Exclusive: Aja and Director Assaad Yacoub Talk New Music Video in On-Set Interview

A joint music video for “Bitch I’m Kawaii” and “Ayo Sis” brings the barrier-smashing performer close to completing their visual EP.

 Photography by Dash Jones

Photography by Dash Jones

Rapper and RuPaul’s Drag Race & All Stars 3 alumni Aja filmed their new music video for the killer tracks “Bitch I’m Kawaii” and “Ayo Sis” in Downtown Los Angeles, CA on September 12, 2018. Yours truly had the honor of being on set — observing the action, and interviewing both Aja and the video’s director, Assaad Yacoub.

I spoke one-on-one with Aja between the filming of two key scenes. Our discussion was candid, revelatory, and fun. As we spoke, the crew moved their camera and lighting set up from a stuffed animal bureau set to a New York-style apartment bedroom scene.


 Photography by Dash Jones

Photography by Dash Jones

Derek: I’m really excited to interview you again. So, why did you chose this double track as your new single?

Aja: Well, it was never supposed to actually be my single. “Art God” was going to be the next single. Then I just kind of thought, I have some time, I’m going to be in LA for a few days. I want to shoot a new music video. I couldn’t really decide between the two tracks, “Ayo Sis” and “Bitch I’m Kawaii.” So I said, you know what, why not Missy Elliot it. Who I actually rode with to LA, she was on my plane.

D: Oh! Really?

A: By the way, yeah, which is really random.

D: Wow, that’s awesome!

A: You know how Missy Elliot used to do like those combination videos, where it would be like two videos in one? I was like, why don’t I do that for the last two tracks on my EP, and I’ll be the first person to ever come off of Drag Race and have turned their entire EP into a visual collection of items.

I thought, if we’re going to do this, we should like make it into something very positive. I want to put it into a kind of project where I could promote something I was very interested in. So, we’re using “Bitch I’m Kawaii." The idea of the video is going to be that I’m sleeping with my trans girlfriend, as a male presenting person, and I go into this dream world where it’s kinda like taking a spin on the idea of having a wet dream and it’s kinda gone wrong. And the wet dream will be “Bitch I’m Kawaii,” so there’s like a bathtub and bubbles, and I’ll be in and out of drag in the scene. 

 Photography by Dash Jones

Photography by Dash Jones

I kinda hated “Bitch I’m Kawaii.” I hate the track, so right before it hits the chorus, I wake up and I just had a nightmare. My girlfriend is supposed to be like, “Are you ok?” and I’m like, “No, I just had a nightmare.” Then it kinda starts going into “Ayo Sis.” Which, when I wrote it, it was a feminist anthem — or like an anthem for people who wanted to appreciate femininity. Something that happened recently to me was, I was told my gender nonbinary identity was invalid by these people that claimed to be “radical feminists,” and there are people that don’t believe in trans people at all. I actually got banned from Twitter for telling someone they were a senseless cow for being transphobic online.

D: Wow. 

A: I wanted to use “Ayo Sis” to push the narrative of appreciating femininity, but also very specifically, in the song, I name a lot of my own female icons. I wanted to use the video as a way of showing how normal like trans lives are. Trans people are normal people and there’s nothing wrong. Also, there’s a part where I’m in my female representation of my gender nonbinary identity. Which people get confused by, because you don’t adhere to any gender; you can present however you want. Which is what being queer is all about. So out of drag, I will be having a trans girlfriend, but in drag, or in that feminine character, I will have a very heteronormative looking boyfriend. To promote that straight men can have trans girlfriends, and straight men can have nonbinary girlfriends, and it’s okay. It doesn’t challenge society as much as people think it does. It is really not serious, and I think that there’s a lot said about the safety of trans women, especially trans women of color. People can just see for themselves, like if you watch this video, it’s just two people who are having fun, are in love and are celebrating.

 Photography by Dash Jones

Photography by Dash Jones

D: Yeah, definitely. So, with your own gender identity, you have been living as and identifying as genderqueer for a while now. What are your preferred pronouns?

A: I usually just go by they/them, but I rarely like ever offended or slighted by like anything else, but I know there are some people who are. The best thing to do is just to ask. I actually just watched this video on YouTube. There’s this one dude, I think he’s a Republican or something, and he always does like the “convince me why this matters.” He was trying to find out why trans lives are normal, and people were teaching him about preferred pronouns and he was like, “Well if I want to call somebody this, I’m going to call somebody that.” So, like that I will never get around to. I’ll never understand why you can’t call somebody what they want to be called. It’s like, if you want to be called Tom, I’ll call you Tom. So, if somebody wants to be referred to as a he or she, or they or them, why can’t you do just that?

 Photography by Dash Jones

Photography by Dash Jones

D: Yeah, that’s very valid. Actually in your first answers, you actually answered my second question, which was the inspiration behind the video, so we tackled that one (Laughs). So, this is your fourth music video with director Assaad Yacoub. Describe your collaboration process with him, and why are you a good fit together.

A: It works because I hate him. (Pause, laughs) I’m just kidding. You know what it is, me and Assaad are friends. We met on the set of “C.L.A.T..” It’s technically our fifth collaboration.

D: Oh, cool!

A: But, it’s my fourth solo with just him and me. Assaad is a very rambunctious person who has personality that’s similar to a dog with paranoia. He’s all over the place, and crazy, but he’s one of those people — 

Assaad, listening nearby, barks like a dog.

Aja: (Over their shoulder) Yeah, I’m talking about you! (Laughs) He knows how to bring to life a vision. The thing is, I’m a very hands on person like, I am like pretty much the stylist, visual director and creative director of all my music videos. Assaad will — (Over their shoulder) Assaad, I can see you listening to me, move over! — always put his input in. He will take everything that I tell him, and try to create the perfect shot for it. So, if I’m like, “Hey, this is the part where we’re casting a spell and I want mountains, and I want to wear a long robe, and I want to be doing this…” Assaad will be like, “Okay we need to capture from this angle, and we need to put it this way.” And, like whichever way will make it the most exciting. I think we work well together because he likes a challenge, and I’ll always give him a challenge.

