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Books

Trixie Mattel on Horror Movie Gin, Writing a Book, and How Not to Photograph a Drag Queen

Photo: Albert Sanchez / Courtesy of Shore Fire Media + Penguin Publishing Group

Drag superstar Trixie Mattel spills the beans on her new book and so much more. "It's a wonderful book. I'm ready to have my roller coaster at Universal Studios based on this book."

Trixie and Katya's Guide to Modern Womanhood
Trixie Mattel Katya

Penguin Publishing Group

July 2020

Other

"Can you fucking believe it?" asks Trixie Mattel. "2020 is equal parts garbage, but ... so lit. Like, it's all perspective."

Not many people can find the bright side of a hellish year like 2020, but if anyone can, it's Trixie Mattel. A comedy drag queen who first appeared on Season Seven of RuPaul's Drag Race and later won the show's competitive third All-Stars season, Trixie's brand of quick-witted insult humor found a perfect foil in the form of fellow Drag Race contestant (and beloved wackadoo) Katya. Their on-camera chemistry is nothing short of electric, with Katya even calling their tangent-based comedy "post-verbal." Their riffs and wild stories are what netted them a YouTube series, which in turn lead to a premium cable TV show, the crux of all their segments being trying to get the other to laugh.

On top of all of this, Trixie has managed even to carve out a powerhouse music career, recording original folk and country songs in a realm where most drag queens put out cheap, cheesy club music. Much like her signature makeup look, Trixie succeeds by finding a way to stand out from the bedazzled crowd.

By the time 2020 rolled around, it was clear that Trixie was now a multi-hyphenate performer whose empire now included a cosmetics line, a documentary about her journey winning All Stars 3 that just recently moved to Netflix (Moving Parts), and even a third solo record called Barbara that saw her move away from country and folk tropes in search of a bright new pop-rock sound.

As if that wasn't enough, Trixie and Katya have now dropped their first book together: Trixie and Katya's Guide to Modern Womanhood. Intended to give real-world advice through their distinct brand of comedy, the duo cover topics ranging from travel etiquette to alcohol to (of course) hooking up with strangers. It's surprisingly practical despite being dipped in that special Trixie and Katya brand of absurdism, and has the bonus of being decked out in photos that are guaranteed to delight you and/or haunt your nightmares.

Speaking to PopMatters on the book's release day, Trixie (real name Brian Firkus) was happy to riff on any and all subjects in the shelter-at-home world around us, from performing in quarantine to cutting chapters to being reminded of the worst photo shoots she's ever had. It's Trixie's world now, and we're all just living in it.

Design Face Eye by Geralt (Pixabay License / Pixabay)

Barbara came out in February, and now you're releasing a book in the middle of quarantine, which I'm sure is equally bizarre too.

Well, you know, I read when I'm home, and I read when I'm on a long, long tour. I'm not even like "a reader", so I know that if I'm reading, a lot of people are reading right now. So there's hope that people will give this book a chance. I'm ready to have my roller coaster at Universal Studios based on this book.

I can't wait. It will be... not for children.

Could you imagine the Trixie and Katya roller coaster? The blood! The sex! The cigarette smoke! Everybody has to take a shot before they got on.

It'll be like my wedding. It'll be great. But also, during this quarantine, you've released a book, started a new show on WowPresents, are still making "Queens Who Like to Watch" for Netflix, and are Twitch streaming up a storm -- you've been keeping busy. Right now, in week 900 or whatever that we're in -- genuinely: how are you doing?

I mean ... fine? It's been pretty fine. At the risk of sounding controversial yet brave, I think that it's all about perspective, and I am nothing if not an optimistic realist. So like, I can deadass watch the news to the worst news there is, and be like "OK ... but whatcan we control today?" You know?

I have a small business, and my cosmetic company is another business. So being Trixie, there's always something to do: work on a record, do a Twitch stream, I got to turn out four YouTube videos a month, I gotta run the cosmetics company, I gotta film Netflix, I gotta film YouTube with Katya. There's always something I have to be doing, and so my amount of work I have to do: is this different? I was plucked off my tour right when COVID started because gatherings of 1,000 or more were canceled first.

