The winner of Ms. Barracuda 2016 revealed her brilliant levels of creativity, craftsmanship and hilarity to the nightlife community throughout the competition. And when her “Drag Queens for Trump” video that she crafted for one of the pageant challenges went viral, the world found out as well. Now, Kari Kerning is planning her next move, and possibly building her next monster.
Thotyssey: Congratulations on your win, Kari! So, let’s talk about how you got here. Where did you grow up?
Kari Kerning: I’m originally from Poughkeepsie, New York, but moved to Columbus, Ohio for college and ended up staying there seven years. That’s where I first started drag.
What were your earliest creative interests?
I’ve always considered myself an artist. From an early age, I was a drawer and image maker. I went to school first for illustration and then for graphic design. But these are all related fields; its all visual art and image making. That’s what drew me to drag, too. I think I see them all under the same creative umbrella. I love to create. Drag lets me do this in so many different media, the costumes, the performance, the audio, video work. Its so creatively fulfilling.
When did you start drag?
I started drag almost by accident. In college, I became obsessed with drag and the Columbus queens. Eventually a friend convinced me to do a bar competition. But I never saw myself as a performer. Honestly being on stage was not natural for me, I felt very out of my element at first.
I won that first competition, which was so surprising because I was competing against some seasoned queens, and it was literally my first time in drag. I sure wasn’t the most graceful or polished on stage, but I think the judges saw something unique and creative in my concept and number. I’m so thankful they did, because that was my opening into the drag scene. I met my drag mother that night (Nina West) and the family that would eventually take me under their wing and teach me the craft.
But honestly, I just love to create art and make people smile. That’s what I get to do with drag. Its so fulfilling.
Many of us know Nina West from her “living pageant dress.”
Yup, that’s my Momma!
How exactly did she approach you in the bar that day, and in what ways has she influenced you?
Nina is such an amazing queen. In addition to performing on bar and club nights, Nina and the West family do large production shows every three months. It’s honestly like an off-Broadway production; there’s a cast of 8 to 10 queens and dancers. Each girl gets a solo number, but there are also up to 10 all-cast production numbers, scripted interstitials and video work. It’s real theater.
After I won my first bar competition, Nina invited me to bar a part of her Spring production. I wasn’t really sure what I got myself into, but it was theater boot camp. I learned SO MUCH about performing, stage presence, and how to create a number.
Nina also pushed me to embrace my weird. We’ve all seen Nina be fish in that pageant gown, but I’ve also seen her dance her ass off, do stand up comedy, perform male vocals, and even dress like a giant Muppet on stage. She taught me that there are no limits on drag, and that you should push your art form, and the audience, into new, unexpected territory. That’s the biggest lesson my mother taught me, be fearless and commit to an idea.
There were a lot of futuristic, sci-fi elements that came out in your drag during Ms. Barracuda. Was that always part of your aesthetic?
My aesthetic is influenced by all the pop culture I was into as a kid. I was that weird middle school kid who watched sci-fi and monster movies on the weekend, so I think that has all seeped through into my drag.
But its not limited to that genre. You can find inspiration anywhere, and sometimes the weirder the inspiration, the more interesting the drag. Kari has done a lot of weird shit over the years, and not all of it was successful. But if you don’t take a risk, you never get a reward. I just try to do things that will catch people off guard, surprise them a bit.
You succeed! By the way, where did you get your name from?
Kerning is a graphic design term. As a designer, I wanted a name that was unique and authentic. So now every time someone says they know what my name means, I know they are a graphic design nerd too. its like a secret code.
So, ultimately, what brought you to New York, and when exactly did you get here?
i started drag in 2010, and i moved to NYC September of 2012. I came here for graduate school – i got my masters from Pratt. I’ve put drag on hold a few times over my career, for work and school, etc. Its hard to juggle both lives, but honestly i couldn’t live without either.
How did you debut Kari in New York?
I didn’t do drag for the first year I was here. It was the longest I’d gone without putting on a wig since I started. After my first year of graduate school, I got the itch again and went out looking for spaces to perform.
Tina Burner gave me my first chance at Star Search. Tina is so great at welcoming new girls to NYC. When she sees someone with talent, she really gives them all the opportunity and help in the world. She gave me the lay of the land, and some much needed emotional support. I cant thank her enough.
