While being a fun drag queen and a life of the party, Monica Blewinsky is also a scientist and an activist. She’s been settled back in New York just few days now after a long stay in Florida, and her timing couldn’t have been better. We need Monica now more than ever, as a result of the Orlando shooting shaking our extended queer nightlife family to the core, and everybody struggling to find ways to be helpful. Monica’s given us a way, thanks to a speedily arranged benefit at Slake tonight. And she has other events and parties planned in the city this summer! Let’s find out what’s going on tonight and beyond, and let’s get to know Monica Blewinsky.
Thotyssey: Hi Monica, thanks for taking the time for this interview. It’s a hard time for the LGBT community, and the nightlife industry. Have you gotten a chance these past few nights to go out in New York and connect with people, to collectively heal with everyone?
Monica Blewinsky: I stayed up all night late Saturday reading newsfeeds as the shooting played out. After hours of horror watching this all in real time, at around 9am Sunday morning I decided to start rallying up performers and organizers in our NYC community to put together a fundraiser to support relief efforts. So, I was pretty consumed with that Sunday right through Monday on two hours of sleep.
Monday night, although totally exhausted, I saw several of my friends in nightlife putting together various pop-up fund raisers. I wanted to support them, their effort, and be with my family during this really tough time. So, I went out last night to Ace Hotel and Pieces. There was so much positive energy at these events, queens donating their booking fees and tips, people tipping out larger than usual. The spirits were honestly a lot higher than I was expecting as I sat on the train to these events. I credit that to the sense of unity that comes when tragedy strikes a very tight-knit community.
It was an extraordinary effort on behalf of everyone these past few nights, especially from you! We’ll get to the specifics of this fundraiser you spearheaded in a little bit.
But you were staying in Florida this year for awhile. Have you ever performed at Pulse, or been there?
I actually haven’t been to Pulse. I lived in Miami over the winter, and just got back to NYC a week or so ago. I did a road trip up, and had plans to go to Pulse, but never made it through Orlando. Would have been great to experience it before this tragedy. It will for sure be different in many ways when it re-opens.
It’s come to light that the shooter might have been LGTB himself. Should that change the way we think or feel about this?
Yes. It does. It adds a dimension of self-hate to the situation. I blame violent, aggressive, divisive, intolerant, extremist interpretation of religion, as well as homophobia that is still a global cultural presence. For people who grow up in an environment where it’s considered a “sin,” “abomination” or whatever other sort of social damnation for loving who you wish– this will absolutely foster self-hate for those who experience conflict between external expectations and self-identity. And some will forever internalize this conflict. Others will act out like we might be seeing in the case with Orlando.
Let’s talk about you for a bit. Were you raised with a religious upbringing?
I was raised Catholic, I suppose. I was baptized, had a first communion and a confirmation. However, early on in my teens I knew I didn’t buy all the hocus pocus and metaphor that comes with the most common religions with which I’m familiar. I studied physics in college, so I have my own empirically-based spiritual beliefs that don’t necessarily align with any “religion” I know of, certainly not Catholicism.
And how long have you been interested in art and performing?
I’ve always been an artist and a performer on the inside. I guess you could say the first time I “did drag” when I was four and asked my mom for the blue dress the fairy wore in Pinocchio for Christmas.
Growing up, I think I was programmed a bit to take a greater interest in math and science than art (even though that’s where my heart is). It wasn’t until after college that I started performing and organizing performance events.
Did any specific queen out there take you under her wig?
We have Sherry Vine to blame for the birth of Monica Blewinsky. She and I worked together on projects in AIDS research (she was an activist/promoter for these projects, and I was on the science side). She’s the one who re-ignited my drag interests. The first time in recent history I did drag was as a surprise for Sherry’s birthday show at Industry three years ago. I always thought her parodies were clever, so that night I asked what she thought if we did a parody together – so she and I wrote “Hung Horse,” which has over a million views on YouTube. That was the birth of Monica.
Are you still connected to the world of science at all?
I am! Throughout college I worked at a biotech, whose technology is currently being donated to help enable researching a cure to HIV/AIDS by modifying stem cells to create HIV-resistant immune systems. I was there at the start of that project, and worked a bit in a Nobel Prize-winning lab on the first bit of research.
I took a job later at Columbia University, in the office that oversaw research administration (compliance, funding, safety, etc). While there, the HIV project I was working on developed into a foundation, the Research Foundation to Cure AIDS (RFTCA). I helped organize the launch of that foundation, one of the events for which I organized took place at Columbia.
Timing-wise, it was when I was working at Columbia that I started to get more involved in drag, nightlife, and charity work on the side. Last year, I put on a fundraiser for RFTCA, which was in partnership with NYC Pride. Bianca Del Rio hosted; we had a zillion NYC queens participate, and we raised several thousand dollars.
