Being a country music artist in drag can get you noticed, but not necessarily taken seriously, as Trixie Mattel explains. USA TODAY
In photos of Brian Firkus as a child, it’s clear he knew what he loved from a young age.
In one photo, he’s kneeling at the Green Bay Packers Hall of Fame, basking in his Wisconsin pride. In another, he’s wearing his grandma’s high heels and scrunchies as garters.
Those photos appear in the first scene in a new documentary featuring Firkus. But the documentary is named after his more famous alter ego, Trixie Mattel.
Mattel is arguably the most popular drag queen in the world since RuPaul first sported stilettos. Certainly, the world has never seen anyone quite like her. The incredibly dark, raunchy, sarcastic jokes served with sugar. The Barbie-inspired look with the Dolly Parton hair, blended with 1960s and early ’70s fashion. The surprisingly smart and tender country tunes praised by country queen Kacey Musgraves.
A contestant on “RuPaul’s Drag Race” in 2015, Mattel’s popularity really exploded after she won “RuPaul’s Drag Race All Stars” in 2018.
She released her sophomore album, “One Stone,” the day after winning the show; went on tour; started a second YouTube series with drag queen Katya, “I Like to Watch,” for Netflix; launched a cosmetics line; starred in a comedy special; starred in a documentary, “Trixie Mattel: Moving Parts;” and appeared on a Skyy Vodka Times Square digital billboard that went viral after it caught fire. (No one was hurt.)
That was the past two years. A new era is beginning in 2020 with her third album, “Barbara,” and her biggest tour to date — which brings Mattel back to Milwaukee Tuesday at Turner Hall Ballroom.
“I feel like it’s at the point where people make fun of me when I say, ‘I am from Milwaukee. I was born in Wisconsin,’ ” Firkus told the Journal Sentinel, offering a special shout out to This Is It!, Wisconsin’s oldest gay bar and his favorite bar in the world. “It’s everything you’d want from a big city but with a small-town heart.”
Firkus himself was born in a small town, Silver Cliff, near the Nicolet National Forest in northern Wisconsin, where he grew up with his mom, his brother and, as Firkus says in last year’s “Moving Parts” documentary, a “recurring cast of characters” who were his mother’s boyfriends.
When he was 10, Firkus’ mother, Val, married his stepfather. He was physically and emotionally abusive. And when he tried to put down Firkus for acting feminine, he called him “Trixie.” He later died from alcoholism, Firkus said in “Moving Parts.”
“He was hitting me and I went to my room, and he was really drunk and he came at me with a gun and pointed a loaded gun at me, and said he was going to kill me,” Firkus said in the film. “I told one of my friends about it … and a counselor talked to me and told me they had to take me out of my home.”
“At the time, I never blamed her,” he said about his mother, in “Moving Parts.” “Abuse happens so slowly and so deeply when you’re in it. I think you just think that it’s normal. I thought everyone’s family was like that. I thought everyone went home every day and just wanted to die.”
Firkus is still close with his mother, who appeared in one of the Trixie Mattel makeup videos on YouTube last month. And she shows up at the most moving part of “Moving Parts,” watching a Mattel show live for the first time at Turner Hall Ballroom in 2018.
“I cried when you first came on,” Val told her son in the film. “I had tears streaming down my face.”
“I enjoyed myself very much,” she added. “It’s filthy. Grandpa was filthier.”
‘People were noticing me differently’
Aside from his grandfather’s infectious sense of humor, he also inspired Firkus’ interest in music. Firkus’ grandfather sang country music and played guitar.
So when Firkus moved to Milwaukee at 18, to study at the Peck School of the Arts at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, he studied musical theater.
“I thought I would be a songwriter in Milwaukee,” Firkus told the Journal Sentinel. “I would do some open mics here and there but wouldn’t get much traction. … I auditioned for Potbelly’s to play guitar and they said no.”
But Firkus found more empowerment, and more attention, when he started wearing drag, beginning at screenings of “The Rocky Horror Picture Show” at the Oriental Theatre.
