[photo credit: David Laffe]
A self-proclaimed “social justice warrior” who takes an academic approach to drag, Burma-born Emi Grate brings a truly unique perspective to nightlife. With a colorful array of looks, a distinctive singing voice and a civic message, you never know what to expect with an Emi performance… which is just how drag is supposed to be. As part of the newest cast of “So You Think You Can Drag?”, the seminal career-making NYC drag competition, she’s already won the very first challenge, and chances are she’ll be making those big impressions throughout the whole competition. She might even just win the whole thing. Let’s give it up for Emi!
Thotyssey: Emi, hello! Thanks for finding a moment for us during the craziness of the “So You Think You Can Drag?”
That night was a riot! It was my first time working with Ari Kiki – a long-awaited experience – and my sophomore appearance at Stonewall. I performed a signature number of mine about American gun culture, with a watergun as a prop. I had lots of fun. And there was the longest drag suicide ever, which was essentially the entirety of Act 2. Thanks, Chauncey!
The Riot drag suicide is always a fun time. So, did you ever think, like, two years ago that you would be performing at the landmark capital of the gay movement, while at the same time partaking in the city’s biggest drag competition?
Well, it hasn’t been exactly two years that I’ve been doing drag, so no. But once I started, I knew I’d be going all the way. I’ve always been fascinated by New York City and, when I started really getting into drag, I knew for sure the Stonewall stage is an inevitable pilgrimage.
With “So You Think You Can Drag?” I didn’t even know what it was until videos of Juicy Liu started popping up on social media. Then I found out a whole bunch of my friends have been in it; I’m actually still finding out more. I like to think I’m smart and well-informed, but I’m actually clueless about a lot of things [laughs].
[photo credit: David Laffe]
A little cluelessness keeps life interesting! So, let’s get to the beginning. Where are you from?
I am originally from Mandalay, Burma – or Myanmar, either works for me. I came to the US for college in 2011. I’ve been to school in Eastern Iowa and Southeast Indiana; it took me five years to get through undergrad, God! I’m a brand new graduate and now I’m in New York City. I came to the City exclusively for drag; I never really had any solid dreams of making it on Broadway or in Hollywood.
I remember seeing you around back when you first got here, and I seem to recall that you had a kind of academic attachment to drag, like it was part of a thesis project or something. Am I remembering incorrectly?
That is correct. I was here (in the City) the entire summer last year, just exploring the scene and gathering material and inspiration for my senior thesis, which was an autobiographical show called The Gratest Show on Earth. I would like to mount it in the City some time.
I’ve always had an academic/intellectual approach to drag: I read about it in books first, and I’ve written papers about it. I played with genderfuck looks before becoming this female figure. My first drag show in a bar was with a drag king troupe in Iowa City called the “IC Kings,” at the home bar of Sasha Belle from RuPaul’s Drag Race Season 7. And I didn’t watch Drag Race until the end of Season 5, but I followed the RuGirls individually.
So, here’s a broad question: what’s life like I’m Myanmar, or at least what was your life like there?
What about the Burmese life would you like to know?
Well, I guess let’s start with gay life there. Is that a country where you can be open? I know there’s been a lot of civil unrest there, but I haven’t heard specifically about LGTB issues.
Hmm … I need to establish first that people there have a different perspective on sex, gender, sexuality and gender expression. Sex and gender are one and the same thing, and there’s only one sexuality (being straight). If you’re attracted to men, you must be a woman, and if you’re attracted to women, you must be a man. So gay men and MTF trans folks are seen as one and the same, and the same goes for lesbian women and FTM trans folks; and there’s no understanding of genderqueer or intersex identities. Even for my parents, who are both doctors, it was hard for them to fully understand my queerness – which involves being attracted to males, my androgynous gender expression out of drag, and me being a full-on woman in drag.
Section 377 still lives on from the British Colonial Era. It says homosexuality is a sexual misdemeanor punishable by 2 years to life in prison. It’s not strongly enforced, unlike in India where Section 377 was recently reinstated.
But the social ostracism is real. I came out during my first year of college, in late 2011. I came out publicly, and when I was home for summer 2012, most of my high school friends refuse to acknowledge me any longer – and I had been very popular throughout grade school, since elementary school. I had some tough conversations with my parents, and it’s still a work in progress.
My extended family also wanted to talk to me about being gay and how not to be gay, and what not. It was a hard summer. I ended up locking myself up in my room for most of it, and I decided never to go back until I have a social standing of my own outside the country. As of August 2016, I haven’t been in Burma for exactly four years.
