How Two Drag Queens Became the Funniest People on the Planet
“Drag Race” alums Trixie Mattel and Katya have hosted almost 250 episodes of their deranged and unexpectedly poignant talk show “UNHhhh.” Now, they toast—and dread—making 90 more.
Trixie Mattel’s makeup is its very own cultural phenomenon.
The eyes are both big and small, extreme and feminine: jet-black eyeliner that swoops up from her tear ducts to her temples, like mirror-image cheese wedges occupying 30 percent of her face. Shocks of stark-white accents set off the massive eyelashes that rise off her lids like Venus flytraps.
The contouring is cartoonishly severe, transforming Brian Firkus of Milwaukee into the famous RuPaul’s Drag Race alum with the signature look that is part Barbie, part Kewpie doll, part Indianapolis office worker who just left a makeover at the cosmetics counter at J.C. Penny’s on her lunch break.
At this particular moment, the look is, if possible, almost understated compared to the bouffant wig rising in clouds off her head. It cascades in every direction—though chiefly upward—like Dolly Parton’s hair crossed with a lion’s mane.
“This is my Falkor hair,” Trixie says, breaking into the theme song from the 1984 kids’ film The Neverending Story as footage of its Muppet-resembling flying dog plays, indeed approximating a believable inspiration for Mattel’s coif. Why does she look so damn good today? “I don’t know what it is. Maybe it’s because I lost two pounds and got veneers.”
Sitting next to her in front of a green screen, with a high-ponytail wig, blunt bags, smokey eye makeup, a choker necklace, and a black wrap minidress—as if Pebbles from The Flintstones time traveled to an ’80s coke party—Katya, full name Yekaterina Petrovna Zamolodchikova, née Brian McCook, cackles as her co-star preens for the camera, showing off her new smile.
Over the next 11 minutes in a video titled “Toxic Masculinity (Part 1),” they will discuss the absurdity of gay men on Grindr demanding only “masc” men reach out to them, do an impromptu performance of “Big Spender” from Sweet Charity, joke about their own taste in men (Katya: “I want a goblin! I want a skeleton man who won’t lisp when he fucks me!”), recount their own pressures to be “straight-passing,” and, in between what we will affectionately call “gay screams” and incessant sexual puns, confess the kind of brutally honest anxieties about being a gay man today that arguably beckon for a Peabody.
All while made up as they’ve self-deprecatingly described themselves, “two goons in dresses.”
This is a recap of a randomly selected episode of their talk show UNHhhh, of which there are, thus far, over 240 episodes. Each is equally chaotic, fevered, hilarious, and, ultimately insightful.
Every episode is themed—death, God, sex, porn—and the two RuPaul’s Drag Race breakouts essentially just shoot the shit, part stand-up comedy and part therapy as they trade jokes and stories about their own paths. They paint what is, at this point, one of TV’s most transgressive portrayals of modern gay life and friendship, not to mention the mainstream potential of drag as an art form.
World of Wonder, the production company that distributes UNHhhh on the streaming platform WOW Presents Plus before the episodes are posted on YouTube, recently renewed the show for three seasons—90 additional episodes—the first of which debuts April 21.
“I know that signing on for 90 episodes is supposed to sound celebratory...” Trixie says, speaking over a Zoom call before Katya cuts in: “It feels like a death sentence.” Their signature laughs uncoil as if springloaded: Trixie’s is more of an elongated and enthusiastic shriek, while Katya tends to wheeze quietly and often, like a bassline to our conversation. “It feels like a firing squad,” Trixie adds.
They’re speaking out of drag as the two Brians. Firkus is back in Milwaukee, where he is helping to revive This Is It!, the oldest gay bar in Wisconsin, of which he is now co-owner after he stepped in to rescue it during the pandemic. McCook is in Los Angeles, where both performers typically live and where UNHhhh is filmed.
The last time we all talked was in 2017, when UNHhhh was being adapted into a cable series for the short-lived Viceland network. They became the first drag queens to host a talk show since RuPaul hosted his VH1 series from 1996 to 1998 and two of the few gay men to be given such a platform.
We were in a green room in New York after the pair had finished an on-camera interview. Katya walked in first and asked me my astrological sign, then immediately stormed out after learning I am a Leo. It was a bit. I think.
Trixie promptly popped off her space helmet-sized wig and unzipped the back of her pink muumuu, reclining on a chaise in the back of the room. Dubbing themselves “Dolce and Gabaldness,” Katya had replaced her wig with a designer ball cap and had pulled her dress down to her waist, exposing her bra and torso.
I asked if they preferred doing interviews in or out of drag, and Trixie responded in a perfect deadpan: “I prefer over the phone.” When I recount the story to them over Zoom, the shriek and wheeze return, and Trixie stands up and dramatically sulks out of frame—a comedic bit she frequently uses on UNHhhh when she feels she’s been “owned.”
“I’m sure I was just answering honestly and wasn’t just being like, ‘On the phone, flop!’” he says. Reassured that it was just a great joke, the conversation continues, turning, appropriately, to how much the two of them—not to mention their senses of humor and the show—have evolved.
UNHhhh began in 2016, a collaboration between the two fan-favorite contestants from the seventh season of RuPaul’s Drag Race as they tried to navigate the busy, opportunity-heavy, yet confusing aftermath of the show.
