When Brian Firkus finally hops on the phone with me, his voice is raspier than usual and he’s intermittently interrupted by a slight cough. Not altogether surprising for a professional drag queen who will have played 80 live shows across the country by year’s end.
“I kind of have a cough, but I feel fine,” he says while packing his suitcase for another city. “I don’t use my voice for a living or anything.”
It’s safe to say that Firkus, better known as Trixie Mattel, uses his voice considerably more than the average queen.
Eschewing the long runways and dramatic lip syncs common in most drag shows, Trixie graces crowds with her real voice, which she uses to deliver everything from 20-minute monologues about breakups to breakup songs from her two country albums, Two Birds and One Stone.
“I bombed so fiercely last night,” he admits. “Like full crickets, like afterwards the bartender walked backstage, handed me a shot, and he was like, ‘I figured you needed this.'”
Bombing is inevitable for an uncompromising auteur like Firkus, who controls more than Trixie’s wigs and eye makeup. He’s responsible for her comedy set — a visceral, sometimes morbid amalgam of quips about childhood trauma and dick jokes — and her songs — surprisingly upbeat, saccharine guitar-strummed ditties.
“You have to make sure that your act is so unique that if they want a sarcastic, joke-telling Barbie doll, you’re the only one,” Firkus explains about his approach to drag, a notoriously undefined form of entertainment that has become mainstream enough to headline the Charleston Music Hall. “You have to make sure your act is so special that you can’t be replaced.”
For Firkus, that means staying true to the subversive and transgressive origins of drag, where nothing is off-limits and you’re not necessarily there to make Aunt Susan chuckle. The 29-year-old Wisconsin native got his big break after coming in sixth as a contestant on season seven of RuPaul’s Drag Race, which has catapulted more than a handful of queens to national stardom after its premiere in 2009. Though the show is punctuated by moments of sincerity, its cheery color palette and manufactured reality TV drama doesn’t always get to the heart of what drag is.
“I think the world isn’t always aware of how deep and dark drag gets sometimes,” Firkus says of the art form’s rising popularity and commercialization. “The drag you see on Vh1 is a beautiful, beautiful apex, but it’s not everything.”
For a little taste of “everything,” there’s UNHhhh, Firkus’ YouTube web series with fellow Drag Race contestant Brian McCook, better known as Katya. Between a full sensory assault of surreal graphics, sound effects, and jump cuts, Trixie and Katya bounce around topics like having sex in drag, being gay in high school (in which Katya reveals she used to cut herself and suck her own blood), and death itself.
“The web series is accidentally the story of a friendship starting,” Firkus reveals.
In one of the most heartwarming UNHhhh moments, Katya stumbles through a tangent about movies while Trixie patiently waits for her to get at her point with a smile.
“What?” Katya asks.
“Nothing, I just like you,” Trixie admits in a puffy pink wig with a bow on the side.
Katya laughs hysterically as a miniature version of her body flies across the screen and lands next to Trixie, who at this point is sitting in front of a pot of gold with the words “Best Friends” splashed across the top of the screen. Their unparalleled chemistry landed them a show on Viceland last year, which went smoothly until Katya announced she was taking a break from drag to take care of her mental health after episode nine. Her unexpected departure led to speculations about the pair’s friendship.
“Katya’s not dead yet,” Firkus assures. “The doctors say it’s a matter of time.”
At RuPaul’s DragCon, the duo announced new episodes of UNHhhh starting Oct. 17.
Firkus’ show at the Charleston Music Hall on Fri. Oct. 19 is a greatest hits victory lap combined with bits that were cut for time from other shows. They’re all tied together by a very specific look: A bowl cut and sunglasses. It’s a special treat for Trixie’s Charleston fans. The show will only be performed two other times, in North Carolina and New Jersey.
But that doesn’t necessarily mean Firkus has a soft spot for the Holy City.
“I’m probably gonna show up, go to the hotel, play my PlayStation, get room service, go to the gym, get in drag, and do the show,” he says. “I’ve been everywhere and basically seen and done nothing.”
The South has the most comfortable crowds, he says, decrying the more sensitive audiences of San Francisco, Portland, and Seattle, where “people are so debilitatingly afraid of laughing at anything.”
“But it’s like, we’re drag queens,” he says. “We’re supposed to present the uncomfortable.”