RuPaul’s Drag Race Alum Willam Belli Sets the Best
Example by Being Himself: Outspoken, Compassionate & Playing Seriously Safe
by Dann Dulin
Photographed Exclusively for A&U by Annie Tritt
[dropcap]W[/dropcap]illam loves sex. NO! He really…loves…sex. And he’s smart. As HIV-negative, he knows that the consequences of reckless acts can be irreversible, even life-threatening. That’s why he dons a condom—and takes Truvada as PrEP.
“Sex is an activity,” he casually blurts, yet firmly, from the kitchen of his spacious West Hollywood Hacienda home that he shares with his husband. “If there’s love involved, great. If not, fine, as long as you’re not hurting anyone. But it’s nice when there is love because hopefully there’s enough trust between the two people so that a rubber is not needed.” His steel-blue eyes expand and he whispers an aside, “And it feels so good.”
Probably best known for RuPaul’s Drag Race and equally notorious for being the only contestant disqualified for violating the quarantine during taping by having sex with his husband, Willam is an actor, singer, songwriter, and entertainer. He’s even a talented musician, playing saxophone since he was eight.
Arriving at his residence, partly hidden from the street by lush, landscaped bushes and an imposing gate, I behold a spiral castle-like tower. It’s the kind from which Rapunzel might unfurl her golden locks for the Prince to ascend. The wooden door is open. A few feet down the path I come to an iron-clad glass front door. I knock twice. No answer. I walk around to a window and peek in. No sign of life. I return to the front door, try the doorknob. It opens.
[dropcap]A[/dropcap]head I espy a huge St. Bernard dog who’s staring at me with loving eyes. “Hello!” I yell. No answer. I slowly creep in and the St. Bernard lumbers toward me. “Hello, anyone here?” I perceive Willam’s faint voice. I announce myself. “It’s okay, come on in,” he shouts. A few seconds later Willam rushes down the backstairs into the living room clad only in grey shorts. Barefoot, bare-chested and in full makeup drag, he offers me a drink, “Gatorade, water…anything?” I decline. At once, I’m intoxicated by his glamour.
He escorts me into the oversized open-spaced kitchen/family room, where I’m seated on a light-grey leather wraparound sofa. Willam plants himself behind the kitchen countertop that’s bursting with mail, magazines, and assorted papers. He remains there throughout our time together.
You might consider Willam a drag queen, but he has no clever drag moniker (he uses his birth name), when he performs he doesn’t lip-synch, and he dresses himself pretty much in private as he does on stage, sans full makeup, of course. Willam is not a character.
“You want to use every tool in your arsenal to prevent HIV”
“Some people wouldn’t talk about sex, but I think it’s important to,” he says, pressing the issue. “You want to use every tool in your arsenal to prevent HIV. I want all bases covered! Truvada is not a cure but it’s a tool to help. I’ve had lipo. Even though it isn’t a cure for fatness, it sure is a tool. If you use Truvada wisely there’s no reason to be ashamed.” Some critics of PrEP have opined that gay men will use the prevention tool as a license to party harder.
He quickly licks his voluptuous lips and continues, “My friend Courtney is an Australian drag queen and she said to me yesterday, ‘I think that your coming forth and talking openly about Truvada is one of the more selfless things you’ve done.’ I replied, ‘Yeh, I’m also trying to get laid more.’ If I put out there that I’m on this drug, that I’m responsible, and that I’m open about sex, they’re more likely to say, ‘Ya wanna fuck?’ He halts then makes a quick face shift, correcting himself. “Oh sorry, I mean…Do you wanna make love? This is a classy magazine.”
Brutally direct and frank, mincing no words, Willam is an open book. He’s proud of who he is and where he comes from.
A Philadelphia native, Willam is named after his Yugoslavian grandfather and Belli is Italian. At fourteen, Willam, his parents and two older siblings moved to Cocoa Beach, Florida, where he attended middle and high school. Willam’s father worked for Kennedy Space Center and his mother was an ER nurse. He learned early on about HIV. His mother was once exposed to the virus and had to take post-exposure prophylaxis. Willam recalls the incident. “A car pulled up to the hospital and mom helped put this guy on the gurney. He didn’t speak English. I guess there was an exchange of blood and twenty minutes later the patient’s mother said in broken English, ‘He got AIDS.’ Mom didn’t have her gloves on because her natural instinct kicked in, which was to ‘save, save.’ She went on that medicine and it made her really sick.”
At age nine, Willam read And The Band Played On. “It was a thick-ass book and I had to look up multiple words on every page but I made it through,” he recalls. “I remember asking my mom about fisting because it was mentioned in the book. She said, ‘You know when I take your temperature sometimes in the back, well sometimes they go deeper and bigger.’ It didn’t sound gross to me and I liked learning about medical terms.”
