Familiarity Is Their Kink: Behind the Lens with Naomi Smalls and Todd Diederich

Published February 20, 2020

Notre Interviews Drag Queen Naomi Smalls and Cinematographer Todd Diederich 01

Collaboration isn’t easy, but Naomi Smalls (aka Davis Heppenstall) and Todd Diederich make it look that way with their YouTube docuseries Small’s World. The show follows Smalls’ day-to-day life as she does her makeup, performs onstage, travels to Asia with friend and fellow drag performer Kim Chi, and even models for Diederich’s teenage Yollocalli Arts Reach students. Simultaneously campy and sincere, the series highlights the minutiae of Smalls’ fascinating life, enriched by Diederich’s talent for visual storytelling and attention to detail: in the first shot of the pilot, he zooms in on a single sequin of Smalls' red dress until it grows into a small fire, a setting sun.

Smalls, of course, is famous for her appearances on RuPaul’s Drag Race Season 8 and RuPaul’s Drag Race All-Stars 4, whereas Diederich has stuck to the other side of the lens, shooting documentary photos of Chicago’s diverse citizens and street culture—from bird keepers to Chance the Rapper—for over a decade, including for his now defunct VICE series “Todd’s People.” The two met casually at Chicago nightspot Smartbar’s Sunday “Queen!” party and quickly developed a friendship and creative partnership driven, in part, by the shared desire to have greater creative control over their work. This control is evident in Small’s World, which, at times, feels reminiscent of Jennie Livingston’s seminal 1990 drag ball documentary Paris is Burning if the film had been created by the queens who star in it.

The result is a series that feels at once intimate and empowering. Smalls doesn’t shy away from being vulnerable in front of the camera, but she isn’t being exploited by it either, thanks to her relationship with Diederich and his longstanding involvement with drag communities. It’s reality TV without the ick factor, Keeping Up with the Kardashians without the manufactured drama. An autoethnography that is both informative and entertaining due to Smalls’ laid back, inviting personality and Diederich’s mastery of mashup filmic forms, which brings together the aesthetics of VHS home recordings with high production music videos.

I sat down with Smalls and Diederich at Notre’s offices to discuss Small’s World, their “many-gendered mothers,” and their upcoming projects, including Smalls’ residency at The Flamingo for RuPaul’s Drag Race Live! Las Vegas and turning Small’s World into a one-woman show. Even during our brief conversation, Smalls and Diederich’s creative chemistry was present as they heaped praise on one other and finished each other’s sentences.

Jacob Victorine
Naomi Smalls
Todd Diederich

JV: How did the two of you meet and what made you decide to start working together?

TD: I was at Smartbar, and I was hanging out with Zain who pointed Naomi out and told me she moved here. When I was leaving I went up to her and was like, “So, you’re Naomi?” And she’s like, “Yes, babe. What’s your name?” I’m like, “Todd. You know the coolest thing you’ve ever done? You moved to Chicago, bitch,” and I left. Then, the next day, I went to Iridium and she was out front. I brought my friend David Noll over, who became a good friend of hers and eventually brought us together.

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NS: Something that’s always been a struggle with post-Drag Race life is you only have the TV show to look back on, so it was important to me to have a different medium to express myself. I saw Todd’s video work and just fell in love.

TD: Naomi came over and was like, “Let’s do one or two of these things.” Then it turned into ten or so episodes, then the music video for “Pose.” We didn’t really have a long-term plan.

NS: You were just so easy to work with and interested in my ideas, too, which was new for me because, at the time, I wasn’t surrounded by people who were interested in media that I wanted to put out. I saw you pull out your Panasonic at the beach, and I was like, “Whoa.” It was also around the time Kylie Jenner’s “To Our Daughter” video came out. I’m a huge Kardashians fan. Not even deep down.

JV: Naomi, you’ve talked about how you have more creative control with Small’s World, and I’m wondering how the process is different than Drag Race.

NS: Having control is something that I always struggle with when it comes to drag because it’s an unorganized world. A lot of people in charge don’t know anything about drag. With Small’s World, it was just nice being focused on one thing, and not worrying about, “Am I going to be sent home?” Or, “Do I have to compete for attention with other drag queens?” Small’s World made me fall back in love with drag because I was so over the circuit of after-competition life.

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TD: Then I’m just trying to not manipulate it. Show it as-is. Show you, Davis, more. The man behind the woman. And it’s good to keep your family in mind, especially what your mom might want to witness.

NS: That’s not something I’m used to, having all the siblings. I’m eleven out of twelve. By the time I was around, homemade videos were the last thing my family was thinking about.

JV: What type of impact has Chicago, especially its house music scene and drag communities, had on you?

NS: When I was still living in California, I was living with my mom. I grew up in a pretty small, Christian town, and hadn’t really done much traveling. But, after becoming close to Kim Chi, I would visit and fall more in love with the city each time. I felt really accepted. There’s just so many different types of ways to live your life out here.