That must be very hard for you. Aside from missing your family, I’m sure there are some wonderful, beautiful things about life in that country that you miss, right?
Not that much, to be honest – and I feel bad saying this. But I do miss the street food. New York has some street food, but of course, it’s different. Street food, to me, is the ultimate identity of a city. I miss the landscape, scenery, landmarks and some holidays. It’s the little things that you take for granted.
By the way, New York used to have two Burmese restaurants – one on the Upper East Side and another in Brooklyn. The one in Brooklyn was a noodle shop and it recently closed. Sad!
That is sad! Hopefully we’ll get more soon. So, when you came to the US, were you prepared for such an open LGTB community? (Of course we still have far to go, but comparatively speaking!)
I hate to be a party-pooper, but that’s my brand so I’m gonna do it: the LGBT community hasn’t actually been that open. Obviously, I’m grateful for the warm reception I’ve had so far (#EmiGrateful), but a lot of hard work had to go in for that to happen. The community often refuses to acknowledge its intersection with other identities of race, class, citizenship, language, ability/disability, and religion.
When I came out and was looking for resources to help me cope with homesickness, not being able to talk to my family, reconnecting with my faith and culture and so on, the GSA just told me, “Sorry, we don’t have the resources,” because I was this cross-cultural queer, and went back to kiki’ing. The GSA at another school has also rejected help from me in organizing a drag show, when I requested to be part of it as somebody who has worked in NYC, possibly the biggest drag scene in the US, if not the world. And in terms of political and social commentary, I believe my perspective is valuable as a foreigner/outsider; there have been times I have been dismissed. But I have found a second home and a second family in some folks and some spaces within the drag scene, and I can’t thank them enough.
Breaking into the scene here isn’t necessarily an easy thing to do. What’s the formula to get yourself known in NYC drag?
It’s only in late July/early August this year, I felt like I’m actually breaking into it. The formula has essentially been to show up, stay ready and stick around – that’s what everyone who’s making it in the scene has told me.
Elizabeth James was the first queen to ever put me on stage in New York. She would tell every new queen to come in a complete look with a number ready when they go out. Ruby Roo pushed me to talk to people, anyone and everyone, and make professional and personal connections. Word from Lady Bunny is that to make it in nightlife, you just have to stick around – until everyone quits, or something like that.
Everything I know about social media, I learnt from Miz Cracker and Biblegirl666. Cracker also told me it’s okay to feel negative emotions, like jealousy and bitterness about whatever–but it’s critical not to dwell in that space and let it sicken you, but to acknowledge them and rise up from that instead.
The name of the game, I believe is: hustle. The New York scene is very stamina-based; find an act that works and run with it! Also, it’s very important to refine your looks and acts – which is a given I shouldn’t have to mention.
Good philosophies all around! So, what kind of drag queen are you now in your young career? Like, how would you describe a standard Emi Grate performance and look at this point?
I call myself the “Social Justice Warrior Princess”. It started out as a tongue-in-cheek thing coz I was involved in a lot of activism at school, and activism made its way into my drag, and I got very serious about it. However, I’m not necessarily a PC-police; there’s a time and place for everything. That’s a great show title, by the way, one I’d like to do some time. I consider myself the John Oliver of drag. I love to be political, but I don’t consider myself controversial – coz the things I do or say should not be controversial.
So that’s in terms of content. For performance, essentially, I’m a singer and I also lip sync well, I think. I like to sing ballads and rock songs that I have personal connections to. For lip syncs, they’re either political or complete and utter nonsense, and if it’s political, it can go absurdly funny or aggressively somber. My drag has been described as akin to the French chanson genre, because of the storytelling quality.
As for the look, I have my specific style of makeup – glitter brows, giant smoky eyes with a pop of color, giant lashes (top and bottom), white eyeliner, exclamation-point nose, red or pink lips, and a heart on my right cheek. The overall shape is very Ruby Roo.
I also style my looks in a specific way. I always have earrings, and 2 or 3 rings, unless I’m wearing gloves. I like to wear bracelets and cuffs. (Thanks for the influence, Liz James.) I use my hair in combination with clip-on pieces often, thanks to the queens who work at Lips. And there has to be some accessory in my hair, whether I’m wearing my real hair or a wig. Pumps are my thing for shoes. I switch up the outfit silhouette, but it usually ends up Asian first lady, Asian business executive, or Asian newscaster realness.
It all makes quite an impression! You’re not the PC police, but you have shut down at least one queen on social media when you thought she wasn’t getting the white privilege thing, or wasn’t respecting the issue. When do you deem it necessary to cross that line with another nightlifer?