His first job as a teenager was in a coffee shop. “I hate coffee and hate the smell of it to this day,” remarks Willam. At sixteen, after graduating from high school, he emancipated and moved from Cocoa Beach back to Philadelphia. Soon after, he submitted photos to an MTV pilot, The Party, and was cast. Their makeup artist applied additional makeup and along with his long bouncy blonde luxurious hair, Willam looked androgynous. Though the series never launched, he earned his SAG card.
Later, the casting director remembered him and cast him in extra roles in shows like Sex and the City. Willam was making more money in drag than out of drag and for the next three years he learned the ropes and he paid his rent by working bit parts. While on the set one day, a tech person was tossing out a Polaroid camera so he gave it to Willam. To bring in more money, he schlepped the camera to Hollywood Blvd. and took pictures of tourists with Hollywood landmarks, charging them five bucks.
“I had a lot of failures in my twenties,” he admits, twirling a hairpin through his fingers. After playing the transgender character Cherry Peck on several episodes of Nip/Tuck, he felt he was gaining momentum in the business and assumed that more jobs would come his way. They didn’t. “This sucks,” he thought. Willam was unemployed for a year. During that time he met Richard Simmons, who helped Willam out of his “funk.” Willam worked out in Richard’s classes for four years, appearing in some of Richard’s videos, and losing twenty pounds. “I had FFK, Former Fat Kid syndrome. Once a fat person, you’re always a fat person. My eating disorder is that I fuckin’ like to eat!” He lets off a ripple of titters, flinging his arms into the air. “Richard was my guru,” Willam points out profoundly. “He changed my outlook and taught me to eat healthy.”
Willam learned that you can’t sit back and wait for someone to give you a break. You need to open the door on your own. One project he created was an Internet series, Beatdown, where the intimidating Willam lambastes instructional makeup videos (he’s deliciously ornery). He also established an agency, Box Meat, that represents go-go boys for dance clubs.
“My career got kneecapped because a wonderful thing happened. Transgender people started playing transgender roles and the visibility became great. It fuckin’ killed MY career!” he says in a deep boisterous tone, playfully striking a pose with a cocky hand on hip. “But two steps forward one step back for me. I just found a new way to make art and do my thing through comedy and YouTube.”
Just last year, I discovered Willam. A friend e-mailed a link to a music video entitled, “Blurred Bynes,” performed by DWV (Detox, Willam & Vicky Vox. The group was together for two years, but last summer they separated under chilly circumstances). I couldn’t get enough and played it over and over again. “Blurred Bynes” is a parody of Robin Thicke’s “Blurred Lines,” satirizing Amanda Bynes’ in again-out again rehab. Willam wrote the catchy lyrics and it’s sheer entertainment. Forewarned though, the stirring mood-boosting video can be addictive! Currently it has nearly four million hits. Other parodies include “Hold on,” “Boy is a Bottom” (fifteen million hits), and “Chow Down (at Chick-fil-A).” His new album will be released in May. The last album hit the iTunes Top Ten of comedy charts and then landed on the Billboard charts.
His fan base is enormous. “I’m the one who says what people are thinking but they don’t want to say,” asserts Willam, the lovechild of Joan Rivers and Ann-Margret. “I usually say the first thing that comes to mind. People can sense when one takes a breath that it might come across as fake. So I just keep talking and eventually something works—and hooray for editing.” He grabs a bottled water and takes a slug. “I’m the first girl from Drag Race to open up a lot of the markets because of my music. I’m funny, my vocals are pretty spot-on, I’m blonde, I smile a lot, I sparkle, and so people want to book me—I guess. It works. I’m happy,” raves Willam breezily.
The curvaceous, sexy, stunningly beautiful, and looking-more-like-a-woman-than-a-woman, Willam is one of the luscious American Apparel ad girls (he wore his “TruvadaWhore” T-shirt in their Christmas video last year), and also the face of OCC Cosmetics at Sephora. He appears around the globe in his solo show, “meWme,” (the title being a take-off of DWV, his former group). He’s performed in Australia, England, Norway, Iceland, Japan, and China. He describes his show: “If Aileen Wuornos [the serial killer Charlize Theron portrayed in the film, Monster] was acquitted of all charges, got a sweet book deal, and started a musical comedy stand up act.” When asked how long his show lasts, he replies, “It depends how much they’re paying. My motto is: ‘If you’ve got a check, I’ve got a talent.’”
“I’m a slut when it comes to volunteering,”
Despite his travels, Willam finds time to volunteer. “I’m a slut when it comes to volunteering,” he quips. In fact, he honed his talent by appearing in local fundraisers like Dennis Hensley’s The Mismatch Game, where proceeds benefit the Los Angeles LGBT Center and Jeffrey Bowman’s [A&U, December 2001] Legendary Bingo, where proceeds go toward various charities, including AIDS organizations. Legendary Bingo has raised over $3 million in sixteen years and in ten years The Mismatch Game has raised over $110,000. “My confidence came from doing these benefits. It was actually my drag mom, Mama, who does a lot of charities, who taught me to do fundraisers,” he explains.
