Taken from the summer 2023 issue of Dazed. You can buy a copy of our latest issue here.
Drag just isn’t that serious an artform for Bailey J Mills. “For me, I think I’m more of a clown than a drag queen,” floats the Lincoln-born viral comic over Zoom, fresh-faced and de-wigged after a day of self-care routines. They won’t even embrace the title of comedian, a rebuttal anyone familiar with their TikTok would certainly contest. But don’t take their denial too seriously – it’s just that they just can’t believe they’ve made a career out of having a laugh.
Both allergic to glamour and well-versed in outsiderness, Mills is a prolific inventor of characters, a mimicry-proficient megahun raised on trash telly and cracking pop tunes. In the past year alone, they’ve imbibed the spirit of a flunky art student and rowdy pub landlord’s daughter, admitted to an addiction to bass, impersonated at least four of the seven members of S Club 7, aped a bingo hall bouncer, allured as a woodland mermaid, and found fans in everyone from Balenciaga muse Alexis Stone to Frankie from The Saturdays.
Barely five minutes into our conversation, we are already mining Mills’ childhood for personality clues. “I grew up in the middle of nowhere where you don’t see gay people, it’s like 20 years [behind there],” says Mills of their coming of age in Spalding, Lincolnshire, where even the local emos caught a pretty tough time. As a queer person living with Asperger syndrome, Mills found solace from the conservative town in ballet classes and after-school musical theatre groups. “I got kicked out of two schools because the teachers thought I was disruptive and naughty,” the performer explains, recounting moments when they would spontaneously do the splits atop classroom desks. “Everything I did back then I do now – and in that way, I kind of fell into comedy.”
For Mills, a Drag Race fan growing up, it was the pressure to adhere to archaic standards of beauty online that nearly drove them to quit drag altogether. “[During] lockdown, I did some silly videos in silly wigs and slowly came back into it,” Mills recalls. “I thought, ‘If I’m going to do this again, I’m doing it how I want to do it, not how people want to see me do it.” They went viral for the first time in 2020, in a now-infamous sketch depicting a very British disagreement about paying the fare for a cab ride home. “Noooo, I’m not doing this,” Mills barks in the clip, breaking the tension of an uncomfortable standoff with their friend as they shake their severely cropped bob and rifle through a Louis Vuitton bag for their card. As it stands, the video has 345k likes on TikTok alone.
Unlike the high-fashion persona they play with online, Mills would ordinarily be drawn to the kind of gauche, quintessentially British variety-show garments you’d find in the deepest recesses of a charity shop – think neon beanies and pleather baker boy caps, witches’ noses, metallic bikinis, animal-print party dresses from Peacocks and Bonmarché, shiny silicone breastplates, even shinier synthetic wigs and, if they’re really taking it there, flesh-coloured spandex. “Crunchy, 100 per cent... My drag is all based on that [time],” laughs Mills of their formative 00s era – years that brought us Rihanna’s red hair and Snog Marry Avoid? “I feel like I’m stuck in it, and I can’t get out.”
Aside from their tastefully garish wardrobe, Mills is best known for painfully accurate depictions of British life, in all of its mundane glory. Melding the campy air of the pantomime dame with the kind of first-world problems that percolate in suburbia, their characters emanate the charmingly tragic auras of hometown antiheroes, be it an outlandish neighbour or a hellraising pupil who peaked in high school. Parodic in essence, Mills’ clownery is a love letter to the nation’s jamboree of eccentrics.
So far, the artist has sourced character material everywhere from supermarket aisles to parks, even mining the personalities of close friends. One character that appears frequently in Mills’ videos, misfitted in a pink-camo twinset and some gnarly false teeth, is Ms Marie Lu Barker. A mother of one and favoured member of a (fictional) Sainsbury’s boy-racer crew, Barker refuses to let go of her youth, and everything that comes out of her mouth seems the quintessence of a Channel 5 docudrama about absolutely nothing.
“She’s actually based on a woman I know,” says Mills. “It’s kind of like the Lily Allen ‘22’ video. She’s in her 50s but she’s out every night with teenagers, complaining about gossip and drama.” The boy racers are another flip on reality, riffing off the seedy drivers prone to terrorising college car parks in their tricked-out whips – the kind that will honk and jeer at passing queer and alt kids.
Away from their expanding digital following, Mills is slowly settling into domesticity. Riding high from a baby shower they hosted with their partner, Logan, when we speak, Mills discusses family life with a striking sweetness. A brief trip down memory lane reveals it was love at first DM between the pair, with Logan perching in the corner of a live show shortly after their first conversation. “Every single time I watch them perform, it’s like the first time,” Logan tells me. “I’m so proud of them. It’s interesting watching them [behind the scenes] too. Before, they can get a bit overwhelmed, but once they step out, everything changes.”
“With my whole career I haven’t hacked it, I’ve done it all by myself. I’m not relying on Drag Race… but I might also apply”
At the time of writing, Mills has already sold out their November solo show at the Clapham Grand in London. For years, fans have lobbied them to audition for Drag Race UK, but they worry about being misrepresented on the show. And while it’s easy to imagine Mills’ chaotic brand of humour baffling the judges’ panel – how do you justify impersonating a fairground waltzer to RuPaul, exactly? – they haven’t ruled it out entirely.
“I want to do it, I want to work hard,” says Mills. “[With] my whole career I haven’t hacked it, I’ve done it all by myself.” Alongside TikTok peers Coco Peru and Juno Birch, Mills embodies a new form of internet drag star, one who has bypassed all traditional routes to fame. “I’m not relying on Drag Race…” they continue, their lips contorting into a mischievous grin, “...but I might also apply once or twice.”
Having tried and tested their comedy chops on social media for some time now, their two goals are to become the first drag queen to die in a horror film and to create their very own sketch show, stepping comfortably into the deliciously off-kilter shoes of dark comedy legends such as Julia Davis (Nighty Night), Catherine Tate (The Catherine Tate Show) and, more recently, Daisy May Cooper (This Country). Lord knows they have the world-building skills for it. “I just feel like I bring something very different to the table – and something great as well,” says Mills. “I’m already in my moment, but I want to have a proper moment, where I really shine.”
Hair TOMMY STAYTON, set design JACK APPLEYARD, photographic assistant MATT KELLY, styling assistants RYAN WOHLGEMUT, NAOMI PHILLIPS, hair assistant EMMA JONES, on-set production PHOEBE ASKER