[Photo credit: Magnus Hastings]
Several dozen New York drag careers got their start on “So You Think You Can Drag,” the competition that Paige Turner co-founded and hosted for six years. But Paige is a dynamite queen in her own right, thanks to her mod-Barbie aesthetic, her quick wit, and her eye for production and perfection. Now sporadically touring the world with a hilarious multimedia showcase she penned herself, and ready to debut another right here in NYC for Pride weekend, Paige is one bestseller a gurl needs to Study. Thotyssey reads a bit from the gospel of Paige Turner.
Thotyssey: Hi Paige! You are a busy lady with two weekly shows, a Pride showcase coming up this week, and maybe a thousand other projects. Do these past few years feel like a creative high for you?
Paige Turner: I love that you asked that! Yes, actually. Creating is the best part of what I get to do. There’s always opportunities to expand, learn from your last project, and constantly use every color of the rainbow!
You returned from LA a few weeks ago after touring with your one woman show “Confessions of an UN-Natural Blonde” there. And “Confessions” has been everywhere now. Do you have to tweak it at all from city to city to remove references people might not get?
Good God, did you steal my diary?! That’s really funny you said that. Yes, I have to tweak the whole opening every time. The show makes fun of LA a lot, so when I went to LA, I was there in the town, not making fun of it from afar… so, “How do I make this work?” It actually played the best there so far (did I just jinx that?!)
When you do a written show like this and go to many places, I have it set up so things can be switched around. I also love, and am obsessed with, Latin men, so of course that all played well in Mexico when I did it.
The nice thing about a show like this is that anyone can walk in off the street and experience it. They don’t have to know me – however, if they do, then the jokes will be even better, since they feel in on it and already are familiar with my humor. This type of show is actually the entire reason I started doing Paige Turner!
Was Paige’s first appearance in a scripted show?
Not the first, but definitely the one that has had more staying power, and toured the most. Like, I’d do a scripted show in Provincetown, but then not do it again. Then I started branching out and playing it in other places.
I’ve been doing “Confessions” off and on since last June, and am working on a new show, since I’m returning to places I’ve already played who asked me back.
I’m always interested to find out with drag queens about how much of their drag is them, and how much is a made-up character. Most queens say they are basically the same in and out of drag, but I have a feeling that Paige is still kind of a character you play. Is that true?
This is gonna be a long answer! I consider myself an entertainer, whose vehicle is a drag persona…a personality. I’m very inspired by entertainers of the 60’s; Phyllis Diller is one that comes to mind. She really played the role of Phyllis Diller when she did her act. Joan Rivers always said this, too: “I play the role of Joan Rivers very well.”
Because I come from the theater, and worked many years professionally, I tackle getting on stage every time in the same way. I consider myself “old school” with a “modern sensibility.” And many of my followers who know me outside the wig say I have a very Hanna Montana life, which I think is a great reference. Like, I don’t feel at all like Paige Turner without a wig on. My friends actually hardly ever call me Paige when I’m not.
I think it’s a personal thing for everyone, and definitely seeing boys out of drag on TV has changed that for people. If I’m entertaining you, I don’t think you should be thinking about my life as a boy, or what I look like outside the wig. A sense of mystery, I think, is definitely a good thing to have. But it’s personal for everyone. I enjoy and embrace all types of drag, and love when I meet someone who is completely opposite of me in drag. I’m also just as thrown when someone is completely different, or really shy as a boy. It’s a personal choice, from person to person.
Another great thing about doing drag, personally, is the image–form of entertainment or persona–you take on. I’ve always been into queens like Miss Richfield, Varla Jean Merman, Coco Peru, etc. They are definitely characters, personalities, and fabulash entertainers.
You hosted a Rupaul’s Drag Race viewing party at Boxers Chelsea this past season. On one episode–I think it’s the one where they had to make dresses out of books–RuPaul says something to the effect of, “This is going to be a real page turner,” but she enunciates it in a way that really sounds like a shout-out to you. What did you think?
I don’t know… many people thought it was! Everyone was like, “she said your name!″ So maybe she was paying homage to me. God, I hope so!
And speaking of awesome homages, I love Magnus Hastings’ shot of you from his Why Drag? book. [Editor’s note: see first photo, above]. When was that taken?
Last May! A year ago. And we kept quiet until it came out. He traveled around the world; it was pretty cool. and I’m reading a book [in the photo], a real Paige Turner and one of my favorites: Valley of the Dolls! it’s, like, dead on.
And then, of course, you know you’ve made it when you have your own Wikipedia page!
OMG, those are not easy to get. And I am very grateful to have it! It was, like, winning the lotto!
You were born a Chicago-adjacent gal, right?
Yes, up near Chicago. Beverly Hills is a lie on my Facebook, which I talk about in the “Confessions” show.
The gay scene is totally fun in Chicago. Did you explore it there?
I’ve actually never performed as Paige there, because I moved to NYC right out of high school. But I absolutely love the gay scene in Chicago. It’s my favorite town to go out in. Love the boys, the types of bars. The whole Lakeview area is super cute. Chicago has always felt like the man who got away!
