For Brian Firkus, a childhood slur became the springboard for success as Trixie Mattel

Kerrie Kennedy, contributing writer

Over-the-top local drag queen Trixie Mattel recently achieved A-list status when she was invited to join Season 7 of RuPaul’s Drag Race. Already known in the local club scene, Trixie became an instant cult favorite for an often polarizing brand of drag that challenges conventional ideas about gender. And despite being sent home in the fourth week of the competition, Trixie was brought back later in the competition and won her way to a sixth-place finish.

Out of drag, Trixie is Milwaukee native Brian Firkus, a former makeup artist and UWM student. WiG spoke to Firkus shortly after his final episode aired about his amazing journey and what’s next after Drag Race.

Tell us about the process of being selected for RuPaul’s Drag Race. Was it a total surprise or did you have a feeling this was your destiny? I auditioned for the first time after seeing the success of Bianca and Adore (Season 6) and feeling like I was somewhere in the middle of those two. One was more of a comedian and the other was very strange aesthetically. It just felt right, like it was good timing. I kind of knew it was going to happen. I felt like they hadn’t had a “me” yet. 

What was happening with your career before you got the show? In Milwaukee, I was kind of on the fringe of drag. I wasn’t booked at the normal clubs, because I’m too weird. So I was traveling to Chicago a lot. Chicago audiences don’t really care what kind of drag you do, as long as you do it really well. 

You have a background in music and theater. Do you think that helped set you apart from other drag queens on the show and in general? In general, yes. More than anything, my background in theater has made me passionate about being visual and acting like this character. I think it’s given me a lot of uniqueness. But on Drag Race, it doesn’t matter what your background is — in fact, if you’re good at something, they punish you, because they expect more. It’s a gift to be on the show, but it’s horrible to go through. It’s a lot like plastic surgery — it’s a horrible process, but the rewards are great. 

Fans were stunned when you were eliminated. Then you came back and were eliminated again. How did that affect you? It was actually great, because even though I was very confused at first, I felt supported by the fans. People wanted me back. They liked me because they liked Trixie. That was amazing!

What do you think it is about Trixie that resonates with fans? People like my persona —it’s kind of a marriage of childhood (and) Pee-wee’s Playhouse mixed with off-color comedy that comes from a dark place. People seem to relate to that. 

I know you and Pearl were close, but tell us who the bitches were. Violet was a bitch during filming. In real life, she’s so nice, but the experience — that horrible death match environment — brought out the worst in her. She told me later that she felt bad. But she’s great. I recently visited her in Atlanta. 

Let’s talk about your look. It’s very unique, very Barbie-on-steroids. I used to look more like a person, but after reading a book about dolls in the ‘60s, I started doing a more conceptual look, more like a “thing” than a person. Makeup-wise, I’m very heavy handed, but I still feel beautiful. People might think, “oh, she doesn’t know how to do her makeup,” but I love looking like that. 

You’re sort of doing a caricature of a drag queen. Do older, pageant-style drag queens ever get upset with you? All the time! They don’t get me at all. Kennedy is very pageant. She didn’t really like me. A lot of pageant queens look at me and think I’m not polished. But I think pageant drag is the kitsch of drag, the Parmesan cheese of drag. It’s not art, not creation, not breaking down barriers, not doing anything new. Beautiful women walk down the street every day. I love women, but I’m not interested in tricking the eye into being their gender. 

Did you watch the recent Caitlyn Jenner interview with Diane Sawyer? What were your thoughts? I think it’s wonderful, because it’s great to see a transgender person sharing their truth. To be an Olympic champion and share what you’re going through — that’s some real sh*t! I mean, she’s rich and famous, and not many transgender people can relate to that. But like (her), many of us have something going on with our families. The show explored that a little bit. 

Speaking of, Trixie is the name your stepdad gave you as a way of putting you down for being gay. What message do you have for young gay men in similar situations? I guess you have to figure out what your escape route is and use it. For me, it was comedy. Horrible things would be happening at home, and I could laugh about it. Trixie Mattel is my shelter from all of that — my advice is you have to find yours.

Has your family come around? They’re just not very involved. They haven’t watched Drag Race or anything. It’s nothing new — when I was a kid, I’d be doing all these extracurricular activities, and no one would come. You have to be your own support team, I guess. 

You represent a new generation of queens. Are you the future of drag? I think the future of drag is that we’re not as interested in the rules. Drag to me isn’t even a man in a wig. There are so many drag queens who are women. Drag is a developed persona that’s big and over-the-top and supported by an extreme look. Pee-wee Herman is a drag queen — he’s pretending to be a little boy. 

Doing drag today is like running a small business. If you do an up-do, wear a gown and sing a Top 40 song, you’re just another drag queen. No one will ever pay you if you have something everyone else has. 

You’re in high demand right now. What’s next? I’m currently developing a “One-Doll Show.” It’s me telling jokes and stories, tap dancing, singing and playing the guitar — kind of an interactive stand-up variety show. I’ll be traveling all over the world in the next year to perform it. And right now, I’m packing my suitcases and heading to L.A.