An earlier version of this story first appeared in The Provincetown Independent.
How does she do it? Del Rio bills herself as an insult comic. “I’m like Don Rickles but in a dress and prettier.” But underneath all that hilarious vitriol she’s lovable. Vicious, filthy, and jaw-droppingly rude, but you leave her shows feeling like you just got a big hug of love. You can’t explain it. It’s just part of the Bianca Del Rio magic.
Bianca’s latest solo tour kicked off in Provincetown, followed by a gig Brazil.
After that, it’s onto the rest of the world. Tour dates and a name for the new tour were still being decided upon when I reached Bianca by phone from her home in Palm Springs.
I saw Del Rio perform at the XL Nightclub in NYC maybe 11 years ago. She was hosting a middling drag show with more Broadway aspirations than actual talent. The show seemed programmed for an audience of straight, drunk Times Square tourists. Our table of gays felt out of place, and we were on the edge of ditching when Del Rio made her entrance.
“Drunk people give you so much,” said Del Rio. “If you’re bold enough to talk to me, get ready. I’m coming after you. No one is safe. I don’t care if you’re in a wheelchair. It’s open hate for everyone.”
I walked away from that show leaving feeling absolutely dazzled by Del Rio’s talent. It was evident then that she was already an assured and polished star in the making. I wondered if her comedy chops were innate or learned.
“I don’t think I was a particularly funny child,” said Bianca. “I knew that I was different and that was an issue. I tried to find humor in everything. That was how I dealt with those feelings of being different. I don’t know if my family thought I was funny, but now they take credit for everything.”
Del Rio’s voice took on that exasperated tone she uses in one of her online Really Queen? takedowns. I was asking too many questions about how she developed her comedy chops, and the lady was over it. “Do your act in a drag bar at 2 am in New Orleans where absolutely nobody gives a shit about you, and you learn a skill set.”
So many different cities, so many different local politics. I asked Del Rio where she stands on adjusting her act for the mood of times and she said she had not only never thought of doing that but doesn’t even think about what the audience’s mindset might be.
“I just assume everybody knows what I’m like and that everyone is on my page,” she said. But that doesn’t mean she wants an audience that’s pre-programmed to laugh at anything she says. “If they just liked everything then I would be bothered by that. I prefer to work for it… a little.”
Although Del Rio is performing in large venues rather than comedy clubs, she’s still very much a road comic. Her most recent tour ran for nine months with one hundred and thirty shows in ninety-nine cities. Most of the travel is done on a bus.
“I hit the road hard,” she said. “This year I had some surgery. Not elective face surgery, but some foot surgery from years of wearing cheap shoes. That slowed me down a bit but now I’m ready to go.”
One thing that sets Del Rio apart from other drag comedy acts is that it doesn’t actually depend upon her being in drag. Her look is an accessory to the stand-up, not its raison d’etre. She could do the same material out of drag and still slay an audience, which she had to do when a lost luggage incident before a gig meant she had no costume.
Costumes have a deeper meaning for Del Rio than you might realize. Back when he was only known as Roy Haylock, he began designing costumes while he was still in high school. In 1993, he won a Big Easy Entertainment Award for Best Costume Design at the age of 17. Those skills helped keep him afloat in New York before he hit the big time.
“I still work on my own costumes,” she said. “I’ve got two other guys I worked with before. They came out to Palm Springs. You get to catch up with friends and get some great costumes out of it.”
When Del Rio talks about his childhood comedy influences – Carol Burnett, Don Rickles – Joan Rivers holds a special place in his heart. Del Rio was a guest on Joan’s In Bed With Joan Rivers internet talk show. Each week Joan invited a celebrity to get in bed with her and dish on their lives. Del Rio’s episode aired just two weeks before Rivers died in August 2014.
“She was wonderfully kind and gracious,” said Del Rio. “The finished shows were only twenty minutes long, and after twenty minutes of taping she could have kicked me out, but Joan kept our interview going for over an hour.”
Before we ended our conversation, I asked Del Rio if she had any thoughts on Provincetown.
“I hate it,” she said. “I hate the people. I’ve been with those people walking too slowly on Commercial Street. I can’t stand the smell of lobster. There will be fewer drag queens there this time of year which is good because I don’t want to face all these other queens I can’t stand.”
Guest Contributor: James Judd is a freelance writer, a performer, frequent contributor to NPR, and a Creativity Coach. He lives on Cape Cod.