It was half past 3 the day after the Rockefeller Center Christmas tree lighting, and a pair of America’s most famous drag queens strode up to the spruce’s formidable footprint, chatting about abundance.
“I don’t like being inundated with anything,” Jinkx Monsoon announced as holiday music jingled loudly nearby.
“She has this conversation about Christianity,” BenDeLaCreme started to explain, before Jinkx resumed her gripe: “Christianity, the Kardashians and ‘Star Wars,’” she chimed back in. “All things that I have never asked to know about, but I know everything about.”
The reason for their visit, however, was indeed the season. For the fifth year, the duo — both alums of the TV competition “RuPaul’s Drag Race” — are presenting a live Christmas show filled with dancing candy canes, glittery gowns and songs about trauma. (In 2020, Covid forced them off the road, so they made a movie.) What began in small standing-room-only clubs has grown into a 30-city theater tour that kicked off mid-November in Glasgow and wraps in Vancouver, British Columbia, on Dec. 30. The day after the queens’ stroll, on Dec. 1, their show hit Kings Theater in Brooklyn, a former movie palace that seats 3,000.
“I’ve been around for a while,” said Murray Hill, a fixture on downtown drag, burlesque and cabaret stages who’s done his own delightfully queer Christmas show for around 25 years. “I can’t believe in my lifetime that I went to go see two drag queens at a huge theater like that in New York. It’s progress!”
The latest iteration of “The Jinkx & DeLa Holiday Show” is its most ambitious yet: an hour and a half of gags that lean naughty and inspirational messages that make it nice. It includes a Fosse-style number skewering the nearly orgasmic satisfaction Americans get from shopping, and one about sex with Krampus set to a beloved seasonal tune. Like its predecessors, it’s queer, hilarious, clever and heartfelt — a fitting reflection of the two performers who made it.
“The Jinkx & DeLa Holiday Show” features songs about shopping, trauma and sexy Krampus.Credit…Santiago Felipe
DeLa, as the 42-year-old BenDeLaCreme is known, grew up in “rural and idyllic” Connecticut, where she felt like an outcast — dying her hair different colors, being mocked in English class for writing “these insane things about, like, purple dragons,” which, she pointed out, is a direct link to what she does onstage now.
Jinkx, 36, is from Portland, Ore., and attended a magnet arts high school, “so we were all freaking freaks,” she said. “But I’ve been visibly queer my whole life,” she added. (She identifies as trans feminine.) “Even though I wasn’t necessarily an outcast, it was just a whole life of being told I’m just too much. And drag is the one place where you can’t be too much.” She let out her signature giggle, which is only a touch wicked.
For a middle school talent show, Jinkx dressed as a woman and told crass jokes — and the rest, as they say, is herstory. She developed a psychic persona named Miss Lily and improvised reading classmates’ and teachers’ fortunes: “Before I even really knew what drag was, I already had a drag character.”
In the late 2000s, while Jinkx was studying theater at Cornish College of the Arts in Seattle, DeLa was becoming established as a drag innovator in the city after attending the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. Jinkx’s favorite teacher, the performance artist Keira McDonald, insisted she go see DeLa, and told DeLa about her gifted mentee.
DeLa caught one of Jinkx’s shows first: an early version of “The Vaudevillians,” in which Jinkx and her musical partner Major Scales portray an old-timey duo who are thawed out after being frozen alive, returning with their “original” versions of contemporary pop songs. The 4 p.m. set was at one of Seattle’s less heralded venues.
“As a performer, Jinkx is miraculous to behold,” DeLa said. “And I was beholding it in a Starbucks.” She remembered thinking she’d either have to align with Jinkx or risk becoming adversaries exploring similar ideas.
“She handed me a paper business card,” Jinkx recalled of this first meeting, “and I was like, this is the most professional drag queen I have ever met.” Cue the giggle.
Jinkx was likewise floored when she first saw DeLa live, doing an imaginative piece about a queen trying to perform the Charlene song “I’ve Never Been to Me” as a skipping CD thwarted her. (DeLa lip synced not just to the song, but to the edited skips and all the ensuing dialogue with the D.J. as she fought to carry on with the show.)
BenDeLaCreme had studied visual art, but found she had a knack for performance — and, crucially, the organizing and bean-counting that goes into making performances happen. She was already running a production company; Jinkx rushed to audition for one of its shows, and the seeds of a dream team were sown.
