We're closing off 2021 re-sharing some of our favourite pieces of the year. In May, Bimini Bon Boulash was our first cover star post-lockdown.
The weird thing (apparently) about becoming famous in lockdown is that it doesn’t feel real. You have thousands of Twitter followers. Your every Instagram is ablaze with flame emojis. But there are no screaming crowds, no meet and greets, no red-carpet invites. In fact, the only time our cover star got a sweet, sweet taste of celebrity fame was in the park at dawn.
‘I’d be walking my dog at 6am and people would ask for a photo. I’d be like… I haven’t even brushed my teeth yet,’ they say. ‘I started really watching what I put in my basket at Tesco because I didn’t want people to think I eat badly.’
It’s the end of a long day. They’re sat, feet up on the sofa, in the empty Time Out office. Their make-up’s half off. Their false lashes are nestled on the arm of their seat. They’ve got a cup of tea in one hand, a lipstick-smeared wipe in the other, and they’re swaddled in black Juicy Couture velour (diamante-emblazoned, obviously). It feels a bit like we’re winding down from a big night out and, for one brief moment, I allow myself to believe that’s the case: that I’m at an afters with Bimini Bon fucking Boulash, the gender-bending, cis-tem-offending queen of east London.
Norwich City and other looks
Every few minutes our conversation is pierced by Bimini’s laugh: loud and staccato, like a wind-up toy bouncing up and down on a table.
‘I love a Pret Hot Shot. Hahaha.’
The 28-year-old non-binary drag queen (real name: Tommy Hibbitts, pronouns: they/them out of drag, she/her in it) competed in series two of the chaotic British spin-off of RuPaul’s very slick drag talent show. The one that aired for ten weeks through Lockdown Three and was a life raft of serotonin in an endorphin-free ocean of pain.
The consensus now is that the series was more than ‘just’ great reality TV. It was magic. It was messy and silly: showcasing the creativity of people whose jobs had become vulnerable in the pandemic. Bimini grew in power throughout the series. They faced elimination in episode one thanks to a Norwich City FC thong bodysuit that did not impress RuPaul (no word on what Delia Smith thought). But like a perfectly contoured tornado, sucking in all of pop culture and spitting out looks referencing everything from Vivienne Westwood and Playboy bunnies to Pamela Anderson, Katie Price, bacteria and acne, by the end they were a patriarchy-destroying force of nature.
When the series reached its finale, Bimini was already such a cult icon that there was uproar when they didn’t win. Kathy Burke changed her Twitter name to Kath Bimini Bon Burkey. (She tells me that Bimini is ‘beautiful, creative and highly intelligent – a glamorous triple threat to bigotry’.) Even Sadiq Khan tweeted his support. ‘They reflect the best of our city,’ he tells Time Out later. Khan identified with their message of acceptance. ‘You tolerate a toothache,’ he says. ‘No one wants to be “tolerated” – you want to be respected, celebrated, embraced.’
Ah, London. Bimini’s union with the capital was inevitable. They grew up ‘a little shit’ with a St Moritz fake tan in Norwich seaside town Great Yarmouth. ‘Even when people would call me names for being queer, I’d always just laugh it off,’ they say. ‘It was awful really.’ They got bullied for taking dance classes and idolised Kate Moss. (‘I used to drink Diet Coke and smoke cigarettes and think I was her,’ they say flashing the tattoo they got to match the model’s.) Noughties party girls like Lindsay Lohan were another fascination. ‘Now I look back and think: She was troubled,’ says Bimini. ‘But I liked the tragic glamour of it. I partied a lot.’
At 18 they came to London. Sink The Pink, Gigolo in Soho and East Bloc were their haunts. ‘I thought I was weird,’ says Bimini. ‘But I was going out and being like: I’m actually less weird than most of these people hahaha!’ Living in the capital made them feel like they didn’t have to explain themselves. ‘I think that’s why London is a hub for people,’ they say. ‘Because you have that freedom. As a queer person you live as a version of you, that you think people want you to be, until you are ready to accept the true you.’
They first did drag in 2017. They’d just done a journalism masters. (‘My mum was confused: “You finished your degree but you’re going to become a drag queen?” ’) And they’d had a messy few years. ‘I think people get lost in hedonism,’ they say. ‘London provides that and it’s not necessarily a bad thing. But I know for me, it came from a place of being insecure and exploring my identity in a bar.’ If you look hard enough on YouTube you’ll find a clip of one of Bimini’s first drag shows, from The Glory. It starts with them lip-syncing the ‘Brexit means Brexit’ speech dressed as Theresa May. It ends with them tying ‘Donald Trump’ to a chair, stripping him to reveal ‘MAKE AMERICA GAY AGAIN’ written on his chest and then giving him a lapdance to the ‘Cell Block Tango’ from ‘Chicago’. ‘I did love that performance!’ They fling their wipe as they speak, like the Queen attempting to do a normal person’s wave.
