Photo: Rich Fury/Getty Images for HBO
Bob the Drag Queen embodies, in so many ways, the moment we are in. The RuPaul’s Drag Race season eight winner and New York drag-scene icon aptly navigates comedy, drama, and important social movements, and in the sophomore installment of the HBO series We’re Here, the nonbinary triple threat is giving even more killer looks and nuanced, funny observations about what it means to be queer, Black, and simply alive in America in 2021. Through guidance and mentorship to several drag kids over the course of the season, Bob gives viewers plenty to think about when it comes to our place in the world, what we owe one another, and how owning the truth of who we are can make things better for everyone.
All of this is embodied in the latest episode of We’re Here, set in Selma, Alabama, where Bob mentors Akeelah, a trans woman living a city that has notoriously not been kind to Black or queer people. Akeelah’s story, and those of other members of the Selma community, makes for a powerful exploration of what it means to live out loud as a queer, Black person in a conservative city, and it how it affects everyone — Bob and fellow drag queens Shangela and Eureka included. So Vulture hopped on the phone to chat with Bob about the season thus far, creating the Selma episode’s outrageously fun wig dance performance, and how the episode’s message relates to the conversations surrounding Dave Chappelle’s latest Netflix special.
Can we talk about that wig moment with your niece? Was it hard, performing with her on your shoulders?
Well, she’s 11 years old and like 80 pounds, so it wasn’t that hard. But was she heavy for a wig? Sure, yeah. I’ve wanted to do that number for a very long time. I actually used to plan it in New York City with a tiny friend of mine, but we never got around to doing it; I just never actually had the proper venue to do it or the right scene partner. Even a small adult is a pretty big wig, you know what I mean? And when they were discussing who should do it, I said, “Well, you know, my niece is a really talented performer, she’s a gymnast, she can dance. She’s really good.” We didn’t even get to use half of her skills in that performance. She’s an insanely talented gymnast. But it was our first chance to perform together, so I was very excited to get a chance to perform with my wonderful niece. And I’m very grateful that her mother and father were kind enough to allow her to do it with us. Luckily her mom is a teacher so she was able to still get her lessons in and all that stuff, too. She’s got all the makings to be like some famous Disney kid. I don’t think that she actually wants to do that. She was like, “I don’t like doing gymnastics and dancing anymore, but I’ll do it for you.” So she came out of retirement for me, 11-year-old retirement.
What it was like to get back into the saddle of doing this show during COVID?
It was a little strange, but I don’t think it was any stranger than what everyone else had gone through during COVID. You know, like getting back to work, especially if you work in a field that is not essential — I mean, it’s not like I’m a nurse or firefighter on the front lines or anything. I’m very proud of the work we’ve been able to do on this show, and the stories we were able to tell. I’m really grateful for the drag kids who are allowing us to tell their stories. I mean, they’re really trusting us to be kind with their stories. And I know that you know, unscripted television does not always have the best track record with that, especially when made for a general audience. So I’m really glad they were able to allow us to tell their stories, and really grateful for being able to tell them with a lot of integrity. It really is just a truly moving piece of work. This is one of those things where they say representation matters for a reason, because it really does.
Do you have any favorite looks from the season?
Well, I have a couple of favorites from the season, but the look that I did in Temecula — I did this like, Botox Housewife moment — was probably one of my favorite looks to get into. That was a lot of fun for me. I’m just really proud of the team and the looks we put together. I am very lucky that we have the team that we have for the show.
Your team also includes another Drag Race contestant, right?
Yeah, Laila McQueen from my season is also my makeup artist. We’ve been a part of each other’s stories for a minute now because of being on RuPaul’s Drag Race together, and touring together and traveling together. She’s one of my best drag queen friends.
Speaking of Temecula, what was it like being involved in telling James’s story, someone who is trans and neurodivergent?
I’m really proud of the fact that we get a chance to talk about intersectionality in our show, because I feel like it doesn’t really get its proper place in the sun, you know? In light of this recent special that Dave Chappelle has released, The Closer, a lot of people are acutely aware that there seems to be a lack of acknowledgement about intersectionality. Like, how he would talk about queer people as if he’s not talking about Black people too? You can’t talk about Black people without talking about queer people and vice versa. It’s literally not possible. I mean, you can’t even talk about Black Lives Matter without talking about queer people, because a lesbian started the whole movement. You can’t talk about queer rights without talking about Marsha P. Johnson. There’s a lot of crossover there that I think people kind of ignore. It’s kind of this really problematic thing where people talk about queerness as if they’re talking about whiteness. And I’m not ignorant to what people are getting at — I can see why, because in a lot of these movements, or in a lot of these spaces, white faces are really predominant. But I don’t want to engage in the erasure, that there are not Black people that are a part of these movements.
I was thinking about the Dave Chappelle special when you were speaking with the women in Selma, because that conversation felt so relevant to the conversations that we’re having now around Chappelle.
Yeah. And I do think that Chappelle special is clearly moving the needle forward and the conversation about these things. I hate that it had to take this to get the needle to move, but I think that that’s how it’s been throughout history: Until something happens salaciously or upsettingly, that’s when people start making change.
Selma felt like it was a very emotional episode for you.
I used to live in Alabama, my father’s from Alabama, and there was a lot of survivor’s guilt, and recognition, and being recognized by people that I know directly impacted my freedom as a Black person in America. Having them recognize my queerness and not engage in the erasure and having them recognize and not try to separate the things, is so unique — which is upsetting that it felt so unique.
I was also very struck in the moments where you were talking to Akeelah about living in the shadows versus living out loud, and how to find that balance where you also feel safe doing so in a place like Selma.
It’s really weird how the word privilege has become — it upsets people to say that they have privilege. Everyone has privilege. It seems to really get under people’s skin, to acknowledge it. But I found that acknowledging my privilege has helped me be a better person and be a better member of society. It is as if acknowledging someone’s privilege somehow negates their hardships, which, I don’t think that’s how that works. I’m perceived in the world as a very large man, so I acknowledge that I have a privilege that I can pretty much go anywhere. It occurred to me when one of my friends was like, “I want to walk my dog, but it’s too late.” And I was like, “Why don’t you walk your dog?” It never occurred to me that someone who’s either very small or appears to be a woman would have a dangerous time walking their dog at a late hour. But we all have our privileges, and when you acknowledge that you have one, it does not make you a worse person. I think it actually makes you a better person if you’re willing to acknowledge it.