In less than a year, the break-out star of ‘RuPaul’s Drag Race UK’ has taken over the worlds of fashion, music and now publishing with their self-help book, ‘Release the Beast’. They speak to Isobel Lewis about playing with gender, football hooliganism and why supportive parents are just so important to LGBTQ+ kids
When Bimini Bon Boulash remembers their first queer experience, they don’t think of awkward kisses or that first pair of false eyelashes. Instead, they recall standing outside a cinema in Great Yarmouth at the age of 14 and seeing a queer-presenting person for the first time. “They dressed to the nines in leopard-print jeans and a leather jacket with studs and spikes and bleached blonde hair and I’d never seen anyone in the flesh like that,” the drag queen tells me, a note of reverence in their voice. “To see someone that was a couple of years older than me expressing that… it really struck a chord.”
Fast-forward 14 years and Bimini – real name Tommy Hibbitts – has taken on that same role for LGBTQ+ people around the world. Bursting onto the mainstream as one of the breakout stars of RuPaul’s Drag Race UK series two (widely considered to be one of the best series in the franchise’s history), they’ve broken boundaries of what is expected of drag performers – putting out a single, walking in fashion shows and now releasing a self-help book. The book has been a chance to dust off the old writing skills; Bimini studied journalism at university before doing what “every failed journalist does” and becoming a drag queen.
Release the Beast: A Drag Queen’s Guide to Life is an instruction manual for self-love. Combining advice with queer history, it’s inclusive to everyone “apart from the patriarchy”, and is imbued with their signature cheeky sense of humour and PMA (that’s Positive Mental Attitude to you, hun). The dialogue instantly plays in my head in Bimini’s strong east London accent. They refer to it as an “anti-self help book”, as much for young queer teens as those “in their forties, fifties, sixties”, for whom the terms might be new, but the ideas are not.
It’s hard to believe that it was only January when Bimini sashayed into our lives on RuPaul’s Drag Race UK. A high-energy, magnetic performer, the dancer brought acne and amoebas to the catwalk, excelling at everything from design to comedy and performing in a campy girl group. In a series that produced one of the catchiest Drag Race songs of all time, “UK, Hun?”, they refused to sing the same old lyrics about “slaying” and “snatching the crown”, instead rapping: “Gender bender/ Cis-tem offender/ I like it rough but my lentils tender,” in a nod to their veganism. They reached the final, eventually losing out to Scottish queen Lawrence Chaney – not that it mattered. They had firmly cemented themselves as one of the most popular contestants in the show’s history.
Things could have gone differently. Bimini was nearly out in the first week, ending up in the bottom two and having to compete in the dreaded lip-sync battle after their sartorial creation failed to impress the judges. The offending (at least in RuPaul and Michelle Visage’s eyes) outfit came from the hometown-themed runway, with Bimini swaggering down the catwalk in a Norwich City-inspired leotard, a high-femme football hooligan complete with a mullet, gold tooth and a “10-inch stripper boot”. They describe the look as a “f*** you” to the culture of toxic masculinity around the sport, explaining: “I remember coming to London and whenever there’d be a football match, I’d be worried for my safety almost… and that’s not really OK.”
While the judges criticised its execution, I tell Bimini that I’ve always felt it to be a much-maligned look. Naturally, they agree, pinning the under-appreciation down to the inevitable “loss in translation” of two Americans judging British drag. “I do feel like sometimes Ru is laughing through gritted teeth because they’re kind of like, ‘I don’t know what’s going on but I’m gonna laugh anyway.’”
Bimini survived that first lip-sync battle, but it took a seven-month break in filming (during which they, as many artists did, went onto universal credit) to motivate them to change. They returned to the show with a new drive, winning all but one of the remaining challenges. Fans were shocked when Bimini didn’t take home the crown – seven months later, every post on the Drag Race UK Instagram feed is still met with comments of “Bimini was robbed”. Bimini struggles with that. “It saddens me that there have been people that have made [Lawrence’s win] not the experience that they believed it was going to be or that they deserved it to be,” they say. “When it brings other people down, I don’t see that as supporting me.”
But Bimini’s impact on the show didn’t just come from the competition, but the conversations they brought to the BBC about gender identity. “We’re like square pegs in a circle and how we want to self-identify isn’t up to anyone else,” they told fellow non-binary queen Ginny Lemon in one particularly powerful scene. While Bimini only heard the term “non-binary” in the last five years, they’ve always identified with ideas of gender non-conformity. Non-binary made sense to them, they say, although they find it funny that the act of rejecting labels needed a label itself.
Release The Beast opens with a dedication to Bimini’s mum: “Thank you for everything you’ve done, even when I was being a nightmare.” The pair have always been close – the day we speak, they’re getting ready to attend the Attitude Awards together. “Obviously as a kid, you don’t really know … what society believes to be right and wrong,” Bimini says. “I went to playgroup [and] I was quite flamboyant – I was wearing dresses … and I think the kids’ parents were triggered by it or found it confusing. [But] my mum was just very supportive of me doing that. She never stopped me. She knew that it made me happy and I think that was an important thing.”
It’s not always been easy, however. Bimini recalls the first time they went out in drag (or something like it) in Soho, only to learn that a neighbour had visited their mum’s hair salon to show her pictures and “try to humiliate her”. “That was quite heartbreaking to hear because you never want that, especially when my mum has been very supportive of me and what I wanted to do,” they say. At a time when so many LGBTQ+ youth are rejected by their family for coming out or playing with ideas of gender, Bimini’s mum celebrated their difference, rather than shunning it. To see someone try to undermine that was, they say, a “really s***ty moment”.
Still, Bimini had the last laugh. Since the show began, they’ve walked in London Fashion Week, modelled for Vogue and even released Jamie-T-meets-The-Streets single “God Save This Queen” in June. If they think back to a year ago, three months away from Drag Race UK first airing, what advice would they give themselves? Bimini pauses. “I would say be careful,” they say. “Believe in yourself and your worth more than you did at that point. Know that there will be opportunities that come your way and you just have to be on your A-game and be vigilant, because there’s been a lot of times where things have happened that I wish hadn’t … I would have just told myself to have more wits about me, for certain things.”
Now, Bimini feels more self-assured. With an intense year behind them and even more projects on the horizon, there’s a surefire sense that they can do anything they set their mind to. After all, as Bimini points out, “all drag queens and drag artists have a level of delusion about them”. “We’re hoping that the best is yet to come,” they say, before correcting themselves with that trademark self-help style. “I’m not hoping, I’m saying the best is yet to come.”
‘Release the Beast’ is out now