It was funny: first, when it was started, I was like, "Ugh, it's only the big tours." I was calling other drag queens and being like, "Don't worry: small gatherings are fine. Your show's going to be ... just fine." At first, it was scary, but I got home, and now it's like, "What can you control?" And with half my audience telling me that they lost their jobs overnight, it didn't feel right to turn around and start charging them for digital content immediately.

So at first, I was like, "OK, well, I'll do my Twitch fundraisers," and I didn't know they'd do-- I mean, I've raised $88,000 from my office playing video games since lockdown started. Then every Friday, I do my Full Coverage Friday show where I cover other artists; it's a free concert on my YouTube. Then I also have one YouTube video a week on my channel coming out, plus the Netflix show, plus -- I mean, honestly, this is the most content I've ever been putting out at once because I'm usually gone. I'm not home this much! So artistically, it's very enriching because whatever I wake up and want to do, I have time to do it. Because I'm kind of a Swiss army knife, I know how to film myself and do all that stuff, so it's kind of been fine.

And then on top of that, we have Trixie and Katya's Guide to Modern Womanhood which is obviously a big event: it's a comedy book but also something that talks about real women's issues like any of those classic magazines like Cosmopolitan. So jumping into inspiration a bit, do you remember the first women's magazine you read?

Oh, my mom used to read Women's Day. [It's] so dated, and honestly, I think they still sell it, and they haven't changed a thing about their target audience or even the graphic design. Like, you'd think the magazine is from 1994. I remember my mom would keep it in the bathroom. It's so funny because you're the first person to ask me about this, but I'm totally detecting the root of this inspiration now. I used to sit and read articles about "How to Stay Fit!" and "What Nail Colors Work for You!" -- not because I knew I was going to be a drag queen, but because that's what was just there. I lived in the country, and my mom would pick up magazines from gas stations and stuff.

And then my grandma had this book called The Teen's Guide to Homemaking. My grandma was a lunch lady at a school, and it was a home economics textbook from the '50s [that they were throwing away]. It had two young women on the front, and it was a book about sewing and starching a sock and learning to make a casserole. It's not satire on purpose, but it's from the '50s, and the expectations of women were so obtuse that now it reads like an Amy Sedaris piece of literature. That really inspired me because Katya and I have dedicated combined decades to being a woman -- but we're not women! So I think that we have a license to poke holes in the expectations of women and watch the blood come out.

But also, nobody's more enthusiastic about the bells and whistles of femininity than we are. I mean, this book is called Trixie & Katya's Guide to Modern Womanhood, but it's really a guide to modern personhood. You know: there's a chapter on alcohol and on breakups -- that's not for women specifically, but the great thing about the way Katya and I approach subjects is usually like "Hey, we've done everything you've done, and we've done it worse, [but] in higher heels. So listen to us when we tell you [that] this is the way to do it."

Yeah! And honestly, one of the biggest surprises of the book was how much genuinely good advice there was in there, ranging from Katya talking about having a three-month emergency fund set up to you noting how having a disconnected third party is so helpful when throwing things away because it takes all of that personal emotion out of these knick-knacks and objects. For you, what is your favorite piece of advice you got to share with this book?

Yeah: I love the makeup section. There's a part where I talk about "On one hand, wear makeup for you, and if your makeup becomes a routine, take a break." I think in quarantine, many of us realize that hair, makeup, cologne -- all that, first, it went out the window because we weren't seeing any one. And then we realized that we missed it because we do it for us. My makeup company just launched a collection called The Insider Collection because it was inspired by "Well, we're in our houses, and you still wear makeup for yourself in your house." There's a lot of glamour in putting on makeup knowing you're not seeing anyone that day; it's for you. I think in that chapter there's a lot of wisdom about calibrating, like, who is it for? Make sure makeup is about you.