I was going back home to California, and just taking little nuggets of information from people who I had never seen before, like club kids like Imp Kid and Bonbon. We just don’t have that in the drag scene where I’m from. Then going to Smartbar and hearing house music for the first time, appropriately, and living my life on the dance floor. Just meeting cool, like-minded people was a huge reason I wanted to move to Chicago. It’s definitely made me the person I am today.

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TD: Drag is something I’ve always had my eye on. My uncle was a drag queen. I learned Boystown super early in life. He used to babysit me and drag me around and I just learned that area. I went from photographing the ballroom scene on the South Side, and then ended up with the queens in Boystown. Chicago’s always had an artistic, authentic, weirdo vibe to drag that I haven’t seen elsewhere.

JV: Todd, would you share more about your involvement with Chicago’s ball scene?

TD: I lived in Georgia for six years and moved back to Chicago in 2008 or 2009 and didn’t really know what to do. I got linked up with the ballroom scene just from being out and about. When I started photographing the ballroom scene Instagram didn’t exist. The first time I went they weren’t about me being there, but I slowly made friends. They made me an honorary member of the House of Infinity because I got some grant money and gave them some to throw balls, so I could photograph more. I felt like I owed them for allowing me in their space.

Eventually, I did an article for The Reader about the ballroom scene, but that didn’t feel rewarding to me. I wasn’t taking those pictures to give away the access I had worked for without them even trying. So, that’s when I was like, “Well, I’ll just whore out my eye for video. I’ll keep these photos sacred. They might end up in a book.” It’s a lot harder to steal a video. Tumblr helped raise me and so many of my photos got stolen by different magazines because they were on the internet. As much as it hurt at the time, it led me to do the things I love that I’m doing now.

JV: How did you come to photography in the first place?

TD: I started taking photos when I was a kid. I was always obsessed with the flash on my mom’s camera. Then, freshman year of high school, I had an extra class to take, so I took photography. I think I got a C or D. I did horrible, but I kept taking it. That made me fall in love. Then my mom would call me out sick from school and I would stay in the darkroom all day. That’s when I realized I should pursue it.

"Small’s World made me fall back in love with drag"

JV: It seems like both of you have very supportive moms. What type of roles have they played in your current careers?

NS: Having supportive parents, period, as a young kid is an amazing thing to have, so I definitely don’t take it for granted. I’m very much like my mom. Todd and Natasha just came out and met her. She’s just a level-headed person and she’s always been super into what I want to do as long as I can pay my taxes— that’s all she really cares about.

TD: I’m like my mom, too. She’s wild. She used to party in Boystown. She let me have a lot of freedom in life. She really never told me what to do and what not to do. She just gave me freedom. No curfews. Nothing.

JV: I’ve noticed that Small’s World uses both linear and non-linear storytelling and I’m wondering how you arrived at those rhetorical choices and what the collaborative process was like.

TD: I’m trying to tell more of an emotional truth. Sometimes the facts are just facts. It’s like making love. Got to juice them up, pull back, bring them closer again, squeeze them hard, and let them go.

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NS: What’s really cool with Small’s World is it opens a completely different outlook from what happens onstage. I struggled for a long time with not wanting to show people that much about who I am as a person, just because I didn’t think it was that important, but what I realized with Small’s World is that it allows me to develop a more intimate relationship with my fans.

When it comes to the editing process, in the beginning, I was screening the footage, but once I developed a certain trust level with Todd, I was able to just send an occasional screenshot with comments.

JV: Naomi, on the show, you talk about how you like that Small’s World represents you as your most authentic self, so I’m wondering what authenticity means to you as Naomi and also as Davis.

NS: Small’s World feels like a way more accurate description of who I am as a person. When people hear my voice, they always think I’m over it or bored. When you compare me to a bunch of stereotypical drag queens, who are high-pitched and screaming at the top of their lungs every five seconds with finger snaps and mouth pops, I understand why I come across like that. There’s nothing wrong with being chill, but I didn’t always feel that way. There was a time when I felt I had to pitch up my voice.

Naomi is my creative outlet, my job, and someone I just enjoy being. But Davis is pretty much the same person. There’s just a mask on me. Being myself is all I know how to do, so I try to do that at all times and to the best of my ability.

"Being myself is all I know how to do"

JV: I’m curious about any potential connections between Small’s World and Jennie Livingston’s 1990 film, Paris is Burning, which has received mixed reviews over the years as being both ahead of its time and opportunistic.

NS: Paris is Burning is probably my favorite movie of all time. It was not a cute time for the LGBTQ community, but they were making light of it and living their lives on the ballroom floor. They were kicked out of their families, but they were making families. Nothing was going to stop them from living their dream, which is so inspirational.

TD: I know Livingston was sued by a couple of participants. It’s something that we’ve never discussed, but in one of the episodes of Small’s World what you say about YouTube being your drag mom makes me think of Paris is Burning and the differences between now and then.

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JV: Todd, as someone who has photographed subcultures and queer communities, what creative and ethical decisions come into play when you’re shooting a subject?

