The following interview is part of The Advocate's "Rocky Road" series, which is inspired by the upcoming Amazon Prime Video film Uncle Frank, out November 25, and its themes of family acceptance, coming out, and revelatory road trips.
It was a rocky road for BenDeLaCreme growing up.
The RuPaul's Drag Race alumnus never had the opportunity to formally come out. After a young Ben's mother tragically died of cancer when he was just 13, his father called him into his office.
"I know you're gay. And it's all right," he told his son, as recounted by DeLa in a recent interview with The Advocate. While the drag performer is grateful to have had such a supportive father, she also acknowledged what that interaction meant to her journey of self-realization.
"I had not really come to terms with it on my own," she said. "And so I didn't really get to have the coming-out process that I think is really an important milestone for a lot of queer people."
Above: The Advocate's interview with BenDeLaCreme.
And while DeLa had the benefit of a supportive parent, she also lived in a rural, conservative community in Connecticut that was less accepting. Throughout middle school and high school, she was bullied for her gay identity without ever having the choice of coming out.
"I was so flamboyant that it was just a thing where there was no use hiding it," DeLa said. "I was teased constantly both for being effeminate and for my weight. I was very heavy as a kid. There was just never a sense of safety."
Things got so bad in her youth that DeLa would often use the girls' room to avoid bullies — and then would be disciplined for doing so by her school. "It was like, well, where's the safe space for a queer kid?" she asked.
She first caught a glimpse of that safe space when she first watched Wigstock: The Movie, a documentary about the once annual drag festival held in New York City in the 80s and 90s. By watching "legendary" drag icons like Lady Bunny and Jackie Beat, "that was really my first hint of, oh, there is a larger world out there."
Today, DeLa is now a central figure in that glittering world. She first took a dive into drag while a student in the School of the Art Institute of Chicago in the early 2000s. Since then, DeLa was crowned Miss Congeniality on RuPaul's Drag Race season 6 and was on the trajectory to win season 3 of RuPaul's Drag Race All Stars — until she famously self-eliminated and forfeited the crown.
DeLa doesn't regret walking away from one of drag's biggest titles for a moment. "That setting of your own rules, and that rejection of what other people tell you success has to be or who you have to be, I mean, that's what drag is," she said, adding that she was actually choosing to leave an "unhealthy sense of competition."
"It really just was this moment of getting to have my cake and eat it too in that I got to say like, 'OK, great, I am capable of this, I can do it.' But I don't think that these are the terms that we as a community have to accept within our own success," she said. "I don't think we have to accept that you inherently need to triumph over others in order to be the very best that you can be."
DeLa is now privileged to create her own art to inspire young people toward being their very best. "That's what I see that I need to continue to give through drag, and it's a huge part of why this art form is one that inspires me and that I love," she said.
Notably, she has for the first time directed and produced her own film, Jinkx & DeLa Holiday Special, a one-hour musical variety show adapted from tours of Yuletides past with fellow Drag Race alumnus Jinkx Monsoon. She even did it in a pandemic.
“It was constant testing and a lot of folks going around with big pump bottles of hand sanitizer, making sure that everybody's nice and moist throughout the shoot," she quipped. The special, inspired by both Judy Garland and Pee-Wee Herman and set to be released December 1, juxtaposes the characters of a traditionally merry DeLa with Monsoon, who would rather see the holidays be about "booze and dick jokes."
In addition to being a creative endeavor, the special was also a reunion of her found family in Seattle and a reminder of the power of drag to both inspire and create community.
"For many, many, many years, drag queens had to create the space for themselves, because the world around them was telling them that there was no space for them," DeLa said. "And so I think this part of what's so amazing about seeing queer artists kind of pave their own way, is that it's really taking a kind of crappy, unpleasant situation and making it into just I think the most beautiful, inspiring thing. And I love that — that drag specifically takes that dark stuff and doesn't just push it aside, but actually makes it into exactly the same thing that is celebrated."
DeLa is at the top of her creative game. However, she stresses to young people that, despite how successful an adult can seem, the process of battling self-doubt can last a lifetime. And that's not necessarily a bad thing.
"Self-doubt is healthy, because it drives us to work hard," DeLa said. "I mean, if I went around thinking that everything I did was just already fantastic, how hard would I really be trying? And how fantastic would it really turn out to be?"
"I've also spoken a lot in the past about struggling with depression as a young person," she added. "And people are sort of like, 'Oh, wow, and you overcame it, how do you do that?' I didn't overcome it, I have learned to live with depression in a very productive way. But those aren't things that go away ... they're things that you figure out how to navigate, and you figure out how to how to recognize them as a part of your life."
When DeLa thinks back about herself as a teen, she wishes to convey that message of hope in a brighter future. "Not only do you make it through this, and not only do you get to have a life that you never dreamed you could have, but you are celebrated for exactly the things that you think are your flaws now," she would tell herself. "Everything that you think is wrong with you and that you're told is wrong with you is exactly what is right about you. And it's the reason that your life is going to be wonderful."
Watch the full interview with DeLa above and visit JinkxAndDela.com for more information about her holiday special. And don't miss Uncle Frank, a new Amazon Prime Video film by Alan Ball premiering November 25, which also addresses these themes of family and the "rocky road" toward acceptance and self-acceptance.