PHOTOGRAPHY BY JASPER RISCHEN
Jasper Rischen and the dolls
The director of the Werq the World docuseries shares his stories and photographs of the queens from behind the scenes
How did the Werq the World series come about? After moving to LA from New York in 2016, I got connected to World of Wonder via filmmaker Billy Luther. I was 27 and had just gotten gay-divorced (can’t start early enough right?) and was frankly feeling a little down and under and not happy in LA. I’m from The Netherlands and this car driving flatland wasn’t giving me the same excitement as New York – which felt like home on Day 1. I felt a connection with WOW because its founders Randy Barbato and Fenton Bailey built that company in New York City and have been trailblazing for decades since.
They asked me if I wanted to shoot a new “Day In The Life” series with some of their queens, spending an entire day with them from waking up until a performance at night. This became the “Follow Me” series on their then brand-new streaming service WOW Presents Plus. The first queens I worked with were Gia Gunn, Aja, and Vanjie (right after her first elimination). I loved making those first episodes. I opted not to use any sit-down interviews and simply let the action unfold in front of the camera. I wanted to get to a space with them where they’re not “entertaining” for the camera, but just being themselves. The best moments happen when they either forget they’re being filmed, or the camera becomes more of a friend in the room.
I think WOW appreciated this sort of raw and real take on these drag stars, so they asked me if I wanted to go on tour with the cast of Werq the World. The European summer leg was only a few weeks away. WOW gave me pretty much a blank slate mission, and said that they would be happy if I came back with around six 10 minute episodes. Obviously, once we started rolling in the field, I realized I’d have way more footage to work with, so I asked them for more edit time to make a more complete series. I’m grateful they let me chip away in the edit for about half a year without having a real clue of what I was making. The creative process felt really free, it could be whatever I wanted it to be.
Who came up with the format, was it all your vision? My original idea for the series was to make an episode per city that the tour visited. So we’d get the Paris episode, the Berlin episode, etc. In my head I already had fantasy scenes of Kim Chi visiting the Eiffel Tower, going to the Moulin Rouge with Violet, or running around Barcelona with Valentina. Well, then the reality of tour life hit. The schedule is insanely back-to-back. You’re barely ever outside, and exist inside dressing rooms, rehearsal spaces, busses, theatres and clubs. If the girls are lucky, they get a couple of hours in the morning to get a coffee or see a friend. Then, it’s straight into rehearsals, hours of make-up, and putting on a smile at the Meet & Greet for 150 fans. Plus of course performing a rock star show in front of ecstatic crowds. The fans in Europe were wild, and I think that the high the queens must get from being on stage in front of thousands of admirers keeps them going.
Fellow director and cinematographer Saila Huusko, who came along to film this European leg, and I would divide and conquer between dressing rooms and were just rolling all day long. The access was phenomenal, there was basically nothing we weren’t allowed to film. We’d start filming with the first bite of breakfast until the last person went to bed on the bus. But all the cities started to visually blend together, as we were largely inside dingey dressing rooms, by plastic catering tables with sloppy sandwiches, or in transit. All my fantasy scenes went out the window pretty quick. For most of Season 1, I didn’t really know yet what I was going to end up making. I knew I would need some kind of through line, so during the last couple days of the tour I decided to film hour-long sit-down interviews with each queen. Once their super rich backstories came out, it started to all click together. On the plane back to the US I came up with the idea to center each episode around one of the queens. I think it allowed for their unique stories to come out to their fullest. I wanted every episode to be a little tribute to each star.
Vanessa Vanjie Mateo
Which episode are you most proud of and why? I loved Latrice Royale’s episode during season 1. Her backstory is just so incredibly powerful, she has overcome so much. On top of that, on our way to the finale weekend in Helsinki, the Finnish airline lost all her luggage and it seemed like the tour would end on a sour note for her. But she ended up doing the show out of drag, doing a game with the audience, which speaks volumes to her level of dedication. It turned a really low point into an almost immediate high, and I love how her episode captures this classic triumph against odds. It may seem like a produced happy end, but it wasn’t.
