With the winter season premiere just weeks away, Boston performer Katya is ready to sashay down the runway of RuPaul’s Drag Race.
We hope someone brought a mop.
“I like ugly drag,” says the soon-to-be reality-show star. The gender-fucking art form has its own taxonomy, and mainstream audiences are probably most familiar with the glittery genus of “pageant queens”: big-haired, bedazzled purveyors of ultra-feminine “perfection.” But Katya combines girly glamour with a more subversive personal style. “To me, the best vision of drag is this: Imagine a Miss America contestant. She comes out and everything about her is completely flawless. She walks down the runway, and as she turns to head back, you suddenly see that there’s shit all down her dress. Or a big, bloody boil on the side of her head. But she never talks about it, and no one says a thing,” says the performer, bringing a hush-hush finger to smirking lips.
All drag queens, on some level or another, challenge conventional notions of gender. But Brian McCook (Katya’s alter ego, or vice versa) is also interested in sending up ridiculous beauty standards. He says his drag is more like an extension of clowning, and he finds special inspiration in female comedians who “are pretty, but unafraid to be ugly.” Think Amy Sedaris, Sarah Silverman, Maria Bamford. Rather than striving to embody flawless femininity, McCook sees Katya as an opportunity to expose “the crumbling foundation of that perfect image which women have to project.”
In the words of RuPaul: Can we get an amen up in here?
Of course, McCook can cut a fierce, fabulous figure when in character as Katya Zamolodchikova, a Russian femme fatale he developed in 2006 as a student at MassArt. McCook’s piercing green eyes smolder under Katya’s copious eye shadow, and his yoga-toned body—often poured like honey into vibrantly patterned leotards—is prone to performing impressive gymnastic feats on stage. (Picture a bodacious Bond villainess by way of the Big Apple Circus.) But Katya also cut her teeth with TraniWreck, a long-running night of avant-garde queer theater, and spent seven years hosting her own edgy, experimental show, Perestroika. So even in glamour-puss mode, McCook still tends to include what he calls “the wink”—burn makeup, perhaps, or nicotine-stained fake teeth—that reflects drag’s irreverent roots.
“If I were a woman, I would actually be nothing like my drag character…. I’d probably get dressed up twice a year,” McCook admits, sitting in sweatpants and a T-shirt in his comfy, campy Bay Village apartment. Mannequin busts wearing bobbed wigs line a wall painted in the avocado green of kitschy 1970s rec rooms. The sofa is wrapped in a Playboy bunny-patterned fabric. In one corner, a clothing rack overflows with sparkly costumes homemade on the nearby sewing machine. Opposite, a bed sits under a hand-painted sign: “Welcome Home, Whore.” And messily splayed across a dining counter is a department store’s worth of cosmetics.
Showtime is at 7 pm downstairs at Jacques, the drag cabaret where he performs on Saturday nights. So McCook stands before his illuminated makeup mirror to begin the two-hour transformation into Katya. He loves performing. The prettifying process, on the other hand, is more like a necessary evil.
“It has a lot to do with male privilege, being able to literally roll out of bed and go to Starbucks,” McCook says. “You can smell bad, look like shit, and people don’t think anything of it. But if a girl did that? ‘Oh God! Gross!’ ”
“I really believe in what RuPaul says: We’re born naked, and the rest is drag,” he adds, picking up a big bottle of liquid foundation. “And I’m really grateful that boy drag is so much easier.”
Maybe so, but it’s hard-working showgirl Katya who’s catapulted McCook into prime time. Entering its seventh season, RuPaul’s Drag Race has grown from a low budget-looking experiment in niche programming to a pop-culture phenomenon with splashy promotional campaigns and live-broadcast season finales. It’s the highest rated show on Logo, MTV’s sibling network focused on LGBT-related programming, and gay bars across the country host weekly viewing parties. (Naturally, Jacques will follow suit.) And the popularity of the spirited show, which spawns the kind of hashtag-ready catchphrases and gifs of which live-tweet dreams are made, extends well beyond LGBT audiences. In 2014, the Television Critics Association crowned Drag Race with an award for Outstanding Achievement in Reality Programming, ahead of mainstream standbys like Survivor and The Voice.
