On Sunday, “RuPaul's Drag Race All Stars” Season Three winner Trixie Mattel takes her act to The Egg in Albany, behind her new album “Barbara.” WAMC spoke to Mattel before the show.
Mattel – known offstage as Brian Firkus – was raised in Milwaukee, and got her start in drag when she worked in a local production of “The Rocky Horror Picture Show.”
“There’s obviously in ‘Rocky’ a lot of makeup and wigs and stuff, so – then the drag character was sick, and I had to step in one day, and it kind of stuck!” Mattel told WAMC.
The name Trixie came in part from her character in that production of the cult camp hit.
“Also when I was younger my stepdad and I didn’t have a good relationship, and whenever I was acting too feminine or too sensitive, he would call me a Trixie," said Mattel. "So it’s sort of like a slur. I kind of took it back for something else. And then Mattel, because when I turned 21, I was working the nightclubs and nobody really knew who I was. They didn’t know my name, but they were like, ‘Oh that new girl, the one who looks like a Barbie!’ And Mattel is the manufacturer of Barbie.”
Mattel’s come a long way since those days in the late 2000s. She headlines national tours and releases albums that chart.
“When you’re a new drag queen, you just want people to take you seriously – but no one does because you’re new, young, and you look terrible," said Mattel. "Everybody has a similar experience of you turn 21, and you go to the clubs, and you’re like – I’m it! And the people who have been doing drag for five years are like, no you’re not.”
Mattel says her act progressed from lip synching and exploring a variety of looks before she homed in on the Barbie aesthetic and standup.
“Now it’s this kid’s toy with this adult sense of humor – that’s a really good thing,” she said.
When she added her guitar to the mix, the act was complete. Mattel cites a love of folk acts like Jason Isbell and Aimee Mann, country staples like Johnny Cash and June Carter, power-pop bands like Fountains of Wayne and Weezer, and girl groups like the Go-Go’s and the Donnas.
In 2015, Mattel appeared on Season 7 of “RuPaul’s Drag Race” after she was fired from her fulltime job. It wasn’t easy settling into the harsh demands of reality television.
“The first time you’re on camera, on one of the biggest TV shows in the world, it’s obviously very nerve wracking and you make all your mistakes in real time," she said. "You let the cameras make you nervous. You let the cameras intimidate you. When you’re not used to being on camera, it feels like a gun being pointed at you. It’s so hard to be yourself, in a way. Some people really thrive in that environment, and I didn’t. At least not at first.”
But Mattel found her footing, and her appearances began to build the ever-growing audience she plays to today. Then, in 2018, she won “RuPaul's Drag Race: All Stars.”
“I remember sitting in Chicago in a bar and watching the TV and I didn’t know I was going to win," she told WAMC. "Watching myself win 'Drag Race' in real time, it was like… Mentally, I saw the first time I put high heels on fast forwarded up to now, and it was crazy – crazy to think that this little hobby from college that I was originally ashamed of turned out to be this giant career. I think that every night, where I’m like, how am I doing this?”
Earlier this month, Mattel released her third album, “Barbara,” which she says is sequenced in two distinct halves.
“It’s day at the beach – so think AM radios and dune buggies, and kind of has a 60’s, 70’s sound," said Mattel. "And then the B side is like the campfire at night around the beach. It’s a little more earthy and storyteller-y and a little smoother.”
She’s on the road now with a new show, “Grown Up,” which combines her comedy and her music into one complete vision.
“My full band and like 12 costumes and four wigs and songs and stand up and – it’s a show that really has everything. Videos, lighting effects – this is like my dream show," said Mattel. "I’m doing my dream show.”