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Jeong Park/Courtesy of Hulu

“It’s not quite a game show, it’s not quite reality, it’s not quite a sketch show,” BenDeLaCreme says of ‘Drag Me to Dinner’, the brand new Hulu show she is taking part in both as a contestant and a producer. Judged by Bianca Del Rio, David Burtka, Neil Patrick Harris and Haneefah Wood, each episode will see two pairs of iconic drag performers face off against each other as they each attempt to cook and throw a dinner party. “I will say that there is a certain approach to the ‘cooking’ on this show that is a little bit more about the joy in the act of messing around in the kitchen than it is about how successfully we’re actually completing a dish,” DeLa tells GAY TIMES. 

The show’s pairings see an array of ‘Drag Race’ stars who have worked and/or competed together over the years reunite, including ‘Race Chaser’ podcast hosts Willam and Alaska, ‘All Stars 1’ and ‘All Stars 4’ contestants Manila Luzon and Latrice Royale, ‘Hall & Closet’ co-hosts Heidi N Closet and Jaida Essence Hall and longtime collaborators DeLa and Jinkx Monsoon. Beyond those known for competing on ‘Drag Race’, there are a number of legendary artists taking part – including the beloved and iconic Heklina who tragically passed away in April of this year. DeLa, who was incredibly close with her, explains that she was initially drawn to the show because it pulled “from multiple generations of drag” and is “so grateful” to have worked with Heklina on one of her final projects: “She was really, at 55, still in the prime of her creative career and so, having something that we got to be a part of the creative process together that is the last thing that people will get to go into knowing that it’s the last thing that they’ll get to see that she worked on, I think is really special.”

Diehard fans of DeLa will be unsurprised to hear that the star worked as a producer on ‘Drag Me to Dinner’ given the array of production credits she has amassed in recent years, particularly on her world-famous tours. “I definitely have no intention of moving out of the performance realm, but it all scratches different itches,” she says of the various pots she has her well-manicured hands in. “And production is something that, since I’ve gotten into it, I am really passionate about.” This year will mark Jinkx and DeLa’s sixth year performing ‘The Jinkx & DeLa Holiday Show’ to sold out audiences across the globe, which there “might” be an announcement about soon, DeLa teases. Here, GAY TIMES speaks with DeLa about the “camp insanity” of ‘Drag Me to Dinner’, the importance of showing the power of drag in the current political climate and the sheer chaos of “cooking” with Jinkx.

This new show is so unlike anything I’ve ever seen. Tell us a little about it!

Well, ‘Drag Me to Dinner’ is this crazy new show that’s sort of a hybrid of a bunch of different genres. It’s not quite a game show, it’s not quite reality, it’s not quite a sketch show. It’s this show in which we’ve got different pairs of queens facing off every week for absolutely no stakes and they just get to play. We get to see what it is that these queens want to bring to the stage and it’s really a fun, campy format for these queens to just show off the most of their personalities and what it is that they want to bring to their own episode. So it’s really funny, it’s really goofy, it’s really lighthearted and it’s just a very fun romp. It’s got sort of surrealist elements and you just get to see the queens both being crazy in a more real time environment and then also get to see their fully realised artistic visions at the end of this thing.

I know how hard it can be just to get about five queens in a room and you managed to get 40. Was it as chaotic as I’d imagine?

We only had four at a time, but it didn’t make it any less crazy. Preparing for that amount of personality and just sort of, no holds barred camp insanity, meant a lot of pre-planning and gearing up because we’re shooting with four queens a day. So every day we had to like, get ready for whatever new big personalities were going to enter the space and totally shift the gear and the tone of everything that was happening because, you know, we can plan so much on our end, but it’s all really just kind of pre-planning for whatever is about to explode onto the scene. So it was definitely super fast paced, it was definitely an exhausting shooting schedule to keep up with, but it was so much fun that it just kind of keeps you going, even if you’re just on fumes. There’s also obviously the on set talent that’s ever there every day. We have Neil Patrick Harris and David Burtka who are fantastic, Haneefah Wood who I got to know really well – she’s one of the judges on this who is just one of the most fun, talented people I have gotten to know in a while and really, she’s a delight. Murray Hill, who has been a staple of the drag and burlesque community for decades, who I really adore and who brings not just such a fun sensibility to set, but also he’s shockingly grounded for a super over-the-top drag king. But he really, both on screen and on set, kind of lays some groundwork so that he aligns with you as a viewer about how insane everything is. And then Bianca Del Rio is, of course, Bianca Del Rio. You don’t even need to describe that one.

