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Queen of the Bar

Everyone knows drag queens are multi-hyphenates. For Trixie Mattel and others, that includes bar ownership.

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Trixie Mattel, a drag performer with giant blonde wig, holds the microphone among a seated crowd in a bar with pink and red lanterns. This Is It

At 55 years old and counting, Milwaukee’s This Is It! is the oldest queer bar in Wisconsin. Affectionately referred to as “Tits,” it’s like the bar from Cheers for the working-class LGBTQ folks of the city, the kind of place that’s open on Christmas for customers who can’t go home for the holidays.

The bar came to life in 1968 under business partners June Brehm and Michael Laton. The duo never set out to open a queer watering hole, but Brehm wanted the business to be accepting of people from all walks of life, inadvertently creating a safe space for LGBTQIA+ customers. The area of Milwaukee was particularly desolate at the time, and many short-lived queer bars that preceded Tits in the two decades prior had closed. But This Is It! found its audience — and permanent status as a cornerstone of the community — in a newly formed gay neighborhood nearby.

Brehm became sole owner in 1970 and eventually passed the bar to her son Joseph, who in turn bequeathed it to longtime bartender George Schneider in 2016. The bar retained its cozy and nostalgic energy through the decades and ownership changes. Then the bar’s narrative took a hard turn in 2021, when Schneider brought on a very buzzy new co-owner: Trixie Mattel.

“The news had spun it like This Is It! was a struggling bar that was barely hanging on, but nothing could have been further from the truth,” says Mattel, who was portrayed as a savior. “COVID-19 was tough on all small businesses, but Tits has always been a watering hole for the gay community in times of strife.”

After making a name for herself on RuPaul’s Drag Race — and winning the franchise’s third All-Stars seasonMattel has continued to grow her profile as an accomplished comedian, musician, and performer in other realms. In 2023, she became the first drag queen to perform at Stagecoach and she notched a James Beard Award nomination for a “cooking” video with GQ in 2018. Though the gig as bar owner may seem like small potatoes compared to those opportunities, it means everything to someone who came up in Milwaukee and expresses an unabashed love for her hometown.

“Tits is the heart of Milwaukee’s queer culture... and the lungs... and a few sex organs!” Mattel says. “George Schneider, my co-owner, was actually the bartender that mixed and served me my first drink at 21, which is so crazy to think about.”

Along with other drag stars who have taken over important performance venues, Mattel’s turn as bar owner has offered her a chance to further Tits’s role as a hub for the city’s queer community and help locals and visitors of all backgrounds fall in love with the art of drag. But it’s also a personal passion project that rewards the star just as much as the bar.

Prior to 2015, Tits was not focused on drag. “There were performances at the bar before Trixie competed on RuPaul’s Drag Race, but they were very few and far between, often tied to community fundraisers,” Schneider says. “I decided to host viewing parties after Trixie was finally able to tell me that she was on the show.” Those parties surrounding Mattel’s run on RuPaul’s Drag Race Season 7 opened the floodgates, and interest in drag at Tits has only increased as Drag Race has become more popular.

With only a 4-square-foot platform for performers tucked into the back of the bar, Tits wasn’t equipped to handle more viewers or performances by significant stars. When Mattel reached out to offer investment in the bar, she and Schneider decided to upgrade the performance space. They annexed a vacant space next door to make way for a dance floor and proper stage. Most importantly for performers, the expansion also included a much-needed dressing room suite.

“As a performer, I’ve gotten dressed in kitchens, bathrooms, and back alleys in the rain,” Mattel says. “The new dressing rooms are fab, and there’s even a live feed of the stage so that performers can see what’s going on. So, there’s no excuse for being late to the stage!”

In addition to her own regular appearances in drag, Mattel oversees the bar’s entertainment programming, and the upgraded performance space has helped bring in a long list of top-tier talent: Priyanka, Alaska 5000, Honey Davenport, and Miss Vanjie have all performed at some point over the last 12 months. This summer, Sapphira Cristál (a RuPaul’s Drag Race Season 16 finalist) will likely pack the bar again.

Mattel has also found other ways to contribute that play to her strengths. “As far as being behind the bar, I am definitely more of a hindrance,” she says, laughing. But media appearances are her forte. “We’ve filmed TV shows there, YouTube videos, and anything else fun that comes along. I just try to add value the best way I can.”

Trixie’s not the only star who’s applying her drag skills to bar ownership. Montreal drag legend Mado Lamotte opened Cabaret Mado in 2002, after a decade and a half rising to the top of the city’s drag scene. It’s now one of the longest-running drag-owned bars in the world. Lamotte says the club is responsible for helping launch the careers of Quebec-born celebrity drag queens like Rita Baga, host of Drag Race Belgium, and Canada’s Drag Race Season 3 champ Gisele Lullaby.

“I couldn’t be prouder of the success of all of my girls from over the years,” Lamotte says. “As long as I am still the queen mother, of course!”

