Activist, leather daddy, husband and live singing drag queen, Witti Repartee wears a lot of hats.. and wigs (most of them red)! This Saturday, she’ll be celebrating her birthday and fundraising for Cycle for the Cause at Rockbar with a huge cast of nightlife guest performers that you won’t want to miss… and other stuff is going on with her in the near and DISTANT future (this girl plans ahead)! Read Thotyssey’s interview with the delightful and much loved Witti Repartee!
Thotssey: Hi Witti! Happy birthday! You’re using the occasion for a great cause, but beyond that, are you a pro- or anti-birthday kinda gal?
Witti Repartee: One of my favorite songs growing up was “A Very Merry Unbirthday to You” from the Disney Alice in Wonderland. I don’t think there’s ever a day you shouldn’t celebrate something! That said, I’m very pro-birthday, and despite the fact that I’m celebrating my 39th birthday, again, I’m also very open and honest about age. Doesn’t bother me [laughs]!
You performed at Folsom Street East in June. Always a fun time! How did that go, and what was the wildest thing that went down that you saw that day?
I love Folsom Street East – I’ve been performing there on and off for over 15 years, and hosted it a few years ago with Will Clark, who is co-hosting my show this weekend. I’m afraid I’m a little too familiar with much of what goes on at FSE to consider it wild, but I will say this: drag queens must be resourceful backstage when there are no port-a-potties!
Seriously, though, the energy at FSE this year was in and of itself crazy wild: the weekend before had been Orlando, and everyone on that street was as proud and defiant and as full of life as I’ve ever seen.
You have a big following with the leather crowd. When did that happen exactly?
It’s been a gradual thing, I think. Years ago, my, um, “twin brother” was the facilitator for GMSMA TNG (Gay Male S/M Activists’ under 35 group), and my husband was on the board of GMSMA. For many years, I was a model at Leather Pride Night and hosted it for a couple of years, ultimately ending up as one of the committee’s co-chairs.
About three or four years ago, I was approached by Team Eagle (of Cycle for the Cause), to serve as their “Team Angel,” and help them on fundraisers and morale, and I gladly said yes to that. I’m a member of a leather brotherhood, and for the last three years have hosted Halloween at the Eagle, a role I’ll continue in again this October.
The men and women of the leather community have been so warm and accepting, and authentic. I guess if there’s a following, it’s because I’m part of that community and give back as much or more than I take.
Being an open part of the leather community means that I get invited to host events for them (I’m Emceeing a Puppy and Handler Contest on October 8, and may even be making a surprise appearance at a leather event at the end of the summer!).
Are you very open in your boy world about being Witti?
About a decade ago, I worked for a very progressive school with an openly lesbian Head who was horrified that I did drag. Today, I work for Iris House, an HIV service organization founded to support women of color impacted by the virus, and Witti does fundraisers for them, occasionally hosts client activity nights and fashion shows: I’ve even taken them to Folsom Street East!
Okay, let’s get to the heart of you. Where are you from, and what was growing up like for you?
The “twin brother” was born in Wilmington, Delaware–fifth generation native–and was the eldest of three brothers. We grew up in a perfectly lovely suburban world, full of perfectly lovely people. Wilmington had 18 community theatres at one point while I was growing up, so there was no lack of culture.
When I started figuring out that I was gay, it was less a question of “what are these feelings?” than it was of “Oh, that means I’m like so-and-so?” My parents had lots of gay friends, which seems odd, given their reaction to my coming out.
I was bored in school, and with a little money a great aunt had left me, decided to go to boarding school: The first one I went to had been co-ed for twenty years and had a gay student group, but it wasn’t a good fit, so I ended up at a high school that was a much better fit, but had just gone co-ed and was still a place of raging homophobia. It took 15 years, but I think almost everyone who was a bastard to me has apologized at this point.
So, I was an eldest child, redheaded, Leo, drag queen. Oh yes, at a summer theatre camp in 9th grade, I did a hell of a Church Lady impression…it started early.
Your ginger-ness carried over to your drag–Witti is pretty exclusively a redhead. Is that an important part of your identity?
It is. From time to time, and for a specific reason, I’ll go blonde or brunette, but yes, whether strawberry blond or deep auburn, Witti is most definitely a ginger.
