Being Trixie this long and having the weight of becoming more successful has also dramatically changed the interiors of my life: how much I see my family, my personal relationships, my relationship with myself.”
An undercurrent of fatigue cohabitates with the record’s sugary sweet sentiments, and it can’t be ignored once you notice it. “Goner” and “Vacation” bookend the album, and they work almost like a reflection of each other. On the former, Trixie undercuts her humblebrags with a sense of exhaustion on the bridge. On the latter, she turns The Go-Go’s bouncy hit into something more melancholy, perhaps even literal. As a reverb-coated guitar sweeps over the ears, it’s tempting to consider the implications of its inclusion and who those words might be pointed towards.
Though most of its songs could easily be enjoyed as surface-level pop, there’s one, in particular, that’s unmistakably grounded in the personal. “This Town”, which features Shakey Graves in a quavery third verse, sees Trixie returning to the quiescent twang of acoustic guitar as she paints a portrait of small-town living. Of everything on the double LP, it’s the song most closely linked to Trixie’s country beginnings, making it an outlier even without considering its relatively hushed atmosphere. The accompanying music video, which features Firkus as a young boy in his hometown, blurs the lines between person and persona even further.
Of the three singles, Trixie was asked to perform that track on Jimmy Kimmel Live last month, a choice she herself found odd. “When I got asked to play ‘This Town’ I was like, ‘Should I even say yes? This is not really the song I imagined.’ People channel surfing and seeing me in drag and hearing this song … there’s a dissonance there.”
She’s talking about the actual performance, which features her in full drag but singing, essentially, from Brian’s perspective. As a rich, warm timbre fills the room, the performance makes for a fascinating clash of concepts, not the least of which is the assumption of what “drag music” is supposed to be.
What, exactly, constitutes “drag music”? The first major hit single released by a drag queen, RuPaul’s “Supermodel (You Better Work)”, merged a trendy Hi-NRG beat with a narrative that functioned as a logical extension of RuPaul’s drag act. Since then, as the general public’s idea of drag has slowly become synonymous with the RuPaul brand, most original music by drag queens has tended to fit that template.
Regardless of musical talent or interest, the decision to release original music exists as an expected commercial avenue for a queen looking to proliferate their brand. This, combined with technological advancements in music-making, allows any queen to throw together speak-sing vocals over a runway-bound dance track and succeed, at the very least, in satiating their fanbase.
Trixie makes music that doesn’t sound quite like anything her fellow Drag Race alumni would release. For one, she writes primarily on the guitar, an instrument that, in Western music history, has carried innate masculinity. The guitar solo and the imagery of the guitar are both phallic, and the genres that tend to center around the guitar — rock, blues, and country among them — have an overwhelmingly male perspective. Contrast this with the wide spectrum of dance and pop that the vast majority of queens dally in, especially in female-centric or binary-breaking styles like disco and electroclash, and the difference becomes immediately apparent.
Trixie makes careful note of the guitar-playing women that ultimately inspired her. “I grew up at a time where the radio was Avril Lavigne, Michelle Branch, Liz Phair, Sheryl Crow,” she recalls. “There was a pocket of time where women were using this traditionally male instrument as like a weapon. They were kind of going against hype with this instrument. And so when I saw women doing this, I think the part of me that was male – that was such a fag – I tapped into that. Of course, I love Green Day, and there were other artists on the radio that I learned guitar playing too, but the girls with guitars at the time is how I got my foot in the door, which turned out great, because then when I was an adult gay man who was single, you know, playing guitar was a panty dropper.
“I can’t really train myself into a type of music that is more drag appropriate,” she continues, “but what I can guarantee is that my skills and my point of view are earnest. “You can’t really necessarily say it’s not drag music. It may not be drag music, but it’s the sound of Trixie. That’s the authentic sound of Trixie. If that’s what authentically plays in me, then the bigger mistake would be trying to do something because that’s what drag queens do. I love cunty bitch tracks, and I love DJing, and I love disco, but I think because I wanted to be a real musician, that’s just what comes out of me.”
