Words: Steve Brown
Last week, RuPaul's Drag Race judge and Broadway star Todrick Hall joined the cast of the West End's revival of Chicago as lawyer Billy Flynn - a role he played on Broadway.
With RuPaul's Drag Race Holi-Slay Spectacular set to return this festive season and All Stars 4 at the start of 2019, in an exclusive interview with Attitude, Todrick opens up about what to expect from the new seasons.
Being a Drag Race alum, the YouTube star tells us that the new season has many 'twists and turns' and whether he uses dating apps to try and find a man.
You’ve joined the cast of Chicago this week. How is it going so far?
It’s going great. Everybody in the cast has been so welcoming and so sweet to me and it’s really awesome to see the actors over here make such different choices in dialect that I really love and challenging me as an actor and helping me grow as a performer.
You played Billy Flynn on Broadway but how is the West End different?
It’s just a different of energy in general. When I did the show on Broadway, some of those people had been doing the show for 15/20 years so they were just so into the characters in a different way.
Like playing the character for 20 years, you obviously do. This new cast has a great, new fun type of energy that I love performing with every day. They are so energetic and so excited to be there.
Not saying they weren’t on Broadway and I loved being part of the Broadway company but that was being part of a family that has been established for 20 years where this one is a group of young people who are really excited about performing the show.
You’re playing Billy Flynn, but with your Drag Race background would you ever want to spice up the musical and star as Velma Kelly or Roxie Hart?
Ha ha! This is something that has been joked around but I actually enjoy the challenge of playing a character that is a lot more masculine, a lot more straight-cut and serious because as an actor, I feel like it’s no longer challenging for me to put on a wig and get in a dress, which are things that people expect me to do.
But playing a lawyer that is a hotshot, basically a scam artist who is able to manipulate people and convince them something they have seen with their own eyes that it’s not true, I think, is a challenge for me as actor and I enjoy doing this a lot more than I would playing another drag queen role, while that’s still really fun for me.
Do you have any rituals before getting on stage?
I don’t have any rituals. I’m usually listening to the song, or any song, that is by an artist that I really love and appreciate because it puts me in a high-spirited mood.
It could be a Beyoncé song but who knows what song it will be from day to day. But I love listening to music from my favourite artists before I go on stage.
Has anything gone terribly wrong while on stage?
Nothing has gone terribly wrong. The cool thing about Chicago is that it’s very simplistic on stage and the way it’s presented so there’s not a lot of opportunity for wardrobe malfunctions so nothing major has happened.
But I am the kind of person who is the epitome of spontaneous and I live for any moment where it falls apart and the person who is a crazy character who likes to try and make people laugh or cry on stage. But I life for those type of moments.
You’ve followed some big names such as Cuba Gooding Jr and Duncan James in the UK show. Were you nervous taking over from these?
Not at all. I was just really excited. The first boyfriend I ever had was from London and I never thought I’d get to come here and came here to perform a couple of times on the tour but his favourite show in the entire world was Chicago and I really really wanted it to come to the West End and I found out about the West End.
I grew up where I didn’t know what Broadway was never mind the West End and so I thought, while wouldn’t it be good to go to London someday, let alone performing on the west end. And for me it’s been such a thrill.
It was my first boyfriend’s favourite musical and who would ever think that I would be living in this country and doing the show that he loved so much on the West End, it’s just a crazy, special moment.
And I love Cuba Gooding Jr so much. I got to meet him backstage at the show in Broadway and he was so sweet, and Duncan James is actually quite a close friend of mine already and so it was cool.
And I got to come and see his final show and we got a really nice picture and he sent me flowers to say congratulations for my first show, so it’s not been nervous but exciting.
I’m just excited and grateful that they trust me enough to take over an awesome role that respected people have played before.
You said Chicago was your first boyfriend’s favourite show. Has he been to see you perform yet?
No, I don’t think his new fiancé would allow that.
Drag Race is almost back in our lives – were you impressed with the calibre of talent on All Stars 4 and the Holi-Slay spectacular?
Oh my gosh! It’s really bizarre that every year they beat my expectations. Like they are already high I can’t even deal with how talented they are.
It is really insane and the fact that they can even raise the bar every year with the costumes and the wigs and everything they can do, and it is really insane to me and I am blown away by the talent absolutely yes.
Were you invited back?
I am on this the Christmas spectacular and also All Stars 4.
Who do you think will snatch the crown?
Well, I can’t tell you that because I obviously know the answer to that already. But I know you will be really, really amazed with what people have done and what just a little bit of growth can do for a lot of people.
It’s always so cool to see people you think are going to be the stars of the season come in and then see people who have a lot to prove, rise to the occasion. It’s really such an amazing thing.