 Photography by Dash Jones

Photography by Dash Jones

D: Yeah, it seems like you guys — because I was observing during the “Bitch I’m Kawaii" set up over there — it seems like you have a great dynamic. The last time we spoke, in the interview, you spoke about using drag less as a means of a theatrical performance, and more as a queer expression in your daily life.

A: Yes.

D: Where are you on that journey?

A: Honestly, like at this point, I think that I’m just expressing myself, still doing me. Like the thing is, the big reason I don’t want to just use the term of “drag” is because I feel like people who take drag seriously — who are doing the art of drag — they take their gig seriously. Like, they are doing it for the art of drag. My passion is not in the art of drag, my passion is in music and in burlesque and in different art forms. For me it’s not about being the best drag queen, it’s about being the best burlesque artist and the best musician I can be. There’s people where drag is their art; it’s their passion. For me, drag is a medium, an art, and also a representation of my gender identity. When I get in drag, I realize lately that I want to tone it down and just be more me, because I don’t feel the need to hide behind a character. Also, I don’t want to offend anyone. A lot of people have gotten offended by me saying that — they’re like, “But you were on Drag Race” — and I’m like, yeah. I still do drag, but I just don’t do drag in the same way as other people. It doesn’t make me punk or different. Like, there’s other people who use drag as a medium. Bianca Del Rio doesn’t do anything that drag queens do.

D: Yeah.

A: Would I consider her a drag queen? Yes, but would I say she’s just a drag queen? No, she’s more of a comedian.

 Photography by Dash Jones

Photography by Dash Jones

D: It shows in your work, too, because your work is very personal. You can tell when you are rapping your lyrics that they actually come from you, and they are not any sort of like industry clichés or anything. These are your real experiences, and it really does come through in your work.

A: Absolutely, for me everything I’ve done, I’ve written myself. I didn’t have help from anyone. I am just sharing my personal experience, and like people don’t understand. Especially I think it’s something Drag Race fans are not used to. They’re not used to someone doing something serious, like something very personal. I remember when season nine came out, and people were saying Sasha Velour takes herself “too seriously,” — what, because this is more than just, you know, a character for some people? For some people, this is life, like this is who they are. This is who they are. This is their real actual self-expression… who wants people to criticize their self-expression?

D: Yeah, exactly — instead of Aja being a “drag character,” Aja is you; you are Aja.

A: Exactly. So, you know, it took me a long time to realize that these people do not understand that. They think that Aja is like my drag is. Like I’m trying to do something. I’m not trying to do anything. I’m just trying to be me, and trying to express myself. When I went on Drag Race, it was never to like, “Oh my God, I want to be the best drag queen,” or to be held to the standard of anybody. I wanted a platform where I can be me, and people would, you know, love me for who I am. 

D: Yeah, because I’ve noticed that on Instagram, you’ll post photos in a more traditionally male drag and then more traditionally female drag, and then also a very genderqueer drag, all as Aja. So, it’s really revolutionizing the way that people think about the identity of different drag performers. I commend you on that.

A: Thank you. I think that people need to broaden their spectrum for once. I think anybody can do drag. I hate this idea that drag is only for men, or for like only certain genders on the spectrum. Anybody can do drag.

D: Yeah.

 Photography by Dash Jones

Photography by Dash Jones

A: I feel like there’s a lot of ignorance and there’s a lot of misunderstanding. Which is ironic, because everybody just wants to be accepted. Everyone just wants peace, and wants to be equal. It’s funny the mean things that these people will say. I love people who support everyone. I love people who don’t judge based on race, and based on things that have nothing to do with a person.

D: Yeah, I have seen some of your Instagram lives and it seems like you definitely are one of the leaders in calling out the ignorance within the fanbase, and in some of the performers themselves.

A: Oh, absolutely! I feel like I would never like go up to someone in person and be like, “Oh my God, I hate you,” or whatever, because nobody goes up to you in person and says mean things. There’s something about the magic of anonymity online. I think like every fan base has that, first of all. Like, Drag Race fans are not the only ones who do that. Music industry fans do it, too. Everyone does it. Personally, at this point I have PR; I have good people who run my social media. What we do is, we’ll go on and delete all the bad comments. We’ll just be like, “Hey, these people are clearly assholes, we are just going to delete the comments.” When people compare my art, which is literally just me, to other people? Delete. When people say negative things about me or my family or my friends? Delete or block. I don’t have time to debate why someone is a terrible person or not. 

D: I want to end on a couple of light hearted questions. Who are some of your own favorite musical artists?

A: Oh, wow. I have a lot of favorite musical artists. I listen to a lot of rap and since I do rap music. My two favorite rappers are Nicki Minaj and Tyler the Creator. I think Tyler the Creator’s a genius, under-appreciated queer rapper, who literally scammed his way into the industry — got the respect of everyone — and then was like, “I’m gay”. People were like, “What?” 

 Photography by Dash Jones

Photography by Dash Jones

Then, Nicki Minaj is just so intelligent. Everything she writes… you can tell it’s something she wrote, because it’s always on the same flow and it never changes — and it’s always referential. She’s just so smart, and it’s inspiring because she also comes from New York. She’s a perfect description of someone who can be colloquial, but then be very educated. Even in the recent events, like the fashion week stuff, I thought she handled it well. I think that she was smart in the way she played it out.

D: Last question: I love your tattoos, do you have a favorite?

A: My favorite tattoo would have to be my Clefable and Gengar tattoo. It’s a Pokémon tattoo. I have people spot that one anywhere. 

 Photography by Dash Jones

Photography by Dash Jones

D: Oh, yes! I came up with that question looking through your Instagram today, and that was my favorite that I saw on your arm.