TD: At this point, I’m just looking for power. An image that, hopefully, even if somebody doesn’t feel powerful in their life, will transmit that they have power in themselves and are energetic and explosive. As far as photographing those communities, I don’t think I was ever trying to. It just happened. In the 90s, I’d ride my bike down Madison Avenue to the city, and that was scary. But I would do it just to see life. Then you meet people and they lead you and bring you in. I felt like I was always on the fringe. Honestly, these were the people that were willing to spend time with me.

JV: What projects are the two of you currently working on?

NS: We’re trying to turn Small’s World into an onstage experience. I’ve always wanted to do a one-woman show and I enjoy working with people I trust. Familiarity is my kink. I’m excited by the thought of having my own team that I get to choreograph and rehearse with for performances I know like the back of my hand. Then telling my story onstage to a crowd of people who are there to see me and not a two-hour drag show in which I only do a four-minute number.

TD: My dream was working for VICE Magazine. Then, when I got there, and other people were still telling me what to do, it didn’t feel good, even if it was my dream. So, I also want to help Naomi have more ownership. It helps me have more ownership, too.

NS: The best part about working with Todd is opening a completely different world I didn’t know I could have with drag. Transporting your audience is something I wanted to do, but couldn’t, as an eighteen-year-old drag queen.

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JV: Do you have individual projects you’re working on?

NS: I’m about to go to Vegas for four months to do a residency at The Flamingo doing RuPaul’s Drag Race Live! I am very excited to be settled for a while because, as I said, I’m into familiarity and developing a routine. My main goal is to be in one place, so I can work on Small’s World.

TD: For me, it’s just the same old, same old. Waiting on the calls from Naomi. Teaching the youth at Yollocalli and counting the days until I can rollerblade at the lake. One project I want to work on is putting out a photo book where no picture will be on the internet. If a photo makes it there, somebody bought the book and posted it.

JV: In the series, we see the value of Naomi’s relationships with Natasha, Kim Chi, and Todd. In her book, The Argonauts, writer Maggie Nelson talks about, “The many-gendered mothers of my heart,” a phrase she steals from the poet, Dana Ward, to discuss the people near and far who have nurtured her. Naomi and Todd, who are some of your many-gendered mothers and how they’ve impacted you?

NS: I’ve been super lucky to have an amazing family. But I think that I also just gravitate towards people who are cool and good for me. I’ve been lucky with my relationships with Todd, Natasha, and Kim Chi. I’ve built a completely separate family than my family. I’m spoiled to have two great ones and lucky to be surrounded by people who have my best interests at heart because I don’t always know what I’m doing with my life. I’m a very confident person, but it’s nice to have confidence in other people, as well.

"Drag is something I’ve always had my eye on. My uncle was a drag queen."

JV: Are there any people outside of your close circle who have also nurtured you in some way?

NS: Roxy Andrews changed the game for me. She is the smartest drag queen I’ve ever met. She’s just a boss. She does whatever she wants and looks amazing doing it. But then, I also have the drag queens I look up to, like Violet Chachki. I respect how she makes people respect her. I guess I could say the same thing about RuPaul. Those are my idols. I would say Roxy Andrews is probably my number one drag inspiration. Naomi Campbell is my number one fierce inspiration.

TD: For me, it would be the photographer Paul D’Amato, who was an instructor of mine. He believed in me first and lit a fire under me to work harder. I’ve just been fortunate that I constantly end up in realms where people elevate my life and teach me things. Artists beyond me would be Diane Arbus, Robert Frank, and Larry Salton, and the book The Americans. There’s also one photographer I love whose name is Phillip-Lorca diCorcia. I’ve always been fascinated by the way he brings together reality and unreality to create this grey area. I like all the grey-area people. Honestly, Chicago’s revolutionary history, like Fred Hampton, the Haymarket Riot—Emma Goldman’s buried here—has been influential to me, as well.

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JV: In “Episode 4” of Small’s World, Naomi visits Todd’s photography class at Yollocalli. Todd, as someone who’s taught and been a photographer for many years, how does teaching influence your art making, and vice versa?

TD: The youth are so open to new techniques. I learned photography at Columbia College Chicago, and it’s like, “You gotta do this, this, this. This is the right way.” The way they do everything, an old photographer would be like, “Oh my God, you can’t do that.” They just stick things in front of the camera. But they have a way of inventing techniques that inspire me. They take chances and lead with their hearts first, and everything else falls in place, so I started doing that, too.

JV: So you feel like it’s opened up your artistic practice?

TD: Yeah. Even using a bunch of different formats and frame sizing in Small’s World. Somebody would gag at that back in the day. Now I film off the screen. I’ll do anything.

JV: Naomi, I’m wondering similarly, what role education plays in your work, especially because of your many young fans.

NS: I have the coolest fans. In the beginning of my drag career, I didn’t think about who was watching me. But I really like growing up with these kids. The best part of my job is showing people you can live your dream and be a happy, confident person just doing what you’re meant to do. The fact that I get to travel around the world and touch so many different people, just show them that there’s a world for your interests to live in that you can build an empire from. I don’t know if I’m necessarily building an empire, but I’m paying my bills by doing exactly what I love. A lot of my fans, especially the young girls and the young gays, are who I gravitate to because I was looking for that kind of energy when I was their age. To be that person for them is awesome.