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Bob the Drag Queen takes offense at YOUR offense

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

Before Bob the Drag Queen starred on the HBO makeover show "We're Here"...

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "WE'RE HERE")

BOB THE DRAG QUEEN: This is my drag daughter.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: Is that a thing?

BOB THE DRAG QUEEN: Oh, yeah. I'm your mom now.

SHAPIRO: ...Before he had nearly 3 million followers on TikTok or a hit podcast...

(SOUNDBITE OF PODCAST, "SIBLING RIVALRY")

BOB THE DRAG QUEEN: My name is Bob the Drag Queen.

MONET X CHANGE: And I'm Monet X Change.

BOB AND MONET: And this is "Sibling Rivalry."

SHAPIRO: ...Before Bob won season eight of "RuPaul's Drag Race"...

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "RUPAUL'S DRAG RACE")

RUPAUL: America's next drag superstar is Bob the Drag Queen.

SHAPIRO: ...Before all of that, Bob the Drag Queen was buying $10 bags full of fabric scraps, hoping to find something inside worth sewing into an outfit.

BOB THE DRAG QUEEN: It was just the ends of the bolts.

SHAPIRO: Just whatever happened to be in the bag?

BOB THE DRAG QUEEN: You couldn't look in the bag first. They would just bring out a bag, and you'd give them $10, and then...

SHAPIRO: It's like "Storage Wars," where you bid on the storage container...

BOB THE DRAG QUEEN: Yeah.

SHAPIRO: ...Not knowing what's inside, but it's fabric (inaudible).

BOB THE DRAG QUEEN: And sometimes you get a great bag. I mean, I once got, like, so much of this, like, blue crushed velvet, paisley - which sounds horrible, but it was actually really fierce.

SHAPIRO: In New York's garment district, we met up with Bob the Drag Queen at Spandex House. Shelves lined the walls from floor to ceiling with rolls of fabric in dizzying colors and patterns - sparkles, polka dots, animal prints, neon.

BOB THE DRAG QUEEN: This is a store that I've shopped at - I don't want to overexaggerate, but a lot of times - dozens of times.

SHAPIRO: Like, what year would you say was the first time you set foot in here?

BOB THE DRAG QUEEN: Probably 2009, yeah.

SHAPIRO: And take us back to that Bob the Drag Queen.

BOB THE DRAG QUEEN: I wanted custom clothes, but I couldn't afford any. I could afford fabric, though. You know what I mean? And I know that if you want custom clothing and you can't afford it, then you'd better learn how to make it.

SHAPIRO: Friends taught him that if he could sew fabric into a tube, then he could make pretty much anything.

BOB THE DRAG QUEEN: If you just make a tube, you can make a catsuit. You can make a gown. You can make a cocktail dress. You can make a leotard. And it's just one seam up the back.

SHAPIRO: These days, professionals make Bob's outfits, and he gets recognized on the street even out of drag. Not that he's subtle - he's tall, even without the black platform boots he's paired with a denim jumpsuit on this day.

MIMI WEST: I love you, Bob.

BOB THE DRAG QUEEN: Oh, thank you, baby. Thank you.

SHAPIRO: Mimi West (ph) clocks him immediately. Mimi is a costume designer and eager to collab.

WEST: Feathers, stones...

BOB THE DRAG QUEEN: OK. Opulence.

WEST: Yeah, and dance team opulence. I love anything with feathers and stones.

SHAPIRO: Bob says, cool, let me follow you on Instagram, and then a horrific discovery - Mimi West is not following Bob the Drag Queen - high drama.

BOB THE DRAG QUEEN: It don't say follow back. It don't say follow back.

WEST: No, no, no, no. Don't do that.

BOB THE DRAG QUEEN: Well, let's see who you are following. Who are you following? You following Monet and Trixie, but not me? This is...

WEST: But you know...

SHAPIRO: They make amends and start discussing looks. Bob has a vision.

BOB THE DRAG QUEEN: I want a high-waisted maxi skirt with a matching button-up top.

WEST: With collar?

SHAPIRO: Bob's career has grown alongside the popularity of drag in the U.S., and with it a conservative backlash that has also grown exponentially as more states pass laws that ban gender nonconformity. Bob has seen that backlash firsthand filming the show "We're Here."

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "WE'RE HERE")

BOB THE DRAG QUEEN: Hi, I'm Bob. Nice to meet you. May I read your sign?

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: Yes.

BOB THE DRAG QUEEN: (Reading) Nor shall a man put on a woman's cloak, for whoever does these things is an abomination to the Lord Your God.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: Yes. And that's in the Bible, as I know you know.

BOB THE DRAG QUEEN: Well, that's an assumption.

SHAPIRO: On the show, Bob and two other drag queens go to small towns and put on a show with locals who get fabulous drag makeovers. And sometimes the town isn't excited about it.

BOB THE DRAG QUEEN: Which doesn't shock me because I grew up in a small town. So I'm like, yeah, that happens. Obviously that happens to people.

