After a successful turn in 2015′s “New York’s Next Top Drag Queen” competition, cabaret queen Ruby Powers is making her mark all over the city. This Saturday night, she returns to Bar Thalia at Symphony Space for an Orlando relief benefit… and there’s more exciting stuff on the horizon! Thotyssey and Ruby dish on city living, drag sororities, and Beetlejuice.
Thotyssey: Hi Ruby! You were onstage out of drag last night at Littlefield in Brooklyn (home of Horrorchata’s Be Cute!) for A Drinking Game NYC’s staged reading of Beetlejuice, where the actors drink to cues along with the audience. That sounds like messy fun. Who did you play, and how did it go?
Ruby Powers: Yes! “A Drinking Game NYC” is so much fun and a total mess. We’ve been going strong for a couple years now. Last night, I played Otho, the light-in-the-loafers interior designer made famous by the late and great William Glenn Shadix. I also played the dog, the sand serpent, a fly, a beetle–and a door. I usually play wacky parts and assorted creatures. Next up is Goonies in July 21st, and i’m reprising Ma Fratelli.
Ma Fratelli was one of my idols growing up… and so was Otho, actually!
“Deliver us from L.L. Bean.”
[Laughs] Marg-OH! might not always be drinking as much as she shows onstage, but she’s definitely holding her own! We really do drink, and we get schwasted, and then hit on the audience members afterward. It’s always sold out, standing room only, so there’s a good variety to pick from.
Sounds like fun! So how long have you been a performer? I see you’ve lived in Los Angeles, did that fuel the showbiz fire?
I have always been a total ham. I actually grew up in Bakersfield, California, and then went to college in Los Angeles. I always did musical theatre, but didn’t really get good parts. So I studied marketing and education in school. I still pursued acting, though, and got my Equity card playing the pig in Charlotte’s Web for Theatreworks USA. The big break eluded me, though.
Now I have a boy job in marketing, and get to make a fool of myself as Ruby Powers on the regular.
So I would say that it’s not really destiny, it’s more like shoving a size 11 foot in a size 7 shoe: Make. It. Fit. [Laughs.]
I actually know a lot of people from Bakersfield, and they talk about it like it was a nightmare. Did you have an okay experience growing up there?
I have a great family, but it was rough. As most of us know, the national response to people who are different has shifted astronomically in the last 20 years. It’s still rotten, but it’s better than it was.
All of the classic things happened to me: I was hit, spit on, called names, etc.
One bullying experience that simultaneously cracks me up/devastates me: freshman year of high school, I was 4″11 and nearly 200 pounds, and I played the bass drum in the marching band. I was walking towards the band room with my bass drum and my backpack on (I used to always carry all of my books), and someone yelled “Faggot!” and tackled me into the mud. My glasses broke in half. And guess how I fixed them? Tape. I remember thinking, “Is this real? Am I in a cartoon?”
I still love going home to Bakersfield, though. There are awesome people there, nice restaurants and views, and my parents have a pool.
A pool does go a long way. but it sounds like you had a rough go, as many of us do at that age. So, did you come to New York eventually for marketing, or showbiz, or just to get away from all that?
Who can ever say? NYC has a magical pull to it. I came for the arts, officially, but I just felt like this was the place I was going to find opportunity.
While in NYC, I’ve been a full-time actor, 6th grade teacher, Broadway advertiser, photographer, and a pretty terrible waiter. Every day, you can wake up and live a new life.
Don’t you think New York is maybe too difficult for most people nowadays? Especially artists and performers: a constant uphill battle just to pay rent and eat, never mind get props for performing.
Our housing market is oppressive, and the deck is absolutely stacked against the bottom 99%. Mayor de Blasio has put forward some important housing reforms, but it’s nowhere near enough. Our city has some of the worst racial and economic segregation in the developed world.
I’m in awe of anyone who is hoofing it through NYC, making their own way–especially performers. We need to support our artists and our thinkers. We’re the ones who make NYC worth living in.
Well said! What were some of your earliest haunts when you got here… your favorite places to hang?
I also used to turn up at 9th Avenue Saloon, the Metropolitan Bar, the Ritz–in fact, I have a scar on my shin from falling off the ledge dancing at the Ritz. A beefy go-go dancer picked me up and I just keep dancing.
My earliest nightlife memories are of just tumbling around 9th Avenue and periodically bumping into Marti Gould Cummings, and thinking NYC was so fabulous.
Those are times when it is! So, what was Ruby’s debut?
I actually made my very first appearance doing photography in drag at Iron Bar in Hell’s Kitchen. My friend Janet Krupin is a Broadway performer and EDM musician–she had a show there, and hired me to do red carpet photography back in 2014. After that, I was hooked. I pitched a Halloween cabaret show at Bar Thalia at Symphony Space, and I’ve been performing there ever since. Bradford Proctor, who plays for Marti’s amazing Stage Fright show at Therapy on Mondays, was my first music director/pianist, and he still does my shows from time to time.
Did you model Ruby after any specific diva?
