CAMP It Up!

by | Nov 1, 2023 | 0 comments

  • Camp Wannakiki on OUTTV is a popular drag competition reality show produced by Hamburger Mary’s International and starring Milwaukee performer Dear Ruthie.

Hamburger Mary’s Chicago was opened as a franchise by Ashley and Brandon Wright, twin brothers, in 2006. The following year they partnered with the owner of the West Hollywood location to purchase the national franchise brand. The chain grew from four locations, to more than 20, opening international locations in Germany and Mexico. The brothers opened the Milwaukee outpost in 2011.

Following the Covid pandemic, some locations closed, but there are currently 13 Hamburger Mary’s restaurants in operation, with one more set to open this year. As successful drag-based entrepreneurs, the twins and their alter egos Cherry Pi Sugarbaker (Brandon) and Apple Brown Betty Sugarbaker (Ashley), along with co-conspirator, Milwaukee performer Dear Ruthie wanted to change how drag culture is represented, and Camp Wannakiki was born!

Brandon told us, “RuPaul’s Drag Race, was a huge international sensation, and was all about the glamorous side of drag, and there was Dragula, which celebrated the darker side of drag.” Ashley said, “But there wasn’t a program that celebrated the campy and funny side of the art form. That’s the drag we have always enjoyed the most. So, we decided it was about time to give those artists a platform to showcase their talents.”

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Following appearances at their Chicago-based location hosting “Gong Show Karaoke” the twins somewhat retired the characters of Cherry and Betty, as business pressures of running an international franchise took over. When things settled and they had time to think, the idea of a drag reality show like Camp Wannakiki came roaring back. One of the first people they contacted was Dear Ruthie, who they knew would be the perfect foil to their Camp Director roles, as Camp Counselor Ruthie. “I loved the concept that paid respect to America’s campy Kings and Queens. I eagerly accepted. There was a lot of brainstorming going on. It was the first season after all, and we had to plan out the concepts, activities, judging methodology, camp uniforms…everything. We all brought a lot of suggestions to the table,” said Ruthie.

Now in its fifth cycle, the show has grown a loyal fan base, first on YouTube, and now on OutTV by subscription. The competition is open to ALL performers who have a campy bend in their drag. Camp Wannakiki can be summarized with this quote from Camp Counselor Ruthie, “We take 10 of the country’s craziest, funniest, wackiest drag performers and dump them in a campground, where they must complete camp activities in full drag. It’s like “RuPaul’s Drag Race” meets “Survivor”…but without the budget.”

Ruthie and the Sugarbaker twins knew they had struck a nerve, since the drag scene at the time it premiered seemed to compartmentalize people. The Camp Wannakiki show was the first to include bearded queens, non-binary queens, drag kings, and trans performers.

“Sending Campers on a Hike, which is what we call our elimination, is definitely the hardest part of the show,” said Cherry.

“We know how much they want to do well and win. They have poured their hearts and souls into their presentations. Then, to be told it wasn’t as good as the others? It’s devastating. For them and for us. Sadly, that is the nature of the beast. As much as we want to celebrate positivity, it is still a competition. We try to rip the bandage off as painlessly as possible,” said Betty.

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Even with the pain of leaving, the competitors are put through the rigors of “camp” assignments on every episode. “Season Four had the campers milking cows, boogie boarding on the lake, and performing stand-up comedy in front of a live audience. Season Five brought campers into a recording studio to record the song “Here for Camp,” and selling cookies on a busy downtown street. I also really loved the zip-line activity on Season Three and the intense ropes course from Season Two,” said Camp Counselor Ruthie.

With drag being in the news—day after day—as something less than wholesome, I must admit that this show is actually very wholesome!

There are Hamburger Mary’s franchises located in (Ron DeSantis’s) Florida which has put bans on drag performances in place. “We’re very proud of our Orlando Hamburger Mary’s franchise for standing up to the injustices in Florida. Our new location in Dallas has also been very active to prevent similar laws from being passed in Texas. And now there’s talk in Ohio about enacting similar laws. Our Mary’s in Toledo is ready to fight!” said Cherry.

But on a more serious note, Betty said, “Hopefully America will wake up from all this nonsense, but it is a stark reminder that elections have consequences. From reproductive rights being reversed to LGBTQ issues, we could have seen all this coming. But half the country isn’t paying attention. Now more than ever, it is so important to vote. From local elections on up to national ones.”

You can watch previous seasons of Camp Wannakiki on YouTube for free and purchase a subscription to seasons Four and Five on OUTTV.

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