“Mama told me that at one point she would just rip pages out of her address book because she had lost so many friends to AIDS,” he sighs ruefully. “I don’t know how I would have fared through those times….” He gazes thoughtfully. Willam lost a close friend who used to perform with him in a band when he moved to Los Angeles in 2001. His initial encounter with loss, though, came earlier when he performed in community theater back home where several fellow actors died. This set the stage for Willam’s humanitarianism.
“I’m a whore for all seasons when it comes to charities. I’ll do anything that comes down the road,” he declares. “Doing fundraisers is like choosing the
flavor of the month. Which one do I want to work with this time? And If I don’t have time, like when I’m on the road, I find creative ways to donate money. One time I got out all my old drag for Halloween and did a clothing sale and I tithed ten percent to charities.” This coming summer he’s working with a children’s art program. “I want to do the AIDS/LifeCycle,” he announces with urgency. “I have this idea of being in drag on a flatbed truck with a stationary bike, just pedaling very slowly—and passing everybody!”
Always forward-thinking, he also excelled in early sex. Willam lost his virginity at twelve. “It was a really older guy,” he explains. I ask, How old? He just replies, with a grin, “a lot older. So I guess technically I was molested. I also had sex with a girl later in high school.” For a couple of seconds he flippantly shuffles through a stack of mail, offhandedly glancing at the contents. “You know, the Internet was my downfall,” he reveals. “AOL chat rooms back in the nineties…” He trails off then shaking his head, tilts it back and grins, probably remembering good times.
Eleven years ago he met his husband and they’ve been married for six years. “My relationship is undefined,” notes Willam. “We’re very open with each other.” Because Willam is taking Truvada, he gets tested every three months. At sixteen, he took his first HIV test. “Before that, basically, it was only if I fucked up [having sex without a condom],” he offers. “At one point I took the post-exposure drug but didn’t have any side effects.” Luckily he’s had the same experience with Truvada, even though a close friend of his, he shares, complained of dizziness when he first began the therapy.
Having several younger friends who are living with HIV, Willam is perturbed that there are high rates of infection within the gay community. “The only way to reach these guys is to hear about HIV-prevention from their peers. They need to hear the message from the people who they’re listening to and watching [on TV, Internet, videos].”
Their ears might prick up, too, if it comes out of Willam’s witty mouth. “If I’m making a funny song about Truvada, where I’m talking about if the condom breaks for example, this is a way for them to open their minds to the fact this disease exists. Then they can make a decision for themselves whether to get tested or to get on PrEP,” says the former Groundlings dropout. “Or they can choose to find out more on their own.”
Being genuine, people trust Willam and he uses that platform to set an example. Who does he look up to in the epidemic? “Jenifer Lewis [A&U, May 2005] and Sheryl Lee Ralph [A&U, April 2008],” he instantly specifies, “because they spoke out in the eighties when nobody else did.” Just then his dog, Warner, loudly laps water from his bowl near Willam. “We put ice in there and he goes crazy. He loves it,” he clarifies, returning to subject at hand.
“More than anybody, Elizabeth Taylor [A&U, February 2003] educated and turned people’s heads. You can’t buy that kind of exposure or good will from someone.” He briefly ponders, staring out the sliding glass doors that provide a view of the pool and Jacuzzi. As if in a trance he utters, “You have to make people uncomfortable for a moment to make them comfortable—and make smarter decisions—later. One second of discomfort is better than a lifetime of poppin’ pills.” He pauses then concludes. “These people are my touchstones. I take my cues from those who spoke up before it was popular.”
Another inspiration for Willam is his parents. Growing up gay was a non-issue with his family, who are very supportive of his career. “My father taught me to choose being happy over anything else,” the self-described raconteur relays. “Anger and depression take too much energy.”
Indeed, exhilaration currently abounds as Willam preps for another trip. This time he’ll perform in Rio de Janeiro, a place he’s never visited before. To prepare, he laid down a Spanish-language track of his hit, “Boy is a Bottom (Es Una Pasiva).” He doesn’t speak Spanish so the feat was challenging. After he recorded it, a girlfriend said to him, “You know they speak Portuguese in Brazil, right?!” Willam answered her in a kidding way, “Shutup.” She was correct.
I ask about certain Rio landmarks he’d like to visit and Willam interrupts. “I’m a sexual tourist. I’m going to Brazil and there’s a lot of guys down there I wanna fuck.” He lowers his voice then wraps up, with a wink, “using protection…naturally.”
For more information about Willam, visit www.willambelli.com.
Check out photographer Annie Tritt’s website at www.annietritt.com.
Dann Dulin interviewed actress Sharon Leal for the February cover story.