After years of consistent promotion, Lamotte has watched as drag’s profile has increased. “What I love seeing now is younger adults of all backgrounds and gender identities sitting together at the same table,” she says. “It is not something you would have seen 10 years ago, but now families will even come to celebrate a kid’s 18th birthday. It’s real evolution, and looking back, it feels special to have been a part of that here in Canada.”

After finding success on Drag Race Down Under, in 2018, well-known drag queens Kita Mean (Down Under Season 1 winner) and Anita Wigl’it (a competitor on Season 1 and Canada’s Drag Race: Canada vs. the World), took over Caluzzi Cabaret in Auckland, New Zealand, originally opened in 1996.

“Kita and I were very lucky to have been on RuPaul’s Drag Race, and because of this, the word about Caluzzi definitely traveled further than before,” Wigl’it says. Given how popular the club already was, “truthfully we didn’t really notice too much of a lift in sales” when the duo came on as owners, Wigl’it admits. Rather, ownership gave them an opportunity to extend the impact of the club’s programming.

One of the cabaret’s most popular shows, Drag Wars (which ran for almost a decade before being retired), featured all kinds of drag art forms, including drag kings and non-binary drag performers, whom Mean and Wigl’it had previously showcased on their own show House of Drag (prior to appearing on Drag Race). Mean says Drag Wars quickly became a training ground for emerging artists, some of whom have ended up competing on Drag Race Down Under.

“Many of the queens that are working in the clubs and corporate realm today in Auckland got their start at Drag Wars, and I am so proud to have created the space to nurture that new generation of Kiwi drag,” Mean says. “Being part of something bigger than myself is so special and being part of a family that all shares the same vision is something that can’t be put into words.”

When most people think of Trixie Mattel’s hospitality venture, they’re probably thinking about the much-talked-about Trixie Motel. The idea for the motel first arose back in 2017, when Mattel and her partner David Silver began considering acquiring a vacation rental property in Palm Springs. Fast forward four years and a few million dollars, and the motel became the basis for an HBO reality series featuring celebrity guests like Orville Peck, Katya, and Lisa Vanderpump.

“When you pull up to our motel, your jaw drops and you feel instantly transported to the Barbiecore-Americana getaway of your wildest dreams,” Mattel says. The vibrant property is humble in size at seven rooms, but offers a larger-than-life experience with themed rooms, a pink pool, and the colorful Barbara Bar.

The motel and Tits are both places of pilgrimage. Last year, my partner and I took a day trip from Chicago to Milwaukee specifically to see the bar; Tits general manager Darnell Watson says it’s frequented by Trixie-loving out-of-towners like us on a daily basis.

“The bar has gained so much attention with Trixie being a co-owner,” Watson says. “We are a revolving door of tourism, especially within the LGBTQIA+ community. It’s truly one of the most exciting aspects of working there, having the pleasure of meeting Trixie fans, and drag fans in general, from all over the world.”

Though both Tits and the Trixie Motel get a lot of traffic from fans, the two businesses are almost polar opposites. Rather than remake Tits in her Barbe-pink image like the Palm Springs business, Mattel invested in a stalwart piece of an existing community. Even as it becomes more of a destination for out-of-towners who know nothing about Tits’ history beyond Mattel’s involvement, the charmingly demur Milwaukee bar soldiers on as a meeting place for locals to connect and, at times, discover themselves.

Mattel also found herself at This Is It! Not just when she went there to receive her first drink and enter the queer bar world, but today, as she searches for her next act.

“I never take my mobility or my ability to perform for granted,” she says. “I always am thinking of ways for Trixie to live on even if something happens to me. Right now if I couldn’t do drag anymore, I could still feed and water my cosmetics, motel, and bar businesses.”

“In a way, it’s always been a symbiotic relationship between the bar and Trixie,” says Schneider.

A performer in the spotlight sings and dances for customers.
A performer at Caluzzi Cabaret.
Caluzzi Cabaret

There seem to be endless adjacent revenue streams for buzzworthy queens these days: brand deals and makeup lines, Emmy Award-winning shows, music careers. With many opportunities knocking at stars’ doors, drag bar owner is relatively low down on the list, even for people who cherish these spaces. Plus, drag stardom does not a businesswoman always make.

But for business-savvy performers, owning a bar may be a perfect way to repurpose their skills to support their communities and fulfill their creative passions after the limelight has stopped shining.

“A drag performer is used to doing everything, whether that means sewing, dancing, comedy,” Wigl’it says. “This kind of mindset really helps you as a business owner, as you’re aware that everything needs to be great for the guest. You not only need to have fabulous shows, but you need great food, brilliant drinks, amazing hospitality. Nothing is left behind.”

For Mattel, that means acting as steward for a piece of Milwaukee’s gay history.

“Tits has always been there for me,” she says. Though Trixie Mattel may not last forever, she can always be there for Tits, too.

Dan Clapson is an award-winning food writer and author of the best-selling Canadian cookbook Prairie. Catch him cooking on Canadian TV shows such as The Good Stuff with Mary Berg, The Social, Global News Calgary, and many more.