I love every iteration of Auntie Mame–the book, the movie (even the Lucille Ball one and especially the Roz Russell one). I love the message of Mame: Life is a banquet, and most poor suckers are starving to death! Miss Piggy is also an inspiration. Love the unapologetic glamour.
I can’t tell if Ruby Powers sounds more Dallas/Dynasty/Diva, or more Nintendo. How did you name yourself, exactly?
All of the above! It’s an interesting story. I write music and I wrote a one woman musical about a desperate-for-fame drag queen whose childhood best friend grew up to be a sort-of Madonna. I thought Jinkx Monsoon would be perfect for it to kick it off, but it was my dream that every top musical queen in the country could do the show in their local clubs, all putting their own spin on it. I came up with the name Ruby Powers, so it would be inclusive of all sorts of queens playing her.
Then, when I had the chance to do drag for the first time, I randomly saw Michael John LaChiusa (my favorite composer) in an Upper West Side bar and started fangirling at him. I told him I was going to do drag, and was choosing my name. He he helped me settle on becoming Ruby Powers myself. It was interesting that I happened to be wearing a red crystal heart necklace at the time. (The runner-up name was St. Agnes Hamburger.)
You chose wisely! Are you still planning on doing anything with that show?
I’m not sure! I have a couple other narrative ideas cooking, though, so stay tuned! I’m absolutely looking for collaborators–book writers or composers who want to make something special. Send anyone you know my way!
You heard it here first, people! So, in 2015, you participated in the New York’s Next Top Drag Queen competition at the Metropolitan Room, which is an all-live singing drag contest. You placed second (tied with Louvel), and Strawberry Fields ultimately won. But I understand it was a very close race!
I feel like most of the folks in my season came out as winners, because we’re still trucking. Even girls who weren’t in the top are incredible. I mean, Tammy Spénks? I also perform with Julia and Marg-OH! whenever I can.
I’m so glad Joseph Macchia and the Metropolitan Room created the competition. It definitely jump started my career. That said, I don’t plan on competing for any crowns in the near future. I don’t need a crown to tell me I’m a queen.
She won the first season, actually, and is totally sweet and fabulous. As a boy, I worked on Kinky Boots in advertising, while she was Lola in the road company.
Got it! Speaking of Miss Piggy earlier, I enjoyed watching a clip of your Muppets medley duet with Strawberry for her cabaret at the Metropolitan Room.
Thank you! I was honored she asked me to do that with her. She’s also guested at my Bar Thalia show, and when I subbed for Marti at Drag Academy.
You two have a great onstage rapport. Any plans to work again together soon?
You’ve gotten a lot of gigs since NYNTDQ. Do you still prefer the cabaret / live singing / piano bar vibe to the loud, lip sync drag bar scene?
Performing with a pianist is my comfort zone. I love the back and forth, and the audience pays much more attention! To be honest, I’m still honing my chops at bar gigs. I have so much respect for the queens who can hold court. I go to Suite as a boy for Blackout Fridays with Miz Cracker and Brenda Dharling more than I should admit, and I’m always transfixed.
I had my first weekly at Icon in Astoria during RuPaul’s Drag Race, and the pressure to be creative and gag the children each and every week is a lot. Not saying I don’t love it, but it’s its own art form.
That was a Drag Race viewing party you were hosting. How was that experience like for you?
I was not familiar with the bar or the crowd when I got the gig, but I loved it. The Astoria gays know how to turn up, and the management and staff took great care of me. It was a growing experience for me, since I’d never hosted an honest-to-goodness, old-fashioned bar show with a DJ and all tracks. I realized I couldn’t repeat my looks and sets because the crowd would be disappointed. I ended up using a lot of my old patter a friend wrote for me and turned them into bar jokes. The best part was all of the guests who came out. I had Juicy Liu, the Countess Mascara, Whendy Waxwood, Gina Tonic, Flippe Kikee–fabulous girls. I hope I’m not forgetting anyone.
What did you think of the show itself this season? Is it just me, or did it seem very rushed–and a little cheaply produced, even more so than usual?
I did feel like we were missing an episode or two. I also thought the girls were a little more obviously savvy about the show than is ideal. I like seeing the girls really being themselves–not just the honest tearjerker moments, but when they are actually just totally bitches to each other.
I guess the rumor is that Logo’s trying to make a bigger deal out of All-Stars Season 2 this year.
This just in: The All-Stars Season 2 cast has been announced! No Willam (!), but Ginger’s on board!
Omg! I’m excited, I love her! “Eggs, eggs, eggs!”
Do you think that you could handle the level of fame that a Drag Race girl has?I ran into someone from this past season the other night, and she seemed a lot more subdued than she used to be… probably wary of people wanting to take pictures with her, get in her face, etc
Anyone who meets me in drag, I hope, comes off feeling energized and good about themselves. I get my energy from interacting with people. Then I go home and hibernate with Seamless. I think I could deal with the balance. I’m also not the most aggressive person on social media, so I feel like I could set boundaries. What I will have trouble with, though, is all of the online gossip and hate.
Yes, there was way too much of that going on throughout the season, and it was horrid.
Speaking of horrid things, although in this case much more so, of course: How have you been coping with the Orlando tragedy?