And then the other chapter, the breakup chapter, honestly, writing it was so illuminating and cathartic because musing on some of my own not-great behaviors during breakups and writing it out and reading it back to myself, I'm like "You are a psychopath." There was a part where I talk about [how] I always thought it was romantic that this guy broke up with me and I wrote him a handwritten letter for like four months, every day.

Reading it back, I'm like "You're a psychopath. That's over 100 handwritten letters to a person who didn't want to be with you." That's crazy! That happened! And I wrote it in a book and now everyone's going to know about it! And that reads as comedy even though it's not meant to be, which is honestly the way Katya and I operate. Comedy I think is the intersection of specificity and exaggeration, so it has to be based in something real or it's not funny. And all of this is based in something real.

Photo: Albert Sanchez / Courtesy of Shore Fire Media + Penguin Publishing Group

And I think in that breakup chapter, you wrote "Yes, I am a psychopath, and looking back, I am shocked that I was not excised from planet Earth for this Swimfan behavior."

Do you remember that movie?! I really did that. But ya know, I also wrote an album called Two Birds about that breakup and it went to #1. I think with drag queens, we're used to looking at the skeletons in our closet. Katya and I are not politically correct. We're not role models. We're not even good people. People call us "The Beavis and Butthead of drag," and that's not who you want to be like. You might want to watch us, but you should really learn from our mistakes. You shouldn't really emulate us. She's a hardcore drug addict. You read that chapter? She's specific, but she does not glamorize it.

Right, because even in that part where she talks about marijuana, her researching and realizing it could lead to psychosis in certain people -- it's clear that she did the work to learn about its potential long term effects on her psyche.

She did several revisions to that chapter because she really wanted to make sure she was not making drugs look "cool", because as a drug addict, it definitely doesn't make her feel cool.

You mentioned in your recent Entertainment Weekly discussion that writing was a fractured process that involved a lot of recorded conversations punctuated by your own chapters on different topics. Katya was clearly going to tackle the chapter talking about drugs. What was your "No, I got this" chapter?

Alcohol. [ laughs] I know she doesn't like drinking. Even at Katya's height of being off the rails, she doesn't ever like drinking; she likes uppers. I knew about alcohol, I'm from Wisconsin, used to work in a brewery, I was like "I got this." And then obviously makeup. I was a product specialist for MAC, I worked in makeup counters for years, so in addition to owning my makeup company, I used to watch people shop for makeup for a living, so I have lived in the petri dish of watching women's relationships with makeup.

Something I talk about in that chapter is how women feel both mystified and disarmed by their own makeup bags, because it's this weird thing in society where women are supposed to know how to do their hair and makeup but they're not supposed to ask. So everybody's weirdly trying to look good but aren't sure about it. It's not like there's anthrax in your makeup bag: there's really nothing to be scared of. I wear more makeup in a day than most women wear in a month, so I know what I'm talking about.

Also relationships? Breakups? Katya couldn't really talk about breakups because she's never been loved. I had more wisdom.

I think one of our strengths is that we usually have completely different approaches to some topics. Like the food chapter. My food tips are literally about trying to stay thin. I'm from Wisconsin, I'm from a chubby family, I'm the thinnest person in my family, and it's an uphill battle at all times. And Katya, as somebody who hates food, and is on and of the drugs all the time, her chapter is like "How to Stay Alive," She talks about like "If food was a pill I could take, I would." She's inconvenienced by eating. She finds eating meals annoying -- which is not relatable content to me.

Well that leads to a great point: of Katya's chapters, which one was your favorite?

Oh my god: her hair chapter. Also, I feel like I really know her, but her hygiene chapter? What a nut. It starts with her admitting having that she has the worst hygiene in the world. She talks about how one time she didn't show for five days because she was afraid of hard water. She like read something about hard water and was afraid of it. It's very illuminating: she's a very specific type of person, and what is the Rube Goldberg machine that created this monster? In this book, you really get peaks into "... whoa."

