Perhaps you know Willam Belli for his body of work as an actor. In addition to a lauded portrayal of transgendered Cherry Peck on Nip/Tuck, he’s played roles on shows ranging from Southland to CSI and in films like Ticked-Off Trannies with Knives. Maybe you know Willam as the first contestant ever to be disqualified from RuPaul’s Drag Race, a TV moment that left gay mouths everywhere gaping in shock and confusion. If you live in the L.A. area, it’s possible you know Willam from his hosting stints at Hamburger Mary’s Legendary Bingo or as the head of Box Meat, a booking agency for L.A.’s gay strippers. Or maybe you have no clue who Willam is, in which case you should probably get out more.
One thing is for certain—Willam Belli is without a doubt one of the hardest-working queens in the business. For proof, just read on.
I recently sat down with Willam at the gorgeous West Hollywood home he shares with his husband of nearly five years. (Their relationship is now going on more than a decade.) He was fresh off a gig, with a face full of makeup—a woman from the neck up and a disheveled, comfortable man from the neck down. I knew better than to chracterize Willam based on the baggy hoodie and combat boots he was sporting at the time, as his reputation as a drag queen clotheshorse precedes him.
I trailed Willam to his guest room, where we could sit down and chat in a quiet, comfortable setting. On the way, we cut through his “closet,” which happens to be equivalent to most people’s bedrooms and looks like it suffered an explosion of wigs, shoes and haute couture mere seconds prior. (In my experience, explosions of the hair and wardrobe variety simply come with the drag queen territory.)
After settling in, I opened up the conversation by asking what came first for him, acting or drag—something I’d been curious about, considering Willam’s wide range of TV and film work.
“I would say there was always an attraction to drag. Halloween was my favorite holiday, and I was always a really, really, really good liar. With acting, my biggest successes came through drag, so I’d say drag came first.”
Willam’s first paid drag gig was a “Rocky Horror Picture Show-type thing” in Central Florida when he was 13 or 14, which his parents “fully supported.” Another important moment of parental support came in the seventh grade, when Willam handed in a book report on RuPaul’s autobiography, Lettin’ It All Hang Out, only to have his teacher not accept it. “My mom had to come to school—I remember she was in her scrubs, because she was a nurse—and she’s like, ‘I’m pissed I even have to come in and talk to you about this.’ The teacher said it wasn’t appropriate subject matter, and my mom said, ‘What? He’s fucking reading! I don’t care if you don’t agree with it. There’s nothing wrong with this book.’”
As must be the case with many budding drag queens, it was the act of transformation into a woman that initially took a young Willam from withdrawn to hungry for the spotlight.
“I started out doing theater costume design and sewing, because I was a fat kid and I wasn’t fit for the stage—I was a little too shy. Drag helped me come out of my shell for a bit. I started doing costume design and costuming work at a local theatre, and they did a spoof of one of the shows they were doing, Jesus Christ Superstar, and they put me in drag. Everyone was like, ‘Oh, wow, you can do stuff,’ and I was like, ‘Yeah, I guess I can.’ Drag opened a lot of doors for me.”
Even back then, Willam had his drag favorites—RuPaul, Leigh Bowery, Charles Busch, Kevin Aviance, Charles Pierce. Coincidentally, it was a list of top-tier queens who never felt the need to create a name for their drag personas, a fact that Willam clearly took to heart. Asked about the decision to simply use ‘Willam’ in all his professional pursuits, including drag, he had his answer at the ready—”This is gonna piss a lot of people off. I think the best ones don’t have to change their name.”
Perhaps it’s simply due to the fact that Willam in drag doesn’t use a pun-inspired stage name, but unlike the majority of queens working in the drag industry today, the Willam you see in a tight-fitting dress and expensive heels is not a ‘character.’
“I really don’t think there is a Willam character,” Willam says matter-of-factly. “When people meet me, they’re kinda stunned. I’m not a character that’s unapproachable. I have a Gooogle Voice number that’s on my posters. It says, ‘For a good time, call Willam,’ and my number’s under it. I’m not a character, I’m a person. Sharon Needles is not a person. She’s a character. There’s a difference.”
Having brought up Sharon Needles, I was now really in for it, but not for the reason you may think. Sure, the ghoulish and gothic drag character won the very season of Drag Race that Willam was so abruptly eliminated from, but it would be foolish to think Willam held a grudge. After all, it was Willam’s downright shocking disqualification that helped make him the household drag name I had sitting before me. Instead, Willam had a different bone to pick, and not just with Sharon Needles but with several of the queens from the hit reality competition series.
“Selling $30 or $35 T-shirts—I think that’s shitty,” Willam proclaims. “We know how much a T-shirt costs to print. These queens are like, ‘Fans want to give you their money.’ I’m like, fuck that. That’s highway robbery. They created you. You shouldn’t be paid to be put on that pedestal. You should work to keep yourself there.” Willam pauses. “You see how my tone changed? My work ethic is strong. I come from a family of union people, you know.” He pauses. “And mobsters.” Willam then flashes me his signature devilish grin, intimating that he’s just shown me first-hand his hilarious brand of comic timing.
