Exclusive Interview: drag superstar BenDeLaCreme on her Holiday Special with Jinkx Monsoon “this is a hard time of year but we’re in it together”

Legendary drag superstars BenDeLaCreme and Jinkx Monsoon have ruled Christmas the past two seasons with their tour of sold out live show spectaculars, To Jesus, Thanks for Everything! and All I Want for Christmas is Attention. This year, to save us from tears, they’re giving us something special, and delivering their distinctive brand of festive cheer directly to our homes with The Jinkx & DeLa Holiday Special, which premieres worldwide on demand on Tuesday December 1st. Produced, directed, co-created, and co-written by the Terminally Delightful™ BenDeLaCreme, the film (shot adhering to CDC guidelines on a Seattle soundstage back in September), sees the two queens struggling to agree on the true meaning of the holiday and how to celebrate it on screen. Expect fabulously festive costumes; quick changes; high kicks; tap numbers; filthy, funny and outrageously gay lyrics; a random and wise naked guy; oh, and a glass of eggnog possessed by the spirit of DeLa’s dead relative. Amid the gags and great songs though there’s also a touching message about chosen family and making the holidays your own. Heartfelt, hilarious, irreverent, dirty, and delightful, it’s destined to become a queer holiday tradition.

After Jinkx Monsoon took the RuPaul’s Drag Race season 5 crown (deserved for her Little Edie on Snatch Game alone), DeLa stole our hearts the following year and was named season 6’s Miss Congeniality, returning to the Emmy-winning series once again with a record-breaking run on All Stars 3, making it look easy by racking up more challenge wins than any other competitor in Drag Race herstory, including two Snatch Game victories. Having performed around the world for over a decade, including four acclaimed Off-Broadway solo shows, DeLa can also currently be seen on film alongside Jinkx in Clea DuVall’s Happiest Season.

Jinkx Monsoon and BenDeLaCreme in The Jinkx & DeLa Holiday Special. Photo credit: Matt Baume.

Ahead of the world premiere of The Jinkx & DeLa Holiday Special, The Queer Review’s editor James Kleinmann had an exclusive chat with BenDeLaCreme about what the festive season means to her, making the Yuletide gay with her x-mas-rated queer song lyrics for the special, what working with Jinkx brings out in her as a performer, her favourite classic Christmas specials, and what she admires about fellow drag royalty Varla Jean Merman and RuPaul.

James Kleinmann, The Queer Review: Congratulations on the film and the album!

BenDeLaCreme: “Well, thank you!”

Before we get on to the special itself, tell me what the holidays mean to you? Maybe throw in a bit of Christmas Past, as well as how you like to spend the holidays now.

“Well, the reality is that I’ve spent my last 14 Christmases on stage. I’ve spent Christmas Eve performing since I started producing my first Christmas show. A lot of that came out of my experience with Christmas in general, which is that I really didn’t like it! I grew up in Connecticut with a large, very stereotypical Connecticut family. We had beautiful snowy Christmases; singing carols around the tree, and big dinners with all the family members, and presents, and everything else, but it was such a show. Overall there’s the pressure of it being so perfect and the idea that the holidays are supposed to feel and look a certain way and so I just saw people being stressed out. Everybody disagreed politically and nobody wanted to talk about it, but then they’d get drunk and it’d bubble over. That was my association with with Christmas, and so when I started making Christmas shows it was really partially about wanting to make my own Christmas traditions and make something for me and my community, and sort of reclaim that holiday. As a result I’ve grown to really love Christmas and it’s now one of my favourite times of year, and it’s because of that redefining of the idea of family and homecoming, because that’s the sort of messaging that we’re all inundated with, right? But it’s complicated messaging for queer people or anybody who has less than ideal relationships with those concepts. So for me now I get to make art that’s about making the holidays what you want them to be. It’s not just a lip service message, it’s truly a meaning that’s close to my heart.”

BenDeLaCreme and Jinkx Monsoon in The Jinkx & DeLa Holiday Special. Photo credit: Matt Baume.

I like the way that the film addresses those traumatic and anxiety-inducing aspects that the holidays can have, especially for queer folks who might be estranged from their families or who just don’t feel part of that traditional messaging that we’re inundated with every year as you say. Was that something very much that you wanted to bring to this film?

