“I have a passion for accessibility,” BenDeLaCreme begins, between bites of chips in a NoHo green room. “And I am simultaneously driven crazy by our culture of access.” The 38-year-old staple of Seattle’s drag scene is in town to promote All I Want For Christmas Is Attention, the holiday tour she co-wrote and conceived with her longtime friend and collaborator Jinkx Monsoon.
The two have been shuttling, all day, between swanky office buildings and promo shoots, in and out of endless Ubers. By the time I pull her aside to talk, in a 3pm lull between filming engagements, she’s having her first bite of food since 6:30 this morning. She’s still in drag from the neck up (red lips and black winged eyeliner; a towering, gloss-black wig) but she’s sloughed off her heels and, for this interim moment of stillness, shimmied down to her bra and tights. I watch her slow a little, take a moment.
DeLa, as she’s known, is a character-driven theater artist. She’s been writing and staging live shows as BenDeLaCreme for 12 years, most consistently in Seattle and in Provincetown, Cape Cod. But a mass “culture of access” is pertinent, too, when she’s talking shop: she brought her ditzy, “terminally delightful” pin-up persona to RuPaul’s Drag Race in 2014, propelling her stage self into the national spotlight. Four years later, she competed on All Stars, the spinoff that requires its weekly winners to do the dirty work of determining eliminations. After record-setting wins and strong momentum towards the crown—she was largely favored to clinch the thing—she made the unprecedented on-air announcement that she’d be cutting her own run short, rather than spilling more blood. It was a complex, polarizing move at the time, a protest of format in a fit-for-format stunt. And it remains what she’s most widely remembered for, arguably what made her a star. To concoct something so striking on a reality TV competition is, in all ways but technically, to win.
In person, there’s a relaxed warmth about BenDeLaCreme, an ease that evokes no memes, no Twitter buzz. She’s a gal in her tights diving into an overdue snack. Her voice drops damn near an octave when she comes offstage, like she’s just set down something heavy; she’s lightning-quick with a joke, but when she needs to think, she takes time to get it right. “It’s like sifting for gold,” she says about her writing process, before trying on another metaphor. “It’s like sculpture,” she says. “You remove what’s in the way.”
Onstage, DeLa houses a cartoonish femininity—oblivious sexuality, unshakeable cheer, vacuousness with a comedic beat. “Terminally delightful” encapsulates the schtick exactly: it’s so saccharine, so willing to overlook inharmoniousness, it might actually kill someone (us, or her, or the self-reportedly pessimistic person who generated her). She’s a bow-adorned conglomerate of mid-century MGM and musical theater, Jessica Rabbit and Elvira, Pee Wee’s Playhouse and Christine Taylor’s Marcia Brady. Outsized, high-camp, often low-brow things that DeLa, offstage, has forever intellectualized.
“All kids are into cartoons, but I started really studying [them],” she recalls of her adolescent self in Litchfield, Connecticut, the child of an English teacher and an illustrator who would go on to study visual art in college. Later in our conversation, she name-drops “squash-and-stretch reality,” a technical concept from Ollie Johnston and Frank Thomas’s tome on animation. Since only inanimate objects remain stiff during motion, they write, aliveness is best conveyed to the eye through exaggerated elasticity. “I think a lot about that, still,” she says, and it isn’t hard to connect these dots. BenDeLaCreme—sweetly distorted, outside-the-lines—is squash-and-stretch in her own right.
Her self-produced All I Want For Christmas Is Attention, which reaches Town Hall Dec. 11, brings the usual blend of campy song-and-dance, witty comedy, and narrative investigation of a theme (a hybrid form Jinkx has called “cabaret think piece”). It has a clear parallel throughline: DeLa worships the sparkle of the season; Jinkx finds no cheer in coerced tradition, so she pours Grey Goose liberally. A Santa-suited DeLa forces Jinkx to dress up as a sack of presents, and Jinkx beheads a polar bear (in Jinkx’s defense, the bear started it). Terminal delight meets brash cynicism. Sugar bothers spice. Hilarity ensues.
In her solo shows, when it’s gloss and fizz onstage alone, DeLa plays with even starker contrasts. “She doesn’t want to look at anything that might challenge how she observes the world,” she says, of her stage-self. “So she can always be the foil to lead people into something more complex.”
In last summer’s Ready To Be Committed, inspired by her recent real-life engagement, her character confronted the (historical, heteropatriarchal) institution of marriage. She examined the hollowness of the wedding-industrial complex—its veils and cake toppers and bachelorette-party penis novelty mugs—until eventually, she was left with what it’s built on: the fear of dying alone. Or, specifically, the fear of choking to death on a Dorito alone in your apartment, and a cat subsequently eating your decomposing face. That nightmare was the 11 o’clock burlesque number.
“People immediately hook into it,” she says, of the signature bait-and-switch. “The glitz and the goofiness [make] it accessible. You can get ’em in that way, and then slip in the other thing.” All I Want For Christmas works in much the same way—because DeLa and Jinkx embody opposing energies, their holiday clash concludes in a place of relative nuance. Like, some traditions are worth keeping, and others desperately need to be rewritten into something “new, and gay,” and that’s fine. The onstage DeLa, endlessly pliable in every context, is “just the perfect vehicle” for this type of thought-journey. And to write in this direction—from simplicity toward intricacy—satisfies an offstage desire to complicate, to add layers of meaning.
Which is fitting. Getting a sense of BenDeLaCreme, the almost-champion-who-didn’t-totally-want-to-be-there, is, in some ways, an exercise in sifting through layers. “I’m not a fan of reality TV,” she says, “but it’s how I’ve had the opportunity to do what I do with a much wider audience.” If you follow her closely, you know she’s long been cornered on the Drag Race issue—has given countless interviews exclusively about the exit, or her continued relationship to her national launching pad (“Complicated,” she says, when I, too, ask her to characterize it). We are all, by slightly unfortunate nature, predisposed to smoothing over inconsistencies. Clarifying storylines.
But reality, of course, isn’t linear-narrative-easy. BenDeLaCreme is the viral moment and the quiet green-room moments, both. She is pro-access, with slight queasiness about her own accessibility. She’s analytics and camp, high-brow and low. The illustrator and the illustration. Ben, DeLa. “One thing all of my work has in common is the message that complexity is not only okay, but necessary,” she reflects. “A lot of problems we encounter, culturally, are due to people wanting pat answers, black and white, right and wrong.”
This underlies her staged, All- I-Want-For-Christmas argument with Jinkx. And it brings to mind another contrast, one at the heart of Ready To Be Committed. That show poked fun at wedding fantasies, mocked DeLa’s desire for chiffon and glittery things that are, ultimately, empty. But, by acknowledging them under the stage lights, it also gave those fantasies a kind of theatrical validity. Which I ask about. “I have complex thoughts about marriage…be[ing] a queer person, engaging in a heteronormative tradition,” she says. “[But] I want that fanfare, that princess moment, I am indoctrinated in this love story. So how do we hold all of that?” She’s made a career on this, holding contradictory things—on writing the idea that to be alive is to resist neatness, sometimes. To be just elastic enough.
All I Want For Christmas Is Attention plays December 11th at Town Hall.