And from Star Search I went on to compete in Saliva with Thorgy and Azraea. I believe I still have the highest score in Saliva herstory (I mean… its a defunct bar competition so I can’t let me ego get too big!!! But it was an amazing experience).
So many wonderful things and people came out of Saliva, it’s sad that’s it’s gone, but Ms. Barracuda is maybe the offspring of that? Before we get the pageant, you did Look Queen a few times before., what was that like? That night’s host Terra Hyman seems like a big fan!
I love Terra, shes fucking stupid, in the best possible way! She’s another one of the NYC girls that helped welcome me into the city. One of the first times we hung out, we painted together at my apartment in Brooklyn and got stuck on the G Train in full face for an hour! A very New York experience! #memories
Look Queen is phenomenal. I did my Donald Trump number there [in February] and had a BLAST.
So, when it was established that you were going to be a contestant in Ms. Barracuda, and the challenges and themes were presented to you, did all the ideas start fully forming right away?
Oh, absolutely. That’s my favorite part of drag, the conceptual phase. I have a sketch book I doodle in (art school kid for life) and starting coming up with ideas the minute Tina gave us the categories. Most of those ideas were bonkers and never made it out of that sketch book, but it’s all part of the process.
So, the looks! I’ll just mention each one, and you just tell me whatever you want about it: how you conceived it, how long it took to make it, did it do what you wanted it to do, etc..
1) The swimsuit competition, which was “insect” themed. You went a little outside the box and came out as a beekeeper.
I wanted to do something different and silly. The idea of a beekeeper that shows skin in an effort to look sexy was so funny to me. Obliviously stupid… that’s Kari. So it fit. I had the drawing, and knew I wanted a swimsuit with a hood. And lots of exposed bee stings. The actual construction and detail on the swimsuit was done by Chris Haynes. He’s a genius.
2) Evening gown. You went waaaay out of the box in a sleeveless hoodie-themed dress, with an animated E.T. puppet in a bicycle basket attached to your front. Personally, I think you won the whole thing right there.
Um, you are WAY too nice! Thank you though! E.T. came from the same place as the swim suit: a weird juxtaposition of highbrow and lowbrow. I knew people were either going to love it or hate it.
The gown itself is beautiful; I’ve seen queens do E.T. looks before but I’ve never seen a hoodie gown like that. So I knew I wanted to make one (with the help of Chris Haynes again… did I mention he’s a genius?). But then I always have to take it one step too far and added the puppet.
I’m glad people thought it was as funny as I did! Sometimes I think I do drag just to make myself laugh. I was so happy it resonated with people. I think [pageant judge] Jiggly Caliente just laughed on the mic and said “Bitch, you’re retarded”. I can’t think of a better reaction!
And the puppet moved! How long did it take you to construct it?
It took me a few days… i worked on it in the evenings after work. A lot of paper mache and Crayola Play Foam. I was living my LIFE at Michael’s craft store!.
I wish I could sew–it’s the next thing I need to learn. But all the puppets and super glue I can handle. I can E6000 like a motherfucker!
3) The final performance costume, you were an astronaut with a baby Giger alien ripping out of your chest and joining you in rapping “Intergalactic.”
So the final performance was the only thing in Miss Barracuda that wasn’t completely new for the competition. The category was “signature number” so I brought back and perfected a number I’ve done a few times before.
I first did my alien chest burster in a Nina West show before I left Ohio, and then brought it with me to NYC and have done it two or three times here, perfecting the costume, puppet and the mix each time. It’s a special one, I don’t bring her out too often. It’s such a fun number to perform, and physically exhausting! That costume is HEAVY, and there is really limited range of motion in it. Chris was helping me dress back stage, and i came back panting about to pass out. Who’d have thought a full pleather jumpsuit didn’t breathe!?
That number probably best epitomizes my drag. I can flat out say I’ve never seen another queen do that on stage before. That’s what I want all my numbers to be–something that gags people, that they’ve never seen before. Obviously that’s not always the case, but its a good goal to set. “If you shoot an arrow and it goes real high, hooray for you!”
So, you were also instructed to make a politically-themed video that was shown to the live audience and posted online, Your “Drag Queens for Donald Trump” video that came out of that challenge basically went viral. So, let’s talk about the making of that. First off, how did you conceive the idea?
