EXCLUSIVE: A Day in the Life of Todrick Hall, Professional Actor, Singer, Director and Aspiring Drag Queen
By John Boone
Photo: John Boone for ETONLINE
"I sometimes think, Do people find this interesting?" Todrick Hall shrugs. "Because this is my life every day and, you know, people could do this if they wanted to."
We are standing just backstage at the historic Theatre at Ace Hotel immediately following the Outfest screening of Behind the Curtain: Todrick Hall, a documentary that followed Todrick as he wrote and recorded a full-length visual album, Straight Outta Oz, then turned that album into a stage show and toured nationwide to perform it. From our vantage point behind the velvet curtain, we can watch the attendees -- hundreds of fans, friends and other industry folk -- filing out under the glimmering mirrored ceiling into the Broadway Theater District of Downtown L.A. I've asked Todrick if this all feels as glamorous to him as it seems.
"I thought at one point I would get to a certain place and I would be like, OK, now I'm quote unquote famous -- which, I hate that word -- and people know who I am and I feel different," he explains.
That point never came. "You're always going to be a human being who needs human things and feels human things," he rattles off. "I don't feel like Beyoncé is a human. This has helped me really put into perspective that she is just a person on the planet, living her life, who just has a special gift and was in the right place at the right time." At the risk of sacrilege, Todrick adds, "And she is a special, gifted human being. But she's still human, first and foremost."
Hours earlier, there is little to be found in the way of glamour. It is Thursday afternoon in the Valley and I'm waiting for Todrick in a corner studio on the second story of a strip mall in Studio City. An oversized green screen wraps around one corner of the room, lit by large fluorescent lamps. Sound pads cover the remaining cement walls. Black mats line the cement floor. Todrick is set to film something here, though no one is 100 percent sure what that is -- a YouTube video? A music video? A comedy sketch? -- except, I suppose, Todrick.
A cameraman arrives and begins hauling in more lights, sandbags, a tripod, and the room slowly begins to resemble an actual set. Team Toddy, which is comprised of four personal assistants, shows up next, buzzing around to make sure that things run smoothly when their boss arrives. Which Todrick does, nearly an hour late, with a Dsquared hat reading "Icon" pulled low over his face as he dedicatedly types on his iPhone.
"I'm so sorry. I just want you to know that when you're working with drag queens -- which I'm not, only just sometimes," he apologizes, referencing the fact that, in addition to a black cut-off tank top and sweats, he is donning a full face of makeup, pink lipstick and blue eye shadow that glitters in the greenroom lighting, "it is always unpredictable what you're going to get. Everyone's running so late. I'm usually never, ever late."
If Beyoncé and Lin-Manuel Miranda had a baby, and that baby was raised on the Disney backlot by a local theater troupe, he would grow up to be Todrick Hall, a multihyphenate who first garnered notice on the ninth season of American Idol -- the season Lee DeWyze won, with Todrick being voted off in the Top 16. Fans from the show followed him to his YouTube channel, which now boasts more than 2.6 million subscribers, with his videos tallying over 470 million views. One video, a flash mob in a Target store set to Beyoncé's "End of Time," has racked up over 15 million views alone and led to a shout out from Bey herself ("Thank you so much for that. It really made me happy.") and the opportunity to co-choreograph her "Blow" music video. His Outfest bio refers to him as a "singer, dancer, actor, director, American Idol sensation and YouTube superstar."
"I took stripper off of that, because I didn't know who was going to be reading it," he deadpans. "But that's something that I would also like for you to know."
Todrick talks at a rapid-fire clip, and you find yourself speeding up to keep pace. "I just say ‘performer,’" he adds. "I don't really like to be labeled as one thing. And I'm not the guy that's like," he feigns a British accent, "'Oh, my God, I don't want to be labeled. I'm an artist.'" Instead, he just loves everything he does, and having a platform like YouTube allows him to bring his entire vision to fruition himself. "In my mind, even if it's a crazy mess, it feels like the same crazy mess from the same brain."
The past year saw Todrick step away from the platform to create Straight Outta Oz and star in Kinky Boots on Broadway, where he donned the famous knee-high high-heeled boots for four months. Now, he is plotting his return and is on set to film his sixth video in one week. It's another installment in his popular Once Upon a Crime series, in which Todrick plays the dishonorable Judge Ratchet. "It's been a year since I've been really creating content that goes viral and that gets views and subscribers and helps grow my brand," he explains. "This is a show that always gets over a million views on each one. And I love drag queens."
