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Gottmik: ‘If cis men can be feminine, a trans guy can be feminine’

Kade Gottlieb, aka Gottmik, on coming out to a religious family in Arizona and becoming a Drag Race trailblazer.

By Will Stroude

Words: Cliff Joannou

It’s a balmy May in 2018 when Attitude first meets Gottmik, although at the time we only know him by his out-of-drag name Kade Gottlieb.

We’re gathered in a plush suite at the top of iconic Millennium Biltmore hotel in Downtown Los Angeles, with rails of clothes lining one of the rooms as Kade, whose ‘day job’ as a makeup artist has seen him work with many of the biggest names in entertainment, is setting up their grooming station. It’s as regular a working day as they come for us magazine folk as we await the arrival of singer Adam Lambert for his Attitude cover shoot.

As we natter away, Kade tells us about his passion for drag and his love of performing. As occasional visitors to the city, Attitude fashion director Joseph Kocharian and I aren’t overly familiar with the local queens of LA, so we use the opportunity to get all the inside goss about this vibrant Californian queer scene. Before we know it, Adam has arrived and we engage in the job at hand, losing ourselves in a flurry of photographs. 

Fast-forward a couple years, and the next time we hear about Kade, 24, is when the cast for RuPaul’s Drag Race season 13 drops, and there he is — now aka Gottmik — ready to blow the roof off drag as one of the finest fashion queens to take it to the runway. 

The standard on this season is high, and Gottmik is immediately one of the shining stars, wowing the judges from week one. There’s a lot to prove, not just to herself (Kade uses ‘she/her’ pronouns in drag), but to the enthusiastic — and opinionated — Drag Race fanbase, as well as being an ambassador for the growing trans masculine drag performer scene. It certainly helps that Gottmik is at the top of the game, and one of the stand-out queens from the current lineup.

We’re a third of the way through the new season when I catch up with ’Mik on the phone, and our call comes after one of the spiciest episodes ever as temperaments and tantrums flare on and off stage between Kandy Muse and Tamisha Iman. So, between Gottmik’s trailblazing casting and their own journey to discovering their identity, there’s a lot to dive into. 

You auditioned twice before being cast in the show. Did you ever expect you would be invited back as a contestant?

I did audition twice before, so it’s my third time. And, obviously, I’ve always had it in the back of my mind, wanting to be on the show, and hoping I’d be on. I don’t know if I thought, this is my time for sure, but I feel like that’s why it ended up being my time. Because I submitted a tape and just let it go. And I was like, whatever happens, happens.

This season is pretty nuts when it comes to the looks and the queens. What were your first thoughts when you entered the room?

When I entered the room, I feel like I was really blessed I got on the show when I did. Because I was at a place in my life that I was very confident in the drag I was putting out, and very confident in my style, and fashion, and how I edit my fashion, and all along with my look. So, I walked in there and was only focused on myself, and really wanted to make sure that I just came off edited in terms of the way I perceived myself at the time.

RuPaul seems to have a soft spot for you. What was your relationship like with him? Are there any off-camera moments that you can share?

Because of COVID, we were the most gorgeously, quarantined, separated angels. So, it wasn’t like we could all hang out after the show, after we were filming. But definitely, RuPaul really was super-excited and really supported me. Like what you saw in the ball, her being obsessed with my executive look and all of that. That was so real.

Gottmik wears dress by Ryunosukeokazaki; shoes, stylist’s own (Photography by Magnus Hastings; styling by Douglas Van Laningham; fashion direction by Joseph Kocharian)

I remember turning onto the stage, and her gasping and just dying. And when we were doing walkthroughs, she picked up the vibe that I was just so myself and so excited to be there, and I loved, genuinely loved, talking to her. I could sit and talk to RuPaul at that table all day. And I just think she got that energy and we just really clicked.

What went through your mind when you won your first challenge?

There are a couple of challenges on Drag Race to me that are the staple challenges, and the ball was definitely one of them. So going into that, especially, I really wanted to show everyone my fashion at this point. That was very important to me; actually, it was the only important thing to me at that point. Just the fact that I won the ball, it was just game over to me. I couldn’t believe it. It literally was like peace and happiness to me when I heard my name and “Condragulations”, on that main stage. I was dying.

Did you feel any pressure entering the workroom as the first trans male contestant representing a community, as well as having to then kick ass in a competition? You’re there for yourself, but you’re also there making a statement.

Yeah, I definitely felt a lot of pressure to represent the trans community because being trans masculine, this is kind of a different lane, and I don’t want to make people think that I’m trying to overshadow any trans woman that has been on the show. I need to continue to raise them up, but at the same time as my community. And I was just overthinking it so hard for a second. And then, the second that I realised that all I needed to do is be me, and that is enough. I don’t have to overthink it all… I can just go and do what I do best. And that is all I need to do, it was just game over.

We see a lot about trans women breaking through, and there was so much support for Elliot Page coming out recently. But his coming out highlighted how few trans male role models there are in the public eye. 