More important for contestants, the show’s search for “America’s next drag superstar” has spawned bona fide—well, superstars. Standout alums wind up with dozens of international appearances each year, from Caribbean cruises to nightclub shows, earning thousands of dollars per booking. Winners become cottage industries.
Consider Sharon Needles, a goth-glam queen who now rivals Elvira as a camp Halloween icon, or Bianca Del Rio, an insult comic whose touring one-woman show, Rolodex of Hate, plays Boston’s House of Blues this month.
Her season hasn’t even started, but Katya is already booked for a show in Brazil.
“I’m excited and horrified” about the looming premiere, says Katya, the makeup now piling on. Past contestants, including Boston’s Jujubee, a two-time Drag Race finalist, have offered advice, but it was still daunting to compete, especially as a 32-year-old vet surrounded by 20-somethings who “are better at makeup in two years than I am now,” Katya says. “But they’re post-Drag Race queens. YouTube is full of drag makeup tutorials now. That didn’t exist when I started.”
Katya is self-taught, and it took years to get the makeup ritual right. First comes a layer of foundation: heavy-duty stuff applied thick enough to cover remnant stubble and survive sweaty back-to-back shows. “It’s less like painting a face and more like staining a deck,” Katya quips. “Drag queens have more in common with house painters than makeup artists.” Next, a tinted contour cream traces her brow and jawline, swooping across cheekbones and slicing down the bridge of her already-pert nose. Then those sharp lines are buffed with a brush, creating shadows that soften the chiseled architecture underneath into something more feminine. “Changing the geography of the face” is the lion’s share of the work, Katya says. Add luscious lips and come-hither eyes, and she’s ready to serve face.
Next: Body. Katya slithers into four sets of dance tights to create an—ahem—more ladylike silhouette. Then she molds an hourglass figure by affixing foam pads, couch stuffing she carves like turkey with an electric knife, to the thighs and butt. She rolls up fishnet stockings and snaps on a rubber corset. She pulls on a body shaper cut like a one-piece bathing suit. She adds about 8 pounds in silicone breasts.
And now it’s time to get dressed.
“It’s so constricting,” says Katya, finally dolled up in something slinky and sequined. She grabs a duffel bag of clothes—her night’s costume changes—and races toward the door. “It’s like a heavy-handed metaphor for the trials and tribulations of modern womanhood.”
Once the lights go up on the Jacques stage, nothing about Katya seems “constricted.” After a few touch-ups in a cramped, sauna-like dressing room shared with three other queens, she hits the stage with splits and backbends. She bumps and grinds to a thumping medley of Britney Spears hits, twirling offstage and teasing tables of hooting patrons. Mounting the bar, she pushes aside beer bottles to toss her blond mane like an ’80s supermodel on the hood of a hot rod. Katya trades off with other queens for a 20-minute costume change, then returns to the beat of rapper Riskay’s nasty caught-you-cheatin’ anthem, “Smell Yo Dick.” She grabs crumpled cash from the outstretched arms of the audience, writhing against slack-jawed viewers who find the spectacle equal parts funny, gross and sexy.
It’s also exhausting. “Drag is really hard on your body,” McCook says. In fact, before Drag Race came calling for his saucy character, he even considered putting his performance days behind him. It was hard to reconcile his work at a healthier lifestyle—better eating, no more drugs or drinking—with razor burn, pained foot arches and a body crammed under rib-jabbing corset boning. But his art won. Katya won. Drag Race fame will follow. And though his experiences on the show have smoothed out some of Katya’s rougher edges with a bit more gloss, it is—cliche though it may be—McCook’s attitude that makes both his personas shine.
“It’s one thing if you love makeup and products. But if you don’t, the beauty industry is economically oppressive,” McCook says, adding a dash of eyeliner. “If you’re a woman and you don’t wear makeup to your job, it’s not considered acceptable. That’s oppressive! It’s crazy. And that’s why I think it is a formidable act of protest to say, ‘No. I’m going to be aggressively plain!’ ”
“I fucking love that,” he declares, glancing away from the mirror, eyes twinkling under the most luscious fake lashes.