After years of pageantry and drag competitions, Russian born Svetlana Stoli has finally won the crown she’s long deserved with the Miss West End pageant in September of 2016. Which isn’t to say that she hasn’t given it her all in pageants past… or that she was ever a slouch, being in fact a prestigious Fulbright scholar with an MFA. This queen is fiercely political and edgy, but above all else she’s here to entertain us. So let’s have a sip of Svetlana Stoli!
Thotyssey: Svetlana! When we agreed to this interview, you wanted to wait until after the Miss West End pageant so you could give me an unfiltered furious rant about how you always lose, and how it’s all rigged, or whatever… and then you went and won it, bitch! I told you that you would, congratulations! How does the victory feel today?
Svetlana Stoli: Well, I usually lose for a reason, and if a competition is rigged I really can’t say much about it, because in that case I would in some way undermine the talent of the crowned bitch. I only can say thanks to Brita Filter for tweaking the final scores and rigging this one for me. Oh, I shouldn’t have said that, right?
Just kidding, I feel good, thank you! I feel like now, I have even more shit to organize and clean in my room. I just don’t want to let myself feel any kinda fantasy; competition is a one day thing. Sometimes that involves a lot of work–but as soon as you win/lose, it’s over. You have to move on to the next thing.
Feel the fantasy for a minute! How did you approach this package differently then other times you’ve tried for pageants, do you think? I will say that you sported some gorgeous looks that night.
A lot of things were just pieces from the previous attempts to do pageants. My presentation look, I actually was planning for Miss Monster (but I dropped out, not feeling well). The gown I was wearing at the finale of Miss Boots & Saddle. And my talent look is a custom made outfit by my dear friend Allison Galland, who does a lot of my outfits (including my presentation leotard and the crown), and became one of my closest friends and my pageant mom [laughs]. My gown hair was sitting there waiting its time because I ordered it from Carlos (GypsyWigz) a while ago… I just didn’t have an occasion to wear.
Also, I chose that song for the talent because I fucking love “Morning Person” from Shrek. And I wanted to do it for my brunch at Boots, but it just never happened. And here we are with a fairy tail theme, and I just utilized whatever I had already!
And what horribleness did you do to that chicken bird prop thing for the talent song?
Well, I kinda killed it. Next step is to fry that motherfucker. Svetlana Stoli likes her animals killed and fried. Well done, please! (OMG I will be in trouble with PETA people after saying that).
I just find ‘Morning Person” ironic personally because mornings have always been challenging for me. That’s why I kinda played with the song in a true Stoli manner of dragging the lyrics in some perverted direction. What else is new?
Being a brunch queen must be a bitch for you! Have you ever gotten used to day drag?
At Boots, I did the whole three hour show sometimes [for the brunch show I used to host there]. And now at Hard Rock, I just look pretty (when you’re lucky) and try to entertain people [as the door queen] before they get seated. So it’s a different energy investment. It was a struggle for me at first, but with time I loved it more and more. Because I love to talk to people, and get to know them… and that’s the best time because they are not as wasted yet.
Also, daytime gigs usually have food involved, and let me tell you–this bitch loves to have something in her mouth!
More on gigs in a bit, but let’s back track now. I have s certain suspicion you might be from Russia. Where exactly?
Well, despite that I say all the time that I’m from Moscow, I’m actually not. I’m from a small industrial city in the middle of Russia, named Izhevsk, the hometown of the AK-47 (that’s why I also shoot a lot…. words of course). At the age of 10, I moved to Moscow and spent most of my life there, so I have always considered it my home.
How was growing up young and fabulous there for you? Was it always not the best place to be gay?
Well, being gay has never been easy there, but I’ve always been kind of an all-out Crazy Little Diva Child. I have a footage to prove: a video of me in a kindergarten show where I was playing a woman neighbor from upstairs! So I guess we can throw that as the beginning of my drag career. But it was challenging. I was called a fag in middle school, even before I fully realized that I prefer boys, just based on me being creative.
You’d think that with years of progress, things like that would change. But it got way worse with Putin’s third term, when the gay hatred was taken to a whole new level. It’s sad. I still sometimes get death threats on my Russian social media when I get active there. It’s incredible how your personal life is important to others.
I understand that you came to the US on a Fulbright scholarship. Those aren’t easy to get! What did you come to study?