As for part of my identity, of course it is! Redheads are passionate, creative, intelligent, fiery and great in bed! It’s funny, I was always predominantly a redhead, and when I was just a wee slip of a girl, I did a production of La Cage aux Folles in New Jersey with Victoria Weston as Zaza. She wanted to be the only redhead in the company, but 23 year-old Witti wasn’t having it [laughs]!. That was a battle I fought and won, and it comes down to preserving the brand and the identity.
So, when did you start performing on stage?
My parents met on stage. My birth announcement read like a theatre review (with the doctor getting a better notice than I did!) I was on stage before my third birthday, and grew up doing musical theatre, both as a kid in adult productions, and as a lead in children’s theatre. I even designed a set for a production of Anything Goes when I was 14! I started directing in High School, and was involved in choruses and other performing groups. In college, I was a founding member of a group called Improvapella, which would make up songs on the spot for the audience. “Witti” came into existence in college, when I wanted to do material that was better suited for a lady.
When did you come to NYC, and what venue did you debut Witti at there?
I’ve been living in the metro area since 1989, but first started bringing Witti into NYC in 1997. Victoria Weston, with whom I’d done La Cage, invited me to perform with her at the Ice Palace on Fire Island, where I met La Diva, Jacqueline Jonee, Bianca Leigh and a few other live singing gals. She invited me to join the Imperial Court of New York, which I did in the fall of 1997, just a few months before the coronation of Empress XII Panzi. Victoria would later be Empress XIV, and some time later, I’d be elected Empress XXVI.
I don’t remember what the first show I did with ICNY was, but I think it was the Twelve Drags of Christmas at Mother. Memory fails when you get older [laughs]!
I joined the New York City Gay Men’s Chorus in 1998 and started performing with them as well, and I was the Chorus Queen in 2002-2003, so there was a lot of activity in that first year or so, mostly around the Court and Chorus: two great resources for performers who want to get experience and get out there!
So, with the Court, does it generally work that you get under their radar as a volunteer, and work your way up?
You can start as a volunteer, or you can go to one of their monthly membership meetings and join up! Everyone starts as a Lord or a Lady, and your title is elevated based on the amount of volunteering, performing, fundraising, etc., you do for their beneficiaries. After you’ve been a member for a few years, you can apply to be a candidate for Emperor or Empress, which are elected annually by the membership.
It’s really a wonderful organization. But because I’m terrible, I’ve always liked to imagine that there is a lot of epic in-fighting and drama within the Court… but given that it’s a charity organization at heart, I’m suspecting the opposite is probably true?
[Laughs] Everyone at Court is there to do the very best they can for the community. We never forget that at the end of the day, we’re a service organization that is dedicated to providing financial resources, volunteer energy and publicity for organization serving the HIV and LGBTQ Communities. ICNY is one of 70 chapters around the US Canada and Mexico, and the collective work the International Court System does is staggering.
Are you still active with the Chorus in any capacity? What sort of things did you learn about singing and performing with them?
I sang with them for six seasons, and I learned that as a choral singer, I’m a great soloist. It was really great to be part of it for a while, and the family in the Chorus is amazing. After my year as Queen, I did step away for a few years, but when I was crowned Empress I invited a few of the other past Queens to be in my coronation walk. I still occasionally go to their fundraisers, and I’m proud to have been on the faculty of Miss Lily’s School for Girls, Queen Lily Putian’s annual day of transformation for a whole new crop of drag princesses.
As a performer, I think the Chorus taught me that it’s okay to “go there.” In 2001, right after 9/11, I was given the solo in a number called “Mrs. Santa High Atop the North Pole Lounge,” which was an 8 minute tour-de-force where Mrs. Claus and the Chorus sing bits of more than 60 carols, not often at the same time or in the same key – it’s a beautifully written comic masterpiece and requires that Mrs. Claus just go there. Take it over the top, ride that sleigh to the moon and come back with Rudolph’s nose a-flashing. Playing the stage at Carnegie Hall in a number like that is an amazing lesson in how to fill the space and really own it.
Have you written or sung any original songs, ever?