So, I’m still connected to the science world, still have an interest in the projects I worked on, but I think my contribution now is more based in public engagement than the actual research or administration of projects.
That’s pretty amazing. Everyone always assumes that people fell into drag solely from chasing showbiz dreams, and yet many queens come from every discipline and walk of life. And how would you describe your performing style as a queen?
HA! A well thought-out expression of not giving a fuck. i don’t want to be taken too seriously. There are some queens who try to be look queens, dancing queens, singing queens, comedy queens, drama queens… I don’t really try to do anything other than be the life of the party. Because that’s a queen’s job first and foremost! I’m the party queen.
Did you have particular interest in the Bill Clinton/Monica Lewinsky sex scandal when you drag-named yourself?
Yes. This was the first political scandal I can remember ever experiencing, and it really influenced how I viewed the social construction of the world ever after. I was eight or so when it happened, so before that I had a very sterile perspective on “how things worked.”
The married president getting a blowie from his much younger intern in the Oval Office showed me, at that young age, how raw the human condition really is. Monica keeps it real and lets her raw impulse run the show.
What do you think of Hillary Clinton today as a candidate: totally capable, or just better than Trump?
Hillary is for sure a seasoned and deliberate politician (which we have plenty of, not doing much but spinning the wheels of Washington). I think she’s capable of maintaining the status quo, which isn’t horrible–but I think America really is ready for some pretty drastic and progressive social change.
Toward that end, I don’t feel she has the energy or personality required to really rally people. She has plenty of the technical experience for the job, and I think her heart is in the right place, but I don’t think she inspires people. She’s capable on paper, but I think we didn’t spend enough time considering other options.
Trump, on the other hand, propagates hate and would cause social regression. His heart is not at all in the right place, and he’s completely self-interested. So yes, Hillary is for sure a better pick over Trump, but I’m sure there are even better options we didn’t consider, or fully consider.
I saw a pic on your Facebook of you in full drag, posing in front of anti-gay protesters. Where was that?
That was in New Orleans, during Southern Decadence two years ago. That photo was taken just before a show I did at Oz Nightclub. We had some guests outside I thought I’d welcome.
Did anyone actually confront you there?
At first I approached them, and they all immediately turned away before I said anything. Then I went up to the person with the megaphone and just calmly said, “can I ask you a question?” He stopped an looked for a second, so I asked “why are you doing this? What do you hope to accomplish right now?”
I think he was caught off-guard that I wasn’t screaming back at him, so he put his mic down and started talking to me directly about his religious beliefs and his opinions of my lifestyle. I let him finish, and I told him I appreciated him sharing his thoughts, but I didn’t think anyone here needed his saving and that screaming and harassing people probably wasn’t the best way to get his point across. That was the end of the convo for him – He went on with his megaphone after that and they turned away again, which is when a friend of mine took the photo.
So, why exactly did you leave NYC back in February? Did you just want to explore, or needed a scenery change? And why did you return?
My grandmother who lived in the Keys was very ill this past December. One of my good friends was about to move down, so we decided to take a little road trip together – I’d drive him down with his stuff and then spend time with my grandmother. I had every intention of coming right back up.
My grandma passed away the day I arrived, so I ended up staying for a few weeks to help my family with arrangements, her belongings, etc. I procrastinated coming back up north–the weather and laissez-faire attitude of South Florida was getting to me. There wasn’t any pressing need for me to be physically in NYC at the time, so I decided to try out moving to Miami (this was February).
I had a great time down there, and met a lot of great people who I’m sure will be lifetime friends–but my heart is in NYC. Miami is beautiful, and will always be a top vacation spot for me. But in the end, it wasn’t stimulating enough for me to be there full time.
So what have been some of your favorite gigs in NYC, and favorite venues?
Stonewall will always be very special to me. It has so much historic significance, and was where I first performed during a show Sherry Vine had there.
My favorite gigs, however, are large scale productions–those are really my forte. I have a talent for organizing people and resources, an interest in making an impact on my community, and an eye for artistic quality. Doing a show on a stage with high end sound and lights, like Slake, Stage 48 or the Salon at Hudson Terrace, together with a large cast gives a lot of freedom for creative expression. Given the scale of these types of shows, it’s also a great opportunity to raise significant awareness and money for various causes that are important for our community–that’s what is most fulfilling for me as an artist and producer.
Let’s talk about Thursday’s 5:30 pm benefit for Orlando relief at Slake that you organized with such incredible speed and tact. First of all, where are the donations from the audience going to, exactly?
To The Center in Orlando–the community’s LGBT resource center. The Center is raising money to then distribute locally to various relief efforts.
Many of our city’s greatest queens will be there performing: Sherry, Marti Gould Cummings, Brita Filter, Biblegirl… was everyone very quick to come on board?
