Alex Casey visits the chaotic House of Drag mansion, and meets the dragstars changing the face of local reality TV.
At the end of the winding driveway of the House of Drag mansion, we are met with two drag queens luxuriating in nude underwear, eating cheeseburgers and dangling their feet in the enormous fountain. It looked like a Baz Luhrmann concept sketch but, for them, it was just lunch. In the first – but certainly not the last – dirty visual pun of the day, I couldn’t help but note down that they were surrounded by giant floating balls.
“Things were going so well, but then I had a patty” shouts host Kita Mean, holding up her half-eaten burger and grinning. “Would anyone like to take a seat?” offers her co-host Anita Wigl’it, holding up a large detachable butt pad. The jokes had officially kicked off, and they simply didn’t end, which is also a trend true of TVNZ’s Drag House itself. “I’m the pretty one,” says Anita, introducing herself. “And I’m the talented one,” says Kita.
The groundbreaking local reality show, live on TVNZ Ondemand today, puts nine “dragstars” in one mansion and pits them against each other in a fierce series of creative challenges to win a $10,000 prize package. In each episode, the challenge winner chooses the bottom two, and hosts Kita and Anita decide who is eliminated. It’s an interesting tactic not dissimilar to RuPaul’s Drag Race: All Stars – a series which, naturally, is never far from anyone’s lips.
Despite the easy comparison – not the first time a TVNZ show looked eerily familiar – House of Drag is an original concept devised between the hosts and series producer Amanda Pain. “We’re a team,” says Amanda. “I always wanted to make a local TV show about drag so we got Kita and Anita in to brainstorm and this is what we came up with.” The drag stalwarts have worked together for nearly decade, and currently own Caluzzi bar on K’Rd. Kita explains they riffed for a while on the idea of Big Brother – working title Fat Sister – until House of Drag was born.
When we visit Drag House, the dragstars are in the throes of a ‘Trash Free For All’ costume-making challenge. It honestly looks like a Look Sharp projectile vomited on the floor of every room after a huge night. We are forced to tiptoe over rainbow wigs, loose feathers and plastic platform shoes. Only occasionally can you spot the more mundane totems of masculinity – briefs featuring monogram Kiwis, Rexona deodorant, and a black cap that says “kia kaha”.
Inside one of the bedrooms are dragstars Lola Blades and Leidy Lei, heavy in makeup and light on clothes. “I’m making… a trainwreck” sighs Lola, holding up a large circle of neon green fabric. “It’s a skirt situation? a top situation?” She slumps down to the floor on her knees, defeated. “I don’t know what I’m doing.” Leidy seems a little more certain. “I’m making a bondage harness,” she says, proudly holding up a knotted piece of rope with an eyepatch hanging off it.
Part of the charm of House of Drag – typical of a lot of New Zealand shows – is that a lot of the contestants knew each other before coming on the show. “I’m not saying it’s a utopia,” says Lola, “but the house is exactly as I expected.” It’s a reality made clear from episode one, as the group immediately severs between Wellington and Auckland. I’d strongly recommend keeping a close eye on a Wellington faction known as ‘The Ashleys’, containing drag stars Bunny Holiday and Vulga Titz.
“Ashley is always that cunt in a 2005 movie, you know?” explains Vulga Titz downstairs, who is hard at work crafting a frilly apron with ‘SEX’ written on it in blood. She describes herself as a big Bratz doll come to life, choosing her drag name at the age of 14 when she was “just a little gay in Wellington.” Sex aprons aside, she’s also got a bigger purpose being in House of Drag. “I wanted to show people that bigger girls can show skin. I jump, I do the splits, I pour whipped cream all over myself. ”
It’s a sentiment that speaks to what shows like House of Drag and Drag Race are capable of – exposing a mainstream audience to people and ideas that they might otherwise not engage with. But House of Drag welcomes drag of all kinds, unlike the attitude of its international foremother (although the next instalment of All Stars is now set to debut its first ever trans contestant). “Boys can do drag, girls can be drag kings and hyper drag – every gender between boy and girl lies on a spectrum now and everyone wants to give it a go,” says Kita. “Who are we to say that someone can’t be in our show because of their gender identity?”
Indeed, House of Drag features drag king Hugo Grrl – apparently the first in the world to feature on a reality show – and Trinity Ice, a trans woman from Wellington. “Transness has always been very deeply-rooted into drag,” says Kita. “It’s all about breaking gender and breaking rules.” In the lounge, Hugo is holding up a pair of togs covered in plastic cups. “We’ve got the nips covered at least, so that’s a success,” he grins. “I still don’t know how to cover my ass.”
With two episodes out today, there’s already been a few tears and a fair share of shade. “I know it’s a whole lot of drag characters in one house, and this should be a given, but for me, it’s still so dramatic,” says Anita. The gift of making a reality show with performers is that they know to save the gold for an audience. Earlier in the day, I had witnessed it in action. “Can we swap materials?” asked Bunny Holiday of Trinity Ice. “Someone could steal it?” offered Trinity. Bunny gasped and turned around, “that would be good TV.”
As for who will take out House of Drag, the judges are calling it absolutely anyone’s game. “Some of the ones we thought were not going to do so well have really surprised us, and some of the ones with stronger looks have been a bit more predictable,” says Kita. “Ultimately this is our house and we get to choose who we want to stand with us,” adds Anita. “So whoever makes me look the best will be there in the end.”
Jokes aside, there’s an unavoidable feeling of quiet revolution in the air of the House of Drag mansion. “I do think it’s going to be one of the most exciting, colourful and flamboyant things to hit our screens,” says Anita. “I don’t think there’s been anything made in New Zealand that’s been this bonkers before.” So are they feeling a lot of pressure? “Have you seen my knickers?” quips Anita.
“Now that’s a lot of pressure.”
The Bulletin is The Spinoff’s acclaimed daily digest of New Zealand’s most important stories, delivered directly to your inbox each morning.