I would love someone to write an original song for me! I’m frequently tweaking or playing with lyrics, including the opening number for Saturday’s show, but would love to do original music more. I think I’m a pretty good lyricist, but I’m not a composer at all. Know anyone looking to write me the kind of number Lisa Kirk would have done at the Persian Room in 1953??
I’ll keep my ears open! Nowadays, generally speaking, do you prefer to perform in a cabaret stage setting to a bar?
I think it really depends on the occasion. I love Rockbar for my birthday show because of the energy in the space and the more casual atmosphere: it also allows a broader ranger of performers, including singers, lipsyncers, dancers, etc.
Every January, I produce a show at the Metropolitan Room, which is strictly live singing and an audience that’s giving you their undivided attention. I can’t say that I have a full preference: whether in a bar, in a cabaret, or on a stage like at Folsom Street East, what’s most important is connecting with your audience, and that’s where the enjoyment comes. At this point in my career, I think I’ve figured out how to make that connection no matter what the space – and I’ve also figured out how to program guests appropriate to the venue. Not every act is for every stage!
What do you think is the biggest way that drag has changed since you started?
I think it’s broadened in its scope and appeal. When I started working in New York City, there were far fewer opportunities for drag queens, but I got to work with some of the best. I hosted “The Gayest Link,” a game show at Hannah’s Lava Lounge for about a year and a half, and followed Sweetie, who hosted bingo. I learned a lot watching her. Queens like Victoria Weston, Panzi and Philomena: real theatre queens from the old school. We didn’t have nearly as many live-singing queens around.
Today, thanks to RuPaul, drag is everywhere, and there are a lot more opportunities for young queens just starting to catch a break. In the last couple of years I’ve met people like Beverly Leslie Sills, Ruby Powers, Louvel, Shirley U. Jest, Daphne Sumtimez, Detoxx Busti-ae: queens who are really coming into their own much younger and developing names for themselves around the city. Bars like Boots & Saddle and Rockbar are creating spaces where young queens can get a chance to show their stuff, develop their act and start to make a brand. It seems like today’s crop are out there more than ever, which is probably a growing awareness via shows like Drag Race, and the advent of Facebook and Twitter to help keep them out there and in front of the public.
The drag world faces some interesting challenges: how to appreciate old-school and keep classic camp in the mix while still being open to younger, newer, more gender fluid interpretations of performance. Technology has also advanced so that more and more queens have the capability to edit their own music, and be more creative in terms of their performances.
I just finished a fun documentary called Men in Heels, directed by Bryan Mark Urbsaitis and featuring me, Reverend Yolanda, Candy Samples, Robusta Capp and PhilEsha De Lox, that talks a lot about what it all means to us, and we all range in age from 30 to 60. So I guess the short answer is, “Today there’s more more more!”
By the way, did you really participate in a 60 hour cabaret-a-thon at the Metropolitan Room last year?
I did! What a hoot that was, coming in at, oh, memory fails, but like 2 AM to do a 10 minute set! It was a lot of fun, though. There were some die harders in the audience who were doing as much as they could, and I got a chance to hang with some buddies who were scheduled around my time… Dorothy Bishop, Tym Moss. It was a lot of fun!
Of course, I was also on the first night before everyone was completely exhausted, but it was great. They livestreamed the whole thing so I could watch what was going on while I painted in Bay Ridge before heading into Manhattan!
Must’ve been epic! I just interviewed Dandy Darkly, a Vaudevillian performer. Do you have a connection to him?
I do – I love Dandy! I met him a few years ago when I was hosting Folsom Street East and have been a fan ever since. I had him in my Broads, Bawds and Bachelorettes show in 2015, and he had me in his Fucking Christmas Christmas Hour later that year. We’ve worked together a few times. He’s an absolute riot, one of the smartest artists I know – a real thinking poet, though I also call him the love child of Twisty the Clown and Rip Taylor!
You did a bunch of shows at Excelsior this past fall. How did you like doing those? And will they be happening again?
I’ve lived in Brooklyn for the last dozen years and Excelsior has always been our Cheers. We’re really good friends with the owners and staff, and I’ve been a host of their pie bake-off, and this year, their Oscars party. They even hosted my wedding shower back in 2013! When they opened their new space, they put in a fabulous upstairs lounge with a stage and cabaret tables – it’s beautiful. They invited me to come do a monthly show, and for six of seven months, I put together a two hour show of singing, trivia, audience chatter. It was part cabaret, part game night, lots of prizes and fun. I got a chance to sing old favorites, play with new pieces and really expand my repertoire!