A: Everybody’s! It’s everybody’s favorite; it’s my favorite, too.

D: It’s awesome. Thank you so much for speaking with me again.

Photography by Dash Jones

Aja, now changed into their lingerie drag and a sexy, flowy wig, proceeded to film several sensual takes in bed with model Derek Richmond. Director Assaad Yacoub sat fully engaged behind his monitors, shouting words of encouragement to Aja to bring out the best in their on-screen performance. Once the scene was finished filming, the crew and cast of extras prepped for a rooftop night scene shoot, and Assaad and I had a chance to speak one-on-one.

Assaad Yacoub

 Photography by Dash Jones

Photography by Dash Jones

Derek: So, it’s really awesome to interview you, because I love your work for the different top RuPaul’s Drag Race queens doing their music videos, and also your film Cherry Pop.

Assaad Yacoub: Oh yes, you watched Cherry Pop! I love that, thank you.

D: It was so funny and it had a good message.

A: Thank you so much.

D: So, what is your favorite part of collaborating with Aja?

A: Aja specifically is my favorite, is one of my favorite queens, to work with. I would say Aja, and Bob the Drag Queen are my top two queens I love working with, because they come with fully realized idea, and they put a lot of effort and money into their videos. They know the value of a music video. They are not just like, “Here is $5,000 and make magic.” They understand the value that goes into music videos, so I really enjoy working with them. That’s been the best experience, specifically Aja.

D: Definitely, because I know that this is actually like your fourth music video that you’ve done together, right?

A: This is the fifth one if you consider “Clack,” like the first time I’ve met Aja. “C.L.A.T.,” “Brujeria,” “Finish Her!,” “I Don’t Wanna Brag,” and now this one.

D: Wow, yeah.

A: Yeah, I can’t believe it. The first time I met Aja was on the set of “C.L.A.T..” I had not met them prior to that, and we just bonded right away.

 Photography by Dash Jones

Photography by Dash Jones

D: They had mentioned that when I spoke to them. That’s cool.

A: That was a great experience.

D: So, for this video in particular, can you walk me through your concept for it?

A: Yes, so for this one, as we see, we are trying to do a pro-trans rights video, and non-binary video as well. So, it’s kinda of a looser concept. It starts with Aja waking up with a nightmare in bed. The nightmare is one of their songs “Bitch I’m Kawaii.” For some reason, Aja doesn’t like that song — and it’s their own song — so they made it a joke about it, and made it into a nightmare in the video. Then it goes into “Ayo Sis,” where we cut between Aja as a boy with a very famous trans model and activist, Cassandra James; she’s awesome, great actress, a lot of fun to work with. Then it cuts to Aja in drag with a guy (Derek Richmond), and kinda playing with gender. I really like that.

D: That’s really cool. What kinds of visual techniques did you use to evoke emotions and portray that concept?

A: One of the things we’re using visually is having a bunch of people come in at some point to form the lines of the trans flag and the nonbinary flag in the background with their shirts. That’s kind of a way that we want to show the message in the background of what’s happening in the foreground. Then we did Aja kissing Cassandra when Aja’s out of drag, and in drag kissing the guy, to show that you can love whoever you want at the same time. I like that message.

D: Cherry Pop was fantastic. Do you have any plans for more movies at all?

A: Actually, we are trying to do a TV show, but I haven’t had the time because of all of the music videos I’ve been doing. We finished writing — my writer and I, because I don’t write — so I work with writer and he wrote the pilot. It’s similar to Cherry Pop. We’re not calling it Cherry Pop, we’re calling it Friends of Dorothy. A nod to the olden days when gay guys could identify each other as “friends of Dorothy.” And so that’s happening now, and I don’t know, we have no further details. We are not moving forward with that because of these music videos. So, I hope to come up with something soon in that theme.

D: For fans who know you through these collaborations with the top talent from the Drag Race world and from Cherry Pop, could you give a bio of yourself for us to get to know you a little bit more?

A: I was born and raised in Dubai. I grew up there until I was 18 — and originally I’m from Lebanon though, I’m Lebanese — then, I moved to Lebanon when I was 18, for a couple of years. I pretty much moved to New York when I was 20. Never been to New York, and I was like, “I’m fucking going to New York.” That’s when I met Bob the Drag Queen actually, eight years before he was called Bob. His name was Kittin Withawhip. I was going to his shows illegally, with a fake ID, and it was a lot of fun. That’s my first experience with drag. I saw Bob and I was like, I need to put you in a movie. That’s how Cherry Pop came about, [originally] as a short film. Then we made it into a feature. So that’s kind of my little bio to America.

 Photography by Dash Jones

Photography by Dash Jones

D: Do you live here in the Los Angeles area now?

A: Yes, I’ve been in LA for seven years now. I love it here.

D: Do you have any other music video collaborations coming up with anyone?

A: Yeah, I have a ton. I don’t know if I can talk about all of them, but I do have some I feel like I can talk about. Mayhem Miller, Trinity Taylor, and then I just booked a drag trio in New York called Stephanie’s Child. I literally just booked them now. They performed with Jessie J on The Voice and stuff like that. So, they are doing pretty well, too. So I don’t just work with Ru girls, I’m open to working with everyone, which is my goal. It’s not just work with girls who are on Drag Race. I just like to work with talented people.

D: Definitely.

A: Oh, and Kelly Clarkson. I booked Kelly Clarkson’s music video. I forgot about that one. (Gestures) I should slide that one in.

D: Oh my God! That is awesome.

A: That’s going to be fun.

D: Is that from her current album (Meaning of Life)?

A: Yes, it’s from her current album.

D: I appreciate hearing that, because I’m a huge Kelly Clarkson fan. This new album is such a cool direction for her.

A: Oh, yeah! It’s amazing. I love the song they gave me, so I’m very excited to do it.