And in the hair chapter, she talks about her neighbor who had "the natural look." [ Trixie reads directly from the book] "I once lived with a 50-year-old woman named Gloria who covered her large driveway with oriental rugs. They were in various states of decomposition, stained and tattered by the New England weather, and, of course, trod upon daily by her minivan. When I asked her about the rugs, she just gave me a confused look and changed the subject, choosing instead to direct my attention toward the large bramble she had built in her garden. I looked over at the enormous pile of sticks, branches, twigs, and other foresty detritus and thought, 'She paid someone to do this,' and wondered why."

And then she goes on to talk about this woman being covered in bird shit, and it's just funny the way her mind works. She just -- it's weird seeing the breadcrumbs of what shaped the Katya we know, who has strong affinities towards the classically beautiful and sexy and also the so-gross. Like, she is so gross.

Photo: Albert Sanchez / Courtesy of Shore Fire Media + Penguin Publishing Group

Well even in the hygiene chapter, she talks about how she's put her teeth through every drug and acidic liquid that has ever been imagined, but her advice of just doing whitening strips for three weeks straight (and not sleeping with them on), again, comes from a real place of experience.

Even though I went to beauty school, she has a relationship with hair that I don't have. Like, this is somebody who might put on a thong panty and a human hair wig and just sit at home, out of drag. So like, no, I don't do that. "You know, I'll let you talk about wigs because ... this has gone to a dark place for you."

You wrote the chapter on interior design. First off, can you even watch a show like House Hunters or would you just break the TV when you see someone unable to get past wall color?

Well, I'm only a dabbler of interior design myself, but when I first moved to LA, I lived with an interior decorator for five years. So our home was museum-like: flawless, perfect, custom couch, custom wallpapers. I mean, everything down to the amount of gloss in a paint color was a decided factor. We moved this year, so I watched this home go from fabric swatches to real life and that was so educational. I interview him in the book, and now I watch these home shows, because of who I live this and watching somebody professionally decorate.

Like, I watched, during quarantine, A Very Brady Renovation, where they had the Brady Bunch renovate the Brady house, and that was so fun because we're watching people who are not contracted renovators have to match a home that they didn't live in but they appeared to live in 50 years ago. So that was fun to watch.

I'm obsessed with tiny homes, so I love to watch YouTube videos of people being like "Anyways, this is where I shit in a hole and I love living off the grid." I love shit like that.

But there's certain things in the book that now haunt me because I did a lot of deep diving, trying to figure out "What are the rules of interior design that I can put in this book that will translate no matter what?" And one of the things they said was "Never let your home be louder than you are," meaning "Don't have a crazier house than you because you'll feel weird in it."

Also, if you have a rug, make sure all four chair legs are either on or completely off the rug, and now that I've told you this, I'm telling you, everywhere you go, when you see a rug with like one chair leg on it, it's like [ makes "Psycho" shower sound]. It's like ... wire hangers. I don't know why that's so overlooked, but now that that's been pointed out to me in my research, now I'm like "Oh yeah: that is weird!" Whereas before, I would've never noticed it. So now when I see it, even on TV, I'll see it in the corner of a scene and I'm like "No!" I mean, I'm a homeowner, and my home is top-to-bottom Pepto-Bismol pink and lucite, so I live like a Barbie and I shouldn't be making fun of everybody.

Well one of your other pieces of advice in that chapter is "Don't over-theme."

Well, I'm from Wisconsin. I remember going to a friend's house and her mom's kitchen theme was chickens. Chicken pictures. Chicken paintings. Salt and pepper shaker chickens. The cookie jar's a chicken. And it's like "What are we doing here? When did the hurt begin? And why can't you speak. softer. with. this. theme?" Or a lot of people's bathrooms! My guest bathroom right now is sort of Ken doll themed, so there's like some paper dolls of Ken's clothes in a frame. But I'm not going to throw Ken dolls in here. Let's not go overboard.

Like no Ken doll shampoo dispenser or anything like that.

Yeah. Or I think of tacky bathrooms where it's "seashell themed" and there's shells on the wall and shell soaps. I'm like, "This is too much. You don't look like you have a vision. You looked like you walked by a display with all these items and grabbed them all." It looks crazy. It's like they're wearing head-to-toe all black or something. With that being said, my bedroom has a custom wallpaper that matches a 1969 Barbie doll and there's about 110 Barbies on display in my bedroom, so do as I say -- not as I do.

