Updated: Jan 30, 2022
Kelly Mantle talks with Options Magazine about Rupaul’s Drag Race, making Oscars history, and their work costarring with Tammie Brown on the second season of The Browns.
My phone rings on a Friday afternoon, it’s Kelly Mantle, the Oscars history-making entertainer and Season 6 contestant of RuPaul’s Drag Race. They are calling to discuss the new season of their show on OUTtv. Quickly, I find that even just a phone call with Mantle is a party and an in-depth look at life all at once.
Mantle speaks with a calm confidence which just hints at the wild side that lurks underneath. The night before was the premiere party for the second season of The Browns, which Mantle costars in with fellow Drag Race alum Tammie Brown. “I am getting around nice and slow this morning nursing a mimosa by the pool,” Mantle tells me.
I want to know how Mantle and Brown met and teamed up. I ask Mantle how did Drag Race contestants from different seasons get connected? Is there a gigantic text message group of Drag Queens from Drag Race out there or something? Mantle laughs and explains it isn’t anything that campy. Brown and them, Mantle explains, “we’ve known each other way before Drag Race was ever even a television show.” In fact, Mantle told me that “a lot of us here in LA have a long history together, Raja, Willam, myself, Delta, Tammie Brown, Morgan McMichaels, Raven, a lot of us have known each other pre-Drag Race days.”
Mantle and Brown’s meeting is just as queer as you might expect with these two queens. “Tammie Brown and I met shooting a documentary about drag … it never saw the light of day” Mantle explains with a smile in their voice. They went on, “it had a lot of wonderful drag queens in it and we staged live performances in this big gorgeous theater here in LA.”
“I was sharing the dressing room of Willam, and I was walking down the hall and I heard this voice coming from the dressing room next to us” Mantle continued. Then they said “I peeked in and saw this lady standing in front of the mirror and she was just talking to herself with these weird hand movements and I thought it was the ghost of Édith Piaf and she turned and looked at me and I looked at her and said ‘you’re batshit crazy.’” The ghostly Piaf apparition, Mantle told me, responded “yes I am. My name’s Tammie Brown, what’s yours?” and they quickly became fast friends.
Together the duo are costarring in The Browns. The series started as two-minute sketches on Instagram and it is now a full TV show on OUTtv and Amazon Prime. Mantle had been involved since the beginning. Mantle said that “they called me up one day and Tammie said I am collaborating with this up-and-coming creator, director, artist named John Mark and we are going to shoot some content for Instagram, come over and play with us.”
Mantle asked Brown “Well what is it that we are doing?” According to Mantle, Brown told her “I have no idea –– just come play.” That didn’t give Mantle pause one bit, “I grabbed a bottle of wine, some weed, and a wig and I showed up and Shiela ... and The Browns were born.”
Tammie Brown plays a semi-retired singer and homemaker, while Mantle plays Brown’s best friend and manager, Sheila. The show describes itself as a “strange, vulgar, and deliciously outrageous” re-imagining of the family sitcom. Watching the first two episodes, it was both strange and funny.
The show has Mantle’s character Sheila throwing funny oneliners around while the characters get into constant shenanigans. Tammie is dragged back to town after abandoning her family and moving to a horse ranch after Sheila explains that Tammie’s son is on the fast track to fame after dancing to his mother’s song “Portapottie Prostitute” on TikTok. Sheila, now managing the boy’s budding music career, and guest star, gay rapper Cazwell, autotune a duet by Tammie and her son, played by the series creator John Mark, titled “Daddy Issues,” and drag legend Sherry Vine steps in to provide some interesting fashion advice for the young entertainer. Even with all this, Sheila still finds time to engage in lesbian hookups in their convertible.
Mantle’s oneliners come off the tongue so naturally, I had to know if it was written in or did Mantle come up with them. Mantle explained how “that all came out of my little head and my little mouth. It all comes from growing up in a place like Oklahoma and Texas with a bunch of really strong loud-mouthed Southern women and that’s where a lot of those colloquialisms come from, and yeah –– all those oneliners are mine.”
The show is fun to watch and has a hard to pin down subversiveness to it. Mantle explains that “one of the things I love about this show is the fact that you have a bunch of Queer people playing these characters who are just in very normal everyday situations and their gender identity ... especially of Tammie and Shiela, are never discussed or never revealed. Are they drag queens? Are they biological women? Are they trans women? You don’t know.”
Mantle is nonbinary, and explains how having a show that doesn’t demand characters be put into a box or label is one of the best parts of The Browns: “That is for me the kind of society and world that I would love to exist in, to where it just didn’t F------ matter. We all just got to be ourselves and we could be ever-changing.”
Mantle has been creating space for nonbinary and Trans people in entertainment for years. In 2014, they made Oscars history for being the first person to be considered for best supporting actor and best supporting actress for the same character. Mantle is very casual when asked about making Oscars history. While they lightheartedly describe the Oscars as “a fun frilly award show,” and downplay their part in expanding nonbinary and Trans visibility, they are also proud to have gotten the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences to start thinking about expanding their concepts of gender identity.
“What was important to me was that it was opening up the conversation within the Academy to take a closer look at these gender identities and classifications of males and females. So that was what I got out of that more than anything was opening up the dialogue” Mantle said. They added that “I got feedback from a lot of people that it opened up their eyes that they -- at the time -- had not had a lot of trans or nonbinary nominees. Hopefully, that’s changing and we are seeing more of that.”
This gets into an important issue that Mantle explains, “there has to be comfortable spaces in every arena, including award shows, for people who are nonbinary and don’t fit into best male actor best female actress, a lot of us don’t fit into either one of those categories, so where do we go? What side of the room do we sit on?”
Next for Mantle is hitting the recording studio in December. Mantle is also slated to be in RuPaul’s holiday movie special The Bitch Who Stole Christmas, though they describe it as just “a really small cameo.” Mantle doesn’t have any tour dates in New England at the moment, but they and Brown both expect to be back on the road in 2022.
Before we end the conversation, I ask is there anything else they’d like to add? Mantle makes it clear what we should do –– “go watch The Browns!” The second season of The Browns is 5 episodes long, with new episodes every Friday from November 5, into December on OUTtv and Amazon Prime.