Manic Trixie Dream Girl: How Trixie Mattel Dragged Herself to Stardom
The former "RuPaul's Drag Race" contestant is easily recognized by her Barbie-clown lips and extreme contouring, but her rise to fame is marked by her deeply autobiographical, and totally surreal, comedic performance.
Photos by Chuck Grant.
Trixie Mattel would like you to know that her makeup is supposed to look that way. The accomplished drag queen raised some penciled-in eyebrows when she first debuted her whacked-out contouring on the seventh season of RuPaul’s Drag Race, but has since become legend within the drag community for an aesthetic which could perhaps best be described as Barbie after a drug-fueled shopping spree at Sephora. “I wanna look like the most made-up person in the world. Where else on my face could you put more makeup? There’s nowhere,” Trixie asserts. “If I died tomorrow, I wouldn’t wanna look back and feel like, ‘Why didn’t I really go for a bright lipstick?’ I went for it every day.”
But don’t be fooled, Trixie is going for way more in her life than just a bold lip. Since her Drag Race breakout, the busy, faux-Barbie has released a hit album, appeared on American Horror Story: Roanoke, secured a spot for herself on the upcoming season of Drag Race All Stars, and launched the wildly popular web series UNHhhh with her fellow Drag Race alum Katya—which the duo has since adapted into their own television series, The Trixie & Katya Show, premiering on VICELAND on November 15. For Trixie Mattel, it’s clear that life in plastic—to paraphrase Aqua’s dance-trash-anthem, Barbie Girl—is fantastic.
When I speak with Trixie on the phone, she’s in Brighton, England, preparing for yet another sold-out show. “I’ve performed drag every night for four years,” Trixie says with slightly frazzled pride. “And I’ve been hungover in every hotel on earth.” Due to her gangbusters career, it might be tempting to assume that Trixie Mattel sashayed out of the womb in full drag, ready to take on the world. Yet Trixie is actually an act that has been years in the making, and the queen’s path to success has often been as crooked as her sense of humor.
Before Trixie came into existence, she was a was boy named Brian Firkus from rural Wisconsin, a region of the United States not exactly known for its drag queens. Growing up gay in the conservative Midwest was often difficult for Firkus, and he struggled with an abusive stepfather, who would ridicule his stepson for being feminine. His stepfather’s choice insult was “trixie,” a word which would, years later, be repurposed by Firkus, though at the time the epithet only caused him pain.
But Firkus’s childhood was also marked by moments of beauty, and he held an especially close bond with his grandfather, who recognized a unique talent within his grandson. “My grandfather was a folk musician,” Firkus recalls. “I grew up playing guitar and singing at the kitchen table with my grandpa. That was in my blood, and there was an understanding that I’d grow up and be a musician.”
Firkus spent the first twenty years of his life convinced he was going to be a singer. His passion for performing led Firkus to enroll in University of Wisconsin Milwaukee, where he began studying music and theater. It was here that Firkus realized a singing career could be an unrealistic goal. “At school, all my teachers told me I wasn’t a good enough singer,” Firkus says. “Like, I couldn’t even get the job singing at the Quiznos by my house.”
It wasn’t until Firkus’ first drag performance at a screening of Rocky Horror Picture Show that he realized his journey to stardom might move a little quicker if he put on a dress. Firkus the folk singer was thrown out the window, and Trixie Mattel was born. The young queen burst onto the local gay scene, quickly become a regional staple. “I was living in Milwaukee, and performing three nights a week in Chicago, one night in Madison, one night in Milwaukee,” Trixie says. “Singing wasn’t happening, but drag was. I was like, ‘Well, music can be my hobby, drag will be my career and that’s okay.’ I mean, I was dirt broke, but I was paying all my bills doing drag and I felt like a real artist. I felt fabulous.”
To create Trixie’s persona, Firkus pulled from a deeply personal place: his own life. “I loved Barbie, I loved kids toys. I had kind of a shattered childhood, so I wanted to take these icons from childhood and reinterpret them as an adult.” Firkus also reinterpreted his stepfather’s favorite insult by choosing Trixie as his drag name, reclaiming the epithet that had haunted his youth.
In 2015, the confidence Trixie gained on the local scene inspired her to submit an audition tape for the seventh season of RuPaul’s Drag Race. Where many queens audition for years before getting in, Trixie was accepted on her initial attempt. But that confidence quickly evaporated on her first day in RuPaul’s workroom. “I was coming from getting my BFA in musical theater at a Milwaukee state school, while doing drag bingo at Hamburger Mary’s. Then suddenly, I was in a hugely talented, diverse, experienced group of drag queens. They were way ahead of me, they knew who they were. I failed because I panicked.”