Musical theatre. And yes, getting that scholarship is not easy, and sometimes I forget that. I just recently got reminded how much it means, when I had my career development training at Madison Strategies Group. I took for granted what I fought for almost a year. All those exams, TOEFL, GREs, complicated applications, essays, reference letters. I had to submit videos of me being in theatre productions and my singing… and trust me, it wasn’t anything like “Welcome to My Hole.”
Though, I think I was pretty lucky to be able to get that scholarship, that took a lot of work. I guess I’m not really a type of person to sit and celebrate the achievements, when there’s more to do and to achieve. But I do work hard when I want something.
And I slack sometimes. You’ve witnessed that because you’ve been seeing me since the beginning, when I did Princess’ show at old Boots.
Was that performance I saw really the beginning-beginning? I remember Princess saying it was your first performance ever! And I even remember you had a different name… Svetlana Jachov?
Svetlana Jerkoff – it was just for one night. It was my first performance in full drag on stage. I played with cross-dressing back in high school, but that was just for shits and giggles.
That’s right, I don’t want to jump too far ahead! Where did you wind up first when you arrived in the U.S.?
I came here on June 15th, 2011 and my first stop was English Language Academy at DePaul University in Chicago, just before I went to New Orleans to get my MFA at Tulane. That’s why Chicago has a very special place in my heart it’s like the first love, you will never forget it.
So you’ve already lived in three of the best American cities! Were you exploring the drag scenes in Chicago and New Orleans, or at least nightlife in general?
I went out, but not to the drag shows. I always was that young hot mess who’s ready to take his clothes off.
I wasn’t interested in drag till my friend Sean Wildchild (an incredible artist) took me to Barracuda during my first NYC visit, and I saw Peppermint. You can blame it on her and her talent that I do what I do now.
So if not for Peppermint, you might’ve been a gogo boy!
Not much has changed. Now I wear dresses, though.
What was it specifically about Peppermint’s performance, and drag in general, that appealed to you?
She did that freestyle thing where she asked people certain words, and she made a song out of nothing. I was blown away because I only knew drag in Russia back when I was like 16-17. And I only like the emcees there, because our most famous drag queen back there is a mean mouth quick bitch with gorgeous gowns because she’s a seamstress (does that remind you anyone?). The rest of [Russian] drag was mostly looking fishy, doing songs. That was meaningless to me back then.
So as someone who was interested in performing, drag opened up opportunities to you. Did you have a vision early on about what kind of queen you wanted to be, or did that sort of evolve by itself?
I don’t think it has evolved yet. I don’t close myself up to anything new I might try in drag. I started [drag] because I couldn’t legally work for first six months since I applied for political asylum, I just graduated and moved to NYC. I had no artistic outlet like I had at school, and I didn’t have a stipend–and NYC prices differ from New Orleans prices. I suddenly got poor, and without any way to express myself. That’s why drag.
It was supposed to be a transition, but it just started working out. And whenever I felt discouraged, and felt like moving in a different direction, some opportunities or gigs would come up and keep me doing it. Does that make sense?
Remember that whole episode where gays were supposed to ban Stoli vodka because it was [at least partially] made in anti-gay Russia? Did that affect you in any way career-wise… and did you think that was stupid?
Ha, when it happened I just started doing drag, and I remember Bob the Drag Queen even made a meme with my picture and “evil” across it, or something like that.
Then at Our Lady of Saliva, I did the whole number about that dump Stoli stuff. Stoli people have always been very supportive of what I do, and they invest a lot of money in their LGBT events. So I think that was a very unreasonable and poorly thought out campaign (no one tried to dump Russian Standard or Smirnoff, doesn’t make any sense to me), I’m a conspiracy theorist. So I’ll blame it on Absolut trying to stir the pot [laughs]!
I wouldn’t be surprised! Saliva was the legendary drag competition at the Ritz where queens really did every damn thing imaginable or beyond to win (or just to have fun/create art). Do you recall the craziest thing you saw there?
One of the last Salivas, if not the last, when the ceiling at the Ritz started leaking, and [host] Azraea was doing her number, and it literally was pouring from that disco ball… but she still finished her number. That was some legendary crazy shit.
I miss it a lot. Our Lady of Saliva was the first competition I did, and the first one I won. It encouraged me to do drag, but also it kinda made me a bit more sensitive to losing. Now I’ve so gotten used at losing that it’s hard to get bitter [laughs]!
