This Woman’s Werk

Photo By Ji ji lee - Collage By Frank Correa
Bendela By Ji ji lee - Collage By Frank Correa

Hometown drag hero BenDeLaCreme slays assumptions to remain free.

Once you’ve seen BenDeLaCreme belt out “It’s the most wonderful time to be queer” dressed like a tinsel-covered Christmas tree, it’s hard to imagine anything getting her down. The same goes for the perky drag diva’s filthy Little Mermaid number, or her turn as a sexy man-eating space insect. This bright-eyed, bushy-tailed burlesque star may be dim, but she’s un-dimmable.

DeLa, as she’s known to her friends, is the retro, raven-haired and relentlessly optimistic drag queen alter ego of Benjamin Putnam, a dash of “Golly!” in a world of shade. She’s a peppy dingbat who resets at the end of every show, ready to light up the world anew and teach us through her own revelations. For the Seattle-based Putnam, who performs as DeLa all over the world, she’s the ideal lens through which to investigate a dismal planet.

Putnam used to work hard to keep the distinction between his real self and this drag self clear; he didn’t want fan expectations of one specific character to affect his overall freedom as an artist. Nowadays, he says it doesn’t much matter, and after he appeared on season six of RuPaul’s Drag Race in 2014 the line is blurrier than ever.

For now, Putnam has coined a perfect expression for his work: “Delightment,” he says, then laughs. “That’s not a word!” But there’s no better sentiment for the sidesplitting, substantive comedy Putnam writes and performs.

“The world is super fucked-up and sometimes we just need to be delighted,” he says. “To me, that comes from a strong tradition of drag queens as jesters for an oppressed community that desperately needs to laugh.” That’s the through line of his work: a love letter to the queer community, to folks who feel powerless or unseen.

“Whether it’s a message of it’s going to be okay or you have agency or just I see you, that’s what I always needed to hear, so that’s what I want to express,” Putnam says. “Right now, in this moment, it’s really tempting to look away and seek escapism, and my hope is to make things that have the trappings of escapism but point us all toward striving to work harder and be better.”

In Putnam’s first solo show, Terminally Delightful, DeLa discovers that she shares a body with a man named Ben in a campy, candid exploration of her origin story. In Cosmos (tagline: “Space. Time. Splash of Cran.”), DeLa explains the mysteries of the universe with the help of a talking martini glass named Neil DeGlasse Tyson. This summer, after performing more Pride Month gigs that she can count, DeLa is diving back into her most recent solo show Inferno A-Go-Go, an over-the-top multimedia drag take on Dante’s Inferno (catch it at Tacoma’s Broadway Center for the Performing Arts on July 7, before DeLa hits the road for P-Town). Then a new era begins, as Putnam goes into rehearsal for a brand-new theatre/cabaret show he’s created, featuring his first ever live performance not as DeLa and debuting at ACT Theatre this fall.

Delightment extends to DeLa’s Seattle apartment, with walls painted in rich, saturated colors and crowded with eclectic art. Feet tucked up on an orange couch, Putnam is chatty and thoughtful, an easy laugher but decidedly un-showzy, my own favorite made-up word for that particular brand of performer who is always “on.” He is, in short, as nice as you want him to be, and thus we enter the tricky world of television fame. It’s hard not to feel like you already know Ben, because Drag Race introduced both DeLa the character and the “real” DeLa to television viewers. Of course, neither of those is the real, flesh-and-blood, three-dimensional person behind those TV personalities.

Growing up in small-town Connecticut, Putnam was “a really effeminate, super queer, weird, fat kid.” Drag was something he always did, long before he knew what it was or could be. “It’s just inherent to who I am,” he says. “I was drawn to performance and femininity. I used to dress up a lot when I was little and all through high school, but I didn’t know what I wanted to do with it. It wasn’t until later that I discovered drag and thought, Oh, there’s a place for this thing, this urge that I don’t understand.”

At 18, DeLa first saw drag queen and actress Varla Jean Merman perform in Boston, a moment he considers an artistic turning point, when he realized drag could be his life. He and Merman now both perform in Provincetown every summer and he considers her a friend, though he sometimes still gets tongue-tied around her.

I first saw BenDeLaCreme host a Valentine’s Day show with the top-flight Seattle burlesque troupe the Atomic Bombshells at the Triple Door many years ago, a determinedly fizzy vision in hot pink, frantically eating chocolates from a heart-shaped box nestled above her magenta tulle skirt. Next I saw her in Homo for the Holidays, the high-camp holiday cabaret produced by DeLouRue Presents, which DeLa founded with good friends and frequent collaborators Kitten LaRue and Lou Henry Hoover.

DeLa is the driving force behind the writing of DeLouRue’s clever, narratively dense shows, which build with an internal logic that folds in on itself in revealing ways, rife with unexpected comedy and fluffy storylines supporting deceptively heavy themes. Even more surprising, the writer himself has no theatrical background.

When Putnam left the East Coast, it was to study painting at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. Studying fine arts during the day, Putnam “did drag for pennies” at night and started entering competitions in bars the moment he turned 21. He loved school, but didn’t want to be a fine artist. He hated the Chicago drag scene of the early ’00s, but knew that he really, really wanted to do drag for a living.

