This fierce and gorgeous drag queen is well known and respected for her Broadway belting, her success in competitions and pageants, and her growing array of fierce, colorful looks. Alexis Michelle chats with Thotyssey about life, drag, reveals… and Cats!
Thotyssey: Hi Alexis, how are you? How was Pride?
Alexis Michelle: Hi! Pride was amazing this year; full of emotion, and a lot of love.
Where were you?
Pieces was my home base for Pride this year, I was there Friday night with Dusty Ray Bottoms. Saturday with Dusty, Tammy Spenks, and Brita Filter, and Sunday it was our home base for dancing, parade-watching and frolicking in the West Village as a family.
Sounds like a lot of fun. And how was your recent trip to California? I think of you as a very New Yorkish queen (you’re a native!), so you might have an interesting perspective on the West Coast scene.
I had a blast in CA! I have friends in the Bay Area I saw, and my cousin graduated from Stanford. So I popped in to do Honey Mahogany’s show, which I also did the last time I was in San Francisco. She’s so beautiful and amazing, so it’s lovely to work with her.
Then I took my lil’ rainbow tour to LA for shows in Pasadena with my good Cali Judys, Hummingbird Meadows and Tia Wanna…I adore them! I got to do brunch at Hamburger Mary’s in WeHo, which was awesome…Vicky Vox hosted, and I’ve always wanted to work with her–love what she does! Can’t wait to go back.
Sounds like fun! So, you’re very much a Broadway queen…
I am. I do lots of different kinds of material, but the theatre runs through my veins.
What did you think of the Tonys this year?
I enjoyed them! Not a single surprise, I knew who would win every category. But I was pleased with the outcome. They also performed my fave song from Bright Star, which made me cry a bit into my lavender lemonade and vodka I made. But thrilled for Cynthia Erivo’s win; her performance and the whole Color Purple revival is astounding. I was actually at the show the night Prince died, and they sang that incredible tribute at the curtain call.
A powerful moment! Do you get Hamilton’s success? Is it worthy?
Ok…this is gonna be a lil’ controversial, but Hamilton wasn’t my favorite piece of theatre I saw this season. I respect it, I think it’s brilliantly written; the direction, choreography, and lighting are masterful and really bring it to life, but it didn’t move me in the way it seems to for so many others. I’m not a historian by any means, and I’m a bit more traditional in my love of musicals. That’s not to say I don’t also love contemporary works, this one just didn’t change my life.
And, the pending revival of Cats: yay or nay?
We’ll see! It seems an odd choice to me for a revival, but they’ve assembled some incredible dancers. And I hope Leona Lewis really delivers as Grizabella.
So many legendary performers came directly from Broadway over the decades, but it seems these days that show producers would rather cast TV actors or pop singers with limited range than take a chance on breaking through new talent–or even established Broadway talent. Is that an upsetting trend, in your opinion?
It’s devastating when it’s someone who shouldn’t be given the opportunity. Especially when there are brilliant and trained actors who should be doing these roles. Sometimes it’s magical: I thought Scarlett Johansson was wonderful in A View from a Bridge a few years ago. And Jane Krakowski comes from a theatre background, so seeing her when she comes to Broadway from time to time is an absolute treat. But star casting is a reality in the theatre now. Commercial theatre is very expensive to produce, and producers seek assurance that their shows will sell.
What was the first Broadway show you ever saw?
Into the Woods. Original cast!
Wow! Is that when you knew you wanted to be onstage?
Yup. I was 5 and I said that night…that’s what I want to do.
Do you still audition for roles these days?
I haven’t been actively auditioning, as drag has become my main focus these past few years, but I still consider myself an actor first and have every intention to continue to do theatre/tv/film in and out of drag. I’ve gotten to do some plays and readings this year, which has been amazing, and would love more opportunities like that.
When you have auditioned for roles, has it been a nerve-wracking process for you?
I usually get a little nervous. It keeps me on my toes. If I’m too relaxed, I’m like, girl?! What’s wrong with you? [Laughs.]
Speaking of plays you did this year, how was the experience of Nasty Drew and the Harder Boys, a campy play at the Beechman you were in with Fifi DuBois, Honey Davenport and others last month? I’m disappointed I missed it, it looked fun!
It was a blast. Can’t wait to work with Chris Harder and his band of burlesque artists again! Fifi and I were actually double cast in the same role, so we didn’t get to work together. But I did play opposite Honey, which is always amazing.
You’ve been doing drag now for a little over a decade. I feel like a lot of performers fall into drag by accident or circumstance, but you really pursued it, right?