The most memorable shoot during Season 2 has to be my visit to Pulse with Detox. Detox started her drag career in Orlando and often worked at Pulse, initially as a cigarette girl. We visited the memorial together with club owner Barbara Poma, and it was a very emotional experience for her and everyone involved. It was a rare moment outside of the dressing rooms and I am grateful that she allowed me to come along on this very personal visit.
What were some of the tricks/methods you used to get the queens to open up? I always tell anyone I film with that they have the power to tell me to turn the camera off. I think that creates an element of trust that I’m not out there to “get” them. Besides that, I like to film mostly by myself without a sound person or a second camera. The second you mic a character up or hang a boom mic over their heads, they become hyper aware of anything they’re doing. I only use my on-camera shotgun mic. Sure, the sound isn’t always the most pristine, but it’s a trade off in which the camera starts to feel like a person in the room rather than an intruder.
Did you form friendships with any of the queens? You definitely grow close to each other when you’re sleeping on busses together. I love all the girls from both seasons, and someone like Vanjie I’m definitely good pals with since we’ve worked together for years now. We still all run into each other on different shoots. I most recently shot a music video for Yvie Oddly (“Hype”), as well as several rounds of live streams for tour producer Voss Events, in lieu of actual live shows. It’s been fun to work with these queens on a different, more visually elevated level, making all their music video dreams come to fruition. But I do miss telling the real stories, so hopefully touring can start again at some point soon.
What was your experience with drag queens and RuPaul’s Drag Race before this project? I had oddly never seen Drag Race prior to working with World of Wonder. So once they asked me to go on tour, I had to decide whether to speed-watch 10 seasons of Drag Race and whatever seasons of All Stars had been put out by then, but the tour was only a few weeks away so I opted not to do so. I think it allowed for me to approach the queens without any preconceived notions from their seasons, and connect with them on a more human level beyond their reality TV characters. I have now finally seen a few seasons – and I honestly think it would have been more intimidating to all bunk together on a bus after watching that, so I’m glad I didn’t.
Have you been in drag before? I’m from the countryside in The Netherlands, where I played the Dutch Queen Beatrix in a high school play. I think I looked quite cute but I was probably hideous. A couple years ago friends in LA threw a Dragsgiving dinner, and I attended once again as a version of Beatrix. I guess she’s my gal. But honestly, I would hate having to give drag a real try now, after watching the best of the best doing it on a daily basis. They have perfected the craft, and I truly could never.
Brooke Lynn Hytes
Monét X Change
What’s a lesson you’ve learned from these famous drag queens? I think I have learned what hard work really looks like. Because of the long shoot days you’re never really “off”. But whenever I would feel too tired to work, I’d look at the queens and they’d still have to do their whole entire routines of fans and hours of make up and shows every night. All I had to do is run around with my camera to capture it all – so looking at what they all had to do definitely made my life easier, and made me respect their art immensely.
Was there any sense of competition among the queens for you and your camera’s attention? Oftentimes the cameras gravitated towards the louder personalities in the room. When Alyssa or Valentina are in the room, it can be hard not to only focus on them. At some point Kennedy Davenport came up to me and said, “I see what you’re doing – you’re filming with everyone else and I’m gonna end up with five minutes again!” She was joking, but she also had a valid point. She’s a bit more quiet and reserved when in a room full of grand personalities, but obviously she’s not in the least less interesting. I started to think – “How can I do justice to all these equally fascinating stars, and their unique respective fan bases?” This led to me doing those interviews with each queen and subsequently centering each episode around one queen. You can thank Miss Kennedy for that!
What queen not on tour would you like to shoot and interview? Definitely Shea Couleé. Manifesting this for Season 3. I’d love to have a lot of new queens for a Season 3. It would be amazing to cast the tour specifically for the doc series.