Even before I transitioned medically, I kind of was even debating, like, am I trans? It was in my brain for so long, just because I would look at all the trans guys in the media and be like, that is just not me. That is not who I am. I’m way more feminine. I love drag, and just looking at these really trans masculine men, I was, like, how could that possibly be who I am?

Gottmik wears full look by Givenchy (Photography: Magnus Hastings)

And then the second I just woke up, and I was, like, girl, if cis-gender men can be feminine, a trans guy can be feminine. Just because it’s beyond you, doesn’t mean it’s not there. So, girl, do it, and pave this path. And that’s what I did, and I’m living. And I’ve gotten so many messages on Instagram, Twitter, just every social media, of paragraphs from guys who feel the exact, same way. And I’m just so excited that I’m able to be on this platform and show them.

Have any younger trans viewers reached out to you?

I have had so many trans boys and girls reach out and tell me how seeing me on the show has helped them come out or feel accepted and those are the messages that really make me take a step back and thank the universe for everything I have. I always wanted to see someone like me in the media, and the fact that I am able to show my artistry on my favourite TV show and be that for people is surreal.

Did you experience any negativity in the drag community? 

It’s mostly supportive for sure. On Drag Race, I’m not exaggerating, everyone made me feel like just another guy in the werk room. I never was just, like, “Oh, this is awkward…” I never had that moment. Ever, ever, ever. Which was just so amazing because I kind of expected those moments to come. But everyone was so supportive and it just allowed me to really be myself, and open up, and grow as an artist. And I am so thankful for that. But, of course, there’s some people online that have their opinions, but that’s fine. They’re on the wrong side of history, and I’m just… I’m laughing from a gorgeous place.

Gottmik wears dress, belt and shoes by Jean Paul Gaultier; earrings by Shine Like Me; sunglasses by Anna-Karin Karlsson (Photography: Magnus Hastings)

What about in the wider community, did people accept you?

I transitioned after I was already an established makeup artist, so I was already performing in the industry, and doing makeup, and all this stuff before I changed my name, and got on hormones, and everything. So at first, switching everything is really crazy. I had to tell my agency, and I had to get them to push it. And it was just kind of a really crazy moment, but I was just so blessed to have the craziest core group of queer friends around me that were all just a full army supporting me, and just making sure everyone respected my gender identity. So, it was just as seamless of a transition I could have asked for. And I feel like I got mostly respect, so I was really blessed.

Have you ever experienced bullying because of your identity?

There’s always going to be the online haters. I’ve never had really crazy in-person stuff like me walking Downtown and being called a f****t, or anything like that. But I do get a wild amount of transphobia online that just comes from being uneducated, and this being a very new path. But all I can do is continue to be me and keep pushing forward and ignoring the haters.

You grew up in Arizona. What was family life like for you when you were a kid?

Arizona is definitely a moment… I come from a real Christian family. I went to Catholic school my whole life. It was really crazy, but I got out of there, girl.

Gottmik wears dress by Moschino, necklace by Diana Law; rings by La Tache Bobo; sunglasses by Natasha Morgan; gloves, stylist’s own (Photography: Magnus Hastings)

When did you realise you were different from other kids? 

I always had that in my head, like forever, forever, forever. I would always be the only girl invited to the boys’ birthday parties. My parents were like, “OK, this is odd that our child only has boyfriends, and is only dressing like a boy.” When I came out for the first time to them as trans, that’s when we went through it for a second, because it’s obviously a moment for them. But my dad pulled me aside one time at the beginning, and he was just, like, “It’s really crazy to hear that you’re trans, but at the same time, it kind of answers a lot of things because we’ve kind of always known that there were some things that are different, we just never knew what it was.” I think I was very clear for a long time that there was something going on, but it’s just being in such a sheltered, straight, Catholic, Arizona life, that I just didn’t have the vocabulary for it.

It’s much easier for me as a gay man, to find examples of myself out there. But growing up as you did in a very different part of the world, which isn’t so progressive, it must be so difficult. When was the first time you heard the term trans and realised it applied to you?

The first time I even heard the word gay was literally when Adam Lambert was on American Idol. I was in seventh grade, and I was like, “Oh my God. That is what that is.” I had no idea, and it was so crazy. I don’t think I heard about anyone trans until I was maybe 18 and I moved to LA. And then I met a bunch of trans women in the drag scene and stuff, and we all became really close. I was like, “OK… I’m definitely this.” This is what’s going down. And basically, all my trans women friends helped me find myself. So they definitely had a very, very, very major role in my transition as well. 

How did that first conversation go with your parents when you were discussing your identity?

My parents were definitely so shocked, because I basically told them after I started hormones. So, they were very shocked, and they were very upset. But it was almost like they were mourning the old me. It was definitely a moment for a long time. They definitely love me so, so much, so they were always going to love me, at the end of the day. But they just didn’t really know how to handle it. Like I said, I never had the vocabulary for what I was, being trans. They clearly didn’t have it, either. 