I’m a wreck. I can’t stop constantly checking the coverage. And the tears just come up out of nowhere. It could have been any of us, any of our queer brothers and sisters. I think everyone is feeling that really deeply. Some people are angry, and mobilized politically already. It’s taking me a bit longer to process it. I’m still just sad.
I feel stupid when I say that the answer is more love and kindness, but that’s what I believe. We need aggressive legislation and systemic reforms, but we also need to treat each other with more dignity across the board. I feel like the gay community has a great opportunity to lead that.
I do feel like our activists are the best, and I would be very heartened if they took up the cause of gun control.
So, tell me about Bar Thalia. How often do you perform there?
I do the show about once a month–most of the big holidays and then some others to fill in, depending on how busy I am.
What’s the venue like?
It’s the lounge that’s attached to Symphony Space. They have good cocktails and beer and artisanal cuisine. Very good stuff. There’s no cover for the show, and we get a mix of my crowd and Upper West Siders who are seeing stuff at Symphony Space already, like Selected Shorts.
And on this Saturday’s edition of your show, titled “Honey-Baked Hot Mama,” you’re donating proceeds to Orlando relief?
Yep, every penny of my salary and all of the tips.
That’s very kind of you! It’s wonderful that drag queens are really stepping up to raise funds and awareness for Orlando, especially in this city and this economy. When you were a new queen, were you aware that this kind of responsibility often fell to drag performers, as far as being advocates for the queer community?
Yes, that’s one of the main reasons I was attracted to doing a drag. I realized that, when you’re in drag, no matter who else is there, you’re the most famous one in the room. That means a platform to speak your mind, and leave people better than they were before.
I don’t know if anyone else has mentioned this, but for all of the gays far away from home, I’m sure there’s something to drag queens as surrogate (drunken) mothers for the night. Maybe it’s just me, but sometimes when people want photos and hugs, I feel like I need to give them a little bit of encouragement and love, too.
That’s very inspiring, and empowering! A few more things coming up: I see that on Sunday night, you’ll be a guest for Ms. Stonewall 2016 Whendy Whaxwood’s Stonewall Invasion. Whendy kinda came out of nowhere to win that pageant! I know she guest performed for you in Astoria, but how did you first become aware of her?
I saw her compete in Lady Liberty, hosted by the incomparable Terra Hyman and Brita Filter, and I thought she was totally lovely. She was gorgeous and a complete sweetie. I thought she was special, and had to approach her. I was stoked she could do my show [in Astoria]!
And on June 29th, you’ll be back to the Metropolitan Room to guest perform (along with drag king Gary Carmichael) for Gina Tonic & Vicky Boofont’s cabaret showcase. Do you think those two were standouts from this year’s NYNTDQ?
Ummm….Yes. Gina and I are regular-life friends, and I was so proud of her in the show. I was totally rooting for her at the finale. Vicky also just slayed me with her creativity and chops. I look up to her. Honestly, the competition was fierce. I think a lot of those girls are going to do big things.
But, they should stop. Because there are too many queens in New York City. I’m part of the problem, but enough is enough [laughs]!
There are certainly too many queens, and not enough castles, in this city! And on July 16, you’ll perform yet another benefit fundraiser for Cycle for the Cause, which is also Witti Repartee’s birthday bash, at Rockbar. You’l be with with Louvel, and this year’s NYNTDQ’s winner, Shirley U. Jest. I guess you NYNTDQ gals are like a gorgeous sorority of sorts?
I’m inspired by Witti and all of the good she does–and I met her through NYNTDQ! It’s definitely a great avenue for queens to make sisters. I wouldn’t say it’s quite like a sorority, because it has its own share of drama and rivalries…then again, maybe it’s exactly like a sorority? [Laughs].
What else is coming up?
if people can’t make it to my Bar Thalia show this weekend, I’ll be back August 13 with a brand new theme. Also, stay tuned for a RPDR All-Stars hosting announcement!
Noted! So, last question: You are (hypothetically!) going to do a Drinking Game NYC live reading of the Steel Magnolias screenplay, but as Ruby. Which character are you going to be playing, and why?
Oh my goodness, can I make that my next one-woman show? Maybe Clairee [laughs]. Olympia Dukakis realness.
Wait, I take it back. I’d be Truvy. No explanation necessary.
Another wise decision! Thanks again Ruby!
Ruby Powers will perform her cabaret set and Orlando relief benefit “Honey-Baked Hot Mama” at Symphony Space’s Bar Thalia on Saturday, June 18th (9pm) , and afterwards will return to Bar Thalia for another set on August 13th. She will be a guest performer for Whendy Whaxwood’s Stonewall Invasion on Sunday June 19th, for Vicky Boofont’s & Gina Tonic’s cabaret at the Metropolitan Room on Wednesday June 29th, and for Witti Repartee’s birthday bash and fundraiser at Rockbar on July 16th. Her troupe “A Drinking Game – NYC” will perform The Goonies’ screenplay on July 21st. Ruby Powers can be followed on Facebook, Instagram, Twitter and YouTube.