As he says in “Moving Parts,” “I remember being in a University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee T-shirt with like a mop top of hair and staring in the mirror at my fishnet leg in a heel and thinking, ‘I am the most beautiful woman in the world.’ “
“It was about the (expletive) you factor, the rock ‘n’ roll factor,” Firkus told the Journal Sentinel. “I can still remember being at Ma Fischer’s, being in drag, and people staring at me and I would look through the window at them. … People were noticing me differently than they ever noticed me.”
But drag really took off after Firkus celebrated his 21st birthday at Walker’s Point club LaCage — where he first met Milwaukee drag queen Jaida Essence Hall, a contestant this year on “RuPaul’s Drag Race” (“She has always been flawless,” Firkus said), and Bebe Zahara Benet, winner of the first season of “RuPaul’s Drag Race.”
“(Benet) said, ‘Keep doing drag, it will take you anywhere,’ ” Firkus said.
He took those words to heart, sharpening the concept and appearance for Mattel, selecting the last name in tribute to the manufacturer of Barbie dolls.
“Drag queens look like women, but what if Trixie was like a doll?” Firkus said. “What if I always wore pink and had a tiny waist and big hips and big makeup. … What if I was like a toy with a drawstring on the back?”
“In drag, I could make $40 or $50 a night, and if my rent was $400, I could pay my whole rent,” he said. “I was hosting bingo at Hamburger Mary’s by the time I was 23, 24, and I started to get 20 or 30 people who would come see everything. Queens would make fun of me and say I would have this mini posse of Bay View bearded white gays. … But thank God I had a lot of friends because if they were not coming to see me, I don’t know if I would have stayed alive financially.”
Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett eventually came out to a show, Firkus said, and Mattel started doing shows in Madison, Chicago and Minneapolis. But then came Mattel’s appearance on season seven of “RuPaul’s Drag Race” in 2015, the year Firkus moved from Milwaukee.
“Everything changed,” he said.
Trixie Mattel, singer, songwriter and drag queen, tours the Country Music Hall of Fame The Tennessean
Finding a voice in country music
Back at shows in Milwaukee, and on “Drag Race” the first time, Mattel was still lip-synching. It wasn’t until 2017 that she sang her own songs on debut album “Two Birds.” And they were country songs at that, a curious and arguably risky choice that paid off.
“Most drag queens, their whole persona is they impersonated pop stars, but my character Trixie is more obtuse, and the type of music I listen to is sad folk music,” Firkus said. “I didn’t plan to make a record. I was dating a guy, and I was gone from home all the time and he broke up with me, and I was really sad and gained 30 pounds. I was sad so I was writing all this music and I hadn’t played the guitar in years. And once I finished, I would go and add songs to my act and people very quickly took notice. They told me, ‘It was a great show. The sad song was the best part.’ ”
The music was probably a key reason Mattel won “Drag Race All Stars” in 2018 and helped propel her popularity. It’s led to this month’s “Barbara,” a big part of Mattel’s current “Grown Up” tour, the first with a full band.
“This album is a lot less folky and twangy, and a little more beach rock and ’60s pop, what I’m inspired by now,” Firkus said. “The sense of urgency I have for people to see my show in Milwaukee is very high. I’ve done a lot of shows, but these are the fanciest, with the highest production, the most costumes, the most wigs, the most songs. This is the best tour I have ever done. And when I come home to Milwaukee, I want people to be really proud of me.”
If You Go
Who: Trixie Mattel
When: 8 p.m. Tuesday
Where: Turner Hall Ballroom, 1040 N. Phillips Ave.
How much?: $39.50 at the door, the Pabst Theater box office (144 E. Wells St.), the Riverside Theater box office (116 W. Wisconsin Ave.), (414) 286-3663 and pabsttheater.org.
Piet also talks concerts, local music and more on “TAP’d In” with Jordan Lee. Hear it at 8 a.m. Thursdays on WYMS-FM (88.9), or wherever you get your podcasts.
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