Quickly, it became clear how the unlikely pairing would allow their avant-garde comedic sensibilities to shine. As they say each episode, reciting the show’s tagline: “Welcome to UNHhhh, the show where we talk about whatever we want. Because it’s our show. Not yours.”
In any given episode, Trixie might spin a tangled web of cultural references into an ace joke about death—“I don’t call it dying. I call it going to play Sega Saturn with Brittany Murphy”—while Katya might revert into her favorite character voice, sounding like an evil witch luring children to her lair before she eats them, and make a twisted crack about necrophilia.
“You can tell in the beginning of the series that we don't know each other that well,” Trixie says. Putting on another character voice—this one like a perky narrator of an Access Hollywood clip package—Katya adds, “It's like watching the progression of a beautiful friendship unfurl in dazzling real time.” She takes a beat for the joke to land, and then continues, “I said that jokingly but I'm actually serious.”
Katya says—again, with sincerity—“I’m 40 years old. I don’t have a best friend. That’s childish.” But both acknowledge how close they’ve grown, an intimacy that reflects in the show’s content over the course of five years and nearly 250 episodes and counting. Their closeness in turn invites the viewer to consider their own feelings about the topics being discussed. It’s a permission not often given to the LGBT community to think about these issues, whether seriously or with a sense of humor.
Both Trixie and Katya are still fully entrenched in the Drag Race universe, having each competed in an All-Stars season (Trixie won hers). They often film commentary videos reacting to new episodes. But the long-term success of UNHhhh—some episodes have more than 6 million views—has helped them carve out individual careers far more fruitful than if each had just content coasted off their RuPaul-minted fame. Musical albums, sold-out tours, and a self-help book have all grown out of the show’s popularity.
“I mean, if I would have known that talking to this whore was lucrative, I would have started chatting her up on day one,” Trixie says, recalling her first impression of Katya on Drag Race. “But nobody knew!”
“'If I knew that bag of bones would produce so many C-notes...'” Katya mocks in return.
It may have been unintentional but, for two people who earned international recognition masquerading as women and performing as, for lack of a better word, “characters,” the two Brians have found themselves practically narrating their own biographies over the years. Despite the number of times they joke about being “crossdressing clowns,” the show spotlights two unfiltered humans.
Over the course of watching more than 240 episodes, I can remember anecdotes about Katya’s drug use, psychotic breakdown, and experience trading sexual favors for money; Trixie’s struggles coming to terms with their sexuality while growing up in a poor, conservative family with an abusive father; discussions about losing their virginities; discussions about sexual fetishes; discussions about fame and making money; and candor about everything from self-hatred and body shaming to anal douching and snacking.
For Katya, the “oversharing,” as she puts it, came naturally. Trixie has more clearly drawn lines about what she doesn’t want to talk about.
“I’m like a Kotex commercial, and she’s like in The Shining when the elevator doors open,” Trixie says. “I’m a little more like, ‘That's my secret…’ and she’s a little more like…” Katya interrupts: “Here’s some blood!”
The intimacy of the set has more than once tricked them into a false sense of security. Typically the only people there with them are their makeup assistant and longtime director Pete Williams.
“It is like a womb, and I get so comfortable saying things that, later, my boyfriend will be watching it and I’ll hear myself say something like, 'This is my year to have sex in drag,’” Trixie says. “And he’s just like, ‘Really? Were you going to tell me?’”
Theirs is an interesting aesthetic, one that mirrors an aspect of RuPaul’s Drag Race that has helped the show become so championed for its inclusive messaging. Here are these performers adorned in outrageous, fabulous drag outfits, but they’re also conversing about topics like survival, shame, and acceptance that, until the show, had rarely been given space in mainstream television.
The stark difference with Trixie, Katya, and UNHhhh, and probably why their fanbase has become so rabid, is in the tone of those frank conversations. They send up that self-seriousness.
“We’re not aspirational characters,” Katya says.
“It’s not Eat Pray Love,” adds Trixie. “We aren’t trying to cure diseases. So we can have a flippant, passive, honest relationship with these topics in a way where we don’t really feel responsibility. In the drag world, we don’t all have to be, you know, Marsha P. Johnson every day.”
“Or Dr. Phil,” says Katya.
“Sometimes we talk about how we got drunk once and shit ourselves,” says Trixie. “That to me is more relatable than, like, ‘I crossdress to change the narrative.’ I’m like, 'I'm here to drink.’”
Adopting the voice of a Southern preacher, Katya exclaims, “'I put on a wig so now you’re all saved!’”
But the fact is, the show has “saved” people. At least that’s what fans have said. It is still revolutionary for two gay men to discuss these topics on a platform like this. And that’s not to mention the catharsis of just being able to tune into a talk show hosted by two people who share the same comedic sensibility you have, one that may not exist anywhere else on TV, and to be able to laugh.
By the same token, Trixie and Katya plead for some self-awareness when it comes to all that.
“I have to reel in fans sometimes when they’re like, 'This show saved my life,’” Trixie says. “I am like, ‘Give yourself some credit. You probably saved your own life and we were in the room on TV.’ Remember that this show is supposed to be light. I don’t ever think we ever tried to help anyone. We accidentally help people, which is lovely.”
“We don’t know shit,” Katya says. “I feel like if I ever earnestly tried to help someone, I’d get sued.” As of April 21, there will be at least 90 more opportunities for litigation.