Usually, Willam’s preshow ritual is filled with washable glue sticks, wigs, and cosmetic-grade glitter. He glides on his hoverboard across the stage belting parodies of famous power ballads. However, Willam has temporarily left behind the false lashes and designer heels for a pair of Converse, slacks, and a captain’s coat on the ship of dreams—in the Off-Broadway musical Titanique: Une Parodie Musicale.
The RuPaul's Drag Race star has created a self-image that is synonymous with his high glamour and brutally honest drag persona. It is such an integral part that he doesn’t have a drag name, just his given first name (his last name is Belli). Whether he is making videos on the internet or making cameos on TV shows and movies, most of his fans are accustomed to seeing him in full beat. However, in Titanique, Willam is showing off a different side of himself.
In the parody hit that retells the movie Titanic through the eyes (and songs) of Celine Dion, Willam does not appear in drag. Instead, he plays the dual masculine-presenting roles of the ship’s captain Victor Garber, a combination of Garber’s role of Thomas Andrews and Titanic Captain Edward Smith, and Jack’s best friend Luigi. “I love getting in heels and wigs and dressing up and gilding the lily, but it is nice just to be me. Well, I'm always me, but it's nice not to have to put on all of that, especially in a hot show where you're basically running a marathon,” Willam remarks.
Growing up in Florida, Willam’s love of drag and theatre increased simultaneously. He was a kid with pictures of Lillias White and Bebe Neuwirth on his notebook, who dreamed of being on Broadway. He went to midnight shows of The Rocky Horror Picture Show in drag. And was told to tone down his eyeliner and fake lashes for his community theatre production of Gypsy. He made the big move to New York at age 19 but things didn’t work out like he’d dreamed. “I'd rather be poor and warm than poor and cold,” Willam recalls thinking. So he changed coasts.
The actor had a little more luck in Los Angeles with several guest appearances in television and a five-episode arc as Cherry Peck in Nip/Tuck in the mid-2000s. In 2011, Willam got his star-making break; he was cast on season 4 of RuPaul's Drag Race. (One of the challenges would ironically foreshadow his role in Titanique. The queens were tasked to build a Pride-theme float—in the shape of a boat. In true Willam fashion, he covered his boat in feathers and star-shaped stickers of himself. “I told everybody my boat was pretty much the best,” laughs Willam. “Some people just didn't believe me!”)
Willam’s tenure on Drag Race transformed his career trajectory into a much more drag-centric one. “I thought to myself, let me use this as a springboard. I'll use my 15 minutes and see if I can make it into 16.” Through this mindset, Willam has toured the world performing, written the book Suck Less: Where There's a Willam, There's a Way, and even started a makeup company, Suck Less Face & Body.
Drag Race even garnered a special friendship with a beloved Broadway alum. After his time on the reality competition series came to an end, a friend of Willam’s showed him a video of Neil Patrick Harris in drag making fun of Willam’s Drag Race persona. Eventually, when Harris needed help preparing for his Tony-winning role of Hedwig Schmidt in Hedwig and the Angry Inch, he asked Willam to be his drag mom. In the same L.A. studios used by Dancing With the Stars, Willam taught Harris how to become a drag queen by feminizing his walk, posture, and voice. “Neil said I helped him win his Tony for Hedwig. He's just a hilarious guy and I'm proud to have him as my drag daughter,” says Willam.
In a roundabout way, Willam’s most recent previous gig serendipitously led to his New York stage debut. After the Off-Broadway premiere of Death Drop—a drag murder mystery play that Willam starred in on the West End—had been postponed multiple times, he used his already-booked flight to come to NYC. While in the city, one of the Death Drop producers took him to see Titanique. "I instantly just thought, God, this cast looks like they're having a fucking ball up there! I would love to be in this.” A few weeks later, casting was open for the show.
After booking Titanique, Willam was dropped right in the middle of the action. “Rehearsing for the show was like jumping onto a moving train,” Willam says. “It was the hardest rehearsal period I've ever done. It was a week. Then they said, ‘OK, go ahead. You're in a show now.’ That's a lot of responsibility."
Titanique has been a chance for Willam to display a different side of his talents outside of drag. “I'm grateful that people are getting to see me do something that surprises them, that they didn't know I could do,” Willam says. Despite being a live-singing drag queen with viral music videos, many people still are discovering his gifts. “People come up to me and say, ‘I didn't know you can sing.’ You just have to say, 'Thank you.' Then, I usually say, ‘It's not me. I'm lip synching.’ I just usually try to make a joke with them,” he says.
During his downtime in the show, instead of waiting in the dressing room until his next cue, Willam chooses to stay in the wings. He likes to listen to his fellow cast mates sing and to take in the show he is a part of. To Willam, being in Titanique is a full-circle moment and a dream come true.
“New York is a hard place to come up. But when you come back here and join a hit show like Titanique, it's a lot easier. I'm glad I finally did it at 41. It may not have worked out at 21, but now I'm in a hit show in New York. I can officially check it off the list. Fifteen-year-old me would be patting me on the back," Willam laughs. "He'd be like, 'Give me some comps, bitch!'”