There’s a lot of twists and turns this season, you’ll be really, really amazed what they will all bring to the table because they are truly All Stars, you know, there’s a reason why they call them All Stars because that’s exactly what they are and each and everyone of them could potentially win the season, so it’s really exciting to see what they bring to the table.
Also the difficult part of All Stars is when they usually eliminate each other so sometimes it’s not much to do with how good they are or how much they’ve grown as artists but how they get on with other people and what the strategy is as a team or the queens that year.
Any stars you wish were back?
Nicole Richie. I would love if Nicole Richie came back and I almost wish Lady Gaga would take a break from being the superstar that she is and be a regular judge.
I would happily give up my seat for her for sure because she was such a great addition to the show and an LGBT advocate and also the way that she gave those notes with constructive criticism after she was on the show was something that I have never seen anyone do and I don’t think that anybody felt that it was pretentious or condescending, it was just so helpful and I just wish Lady Gaga would give me some notes about my life and my career.
It’s fair to say you’re a hard taskmaster but you hit back at fans who accused you of being overly critical last season – what did you make of that criticism?
I don’t go on Drag Race to concern myself with what people think of my criticism, but I go on Drag Race because I want the girls to be great.
I’m really, really proud with the work that I’ve done on the show and so I wasn’t really super concerned with that to be completely honest. I did go online and do a Facebook live because I would never want people to think that I would intentionally sabotage someone’s chances of success.
I was on a reality TV competition and know what that is like to be in that type of situation and to feel like your hands are tied and that no one is on your side and I would never put someone it that position.
It’s frustrating for me that people would ever think that. I’m a huge fan of all the girls that come on. I’m a fan first of the show so that bothered me.
I come from an old school mentality and grew up in a ballet school and there’s no time for BS when in a ballet school. They tell it like it is. They shoot straight and for me, my goal, I don’t care if the queens like me I want them to be great.
I want them to do well and I want them to know that it’s not just a gig, it’s your sisters drag club, it’s the NFL or Olympics of drag and it’s crazy that sometimes we fight for equality but I don’t think anything I say would be near as bad as a basket coach or a football coach would say to their team to get them ready for a big game but for some reason, because there are eyelashes and nails people think it’s ruthless and I strongly disagree.
I don’t plan on changing my tactics because the quality and proof is in the punch and every time they get on stage, they are leaps and bonds that they would have been if I had taken it easy on them.
Who are the queens who’ve been easiest and hardest to teach choreography to during your time on the show?
Some of the easiest queens to teach aren’t always the best dancers.
There’s like Eureka. She is a very difficult person to teach but she is a very, very hard worker and she will practice and go over and over and over again until she gets it right and I really respect that about any artist.
But the people who are naturally great dancers to begin with, Shea Coulee comes to mind, she was already such a great dancer.
Trinity Taylor was awesome to work with and Sasha Valour, while not necessarily a ‘dancer’ to begin with, she knew who she was, she knew what her brand was and I really liked the fact that she basically let me know who she was so that I could make the choreography that followed her brand and I really, really appreciated that because that’s what a true artist does.
And she did it in a very nice way and very professionally and she steered me in the right direction and I could keep the choreography along with her brand.
What’s RuPaul like off camera?
RuPaul is literally…. I don’t know how to put it into words what type of person he is.
All I can tell you is that when I go talk to him, sometimes I go sit in the dressing room to talk while he is personally autographing each of his books, or while he is eating his lunch, and I feel like I am hanging out with a friend, my great-grandmother in person, and going to therapy and having a Kiki session, it’s just really really awesome to sit and speak to someone who is a living legend and such a trailblazer for our community but who is also funny beyond belief.
Before I got on the show, I thought someone was feeding them the judges the lines say, all the lines and puns that they say when the queens are walking the runway and when I got on the show I realised that these people are just great comedians and improv actors and just think these on the spot and that’s my favourite part of the day because I get to sit and listen to Ross, Carson and Michelle all make up these jokes off the top of their head and I wish sometimes I wish people to listen to all the jokes they come up with because they are all equally funny and I don’t know how the editors choose which of the funny puns to put on the show there are some really hilarious ones.
But RuPaul has been such a huge supporter of mine and he collaborated with me on three videos on my YouTube channel and recorded songs with me and has come to see me in Kinky Boots on my opening night and came to my tours. It’s really awesome.
I think he sees me as his son or he is definitely a mentor of mine and he is just really sweet and reliable and if he says he is going to do something he will.
He has never been late to any of my shows and he takes it very seriously, but he doesn’t have to do that. He does it for me and I really appreciate it and for me, how I feel, what I always say is how did Brandy feel when she got the call from Whitney Houston that she was going to be Cinderella and starring alongside Whitney Houston, that’s how I feel.
