Drag Race legend Peppermint on using comedy to fight bigotry
For RuPaul’s Drag Race fans, their first taste of Peppermint’s comedic genius came from her stellar performance in season nine comedy challenge, The Roast of Michelle Visage.
The reality, though, is that the drag icon and trans trailblazer has been saying funny things for the last 20 years. Humour has always been a key component of the New York-based star’s personality and extensive drag career.
When she was approached with the idea of putting together her own comedy special, it was a natural professional step. The result, So-SIGH-ety Effects, is a frank and frequently hilarious exploration of life in the US right now as a Black, trans woman.
“The source material was all my life,” she tells PinkNews. “A lot of the anecdotes and stories that I tell, first of all, they all happened to me.”
Throughout the special, she addresses anti-trans sports bans and injecting hormones. While on the topic of dating cisgender men, she cracks jokes while revealing that one man asked if she had any bleach he could scrub himself with after they had slept together.
“The bleach story, I tell it all the time, and the first time I told it I was telling some of my best friends and confidants in disbelief,” Peppermint says. “They were like, ‘Oh, so and so? Johnny? Oh I know him. He did the same thing at my house.’
“This is not only a reality for me, which speaks to the types of dates and men that I’ve encountered, but it also speaks to, obviously, what many trans women have experienced.”
Peppermint explains that she wanted to use the platform to dissect some of the “heartbreaking and true” experiences faced by the trans community. However, while it might sound like a TED Talk on the trans experience, she is clear that it was actually an opportunity to poke fun at herself, and take past traumatic experiences and turn them into something relatable and entertaining.
“I am the butt of the joke in a lot of the jokes that I say in the comedy special, and I just think it’s better coming from the mouth of a trans person, rather than us constantly being punched down on,” she says.
While the majority of high-profile comedians have rightfully confined transphobic punchlines to the history books, a handful – most notably Ricky Gervais and Dave Chappelle – have doubled down on using them.
Peppermint compares the comedy industry to hip-hop, another space that has historically enabled anti-LGBTQ+ lyrics and artists to thrive. In recent years, though, queer rappers like Lil Nas X and Ice Spice have dominated the scene, and Peppermint hopes a similar shift can happen for comedy, where trans comedians are finally given space to have their say.
“That was my inspiration for wanting to do it,” she says of SO-SIGH-ETY Effects. “I certainly didn’t get into it because I want to have a career as a stand up comic, and I’m not going to pretend that I’m nearly as prolific in stand up comedy as Ricky Gervais or Dave Chappelle.
“But one of the things that I have that other comics who tell anti-trans jokes don’t have, is truth.”
Bookending Peppermint’s comedy special is an opening song and a closing rap; a casual reminder that she is easily one of America’s best multi-talented performers, in or outside of the Drag Race universe. She’s released several albums, appeared on Broadway, starred in TV series including Ryan Murphy’s Pose, and mentored on Canadian reality series Call Me Mother.
Right now, she’s starring in A Transparent Musical, a musical adaptation of the Amazon Prime series, playing Alexandra Billings’ groundbreaking character Davina.
If she were a white, straight, cisgender man, it’s indisputable that she would be a regular feature on awards shortlists. Does she ever feel undervalued by the industry?
“I do feel sometimes that I have to work to remind people that I have an album out, or that I have a comedy special, or that I have been on Broadway,” she says.
“I actually filmed a movie, which was a great experience – that was the first time I’d ever done a feature film in that regard, as a major character – I had to remind the director that I’ve actually been on Broadway, because they were talking to me as if I hadn’t.”
While she does feel that having her identity as a Black, trans woman attached so closely to her career can keep her out of certain rooms, she also feels that there are two sides to that coin, as it has provided her with a platform to do what she loves to do: entertain.
It remains a tricky space to navigate, though, as she’s forced to consider whether an opportunity being presented to her is mere tokenism.
“Tokenism still happens in the entertainment world and I’ve experienced it more recently and more frequently than I would like to admit,” she shares.
“I’m doing something new with Netflix, [comedy drama series] Survival of the Thickest. I did have to sit and think, ‘Well wow, am I being tokenised?’ Because, clearly they are literally financially invested in telling stories and jokes that I believe are harmful to the [trans] community,” she adds, referring to the streaming service hosting both Chapelle’s and Gervais’ comedy specials.
“But then, when I sit and think, ‘Wow, they’re giving space to someone like me and [stand-up comic] Michelle Buteau – in her special, she takes on some of these anti-trans jokes, legislation and comments head on. We had Black female camerapeople [on Survival of the Thickest] and I’ve never seen that on set.”
A lot can be said about the walls that trans people, and particularly Black trans women, have to climb to get a seat at the table in the entertainment world. But Peppermint’s career is a refreshing example of what can happen when the walls begin to crumble, and queer people can use entertainment to educate.
“Art [is] activism, especially in a day and age when we have so much discrimination against the LGBTQ+ community,” she says, referring to the tide of anti-LGBTQ+ legislation that is sweeping the US right now.
“It would feel kind of weird to go out and do [something] fun, or a show, or a thing, that doesn’t even talk about those things. And so being able to connect those two worlds feels great.”
SO-SIGH-ETY Effects is out now on Amazon Prime Video, Apple TV+, Google Play, YouTube and Vimeo.