Everyone had a great time, and we had a dedicated audience, but it was challenging getting a lot of them to Park Slope on a Thursday at 10 PM. I’d love to figure out a way to do that again, and I still feel like a part of the amazing family there: Lavinia Draper, Lailah Lancing, Louvel – hey, maybe it’s just that my name doesn’t start with an “L!”
So, what’s the secret to a happy gay nightlife marriage? Is it about accepting Witti into every aspect of everyday life, or keeping her somewhat compartmentalized?
I am one of the luckiest, least compartmentalized bitches I know! I get to be drag queen, leather daddy, husband, boyfriend, co-worker, activist.
My phenomenal husband (who also does major international LGBTQ activism) and I met in the Gay Men’s Chorus and he helped usher me into the leather scene; he joined ICNY with me, and was right there through my reign. We even just turned our back bedroom into a walk-in closet! I’ve got an absolutely amazing boyfriend who is co-producing There’s No Cure Like Travel with me.
Every aspect of my life right now seamlessly flows into the other: relationships, work, drag, leather. It’s amazing and I am so very, very lucky to be surrounded by people who love and accept all of these facets of my life.
As someone with a long career in gay nightlife, and as a champion of HIV/AIDS-related charities, it must be a wonderful and inspiring thing to see how far along we’ve come in our handling of the virus.
I’m going to give you a restrained absolutely! Science and technology are advancing and medicines are getting better, treatment is getting simpler, and we even have PrEP! (I’m a dedicated #PrEPWarrior!) IF we can get people in treatment, and IF we provide the resources of support to people who struggle remaining adherent, and IF we continue our outreach and testing programs to ensure that everyone knows their status and are taking the appropriate steps to either reach viral suppression or stay negative, then we can beat this damned virus before a cure. Then, when we get the cure, game over.
In the meantime, we need to keep pushing for more funding and more opportunities for people to make a difference. Governor Cuomo and Mayor DiBlasio (as well as the assembly, senate and City Council) have made great strides toward Ending the Epidemic in New York State, but we’re still missing steps. Funding for impacted women has plummeted, programs for long term survivors are desperately needed, prevention services like housing for homeless or insecure LGBTQ youth are critical.
We’re not doing quite the job we need to be, but we’re getting there. We can’t let up and we can’t be complacent, and we have to keep fighting this fight, bringing awareness and dollars to what is still a critical fight, no matter how many countries say they’ve beaten AIDS (Australia, I’m looking at you with skepticism.)
Well said! That brings us to There’s No Cure Like Travel, your Cycle for the Cause fundraiser/birthday bash at Rockbar on July 16th! You’ve done this several times before, right?
This is the third one we’ve done at Rockbar. It started as a cabaret brunch at Cherry’s in Cherry Grove in 2012, when we celebrated the actual 39th.
Don’t worry I won’t do the math! You had this year’s event and all the guest performers and venue and banner and everything set up real early this year! I applaud you on that, because as someone who reports on nightlife events, everything is usually so last minute!
Well, I’m one of those queens who plans well in advance. First of all, one is dependent on the goodwill of a venue when you’re doing a benefit like this, and I wanted to get on Rockbar’s calendar ASAP. Secondly, I like to curate a good show, and that means getting on performer’s calendars well in advance: when you have people donating their talent for a cause, you’ve got to be upfront and flexible. Now, occasionally someone will say yes and then get a paying gig, and I can never be mad at that, but for the most part, 80% of the cast I announce ends up on stage. For the record, “Witti Repartee’s White Witches and Earth Mothers (The Music of Stevie Nicks, Mama Cass and Marianne Faithfull)” is already on the calendar at the Metropolitan room for January 7th!
Tell us about your guest performers on the 16th.
I am really grateful for the amazing talent we have this year: I’ve got the amazing Will Clark co-hosting, and it’s his farewell gig as he retires this summer. I have some amazing folks who’ve worked with me before, like Detoxx Busti-ae, Kylie Edmond, Ruby Powers, Big Ang and Daphne Sumtimez, some friends I’ve been wanting to work with over the past year (Shirley U Jest, Louvel, Tym Moss, Paula Galloway), and some really amazing friends who are coming in from out of town to have fun with us, Natasha Carrington and Reann Ballslee from Richmond, Virginia and Cassidy Fellows-Sommers from Indianapolis.