I’ve always had my hand in it, working on my craft, but was fearful I think of pursuing it completely. I started pursuing Drag Race after the first season, because pursuing that was contained. It wasn’t chasing a career in my eyes.
Then a few years ago, after my relationship ended and my dog died, I started pursuing drag in a more serious full-time way. Doing season 5 of “So You Think You Can Drag?” was pretty huge in that process for me in many ways.
Alexis Michelle is such a musical and memorable drag name, and it’s just a feminization of your boy name, Alex Michaels. Do you think it’s burdensome over time for a queen who gets stuck with a really silly or icky name?
I think funny names are perfect for some; my closest drag sisters all have funny names. It’s what I came up with 13 years ago, and it’s been so telling for how Alexis has been shaped and developed.
So, one of your performances in the “So You Think You Can Drag?” competition a few years ago went viral. You came on the stage in an Into the Woods old witch getup, and transformed into a gorgeous princess in a designer gown in a single spin. It’s a favorite moment of drag geeks everywhere! I still show it to people when I try to explain how drag is art. Did you suspect that number was gonna be as huge as it ultimately was?
I had no clue that video was going to put me on the map in a worldwide way. I knew I wanted to sing, I knew I wanted a theatrical reveal. When my brilliant friend David Withrow helped me get it together, he filmed me doing the change in my living room–and I watched it and said, “is it enough?” He assured me it would be enough! I was very nervous that night. I didn’t have a big production number, and knew I was the production, so the reveal had to go perfectly. You can see in the video on YouTube that I’m real happy once the thing falls off me. In the rest of the gorgeous lip sync, I’m living my fantasy pretty hard! I never expected so many people to see it.
It was flawless! I’ve seen a few other queens try to pull off a similar reveal, but it never works quite as seamlessly.
It’s old school theatre magic. Yes, I’ve seen a few attempts *cue for palm tree, sun hat or other shade bearing object* [laughs]!
Do you every worry about having to top (no pun intended) that moment, or do these phenomenons sort of happen organically?
I don’t believe in resting on that performance. I’ve had some pretty phenomenal moments since, and keep striving to wow people. It’s not the reveal that makes the queen, it’s the queen that makes the reveal. I’m very excited for my talent at this year’s Miss’d America pageant this coming September.
You placed in this year’s Miss’d, which is a major national pageant. Congratulations! How was that experience for you?
It was amazing! Can’t wait to go back.
I didn’t know you can enter a pageant after placing the top three in it the year before.
That’s totally standard. Only queens who win a title don’t compete for the same crown. Fifi, our reigning Miss’d, did the pageant three times, I believe. She was second runner up (like me) the year before she won her crown, so I figure I’m in the perfect spot to snatch it this year!
Good luck! Any other pageants on the horizon?
I’d love to do more–figuring out the best systems for me.
You were turning some fierce, colorful looks for the Drag Race viewing party you hosted at Boxers this year. And you recently won a big round of “Look Queen” at Monster. Have you always been doing these refined, editorial looks, or is this a more recent development?
In recent years, I’ve tried to push myself past soft, fishy drag. I mean, I love that too, but I like to mix it up with color, especially. I get bored otherwise. I also like to keep people guessing, and I love the element of surprise.
You’re succeeding! So, you have a weekly show at Boots & Saddle: “Get Happy,” Wednesday nights, 8-10pm. Have you been there a year yet?
I think my year anniversary is coming up a little later in July. Facebook will be sure to remind me!
Boots is definitely one of the drag capitals of NYC. What’s your favorite thing about doing that show, and that venue?
I love my Boots family! I love the people that work there, that run the place. I love my regulars who are there every week. And the new people that come see me–they often come back! Most of all, I love that it’s a place to showcase what you do. I have two hours every Wednesday to play and be silly, and sing and act and dance. It’s wonderfully expressive that way.
Keep us updated about the anniversary! What else is coming up?
I’m putting together a show that I’ll debut at 54 Below [probably producing in the fall] and then shop it to other venues around the country. Looking forward to traveling with my drag, and continuing to reach a wider audience.
Final question: Hypothetically, you decide to retire from showbiz at age 85 (not counting all the farewell tours in your 90s). You decide to go out with a three hour stage show career retrospective. What will be your very last song of the night?
“Thank You for Being a Friend”–live, of course. The original song by Andrew Gold has a whole ethereal bridge about aging and death, so it feels extra appropriate [laughs]
Thank you, Queen Alexis! Long may you reign!
Alexis Michelle hosts “Get Happy” Wednesday nights (8-10pm) at Boots & Saddle Drag Lounge. She can be followed on Facebook, Instagram, Twitter and YouTube.