Drag has long been an underground art form buoyed by its own lingo, networks and irrepressible joy — crucial elements since its practitioners are often scraping to make a buck in the unstable nightlife business while enduring homophobia or transphobia, and the accompanying emotional impacts.
Nothing has done more to take drag to a wider audience than “RuPaul’s Drag Race,” which started in 2009 and now has international adaptations in Thailand, Brazil, Australia and Sweden, among other places. In 2013, Jinkx won its fifth season and rocketed to national attention. She came home, sat DeLa down and told her she needed to do the show “because I knew that what she would do with the exposure is exactly what she’s done,” she said, “which is build her production company and start doing what she was doing in Seattle worldwide.”
“RuPaul’s Drag Race” helped entrench them as characters: Jinkx as a boozy witch with a big voice and a deep reserve of uproarious impressions; DeLa as a comedic powerhouse with classic pinup looks who never misses her mark. Both have benefited from its spotlight, although “we both had to do two seasons to get where we wanted,” Jinkx pointed out. (They returned for all-star competitions.) Earlier this year, Jinkx fulfilled a dream, starring in Broadway’s “Chicago” as Matron “Mama” Morton, where her arrival onstage each night was met with such rapturous applause, she created a bit where she impatiently glanced at a pocket watch.
Four blocks from the Ambassador Theater, where fans swarmed Jinkx nightly at the stage door, she and BenDeLaCreme concluded their meander through Midtown’s merry landmarks at the Museum of Broadway. After a morning in red velvet suits and wigs piled a mile high, they were dressed down in dark sweaters, a tuft of DeLa’s black hair peeking out from a knit hat, and a scarf twisting around Jinkx’s neck.
BenDeLaCreme’s history with holiday shows dates back to 2008, when she started one largely so she could avoid going home at what had become a challenging time of year. “When I was really little, I loved the holidays,” she said. She lost her mother to cancer when she was 13, and “things changed very rapidly.” The Christmas show became “a way to find something I loved, a way to find a sense of homecoming that I didn’t feel I had access to,” she explained. Audiences looking for their own soft places to land were grateful.
Murray Hill said the message of “chosen family” that permeates “The Jinkx & DeLa Holiday Show” is familiar. “A lot of gay people growing up, and anybody who’s quote unquote, a misfit, had a rough time at the holidays,” he said. “Drag queens, drag performers, gay performers — we have Santa-like qualities,” he continued, listing them off: “A larger-than-life personality. We bring gifts, we entertain, we make everybody forget about how bad everything is.”
“Camp humor does address important things, which they did in the show,” he added. And as a duo, he said, they recall Mike Nichols and Elaine May, or Louis Prima and Keely Smith. (“I always say we’re like Lucy and Ethel if it was both Lucy,” Monsoon quipped.)
The pairings that resonate most with Jinkx and DeLa — Jennifer Saunders and Joanna Lumley of “Absolutely Fabulous,” or the comics Kathy Najimy and Mo Gaffney — originate in genuine friendship. “Yes, we have our solo careers, but I personally feel like I am always at my best and I’m showing off my skills the best when paired with DeLa,” Jinkx said. They unlock something in each other, and audiences recognize it: “I think it’s just friendship.”
A few things are different in this year’s show. In the past, the script’s arc was built on tension between Jinkx and DeLa. This time, the two are united as they try to tame a common enemy: the show itself. (Yes, it’s meta, but it’s hysterical.)
“There’s far too much conflict out there around us,” DeLa told the crowd at Kings Theater during the curtain call. “There is far too much negativity, and we don’t need to be pitting ourselves against each other within our own community. Let’s break out of that mind-set and lift each other up.”
There was also a big shift behind the scenes: Jinkx quit drinking (it was “standing in the way of me being my best self”), and her onstage character did, too. The members of the core production team — the two stars, plus Kevin Heard and Gus Lanza of BenDeLaCreme Presents — are still doing about six jobs apiece, but they have reinforcements, their biggest cast and crew yet.
While other Jinkx and DeLa projects are surely on the horizon, the holiday show will remain an anchor. “It has become really important to a lot of people, and that’s the most fulfilling thing,” DeLa said. “People who are like, ‘This is my tradition, this is where I go.’”
Jinkx noted that they don’t take that power lightly. “It’s crazy sometimes, because you’re like, how did my dick jokes and blasphemous sexy Krampus number save you? But my job is not to question,” she said. “My job is to say thank you and I’m so glad that my work could do that for you.”