I was trying to remember the last time I trekked out to Wembley for a show, was it Roxette or Eddie Izzard? Clearly it was an age ago since I didn’t remember all the development that’s since occurred around the stadium and arena. Flats, a library and almost ubiquitous Boxpark have all sprung up making the area feel like much more of a hub and less of an outskirt suburb. Some friends and I were there on Saturday to see the first headlining drag act to appear at the over 12,000 seat venue; the ‘hateful clown’ herself, Bianca Del Rio.
Winner of the sixth season of RuPaul’s Emmy Award winning reality show Drag Race, Del Rio (Roy Haylock) has maintained her popularity with touring live shows as well as starring in two films (“Hurricane Bianca” and the sequel “Hurricane Bianca: From Russia with Hate). It was one of my friends joining me for the show who asked me last year if I’d seen the movie, which began my drag journey of discovery. My ignorance was soon rectified when, under said friend’s guidance, I watched Del Rio’s season of Drag Race and the first of her films.
I must admit the film was mediocre at best, but I completely fell in love with Drag Race. I also watched the seminal documentary “Paris is Burning” which captured the Ball scene in New York in the late eighties and inspired RuPaul’s show. Learning more about queer culture and understanding the language used in Drag Race has enhanced my appreciation for drag as an art form. It’s insulting to consider is as just a man in a dress, as it is so much more and an incredibly important part of the culture. It was a drag queen, Marsha P. Johnson, who is credited by some to have started the Stonewall uprising. I remember watching her picture lead the London Pride Parade earlier this summer.
Drag in itself is wonderfully multi-faceted with variations of everything from the queen’s own look, style, message and talents; I now know the difference between Club, Pageant and Fish queens (to name just a few). Del Rio is a comedy queen, so we wouldn’t be seeing any lip syncing or dancing, but her style of acerbic, angry and self-styled ‘hateful’ jokes from an unrelenting wit. The character has a very hard shell, and while the reality show had uncovered a warm and soft side to her, there was no guarantee we’d be seeing any of that on stage.
Show openers Wendy Ho and Sherry Vine were hilarious. Every bit as filthy as one would expect from a show in a basement in Soho, both sang live parodies of classic songs as well as original humorous numbers. No room for innuendo, this was all raucous and dirty camp at its finest. Ho inspired us to all hold our phones up for a very adult version of Leonard Cohen’s Hallelujah and Vine achieved the same reaction for “Get Here” by Brenda Russell, just with a version you’d never ever be able to get on any radio station.
Del Rio made her entrance to a huge roar from the packed arena, and she did not disappoint. Referring to herself as a clown repeatedly, she was resplendent in a pink sequin gown complete with blue ball embellishments and acid orange wig.
She began by speaking about the evolution of the name of the show, deciding on the very appropriate: “It’s Jester Joke”. She told stories about being on tour, including accidentally trolling the residents of Cape Town while visiting the city during a drought and posting a picture of her feet in a bath. Thinking she could make it up to the crowd in Joburg by singing the opening bars from The Lion King, only to be told off by an audience member informing her it translated to being about an alligator in the river. I do doubt if this happened at all, since she refers to ‘Africa’ as if the continent is one country, and alligators are actually only found in the USA, but the reference to home (however vague) was nice to hear.
Nobody was safe, not even Del Rio herself, as she swiped at every possible group of people, interspersing biting observations and jokes followed with claims her best friend hailed from said group she had just ‘read’ as well as declaring a: “Fun fact!” after controversial comments to disperse any tension. She also sprinkled in the names of other well-known Drag Race contestants throwing shade in equal measure meaning no group or individual could claim to be singled out.
She was very quick witted, the final segment of her show comprising of her picking questions submitted by the audience out of a hat and answering them. She proceeded to greet and usually berate her fans in response which in any other context would have come across as mean spirited, but it was an accepted form of affection as part of her act. To quote Paris is Burning: “The library is open, because reading is fundamental”.
Some of her material did rely heavily on stereotype which lacked originality. I still laughed out loud throughout at jokes which would usually make me tut, which I mentioned to my friends on our way back to the tube. My mate replied saying Del Rio managed to successfully dance on this line because as an insult comic, the performance is only going to work if your jokes land, and you’re actually funny, which she very much is. I really enjoyed seeing her genuinely chuckle as she thought of an answer to a brilliant ‘Kill, Shag or Marry’ question posed by an audience member; perhaps we saw a crack of warmth in the stone cold armour after all.
I thoroughly enjoyed the night and I would be very happy to see her again should she (hopefully) return to London. While it’s wonderful she could fill such a large venue I wonder if some of the intimacy of the show had been lost as a result. On the other hand it’s a very positive sign that drag is making waves in the main stream. It should never lose its vital edge and challenging nature, but the fun and freedom to break the mould and be one’s true self is finally being accepted more widely, and Del Rio is certainly a part of this.