“Oh, absolutely. I mean, the shows that I’ve done have changed from year to year, they’ve looked a lot of different ways, I’ve done larger full cast shows and then in more recent years just the show with Jinkx, but it’s really always that same undercurrent of this is a hard time of year, but we’re in it together. The only thing that really makes anything in life super tough is when we don’t talk about it and realise that it’s a shared experience. So my hope is that bringing this to a larger film audience really gets to share that message with more people. This is a tough time of year, and it can be for anybody, it’s tough for people who celebrated Christmas growing up, it’s tough for people who didn’t, maybe people of other faiths and backgrounds, who are inundated with this holiday every year, even though it’s not theirs and they don’t resonate with it. We have this common experience of it being a difficult time of year in some way or another, and especially in 2020, it’s such a hard time, we’re so isolated. What even is a holiday this year? We can’t gather with people safely, we can’t travel safely. My hope is that the film brings some joy and warmth and a message that even when things are tough we can still find ways to find our joy, even if it doesn’t look how we expected it to look, or what we think it’s supposed to look like.”

Jinkx Monsoon and BenDeLaCreme in The Jinkx & DeLa Holiday Special. Photo credit: Matt Baume.

There are some great numbers throughout the film. I particularly loved A Gay in a Stranger, which is delightfully explicit and had me hooting with laughter, and Santa Fa La La, which is just as naughty but a bit more euphemistic.

“Which I got to write both of! Santa Fa La La is the kind of dirty writing that DeLa can sing because she never knows what she’s saying, it’s always an accident that it has a dirty double meaning! But Jinkx is of course filthy, and I love getting to write for Jinkx so I wrote A Gay in a Stranger for her, and it’s so dirty! I never get to write stuff like that for myself, so that was really fun!”

BenDeLaCreme in The Jinkx & DeLa Holiday Special. Photo credit: Matt Baume.

I loved that “ginger bred” line in A Gay and a Stranger, which people will hear when they see the film! Just filthy, and completely hilarious!

“Oh, yeah ‘ginger bred’. I think that’s one of my finer jokes, I have to say!”

You and Jinkx Monsoon have been friends and worked together for nearly a decade now haven’t you?

“Yeah, it’s almost exactly 10 years.”

Jinkx Monsoon in The Jinkx & DeLa Holiday Special. Photo credit: Matt Baume.

Why do you work so well together as duo do you think, and what do each of you bring out in each other as performers?

“Jinkx and I have really similar influences and aesthetics, and a love and appreciation of drag and classic Hollywood, and burlesque, and vaudeville, but we also have really different sensibilities and that’s most obviously illustrated through the characters we bring to the stage, or in this case film. My character of DeLa is this ridiculously sweet and innocent and optimistic kind of cartoon character to a fault, and then Jinkx’s character is really boozy and brash. When we’re on stage, I am a heavy scripter, and my solo shows are always narrative and I write them down to the comma, they’re like one person plays. When Jinkx is performing with her performance partner Major Scales—who composed a lot of the music for this special—it’s structured, but it’s also very freeform. Jinkx gets in front of an audience and she just goes with it, and she is super talented in that way. So I think one of the greatest things when we started doing these two person shows together, is we both really brought those skill sets to this, and we both really rose to the challenge of meeting the other where they were at. So I would say, ‘Alright Jinkx we are going to spend months crafting this script and we’re going to come up with gags that might be hard to pull off, but we’re going to do it anyway.’ Last year, and this is a moment that got translated into the film, we were writing the script and one of us had the idea that someone should get mauled by a polar bear on stage. Jinkx was like, ‘Well, that’s funny, but you know there’s no way to do that’, and I was like, ‘Jinkx, just because there’s no way to do it, doesn’t mean we shouldn’t figure out how to do it!’ And lo and behold, last year Jinkx was mauled on stage by a polar bear! But then on the other side of it, Jinkx is one of these performers who gets in front of an audience and just amazes me with the places her mind goes to. Her vivaciousness and the immediacy she brings as a performer has really inspired me to play more and to really expand the way that I perform. Our chemistry is so good, our dynamic is so good, and we have each other to bounce off of, and I think that really elevates everything.”

Jinkx Monsoon and BenDeLaCreme in Happiest Season.
Photo credit: Lacey Terrell. Courtesy of Hulu.

It was great to see you both in Happiest Season, the sing-along scene in the queer bar was a lot of fun! Were you almost left your own devices to do a bit of your Christmas stage show with Jinkx, or was it quite heavily scripted and directed?

“Clea DuVall had come along to see our first two years of Christmas shows and enjoyed them so much that she decided to write these roles for us in Happiest Season. In the film we’re these bar queens who are singing a sort of standard Christmas song, whereas in real life we do these big theatrical things where we’re doing original material. But it was really fun because she loves us and trusted us with the material in this way where she was like, ‘Alright, here’s the script, here’s the song, here’s the rest, now take this and make it your own!’ We developed this whole schtick and this backstory for these characters. Jinkx is kind of always like a lush who’s sort of over it, but she amped that up to a hundred, and I basically played my character as if as if Marilyn Monroe got kicked in the head by a horse, so that was kind of my motivation, just like extra dumb! But it was really fun. We’d choreographed that little number and we came in and Clea was like, ‘Oh my God, thank you so much for creating this whole bit and world out of what I gave you’, and we were like, ‘Oh, that’s what drag queens do!’ So I think we brought her more than she expected and that made me so happy because she’s such an inspiration to me, and has been a queer icon since I was young. So it was an honour to be part of the movie.”