Something that really struck me about ‘Drag Me to Dinner’ is that it serves as one of the final public appearances of Heklina, who you were very close with. I’m sure that will make it hard to watch back in some ways, but does it also make it special because you got to work together on one of her final projects?

Oh, absolutely, yeah. I mean, I’m so grateful that we have something that is about to be released. Her passing was so sudden and it took all of us really by surprise and she was about to open the show in London. She was really, at 55, still in the prime of her creative career and so, having something that we got to be a part of the creative process together that is the last thing that people will get to go into knowing that it’s the last thing that they’ll get to see that she worked on, I think is really special. I actually just flew back from her memorial yesterday in San Francisco and there were thousands of people celebrating – she’s so revered by the drag community. I’m also really glad that there’s now this episode that’s going to introduce her to even more people who never knew who she was and now are going to be able to not just see her, but also maybe understand a little bit about the huge role that she played within the history of drag in the last 30 years.

Jeong Park/Courtesy of Hulu

I think it’s a really nice thing that this show didn’t just feature ‘Drag Race’ queens, meaning performers like Heklina had the chance to be seen by audiences who may never have discovered her work otherwise.

Yeah! She’s on a team with Peaches Christ, who is one of my best friends and who was also one of Heklina’s very best friends, and so you also really get to see that familial aspect to it, which is part of what’s so important to, not just Heklina’s legacy, but drag in general. And, in terms of exactly what you’re saying, a huge part of me being drawn to work on this project as a producer was knowing that they were pulling from multiple generations of drag from queens who are maybe younger, but sort of have a more regional following and that we get to see more of the breadth and texture of what drag has beyond the queens of ‘Drag Race’ fame, who are of course also fantastic – but there’s so much more in the world.

Absolutely! As you mentioned there, you’re a producer on ‘Drag Me to Dinner’, which a lot of fans won’t be surprised by given how heavily involved you are in the production of your tours and shows. What was it like to be involved in the creative process of this series?

I was so honoured when Neil initially approached me about it and I know that a big part of what he talked about was really wanting to bring genuine drag sensibility and perspective from somebody who had really been a part of the community for so long. I mean, Neil has such an incredible reverence for the art of drag and he’s really made a point to explore the whole world of drag and the history of drag and all that drag has to offer in this broader sense beyond just what we see on TV. I think that drag is a commodity right now in our culture. I mean, it’s a contentious commodity, but it’s a thing that either people are making laws against or they are enjoying as entertainment. But it’s also important to know that, in order to make it a genuine celebration, you have to be pulling drag in on all angles behind the camera as well as in front of the camera and so this production, I think, really recognised that. I get to not just be part of the creative process in terms of helping to develop the ideas that you see in the sketch comedy that happens throughout, but also in being there to support the queens from a place of really understanding what a queen needs on set and that was one of the things that I felt proudest of. These queens came into it, it’s a new show, it’s a kind of crazy tone and sensibility that’s hard to wrap your mind around at first because it’s really kind of a wild, fun experiment – and so queens were coming in kind of like, what exactly am I getting into? And I got to be the person on set who is like, ‘Hey, I’ve been in your shoes. I know what it is like to be in this situation. I filmed the first episode. I’ve also been on other television shows and I’m here to support you and you’re in complete control of this.’ I think that that’s one thing that’s really special about the show is that the whole way around we’re like, this is not actual reality, there’s no gotcha in this, this is for us to like, fully realise whatever it is you want to bring to the screen. Getting to help these queens develop those ideas in real time was really special.

Something that has always stood out to me about you is that you have your hand in a lot of pots. Is that the correct phrase?

A lot of balls in the air.

Oh, balls in the air, let’s put it that way. Do you see your future in this industry more in the production side of things, or would you still quite like to keep a balance among all the other things you work on?

