According to South Philly-born drag personality and actor Willam Belli, the one thing the rest of the world can learn from drag culture is how to properly insult someone. While the former Season 4 RuPaul's Drag Race contestant has had roles on hit shows like Nip/Tuck and Sex and the City and worked with artist like Rihanna, on Friday, Belli brings her spunk to the silver-screen in A Star Is Born, starring and directed by fellow Philly-area native Bradley Cooper.
Ahead of the film's official release, Belli talked to the Inquirer and Daily News about drag culture, working with Lady Gaga and Cooper, and racism on RuPaul's Drag Race.
Tell me about your role in A Star is Born.
Every drag queen has a few sisters and Lady Gaga's character, Ally, is an honorary drag queen in the film. She works at the drag bar with the "girls." She's one of us and I'm one of her little kiki sisters.
What was the energy like on set?
It was the best set I've ever been on in my life. Before that, I was on Nip/Tuck and I thought it was the best set ever. But after being on set with Lady Gaga and Bradley Cooper and Anthony Ramos, who I saw in Hamilton, seeing all these amazingly talented people coming together to make this movie, it was a badass experience. Everyone was treated the same from the producers to the [production assistants]. Gaga knew everyone's name. The second day we were on set they showed us 25 minutes of the movie that Bradley just wanted to show the people that have been working on it. "Hey, look at what we all created."
What was it like to work with Lady Gaga?
After watching her "La Vie En Rose," and not getting to be in many scenes with her, I was signing the out-sheet and the assistant director handed me a white rose and said, "This is from LG. She said she's sorry she didn't get to play with you as much today." The fact that [Gaga] knows my name and cares enough to tell the director to give me the rose, Holy [cow]! Everything I wanted my childhood idol to be, she is.
My rule with celebrities is to never be the one that's like, "Ooo can I get a picture?" just because I don't want to be that girl. Every time that Gaga has seen me in drag she's been like, "Oh my god, let's get a picture." She loves us. She loves our community.
Bradley Cooper is also from Philly. Did you all have a Philly-centric moment?
Yes. 100 percent. I don't know what he said, but I remember saying, "Ahhh … I can hear the Philly." There was an instant [sense of] connection and trust. This film is probably the biggest thing I'll ever do in my career and I'm so thankful that it was with a guy that was so cool. Being able to work with a director who is also your scene partner, it kind of cuts out the middleman. You know exactly what the intention of the scene is.
We had the script but [Cooper] basically said, "Do your thing. You know what a drag dressing room feels like better than me. Here are these beats that we need to hit." Then he let us do our own thing. There was nothing bad about being on set other than the fact that I had to go home.
How does drag culture differ from Hollywood's culture?
Everything's the same for me. It's like gig, gig, gig, gig, gig. You know, clubs, TV gig, prostitution [laughing], pop up number, etc. My motto is, "If you've got a check, I've got a talent." So if there's any kind of gig, I'm ready to do it. I've done shows for 50,000 people. I've done shows for 20 people. Drag queens are known for being late. I pretty much show up on time, but it's always with two nails off, and I'm like, "Who's got nail glue?" That's one nice thing about being on set; if you ever need anything, hair and makeup are lovely.
RuPaul's Drag Race has been criticized by the show's fandom and contestants for being racially biased. As a former contestant, do you think there's any validity to those criticisms?
I would love to speak on this but as a cis-gendered, white male, it's not really my place. That's my disclaimer, but I will tell you this: The show has a way of making the top three girls megastars. The top three get the most attention because they're on the most episodes and they end up touring a lot. Here's where the tricky thing comes in. Season 1 and Season 2 both had African American winners. Season 3 had a Southeast Asian winner. Season 4 through 7, when the show hit its zeitgeist, didn't have any African American people in the top three.
Not that the girls that won don't deserve it, but I do see how the show, from an outside perspective, looks like it's not serving a certain demographic as well as it should, especially when the host is African American. It's not my place to speak on it, but I can speak to the facts, which is Season 4, 5, 6 and 7 (four seasons in a row, four years) had zero African American girls in the top three. So that skews how the gigs, press and everything else falls into place.
What's something that your drag persona can get away with that you can't?
What's the importance of drag representation?
I think anytime there's drag anywhere it adds a comet to [the project], whether it's big screen or TV or theater or even live performances. I've worked with a couple of big artists like Rihanna and Lady Gaga and they don't take inspiration from drag queens without crediting it, which is great. Sia did this amazing living-dress performance and it was lifted straight from Nina West, a drag queen from Ohio. Sia credited Nina. She brought her up on stage. It's a great time to be a drag queen.
Anytime people see something that they're unfamiliar with, like drag, it starts a conversation. Conversation leads to change. Change leads to better outfits.