Photo: Albert Sanchez / Courtesy of Shore Fire Media

Let's briefly talk about the photoshoots you did for this book. Did you have a favorite? Were there some that didn't make it for the book?

Like anything, Katya and I throw things to the wall and see what sticks, and this book is going to be picked up by people who maybe haven't been "primed" yet by the Trixie and Katya experience. So there were some images that were maybe a little over the line. Like, there was a chapter of haikus about getting your period that I loved. Katya wrote it and it got removed. I think we removed it ultimately because by way of doing comedy, we were accidentally saying that having your period makes you a woman, which is unfair to older women, unfair to trans women, etc. But there was an accompanying image of Katya skidding across the floor with a trail of blood coming from between her legs. I am happy we removed it, but I loved the picture -- but I'm glad it's not in this book.

My favorite picture in this book? Well, Katya is just incredible to look at in photos. I would never say that in front of her. There's this centerfold around page like 94 and it's like a Katya in s Nordstrom's ad with two mannequins that's just so stunning and so bizarre and they're all dressed exactly the same. There's this wonderful photo in me in this chapter about decluttering your condo and I'm wearing like earrings, every ring, bracelets -- and I just look fucking beautiful. At the risk of sounding controversial yet brave, sometimes I see pictures of myself, and I'm like "This is why I'm the most famous drag queen. This is so fucking gorgeous."

If that was really me, I'd never say anything like that, but we're looking at a painting I did, ya know? That's what this make up is. Page 148! It's fucking beautiful. That's a 30-year-old bald man from the woods, yet somehow through lighting and cosmetics, that is fucking gorgeous. I love that picture.

I really like that one from the liquor chapter where it looks like you're sad and reaching through the empty bottles.

[ laughs] I know! We were trying to go for After School Special, like "Tina has a drinking problem!" I love the liquor chapter. I thought I knew a lot about liquors just from working in bars my whole life and -- there's a lot of interesting things about liquor that I didn't know. Did you know gin was made to be drunk straight? People say it tastes like pine needles, but it's made with juniper and berries and flowers, so what I learned from "testing alcohol" is that if you drink gin, drink it straight and think of the fact that it's made with flowers and not pine needles. I'm telling you: if you remember it's made with flowers, it suddenly tastes like flowers.

I love gin, but to me in drag, I've always been like, "Gin is great, it's low-calorie, and it keeps your breath smelling kinda minty." But what I didn't know is that it's like that movie Midsommar, where they're all wearing flowers in their hair, and it's clearly made from flowers; it's just misunderstood. It's hard to imagine that it was meant to be enjoyed neat because it's really intense, but if you sprinkle in a fruit flavor like sparkly water with gin, it tastes like flowers.

So from now on, I'll describe gin as "tastes like Midsommar".

Yes! It's going to make you want to watch your infidel boyfriend burn to death in the corpse of a bear.

Photo: Cyriel Jacobs / Photo: Albert Sanchez / Courtesy of Shore Fire Media

Real quick tangent: as a rich and famous drag queen now, you've done magazines and spreads. In Tina Fey's book Bossypants, she, without naming names, says that the more prestigious the publication, the worse the Photoshop job they do to you is. Agree or disagree?

Jesus. Fucking. Christ. Look me up on the back page of The New York Times. I think New York Times. I'm on the back page. I can tell you when a photo has been taken by a heterosexual. We're talking like high-contrast, overhead lighting. Or remember at DragCon when all those drag queens were in that New York Magazine feature and looked gutted? Give me a homosexual with Adobe, please. Can I get a fucking LED light pointed at my face? Because the problem is, they're trying to make you look dark on one side, light on one side, thin, moody, etc. For a drag queen? Mary, just blast me from the front with a barn light and call it a day, because I put on the makeup to look like there's a spotlight on me, so you just shine the light on me.