School required him to take classes in various visual arts disciplines, and Putnam wasn’t particularly attached to any of them. What he liked was learning to investigate identity in any form. “We learned really quickly how to be honest and speak from a place of truth, but also not just do a diary entry,” he says. “How do you do something that takes the feeling you want to express and make the other person feel it? It might not be the thing that makes you feel it. That was a valuable set of ideas.”

The Chicago drag scene of that era only seemed to care about how pretty a queen was, reinforcing an idea Putnam had long held: The gay world held no place for him. As a kid, when Putnam managed to access gay culture, all he saw were hot, muscly, blonde butch men. “I was like, Well, I’m just not going to have a community, ever.

The crowds he performed for in Chicago looked a lot like that blonde, butch image, and while he hated it, it was his outlet for an art form he loved. “When I started being a queen in the public eye, it was not just reviled by straight people, it was reviled by queer people. Gay people loved you on stage, but you were essentially undateable if you were a drag queen. You had to want it so badly to deal with that.”

Putnam’s early drag persona was angry. Tina Angst was a punk Riot Grrrl who performed to Le Tigre and Gossip, the Raincoats and X-Ray Spex. She was an act of aggression against these clubs, but she was pretty enough—and he performed well enough—that crowds liked her. But living in that kind of anger wasn’t sustainable, nor was it the way to create the kind of queer space he craved.

Putnam started finding his own queer community when he found the Chicago Kings, a group of drag kings doing “really scrappy, messy work that was not in any way refined, but had content. It was all super political, super feminist.” He became the only queen in a troupe of drag kings who were all also burlesque dancers—a commingling that would become a recurring theme in Putnam’s professional life.

He took a cue from Miss Foozie, a Chicago scene fixture in a feather wig, who handed out toys and called everyone “Pineapple.” People in the clubs those days were angry and mean and bitter and catty, Putnam remembers, but something shifted when Miss Foozie came in. “She was this maternal figure to all these lost children,” he says. “That’s part of this tradition of third-gender people as spiritual leaders and connectors, and I realized, Oh, that’s how you actually heal this stuff.” So BenDeLaCreme was born.

But if DeLa’s enthusiasm is the lure, Putnam’s writing is the hook. “[DeLouRue show] Freedom Fantasia was very much like, ‘I’m excited to talk about the Fourth of July! Oh, right—slavery and genocide.’ Inferno is, ‘We’re going to do this fun crazy story! Oh, right—moral relativity and the ways we are cruel to each other.’”

When Putnam dropped out of school and moved to Seattle (“I don’t know, I was just pointed West”), the burlesque world was again where he found his home, meeting people such as Waxie Moon, Kitten N’ Lou and the Atomic Bombshells. DeLa became a fixture in the local cabaret/burlesque scene, but, like so many modern queens, Putnam’s career took off nationally and internationally after his appearance on Drag Race, something he resisted for a long time.

“I was using [DeLa] as a device in shows, but that’s always what she was, a device,” he says. “Her positivity limits her scope.” When Putnam finally decided to go for Drag Race, he intended to stay true to his character, even if he seemed crazy or annoying, because he wanted to set up people’s expectations for what they would see on stage.

Putnam didn’t win his season of Drag Race, but his strong performance—including a marvelous turn as Maggie Smith in the popular Snatch Game—earned DeLa legions of fans and the title of Miss Congeniality. Along with some financial stability, reality TV fame creates expectations of who she is and what she does. And for now, Putnam is OK with that, because he can do club gigs as DeLa and make the sneakily political work he loves for himself.

When ACT Theatre approached Putnam last fall about making a new show, he had an idea at the ready, based on his long-standing love of horror films, specifically the haunted-house film genre of the 1960s. The resulting project, which opens in October, borrows heavily from the 1963 film The Haunting (“so strongly lesbian, it’s barely subtext”) and the concept of the haunted house. Walking room to room through a series of vignettes is a natural way to bridge theatre and cabaret, Putnam’s favorite combination.

Staged in the Bullitt Cabaret, this show is more like a play than anything Putnam has written. “The living characters move the narrative along and all of the monsters and haunts exist in this world of cabaret,” he says. The living characters are unaware of the audience, which helps bring viewers in the world of the ghosts and monsters, but the monsters and ghosts can break the fourth wall. Putnam will play a new drag character, but he has yet to discover how much she’ll overlap with DeLa.

This doesn’t mean that Putnam is pivoting into a more general acting career; he’d rather give up performing to write work that he cares about than perform in someone else’s work that he doesn’t. “I do love words,” he says. “I never thought that writing would be my predominant thing and in the last few years it’s become, like, my favorite thing. I just love language choices.”

The more Putnam puts his own voice out there, the most comfortable he’s become with being—god forbid—disliked. “Any time you’re doing work that isn’t fluff, some people are not going to want to see it,” he says. Audiences craving surface-level fun will find plenty at Putnam’s shows, but also social and emotional depth. Putnam’s work is layered with thought and intention that the audience will never see. For now, one of those layers just happens to be a corset.