No, I’m not the PC-police but, like I said, there’s a time and place for everything. When I debate or argue with people on social issues, intention and impact are important – and even then I favor impact over intention. Are you talking to me coz you wanna know my perspective and experience about something you can’t necessarily learn from your own experience and perspective? Are you talking over me to silence me on the issue? Or are you coming for me plain and simple?
I do shut down people, but I don’t like to shut them out – and in showbiz, the rule of thumb is: never close a door on anybody. In this particular incident, our altercation happened outside of the scene, on a matter that is beyond nightlife. I shut her down because her argument wasn’t valid, and she shut me out. I don’t feel any line was crossed on my part, and if you’re a real trouper in the scene, you can take a reading or two or three, or an avalanche of reads.
Noted. You gig all over Manhattan, and you gig in Brooklyn, and I see you’ve even gigged in Queens–at Albatross with Sutton recently! What’s your take on the Manhattan scene versus the Brooklyn scene?
I do perform all over town. My Queens debut was actually in July last summer, and Albatross was the second place I ever performed at in the City – the first being Boots & Saddle. Ruby and Liz are really my foster drag moms; they’ll never admit it, coz they’re tough single women making it out in the concrete jungle, but if you look at my makeup, you’ll see. They are what I would call the “crossover queens” between Manhattan and Brooklyn, and I kind of inherited that spirit of, “I can work anywhere if I hold my drag to high standards.”
As for the Manhattan vs Brooklyn divide, Ragamuffin put it best at one of her shows Failure: a Drag Workshop: the audience seeks the same kind of satisfaction from drag in both scenes, but the scenes are different in that they’re working with different materials. Manhattan is home to Broadway, tourism and pop culture. Brooklyn is home to artist communes, indie projects and so on. As is the raw material, so is the finished product! I have neither of those in my upbringing, but I still incorporate different aspects of the two scenes into my acts, coz they both inspire me – which sometimes makes me interesting, and other times makes me hard to understand. As far as aesthetics go, that’s it.
But there’s also the commercial aspect. Manhattan is a commercial, financial, capitalist establishment. Venues put on shows and events to make money, clients and patrons go out to spend money, and performers are the medium between these owners and clientele. So there’s the pressure to consistently bring in more people who will spend more money, and part of that includes making yourself likable/marketable to anyone and everyone.
Brooklyn despises that precedence of money over art in drag–not that the money aspect isn’t there coz these bars are businesses after all. So the Brooklyn scene harbors a strong anti-establishment sentiment.
I interviewed another queen recently who finally said what I always suspected to be the case… that the Brooklyn clique, for lack of a better word, is very hard to penetrate, harder than Manhattan. There are many genuinely lovely and gracious queens there, like Liz & Ruby, but maybe with the newer girls and scenesters there things can get very territorial?
I’d say it isn’t as hard to break into the Brooklyn scene as it is easy to break into the Manhattan scene. It’s been made easy in Manhattan by the trend of competitions that determine winner by audience vote. If you’re rich enough, you can put together a look easily, and if you’re popular already (out of drag), you can bring tons of people to cheer for you and write your name on the voting ballot. Again, it’s a trend that brings in more people and more money.
Thankfully, only the most talented win these competitions as far as I’ve seen, and they push younger newer queens to get their looks and audiences together very quickly. The downside, however, is the audience starts dictating what these newbies should do (to win) instead of them challenging the audience as artists.
In Brooklyn, competitions are not a trend (yet?). You still have to show up at a bar, get to know everybody, ask the host if you could get on stage that night or some other night, and keep doing it till you learn about the trade – which I did last summer, and still am doing to a certain extent.
Interesting observations! Do you have a will to make a name for yourself in both boroughs, or is it like, once a Manhattan queen, always a Manhattan queen?
Yeah, definitely! I’m still learning about marketing and branding, of course. And I wanna make it beyond the New York scene, so those are important. I don’t know how my Manhattan crowd feels about me going into Brooklyn, but the Brooklyn scene calls me one of their own and is proud of me for consistently going into Manhattan and still sticking around with them.
Beyond New York, I have some fans back home in Burma; people started following me again on social media – after not talking to me when I first came out – coz they find what I do intriguing. I have friends from the two colleges I went to in the Midwest who follow me religiously. I very strongly believe that finding who you are and marketing yourself to an audience is more important than strictly identifying with a scene of a particular locality.
You said you caught on to SYTYCD last season. What made you want to ultimately try out for this season?