Don't shoot me from the back, don't backlight me, don't overhead like me, don't try to get cute. Girl. Oh my god. With Out Magazine, there's this photoshoot of Bianca, me, and Ginger [Minj], and the photographer was super sweet, and I remember I was side lit with natural light and they were crouching. And I said, "I feel like that's kind of like an upshot, and I feel I should be facing the natural light." And they said (I'll never forget it) "Oh, don't worry, I'm a master manipulator of light." I said, "Easy, Thomas Kinkade. I'm a fuckin' pig in a wig." But I was polite, I went along with it, and it was the worst fucking photos of myself I've ever seen.

I'm very passionate about this because I'm lucky enough to be photographed by a lot of different people. I mean, look at this book. Albert Sanchez shot our book for the fun of it. I mean, we paid him, but like, he does major, major, major cosmetic campaigns. He's the original person who shot RuPaul in the MAC Viva Glam ads in the '90s. And he's a good friend of mine because he shot all the Trixie Cosmetics ads. He got all of these pictures [for the book], each one, with like two clicks.

When you're lighting drag queens, just open your mind to the possibility that they know what they're talking about. [ laughs] You know, when I shoot my YouTube videos, I shoot like all these lights front blasting me, and I even put LEDs facing up because my lashes are so big that I need my eyes lit from underneath. It's like, "You would know that if you asked me. But instead, I'm outside in daylight, in the sunlight, at 30 years old ..." Anyways, you opened Pandora's Box. That's my next book.

Katya and I really want to do another book after this. By the time we finished this, which was months ago, we were already like, "We want the next one. We want to do another one." So maybe someday we'll do a short pamphlet about how to photograph a drag queen. I know Katya wants to do a book alone. I mean, she's always wanted to be a writer, but we also want to do another book together. I mean, I do my records, and that is writing, so that's a little more my focus, but I would love to see Katya do a fiction book. Wouldn't you?

I would, but also I would love to read her autobiography too. Given some of the things she's talked about on the shows and in performances, she has lived a unique and distinct life.

It would have big -- I wouldn't say David Sedaris, but I would say Augusten Burroughs energy. Like, dark, sexual, weird, super-vain.

Photo: Albert Sanchez / Courtesy of Shore Fire Media

Completely. Lastly, in this year alone, you had a documentary that moved to Netflix and all of these wonderful things we've been talking about. What do you want to do for the rest of the year?

Moving Parts went on Netflix during quarantine, and again, trying to look on the sunny side, it was such a big thing for us. We trended on Netflix for like a month because people were all home to watch it. Then Barbara came out, and I got pulled off my tour, which was kind of a bummer, but then Barbara in quarantine got like a whole second wind for people. I guess for the rest of the year? I am the Miranda Priestly of my cosmetics company, so we got products coming out all year. Making makeup is a very arduous process. There's so much more to it then you think, so I'm always doing that.

I'm working on my next record already. We finished making a video in like two weeks. I don't want to say what it is, but -- whatever, I'll just say it: I'm doing a cover record. I love covers, and doing my Full Coverage Fridays just reacquainted me with all these songs by other artists that I've loved. I've done three solo records now, so I'm ready to start doing what drag queens do best, which is reinterpreting things from pop culture.

Would they be classic country covers or stuff you grew up with?

It would be all over the map, but the goal would be to stick to almost all women and sort of reinterpret. Like, when I go to play a cover of something, I usually have to adapt it to my style of playing and singing. I think that touring though -- Katya and I were just talking about this -- I highbrow miss playing to like 1,500 people with my band and telling all these jokes and doing wig reveals and growing up with such an involved tour that I was so proud of. But also, I miss putting on a wig and going to a bar with a sticky floor and getting drunk and wiggly.

But that being said, I'm not doing it early, and neither should anybody else. The irony here is that people are like, "I'm sick of being in my house!" And I'm like, "Don't you understand that every time you leave the house without a mask on, you're making us stay in our houses longer?" A lot of people are so dumb.

Photo: Albert Sanchez / Courtesy of Shore Fire Media

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