SHAPIRO: What has shocked him is the thriving queer community he's found where he wasn't expecting it.

BOB THE DRAG QUEEN: Like, thriving drag scenes - like, Twin Falls, Idaho, had, like, a bustling drag scene.

SHAPIRO: And what do you make of that?

BOB THE DRAG QUEEN: Well, I think that it shows that there is a desire to not feel alone. It shows that, you know, when you're in these places - when you don't see anyone like yourself and you feel lonely, you feel by yourself, you feel like you're the only one in the world who is like you - when you find one other person, you do not let them go.

SHAPIRO: Do you think drag is an inherently political act?

BOB THE DRAG QUEEN: To a degree, yeah. I think it's forced to be political. Whether the person themselves feels political or not, doing drag is now a political issue because I guess people think there's some agenda with drag queens. There's no - I mean, the only thing on the drag agenda is brunch on Sundays. Like, there's no plan or plot to reach people's children or anything. Most drag queens don't even want to [expletive] be around kids. Like, I do a drag show at Barracuda, not at Gymboree. You know what I mean?

SHAPIRO: By this point, we'd relocated to Bryant Park, where we were sitting at a cafe table, and Bob told me, this is another place he has history.

BOB THE DRAG QUEEN: You know, I got arrested right there, right on 42nd Street.

SHAPIRO: And the photo is the cover of your EP.

BOB THE DRAG QUEEN: Yeah, literally a one-minute walk from where we're sitting right now.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "BLACK")

BOB THE DRAG QUEEN: (Singing) Black and proud everywhere that we go. Say it loud. Let them haters know.

SHAPIRO: That EP is called "Gay Barz," with a Z. This is one of the singles, "Black."

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "BLACK")

BOB THE DRAG QUEEN: (Singing) Feels so good to be Black.

SHAPIRO: The cover photo is a Polaroid mugshot. Bob the Drag Queen was with a group protesting for marriage equality about a decade ago, as he says, blocking traffic and causing a scene.

BOB THE DRAG QUEEN: That's me under arrest.

SHAPIRO: I pull up the image and ask Bob to describe the photo.

BOB THE DRAG QUEEN: What I'm looking at is a picture of me - and I've seen it a thousand times. I don't even need to look at it. So I'm wearing a red wig - a red afro. I'm wearing a vest, a tie, a leopard print fur shawl from H&M. What you can't see in the photo is that I have...

SHAPIRO: You brand name-dropping H&M on NPR (laughter).

BOB THE DRAG QUEEN: Well, it's what I was wearing. You asked me to describe it, and it seems important to the story. What you can't see is that I didn't know how long I'd be in jail for. So what you can't see is that I have - my breasts are made of cashews.

SHAPIRO: (Laughter) You brought the snacks?

BOB THE DRAG QUEEN: I have a bagel under my wig...

SHAPIRO: (Laughter) Oh, my God.

BOB THE DRAG QUEEN: ...And I have a CLIF Bar underneath each hip pad.

SHAPIRO: You are prepared.

BOB THE DRAG QUEEN: Yes.

SHAPIRO: That's incredible.

BOB THE DRAG QUEEN: I did not stay in jail long enough to use any of that.

SHAPIRO: Bob was originally scheduled to join Madonna on a world tour this summer before health problems forced the pop star to postpone. One stop on that tour was Nashville. A judge recently ruled that Tennessee's law banning some drag performances was unconstitutional. But I asked Bob how he felt about doing drag on one of the largest stages in a state that had tried to ban it. He said he'll come prepared.

BOB THE DRAG QUEEN: There might be a bagel under my wig.

SHAPIRO: Are you going to be on stage with Madonna in Nashville with cashews?

(LAUGHTER)

BOB THE DRAG QUEEN: Just in case. You never know. But being on stage in - you know, I think that it's important for queer people in Nashville, especially young ones or people who are afraid in general, to see that, like, it's OK to go for it. It's OK to not be afraid. It's OK to be seen. I feel like there's a lot of laws that want us to hide or go back into the closet or just stop existing in public. For some people, the existence of queer people in public is offensive. And quite frankly, I find that offensive.

SHAPIRO: Bob the Drag Queen, what a pleasure to meet and talk with you and visit some of your old haunts. Thanks a lot.

BOB THE DRAG QUEEN: Oh, thank you. I still haunt these places a little bit. If you listen closely, you'll hear them whisper, (whispering) Bob the Drag Queen.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Megan Lim
[Copyright 2024 NPR]
Courtney Dorning has been a Senior Editor for NPR's All Things Considered since November 2018. In that role, she's the lead editor for the daily show. Dorning is responsible for newsmaker interviews, lead news segments and the small, quirky features that are a hallmark of the network's flagship afternoon magazine program.
Ari Shapiro has been one of the hosts of All Things Considered, NPR's award-winning afternoon newsmagazine, since 2015. During his first two years on the program, listenership to All Things Considered grew at an unprecedented rate, with more people tuning in during a typical quarter-hour than any other program on the radio.