 Photography by Dash Jones

Photography by Dash Jones

D: Obviously, when the queens get off of Drag Race — and some are not even on it — they have to create their own narrative, so what’s that like for you as a visual artist; to be able to help someone who may not otherwise be able to, with the technical and visual stuff, create their own narrative?

A: Narrative in the sense of their storyline in the video?

D: Yeah.

A: That happens a lot. Tatianna for example, when I just did her video, she called me up and was like, “Here’s the song, come up with whatever you want”. So, I try to come up with different ways to portray that drag queen. Like even Eureka, that was something similar we did. I’m like, let’s try something new with you. Like with Alexis Michelle, people are used to seeing her a certain way, and I was like, do a comedic video where people can see the lighter side of you. At the end of the day, that’s how you’re going to be portrayed — by how you’re portrayed in your video. You want to show a different side of yourself, if the way you’re portrayed on Drag Race sometimes isn’t the best. There are other ways to show people, “This is actually who I am,” so I think that’s the beauty of doing these videos. That’s why I love collaborating with them. I set out to come up with kooky ideas that help show different sides of these girls.

D: It seems like it’s such a one-on-one collaboration process.

A: One hundred percent.

 Photography by Dash Jones

Photography by Dash Jones

D: You are working on an individual basis in these videos that you turn out. They each seem so unique, to the point where when I was researching for the interview, I had not realized you’d directed all of Aja’s music videos. They are all so different.

A: That’s good. I’m happy that’s the case. I hope that my style goes through all of them, but the goal is that each video is its own little story — its own little narrative, and it keeps changing and evolving — which I hope’s the goal with each video I do.

D: Did you do the Bebe Zahara Benet “Jungle Kitty” video?

A: Yes!

D: That was sickening! That was so much fun.

A: That was fun, that was a lot of fun. Bebe is awesome to work with. I really, really enjoyed working with her.

D: She’s from where I’m from, in Minneapolis.

A: Oh, nice!

D: She’s our hometown hero.

“Bitch I’m Kawaii / Ayo Sis” Music Video

Follow Aja on Twitter, Instagram and Facebook. Stream their music on Apple Music and Spotify.

What’s your favorite Aja song? Tweet me! @DerekPlease

Interview: Chad Michaels on DragCon, Cher, and Mamma Mia! Here We Go Again

The All Stars winner gave us an exclusive interview - featuring a hilarious cameo from Sharon Needles.



Few Ru girls have the sort of long, illustrious career Chad Michaels has worked for. From being a resident performer in Las Vegas, to winning the first season of RuPaul's Drag Race All Stars, Michaels has always managed to stay on top - all the while remaining a humble and gracious queen. It was an honor to meet her twice on Friday Preview Night at RuPaul's DragCon, and see her as a panelist on the Mamma Mia! Here We Go Again Presents: Seeing Stars: Cher and Madonna and Britney and Tina... Oh My! panel. This interview took place at her DragCon booth, the second time we met her.

Derek: Hey, we met earlier over there, at the [Dream Girls Revue booth].

Chad Michaels: (remembering) Yeah, yeah! Totally.

Derek: I was wondering, what does DragCon mean to you?

Chad: To me it's all about the fans, I mean, this is our one time of year to really get out and meet like the people who don’t get to come to the shows, necessarily. There’s a younger set, there's the kids, and then there's the people who just don’t go to drag shows.

Sharon Needles walks by and snorts loudly into the microphone.

Chad: Look who that is.

Derek: It’s an icon!

Chad: It is an icon.

Sharon: Icon (points to Chad), retard (gestures to self). Icon (points to Chad), retard (gestures to self)

Sharon continues to her own booth for a meet and greet session.

Chad: It’s my friend Sharon Needles. So yeah, it’s all about the fans and just, know you, getting to connect and see everybody. Give a little back to everybody that supported us.

Derek: Yeah, and you're obviously an icon yourself.

Chad: Thank you.

Derek: From Cher’s last album, Closer to the Truth, what was your favorite track?

 iPhone photo

iPhone photo

Chad: I loved “Woman’s World.” I think that was really my favorite. I just like the... I like a dance song. I like an upbeat song. I rarely perform a ballad, so anything that is mid-tempo to upbeat from Cher, I’m down. That's what really gets an audience excited. There’s always an appropriate time for a Cher ballad, but when I’m working in the club and I only got a 3-4 minute set, I want to hit the audience and bring them up. So for me it was “Woman’s World," you know? Yeah.

Derek: What are you looking forward to the most this weekend? 

Chad: Let's see... this weekend I’m looking forward to the Mamma Mia! trivia that I’m doing tomorrow. So I’m collaborating a little bit with Mamma Mia!, which is very much an honor for me. So we're doing a little bit of trivia tomorrow at 11:15am. It's emoji trivia. So you're going to have to name the ABBA song using the three emojis provided. So that's what we're doing. And that's a fun thing for me! You know?

Derek: Awesome! Yeah. 

Chad: It's awesome!

Derek: Well, thank you so much for doing an interview.

Chad: You're welcome! Alright, I'm off. Be well, you guys, and have a good time.

Derek: Have a good time at your party you're doing tonight!

Chad: Thank you.

Special thank you to RuPaul's DragCon and World of Wonder for giving us the opportunity to cover their Los Angeles 2018 convention. Buy tickets to RuPaul's DragCon NYC 2018 here.

What's your favorite Cher song? Tell me! @DerekPlease on all social platforms.

Interview: Daniel Franzese on Comedy Tour, Looking and Mean Girls

The iconic gay actor spoke candidly about why representation matters.

 iPhone photo

iPhone photo

Actor and comedian Daniel Franzese has been a part of RuPaul's DragCon since the first annual event in 2015. At last weekend's event, his booth featured an impressive variety of merchandise; this included photos, collectible pins and even a whole rack of Mean Girls DVDs to sign for fans.