I see him as the gay Whitney Houston, he is such a huge icon and for me to have videos and songs with him is just something I will cherish for the rest of my life even if it never happens again.
You mentioned Michelle who is also starring in Everybody’s Talking About Jamie on the West End. Have you been to see her yet?
I ran to the theatre the first night I got here. Michelle is like my second mum. She calls me her mum and she is like a mum to me.
There are certain things that my mum, while she has come a long way, is very conservative and from Texas and it’s consumed in the Bible belt and it’s difficult for me to talk about certain aspects of my life and I call Michelle on a daily basis to talk to her and get advice.
And it’s so crazy to me that I was so afraid to meet her when I first got to RuPaul’s Drag Race and she is the kindest person.
She’s a mother-of-two and cares so much about her children and she is a huge musical theatre fan. She love musical theatre so much and it’s just been really awesome to get to know her and it’s been one of the best parts of me joining the RuPaul’s Drag Race family and I’m really excited and so proud of her to make her West End debut in a show that’s so important to her and it’s so beautiful and right up her alley.
She deals with these things all the time. I bet it hits home to her more than she has let on. And one day, hopefully, we will be able to play Billy and Mama Morton in Chicago.
That’s been the plan, but it’s never worked out, either returning to the West End together or doing Chicago on Broadway, it would be a dream come true for us.
You’re very vocal on social media, especially about men, and in September you posted an image on Instagram and then a video on YouTube about boys being assholes. You say it’s an ‘epidemic’ around the world, do you still believe that?
Absolutely. I believe that guys can be just such assholes on such a level that I don’t know if most girls can reach.
That might be sexist of me to say towards my own sex but it’s just something that I strongly feel and have experienced so many times.
But I also think it’s such a beautiful thing when you find someone you can see passed those things.
A gay black man in this community, I have sometimes been wanted the opportunity to date someone, even people of my own race, are like, ‘I don’t get black guys’ or people of other races are like, ‘oh you are really cute for a black guy’ there’s just been so many issues that don’t have to do with race.
And so many dumb things that I feel like our culture is so consumed with rock hard abs and baby blue eyes and looking good on an Instagram picture rather than looking into that person’s soul and energy whether or not they have great morals or ethics and some people make dumb decisions on an app or to have a good time in bed, for me they are secondary to what a relationship should be about.
And so, I like to challenge people to think a little deeper and think about who you would like to spend your life with rather than thinking about having a good time in that moment and that’s great.
But if you are thinking of having a serious relationship with someone it has to be more than that. I think that we have been hypnotised by something that isn’t as important, and I feel we are bred culturally to care about those things less which is frustrating fact of life.
I think in a short answer, the beautiful thing about people being assholes, is that it makes you appreciate the people who aren’t assholes when you finally meet them.
Right now, it’s very difficult to find them but they do exist and I’m excited about the next step in my love life and I’m so glad I have gone through so many assholes that I wrote a song about it on my last album and so many people have said they identified so much with that song.
So, I’m just excited to meet the right guy, or maybe I have already met him, I am talking to a guy right now. I’m just excited to share my life and experiences with someone because sometimes this life we have chosen can get very, very lonely and you are experiencing all these once in a lifetime opportunity and you want them to share them with someone whether in person.
It’s really hard. I remember Adam Lambert right after he started achieving great success and he started talking about how lonely this situation is.
And it really is. People change. I don’t think now, it’s famous people that change it’s people around those people who change them.
It just makes me very sad. I still have faith in humanity and got faith in man, and in love and dreams and goals and I am still chasing mine and I’m going to continue pounding through the pavement with my chest out and chin up and continue to make music and create an easier pathway for LGBT artists coming up so it will be easier for them to make their dreams come true but it’s very difficult out here.
Do you use dating apps to meet other guys?
It’s very difficult. I have never used Grindr. That app disgusts me, and that’s just my own opinion. I have never been on that app but that is me judging an app I have never been on.
So maybe if I got on it I could see it is more than just a hook-up app. I have never been a hook-up guy. It is just a backwards step in the community.
I am so grateful that app did not exist during the Aids epidemic, I think it would have only made matters worse. I don’t like it but I have been on Tinder before. I love Tinder.
I have met some great people and friends. I love that it is not a sexual app. You have to be clothed on the app and that you can’t send pictures on the app. I love Tinder.
I love how it’s a way for people to meet other people. It allows me the opportunity to meet other people and swipe through them and talk to other people. I’m still in support of the dating apps.
Some people are really shy in person and sometimes I would have the difficulty approaching someone in a club. I support that app and I think it’s really cool. I have been on it before.
Todrick Hall is performing as Billy Flynn until the end of the show’s run in January at the Phoenix Theatre, London.