Who would have thought a self-described theater nerd, narcoleptic comedy queen would win it all in Season 5 of RuPaul’s Drag Race? Anyone watching the season could have told you as much, especially after sweet, talented Seattle queen Jinkx Monsoon took on legendary Jackie O relative/documentary subject Little Edie Beale during the “Snatch Game” episode.
Her vivid, spot-on Little Edie drawl, mannerisms, and makeup made Monsoon a shoe-in for the episode winner at least, even though “Snatch Game” impressions usually lean heavily toward over-the-top pop star and actress imitations.
That’s not to say Monsoon’s not an actress -- she’s a star of theater, having performed in a handful of colorful productions including her own two-person play, The Vaudevillians. And she’ll bring those sharp acting chops and glamorous old-fashioned movie star style to the Peaches Christ arena this weekend with two shows and showings of the original Grey Gardens (1975) documentary.
I spoke with Monsoon from her hotel room in San Francisco about her lifelong love of Little Edie, RuPaul’s Drag Race drama, her underdog status, and that “water off a duck’s back” thing:
SFBG How’s the planning going for Return to Grey Gardens?
Jinkx Monsoon It’s wonderful. It’s a combination between your typical drag show and a theater show. I like bringing theater to drag and vice versa. And Peaches is so good at this formula, she had everything planned before I even got here, so it’s been really well-structured and it’s going super well.
SFBG Can you tell me about what’s going to happen in the show? I know Peaches always does a different twist on things.
JM In the show, Peaches and I are playing ourselves 40 years from today. So the idea is that we got together on Oct. 12, 2013 and we’re going to do the Grey Gardens show and then he kind of just kept me there and we’ve stayed in the theater, doing the show for 40 years, even though people stopped coming. And we kind of degraded into the characters. We did the show so much that we became just like Big Edie and Little Edie. So the show’s set in the future as if we’ve been doing this for 40 years and have warped into the actual characters. So we have a Big Edie/Little Edie dynamic, even though we’re still Peaches Christ and Jinkx Monsoon.
SFBG Have you ever done a longer form portrayal of Little Edie before, beyond “The Snatch Game” episode of Rupaul’s Drag Race?
JM This will be the longest I’ve been in character of Little Edie. I’ve played her a lot in cabaret shows and variety shows and stuff where one of my acts that night will be a whole like, Little Edie portion of the show but I’ve always dreamed of doing Grey Gardens the musical, and this is the closest I’ve gotten so far, so I’m really, really excited.
SFBG Did you realize during the filming of Drag Race that your portrayal of Little Edie would be such a sensation when it aired?
JM Absolutely not. I knew the queens on the show who didn’t who Little Edie was, they were going to have to eat their words later. I knew that fans of the show were going to know who Little Edie was. I think it was the Drew Barrymore movie that kind of revitalized the Beale sensation. So I became more confident about doing it on the show.
But I had no idea that the response America would have. It was so far spanning. The YouTube videos of Grey Gardens online went up several thousand views, and the DVD sales of the documentary went up; I got added to her Wikipedia page!
I mean, Little Edie has been a huge inspiration and gay icon for me since I was like, 17. And never did I think I’d get to be so closely associated with her in this way. It’s really a huge honor. It’s a little surreal but it’s wonderful. [Laughs].
SFBG What was it about her that so captivated you?
JM I just love how eccentric she is. I love people who have created their own way of doing things. And it’s like, I think I can just appreciate the world she built for herself and her circumstances and constraints.
I first was introduced to Grey Gardens through the musical, being a musical theater nerd myself. And I didn’t know the back-story behind it. But the music really got to me and made me love the story right away. And then when I watched the documentary I realized it was 10 times deeper than I even understood. She reminds me so much of me.
When I watch her in the documentary, I feel like that’s exactly what I did my whole life. When I feel like a loner and when I was keeping it to myself -- I mean I knew my whole life that I was gay but I knew at an early age that it “wasn’t normal” so I kept it to myself. But at an early age I would play dress up and wrap blankets around me and I was always putting on little shows for the video cameras. She just reminded me so much of the kind of person I’ve always been in my private life.