What is your editing process like? The edit process is almost always a bit of a rollercoaster for me. I try to watch back every single piece of footage, because sometimes the best stuff is when you were least expecting a great moment. So I’m reliving every day all the way through, making notes of everything I see. When I start a new episode, I submerse myself in one person’s story, sometimes feeling like I’m drowning a little. But once all the puzzle pieces start clicking together, finishing the episode becomes very fun. I always save editing the stage performances for last, because that is like spreading the frosting on the pie. And then once I finish an episode and feel really good about it, the whole thing starts all-over again with the next episode.
Do you show the queens their episodes before airing? I’m not supposed to — so it’s always a bit nerve-racking for me once the episodes air if the starring queen will like it or not. They are the most important audience member to me – they allowed me to tell their stories so I always do hope that they’ll be happy with the final product. Backstage moments aren’t necessarily always the most glamorous, it’s showing them in a more vulnerable space that they don’t control the outcome of. So I feel a responsibility to try to showcase them at their best. Sometimes I’ll get a text or a call from a queen that they loved their episode, which is always a relief. I remember Alyssa calling me after her episode aired and I didn’t dare to pick up as I thought she might be shouting at me. She texted, “Yessssss I wanted to say THANK YOU MY WTW episode is FAB.” I wish I had picked up and recorded that call.
What is your favorite off camera memory from being on tour? After the shows, Shangela would usually drag our asses to the club to make sure we were also having fun. Rolling up at after parties with the queens felt like walking in with Madonna, Lady GaGa, and the resurrection of Jesus Christ. In these queer spaces, they are celebrities beyond our wildest imagination, with people constantly grabbing them and asking for pictures. I keep thinking about how insane it must be to go from being virtually unknown to popstar status in gay bars. Local promoters would also milk the situation – at one point in I believe Stockholm we were stuck inside a random fish bowl VIP area on a riser in the middle of the dance floor. It made it super awkward for the girls to just dance and drink and try to find some downtime – the entire club was staring at them at all times. They are never really “off.”
We’d never party for too long, as we had to hop back on the bus to get to the next city. There was a queen bus and a crew bus, and I slept on the queen bus to be able to film whatever was going on there. We’d all hang out in the common room on the bus a little more, maybe watch a movie, and then one by one we would go to sleep in our bunks (or “coffins” as they call them) as we headed onto the highways to the next country. We’d get woken up at random hours for ferry rides, border controls, or truck stops. At one point I remember walking into a gas station with Kennedy as the sun was rising and we had no clue what country we were in, could’ve been Denmark or Sweden. As a European it felt hilarious to have become one of those “Americans in Europe,” who does one city a day and forgets where they actually are. On the US tour I remember all the queens lining up at the Canadian border at 4AM, passports in hand just groggily waiting for what seemed to be the slowest customs ever, the dry border agents not having a clue that these were legends in the gay world. I wish I could have filmed it. That constant contrast between mega fame and gritty reality is at the core of this show.
The longest bus legs, sometimes up to 21 hours, were also some of my fondest memories. It was the best way to unwind and actually connect with everyone. Latrice would roll a joint and make sure everyone was having a grand time. Of course, I’d still on and off be filming, but by that point it mostly just felt like hanging out with friends. Shangela made me watch Clueless for the first time, which she was horrified I hadn’t ever watched. Another night we watched the Bodyguard with Latrice and Valentina, who had become newfound tour buddies. My bunk was below Detox’s and Alyssa had left some fan art in there as she had slept in it the week before. To this day I don’t know if they washed the sheets before I got the bunk.
The only real off camera moment happens when you’re finally back in your own private bunk on the bus, close the curtain and go to sleep. The beds are actually super comfy and the driving of the bus rocks you to sleep. So my favorite off-camera memory would be sleeping!
What other drag-related projects can we look forward to seeing from you? I’m plotting a project in Europe, where I’ve very recently relocated back to for a little while. I’d like to put a spotlight on local drag communities in capitals that are slowly opening back up after the pandemic. This idea is still very much in infant-stage, as I’m currently still editing the finale of Werq The World Season 2. It airs in four weeks, so I better get myself together.
The season two of Werq The World is now streaming on Wow Presents Plus.