Her words highlight another differentiation between her music and that of other queens, one adjacent to authenticity and intention. It’s no secret that “drag music” bears the stigma of novelty. It’s a remnant of a pre-poptimism world, where writers were inherently wary of music being written and released primarily to be sold, thus supposedly diminishing its artistic credibility. That notion might be less salient now, and it’s true that not all drag queens release music purely as a product. Still, the notion gets reinforced every time RuPaul reminds us her new singles are “available on iTunes” while subtly encouraging her contestants to do the same.
You can’t dismiss the notion that Trixie’s music isn’t a commercial prospect; The Blonde & Pink Albums have accompanying boxes of merch for receptive fans. But at the heart of Trixie’s music is someone who, before discovering drag, originally felt destined to be a songwriter.
“If we’re being honest, I’ve wanted to be a musician my entire life,” she admits. “Enter drag — enter Trixie — and Trixie ended up being this wonderful creative thing where anything I attach to her just takes off and turns into success. It’s dazzling, but up until I was 25, I was dead set on being a serious songwriter. I wanted to be in musical showcases where I stand up there with my guitar and sing introspective, serious songs about real life. And so it’s comedic that cross-dressing comedy ended up kind of being my calling because I thought I was gonna be like James Taylor, bitch.”
There’s no denying the populist songwriter at the core of her music, the one stringing together verses and choruses together in ways that have worked dependably for decades. That songwriter shines here, whether it’s the descending vocal harmonies of “Love You in HiFi”, the Strokes-lite chords of “Hello, Hello”, or the ear-worm chorus of her arrangement of Cheap Trick’s classic “I Want You to Want Me”. Underneath the production tricks and radio-friendly sheen of her music rests a mind that has clearly spent years internalizing what makes a solid pop song.
The question is whether The Blonde & Pink Albums will change anyone’s mind about the capability of drag queens as musical artists. Clearly, the tides are turning for her; her singles have received more positive press coverage than ever before, and even Rolling Stone declared “This Town” a “Song You Need To Know.”
It might not be likely this time around — among the gay men who freaked out when they heard I was interviewing Trixie about her music, most hadn’t heard anything about the records at all — but to her, none of that matters much. “Once you make it and release it, your job is done. You’re an empty nester, you know? Your child went to college.”
That being said, even Trixie seems to be aware of the assumption people have about what drag queens tend to release as music and how it might hurt her ability to be taken seriously as a songwriter.
“Joni Mitchell wanted to be a painter, and then she started doing folk music, and that blew up,” she says. “She reached a point where she was annoyed because she was booked, and she’s like, ‘I wanna be a painter. Why are you guys trying to make me do like music on television? Why are you trying to make me be a folk singer?’ And they’re like, ‘Because you’re good at it,’ and she’s like, ‘Yeah, but that’s not what I wanted.’
“I don’t feel like that about drag, at all, but I can’t say that I feel like a musician first anymore. I can say that I feel as naturally a musician as ever, but I wouldn’t say that I feel primarily like a musician.”
The notion of a world-conquering performer feeling held back by such a behemoth raises an interesting question: would Brian the songwriter ever release music outside the scope of Trixie Mattel? Who’s to say? Yet no matter what happens in the future, the music will never stop.
“Whether or not I put [these songs] under the Trixie label, I’d still be writing them,” she concludes. “Because of Trixie, I have the luxury of putting them out because there’s an audience that wants to hear that fourth dimension of the character. Comedy and beauty and doing improv is sort of my bread and butter, it’s kind of where my heart is, but music has been there way longer than drag. If I quit drag tomorrow, I wouldn’t keep dressing up. But if I quit releasing records, I would keep writing music.”
As our chat comes to a close, I open up my camera to say goodbye as a courtesy. I don’t expect Trixie to do the same, but she does. In the last few moments of our talk, I’m left with a fleeting image: a face caked in primer and foundation, brows in a steep trajectory, only one eye blanketed in white liner. It’s someone not wholly Trixie, not wholly Brian, but somewhere in-between.