Did you come to New York for school?
I went to AMDA (American Musical and Dramatic Academy) on a scholarship. I make fun of AMDA a lot at my bar shows in NYC. I can smell an AMDA student a mile away when they are in my audience!
And who was it who first called you the “Showbiz Spitfire?”
My very good friend Eve Starr said it at one of my very first shows, and Next Magazine wrote it up and it just kind of stuck. The same with “Slurp,” my catchphrase! Those things happen by way of happy accidents. You can’t plan them.
Your drag aesthetic is very Barbie’s Dream House. Do you design or sew any of your own looks?
I design or do vision boards for almost everything. I just started learning how to sew this past year, and have made a few things. But I have things made by some fabulous people I work with. Or I seek out looks (I’m a major shopaholic) and get an idea, and then I’m usually able to find it. The pieces for “Confessions” were made, though.
How specific do you get when you’re planning your looks for the stage shows?
For a show like “Confessions,” it’s all about a brand. I usually go with, “if Barbie would wear it, then Paige Turner would wear it.“ It’s always like dressing up, popular, life of the party. So anything in Glinda or Barbie is dead on.
I definitely have a defined style: prom dresses, vintage 60s shift dresses, lots of crinoline, poofy things. Like, tonight is a Pride kickoff Slurp show, but it’s also Father’s Day, so I was going to wear a men’s shirt dress or a rainbow dress. I’m really big on themes. I have no shame in representing Party City in my look!
You’re also known for your video parodies, that work their way into your stage shows or get lives of their own online. I was wondering where the “Grindr Connection” puppet is these days?
[Laughs] Lamar is actually at Slurp tonight. I love puppets; they can always tell a story!
Yes, my new music video is 6 minutes long, and has 9 people in it, but it’s only in the “Confessions” show; I haven’t released it online yet. I will though, once I finish doing “Confessions.”
No, but I adore Sherry!
Do you think the role of the drag queen has changed since 2006, when you started?
Yes, incredibly! I think people do drag [now] for many, many different reasons – to perform, to find themselves, to break down fears or stereotypes, gender issues, etc. The list goes on!
What are some specific things that have changed?
Well, a huge one is that queens in the 90s, like, never showed themselves as boys. It was an illusion, it was owning a persona. But that all changed with TV. That’s not necessarily a negative thing. I think there’s good from it. It has given people a sense of who people are behind the wig, and also to take or not take drag queens so seriously. Like, I take what I do very seriously, in a business/professional way. But I don’t take myself so seriously. Making myself laugh first, and inviting people in for the ride, is always my top priority.
But the [biggest] thing that changed – and this was before I even started doing drag – was the entitlement or the hate that queens started doing amongst one another: reading or talking bad about other queens, etc. Probably this has always been around, but the internet and Facebook has let people thrive on that. Many of us are still just little gay boys who were made fun of and want to be accepted, especially in a community. Don’t get me wrong: cracking jokes or faux trash-talking is part of it; or at least, many think it’s part of it.
I actually feel that drag has allowed me, though, to find myself, and has definitely made me love myself as a gay man more. I’m gonna quote Mother: “if you can’t love yourself, then who you gonna love?” It really is just about that…bottom line (I said bottom).
it’s funny, I don’t let them call me mom. It makes it feel as if i’m ready to check into Shady Pines. They call me their acting coach!
You can ask the girls, but if there’s one thing I definitely feel Drag Mom about, it’s about helping other’s find their creativity or their voice: what makes them tick, what are they really passionate about, what makes them want to step on a stage in a wig. And how to have a business model and actually do drag as a career…and if you want a $300 dress, I can tell you where and how to get it for $8. That’s the Mom in me. Who’s your Daddy?
“So You Think You Can Drag,” was arguably the city’s most popular and important drag competition, and it really showcased a lot of talent in surprising, fun ways. What motivated you to create that forum?
[It was] about giving people opportunity, and breaking down fears.
I didn’t feel like there was a good platform to really dive into drag in the city. It was very scary, and you didn’t necessarily feel supported. So then I thought, “hey, instead of talking about how there isn’t something like that, why don’t I just create it, or pay it forward” type of thing.
Has it been a lot of work [for you and co-producer New World] to put that show together every year?
it is extremely exhausting. A labor of love. I announced last year that it would be my last. My last, not the show’s. I still think I will produce it, but I’m actually working out all the details right after Pride is over.
The show is all about opportunity and being seen. It is a lot of work, from my end to the contestants’ end. You have to really commit, and jump into it if you’re chosen as one of the contestants. It’s a fantastic way for queens to gain repertoire, push themselves–and leave with enough material to do their own show, whether they win or not. I always invite people to choose their experience they want to have at the beginning of the 10 weeks. It can be a really great experience if you allow yourself to live in the moment, and not just focus on winning. Come into it feeling like a winner already, and you will do very well.
So someone’s filling in your gigantic (metaphorical) shoes?
i’m not sure yet. I’m out of town a lot, so I have many ideas. I’ll let you know though, as soon as I can announce the season, of any changes to the new season!