My husband Jacob and I first visited his booth toward the start of Friday Preview Night, and purchased a pin. Daniel could not have been more welcoming. He signed the packaging for us and took a selfie. We talked about our mutual friend Heather Marianna, CEO of Beauty Kitchen, and of course the Mean Girls musical. It turned out we all have seen it, and are pulling for Grey Henson (Damian) at the Tony Awards. It was one of those surreal encounters that only happen at DragCon.

Naturally, I had to return. Toward the end of the night I came back and asked Daniel if he would be open to an interview. He kindly accepted. We talked about DragCon, his relationship with Mean Girls and the importance of having HIV-positive characters on television. 

Daniel Franzese: What outlet is this for?

Derek: My blog and Twin Cities Gay Scene magazine. 

Daniel: Oh, I was just in the Twin Cities!

Derek: What did you do in the Twin Cities?

Daniel: Well, I went to go perform - I do stand up comedy - so I've been on tour.

Derek: Oh my God!

Daniel: Actually there’s an artist who who you might know, who's a queer graffiti artist known as HOTTEA, and he’s from that area. You should interview him. Have you heard of him?

Derek: I haven’t heard of him.

 Yarn installation by HOTTEA inside Minnesota's Mall of America. I did not know HOTTEA created this, or I would have told Daniel I've seen his work.  Photo: Mall of America 

Yarn installation by HOTTEA inside Minnesota's Mall of America. I did not know HOTTEA created this, or I would have told Daniel I've seen his work.

Photo: Mall of America 

Daniel: Well, him and I, made these there [gestures to merchandise]. This is a triple-layered stencil of Damian [from Mean Girls]. So we did that there.

Derek: Awesome. So, what has been your biggest takeaway from appearing at DragCon over the years?

Daniel: I just think, the first year, what I was so surprised about - and what has only grown and what they've cultivated - is that this is the most family-friendly LGBTQIA event I have ever been to. It doesn’t matter who you are, it’s always been the philosophy of this crowd that, no matter what you have going on in your life, throw some glitter on it and embellish it, you know. That is what this is all about. So I love seeing people of all ages, sizes, creeds and just everything, just dressing and adorning themselves in order to bring pleasure to those who see them.

Derek: Over the years you have been really inspiring as a person in the entertainment business, because a lot of the time people are known for something, they shy away from it. Like they are not into meeting fans of that particular thing. But you are proud of your work in Mean Girls.

 Photo: Paramount Pictures

Photo: Paramount Pictures

Daniel: I didn’t really have a choice in that matter. I think like in the beginning, I felt a certain type of way, where I was like trying to do something different. When I realized the social impact that playing a chubby, gay teen of size meant, in that time - to a lot of people who didn’t have somebody they could look at in an iconic way that looks like that - I realized how much I needed that when I was younger, and how different my life would have been. So I don't necessarily do it to be proud of my work, though I am. I don’t do it to bask in that glory. I do it just to remind everyone how fierce and amazing all different kinds of queer people can be. So I'm very honored, where I used to be nervous to play queer characters. Now I am so honored to be able to tell the stories of our people, because they haven't been told in this way before. I do embrace fans, and I do embrace all people that come out and celebrate diversity.

Derek: Earlier we spoke about Looking Season 2 and the Looking: The Movie; how impactful your character was, being an HIV-positive man on television in the only gay show at the time on television, basically. I was wondering, do people still come to you, having just discovered that season of the show, with something to say about it?

 Daniel Franzese played Eddie on  Looking , a gay series on HBO with a cult following. Eddie, who was HIV-positive, was in a serodiscordant relationship with Agustín, who was HIV-negative. 

Daniel Franzese played Eddie on Looking, a gay series on HBO with a cult following. Eddie, who was HIV-positive, was in a serodiscordant relationship with Agustín, who was HIV-negative. 

Daniel: Absolutely, I have heard a lot, especially from serodiscordant couples. When I was on Looking, my character was the first HIV-positive character that was on television in six years. GLAAD told me that, and they also said that since there hadn't been an HIV-positive character on television, there was a rise in new infections. So that just goes to show you how much representation matters. Since then, I have been an ambassador for the Elizabeth Taylor AIDS Foundation; I’ve been to the AIDSWatch each year, and we go to speak to Congress. Even though [Looking] has been over, my role as an activist has just begun, because I will always allow my voice to be a megaphone for people who don’t have as loud or as far of a reach. I believe that there’s a lot of people, especially people smarter than me, that have a lot of messages that need to get out there. If it takes a funny, quirky, Italian, chubby comedian then so be it. 

Derek: Final question. Where is your tour going next?

Daniel: I am all over; touring theaters, clubs and colleges around the nation. I have so many colleges. I have a website - - with a calendar where, if I'm coming near you, please let me know. If you don’t go to the school and there’s a way I could get you in, I will. I’m appearing this Thursday here at Flappers in Burbank, CA. I keep coming back in, checking in to my Flappers here. This is like my main house club. Also, on July 26, I'll be back at the Laurie Beechman Theatre in New York City.

 Daniel Franzese performing at Flappers as part of the Burbank Comedy Festival.

Daniel Franzese performing at Flappers as part of the Burbank Comedy Festival.

Derek: Awesome! Yeah, I’m so bummed that I didn’t know about your Minneapolis gig, because I would of been there!

Daniel: I’m coming back; I will be back, definitely more Minneapolis dates.

Derek: Well, I’ll definitely be going to that. When you told me that you had just been there, I was like, “what!?” I didn’t know about it.

Daniel: Yeah, I have more coming. I just did NACA, the National Association of Campus Activities, and I did it in Minneapolis. So I’ll definitely be getting a lot of schools from that area.

Derek: Awesome, well thank you so much for your time.

Daniel: Thank you so much, I appreciate you. Anytime. Call me if you ever need anything. 

Special thank you to RuPaul's DragCon and World of Wonder for giving us the opportunity to cover their Los Angeles 2018 convention. Buy tickets to RuPaul's DragCon NYC 2018 here.

What does having LGBT representation in the media mean to you? Tell us! Email or contact @DerekPlease on any social platform.

