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An afternoon with Bob the Drag Queen

We met Bob the Drag Queen on a sunny day in New York recently.
Keren Carrión/NPR
We met Bob the Drag Queen on a sunny day in New York recently.

On a Tuesday afternoon in New York City, Bob the Drag Queen surveys the bolts of colorful glittering fabric lining the walls at Spandex House, a fabric store in the Garment District.

It's an old haunt of his from when he was starting his career in drag back in 2009, inspired by the first season of the competitive reality show RuPaul's Drag Race.

Seven years later, Bob won Season 8 of the same show, and his career skyrocketed. He's made podcasts, TV shows, an EP, and amassed 2.8 million TikTok followers. He has been preparing to join Madonna on her "Celebration" tour, which has just been postponed after she was hospitalized with a bacterial infection.

But the star of Bob's career has risen in tandem with the popularity of drag across the American mainstream, and with it, a conservative pushback that has grown exponentially in recent years.

Bob speaks on stage during the 2022 YouTube Streamy Awards at the Beverly Hilton in.
Emma McIntyre / Getty Images for dick clark prod
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Getty Images for dick clark prod
Bob speaks on stage during the 2022 YouTube Streamy Awards at the Beverly Hilton in.

In parts of America today, a drag performance is viewed as an inherently political act, and Bob is no stranger to the fear and vitriol his existence brings out of some people. He grew up in a series of small towns in the South, and toured the country multiple times as a drag queen. Yet he has never shied away from bringing all of himself everywhere he goes, regardless of the political climate.

Walking through Spandex House, we ask Bob to pick out a fabric that he might have used back in 2009 when he first started performing. He pulls out a bolt of neon yellow fabric criss-crossed with black diamonds and dotted yellow and black lines.

Bob points out fabrics he has used in the past from Spandex House.
/ Keren Carrión/NPR
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Keren Carrión/NPR
Bob points out fabrics he has used in the past from Spandex House.

When we suggest it looks like "scottish tartan meets a caution tape," Bob disagrees, saying it's more of a checker mixed with argyle, "Because tartan would be more squares, and these are diamonds."

Nowadays most of Bob's looks are made by other people he says are "much more capable" than him. But he adds that a basic proficiency in sewing is a necessity for starting out in drag.

"If you want custom clothing, and you can't afford it, then you'd better learn how to make it," he says. Bob was more of a DIY queen in those early days, seeking out deals in bargain fabric shops across the city. He would hunt for discount fabric for a dollar per yard and bags of mystery scraps in weekly special deals across the city.

Bob The Drag Queen inspects the fabrics at the Spandex House in New York City.
/ Keren Carrión/NPR
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Keren Carrión/NPR
Bob The Drag Queen inspects the fabrics at the Spandex House in New York City.

Today, Bob can still pull together an outfit if he needs to. Fans of the Drag Race recap show Pit Stop likely already know about Bob's love of a black and white pattern. He walks us over to a few bolts of houndstooth. "I had, I think, like 14 outfits made out of houndstooth that I bought from right here in this store."

Later, we find a table to sit at in Bryant Park, coincidentally right by the corner where Bob was arrested years ago. He had been part of a group that was taken in by police more than a decade ago for blocking traffic in a protest for marriage equality in New York state. As he tells it, once they were released, his drag daughter Honey La Bronx turned around on their way out and asked to keep the Polaroid authorities took of each of them on the street as a field mugshot. That photo from that arrest is the album cover for his debut EP, Gay Barz.

"What you can't see in the photo is that ... my breasts are made of cashews, I have a bagel under my wig, and I have a CLIF bar under each hip pad," he says. Unsure of how long it would take to get out of jail once arrested, Bob had brought snacks.

Bob gets his wigs from local beauty supply stores like Manhattan Beauty. A full display of wigs is seen from the aisles in the back of the store.
/ Keren Carrión/NPR
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Keren Carrión/NPR
Bob gets his wigs from local beauty supply stores like Manhattan Beauty. A full display of wigs is seen from the aisles in the back of the store.

That kind of activism and humor is always present in Bob's drag. In the HBO show We're Here, Bob co-hosts a one-night-only drag show in small towns across America with fellow queens Eureka O'Hara and Shangela Laquifa Wadley.

"There are definitely lots of stares and threats, aggression, foul language that we get when we go into these towns, which doesn't shock me because I grew up in a small town," he says. "I hate to say that I'm so used to it. I'm like, 'Yeah it's just kind of part of being a queer person in America.'"

The tour with Madonna is scheduled to visit Tennessee, which recently passed a law banning drag performances, although it was later struck down by a federal judge who deemed it unconstitutional. Either way, Bob won't let that affect his decision to do drag in places it's been politicized.

Bob looks in the mirror at Manhattan Beauty.
/ Keren Carrión/NPR
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Keren Carrión/NPR
Bob looks in the mirror at Manhattan Beauty.

"I think that it's important for queer people in Nashville, especially young ones, or people who are afraid in general, to see that like it's OK to go forward, it's OK to not be afraid to be seen. I think there's a lot of laws that want us to hide or go back into the closet or just stop existing in public. For some people, the existence of queer people in public is offensive. And quite frankly, I find that offensive."

"People think there's some agenda with drag queens. The only thing on the drag agenda is brunch on Sundays. There's no scheme. There's no plan or plot to reach people's children or anything. I mean most drag queens don't even want to f***** be around kids," he laughs. "Like, I do a drag show at Barracuda not at Gymboree, you know what I mean?"

Bob The Drag Queen meets a fan, Meme West, at the Spandex House in New York.
/ Keren Carrión/NPR
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Keren Carrión/NPR
Bob The Drag Queen meets a fan, Meme West, at the Spandex House in New York.

With Madonna's tour now postponed, it's unclear when it will progress. But one thing is certain: tour or no tour, Bob will continue to entertain and bring his signature flair to a stage or screen near you.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Megan Lim
Ari Shapiro has been one of the hosts of All Things Considered, NPR's award-winning afternoon newsmagazine, since 2015. During his first two years on the program, listenership to All Things Considered grew at an unprecedented rate, with more people tuning in during a typical quarter-hour than any other program on the radio.
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