I actually wasn’t planning on trying out for SYTYCD, to be honest. In fact, I was about to take a break from drag and work on my GRE and getting into grad school in the City – which I’m still trying to do on the side, in addition to drag. It was Miz Cracker who nudged me in that direction After getting back to the City this summer, I started complaining to several queens I look up to about not knowing where to go next with my drag. I was consistently turning out looks and numbers that are uniquely me, but I still didn’t have a following and I wasn’t satisfied with my work yet. I wanted to do more: I wanted to refine my looks and acts, and build a fanbase. And Cracker told me to apply for SYTYCD and see where it goes.
So, congrats, you won the first week of the season! People seemed to be very moved by your performance… I see it was live singing with some video?
Thank you! Yes, it was. I sang “Don’t Cry for Me, Argentina” but about me leaving Burma and being away for so long. I had a video projection going that showed the scenery and landmarks in the country. I had on this Burmese dress, the first of the two my mother had custom-made for me – and I looked quite a bit like my mother. I also had a banter with the audience before I started my number, so as to have proper introductions. The theme/instruction was to show the audience who we are, and I did exactly that – and I believe I did it well. It was a well-known Broadway showstopper with a personal story that shifts the perspective. I enjoyed it a lot myself.
It’s nice that all the contestants seem to be very friendly with each other this season. I’ve heard there’d been some epic shade in some seasons past! Is it a strange dynamic, to compete with friends?
It really is. We really didn’t think most of us were gonna be cast, and we were all ready to be the production team for whoever got cast. And now we’re all in it. We know we grow at different rates, we have different strengths and we’ve always given notes to each other, so the competition does pose the question of: okay, how much do we look out for each other? Do we become the Heathers vs the Boogers? Or is every girl for herself now? We’re all still trying to find the balance. And I’m doing my part in keeping that “epic shade” away by being faux shady with everyone, ha!
Good plan! So, can you give us any spoilers on what’s down the road for future challenges?
I don’t have things planned very far into the competition yet, but I can tell you what I have so far. This coming week is the 80s, and I’m tackling the AIDS crisis by using Angels in America paired with 80s power ballads. Expect a fun interactive experience with the audience for Disney week (Week 3). And I will be addressing colonialism and how it affected my upbringing for Inner Child (week 4). I have some ideas for Round 2 (October) but nothing’s set in stone yet.
Very ambitious and exciting! And I can pretty much guarantee that you’ll be the first American drag queen to ever address colonialism in a number!
Ahahahahaha! I wouldn’t call myself American.
So, aside from SYTYCD, what else is coming up for you?
I do have several things coming up:
I’m sure other engagements will pop up. I always keep my social media updated. Follow me. Book me. Send me nudes. Take me out on dates. I’m interesting and entertaining.
And I’m taking the GRE in early of November. I haven’t even registered yet, and the deadline’s approaching soon. I haven’t studied much either, nor have I started researching grad schools and programs. God bless this mess!
Good luck, that’s a lot on your plate! So, how amazing would it be if you won SYTYCD?
I would absolutely love that. It would be a great coming-to-New York story. In terms of representation, I would be another Asian queen to win, also a migrant –like Juicy Liu. I feel like I also represent the Brooklyn scene, and academia. It would launch my drag career, and I would also be a beacon of queer hope and inspiration for the LGBT community in Burma.
Yes gurl! Okay, so last question: What is one thing about Emi Grate that we might not know, but probably should?
Oh God, now you’ve made me self-conscious about how publicly I’ve been living my life.
I’m gonna tell you about my mother. My mother is one of my greatest inspirations ever. She had polio and is crippled because of it. She also has post-polio scoliosis. She’s a doctor and a homemaker, and the breadwinner of the family. (My dad is also a doctor and they run a clinic together, but the patients prefer her because she’s more patient.) She is a superhero in her own right. We fight all the time, but we love each other very much, too. I really appreciate and am grateful for how she made the conscious effort to understand me in this new light of queerness and drag so we could still be in each other’s lives, even though we’re half a world away.
That’s lovely, and I’m sure you’re making her proud, Emi!
Emi Grate is a contestant in “So You Think You Can Drag?” which is currently running Thursday nights (9pm) at the New World Stages. She’ll guest star for the “RuPaul’s Drag Race All-Stars” viewing party at Hardware hosted by Monet X Change on September 15th (8pm), she’ll perform for Look Queen at Monster on September 18th (10pm), and she’ll guest perform for drag brunch at La Carbonara on September 24th (1pm) and La Pulperia on October 2nd (12pm). Emi can be followed on Facebook, Instagram, Twitter & YouTube.
See Also: Emi Grate (9.23.2018)