The Special Way Daniel Franzese Honored His Mother on RuPaul's Secret Celebrity Drag Race

·7 min read
Daniel Franzese, RuPaul's Secret Celebrity Drag Race
Daniel Franzese, RuPaul's Secret Celebrity Drag Race

Amy Sussman/Getty; VH1/World of Wonder

During his run as Donna Bellissima on RuPaul's Secret Celebrity Drag Race, Daniel Franzese made sure to incorporate a secret of his own into every performance.

The actor, known to many for his iconic role as Damian the 2004 hit Mean Girls, made it all the way to the top 5 on the second season of the star-studded VH1 reality show thanks to his creative and hilarious numbers. But behind the spectacle was a series of sweet sentimental tributes no one knew about.

"I didn't tell anybody this, but Donna wore a piece of my mom's jewelry every night," Franzese tells PEOPLE. "On the first episode, no one wore earrings but me because they didn't have earrings ready, and I was wearing my mom's earrings."

"It was nice because I brought a little part of home with me every night," Franzese says. "She's such a big part of why I do what I do, so I love that she was up there with me in a way."

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RuPaul's Secret Celebrity Drag Race, Episode 3
RuPaul's Secret Celebrity Drag Race, Episode 3

VH1/World of Wonder

If Franzese feels connected to his mother, that's because he's built an entire character inspired by her over the last decade.

In 2012, he published a video called S--- Italian Moms Say in which he donned a wig and made fun of some of the common phrases that typically come out of his mother's mouth. The clip quickly became a viral hit, gaining more than 20 million views across various online, Franzese says.

From there, the actor kept going. He named the character Antonette, releasing follow-up videos including a hit 26-episode series for Instagram called Antonette Nails Life, where she mused about life while at the salon. And as fans kept asking for more and more, he connected with Connecticut-based playwright Jacques Lamarre who helped Franzese adapt the character in a one-man show.

Titled Italian Mom Loves You, the play earned rave reviews after an initial run in Waterbury, Connecticut. It's returning to the Seven Angels Theatre for another three weeks in October, and Franzese is hopeful it only grows from there.

"It's equal parts hysterical and heartwarming," Franzese says of the play. "I'm so excited about it because when it comes to stories around Italian-Americans, you really don't see many that are focused on the women, let alone ones that have queer-centric characters. So I think of this as a way to celebrate these unsung heroes.. It's really a love letter from a gay son to his mother."

"I'm so proud of it," Franzese adds. "It's been so well-received and I want everyone to see it. It's hopefully on a NYC Off-Broadway or Broadway-bound journey.I feel like the Italian Tyler Perry. Like, Tyler Pepperoni!"

RuPaul's Secret Celebrity Drag Race helped Franzese build out Antonette's world.

"Donna was always the best friend of Antonette," Franzese tells PEOPLE. "She's the one who wants to go out, the one who's always getting her nails done and encouraging Antonette to live a little. So on Drag Race, I was able to bring Donna to life with that spirit."

Franzese was a fan of the franchise and even appeared on a 2020 episode as a Snatch Game judge.

He jumped at the opportunity to join the series. "It really was the Make a Fish foundation," he jokes. "I was like, 'I cannot believe I get to go out there right now and have this life dream of experiencing this show! There was sometimes I was standing there, especially during being judged, where the lights would hit me and I'd be like, 'I'm on my favorite show. Like, what the heck? I'm on my favorite show and I'm not even a drag queen! This is so surreal.'"

"Think of it like if a basketball fan was asked to play on the Olympic all-star team. With Michael Jordan judging them. And they don't know really how to play basketball," he laughs.

Despite being a superfan, Franzese admits that the show was much more challenging than he initially expected.

"The part that I neglected to think about was the race part of Drag Race," he notes. "It really is a race. Each "week" on the show was only three days for us. Day 1, you decide the theme of the number, learn the choreography, design the hair, makeup, outfit, etc. That's all one day. Then day 2, is dress rehearsal. And day 3, you go in front of an audience and perform, get judged, maybe lip sync for your life, and start again at 6 a.m. the next day. It was exhasuting."

"I have such a new respect for the contestants on the main series, who do all that while being sequestered without cell phones in their hotels, and who show ups using all their own money to design their outfits. I can't even imagine the added pressure that adds to everything."

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RuPaul's Secret Celebrity Drag Race Episode 4
RuPaul's Secret Celebrity Drag Race Episode 4

VH1/World of Wonder

Franzese wasn't limited in his evenings so he turned to one of those former Drag Race queens for some help.

"I hired Laganja Estranja [Drag Race season 6] to help me rehearse!" Franzese says. "She's an amazing dance instructor and a good friend, so I used her to help me work through the moves. Unfortunately, I learned that paying a dance instructor who is extremely talented doesn't give you their talent, but I'm so grateful for her help."

"When I signed on, I didn't realize I was going to be dancing every episode," he adds. "I thought I would be making garments, doing a roast — you know, going through the whole Drag Race experience. By episode 2 I was like, 'Wait a minute, am I on Dancing with the Drag? Is that what's happening?' Once I figured it out, I was like, 'Alright, let's pull up our boot straps and make it happen.' "

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Other queens from Drag Race's past also aided in Franzese's run on the show, including Latrice Royale [Drag Race 4, All Stars 1 and 4], who gave her advice before the show, and Silky Nutmeg Ganache [Drag Race 11, All Stars 6], who joined her on-stage for a duet performance one week.

Mayhem Miller [Drag Race 10, All Stars 5] also worked behind the scenes to do Franzese's makeup. "Mayhem was so amazing to me," Franzese says. "Seeing Mayhem every morning and having her touch my face, wipe my sweat onstage, and remind me to believe in myself really gave me the spirit to go on when I thought I was out of my league."

RuPaul's Secret Celebrity Drag Race Episode 1 Recap
RuPaul's Secret Celebrity Drag Race Episode 1 Recap

VH1/World of Wonder

Though Franzese didn't nab the crown, the actor tells PEOPLE he walked away a winner, applying lessons he learned to Antonette.

"I learned so much more about drag," he says. "I'm doing my own makeup. I built out Antonette's body even. It's elevated my character in the best possible way. I felt like I really grew as a persona and a performer and I'm looking forward to exploring that more."

But the one thing he's still on the search for? A heel that fits him.

"I have a size 18-wide female shoe," the 6'4" star says. "My No. 1 thing right now is finding someone who will make me a custom heel that size because the whole time on the show I was wearing size 16 shoes. They were squeezing me into them because they couldn't find ones to fit! Can you imagine the dancing I could have done if my shoes fit?

"Maybe once I get the shoes right, I'll come back for RuPaul's Secret Celebrity Drag Race All Stars! O just regular All Stars, I'll say yes to that too. I'll try anything. And believe me, I'll be there in higher heels next time."

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RuPaul's Secret Celebrity Drag Race airs Fridays at 8 p.m. ET on VH1.