Exclusive: Todrick Hall Talks New Album, "Drag Race," and Fans "Cancelling" Artists

Todrick Hall and I recently had a phone conversation for the cover story of the new issue of Twin Cities Gay Scene magazine, out now.

 Source: Todrick Hall

Source: Todrick Hall

 Issue 111 of Twin Cities Gay Scene, 4/8/2018

Issue 111 of Twin Cities Gay Scene, 4/8/2018

Derek: I just wanted to say that as a big fan that is it an honor to interview you because I have been a fan since you did your original McDonalds drive thru video.

Todrick: Oh my God. That’s the first video that I ever uploaded. So, thank you, I really appreciate that.

D: Your new album “Forbidden” features other artists singing full songs alone like on “Straight Outta Oz.” what inspired you to popularize this approach?

T: Well I’m a musical theatre person and I’m normally am trying to tell a story with my projects. And so, if it doesn’t make sense for my character to sing a song, I won’t sing it just because it is my album. When I’m writing my shows I also imagine everything as an album that is cohesive for someone to listen to. I am a person who typically enjoys female voices more and so if people are similar to me then I think they would love it. Some of these people are just my favorite. It is like bucket list people that I would live to work with, they are my favorite vocalists, and they’re on my album. I have Brandy singing a song that I created. It is like something that I would never as a child fathomed could ever be possible. I’m getting choked up just thinking about it. It feels like such a huge bucket list thing. She is one of the reasons why I wanted to be a performer; seeing her, as an African-American woman, be the lead in “Cinderella” - the Rodgers & Hammerstein version that I grew up loving so much. It was really inspiring and it was one of the things that made me initially want to get into theatre and to start performing. And so to have her sing one of my songs, it is just like I said, a bucket list thing, and I feel every time I see it can’t believe that it happened.

 Source: Wolfe

Source: Wolfe

D: I was just watching your “Behind the Curtain” documentary again the other night. In it you mentioned that Brandy and that specific role of her as Cinderella inspired you. Having her sing a song on your album must have been such a huge moment for you. 

T: Yeah, it really was. When she told me that she was going to do it, I thought it was too good to be true. I didn’t tell anybody because I know that she is very busy she is an R&B legend and icon. And the fact that she even considered doing it is enough for me to be excited, but if she actually does record it, and then goes even a step further to show up to set and films it, I’ll be the happiest person on earth. And when she did, it was so much fun and she was everything I would of dreamed she would be. She stayed longer than any celebrity who has ever come and donated their time, she stayed longer than they all did. She wanted to rehearse and wanted it to be perfect for me. It was just really, really awesome. When I work with people like her, or Taylor Swift, they are divas at the top of their game. Or when I choreograph for Beyoncé, you see why these people are who they are, and where they are in their careers. Beyoncé was very adamant about making sure that she knew all of the choreography and it was perfect; the angles and that the weight was on the right leg that it needed to be. It’s the people who take the time to really perfect the finite details that it show in their product and in their brand and in their image every time they present it to their audience, and that is why they are the legendary icon stars that they are.

D: Your new visual album is even more ambitious than the last one. What was your favorite part of filming it?

T: I think my favorite part was planning, writing the songs and watching them come to life. Seeing the playback on the camera and seeing the vision was being executed properly. Often times when artists with limited budgets and limited resources come up with these crazy ideas, we learn how to settle with the 2nd or 3rd best version of the idea. With this project, I was looking at the playback and everything down to the wigs, the shoes, dresses, and the costumes. The details. The name on the tags, the scenery, the props and everything. It was coming out exactly how I imaged it in my mind when I was writing the music. That doesn’t happen often, so that was a really great feeling. And I think that was one of my favorite things. Also, just to see my friends come and to donate their time; I have so many friends that are talented actors and Broadway performers who I have learned so much from. To see it come full circle and for them to learn choreography from me, coming out at 6am, 5am to donate their time. My cousin had never danced on a music video before she came out. It was really a family affair, my LA family of performers, my real family, all my friends and fans coming together to make this. The people willing to stay up to 4, 5, 6, 7 in the morning to make this project happen in a very limited amount of time. What we did here was something that should have taken someone 3 to 6 months - to a year - to write. Another 6 months to a year to execute, and another 3 to 6 months to a year to do the post production and to post it. We did all that in 7 weeks, and it was an unfathomable thing. The fact that we have a team of people that were so persistent, so focused on the goal, was really awesome. I am really proud and blessed to have been surround by people that care enough about my work.

 Photo: iTunes

Photo: iTunes

D: My favorite track is either “2003” or “T.H.U.G (Trade).” What is yours?

T: My favorite song switches from day to day. When I first started writing it, “Type” was my favorite. Lately before we were filming the project, “Apple Pie” was my favorite. I would listen to it every morning. “Painting in the Rain” is my favorite song to perform. I think it is a really cool metaphor. It paints a really cool picture, pun intended, when just listening to the lyrical content of the song and to watch it come to life on stage. I think it is a really cool image. I’ve always loved “Lose My Breath“ by Destiny Child since I was fresh out of high school; I have always loved things with drum cadences in them. So I picked that song for a number of reasons, as one of my favorites at the moment.

D: What it was like to choreograph the instantly viral “Kitty Girl” video for “RuPaul’s Drag Race” All Stars 3?

T: It was really, really cool. I think that the producers thought it was going to be an unfathomable concept. Like, “yeah, in the perfect world, we would have a one-take performance, but we don’t know if our girls and our crew, in the time we have, can do it.” I had so much faith in the girls and realized what a cool concept it could be. 

D: My next question is about Twitter and social media. Today’s fans are quick to “cancel” their favorite performers for a misstep. It feels like entertainers are held to a higher standard despite the fact you are all human and we all make mistakes. How do you fell about this shift?