SFBG So she was one of the people who influenced the character of Jinkx Monsoon -- who were some other inspirations?
JM I based Jinkx Monsoon a lot on my mother. The whole idea with Jinkx Monsoon is that she’s a middle aged single mother, failed actress, and she has a gay son and he takes her out to the gay bars and she’s every gay boy’s favorite party mom. So I based it off Stifler’s mom played by Jennifer Coolidge and Peggy Bundy and my favorite female comedians have had a huge influence on my comedy and performance style: Sarah Silverman, Maria Bamford, Lucille Ball, Madeline Kahn, Carol Burnett. So it’s a huge range of different inspirations and then of course, my personal life experience.
SFBG What made you want to try out for Drag Race?
JM I’d been a fan of Drag Race and watched every episode religiously with my friends. Everyone who knew me insisted on me auditioning and every year I said I didn’t want to do it because I didn’t think it was the kind of environment, competition for a drag queen like me, a high-concept character actor like myself. And then when I saw Sharon Needles go on [Season 4], I felt like the show was started to become more all-inclusive and that the audience was starting to respect a wider variety of drag and different interpretations of the art form. So that was the motivation to audition for Season 5.
SFBG How much creative editing was there, or were you really the underdog all through filming?
JM I’ve just always been kind of the odd one out in a room full of drag queens...I learned drag in an all-ages gay nightclub when I was like, 15 to about 20. I participated in the shows and did a lot of work at this nightclub in Portland, Oregon. So I knew a lot about traditional drag but when I went to college I kind of changed my focus and made it much more theater-oriented and character-oriented.
And so I spent a lot of time working in burlesque and cabaret and I hadn’t worked with drag queens for a long time when I went on the show. So I think the underdog aspect comes more from the fact that I was just..I didn’t know all the same lingo, I didn’t know how to interact with a lot of those girls, and I’m just kind of eccentric myself. I think some of the girls were irritated that the person they thought was too kooky was succeeding on the show.
SFBG How does it feel then to come out on top after all that, when such a part of your identity has been as an outsider?
JM For me, the coolest thing about it, and what I’ve found talking to my audience on the road, is that it just goes to show that you can’t discredit someone just because you don’t understand them.
I feel like the judges were always getting my jokes and my sense of humor and the work I was doing even when my fellow competitors didn’t see it as a threat. When I decided to do Little Edie, a lot of those girls thought that was going to be what sent me home because I was portraying a character that wears a headscarf instead of a wig and doing all these eccentric things and they didn’t understand it. But I was confident that the judges and audience would. And that was kind of the theme for the whole series. And I think it was cool for the fan base to see someone who was so ridiculed turn the tables on everyone and take them by surprise.
SFBG Where did that “water off a duck’s back” phrase that you repeated so often during judging come from?
JM One of my best friends in Seattle, her name is Robbie Turner, she’s another performer. I was working a lot in cabaret and burlesque but then I’d also do a couple of drag and variety shows, and when I was having trouble with other drags queens giving me a hard time because I was the “new girl” on the scene in Seattle and they were getting upset.
A lot of drag queens were kind of mean to me in Seattle because they felt like I came out of nowhere and started working everywhere. But I’d been doing drag as long as any of them [in Portland]. And so my friend Robbie Turner was always like, “just let it be water off a duck’s back.”
I never really made it my mantra until I was on that [Drag Race] runway and after the first two times of being ridiculed by Michelle Visage from head to toe, I just started saying it to myself because I had to remind myself: these are opinions and the best way to get ahead in this competition is to take in the critiques and incorporate them into my work so that I’m constantly evolving and growing.
So “water off a duck’s back” was less about ignoring what they were saying, it was more about taking it in and letting anything that felt like a personal attack or purely negative or negative thoughts it would generate in my own head -- the self-doubt and insecurity -- to let that all go and just take what I can from all the notes.
Return to Grey Gardens
With Jinkx Monsoon, Peaches Christ, Mink Stole
Sat/12, 3 and 8pm, $25
429 Castro, SF
Peaches and Jinkx will then bring the show to Seattle's Harvard Exit Theater on Oct. 17 as part of the Seattle Lesbian & Gay Film Festival.