Willam Belli is a bit of a drag queen entrepreneur. She made her way into the industry kicking and screaming, and came out the other end with an extensive filmography across both film and television, a number of self-started web series, a successful yet short-lived stint on reality television and a slew of comedy singles that have taken the internet by storm.
And now, to top it all off, she’s reached the top of the Billboard comedy charts with her latest album, Shartistry in Motion. As an artist, her pop music parodies purposefully sound like the immature lyric spinning of a teenager, complete with a double entendre in every second line, and downright mature references filling the rest. But the view’s a little different below the surface: the work ethic and drive to succeed behind the music that makes Willam’s position and success so inspiring.
In the midst of her usual live appearances and a rousing rise in internet visibility and activity due to the recent announcement of RuPaul’s All Stars Drag Race Season 2, Willam took the time to answer a few of our questions about her committed work ethic, her time as a drag queen and her new album Shartistry in Motion.
Michael Smith: Hi Willam, how are you doing today? What are you up to right now?
Willam Belli: I’m on a plane next to someone with a giant zit on their neck. It’s seriously like Vesuvius size and I want to pop it so bad for him.
Willam: One thing I’ve always had was a drive to succeed and work harder than I’ve felt like at any given moment. I’ve found some queens are fine sleeping late because they were out being the life of the party til sunrise and skipping out on the legwork that it takes to build a solid career that happens while the rest of the world works (answering emails promptly, going on auditions, etc).
MS: Did you originally intend to work as a drag queen on television, or was it a side-effect of the roles you initially managed to land?
Willam: I believed in the power of Yes and said it to everything. I’ve had roles out of drag but just happened to have more success all done up- which I don’t mind since drag is the best job ever.
MS: How radical has the change in your career been since you first started? Did you expect to be doing drag this long?
Willam: I used to be an actor who played trans roles on TV. Now actual trans people do. Kneecap for my acting career but a step forward for the movement. Some equate my past work with something tantamount to Blackface, but I think visibility in any form is key and can be the spark that starts a discussion.
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MS: You’ve developed a sizable collection of web shows as well, such as Beatdown and Paint Me Bitch, among others. You also started a Kickstarter for season 3 of Beatdown earlier this year. What was it that lead you to start creating web content like this alongside your other endeavours? How helpful was Kickstarter in making it happen?
Willam: I was tired of people doing what I wanted to do poorly. I just decided to make own brand of no bullshit straight talk available to the world. Someone needs to tell the assholes that they’re not just assholes- but they’re also delusional about how the rest of the world sees them. Sometimes followers & subscribers don’t mean you’re good at what you do. I know I follow people just because I like to watch what an out of touch shitshow they are. Kickstarter has enabled me to not come out of pocket for these and many more ideas I have brewing. Paying editors, graphic people, camera techs and all the other nerd things I have no capacity for in my bewiggled head.
MS: Over the years you’ve amassed a huge dedicated fan base. What do you think it is that makes you stand out from the rest of the pack?
Willam: I think the fact that I’m not a character is helpful. I was raised in Philadelphia where my grandparents owned a bar and from them, I learned that talking to strangers can be rewarding. Recently there was an event called RuPaul’s Drag Con and most queens charged for photos with fans. It was very much like going to Disneyland and then Mickey Mouse asking for some coin before taking a pic. I did it all for free (after coming straight from LAX after an appearance supporting my Magnum Ice Cream campaign at Cannes no less). I think respecting the fans and giving them what they want is important. Hell- RuPaul wasn’t even in drag and was making the most outta everyone. I never want to be someone who disappoints. People complained about all the above things and I was glad to be amongst the cream of that sordid crop.
MS: Quite a large part of your career has revolved around music, too. You’ve been a part of a few music groups since initially joining Tranzkuntinental. What sparked your interest in music? Did you always intend to launch a music career alongside acting?