Todrick slips a giant, curly brown wig on his head and stares at himself in the vanity. "This wig looks crazy... But it does look kind of ratchet, though, don't you think?" He yanks at the curls a bit and sits down with me, though he can't help stealing glances at himself.
"I can't take myself seriously. I have to take this wig off." He drops it on the counter. "So we can talk like regular people."
Forty minutes after Todrick, the drag queens finally pull in. Alyssa Edwards, a fan favorite on RuPaul's Drag Race, is heard before she's seen. "How dare all of these people! How dare all of these people," she cries, swooping into the studio wearing a black turban and flowing, sheer shawl and feeling the Mommie Dearest fantasy. "Barbara, please! BARB-ARA! Clean. This. Mess. Up, Valentina!" Valentina, season nine's contentious Miss Congeniality, follows, wearing a black cowboy hat and T-shirt from her own merchandise store.
Todrick's affinity for queens led him to Drag Race, on which he is a full-time judge. But he has done enough drag himself, both amateur (Judge Ratchet) and professional (playing Lola in Kinky Boots) that I ask where he considers himself on the drag spectrum.
"I would never think of myself as a drag queen, because I feel like they're artists and I don't possess any of the skills to, like, do my own makeup, to get into my own outfit," he says as he considers the question. "I would be honored if someone thought of me as a drag queen, because I think that they're brilliant and I secretly want to be one."
In today's skit, Valentina will play Snow White and Alyssa will play Belle. Once Upon a Crime is purported to be fully improvised -- "I have no idea the buffoonery that is going to come out of their mouths," Todrick chuckles early in the day -- but if this all sounds like chaos in the making, Todrick is in full control.
Every single decision is run past him, down to the most minuscule of tasks, like where the Disney princess costumes should be hung. As the queens lace their corsets and sip Red Bull through straws, Todrick preps them with dossiers about their characters, spitballing jokes they might use: "Sliding into the DMs" could mean "Dwarf Messages"; for Belle's character witness, "Mrs. Potts don't say much, but she got all the tea"; Snow's intro line could be "Hi, hoe!" In addition to directing and starring, he is the writer, director of photography, talent wrangler, wardrobe assistant and, at times, mentor.
"When you wish upon a star," Alyssa begins singing.
"That's Pinocchio," Valentina coos.
"No, it's Disney, bitch," Alyssa barks.
"It is from the movie Pinocchio, but it's also just, like, the theme to all the Disney movies," Todrick clarifies.
"Girl, that's all of Disney. I don't give a f**k if it's Pinocchio or whoever, bitch," Alyssa laughs. "You're lying, that's why your nose is growing, bitch. It's all the Disneys!"
The case before Judge Ratchet is Belle suing Snow White for the title of fairest in the land -- or, as Alyssa proclaims on set, "fan favorite fraudulent, infringement and flooziness." The sketch is shot in two parts, with Alyssa and Valentina performing first and Todrick reacting with his lines offscreen. It is sweltering in the studio because the A/C has to be turned off for sound, but Todrick stays in full judicial drag -- robes and that curly wig -- as he paces back and forth behind the camera, slamming the gavel against his hand and feeding lines.
"I think you should say, 'She thinks she's fairest in the land. She is not fairest in the land. She is not the fan favorite,'" he directs Alyssa.
"She's the fakest," Alyssa continues.
"Why am I angry at her? She's trying to take my title away?" Valentina asks.
"We're suing each other," Alyssa interjects.
"But what am I suing you for?" Valentina asks.
"You're not. You're just here to defend yourself," Todrick explains. "You just need to be like, ‘She is just jealous of me. I can't help it that I'm the fairest of them all.’”
"No, you need to say, 'Jealousy is a killer in this industry,'" Alyssa shrieks. "Remember when I told that girl that on season five and the kids loved it!"
An hour of ad libs ends with a snatched wig, tongue pops and one shattered teapot. As we enter hour two of filming, it is finally Todrick's turn to perform. The wig is frizzing from the heat, requiring what can't be a healthy dose of hairspray, but Todrick seems unfazed. "You may be seated," he deadpans as he sashays up to a podium. "People of the court... She back!" He swings the gavel behind his back and lets out a cackle. He runs the lines again, and again, and then once more, until he is satisfied that he'll have enough takes to choose from when he goes to edit. At one point, he removes his Ugg boot and puts the gavel between his toes, then uses his foot to clank it on the podium.
