Drag Race icon Kelly Mantle on viral fame, making Oscars history and an All Stars renaissance

Kelly Mantle

In a PinkNews exclusive, RuPaul’s Drag Race star Kelly Mantle discusses her status as a meme queen, touring with Trixie and Katya, and her one condition for an All Stars return.

RuPaul’s Drag Race star Kelly Mantle is a busy queen. In the last year alone, she’s dazzled at the Met Gala, been sworn in as Speaker of the House of Representatives, resigned from her role as a UK government cabinet minister, and even went to the Queen’s Balmoral bedside to say goodbye as she died.

That is, of course, if you believe the memes. For the last 18 months or so, one of gay Twitter’s favourite endlessly recyclable jokes is the ‘Kelly Mantle has arrived at…’ meme, featuring the Drag Race star’s season six promo image, photoshopped into the foreground of any culturally timely event. 

There are quite literally thousands of versions of said meme, depicting Mantle everywhere from the forecourt of Binley Mega Chippy to the doorstep of 10 Downing Street, many of them garnering serious love from the Drag Race fandom. In one hilarious example, Mantle appears as the latest Hollywood beauty on the arm of Pete Davidson. This week (21 February), someone even made a Kelly Mantle-shaped pancake for Pancake Day.

For her part, Mantle is enjoying viral fame.

“It’s been a big surprise,” she tells PinkNews via a Zoom call from Los Angeles. “I think it’s hilarious. I mean, the places I’ll end up, you know. I saw a tweet where someone said, ‘The renaissance of Kelly Mantle is occurring,’ and I was like, ‘I like that.'”

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It’s hard to know exactly why a meme resonates with gay Twitter, but in the case of Kelly Mantle, there’s a one-word answer: camp. The fact that Mantle received approximately three minutes of airtime on her Drag Race season before she was eliminated? Camp. The somewhat contorted pose in her promo photo? Camp. The fact that, in said promo photo, she’s only wearing one fishnet? Camp.

“Mathu Andersen is the one who took that photo, and he’s also the one who retouched and photoshopped it,” Mantle recalls. “I was putting on fishnet stockings, the thigh-high kind, and I only put on one and he said, ‘come on, we’re running late. We got to go.’

“I said, ‘I’ve only got fishnet on.’ He’s like, ‘I’ll Photoshop the other one later.’ Well, he never did,” she laughs.

Mantle’s time on Drag Race may have been brief, but it also opened a world of opportunity. For the past year, she’s been touring internationally with fellow Drag Race alumni Trixie Mattel and Katya on their Trixie And Katya LIVE tour. The three have become close friends. “They are horrible, evil human beings, and they must be destroyed,” Mantle says. “We instantly hit it off.”

The gig came about after Katya guest-starred on web series The Browns, which Mantle stars in alongside another Drag Race icon, Tammie Brown

On tour with the UNHhhh stars, Mantle plays ‘Sandy’, their fictional manager. She gets to act, sing live and join the pair for comedic skits – all of which she was doing long before Drag Race was even conceptualised. This, however, is the largest tour she’s ever been a part of.

“I f*****g love it,” she says. “The experience has just been out of this world for me. The minute I found out it was live theatre, I was definitely game because that’s where I love and live is on the stage, and in the theatre.”

Mantle has, according to reviews from both critics and fans, stolen the show. Clips on Twitter show the star in her element, turning the camp dial up to 100 as she belts out show tunes with the ferocity of a soon-to-be Broadway star. 

“I’m glad that people are getting to see me in my element, as opposed to just seeing that one episode of Drag Race,” she says with a self-deprecating chuckle.

“A lot of the girls on Drag Race say drag saved their life. And I think for me, more than drag, it was acting that saved my life.”

Mantle began acting at just 18 years old, dominating roles on stage and screen. Her breakthrough, she says, was a 2003 episode of NYPD Blue, in which she played a trans woman whose friend had been murdered. While she’s grateful for the opportunity, the role led to her being typecast in a string of similar roles; the trans sex worker in police dramas, for instance, or the drag queen “talking about their tuck” in the bathroom.

“You can definitely get pigeonholed into those stereotypical one-dimensional characters,” she says. “Fortunately, I’ve gotten to a point now where I can say no, and I can turn things down.”

In 2016, Mantle, who is genderfluid, made Oscar history as the first actor eligible for Oscar nominations in both the male and female categories. While the consideration was for her portrayal of Ginger in comedy-drama Confessions of a Womanizer – another trans sex worker role – it nevertheless ushered in a new era for trans and gender non-conforming performers. Does she expect we’ll soon see more non-binary or trans actors actually being rewarded at the Oscars

“What it’s going to require, first of all, is a good frickin’ role for a trans person or a non-binary person,” she says. “We’ve got to include those types of characters in our stories – more three-dimensional fleshed out trans characters and three dimensional fleshed out non-binary characters.”

What she wants to see most of all, though, is trans people playing roles that are entirely removed from their gender identity.

“I would love to start seeing just more trans people playing either just cis characters or characters whose identity is never discussed. When you think about watching a movie, how many times do cis, hetero people talk about their cis heteroism?”

Her dream role is to play Martha in the stage show Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? As her Drag Race sister Jinkx Monsoon completes a run as Mama Morton in Chicago, her aspiration might not be that far out of reach.

As for the Kelly Mantle renaissance, Drag Race UK star Sminty Drop recently suggested that the meme queen would devour a season of Drag Race All Stars. Is she up for it?

“[Sminty] is a sweetheart for saying that. I adore her,” Mantle says. She knows she would gobble the acting and comedy challenges, but still thinks her runways would let her down. “I’ve got one good outfit and that’s it – I already know I suck at fashion!”

Then, she smiles. “I would only do it if it was a ‘first out’ season and they promised to send me home first. That’s the only way I would do it.

“Because that, to me, is legendary.”

Kelly Mantle joins Trixie and Katya LIVE in North America until 8 March.

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