Willam: I’ve always liked singing and have done a few rock musicals (Rock of Ages & Hedwig) and liked being part of bands a lot. I never specifically sought out music as a career because I’m more of a comedian at heart. I think I came into my own when I realized I could do both after seeing Tenacious D, The Dan Band and Hard & Phirm at local LA clubs (Kyle Gass, Dan Finnerty and Chris Hardwicke were also all in the original cast of Rock of Ages with me, too). It’s like I finally found a way to combine two things I love into this Weird Al Drag Lonely Island hybrid.
MS: You’ve also just released your second studio album, Shartistry in Motion. How did the process behind this album and the eventual result differ from your debut, The Wreckoning?
Willam: This album differed from the first one because I had more riding on it. I wanted to prove that I could write a fuckin jam banger of a song and still have humor in it. I don’t want to make disposable drag queen dance music. I guess it worked because it debuted at #1 on the Billboard chart for Comedy Albums the week it came out. Who’d of thought. First drag queen with a number one album from Drag Race too I think.
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MS: You often refer to yourself as more of a comedian than a singer, and Shartistry in Motion is in large part a parody album. What appeals to you about making parodies or even comedy in general?
Willam: Providing commentary on things that need to be skewered is something that always has appealed to me.
MS: You’ve previously made it clear that you had no plans to release a second album. What led to the change of heart?
Willam: I said that because I’m not good at keeping stuff on the shelf, especially parodies because they usually commentate on something that’s current. I’ll never say never again.
MS: How did you choose which songs to parody? Did you set out with the goal to parody specific songs, or did they tend to just come to you as you were listening to them normally?
Willam: They usually just pop into my head when I’m doing something else. My biggest hit was about a really bad threeway.
MS: One of the bigger songs featured on your album is American Apparel Ad Girls with Alaska Thunderfuck and Courtney Act, which followed an actual collaboration with American Apparel. How did the American Apparel deal initially take place? What lead to the decision to make a song and a music group out of it? What is it that makes them easy or fun to work with?
Willam: I’ve always worn American Apparel in drag and worked with one of their higher up’s Jonny Makeup on webshows. He tried to collab with my last band but it didn’t work out for a multitude of reasons. I came to him after the breakup and said I wanted to do a beach towel and he suggested shirts. Then he added Courtney and Alaska to the mix and I came up with the idea to do the song to really blow it up. I produced the video and track and felt a bit of pride bringing drag to the mainstream like that with two of my best friends.
MS: Alaska also features on your album a second time with Ride For AIDs. What’s the story behind this song?
Willam: I thoroughly believe my generation doesn’t give back enough. I wanted to do LifeCycle (a bike riding fundraiser for HIV/AIDS) but didn’t have the time. So I brought the idea to Alaska about doing a song to bring attention to the cause. We raised over $5K without even getting on a bike.
MS: There’s also your collaboration with Latrice Royale, and one of the original songs on the album, Thick Thighs. How did this collaboration begin? Was Latrice always intended to be a part of it?
Willam: Latrice and I made a good team on that game show I was disqualified from and I love working with her. Getting her in the studio with me was always intended and she brought a DMX type of roughness and the requisite thickness to make me decide that Thick Thighs was my first single off the album.
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MS: There are two more original songs on the album as well, Coin On The Dresser and How Much Can’t. What made you want to create original songs rather than a complete parody album? What lead to the decision not to include Hole Pic and Dear Santa, Bring Me A Man as well?
Willam: The original tracks started out in my head as video concepts. Coin on the Dresser is going to have a 70’s Truck Turner feel and How Much Can’t is going to be a playground war story. I didn’t include Hole Pic because it was supposed to be a commentary on vapid homos but most didn’t get the joke. The Xmas song I didn’t include because it was Courtney’s baby.
MS: What can we expect from you in the future? Is there more music planned, or is it largely off of your radar now? Can we expect anything from the American Apparel Ad Girls or potential new groups?
Willam: If you’ve got a check, I’ve got a talent is my motto. I’m down to clown for whatever. Music, acting, spokeswhoring.
MS: Thanks for taking the time to answer our questions!
Willam’s latest album Shartistry in Motion is out now!