She’s been a hard-working and entertaining queen since the Harlem ball scene of the 90′s, and she continues working all over New York and New Jersey. Her summer this year might’ve gotten off to a bad start, but that hasn’t kept her away from the stage too much–in fact, she’ll be performing at Jersey City Pride this weekend! Catch her on a brand new HBO show next year (!) and get On Point with Harmonica Sunbeam right now!
Thotyssey: Hi Harmonica, thanks for talking to us! Summer’s almost gone, how was it for you this year?
The next morning I woke up and was in pain. Something was going on with my foot. After a few visits to the podiatrist, my massage therapist and acupuncturist, it turns out I have a stress fracture on my right foot, second toe. The podiatrist places me in a boot the week of NYC PRIDE, and I have been trapped in it ever since. I can’t take it off till August 30th, and I am currently in physical therapy for 8 weeks. I had to cancel a few gigs, and who knows when I will be back in heels… so I purchased 4 pairs of flats, and they have been working out quite well.
Other than that, my summer has been awesome!
That’s terrible! Can’t you just sit through most of the shows until the boot is off? That’s how Streisand’s concerts usually go!
Oh no. sitting is not part of my show. I wear my boot and my flat, and keep it moving.
You’re a warrior! How many years now have you been doing drag?
An amazing 26 years–full of highs and lows, but no regrets.
That’s an impressive run. How do you keep at it and not get jaded, or stuck in a rut?
Well, I pick and choose my gigs wisely. I need to have creative control with the show, or I don’t want to do it. I don’t mind suggestions, but when all is said and done, it’s just me on the stage and I have to make the magic happen one way or the other.
In addition, if I had more than one weekly gig, I would make sure it was completely different. I couldn’t see myself hosting bingo five times a week.
You make a lot of New York appearances, but I’d say most of your gigs are all over New Jersey. Do you see a difference in New York and Jersey audiences, as far as how they behave or what they respond to?
I love the fact that I live in NJ and I’m so close to NYC that I have had the pleasure in working both states at the same time. I don’t see a difference state-wise; the difference comes with each club, and the patrons they attract. My show is audience-interactive and spontaneous, so I go by the energy they put out. The show is never fully planned out, and if it is, it’s subject to change.
Pretty much. My NYC drag career began at Two Potato in the West Village–and at that time it was a pretty mixed bar, but as the years went on it became primarily African-American. I’m glad I started out with this particular crowd, because they either like you or they don’t. It’s kinda like the saying, if you can make it here, you can make it anywhere.
Are you a native New Jerseyite, by the way?
Born and raised in Newark, NJ.
What drew you to drag in the beginning?
My first time ever getting in drag without even knowing what I would look like was for a ball. When I first came out around 17 years old, my friends introduced me to the ball scene, and I was quite fascinated. Eventually, I joined the House of Adonis, and that’s where I walked a category called Butch Queen First Time up in Drags. My house members put me together with hair, makeup, shoes and a sickening outfit. All I needed to do was sell my look. I won the category! I didn’t start performing until I was able to get into bars and clubs at 20/21.
I’m so fascinated by the Ball scene and all those traditions and customs that started there. Do you feel that so much of Ball culture was appropriated and stolen from by mainstream pop culture over time?
Oh, for sure. It was an underground thing, only happening in Harlem, and now it is worldwide. Voguing has reached new heights, and ballroom culture continues to be seen on film, tv and in fashion.
Speaking of film and television, you’ve had quite a few acting roles over the years, like episodes of Law & Order and Third Watch. And you were in Honey! Do you have any crazy on-set stories, or were your experiences pretty drama-free?
Nothing too out of the ordinary, but every opportunity I’ve had for film and TV work has been very rewarding. I did do an episode of a show that came on the Cartoon Network called The Jack and Triumph Show starring Jack McBrayer from 30 Rock and Triumph the Insult Comic Dog. On this episode I played talk show host Wendy Williams, and Jack and I had to do an overly dramatic kissing scene. My first kissing scene ever. I was totally nervous, but by the third take I was good. Sad to say, the episode aired and they went with another version, where he was on the Maury Povich show instead.
That sucks, I would’ve loved to see that. Did you take any acting lessons before you started getting parts?
No, no acting lessons.
You’re a natural! Any other roles in the future?
Look out for me in a new HBO series that should be airing in January.
Wow! Maybe it’s Game of Thrones! Can you tell us more about it yet?
Sorry, I can’t. It’s a brand new show, and it’s my first recurring role.
Okay, keep us posted! You’ve also recorded some dance tracks over the years, too. The ones I’ve listened to have this great old school ball / club feel.
Exactly. I came out listening to a lot of “bitch tracks” and always wanted to record one myself. When the opportunity presented itself, I jumped right on it.
Love it. I mentioned Escualita earlier, where you and Sugga Pi Koko did a lot of memorable shows. There was no place like Escualita… were you really sad to see it close?
To be honest, no. I left in 2010 and when I left, the only thing I missed was the crowd and most of the people I worked with. The closing didn’t happen until years later, and I had already moved on.
In general, nightlife has changed so much since you started, as far as the venues. There are practically no more huge dancing spaces. Has that shift to smaller, more intimate spaces changed the way you do drag?
It really hasn’t. I started out in bars, so I am used to smaller spaces. I also prefer them. I do a lot of shows per year at The Duplex, and cabaret spaces and early shows are what I am focusing on now.
Like your Way Before Beyonce revues! That’s when you perform songs from the 60s-80s, I’m guessing artists like Diana & Aretha.
Are you gonna do another one soon?
I don’t have any planned for the near future, although I am working on a cabaret show for a venue in Jersey City for October.
How has has drag and the role of drag queens evolved over time? I guess, specifically with the rise of RuPaul’s fame and Drag Race.
Drag queens, with a big thanks to Rupaul and RPDR, are now getting more mainstream work in straight venues, as well as film and TV. It feels good to look at a show and see your fellow performer doing her thing.
Did you know Ru well before her fame?
Not well, just in passing.
Speaking of the Schomburg earlier, how were the Heritage Awards last week? Did you get to connect with a lot of old friends?
I stopped by for a bit. I arrived extra early because I couldn’t stay long. In fact, 15 minutes into the show was when I had to leave, but it was just enough time to reminisce in the dressing room with some folks. Once I got into the audience while waiting for the show to start, I also chatted with quite a few blasts from the past.
It just ended. The promoter, Carleton Icon, booked the event for the summer. It was an awesome experience. We had a very diverse audience of gays, straights and occasionally children. The night was similar to karaoke, where we provided a songbook and if someone from the audience was willing or drunk enough, they could get up and lip sync to the song they choose. This would usually happen in the last two hours of the party when the drinks kicked in, so I had to do my part and keep them entertained in the meantime.
Sounds fun! Hope it comes back somewhere. And now, on Saturday, you’re performing at Jersey City Pride! I have to confess, I had no idea that JC Pride was as big a deal as it’s gonna be this year. Are you excited?
I’m very excited. It has grown so much, and I am happy to be a part of it. In fact, I was the first hostess for it back in 2001. Now for those of you who may want to attend, please know that there is no parade, so it’s more like an all day street festival with two stages for performances, vendors and this year we have quite a few surprises in store. Also there is a free after party at a club that’s about 8-10 mins walking distance from the festival.
Okay, last question: what’s something about Harmonica Sunbeam that we might not know, but should?
Here’s some tidbits. I have a cat named Peaches that I love and adore. I got my driver’s license when I was 36 years old. I graduated from college in 2013, and my favorite color is orange.
All fascinating! Thanks Harmonica, and please get better soon!