After her gag-of-the-season self-elimination in RuPaul’s Drag Race All Stars 3 despite being the frontrunner, it’s clear BenDeLaCreme isn’t beholden to the same hallmarks of success that most people are. As someone who prioritizes pushing themselves more than besting others, the Seattle-based drag queen introduced a strange idea to reality TV during 2018: Sometimes you win by walking away from the crown.
Now in summer of 2019, DeLa is in the midst of her latest stage show Ready to Be Committed, which finds the Drag Race fave tackling another common societal marker of success – marriage. While most one-woman drag shows have an autobiographical slant, DeLa expands the scope of her show past her own life to encompass, well, damn near the entire history of marriage, from its transaction-based roots centuries ago to the wedding industry that emerged in the 20th century to the likelihood of finding that special someone via Grindr in present day. From a brutally hysterical send-up of Say Yes to the Dress to parody songs to scintillating, bawdy wordplay delivered with an endearing, straight-faced naïveté, Ready to Be Committed soars past entertainment and into the realm of theatrical art.
While Benjamin Putnam has delivered brilliant, acerbic deconstructions of particular topics before (his Dante-themed Inferno A-Go-Go was surprisingly moving), Ready to Be Committed seems especially personal – probably because it is. Earlier this year, Putnam’s long-term partner proposed to him, and they’re currently in the midst of planning their nuptials even as his show — currently playing in Provincetown, Mass. — questions the institution itself.
DeLa stopped by the Billboard offices to discuss the show, what marriage means to a queer person and his tentative plans for scripted TV. And with his partner joining him, we also spoke with Gus Lanza about popping the question to Ben.
Before we talk about Ready to Be Committed, I wanted to ask about your last show, which was themed around Dante’s 14th century epic poem Inferno. Are you a big classics person?
No, not really, but I though the format was interesting in terms of Deadly Sins, nine circles (of hell) — everything it seemed like a perfect cabaret show. I didn’t know much about it, but I’m a heavy researcher. I read the book for the first time (for that show); it was one of those things I just cheated on the test in high school. So I had the idea to do it, and I was coming back from working the World Buskers Festival in New Zealand, and it was going over and over in my head, but I was like “This is a terrible idea for a show.” I asked all the other burlesque performers and they were like “NO. Don’t do that.” And I landed at the airport and I went to the bookstore, and there was one copy of Dante’s Inferno. And an airport bookstore is all Bridget Jones, so I was like “that’s a sign.”
And your current one is wedding themed. Obviously, a lot of people can relate to it, but why did you pick that?
Well, my partner proposed to me this year, which was both something I’d wanted for a long time and it plunged me into a tailspin of “what does that mean?” Especially as a queer person who’s had complicated ideas about marriage over the years. Certainly, there’s been the fight for marriage equality and also the queer sensibility of “Do we even want this? What does it mean to assimilate this way?” So I was like, yeah, this is the topic for me to explore right now. I did the same kind of research and dove deep into the messed-up history of marriage and the weird industrial complex behind it.
Does it almost double as preparation for your own?
It’s about deciding, “How do we want to define this for ourselves?” A little bit of this is, okay, how much of this can I get out of my system? I get to live my childhood fantasy of wearing that “November Rain” wedding dress, but also, what does the institution mean to us, and how do we define our own relationship both in relation to it and separately from it?
This is a big question, but what do you think about the institution?
Everyone has to build their own relationship to it. We’re fed ideas about marriage and what love is and the concept of “the one.” Between fairy tales and romcoms, no matter how much we want to resist having that defined for us, we all have this happily ever after idea implanted in our head. So how do we change that to think about making decisions every day about “how do I be a good partner to the person I choose?”
Did you research by reading a lot of wedding magazines, checking out the websites?
I watched a lot of those insane wedding reality TV shows. I’d never watched them before and they’re nuts. And [in my show] there’s a big send up of wedding reality TV and the phenomenon of a bunch of gays guys being grouped to fall over a straight person and make sure their life is perfect.
There’s even a reality show where brides attend each other’s weddings and rank them, like a competitive sport.
Even the idea of love and partnership is a weird idea that we’ve decided you’re more successful in life if you’re coupled. Which is a very destructive idea, not just to single people but to coupled people. Because it shouldn’t be a status symbol that you’ve found someone you want to spend your life with. It can be a wonderful thing, but it doesn’t make you a superior person. The competitive nature of the wedding industry is an extension of that.