THAT WAS THE MOST FUN!! Well, like so many gay people, I’m really invested in this primary, and have been both excited and horrified by the way things are playing out. Trump is SUCH A LUNATIC and its scary to see he is doing so well. When you see clips of white supremacists openly campaigning for him, it’s a glimpse into what America could become if progressives sit at home and do nothing. So, y’all better get your gay asses up off the couch and go vote this November.
Having a gay man dress up like a lady, and then on top of that dress up as a republican presidential candidate, just seemed like the a conservative’s worst nightmare–so it had to be done. I just wanted to be an asshole and run around NYC dressed like Donald Trump– that was the seed of the idea. Everything else evolved from that impulse. There is nothing more gratifying than rubbing your titty on the Trump International sign at Columbus Circle.
I mean when you think about it — Trump is just like most drag queens. He’s a tacky attention-seeking clown with a bad wig on. I just wanted to bring that comparison to life.
Did people on the street, while you were filming, seem to “get” who you were mocking?
There was a couple at Times Square–I was asking them for their support in the upcoming election, and they just started at me with this blank cold expression. Then i stepped back, saw their Wrangler jeans and cowboy hats, and realized they were probably southern Trump supporters who did not find me very funny. Sometimes you forget, living in NYC, that this country is made up of all types.
But quite a few people came up to me and wanted to take pictures, they thought it was funny. I wanted to get kicked off the Trump Building, I mean, what a great shot for the video. But the security guards just looked at me, laughed and walked away.
Did you think the video was going to be all over the internet?
I don’t think I’ve ever broken 100 views on my YouTube page before, so when I hit 2K I almost crapped myself! NewNowNext sharing the video was SO exciting. It was just a magical fucking week! Pardon my French.
And that was one of the few challenges you didn’t win, weirdly enough! Did you get a chance to see Kimberly Smallz’s winning video?
Kim’s video was so funny. That bitch smokes a lot of pot! If I had to lose to somebody, I was really happy it was Kim. That queen is funny!
In general, how did you gals get along throughout the competition? That’s a lot of creativity in a small space, and there was a lot at stake!
I was so impressed by the dynamic between us girls in the competition. I don’t know how many people know, but there is no backstage at Barracuda. Those curtains on the side of the stage don’t lead anywhere, just a 5 ft by 8 ft space that is blocked off. We had four to six girls crammed in there changing at any given point (AND all of our bags), and there was absolutely no drama. We helped zipper each other, pass costumes and calm each other down. It was amazing. So thankful to be around such good energy.
I know competitions in NYC where things have been stolen, shade was thrown, and the energy was just negative. Miss Barracuda wasn’t anything like that. The girls in the competition were so great.
The pageant seems to have gotten a lot of buzz this year, maybe because Bob and Thorgy are on RuPaul’s Drag Race, and it’s infusing a lot of energy back into New York drag.
It’s crazy how much this pageant has grown in the last three years. Tina has build something really amazing, I think its become an important part of NYC nightlife. I was getting texts and FB messages from queens all over the country who were following the pageant each week: Florida, Ohio, LA . Miss Barracuda has certainly become a phenomena.
The judges were BEYOND! Jiggly and Thorgy, Brenda Darling, Anthony Manfredonia… I mean, Carson Kressley?!? I felt like I was on Drag Race. But so many people i respect. I was proud to perform for them.
So in the end, you won three of the challenges, and you were crowned Ms. Barracuda. You won a thousand dollars, among other things. How did the win feel?
I honestly spent so much time working on the challenges, I didn’t put any thought into what winning would be like. I was overwhelmed on stage. I always roll my eyes when pageant winners say that, I usually think its hokey and stupid, but its true. I got slightly emotional!
It was a great moment!
Even though it was just a bar pageant, its a really important bar (in drag history), and the people behind the pageant are all so talented and respected. It was honestly an honor to wear that crown. That’s the stage Jackie Beat, Sherry Vine, Candis Cane, Peppermint, Bob, Tina… so many legends have performed on.. I could go on an on. Barracuda bar is everything.
Ms. Barracuda pushes queens creatively more than most pageants, but do you think you could ever do one of the more traditional drag pageants now?
I would love to. Drag is such a diverse art form, and a good queen can flex and adapt. I want to learn and grow. I want to do it all. Not sure what my next steps will be, but don’t be surprised if you see another pageant in my future. My mother is a national title holder, I’ve got some big heels to fill. But I’m working on it.
Congratulation again, Ms. Barracuda!