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At the age of 31, Trixie Mattel has become one of the world’s best-known drag queens. In five years, she has gone from being a breakout star in RuPaul’s Drag Race to launching a popular web series, writing a best-selling book, creating three folk music albums, and founding a cosmetics company.

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But in a conversation at the Fast Company Innovation Festival, Mattel says that her success still catches her by surprise. “You have to remember, I was a repressed gay kid who came from a trailer on a dead-end dirt road,” says Mattel, the drag persona of Brian Michael Firkus, who grew up in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. “That’s the great thing about drag: It allows you to choose your own destiny. It’s almost the American Dream, in that way.”

Thanks to the popularity of shows like RuPaul’s Drag Race, drag queens have increasingly become part of mainstream pop culture. There’s a lucrative industry around drag performers that spans web and TV content, live shows, beauty products, and toys. Mattel has proven herself to be a master of this drag economy, partly because she has been able to figure out what it is about drag that is so compelling to audiences. Ultimately watching drag is about more than dressing up; it’s a deeply psychological exercise in imagination, exploring gender norms, and reverting back to childhood. “We know that’s a man in a wig on the stage,” Mattel says. “But for this 3.5-minute number at 3 a.m. on a Wednesday at a gay bar that is probably going to close next month, we just choose to believe it.” She shares her insights with us here.

“Adults want to feel like kids”

Mattel believes that drag is intriguing to many people because it reminds them of early childhood, when we loved playing dress-up and did not yet feel pressure to abide by gender norms. Mattel herself often leans into imagery related to childhood. Her name is a reference to Barbie, her favorite childhood toy. On her web series, you’ll find her using an Easy-Bake Oven. Her makeup line is full of glitter. “Adults want to feel like kids,” Mattel says. “I want to give people flashbacks to My Little Pony and Polly Pocket.”

But Mattel says that her persona is effective because she pairs this childhood fantasy with an occasionally dark, absurd sense of humor that adults can relate to. This allows her to acknowledge the anxieties and realities of adulthood. By blending these two points of view, she believes audiences feel seen.

Playing with gender constructs

Mattel says that drag performers walk a tightrope when it comes to gender. Many drag queens, herself included, try to embody the most extreme version of femininity in their makeup and clothing. Mattel wears lacy dresses and high heels, her lips are painted in bright lipstick, and she glues on the longest lashes on the market. She says that she’s both caricaturing these expressions of femininity while also honoring them. “Trixie parodies women’s expectations, but also celebrates the frills and magic of femininity,” she says. “But the truth is that lots of women wear these wigs, lashes, and full body makeup. Think about Kacey Musgraves or the Real Housewives; we shop at the same stores.”

She believes it is this playful exploration of gender roles that is interesting to audiences. When they watch her perform, they immediately see how constructed and artificial norms about beauty really are. “Whatever you look like out of drag, whether you agree with beauty standards, it’s pretty undeniable to say that if you’re tall, beautiful, and have a compelling body shape in America, you can pretty much get whatever you want,” she says.

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Drag characters must stick

Mattel believes that while drag as a concept is intriguing to audiences, you need to have a very specific and memorable character to be successful as a queen in the drag economy. Five years ago, when she first created the character, she committed to staying in the same character for years so that she would be embedded in people’s minds. The persona has very specific tastes, interests, and a sense of humor. “It was a marketing choice,” she says. “I needed to drive home this life-size doll character.”

The approach has worked. She has developed an enormous audience around the country and millions of followers on YouTube and Instagram who connect to this particular character. “For any performer, it’s important to make what you do so specific that people can’t just go down the line to 10 other people when you’re not available,” she says. “If they can’t get you, you want them to be disappointed.”

And ultimately, this persona has allowed Mattel to achieve things that she would never have achieved otherwise. Growing up, Mattel—or rather Firkus—always wanted to be a songwriter, but would never have been able to break through without the trappings of the drag persona. “Trixie gives me power,” Mattel says. “Otherwise, I would just be another guy with a guitar, and there are a lot of them.”