Gus, I’d also like to ask you about your thoughts on marriage in LGBTQ culture considering you’re the one who proposed to Ben. How does being a trans man affect your view of marriage?
Gus: I have, like a lot of queer people in general, complex, complicated ideas. DeLa and I share a lot of thoughts about marriage. I never had a fantasy of proposing or being proposed to. I’m much more of a “let’s go elope in the night and not tell anyone” person. I think it’s frustrating that our government is set up in a way that prioritizes people who choose to get married over families who are not married, so I want those benefits, but I’m frustrated that it’s the loophole you have to jump through. I believe in building a life – DeLa and I have very similar ideas on how we want to build and share a life, so I’m all for that. But if the government was set up differently, that wouldn’t necessarily be something I need. But it was important to Ben to have that experience, and great for me to do it in a special way. All of our friends were there (during the proposal) and I’d been planning it for a while, because he did want the fairy tale experience and that was fun for me to do.
Ben: It was very romantic.
Gus: It was perfect, it was out of one of those romcoms. So that was exciting for me to be able to do that for him. But if he didn’t want that, I would be fine having it more low key. It’s what’s important for you and your partner.
Especially with Trump in power and the trans ban in the military, it’s a powerful statement in a way.
Gus: Part of me feels that not getting married is punk rock, but now it’s more punk rock to get married because of the recent backlash against all the rights we’ve earned and fought for over the decades.
Thanks Gus for your thoughts. Ben, you’ve done a number of shows. At this point, is it easy for you to plan out one of these?
Oh God no. This was a very hard process because it’s been such a busy year. My mentor, Varla Jean Merman, is an incredible queen and checks in on me almost daily – “How’s the writing process going?” And I had a few meltdowns and she was like “this is a good learning lesson for you, you have to remember performing and writing come out of the same fuel tank.” I was doing a month of shows in the U.K. and thinking I could write simultaneously, but it was so much harder than I thought. But I blocked off a month and a half of foundational work on this in Seattle and I was working on it while I went on tour.
So let’s talk Drag Race. Compare life after season 6 to life after All Stars. How much of an increase in offers and/or money was there?
I was working steadily and consistently after season 6. It’s definitely that extra bump. The frequency of offers didn’t increase (after All Stars), but the monetary aspect certainly did, which is lovely. One of the reasons I considered not doing All Stars is I’d finally moved away from the club circuit, which is the most lucrative post-Drag Race circuit. And it’s really fun, but I wanted to focus on my theater stuff, filled with my solo shows and shows I write and direct in Seattle. The nice thing about All Stars was that it was a second chance to funnel that attention into those passion projects. Certainly, it’s easier to sell tickets to solo shows, and it’s fun to harness the energy from the show – people are excited about lip syncing to Julie Andrews, and then they come to the show and get something very different.
Walking away from the frontrunner spot was very impactful, a big statement on competition in general. But at any point afterward, did you second guess leaving?
No. It’s one of those things where I feel like it was a really bold choice I’m proud of. It’s rare for me. I’m very much a Libra — I consider everything constantly and I have to do it for a long time before I make a decision. But every now and then there’s one where I’m like “I feel this.” And I still feel really good that I participated, I did really well at the game and put myself in a position where I could say, “okay, I’ve shown you I can do this, but I don’t really agree to these terms.” Every time I get to talk to somebody, some people say it really did mean something to them. And quite a few people say they made a decision in their life that was influenced by that. And I was not expecting that.
Are you looking to work in different media?
I’m really happy I’m on the trajectory I’m at, and I want to keep growing it. I’ve confided the larger productions I’ve done to the Pacific Northwest, but I’d love to tour some of these larger productions. And Gus and I will be moving to L.A. next year and I really want to start pitching television stuff. There’s so many queens in the reality TV world, but I would love to get into scripted work.
What kind of format?
One of the ones right now that’s resonating is having created my fourth solo show that’s deeply exploring a subject but in a campy way that involves playing multiple characters and puppetry but exploring larger ideas through that. I feel like that would make a really fun half-hour or hour-long short series. Or even convert some of these shows into a television format and have it be a limited thing. Sort of an adult Ms. Frizzle. I’m really excited about the initial response to this show, and I’m planning on getting it out to the world next year. And I’ll be back on the road with Jinkx Monsoon doing our holiday tour, which is a blast. Last year was my first time producing a national tour, and this year will be my first time producing an international tour. So yeah, international producer feather in my cap now.