And then, in the same sort of whirlwind he arrived in, Todrick is finished, the wig has been discarded in a nearby chair and he is sitting back in the greenroom, elbow-deep in makeup-removing wipes, his mind on the next thing. The bank closes in 10 minutes and he needs to stop in before going home to change for that night's premiere. "We take on so much more than we can chew and overcommit ourselves all the time," he says, "To go to a premiere is, like, that's a piece of cake."
Todrick thrives on chaos, it seems, which means there is no typical day in the life of Todrick Hall. "I don't really know what that means, to be honest," he says. "I'm not just saying that. Every day is unexpected and exciting and sometimes it's exhausting, but most of the time it's really fun. And when I do have a regular day when nothing is scheduled, it's really hard for me to function as a human being."
He looks over impishly. "I don't think there is anything that I do every day except, like, stalk my future husbands on Instagram."
There's also the fact that Todrick's life is anything but typical anymore, when you consider his 900,000 fans on Instagram and 285,000 on Twitter. Fame comes with its own obstacles to his day-to-day life, he says, so that if he doesn't feel like talking with fans or taking pictures, he just won't leave the house. "Because I feel like my fan base is so hugely the reason why I am what I am and get to do the things I get to do, I never say no to a photo," he points out. "I never say no to meeting someone."
Hearing Todrick talk about his fans, they never feel like a burden to him. There is a genuine earnestness to the way he speaks about his connection with them and, at 32, he wears his role model status like a badge of honor. "I feel like who I truly, genuinely am, for the most part, is what they are actually looking up to," he says. "It's like having friends all over the world."
One of those friends takes the mic during the question-and-answer portion of that night's screening to inform Todrick that Beyoncé had just shared the first photo of her newborn twins, Rumi and Sir Carter. "I thought you'd want to know..." he reports to an unaware Todrick. As the Outfest moderator wraps the Q&A to rousing applause, Todrick slips backstage and immediately snatches his phone from one of his assistants. "I gotta see these twins, bitch!"
Todrick is still wearing the "Icon" hat, now with a particularly intricate red plaid and denim jacket and a metallic bowtie. In just a few hours, he'll be picked up by a car service to head to the airport and then to Atlanta for work, but for now he has a brief moment to enjoy the audience's reception to Behind the Curtain, huddled backstage with Drag Race season eight winner Bob the Drag Queen and season two winner Tyra Sanchez.
"There are parts in [the documentary] that only make me cringe because I try to put out a certain level of perfection when it comes to, like, words that I will and won't say in front of kids," Todrick says. "This definitely has me being the most true and raw version of myself. There were some kid fans here today, and I was slightly concerned that they were hearing some of those things."
Even for someone who lives his life online, Behind the Curtain is quite an intimate look at Todrick's experiences. It's not all drag queens and video shoots; the film explores his familial struggles as well as politics and sexuality, race and religion. Are there particular things, I ask, that he keeps for just himself?
"I mean, absolutely," he laughs. "Everyone has stuff that remains private, even if you're a porn star."
Not that Todrick originally aspired to be YouTube famous. Having grown up in Plainview, Texas, where he began studying ballet at the age of 9, he attempted more conventional approaches to breaking into show business, whether they were Broadway auditions or a reality singing competition. Ultimately, he found that roles for black gay men didn't exist.
"When there are so few roles for them to play, there's not enough for that group of people to feed off of, they have to go back -- they can't stay in the Pride Lands anymore," Todrick turns to Lion King to explain. "They have to try to find, like, Timon and Pumbaa, or wherever they got to go to survive."
The world wide web provided Todrick with the opportunity to cast himself in any role he wanted and ultimately led him to conventional success and the opportunity to work with stars he'd long looked up to, including his mentor, RuPaul ("The Whitney to my Brandy"), squad leader Taylor Swift and Bey herself. "Every day, no lie, I have a moment where I'm like, I cannot believe this is real life."
Even more unbelievable, this is still just the beginning.
"I want to EGOT," Todrick states matter-of-factly. "I want to win an Emmy, a GRAMMY, an Oscar and a Tony, and I want to do it all on my own terms, with things that I have created. I haven't done them, because I didn't really believe in myself until the past year, that I would be able to do those things, and now I do believe that I can."