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BY SCOTT STIFFLER
Once upon a time, when traveling spectacles blew into town offering trapeze acts, games of chance, and all manner of exotic marvels, children dreamed of running away and joining the circus.
Now, the circus of old is a species as endangered as the trained animal acts whose presence inside sawdust-strewn tents has fallen out of vogue — and children of a certain sass and sensitivity, eyes glued to the screen, find a new conduit for their dreams: a clown whose convention-flaunting fashion choices, oversized personality, and garish makeup makes them think, “I’m going to be a drag queen.”
“Don’t do it, it’s a trap,” warned Bianca Del Rio, winner of “RuPaul’s Drag Race” Season 6, and a razor-sharp insult comic, whose checkered past with the circus might well inform the cutting barbs she’ll lob at audiences come Halloween night. That’s when Del Rio serves as ringmaster for “Halloween: Under the Big Top” — a Lincoln Center event that takes “a multitude of spooky and deadly circus acts”courtesy of the Big Apple Circus, and splices it with Del Rio’s charmingly caustic performance aesthetic. Add to all of this the talents of fellow “Drag Race” competitors Violet Chachki, who’ll be doing aerial work, and Kameron Michaels — “who’s going to act like a drag queen,” Del Rio deadpanned, adding, “We’re all friends. And the great thing is, they all know me and I know them. We’re aware of our own issues.”
All told, then, “It should be a great, great night,” your ringmaster confidently speculated. “When you marry the circus and drag queens, it’s magic!” And if it’s not? “They hired me,” she noted. “I said, ‘Yes, the money’s good.’ So I’m showing up.” As for what to expect, Del Rio said, of Halloween, “We all have high expectations. But I thought, ‘What a great thing to have.’ Everybody’s in a room, and there’s a circus theme… I mean, any time there’s an audience, I can deal with it.”
And deal with it she can, whether there are four people in the house (as was often the case during those early years), throngs packing Lincoln Center, or, as this reporter witnessed, at Sept. 1’s Wigstock 2.HO — the reboot of stalwart NYC queen Lady Bunny’s festive drag gathering, which enjoyed an infamously raucous 1985-2001 run. There, on Pier 17, motormouthed Del Rio displayed her seasoned improv chops in a breathlessly paced, relentlessly cruel, nearly 20-minute set, during which she plucked a trio of volunteers from the crowd, then zinged them mercilessly while presiding over a lip synch dance-off contest “voted on” by the audience — but ultimately determined by Del Rio herself, heiress apparent to Don Rickles, with a dash of Joan Rivers, and, one suspects, Satan. From whence other than a sharp-tongued, fallen angel could her uncanny powers of observation and desecration spring forth? Perhaps some decades-old, pivotal event that unfolded under the big top?
“Obviously I don’t hate clowns,” Del Rio asserted, somewhat defensively, “because I’ve become one… But the circus is a weird situation for me, because I went to the circus when I was a child,” she recalled, of a trip with her siblings, “and I was quite excited by this little flashlight thing that had all of these antennas hanging from it. And I wanted one very badly, and my mother said, ‘We’ll buy you one on the way out.’ ” Sadly, however, mom had a couple of drinks, fell, and was taken away in an ambulance. “I was very upset,” a surprisingly vulnerable Del Rio admitted. “Not because she was leaving, but because I didn’t get my little flashlight… So the circus has always pissed me off.”
But then, just as quickly as a “Drag Race” challenge can turn sour when a queen takes to the runway in footgear other than high heels, Del Rio put a happy coda on her tale of childhood trauma, by noting that, at age 35, a friend “finally gave me one of those flashlights, and I feel whole. It fixed me [my problem with the circus].” Is that all it took, we wondered? “Well, yeah,” she asserted, “and also, I get quite excited by the smell of elephant s**t, because I’m friends with Lady Bunny. So it’s all come full circle. Full circle.”
Speaking of circular patterns, check out our website in the coming weeks for more of our interview with Bianca Del Rio, including upcoming projects she can’t talk about now (“None of it’s porn…”), the lasting impact of her time on “Drag Race” (a “golden ticket”), and her advice to budding queens — including, “You have to be a joke. You’re a man in wig. You’re not curing cancer. My struggle? Who cares? Find what you do, and own it, and live it.”
“Halloween: Under the Big Top” starts at 8pm on Wed., Oct. 31, at Lincoln Center. To get your ticket and see this profane performer land more punchlines than there are kernels in a tub of super-sized circus popcorn, visit vossevents.com/events/halloween-under-the-big-top. Tickets range from $49 to $159. VIP options include a private mingle with the queens and access to the private VIP tent. The Big Apple Circus plays at Lincoln Center through Jan. 27. For more info, visit bigapplecircus.com. For all things Bianca, visit thebiancadelrio.com.