T: I feel that it is one of the things culturally right now, where people are just so used to doing things like that. I think that it is really sad that people can jump on the bandwagon and “cancel” someone that they were a huge fan of, as if they themselves don’t make mistakes. I think if we shined a light on every single person in the world, we would see moments from even our favorite people. I’m sure that there are things about Beyoncé that I would not like if I saw everything about her. If we were all perfect then we wouldn’t be human, we would be robots. So, I think those imperfect things are awesome. It affected me in [Season Two] of “All Stars Drag Race” when Alaska had a weak moment at the end, and some people online didn’t want her to win anymore. I was like, this person has really fought a great fight this whole season, has really stepped up their game, and killed so many challenges. The fact that those people would even consider not letting her get the crown because she had a breakdown in the middle of an intense process in which she has been secluded for months… It’s insane to me, but it also has taught me that no one is immune to it. I am prepared for whatever might come up, who knows what it’s going to be. I also have learned that people have very short attention spans and eventually they are going to forget what they were upset about, as long you don’t feed into it. When negativity comes my way, I try to send out positive messages if I feel like it is something that warrants a response. Then I move on, because I realize that tomorrow they will be upset with someone else. 

 Todrick with close friend Taylor Swift after his "Kinky Boots" show on Broadway. Photo: Todrick Hall

Todrick with close friend Taylor Swift after his "Kinky Boots" show on Broadway.
Photo: Todrick Hall

D: I love that answer. That is very true. I noticed that your album was not released on streaming services initially, like how Taylor Swift had not put “Reputation” on streaming services at first. And it worked - myself and thousands of others bought your album on iTunes. I would love to hear your thoughts behind this release process.

T: Well, the plan is very simple. I am an unsigned artist; an independent. I don’t have management, or a record label. I spent almost half a million dollars of my own money on this project. So, that’s why with a label, I would have chosen something different. I know the popular roll out plan would be to put it on every platform individually, but unfortunately I have to find a way to make my money back for these projects, because it is not affordable for me to put it out for free. I’m already releasing the entire visual movie for free. I felt like, for me, at this time, until my situation changes where I have people helping me and funding my projects, I have to do whatever I can do to sell a product. I think it was worth it. Not to knock at what anybody else is doing, but not a lot of artists write their own music; they have so many collaborators. I write every lyric, every melody, to every song. The only part I didn’t fully write was Shangela’s rap in “Doll Hairs.” I wrote almost 45 songs for this album, and it was dwindled down to 30 songs. I choreographed every number, picked out almost every single costume. I was in charge of guiding the hair, wig and make-up department to the area they needed to be in, and picked out the lighting. I had my hands on every single aspect of this show. Most performers don’t choreograph their own dances or hire their own dancers and cast their own people. It is a lot that I personally do, because I want the project to look like something that came from my brain; my art and my creative zone that I was in when I wrote the song. For that, I feel like I know the worth of it. I know that $20 is a lot these days to spend on an album, but most people are not putting out 30 songs. Most albums don’t tell people a story with characters and a climax. I just felt that it was really important for me to do what I had to do to make business sense in some way, shape or form. This way, they have an option to pay to get it or they can wait for it to come out on streaming services, or they can watch the movie for free on YouTube. That way everybody wins.

D: It’s very high quality content. It makes it justifiable to actually buy it. Sometimes when artists have an album that isn’t so good - that has a lot of filler on it - it’s not really worth the $10 or $20, but yours is because it packs a punch in every track.

T: Thank you very much. I’m really proud of it.

D: I have one final question. I was wondering what your fans can expect from your Minneapolis show on April 8th?

T: They can expect a live version of what they saw online. In the encore, there will be other videos that I have done in the past. It is a fun time. I think my shows are a perfect blend of a musical theatre performance and a concert. You are going to get a storyline and be taken on a journey. It’s totally okay for you to stand up, hoot, holler, dance, and have a good time. I love this show because I think it has really cool, funny moments that have comedy. It has light heartedness. It has numbers that make you want to dance, and get really hood and ratchet if you want to, too. It will also have moments that are really touching, inspiring, uplifting and emotional. It has that raw spiritual-ness that you get on a Sunday morning in a gospel church, because of the well-rounded nature of the show. There is something for everyone, and I tried to write the album that way as well. The album includes pop, R&B, gospel, rock, musical theatre elements in it. It feels eclectic. There are songs that sound like were cut from the “Hairspray” musical, then songs that sound like Kirk Franklin or the Clark sisters would be singing, mixed with a song that Linkin Park would of sang. I have such an eclectic, diverse love for music that in my album, it doesn’t feel like I have to choose. I put everything together and I’m just so grateful that, in my opinion, it blends well together. With my album it’s like a buffet of music, and I feel my concert is the same thing. I think that everyone will come in and enjoy it, and it’s a really good time.

 Photo: Live Nation

Photo: Live Nation

D: I’m really excited to see it. I’m actually going to be writing a review as well, so I’m really excited for your show. Thank you so much for your time today, this was an amazing interview and I appreciate the time you took to do it.

T: I appreciate that you took the time to do your research. I do lots of interviews and it makes a huge world of a difference when you’re interviewing with somebody who is clearly a supporter and familiar with your body of work. So I thank you for that, it’s very cool. I hope to meet you when I’m in your town.

What's your favorite Todrick video? Tweet me: @DerekPlease

Film Review: "Justice League" got an early look at this year's most buzzed-about superhero movie.

Warning: Spoilers ahead.

The holiday 2017 blockbuster film season is upon us. “Justice League” is finally here, and I was lucky enough to attend an advanced screening. The film, which successfully ties together Warner Bros.' messy DC Extended Universe (DCEU) film franchise, follows a ragtag bunch of heroes that play well as a team, but vary in quality individually.

  Warner Bros.

Warner Bros.

The new characters are a mixed bag.

