Keeping up with Katya, the Russian Queen Racing Toward Fame
Drag queen and former "RuPaul's Drag Race" contestant Katya Zamolodchikova continues to break barriers with her bizarrely quick wit and biting humor—illustrating how turning our darkest moments into comedy can provide hope for our survival.
Photos by Chuck Grant.
Katya Zamolodchikova is a lot like a genderfluid Energizer Bunny—she keeps going and going and going, honey. The industrious drag queen (who is the demented Russian stage persona of Brian McCook) may have placed fifth on RuPaul’ s Drag Race, but she’s been nothing but a winner since. After narrowly surviving the brutal Drag Race rodeo, she racked up over one million Instagram followers, launched her own stage show entitled Help Me, I’m Dying, and nearly won Drag Race All Stars 2. But of all her post-Drag Race achievements, perhaps the greatest was the creation of UNHhhh, her absurdist YouTube talk show, co-starring fellow Drag Race alum Trixie Mattel. Since its inception just one year ago, UNHhhh has racked up over 36 million views on YouTube, and inspired VICELAND to adapt the web show into a full television series premiering November 15, and represents, as Katya so eloquently put it, “the culmination of a year and a half of knowing this stupid whore, Trixie Mattel.”
To say I had a “conversation” with Katya would misrepresent the experience; a more appropriate description of our encounter would be “maniacal, verbal ping-pong match.” Even out of drag, McCook maintains the same level of frenzied brilliance as his onstage character, and it is quite the challenge to keep up with him, as he zips from topic to topic, skewering each subject with his ferocious wit, dragging you along for the wild ride. Over the course of our interview, McCook’s mile-a-minute commentary hits on the societal dangers of social media (“The next Joel Osteen, mega-church, evangelist-piece-of-shit-hypocrite-motherfucker will be self-made through Youtube”), his feelings on Sarah Huckabee Sanders (“She’s Princess Fucking Dickwad”), and his preferred slang for describing ambitious masturbation (“Pulling the padge, like you’re working for a girl scout badge!”). In the end, the line between Katya Zamolodchikova and Brian McCook is a tenuous one, their identities blurring together into one trippy, genderfucked super-persona, which may be the very point of McCook’s whole project.
But long before McCook became a quick-witted, tv-show-having, Russian drag queen, he was just another nice Catholic boy, growing up in the suburbs of Boston. McCook was blessed with supportive, loving parents, though suburbia was not exactly McCook’s idea of a good time. “I didn’t get called a faggot too much,” he quips. “Just a few times!” McCook graduated from Marlborough High School in 2001, and after attending Boston University for a year, decided to transfer to Massachusetts College of Art and Design, where he studied video and performance art. In his final year of art school, he discovered the character of Katya. “I hosted a video show for my senior portfolio, to say, ‘Look—I did work while I was here!’ I had started learning Russian on a whim and I loved it, so I hosted the show as a Russian character in drag.”
The rest, as RuPaul says, is herstory. Katya quickly became a staple in the local Boston drag scene, making her way up through the ranks at drag venue Jacques Cabaret, which she also lived above for seven years. When I ask McCook to describe the Katya of yore, he doesn’t miss a beat: “Oh my god, she was a full-tilt, full-time transvestite hooker at large. Like, for real. Like, entertaining johns and gentlemen in her little pied-à-terre downtown, and then sliding down the fire-fucking-pole and punching the clock to pop that pussy in a handstand on stage for the rest of her Friday and Saturday nights. And then all the while, super highly addicted to crystal meth. Girl, it was a lot.”
This information is all relayed to me with Katya’s rapid, machine-gun-fire wit, and as a result it takes a moment for me to realize the gravity of what she’s really saying. Crystal meth addiction is not a joke, which is precisely why Katya has made it into one. This, ultimately, is Katya’s genius: her comedy is a reminder that if we can find the humor in life’s darkest moments, there is hope for our survival.
Katya struggled with addiction and alcoholism, and life in Boston was tumultuous. “I was doing drugs, not doing drugs, struggling, not struggling, being happy, not being happy,” she recalls. When the first season of RuPaul’s Drag Race premiered, she saw it as a potential ticket out. After four auditions, over the course of six years, Katya finally made it on the show. But after the initial rush of validation faded, Katya found herself in the midst of one of the most stressful experiences of her life. At the start of season 7, Katya had been sober for only a year—a fact that only added to the intensity of the cutthroat competition. “I was dealing with so much personal and emotional stuff,” she says. “I don’t want to say the show was ‘trauma,’ because it’s reality television, not ISIS. But it was very emotional, very hard.”
