The art of drag is a centuries’ old form of expression borne from vaudeville, burlesque and a need to experiment with personal appearance, gender orientation and sex. But, more recently, the spotlight on drag seems to grow markedly thanks largely to the hit television show, RuPaul’s Drag Race. Before the show, popular drag queens often had a cap on their potential career achievements (and earnings). One could be a star locally in open-minded cities but thanks to Drag Race, queens can now be internationally famous and celebrated. One such star is Katya (born Brian Joseph McCook), the Russian-themed, (often) hot mess with a sharp tongue and quick wit. Today, Katya, who is one of the world’s most popular drag performers, is set to release her latest work, a five-track EP, Vampire Fitness, out Friday.
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“I tried five times to apply for Drag Race,” Katya says. “The last time, I was like, ‘Okay, this is it. If I don’t get it, I’m moving on.’ But I got it and it was thrilling! Because you felt like – I mean, I wasn’t very ambitious in drag at first, to be honest. You hit a ceiling locally. There’s a limit to the amount of gigs and money you can make. But then when Drag Race happened, a whole new frontier opened up.”
When fame finds you, so do possibilities. Since her debut, Katya has hosted several popular web series (garnering tens of millions of streams), appeared on multiple seasons of Drag Race and met a collaborative partner in fellow drag persona, Trixie Mattel. Like Mattel, who is a successful musician, Katya is a skilled songwriter. But, unlike Mattel, her music is more rugged, even “punishing.” It’s dark, trippy, occupying creative places that may be new for some audiences. Katya began to love these industrial musical styles and aesthetics around 14-years-old.
“Up until that point,” Katya says, “I’d listen to whatever my older brother would listen to. You know, classic rock. The Doors, Pink Floyd. Then I discovered – I don’t remember what magazine it was but it was a Goth magazine and I ordered some CDs through the mail. That’s when music started to have a significant impact on my life.”
To write the new album, Katya revisited some of her old interests. Rather than feeling embarrassed by her teenage favorites, the artist says she was buoyed by them. She calls the sound “uncompromising.” As a result, Katya didn’t want her new record to be a jokey album. She wanted it to have oomph, heft. It ended up being a bit of a long process to write and complete the whole record, a difficult needed to thread. But, in the end, she got it.
“I didn’t want to do a sharp left turn,” she says. “But I also didn’t – it was tough. I was trying to balance a lot of things my characters is known for. But I think I managed to do it.”
The album, which features a few Russian-language dance songs befitting of Eastern European late night clubs as well as a DIY dentist guided meditation final track, began to take shape after Katya completed its lead single. The artist simply enjoys Russian music, she says. Often, the trashier the pop song, the better. It’s about a sonic texture, a tone. Katya doesn’t always need to understand the lyrics in order to feel the joy from the pulsing music.
“For whatever reason,” Katya says, “I became fixated on the Russian language and, to a certain extent, the culture. It’s been ten years of listening to Russian pop and different music spanning from the 70s to the current era. I don’t even know why. Some of the music I listen to is kind of trashy but because it’s in Russian, it just sounds better to me.”
The EP’s lead single, “Come In Brazil (feat. Alaska Thunderfuck),” offered Katya the proper inspiration to go ahead and complete a full EP. It has become standard form for many Drag Race alumni to release music. But, for Katya, she didn’t want that to feel perfunctory. She’d dabbled with a record years before, deciding to shelve it. Working with Alaska, though, sparked a concrete interest. Katya, who first began considering a path in drag in college and invented the signature character her senior year, has long had an irreverent personality (more jester than royal, she says). Now she’s made a career of it and she can do so at her own pace.
“It was important that it wasn’t rushed,” Katya says. “I had no agenda.”
That Katya’s new record is now typically mainstream may not come as a surprise to her many fans. Katya is cerebral and experimental. She’s also dealt with her fair share of personal ups and downs outside the world of drag and entertainment. After years of receiving adulation from her work as a gender-bending character and performer, some lines got a bit blurred. As a result, Katya experienced bouts with mental health issues and substance abuse issues. Today, though, after pulling through, she has a new, positive perspective.
“I think when you achieve success in drag, you start to equate your value with it,” Katya says. “Then when you’re out of character, your off-duty identity gets pushed to the side and can be like a non-descript amorphous shell. It’s weird. Now, though, I’ve chilled out a bit. I put less pressure on what it is.”
Katya says that when looking back on years past, she can find herself wondering, Who was that person? Today, though, she has a new clarity. She’s achieved real success, she feels more stable. Her life has quieted some, too, thanks to the pandemic and resultant quarantine. She has time to be home, dive into her sense of creativity. And it’s thanks to songwriting, at least in part, that Katya feels grounded, back to normal in the best (and most unique) of ways.
“I love that music is one of the most reliable energetic enhancers,” Katya says. “Its ability to completely shift your mood in seconds is one of the most powerful things ever.”
Pre-save ‘Vampire Fitness’ on digital services.