Great! I have to ask you what a stand-out/favorite moment was for you during the whole run of the show, and I won’t believe you if you say you don’t have one!
My favorite is the energy of the crowd and the audience. It’s always when I come down from the show, or see pictures or videos and I’m like “OMFG, people really love drag.” Or, “I just can’t believe how this has built or turned into such an epic event like this.” It still takes me by surprise. I also love working with New World Stages and everyone there. They really let my voice be heard, and give such creative outlets to so many.
There’s also that moment when I realize a performer/queen has tapped into something really great ,or the audience responds to the queen and they feel the electric charge from it. I can be offstage and see the lightbulb in that queen go off.
Oh, that was one of my favorite moments also for sure. She just completely swallowed up that competition, and was feeling her fantasy. It was such a great thing to experience! She is such a great competitor with fantastic ideas!
It’s a place where everyone is invited or included, and I always make the audience feel like the guest star. I celebrate cute boys, bad musical theater numbers and stupid pop culture references. It’s always about engaging the audience and making sure there is something for everyone. It’s just plain fun, and I constantly do new numbers, games and themes to keep it feeling fresh or new!
I love Natazu. Isn’t he kinda the best drag show DJ?
Oh, he’s great – top notch. Bob the Drag Queen told me when I first started working with him: “Give him a month to really know you and your energy, and he will be the best DJ you’ve ever worked with. She was right! Slurp has a great energy and flow because of him.
Yep, love him! They are both totes different. I’m so lucky to work with great people. Like, really grateful.
Do you try to keep your two shows different, or is that kind of impossible?
Wednesday has a guest star and is more intimate. I definitely do different things at both shows. I have people that come Wednesday, and have never seen Slurp, and vice versa.
Do you write material for your weekly shows, or is that all improv, and you save the writing for the bigger stage shows?
I have ideas to talk about for the weeklys, or current events, celebrity nonsense, etc., and go from there. I write down a few ideas and improv/incorporate them throughout the night.
Is it true that you live right above the Laurie Beechman Theatre?
Yes, the only time I’m topping! I used to see Joan Rivers all the time in our lobby at the backstage entrance to Beechman.
I know Jinkx, adore them both. Well, that’s funny you said that! I was gonna ask Jackie Beat to coffee while I was in LA Memorial Day Weekend performing at the venue she always performs at… but guess where Jackie was that weekend? [laughs].
The ideas, I started working on in May. it’s about gay history, which is actually kind of a perfect timing to do that as a theme. But we started working on it about three weeks ago. I started with ideas and writing.
The shows there are live–or, 90% live for this one–so that entails a lot more work. And because we do obscure stuff, I usually have to get karaoke tracks made, and all kinds of things like that. I also do a lot of video work there. Or we have to shoot things, so it’s a lot of work that you wouldn’t be able to tell for just an hour show! But it’s extremely rewarding–and it’s very different than the bar shows–so I wouldn’t have it any other way!
I really like seeing bar queens do these big shows at the Beechman, because you see such a different side of them, and such a bigger scale of their talent. But it’s also a very different/mixed audience, right? Tourists and “real theatre” crowds?
I get to see friends of mine who are married or straight, [who would otherwise say] “I don’t want to go to a gay bar, you know, at 11pm . at night.” I do the earlier shows, like, 7pm. It feels more like a theatre show. and what I originally started doing professionally when I got out of college.
Plus, there’s just something so different about seeing me for years in a bar, and then seeing me in a space where people aren’t talking around their phones the whole time. It’s a completely different experience. Everyone is focused on you, and you can actually hear yourself and the music.
If I could only do shows like this, or make my living completely just doing shows like this, I would.
Do you think you need to do the bar shows to keep people interested in the stage shows? Like when a movie actor does the blockbusters to market the little indie passion projects?
[Laughs.] Yes. [I’ll keep doing bar shows] until I get on TV, or don’t want to perform as much.
Sutton and Jackie Cox will be appearing in the Pride special. What else can we expect from it?
A true celebration of gay history and friendship, being proud of who you are, how far we’ve come as a community, and how far we still have to go. People will leave feeling proud and good, despite the unfortunate.events we’ve experienced.
Yes, I love judging!
So what else is on the horizon for you? New shows or projects, touring, etc.?
Oh my God just all of the above!
Ok, last question: every night in this city, a hundred new drag queens come and go. What’s the secret to drag longevity?
Being extremely prepared, treating it as a business, loving yourself… and kindness is cool! Talent doesn’t hurt, either. Slurp!
Thanks, Paige! Happy Pride!
Paige Turner hosts Slurp! at Therapy on Sunday nights (10pm) and WTF Wednesdays at Hardware (10:30pm). Her Big Gay Pride show runs at the Laurie Beechman Theatre this Friday and Saturday, June 24th-25th (7pm). She’ll begin judging the monthly New York Variety Show on July 8th (9pm) at the Hudson Terrace. Paige can be followed on Facebook, Instagram, Twitter & YouTube.