Well, I love it all. I definitely have no intention of moving out of the performance realm, but it all scratches different itches. And production is something that, since I’ve gotten into it, I am really passionate about. Within my broader career, I love writing, it’s absolutely one of the most satisfying pieces of the puzzle that I do. I love directing, I love overseeing and completing a vision through both direction and production. And in my own work, I love getting to have the fully realised vision that you get to bring to fruition. And on this project, it was really fun because I got to be part of somebody else’s vision and I am just like one piece of the puzzle. There were a lot of minds and voices in the room with Neil and David’s really strong sensibility at the helm and so this was a really different experience in terms of getting to support, not just that creative group, but also the queens on set. It was just a whole different way of working that I think will just make me all the better at whatever production thing I go into next, whether it be my own project or working on something else. But I don’t see myself moving away from production at all. It’s something that I’ve learned to love and it’s also something that to me feels like a powerful contribution in the way that we’ve talked about where it is important to understand what queens have to bring to the table behind the camera as well.

Jeong Park/Courtesy of Hulu

You’re partnered with Jinkx Monsoon on the show, who you’ve worked with on many, many projects over the years – but I doubt you’ve ever cooked together. Was there a difference in what it was like to cook with her versus planning a world tour together?

Well, you know, I will say that there is a certain approach to the “cooking” on this show that is a little bit more about the joy in the act of messing around in the kitchen than it is about how successfully we’re actually completing a dish. But interestingly, off-screen Jinkx is the one who cooks. She is somebody who really loves to host and cook, whereas I am the super Type A person who is going to do all the planning and make everything happen. So between the two of us, we actually did pretty well I would say. It was also a fun episode because we got to go up against, and I say that loosely because again, there’s no stakes, go up against Jackie Beat and Sherry Vine, who are two of my favourite queens, who are legends, who have inspired me for decades. It was the first episode we shot and that means that there was a lot that we were learning about the process and getting to work with someone that I’m so comfortable with, that I know how to improv with, that I have that relationship with, and knowing that Jackie and Sherry have that same sensibility, there was sort of, I think, a cool confidence that we could bring to the shoot that I think makes it just a really fun episode that couldn’t have happened if it were an episode where, you know, two queens were sort of getting to know each other.

One of the things fans will know you and Jinkx most for as a duo is your holiday tour. Can we expect that to return in 2023?

If people haven’t seen me and Jinkx as a team before and they enjoyed watching us mess around in the kitchen, they’re really going to enjoy what it is that we bring to the stage when we are actually writing and I’m fully directing and producing our full evening-length stage show. This upcoming year will be our sixth year doing ‘The Jinkx & DeLa Holiday Show’ and I don’t want to give too many details away, but every year the tour does get bigger and better. And, you know, we might be making the tour announcement with all of our dates and tickets on sale this summer, so that would be a good thing to keep your eyes peeled for.

Last time we spoke, Tennessee had just passed anti-drag legislation – something we have since seen echoed in states such as Florida and Montana. This show is obviously really lighthearted and fun and a good opportunity to show an audience that may not be as familiar with drag what it actually involves. Why would you say ‘Drag Me to Dinner’ is so important in the wider context of the political climate we find ourselves in?

It’s important that we be we be coming at the current political climate and the current public perception, and by that I largely mean that of the people out there who are sort of trying to understand it and make their way through the loud voices on either side of, I’ll call it a ‘debate’, even though that’s an upsetting word when really it’s just a people sort of accosting a disenfranchised group. But we need to be taking this from two angles, which is getting out there, educating, being outspoken, helping people to understand why this really is truly an attack on a community and a culture, helping them understand how the legal system is putting these laws and bans into effect and how that affects the larger community, queer and beyond. But we also need to be coming at it from the other end, which is this entertainment, which is light and joyful and while people are sort of grinding their gears on the more complex stuff they can also see that this is the joy, light, humour and glamour that drag brings to the world that is unmatched and can’t be found anywhere else. This show is just pure joy, pure, just ridiculous, entertainment and I hope that it’s one fist in the one two punch that’s going to help people to really get what it is – that drag is just about bringing something beautiful to the world and it’s not to be feared.

‘Drag Me to Dinner’ premiered on 31 May on Hulu and will feature 10 episodes across its run.