The success of RuPaul's Drag Race has elevated drag from subversive counterculture to mainstream pop culture, making participants household names. And while Rhea Litré has yet to ascend to that echelon of recognition, she's working on it.
"Trying to keep up with that is hard, being, as they call it, a 'local queen,'” the West Hollywood–based Litré says during a recent phone interview. "For someone who has not been on RuPaul's Drag Race, it's a constant struggle to stay relevant and make a good amount of money. When you are not on RPDR, you are not catapulted onto TV and given $5,000 to $10,000 a gig."
Although Litré may not be a member of the RuPaul pantheon, she has proven herself a big nymph in a small pond. Over the past decade, she has made a splash as gay L.A.'s gender-bending It Girl, from hosting popular parties such asthe weekly Voss Events Drag Brunch and Ash Wednesdays to gracing the runways of Marco Marco fashion shows. Rhea's status as one of L.A.'s leading "local ladies" was on full view at the Toga Gala on Oct. 25, an annual themed bacchanal thrown by iconic queer clubhouse the Abbey in honor of her birthday. Even this year's motif, the Underworld, was a nod to her drag name's mythological roots.
"Rhea is the mother of all the Greek gods. And Litré was the name of a rock Apollo gave to her in a story," says Rhea, aka Joshua Miller. "I put them together and loved the sound of it. It sounded very French and, you know, fancy."
The Toga Gala birthday is a full-circle moment for Litré. Years before developing the drag persona, 17-year-old Miller began his first job interning for Lobeline Communications, the PR company that represented the Abbey. It was there Miller first secured a foothold in the club scene, cultivating a drag alter ego as a way to bolster his party-promoting career.
"Working for that company is the beginning of everything about me, everything Rhea Litré, everything about my life in nightlife. I was thrust into this world of LGBT nightlife. That was the true birth of me being able to accept myself as a gay person."
The Abbey may be the genesis of Rhea Litré, but her big break didn't occur until 2012, with the release of her music video "Let's Have a Kai Kai." A parody of the Scissor Sisters' "Let's Have a Kiki," the song poked fun at Kai Kai, a slang term for two drag queens fucking, which is often considered taboo in queer culture. The project was originally written as a duet with RPDR alum Courtney Act, but the Aussie pop princess, feeling the subject matter was too risque for her sterling public image, politely declined. Instead, Act recommended Litré pitch the song to Willam Belli, the resident bad girl of the Drag Race sorority.
"I was like, there’s no way Willam is going to do this with me," Litré recalls. "First of all, I’m no one. I’m a local girl in L.A. and she’s touring all over the place — she doesn't have time for me. I presented it to Willam, and because she is a businesswoman and a fucking superstar, she saw a great product and she was like, 'Let's do it.' She was able to share that with the world, and it put Rhea Litré on the forefront of drag."
To date, the "Let's Have a Kai Kai" video has generated more than 3 million views on YouTube. It also attracted the attention of Michael Benedetti, producer of the rock & roll drag show Dragapalooza. When a performer dropped out of Dragapalooza's debut production last January, Benedetti reached out to Litré to fill in. Of the initial cast, which featured Belli and Act, as well as Mimi Imfurst, Derricka Barry, Trixie Mattel and Sharon Needles, Litré was the only non-RPDR girl.
Dragapalooza is unique in that all the drag queens sing live. Traditionally, drag queens lip sync during performances. In fact, RuPaul's Drag Race features the recurring segment "Lip Sync for Your Life." For Litré , the characteristic that delineates the Dragapalooza cast from other queens is the same quality that makes or breaks any drag performance. "Talent," she says bluntly. "Anyone can look good. Anyone can put some makeup on, figure it out and look amazing. If you don't have the talent to back it up, you’re not going to get anywhere. There are so many insta-famous drag queens, there are so many beautiful queens all over the world. But when you see them face to face, and interact with them, if they are not a powerful energy, a talented figure, why are you really there? The beauty, I guess?"
Over the last year, Litré's talent has created opportunities for her to venture out of L.A. gay nightlife and perform abroad. Traveling outside of the safety of the local club scene has given her a new respect for the art form.
"In L.A., we are so oversaturated with entertainment and queens and makeup and everything. But when you leave this area and travel across the globe, you really understand what kind of impact drag has on the world," Litré says. "It's not normal to see someone like me walking down the street in London. But it's so amazing to see the response, because they love it. I feel like they appreciate it so much more because it is few and far between. It's more like a meet-and-greet aspect when you do something in Manchester or London or Dubai. I feel like I have more responsibility as a drag queen and as a persona when I leave Los Angeles."
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The conservative culture of Dubai made performing there both challenging and rewarding. "People were gagging. They don't get to see that in Dubai. But at the same time it's super scary because it's not really legal to do drag out there," Litré explains. "I was supposed to perform for an Andrew Christian party, but the morality police show up, so I had to get out of drag. The promoter was really mad I got out of drag, but I did not want to go to jail in Dubai."
Litré may have traversed the globe but she has yet to land at the one destination crucial for a professional drag career: RuPaul's Drag Race. Now that the show has moved from LGBT niche network Logo to larger Viacom sibling VH1, RPDR has more pop culture clout than ever before. But, whether or not Litré is cast on a future season, L.A.'s local queen won't stop hustling her way to the top.
"I think anyone in our industry should do Drag Race, just for the fact that it would expose you to millions of people, especially now that it is on VH1. But I’ve come to the realization that [RPDR production company] World of Wonder and Logo have their own fucking thing, and they don't want anything to do with me for whatever reason. So I’m gonna sit here and do my music and do my TV gigs and do what I can to stay on top of these girls."
Ash Wednesdays, The Abbey, 692 N. Robertson Blvd., West Hollywood; Wednesdays, 9 p.m.; free. (310) 289-8410, theabbeyweho.com.