Everyone’s doing drag nowadays, but Lil Miss Hot Mess has risen above the pack by combining camp performances and activism in potent new ways.
The 37-year-old non-binary queen is outspoken about all sorts of things and has the credentials to back it up — including an MFA in new media, a PhD from NYU, and a day job as an assistant professor at the University of Arizona.
Lil Miss Hot Mess currently resides in Tucson in a two-bedroom home “with a huge drag closet,” and spends time in Los Angeles, where she performs outrageous lip-syncs of numbers like “Rose’s Turn” and Bette Midler’s “Friends” at the gay-friendly bar Akbar. She’s also performed at San Francisco’s The Stud and Hard French, Bushwig in Brooklyn, Queen Kong in L.A., and beyond.
But there’s more to this Hot Mess than a good time: In the tradition of activist drag queens like Sylvia Rivera and Marsha P. Johnson, who took part in the Stonewall uprising, LMHM has become a force for change: She led the charge against Facebook’s “real names” policy, which required members to use their birth names, and played a role in Drag Queen Story Hour, which teaches acceptance, diversity, and literacy by having drag performers read to kids in libraries, schools, and bookstores.
She appeared in the Biden/Harris campaign victory video “America the Beautiful,” and is even a published author, having written the 2020 children’s book The Hips on the Drag Queen Go Swish, Swish, Swish with illustrator Olga de Dios.
I talked to Lil Miss Hot Mess about drag activism, the power of camp, the battles she’s won and the challenges still ahead.
Hello, Lil Miss Hot Mess. What’s the difference between a non-binary person and a cisgender male doing drag?
I don’t think it’s all that different. One of the great things about the era now is that gender is falling apart even more than it had been.
The days that we see drag as transforming from one to the other are kind of tired, and now we can see drag for what it is — playing with gender, exaggerating, poking fun of it and letting the air out of it and reminding us that it’s all a construct, but it can all be fun and games if we let it.
Which is not to say that it’s not deeply important to some people, but we can all take ourselves seriously while we have a laugh at the same time.
Challenging gender norms through drag is an innately political act. Though some queens might not even realize it as they get into heels. Agreed?
Some people maybe fail to see the power of drag: They want to look and feel pretty, and that’s great, but inherently, to me, drag should always be about disrupting norms and upending the status quo. It could be just swapping the pronouns in a song or everyone in the audience being in on the queer joke.
What has made me in some ways an activist drag queen is this history of drag performers at Stonewall, drag queens doing direct action during the height of the AIDS epidemic, Joan Jett Blakk running for president in the 1990s. All these people who took it one step further. It’s about being a leader in the community, having something to say beyond just looking pretty.
To me, you connect the righteousness of Marsha P. Johnson with the clowny fun of Trixie Mattel.
Those are big shoes to fill. But camp is politics. It can be fun and games, but it’s also a way of reconfiguring the world in the way we want it to be. I wouldn’t separate [the two threads]. I think they’re part and parcel of the same thing.
Which drag queens in history do you admire?
Folks like Divine and Vaginal Davis. I think RuPaul’s early career was super interesting — when I’m watching Drag Race, I’m always rooting for the weird girls who are written off as too artsy or campy, and I’m glad that sometimes they win. Symone, who just won Season 13, has that “It factor,” and so do Jinkx Monsoon and Yvie Oddly. As much as I critique the show, it creates a lot of room for different drag queens.
But like me, you favor those edgy girls.
The queens who are really in your face and pushing boundaries. I don’t think every drag performance has to do that, but thinking about how you might push a boundary and go a little extra is always an important part of drag.
Can I have your backstory? When did you realize you were a special child?
I grew up outside Albany, New York, but I was birthed as a drag queen in San Francisco and performed for 10 years there. Then I moved to Brooklyn, then L.A., and now, primarily, Tucson. I came from a capital-D Democrat family. Not superprogressive, but not terrible. I was a flamboyant child and did theater, figure skating, gymnastics, and shows in the backyard.
I was that kid trying on my mother’s high heels and putting a towel on my head.
Skip ahead, and now you’re quite the rabble-rouser: An interview with you about your children’s book, The Hips on the Drag Queen Go Swish, Swish, Swish, was taken off the PBS website and you’re flaming right back at them.
I just got off the phone with the ACLU. I had recorded a segment reading the story for WNET, the PBS station in New York, in partnership with the Department of Education. It was part of a program called Let’s Learn, supplementing educational opportunities during the pandemic. Not surprisingly, about two months after it went up, there was an uptick in right-wing press condemning it, saying it didn’t belong on public airwaves because it was poisoning the minds of children. PBS bowed to pressure and took it off their platform. WNET posted it on YouTube and also did a blog post, and I’m on a personal campaign to get it reinstated by PBS.