The Flash steals the show in a star-making performance from burgeoning queer icon Ezra Miller. Every Flash one-liner got a big laugh from the crowd. It’s been tough watching mainstream Hollywood figure out what to do with Miller’s skill set - his role in “Harry Potter” prequel “Fantastic Beasts” was not the ticket - but “Justice League” is his showcase. The only thing he’s lacking is a better backstory, which is probably being saved for the DCEU “Flashpoint” film.

 Warner Bros.

Warner Bros.

Aquaman is… basic. There’s not much else to say. He’s just sort of there. The film didn’t care about him, so neither did I. Jason Momoa gives a shirtless shrug of a performance. He was mostly reduced to the overused, albeit classic DC joke that Aquaman’s only power is talking to fish.

Cyborg could use a tune-up. This mostly-robot character lacks much of a human element, sense of humor. The only human part of him is maybe half a face’s worth of gorgeous Hollywood skin. He’s just about as animated as a robot in “Transformers”, and that is not a good thing. Actor Ray Fisher could have breathed some life into the character, but gives a wooden-faced, self-serious performance… all in a monotone voice. 

When he’s not in battle, Cyborg wears unrealistic hoodies that somehow cover his giant robot body without looking misshapen. It seems like even the filmmakers are insecure about the effort they put into this character. Between Cyborg and Aquaman, it would have been great if the characters of color had been given more character development.

Halloween 2017 may be over, but “Justice League” invites “Frankenstein” to its Thanksgiving table. Kal-El AKA Clark Kent AKA Superman AKA God (if you’re asking the deranged Lex Luthor, and I am not) comes back in a thrilling, frightening sequence. The Batman vs. Superman fight scene that follows is the best action sequence of the film. The Mary Shelley vibes are real. The “big gun” Batman brings in to end the fight is a brilliant touch. 

Superman? More like super objectified. Kal-El spends that aforementioned fight fully shirtless. And that isn’t the only time he inexplicably loses his clothing. I’m not mad at it, though. It’s about time straight men get a taste of their own objectifying ways, and us ladies and gaydies get to enjoy a petty benefit of Hollywood’s paradigm shift.

The move to further fetishize Superman, while obvious and gratuitous, makes sense. DC tried and failed to make Superman more than aesthetics. In “Justice League,” DC nods to the feverish online army of Henry Cavill stans. Even Buzzfeed published posts lusting over him. The thirst is real, and they even joke about that - at Lois Lane (Amy Adams)’s expense. 

  Left: The Amazons in "Wonder Woman" / Right: The Amazons on the set of "Justice League"   There was some pre-release controversy over their reduced clothing in the photo on the right, but the change was not evident in the final cut of "Justice League."   Warner Bros.

Left: The Amazons in "Wonder Woman" / Right: The Amazons on the set of "Justice League"

There was some pre-release controversy over their reduced clothing in the photo on the right, but the change was not evident in the final cut of "Justice League."

Warner Bros.

“Justice League” is actually the best use of Superman in the 21st century, so it seems like an odd choice not to feature him in the trailers or first wave marketing materials for the film. I mean, we all knew he was coming back. Hello! “Batman vs. Superman” literally ends teasing that fact. [Edit: I think they gave up and already started advertising Superman being in "Justice League"]

Ben Affleck is finally settling into his role as Batman, so of course, he wants to quit. Warner Bros. obliges, setting up a strong foreshadowing for Bruce Wayne’s near-future exit. The film is peppered with “old man Batman” jokes, and references to how this iteration has been fighting crime for 20 years. 

All previous Batman films featured a Batman that instantly recovered from injury. However, “Justice League” features a Batman who licks his wounds after every battle. Wonder Woman even insists that Batman “can’t keep doing this forever.” It reads as a set up for disenchanted actor Ben Affleck to leave.

Wonder Woman has a great story arc you may have thought would have been saved for her solo sequel. The one thing “Justice League” got right that “Wonder Woman” did not? A more even tone. Whereas the campy villain scenes in “Wonder Woman” didn’t quite fit the rest of the film, “Justice League” invites camp along for the full ride.

The DCEU films remain aggressively masculine, but now in an almost tongue-in-cheek manner. The cinematography is flamboyantly fire and brimstone. The CGI is adorned with a grainy faux film look. The fights are loud, ultra-violent, and metallic. Concrete slabs burst apart like sticks of chalk. Surely no film is this cartoonishly macho without being self-aware… right?

 Warner Bros.

Warner Bros.

The Jack Kirby creation Steppenwolf is better than most Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU) villains; certainly better than the next Avengers film’s big bad, that boring purple giant Thanos. Despite heavy motion capture, actor Ciarán Hinds pulls off a fantastical performance. Whereas a similar “world ending” big bad in the MCU film “Thor: Ragnarok” is the butt of jokes, Steppenwolf is a serious threat. His army isn’t weak, either. With their unique look and backstory, Steppenwolf’s insect-like Parademons are more memorable than your average, disposable “faceless army.” All this good does not save the bad final fight scene, which feels long and predictable. 

The credits feature a strange and intriguing decision not to credit Joss Whedon as Zach Snyder’s co-director, despite Whedon’s heavy rewrites and reshoots. While likely a show of respect to Snyder, the idea that this is as much a Snyder film as “Watchmen” or “Batman vs. Superman: Dawn of Justice” does not compute. Whedon does take a writing credit for his reshoot efforts, though. 

Despite the tragic circumstances that brought him on (director Zach Snyder’s daughter Willow died by suicide early this year), “Justice League” is lucky to have Joss Whedon. The film could have been another dark, violent mess for DC without Whedon’s signature crowd-pleasing touches. Joss Whedon's genre-defining work directing the MCU game changer “The Avengers” set the bar so high, his involvement in DC’s equivalent film “Justice League” was its only chance of being comparable. This film was never going to be perfect, but it’s at least a very fun ride. This is a best-case scenario for the most complex film in the messiest cinematic universe. 

3.5 out of 5 stars

Who's your favorite member of the Justice League? Hit me up on social! @DerekPlease everywhere.