Gottmik wears petticoat by Moschinol; boots by Balenciaga; necklace by Diana Law; sunglasses by Natasha Morgan; gloves, stylist’s own (Photography: Magnus Hastings)

So, after the dust settled and I was able to talk to all my friends about it, I came to the realisation that it’s, in a way, my chance to sit back and educate them, as opposed to just being mad that they don’t understand what I’m going through right now, if that makes any sense. Even though I wanted to be, like, “I’m so upset you don’t understand,” and all this stuff. I was, like, “OK, I can take this moment to sit back and educate them.” About how this is actually just a very… It’s a little crazy, but it’s actually going to be OK, and this is what it means… and just really make sure they understand.

Like you said, you have to give people that moment, don’t you? They have to catch up with you, as you’re trying to catch up with yourself.

Definitely. It’s so easy to just write them off and be upset. But you have to have that stage of education. And if they still don’t get it in your talks, then cut them out.

What was school like for you? Did you find it tough?

School was tough because, first and foremost, I wanted out of Arizona Catholic school. I had big dreams of moving to LA and being an artist, and every day I wasn’t doing that seemed like torture. Looking back, I am so happy I finished school and got through that era of my life because the Catholic school hardships made me who I am today.

In one of the early Drag Race episodes, you said you struggled a little bit when you realised that the song lyrics you’d written for that week’s challenge referenced your journey, but you hadn’t had a chance to talk to the other queens. Obviously, now you’re in the public eye, you won’t have those ‘coming out’ moments as much, but as LGBTQ+ people we’re often constantly having to do that, to come out and educate people about who we are. Does that get frustrating for you?

I don’t know if it gets frustrating… In that specific moment [on Drag Race], I was excited to tell everyone and that’s why I wrote those lyrics. I’m a little delusional angel who thinks everything’s going to work out the way I have it played out in my brain. And so I just thought, OK, I’m going to write these lyrics… We’ll all be hanging out… I’m going to say it… Then we’re going to get back on stage and do it later tomorrow… And then I was, like, oh, I have not talked to anyone about this.

Gottmik wears coat and mask by Margiela; boots by Balenciaga (Photography: Magnus Hastings)

At the end of the day, I was, like, I wrote these lyrics, and I want them to come out. So might as well tell everyone. I’m so happy it happened the way it happened. Because first off, it was gorgeous to watch, and very funny and crazy. And second of all, it was just maybe even the push I needed to just be like, “Hey, guys. Now, you’ve heard those lyrics…” It was pure, and I am very happy that the group were just so chill about it.

One of the things that really stands out this season is that there are lots of really strong personalities. How is the vibe in the werk room after things get tense — like after the whole Kandy Muse and Tamisha clash? It makes for great TV, but you also have to spend 24 hours a day with each other.

I’m from LA. We do not handle confrontation well, for the most part, and so I’m just laughing it off the whole time. I just have to be like, OK… I feel like I don’t even realise that it’s serious, for the most part. I’m just deflecting my life away, pretty much. But then after, I feel like in those Untucked moments, for the most part, we are high-tension, worried we’re going to go home, or worried that we don’t know what’s going on. There can be a lot of tension, and a lot of uncertainty. So, emotions fly high. But when we get back in the werk room, we’re all professionals and we’re all working. And we realise that we have to be working together. So, for the most part, we brush it off, and apologise like Kandy did when she walked back in the werk room, and we move forward.

Have you all kept in touch since the show wrapped? Is there a season 13 WhatsApp group?

Yes! We all talk almost every day. We have a season 13 group chat where we send memes, gossip, and vent about what’s going on in our lives. I love every single one of those girls with all of my heart.

Gottmik wears blazer and shorts by Balmain; earrings by Diana Law; boots by Both Paris. (Photography: Magnus Hastings)

Who is your favourite Drag Race queen of all time?

I don’t think I can pick an all-time favourite, but I’m super-inspired by queens that have a strong brand like Trixie, Katya, Violet, Adore. Their drag is THEIR DRAG.

Who are your fashion icons?

My fashion icons are definitely people like Rihanna, Grace Jones, Leigh Bowery, Harry Styles — anyone who takes iconic garments and is able to add their own style and vibe to the look! 

Who inspires your art?

People that push me to get out of my comfort zone and inspire me to challenge gender norms and the boxes society tries so hard to place us in. People like Pete Burns, Adam Lambert, Indya Moore, Nats Getty, and so many others. I could go on forever. 

When did your journey to experimenting with makeup begin? Did you have any formal training?

I began experimenting when I was probably around 15. I pretty much learned basics from YouTube, and when I moved to Los Angeles, I started reaching out to my favourite makeup artists and asking to assist so I could learn in real life.

Photography: Magnus Hastings

You’ve worked with some incredible celebrities. Who are your favourite artists to work with?

I have been so blessed to have worked with such amazing clients. I really just love working with anyone who trusts my art and let’s me do whatever I want. Heidi Klum doesn’t even look in the mirror when I paint her! 

The trans community has really been through it over the past four years in the USA. How does it feel to be entering a new era of hope with Joe Biden, who is a huge advocate for trans rights?

The LGBTQ+ community has really been through it during the Trump administration, but now with Joe Biden in office, he has already done such amazing things to reverse the damage Trump did, such as reversing the trans military ban. Seeing such astronomical steps for our community in such a short amount of time gives me so much hope and excitement for the future.