Though Trixie may have been filled with anxiety and doubt at the time, you'd never know it from her ballsy debut on Drag Race. "This isn't Maury Povich!" Trixie cried in mock-disappointment upon marching into RuPaul's workroom for the first time, wearing a full face of Barbie-clown makeup. Fans fell in love at first sight, and Trixie's brilliant comedy and inimitable aesthetic quickly made the queen an instant audience favorite. But shockwaves rippled online when Trixie was eliminated on the show’s fourth episode, disappointing a legion of devoted fans who took to social media demanding #JusticeForTrixie. The queen was brought back later that season for a second chance, but eliminated again in the show’s tenth episode.
“When RuPaul told me I was not going to be the next drag superstar, it made me double down,” Trixie recalls. “I got home from Drag Race and was like, “Okay I didn’t win. But how can I make the most of this?” Whatever second guesses I had about my makeup, or my sense of humor or anything, I just went one hundred percent in that direction. My makeup got one thousand percent more intense and the hair got bigger and I pushed my comedy. I realized, ‘This is the Trixie I’ve been inching toward, but now I’m sprinting toward it.’”
Equipped with a stronger-than-ever-identity and a rabid fan base, Trixie set out on her post- Drag Race victory lap, touring the world with her improved act. During this time, she was asked to guest on Fashion Photo Ruview, a popular web series from World of Wonder, the Drag Race production company. She was joined by Katya, her fellow season seven contestant (“Katya and I bonded on Drag Race because we were both terrified,” Trixie recalls), and it became clear that the two friends had incredible comedic chemistry. In 2016, World of Wonder offered them a chance to do their own series, and the duo created their wild web talk show, UNHhhh.
"I was dirt broke, but I was paying all my bills doing drag and I felt like a real artist. I felt fabulous.”
For those unfamiliar with UNHhhh, it can perhaps best be described as Kathie Lee & Hoda on magic mushrooms. In each episode of the trippy talk show, Katya and Trixie tackle a different “topic of the week,” though the conversation usually devolves into hilarious rants, that are punctuated with surreal animations. Their episode on drinking, for example, contains stories from Katya’s path to sobriety (“I abstain [from drinking], but if you want to guzzle Robitussin, I’m your lady.”), Trixie’s reasons for giving up whiskey (“I used to drink whiskey, but it turns out diarrhea is not for me.”), and alternatives to drunk driving (“Sleep on the ground!” Trixie suggests, before Katya interjects, “Find a dumpster!”). The series is remarkable in its ability to tackle difficult subjects with dark wit, and couch unexpected wisdom in cutting edge comedy.
Since its debut, UNHhhh has racked up over 36 million views, and spawned VICELAND’s upcoming TV adaptation, The Trixie & Katya Show. Trixie attributes the show’s success to its unlikely ability to reach viewers in a personal way. “All of our comedy is deeply autobiographical,” she explains. “We use drag to speak on a lot of real truths. The audience doesn’t even realize they’re reflecting on life because they’re just laughing. We present our stories as parables of what not to do with your life. And Katya and I have done everything wrong.”
But though Brian Firkus may feel like his past has been a series of tragi-comic mistakes, it is clear that his future is bright. In perhaps the most unexpected revelation of his post- Drag Race career, Firkus finally worked his way back to his original, pre-Trixie aspiration: music. After a painful breakup, he found himself gravitating towards his guitar, looking to his former passion, to heal his present wounds. He started composing sad country songs, and when he began performing them as Trixie during his drag show, he was surprised by the response. “People would say to me that the sad breakup song was the best part of the show. I’m like, ‘Your favorite part of my comedy show is the sad part? Great.’” He quips. “But then I realized I’m good at two things: making the audience laugh, and making the audience cry. With music I can do both.”
Emboldened by the response from fans on the road, Trixie recorded a straight up, no frills, country music album. The record, entitled Two Birds, was a success, precisely because of its departure from the expected drag queen dance album. Two Birds was released on May 2, 2017 and debuted at number one on the iTunes singer-songwriter chart, and number two for overall iTunes sales. Brian Firkus, with the help of Trixie Mattel, had finally realized his lifelong dream of becoming a musician. “For so long I was like ‘I don’t want to get into drag because drag queens don’t play guitar,’” Trixie explains. “But now I’m like, ‘If someone else isn’t doing it, that means you should do it, you idiot!’”
Between a full touring schedule, prep for the upcoming Drag Race All Stars 3, and promotion for The Trixie & Katya Show, Trixie has a full plate. It’s an exhausting lifestyle, but a rewarding one, and Trixie is thrilled by all the success. “Katya and I are always waiting for the other shoe to drop,” she says. “We both have boyfriends, we have a TV show, and it’s like, ‘All right, where’s the cancer? Where’s the car accident?’ I’m at a point in my life where someone says, ‘I can’t wait for your TV show!’ And I say, ‘Which one?’ That’s crazy. I’m a cross-dresser from rural Wisconsin—like, what?”
THE TRIXIE & KATYA SHOW airs Wednesdays at 10 PM on VICELAND.