‘I’ve been thinking,’ says Bimini. ‘If I had moved to London during a pandemic, how I would have been. I came here and I saw so much culture that I hadn’t seen before and it opened my mind to so much. I feel like queer kids need to experience that.’
Two fingers up
The Bimini chatting to me now is very different to the Bimini that somehow managed to stay standing while walking a dog across cobbles in a regency gown and 12-inch-heeled thigh-high boots for our cover shoot. Now, they chat quickly and animatedly, wriggling about in their seat. Before, they were reserved and so focused that they barely spoke. ‘I’m a Taurus, I’m determined,’ they say.
Bimini would quite like to be prime minister one day. ‘I’m coming for you, Parliament!’ Although they’d rather abolish the government. All of Bimini’s idols have a rule-breaking punk spirit. Princess Julia: ‘She’s defied expectations of what she was “meant” to do [in her sixties]’. Vivienne Westwood. Even Katie Price. ‘I feel like people who exude femininity are often seen as lowbrow,’ says Bimini. ‘Society sees it as weakness. Whereas I think to be feminine is to be powerful and strong.’
This desire to upset the man-made status quo can clearly be heard in new single ‘God Save This Queen’, which sounds like a clubby cheese-fest but packs a serious punch. In it, Bimini takes the piss out of people who shout ‘Are you a boy or a girl?’ at them in the street because they’re the ones trapped by toxic masculinity. ‘I wanted it to be a fuck-you to people that ever made me feel bad,’ they say. ‘Joke’s on you: I’m great. Two fingers up.’
Bimini doesn’t tiptoe around topics, but when ‘Drag Race’ producers let them know that the topic of gender binaries was being brought up on the show, they did wonder how it would go down. ‘It’s such a tricky conversation for a lot of people to be having,’ they say. ‘People don’t understand it.’ The chat they ended up having though – with Ginny Lemon, another non-binary queen – was groundbreaking stuff for the BBC. ‘As humans, we are so complex,’ Bimini explained on the programme. ‘That having a binary to fit everyone into, where it’s just male or female, doesn’t make sense, when there are 7 billion-plus people in the world.’ They’ve since had hundreds of messages from viewers telling them that they’ve helped them understand themselves. It’s a big shift from the way gender is usually discussed in the media. ‘There’s always an agenda,’ says Bimini. ‘It’s never fair or an honest conversation.’
They pause for a moment.
‘It’s just evil,’ they say. ‘The way trans people are discussed: as if they’re not even human, or like, as if they don’t have rights. If you speak to any trans person all they want is to feel like a person and feel accepted.’
Before the pandemic hit, the drag scene in London was booming, Bimini says. Everyone was working. There were more drag kings. There were more women and non-binary people becoming drag queens. But now? ‘The industry has been on its knees,’ Bimini says, ‘because there’s no help, especially for self-employed people.’
Did anyone have a more surreal start to lockdown than Bimini? They were deep into filming ‘Drag Race’ when the UK went into quarantine, stripped of their phone and unable to talk to their family. They spent Lockdown One in a shared house in Harringay. All of their housemates worked in the creative industries so they were all unemployed. They played a lot of cards. They went running on Walthamstow Marshes. They listened to Oprah’s podcast to ‘stay grounded’. They also taught themselves how to jump off a chair and land in the splits. ‘A matter of trial and error,’ they say. ‘I just had to believe I could do it. It never stops hurting, though.’
It was a struggle financially (as it was for many people). They watched as friends left drag to find work to survive. ‘There were moments where I was like… maybe I need to retrain and get a job in cyber,’ says Bimini. Performing at outdoor cabaret night Touché at The Cause saved them in the summer. ‘It gave a lot of queer people jobs,’ they say. ‘So it’s really special.’ But things have been tough. They pull the remaining lash glue off their eyes.‘I just feel so sorry for my drag sisters.’
Big celeb energy
Now, as life begins to open up, Bimini’s working out what to do with their new found stardom. They’ve already picked up the trappings of a fledgling reality It Girl: a book deal, a modelling contract, a music deal, pillowy lips, unlimited gifted vegan food. (‘I could probably never cook dinner again.’) But they haven’t forgotten their roots in the grassroots London drag scene.
As clubs and bars return, Bimini plans to go to as many independent queer London spaces as possible – The Glory, Dalston Superstore. They’re desperate for somewhere sweaty to play Lady Gaga’s ‘Chromatica’ album, which came out in lockdown, from start-to-finish.
‘I think everyone, basically, should never go home,’ they say. ‘They should just stay out. Like, go to all of the queer places and keep going to them all.’
‘God Save This Queen’ is released on Jun 3.
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