To note, Sherry will not be able to join us due to a tough scheduling conflict that we tried very hard to work around. But she wants it known that she’s extremely supportive and deeply regrets not being able to make it.
To your question of getting on board–yes, it was very quick. Thankfully, having worked together with many of them before, I had direct contacts to work out scheduling very quickly.
We all love what we do, love our community, and very frequently work together on a huge number of philanthropic initiatives.
Do you think most drag queens have an understanding that they play an important role in times of crisis for the queer community?
I think the queens do very much understand the public engagement role they play in our community. They’re leaders within LGBT culture, and people look up to them (literally) to vocalize what everyone else is thinking and feeling.
It’s going to be very beautiful and fun evening, I think. Are you going to perform a number?
I haven’t had time to think about that, quite honestly! There are close to 30 performers coming tomorrow, so chances are I’ll take care of hosting and logistics to make sure the show runs smoothly, and bow out of doing a full number myself. But who knows!
And I see on June 22nd, you are involved in OutRight’s Pride event on the Hudson Terrace, featuring Syrian activist Subhi Nahas. Can you tell us a little more about him, and the event?
I’m very passionate about this event as well. I don’t know Subhi personally, but I’ve read and watched a few interviews with him – and am very excited to meet him next week! He’s a gay Syrian refugee and activist. His work focuses on human rights for LGBT individuals globally, with a specific focus on the Syrian region. We infrequently hear these horror stories of what ISIS is doing to gay people in the area–throwing them from buildings, beheading them, drowning them in cages.. the sickest things imaginable, happening all the time, right now.
There’s no plausible way of getting any sort of relief to these people, so the only way to help them is to push for granting them refugee status so they can flee. The situation is dire for so many innocent people in the areas the ISIS occupies, but it’s flat out tortuous and deadly for gay people. It’s a genocide, and no one in the mainstream is talking much about it. This issue needs a lot more attention.
The event next Wednesday at Hudson Terrace is a fundraiser for OutRight International. Judy Darling, Maddelynn Hatter, Ritzy Bitz, Brita Filter, Tammy Spenks and myself are all set to be a part of the program.
Amazing, and even though it’s so sad that these two fundraisers are sort of loosely connected, it’s very heartening that NYC’s nightlife community is so productive and caring. And you deserve so much admiration for your involvement in these events.
Thank you for the kind words. I’m happy to put in the work to help foster unity and catalyze positive change where I can.
Anything else coming up this summer?
The Friday of Pride, you can find me at the Ace Hotel. Otherwise I’ll be making the rounds!
I actually do have two really fun monthly events I’m producing with Vincent Cooper. Both start July 8 at Hudson Terrace. The first, from 9-11pm, is called the New York Variety Show: we will have about 20 acts – burlesque, drag, singing, contortion, juggling, magic, circus acts- and a judging panel, which includes Paige Turner, Julie Atlas Muz, Sheba Mason and Robert Galinsky– who will select the top three acts to join the regular cast we will develop for the show moving forward. The winner gets a $1000 prize package.
Following this event, we’re putting together a new “eclectic” theme party called Eden (11pm-4am, first or second Fridays, also at the Hudson Terrace). In the spirit of Greenhouse Sundays or Prettyugly at Diamond Horseshoe–we want to bring back a party with a heavy focus on performance art, nightlife fashion and a diverse crowd.
The winner of the NYVS is announced during the Eden party. More info on that to be released soon!
Sounds like it’ll be a busy summer for you, Monica.
Last question: This was a horrible, horrible thing that happened in Orlando this week, obviously. But, can any good at all come out of this terrible experience?
This is something I posted on Facebook earlier, in reference to an article talking about the personal lives of each of the victims, which I think summarized my sentiments on that point:
“These lives were cut short, but they did not die in vain. Beyond impulsive anger, confusion and heartache, further consequences of tragedy include reflection, conversation, and unity – all of which are progressive steps toward greater tolerance and understanding. Things do get better and will get better. I deeply share the pain of the family and friends of the victims, but as we memorialize these individuals and appreciate those who we still share this life with- we need to push through the anger and not dwell in pain. Our community is resilient – draw strength from our family ”
That’s beautiful. Thank you so much Monica, for this and all that you do!
Monica Blewinsky hosts the Let Love Live benefit for Orlando at Slake Thursday, June 16th (5:30pm). She will also perform at the Outright Pride benefit at the Hudson Terrace on June 22nd (5:30pm). Monica will host the Ace Hotel’s Pride party on June 24th, and starting July 8th she will host the monthly New York Variety Show and Eden party at the Hudson Terrace (starting 9pm). Monica Blewinsky can be followed on Facebook, Instagram and Twitter.
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