That’s gonna be quite a night! So, what else is coming up?
It’s a quiet summer, but I do host the amazing Halloween Contest at the Eagle ($1500 in prizes!), and the January show [at the Metropolitan Room] coming up. I’m doing a few other things in September and October that I don’t have full information for just yet, so no.
I’m hosting a picnic for the Imperial Court on Governor’s Island August 21: Sunday in the Park is Gorge(ous)! Sunday, August 21 at 12:00pm, Nolan Park, Governor’s Island. It’s a totally BYO food casual thingy.
But for the most part, Witti’s staying covered up. Leather Sleepaway Camp Labor Day weekend means that Daddy Michael needs to regrow some hair! *wink*
Got it! Okay, finally… You are politically outspoken on social media. Can you please take the remaining space of this interview to remind the children how important it will be to vote this November… even the crestfallen Sanders supporters?
Well, everyone should feel welcome to come on Saturday, regardless of political affiliation, because it’s three hours away from the crazy!
But voting in November is critical, and voting BLUE up and down the party line is even more so this year. The draft of the Republican Platform is circulating and will be voted on at their convention next week, and it de-legitimizes marriage equality, supports gay conversion therapy, suggests that the Bible is a historic document that should be taught, and insists that man’s laws need to be in line with God’s.
Now, I don’t know about you, but there is NO room in the world to let Donald Trump near the nomination process for the Supreme Court: four of them will turn 80 in the next four years, and this is NO joke. We could lose abortion rights, voting rights, the right to privacy in the bedroom, the right to marry who we love…all of this could go away. And yes, I appreciate that I’m fearmongering, but I’m afraid of that shit.
And it’s not just about voting for President. It’s about turning the congress and the senate blue again. It’s about getting our statehouses and city councils blue, so that we can redistrict fairly in 2020. Yes, we always hear “this is the most important election in our lifetimes,” but the truth of the matter is, right now, with the Republican Party poised on the brink of Sharia Law craziness? It IS.
I don’t care if you voted for Bernie. I don’t care if you voted for Bill the Cat. (Actually, that would make you really cool in my book.) What’s important is that we keep fighting the fight to get a better minimum wage, that we keep fighting for improved, nationalized health care, that we get a system for college that doesn’t put people in a hundred thousand dollars of debt as a twenty-one year old. And the Republicans just declared that coal is a clean energy source. WTF???
If you want to vote third party, do what I do: I vote on the Working Families Party Line. It’s the same candidates as the democrats, almost entirely, but it gives a third party more power and more influence. If you want to vote third party to get rid of the two party system (which I agree, is really challenging right now), then do it that way this fall and work on breaking the current system after this cycle. But not in the middle of the next one, do it on January 21, 2017.
But for the love of God, get out there and help us put some sanity back into the seats of government. And no, they’re not all the same…they really aren’t. And to the crestfallen Sanders supporters? I was a Dean supporter in 2004 and a Hillary supporter in 2008. I know what it’s like. I’ve been there. It’s hard. But if you want better income equality, if you want a cleaner future, if you want better opportunities, healthier children and more voting access for everyone, you know what has to be done. We’ll fix it soon, almost immediately, and with her help, but we can’t fuck up 30 years of the Supreme Court. We just can’t. #RantOver
Nut well-ranted indeed! Thanks Witti, have a happy birthday, and see you at Rockbar on Saturday!
Witti Repartee will host her birthday show “There’s No Cure Like Travel,” a fundraiser for Cycle for the Cause, at Rockbar on Saturday, July 16th (6pm). On August 21st, she and Smith Carrington will co-host the Imperial Court of New York’s “Sunday in the Park is Gorge(ous)” outing at Governor’s Island (noon-3pm). Other planned future appearances include Halloween at the Eagle, and “Witti Repartee’s White Witches and Earth Mothers” at the Metropolitan Room on January 7th, 2017. Witti can be followed on Facebook, Twitter and YouTube, and she has a website.