There’s no doubt that Willam’s comic timing is what has made his still relatively new web series, Willam’s Beatdown on The Stylish, so damn popular. For the uninitiated, in each episode of the YouTube series, Willam looks at homemade videos by different ‘vloggers’—mostly makeup tutorials—and gives a full play-by-play.
In addition to “helping everyone be better through the faults of others,” Willam’s aim is to make you laugh through his original brand of sick and twisted commentary. “The show is kinda like Mystery Science Theater 3000—for a more fashionable set.” Willam also compares the series to “Tosh.0, but gay—er.” While YouTube’s sponsorship of The Stylish as a channel was not renewed for the next year, Magical Elves, the channel’s parent company (responsible for some of TV’s best reality show programming), single-handedly chose Willam’s Beatdown to continue along its road of success.
It’s no surprise to those familiar with Willam’s output that he’d find himself in front of a camera, critiquing fashion and doling out makeup tips. During his stint on Drag Race, you’d often find Willam dropping the names of high-end designers like heavy boulders, effortlessly donning Dolce & Gabbana and Gaultier looks to walk the runway. I, for one, was shocked to hear from Willam’s own mouth that his love of women’s fashion actually comes from a place of insecurity.
“I’m not the prettiest one at all. If you line up all the girls from Drag Race, I’d be lucky to be in the top 20 of best faces. My body’s on—I know my body’s good. And one of the reasons my body’s on is because I know my face isn’t perfect. It’s not womanly or anything like that, so I like to make sure I look on-point. That means stones in all the right places, and glitter, and everything in the right spot—including the labels.”
“I like a luxe look,” Willam continues. “People say I’m slutty, but it’s more than that. I’m an expensive-looking slut. I’m not a slut off the street; I’m the mistress in the penthouse who dresses for her man, who dresses for the fantasy—all that. That’s the one part of ‘Willam’ that could be considered a character. But everybody puts on drag. My husband goes to work in a three-piece suit to his own company because he says you should—it’s work.”
When I ask Willam to name off some of his favorite labels and designers—for men and women—I receive a varied list. For men: Dior Homme, Scooter LaForge, Joshua McKinley tank tops. For women: Balmain, Versace, Gaultier, Mizrahi, Kenzo for Opening Ceremony, shoes by Giuseppe Zanotti and Louboutin, “anything that can nip my waist in.”
There’s no better showcase that Willam is the real deal—fashion, beauty, wit and all—than his hugely successful parody videos. Rewriting the words to pop music’s greatest hits (and then putting down an original vocal track) has practically become a pastime for queens the world over, a drag tradition that in the eyes of many sets the most talented queens apart from those who can merely ‘lipsynch for their lives.’ Willam’s parodies—including “The Vagina Song,” “Chow Down,” “Let’s Have a Kai Kai,” “Love You Like a Big Schlong” and, most recently, “Boy is a Bottom”—have proven to be prime examples of Willam’s comedic abilities. Those videos have also brought Willam worldwide acclaim, as evidenced by bookings from Australia to Germany to Rio to, of all places, the Middle East.
In addition to all of the things stacked upon Willam’s proverbial plate, he has just informed me that a book is also in the works, with a great title—You’re Not Doing That Right. “You know how when you read through GQ or Allure, there are always sidebars on articles that you want to read before the big article. Think of a book filled with a lot of little side articles and tutorials on makeup—amazing things, like how to fake a good black eye for family court or classic drag looks. And I want to talk about all the little drag secrets, like how to really tuck, or what you use Goo Gone for, and why it’s a toiletry—not a kitchen product—in my house. It’s going to be a little bit of Sedaris combined with Butt magazine and some Allure.”
And this isn’t the first time Willam has considered putting a book out into the publishing ether. “I wanted to do a book about strippers and my company Box Meat for years, but there was never enough content, and it was always repeating itself. ‘This one got high, I blew that one, that one done fell off her box, Faultline called and that one’s asshole was dirty.’ It got a little repetitive. ‘That one went on tour with Kylie. That one OD’d.’”
At the time of me writing this story, Willam is living it up in Dubai with Vicky Vox and Detox Icunt, talented queens who appear in several of Willam’s parodies—most notably the right-wing-skewering “Chow Down (at Chick-fil-A)”—and whom Willam refers to as his “ride-or-die bitches.”
“Here’s the thing about Dubai,” Willam dictates. “Detox is going to get beheaded. I’m gonna get sold into a harem, hopefully for rubies, and Vicky is gonna get a fatwa—and yes, that is also a weight-related joke.”
I ask if Willam is at all scared to fly into a Muslim country with a suitcase overflowing with women’s wear. “My burqa is knee-length, so I should be fine,” he reassures me. “I don’t get scared. I think fear is a choice, and I don’t have it in my body. We have to look normal, though—that’s the rough part. I can pass as a normal boy, but Detox? It’s gonna be hats and glasses for her—that’s what we decided.”
As far as his luxe trip to the Middle East goes, Willam says he has “Boy is a Bottom”—which hit 6 million views in five weeks—to thank for that. “There aren’t Chick-fil-As all over the world,” Willam notes, “but there are bottoms everywhere.”
Once again, he shoots me that devilish grin.