“I am alive and awaiting my arrival in Salt Lake City to meet a nice young Mormon boy.” Mormon boys, you have officially been warned: Bianca Del Rio is coming for you. The drag queen, comedian and self-described “clown in a gown” will perform in Salt Lake City’s Capitol Theatre this Sunday, Sept. 26.
Del Rio rose to fame as the winner of Season 6 of RuPaul’s Drag Race, where she quickly became a fan favorite. A seasoned pro, equally comfortable with a sewing machine and a microphone after years as a drag performer in New Orleans and New York City, Del Rio was uniquely positioned to capitalize on her reality TV fame. She appeared on Drag Race at a clear turning point for the series—Season 6 closed what many diehard fans consider the show’s golden era just as it was transitioning from a cult favorite to a larger mainstream phenomenon. Years later, Del Rio still may be the series’ most undeniable success story. In 2019, New York named her America’s most powerful drag queen and before the pandemic, Del Rio sold out performances at both Wembley Arena and Carnegie Hall. (Though she is quick to note, “I’ve also played the parking lot facing Applebee’s. It all keeps you humble.”) She also performed in the West End musical Everyone’s Talking About Jamie—“it was quite challenging because the role was an elderly drag queen who was generous,” she explains—and will reprise the role in the U.S. next year.
Unsanitized, a cheeky reference to both COVID-19 and Del Rio’s button-pushing style of comedy, will feature her thoughts on a turbulent year. “We’ve experienced a global pandemic, a new president, Kim K. wearing that outfit to the Met Gala … We’ve got a lot to deal with,” she says. While Del Rio jokes it was a challenge to put heels on again after months of virtual gigs, she also feels ready to be back in her natural habitat, telling nasty jokes for an adoring audience.
Del Rio’s style, insult comedy inspired by old-school trailblazers like Joan Rivers and Don Rickles, is not for everyone. Rivers, who Del Rio clearly adores and collaborated with before her death in 2014, had a similar penchant for breaking barriers, defying taboos and punching up, down and sideways. Her humor often relies on ugly racial stereotypes, artfully vicious putdowns and skillfully deployed self-deprecation—the joke is often on her. In her 2015 standup special Rolodex of Hate, Del Rio explained, “I like to draw the line, turn around, cross it and snort it.”
If this all sounds like a perilous comedic approach in an era of wokeness and cancellation, well, it kind of is. Like many performers of her ilk, Del Rio tends to roll her eyes at calls for greater sensitivity. “You either get it or you don’t, and usually the smart people get it,” she says. Later, she says, “I think that people need to lighten up and find the humor in everything. If I’m the biggest joke there is, I want people to come along and laugh with me.” Has she ever looked back and realized a particular joke went too far? “My entire life!” she exclaims. Still, Del Rio does not seem to lose sleep over the possibility of offending audiences. “Everything is not going to be funny to everybody. Everybody is not always going to laugh and everything is not always going to work … Every song Celine Dion sings is not a hit, but does that mean Celine Dion is not a good singer?”
Del Rio may be unapologetic about her caustic sense of humor, but on the phone she’s warm and friendly, a far cry from her self-described persona as a “nasty, rotted human being.” She shrewdly understands that, robbed of context, her harshest bits are a poor fit for Twitter, and she uses her own comedy shows to try out material at its most, well, unsanitized.
While there is a growing audience for drag both inside and outside of Salt Lake City’s queer community, Del Rio understands Utah’s reputation as a more conservative state. She has worked long enough to know how to read a room, but she has no plans to tone down her confrontational style for audiences in the Beehive State. “Utah does not scare me in the least,” she says. “I’m definitely looking forward to it. To be honest, I think Utah needs something to shake them up a little bit, so I’m willing to come there and risk my life for it.”