While filming the show’s 11th episode, Katya hit a breaking point. The challenge for the week was to construct two unique looks inspired by Hello Kitty, but Katya found the assignment to be anything but cute. With no ideas, no time, and limited design skills, Katya collapsed under the mounting pressure. Though the final edit shows Katya as a typically nervous contestant, the reality was far more serious: she experienced her first, full-blown panic attack on set. Katya credits one of the show’s producers, Michele Mills, for helping her through the traumatic moment, rather than exploiting it on camera.
Katya survived the experience, of course, but there were many moments of darkness throughout production, which left her nearly suicidal. “I knew I wasn’t born to kill myself, but there were moments I definitely wanted to die. I didn’t see any other option, because all I saw was failure and humiliation,” she recalls, gravely serious, before switching back to her preferred, comedic mode. “But I just listened to my women’s intuition and made it through. Then it turned out great!”
Once out of the Drag Race pressure cooker, Katya found a world of opportunity awaiting. “It’s like, you’re shot into space, and then space is a party! It’s incredible,” she says. One of the most fortuitous breaks at the post- Drag- Race-space-party, was the opportunity to work with Trixie Mattel—a fellow season 7 survivor—on their very own web series, entitled UNHhhh. The show was a viral hit, and quickly amassed a huge following.
UNHhhh is difficult to describe, and better seen-to-be-believed. My first instinct would be to tell you to simply watch an episode, but I am a committed drag queen journalist, and feel it is my duty to attempt an explanation. Each episode begins with Trixie and Katya discussing a “topic of the week,” like drugs, wet dreams, or death, but the conversation inevitably spirals into insane comedic tangents. Each rant is punctuated with trippy, LSD-inspired animations, on screen text, and cameos from rubber chickens, sex toys, or both. It is always funny, occasionally offensive, and not unlike watching a high speed trainwreck, if the crashed locomotives in question were occupied by viciously witty drag queens making dildo jokes amidst the fiery wreckage.
"I do have something to say. I have stories to tell, some advice to give, and I will talk to anybody who will listen. I mean, I’m literally screaming at you right now!”
“UNHhhh works because it’s real life. We’re not actors, we don’t have lines, there’s no script. I think the web show is literal perfection, but it’s because of the editors and the director and the people working on the show,” she says. “Like, when Nicole Kidman is in Big Little Lies—let’s do a totally parallel example—Nicole can be proud of her part, but then it’s the director and the supporting cast and everyone else who makes the wonderful series. That’s our web show. I played a small part in the whole thing.”
While shooting the first season of UNHhhh, Katya was tapped to re-enter RuPaul’s famous workroom, this time for Drag Race All Stars. Katya was in a much different place this time around: no longer the anxious queen from Boston, struggling to find herself. She was now confident in her persona, self-assured, and with more years of sobriety under her perfectly cinched belt (“I haven’t had a drink in years, because I don’t need that slide towards chaos lubricated at all,” she whisper-screams). Katya emerged as an early front runner—actually enjoying the process this time—and made her way to the show’s final three contestants. “Going back in, I knew all the girls, I knew what to do, and, most importantly, I knew it was about making great television,” she says.
Both UNHhhh and Drag Race All Stars are testament to her expertise at making great television, and if The Trixie and Katya Show is any indication, she’s about to make a whole lot more. The show delivers the exact same drag-magic as the web series that preceded it, while giving the whole operation a high budget botox injection. Katya is excited for the premiere, but also possesses a Zen attitude about its reception: “If people like it, they like it. If they don’t, they don’t. Guess what—you can check out my other show on VH1, or come to my house and I’ll paint your toes. It doesn’t matter!”
I ask Katya about how she thinks she’s evolved as a comedian, and where she hopes to take her act in the future. Her answer surprises me. “Number one, I don’t think of myself as a comedian. I’m not joking when I say this: I am more inspired to be a priest. That’s a little bit tongue-in-cheek.” She clarifies: “But I do have something to say. I have stories to tell, some advice to give, and I will talk to anybody who will listen. I mean, I’m literally screaming at you right now!”
After spending an hour listening to Katya’s screams, I can assure you they contain a surprising amount of wisdom. And though the queen will likely never don a priest’s robe in her lifetime (unless it’s been refashioned into a slutty, sacrilege dress), it is certain that she will impact the lives of many around the globe. Katya makes you laugh, but once you’re done laughing, you may find yourself questioning your morals, your politics, or the very foundations of your identity.
“I would never be so bold or stupid or naive to say that my calling is to be a fucking ultra-sweating-hip-jiggling-idiot drag queen,” Katya says. “But I do think I have a duty to talk to people.”
THE TRIXIE & KATYA SHOW airs Wednesdays at 10 PM on VICELAND.