It sets a terrible precedent that if these right-wing folks raise enough of a stink, people will bow to public pressure. PBS is supposed to represent everyone — it’s truly a public broadcasting service. Queer people and drag queens are in libraries and schools, all these community spaces, all the time. We might not be dressed in drag, but we’re there and have a right to be represented. They’re basically endorsing the view that this wasn’t appropriate when they had already made the case that it was. It’s disappointing to see them back down.
In the video, you read from your book — which is about the different fun things a drag queen does with their face, nails, and hips — and it seems very reasonable. If it was censored, then why?
It’s hard to step into their logic because in some ways what I’m doing is so innocuous. As a kid myself, I was teased for being feminine and flamboyant and swishing my hips. I wanted to create a safer place to explore that. Drag inserts itself into things and makes people sometimes feel a bit uncomfortable in a good way.
[Author’s note: In response to a request for comment, Jeremy M. Gaines, PBS senior vice president of corporate communications said, “The Let’s Learn series was created as local programming. It is not funded or nationally distributed by PBS. However, the segment is available to everyone through the producing station’s (WNET) site and YouTube page.”]
Speaking of queens in libraries, you’ve also had to battle conservatives about drag-queen reading events. What motivates those story hours?
A lot of my work is trying to bring a camp sensibility to politics and culture. Something like Drag Queen Story Hour is all about mobilizing camp, going into these spaces that flamingly queer people can’t always occupy.
I always see the kids — and parents — leaving with big smiles on their faces. But somehow the events get demonized. A librarian in South Carolina was reportedly fired for approving a DQSH event. Why does drag scare some people so much? Are they projecting?
Projecting is putting it mildly. They want to say that we’re indoctrinating children, that we’re harming them, but they’re the ones who want to indoctrinate children into their narrow-minded, conservative worldview. They simply don’t want to recognize the diversity that’s present in most corners of our world right now. They’re holding onto their own backwardness.
It’s important to remember there’s nothing new about this bigotry: Drag Queen Story Hour might be a face of queer culture at the moment, but the bigoted response is what we’ve dealt with for centuries. They like to think it’s some new culture war, but it’s them trying to keep alive this culture war that no one on our side is actually fighting. We’re trying to live our lives and make the world a more fabulous place, and they’re trying to drag us back to the Dark Ages.
Right on! And in another act of well-accessorized activism, you were a founder of the #MyNameIs campaign, which challenged Facebook’s “real names” policy, an attempt to get all members to use their birth names. That policy impacted a lot of drag performers and trans people and others who need control over their names. Do you think the policy was intentionally discriminatory?
A lot of Silicon Valley policies come out of them not considering the diversity of their user base. These companies are predominantly composed of straight white men, and they make decisions based on that world view. A lot of times, they’re truly ignorant about the way other people live their lives. If we’re a tiny percentage of a drop in the bucket, they can easily ignore us. But the reality is that 1 percent can be millions of people who are harmed by these policies.
I don’t think it was malicious, but it was negligent on their part to not take into account the safety of marginalized users.
It also impacted immigrants, survivors of domestic abuse and many others who, for various reasons, can’t use the names they were assigned at birth. Was the policy eventually reversed?
Yes and no. Facebook amended the policy to focus on what they called “authentic identities.” They made it easier for many drag performers to keep their drag names and for many trans people to change their names. We were working with survivors of domestic violence and sex workers and Native American folks whose names “sounded fake,” so we were able to support thousands of individuals getting their names back.
But I still get messages from people who’ve gotten caught up in the policies. Facebook fixed some things, but didn’t totally fix the issue.
As for your day job as a professor, do your students know that you romp in wigs at night?
I haven’t told them all yet. I usually mention it at some point in the semester and some get excited, especially the queer ones. But I mostly get mild curiosity.
Our country feels more divided than ever, with continuing attacks on our democratic institutions. Is drag strong enough to fight back? And how does it stay relevant and political even as it becomes so mainstream?
Drag is about playing with expectations and finding ways to construct some different form of reality through our imaginations and the simple act of putting on a wig and heels and calling yourself a queen. In the Trump and, hopefully, post-Trump era, there’s something powerful about it. It’s a very different mode from “fake news.” It’s grounded in reality and very conscious about the way it’s trying to remake the world. It’s not about trying to deceive, it’s consciously about building a better world by critiquing the world. I do lament that it has become mainstream.
I think a lot of the online and social media stuff is interesting: The pandemic had everyone doing shows online and recording videos. I’m glad we don’t have to do that in the same way anymore, but it was a way to see drag queens filling the void by making music and art videos that are different from live performance.
Before Drag Race, I would have said drag is inherently anti-mainstream, and it can never be assimilated. I’m willing to admit that I was wrong. But it’s important that it does continue to innovate and find new ways of making people uncomfortable, new ways to not just replicate what people see on runways.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.