Paul Reubens in The Pee-Wee’s Playhouse Christmas Special from 1988.
Credit: Pee Wee Pictures.

Which holiday specials did you grow up watching and rewatching over the years, and what do you love about them?

“My favourite holiday special growing up was Mickey’s Christmas Carol. I really loved that one. It’s my favourite A Christmas Carol adaptation except for one that’s also animated from the 1970s by Richard Williams. It’s so good and it’s so creepy, so that’s of my favourites too. It’s only on YouTube I think, so you’ve got to look that one up if you haven’t seen it. This special with Jinkx was largely influenced by the Judy Garland Christmas special which has always been a favourite of mine, and The Pee-Wee’s Playhouse Christmas Special which I think is a pivotal piece of Christmas art that everyone should watch.”

I’ve actually never seen it, but I think it’s on Netflix, so I’ll have to get on it!

“Yes, you should, it’s amazing! Everyone’s in it; Grace Jones, Oprah, Magic Johnson. It has a crazy cast!”

Gremlins. TM & © Warner Bros. Entertainment Inc.

What’s your favourite Christmas movie?

“Oh God, I mean, it’s still got to be Pee-Wee’s Playhouse Christmas Special. Then number two would be Gremlins which is an amazing classic holiday film!”

Yes, and it’s something that people don’t necessarily think of as being a Christmas a movie, so I’m glad you mentioned it. What about your favourite Christmas song, either to sing or one that just gets you in the holiday spirit?

“Well, for the live Christmas shows I’m always very meticulous about making pre and post show playlists that have the most bizarre, obscure Christmas music on them. There’s this song I found that I’m obsessed with, and again it’s from the 1970s, called Santa Came in on a Nuclear Missile, by Heather Noel. In the song Santa Claus has mutated due to nuclear warfare and is coming to terrorise everyone, and he has like green skin and three eyeballs, but it’s sung by this woman in this beautiful falsetto as if it’s this really tender Christmas song. It’s super bizarre!”

Varla Jean Merman. Courtesy of Varla Jean Merman.

Who is someone LGBTQ+ identifying that’s made an impact on you and created work that’s resonated with you over the years?

“Oh my goodness! Well, there are so many, but the queen that really gave me clarity on what I wanted to do with my drag was Varla Jean Merman, who I saw for the first time 20 years ago on stage. I’d been doing drag for a while but I didn’t quite know what I wanted my drag to look like as far as performance, and she did everything; comedy, singing live, writing her own material, amazing costumes, showmanship, and I was so inspired. I’m super honoured that we were able to cast her in this film as the ghost of my dead grandmother, and 20 years later it came full circle, it’s very exciting for me.”

That’s amazing! Many people will have got to know you through your time on Drag Race and I wondered what you might have learned from RuPaul, either from watching her from afar, or getting to spend some time up close with her?

“RuPaul was really one of the first drag figures that I had access to as a kid and she shattered that glass ceiling in the 90s. I was young enough that I was not totally sure what the gender situation was, but I knew that I had something in common with this person, that there was something that I identified with. Just that early visibility when Supermodel (You Better Work) came out and she was hosting the MTV Music Awards and all that other stuff, I mean that kind of breaking through and entering mainstream pop culture was incredible. So for me that was another huge transformative thing where I got to see that there were other people like me in the world and I would say that in that way RuPaul was a pivotal part of my adolescence and who I became.”

BenDeLaCreme © 2020

How are things between you now after the whiteout lipstick moment when you unexpectedly left All Stars, because at the time we saw RuPaul say “I’m not sure how I feel about this”, so is everything okay with you guys now?

“Oh yes, totally, we were just drinking champagne in a bubble bath last night! No, I mean RuPaul’s a very private person and has every right to be, and I actually don’t know anyone who has close contact with Ru. But I have seen her since, and we’ve had lovely interactions, and at the end of the day, Ru is the person who taught me to break the rules and so if anything I like to think that Ru can see that what I did on All Stars is the most fitting tribute to RuPaul that I could ever do.”

By James Kleinmann

The Jinkx & DeLa Holiday Special premieres worldwide on Tuesday December 1st 2020 at jinkxanddela.com. The digital soundtrack release follows on Friday December 11th.

Trailer: The Jinkx & DeLa Holiday Special
The Jinkx & DeLa Holiday Special premieres worldwide on December 1st 2020.

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