Trixie Mattel is one of RuPaul’s Drag Race’s biggest and most controversial stars. Her journey began four years back in season 7, where she underwhelmed in the competition, but made a big impression on fans with her bonkers Barbie look. (She famously joked, “Drag queens always say paint for the back row. I paint for the check cashing place down the street.”) From there, Trixie teamed up with kooky castmate Katya Zamolodchikova for a weird and wonderful web series called UNHhhh, which became such a hit that it was spun into the VICE TV series The Trixie & Katya Show. Meanwhile, Trixie released a pair of country-folk albums, Two Birds and One Stone. So, when she returned to Drag Race for All Stars season 3, this comedy queen was feeling confident and eager to show how she’d grown. There were stumbles including a truly terrible Snatch Game performance, but Trixie ended up winning the season and sparking outrage from a very vocal Team Shangela. From the outside, this seemed like a wild ride. And now, fans can get a peek inside, courtesy of the new documentary Trixie Mattel: Moving Parts.
Writer/director Nicholas Zeig-Owens follows Trixie (whose real name is Brian Furkus) in and out of drag as she travels around the world, records One Stone, films the first season of The Trixie & Katya Show, competes on All Stars, and then makes appearances at a string of viewing parties, not only waiting to see what the world thinks of her performance on the show, but also waiting to see if she won. Because—as Drag Race die-hards know—World of Wonder shoots finale versions where each finalist wins, then only reveals the “real” ending on TV. So we watch Trixie watch herself win, while she’s on stage at a bar surrounded by Drag Race devotees! But those looking to Moving Parts for spilled tea on Drag Race will be disappointed. There’s little footage from the show and little interview time spent asking Trixie how she feels about it. Instead, this film aims to show you the work that goes into the perky pink bombshell with a mouth like a sailor and songs like Dolly Parton.
Zeig-Owens squeezes into hotel rooms, dressing rooms, and Trixie’s garage, all cramped and cluttered with makeup, dresses, and boxes of tokens from fans. There, we see Brian use an arsenal of brushes and strange geometry to transform into Trixie. In the meantime, he’ll reminisce about his early dreams of stardom. He’ll chat with colleagues. (Drag Race stars like Bob The Drag Queen, Willam, Kennedy Davenport, and BenDeLaCreme make appearances.) But even as he allows the camera into his world and behind the scenes, there’s a tension at play in Moving Parts, like Brian doesn’t want us getting too close.
It’s a tension fans might recognize from All Stars 3. Whenever threatened—be it by Shangela’s confrontation over the Thorgy letter or a singing challenge testing his confidence—Brian had two modes: shut down or crack a joke. This rubbed a guest judge (and some of the show’s fans) at home the wrong way. But watching the series, I felt for Brian. It’s one thing to feel insecure in a moment, it’s another to know that insecurity may be on display for a national TV audience to witness and dissect. In Moving Parts, you see these defenses at play during a phone interview for a radio station. Brian is not in drag, and has just finished giving the DJ a read for the station’s ad tagline, complete with silly sounds. Then, the DJ asks for the origins of Trixie’s name. It’s a story that’s been told plenty of times before, but right after asking for honking sounds, the question seems like a blindsiding. Brian is understandably reluctant to get into it. Later, in the video interview shot expressly for the doc, Brian is in full drag, perched on a chair and recounting how his stepfather used to beat and gay-bash him by calling him “Trixie.” Trixie is how Brian reclaimed himself, then and now.
There’s a strange curse to celebrity, where the public confuses persona with the person. Though drag queens have dramatically painted faces, breastplates, and stage names, their personas and personal lives still bleed together, in part because of how RuPaul’s Drag Race treats them. On the show, they are only addressed by their drag names, which blurs these lines. Brian was a victim of domestic violence. Brian gets shy or snappish. Trixie is a country star. Trixie always has a quip or a joke. Brian is a person. Trixie is a fantasy. But the two blend together for the public in a way that makes them inspirational and aspirational. Urged to sort through fan mail, Brian begs for a reprieve because there’s a stack of letters from fans saying Trixie helped them through suicidal thoughts. That’s a lot to take in as a person, and—again—harder when a camera is demanding your reaction. As a result, I began to feel uncomfortable with Moving Parts, because you can sense the push and pull of persona and the awareness of being expected to perform, even when being yourself.
The film doesn’t only show us the fun and work of being a queen, but also the frustrations, self-doubt, and personal trials. Zeig-Owens’ camera is there when Katya had an on-set meltdown that led to her checking into rehab and quitting the pair’s show. And while she successfully swats the camera away from filming her private conversation with Trixie, the pair are still wearing microphones. Over a black screen, the audience is invited to spy on a hard heart-to-heart between two dear friends who are at a testing point in their relationship and fear they’ll fail each other. As a fan of both queens, this sequence was among the hardest to watch in Moving Parts. And the film won’t really offer a satisfying conclusion just a fragile reunion that might have you googling if the pair reteamed or if Katya really gave up drag for good. (She didn’t. They did. New episodes of UNHhhh can be found here. You’re welcome.) But their friendship isn’t the focus of Moving Parts, Trixie—flawed, frustrated, and fantastic—is.
Launched by a reality TV series, Trixie found an unlikely path to success. Sure, lots of drag queens released albums and web series to capitalize on the Drag Race bump. But few got a real TV show out of it, and no others have appeared on the cover of Autoharp Quarterly. (A real distinction of which Trixie is sincerely proud.) Then things got tricky when Brian sought validation by returning to the confines of a game show that never made the most of his talents to begin with. And somehow he succeeded and failed. Moving Parts is about the messiness of a career in the spotlight, where the personal and the professional blend mercilessly, where privacy becomes a luxury, and where finding yourself sometimes means slathering on loads of makeup and a shockingly pink cloak.
After the film, I felt uncomfortable and unsatisfied. Wondering whether Moving Parts was exploring or exploiting vulnerability. And then—because I was at the World Premiere at the Tribeca Film Festival—Trixie herself came out on stage in a glittery gold jumpsuit. She performed a set, making jokes about overzealous fangirls, Tonya Harding, and rich people problems, and singing songs cheeky and charming, including, “I’ve Already Got Your Money.” She was outrageous and hilarious. And while I still cringe at some of the moments in the movie and how they’re captured, I saw Trixie as a beacon. She is an example of how we can rise up from the traumas we can’t control and choose to be something unique and beautiful. To ignore the struggle involved in such art would be to sell it short. Like Penn and Teller showing the secrets to their tricks, Moving Parts doesn’t strip away the magic. It makes you marvel at the mastery of the craft behind it.
Trixie Mattel: Moving Parts made its world premiere at the Tribeca Film Festival.
Header Image Source: World of Wonder