You have certainly entered nearly every pageant and competition in this city over time. I bet you learned quite a bit by watching who does well and who doesn’t. But how do you not get completely deflated after a long streaks where you’re not winning?
Well, the only competition that really had a negative effect on me was “So You Think You Can Drag?” The rest: even if I lose, I lose usually for a reason–or I didn’t do my best, or there was someone better.
What exactly happened with you at “So You Think You Can Drag?”
Well, this is in archives of history! I will be forever the only one kicked out queen, that makes me kinda Willam of “SYTYCD?” And I’m not mad about it, because I still have been able to find my audience and grow.
Some girls out of the Top Four of my season are nowhere to be found. And on another hand, you have someone like Monet X Change, who won only one week, but has more gigs now than any of us.
It’s a very subjective competition. Specific crowd, specific judges. At times very questionable, if you ask me. I’m glad they have drag queens on the panel now. I pushed that idea during my season, and was shut down. So there’s that.
Well, you certainly made your mark in other pageants and competitions.
A lot of times, getting ready for these competitions and pageants, you challenge yourself. That’s why I have a very special place in my heart for Miss Barracuda. It really allowed me to try something new. The “Welcome to My Hole” video would have never happened, if not for that. I have a bunch of great looks from two years of doing it that I can always use again, and they are highly presentable. And also it always felt so good to do it; I hold Tina Burner accountable for creating the amazing atmosphere of that competition. There’s a reason why she hosts the longest running competition, she’s a very welcoming lady!
Without a doubt, “Welcome to My Hole,” is your greatest contribution to humankind thus far, and it was born–like you said–from a Miss Barracuda video challenge. It’s so much better than the original song it parodies, “Welcome to New York.” It just is. And I love that you still always sing it at your shows, when a lot of queens are too bashful to even lip sync their own parodies live. Did you know that you created greatness when you made that song and video?
[Laughs] thank you. Well, the first time I heard the [original] song was at Justin Vivian Bond’s show, and I was like, oh my God, it’s brilliant and catchy. Then Mx. Bond said it’s Taylor Swift’s song, and I thought, okay, I might be able to find it and perform. But it almost made my ears bleed. So I was like okay I’m not lip syncing to this shit, but I can’t sing it live so masterfully like Mx. Bond, so let me try to write a parody.
I wrote it, sent it to Sherry Vine (who’s one of my drag mothers, huge inspiration and a role model). She said its funny, and she took me to Mirrortone Studios and I recorded that song. Later on, Hazel Tart helped me with the video.
It’s great because it’s relatable. A lot of stuff I do is relatable because I just use something around my own experience. And that’s an anthem to an average thirsty NYC power bottom. Nothing is wrong in being one. So no judgement here!
Cheers to all the thirsty bottoms! Tell me about how you met Sherry, I didn’t know you were so close to her.
When I started doing drag, and the whole Stoli boycott happened, Stoli organized an event at XL that was a benefit for Russian LGBT. I actually found out about it because Maddelynn Hatter was performing there, and she had already become my drag mom.
But at the event I met Formika (who hosted it in drag, which is very rare today). Also Sherry was there, and I met Joey Arias. Sherry and Joey talked to me about Russia, and were super nice. Sherry gave me her number and told me to message her, and that she’ll help me out with gigs.
Next thing, she invited me to be in her video “Twerk Bitch.” And slowly we became really good friends. She was one of the people who wrote me a letter for a political asylum.
That’s really cool. Another drag legend you’re tight with is Linda Simpson, with whom you occasionally co-host her weekend drag bingo at (le) poisson rouge.
I was recommended to Linda by Formica, I believe to do bingo. And when I started, it just went really well and I’m doing it every month. Linda is a great emcee.
I do feel like it is amazing to be surrounded by the people who have been doing drag for decades. You know, some of them probably remember Lincoln. Just kidding! FDR for sure, though.
I’ve always been curious about Linda’s bingo there. What’s the crowd like?
Everybody goes. Really cool lesbians, fun handsome gay boys, and I do love my straights. I was really flattered; the last time I worked there, there was a bachelorette party, and they loved me so much the bride called for weeks asking when it’s my turn to work so she can book a table. Little things that make you feel special, you know.
In general, I think your material is pretty edgy and provoking for the bar scene, even when it’s silly. Do you think a lot of times your stuff goes over people’s heads?
Straight people get my jokes and my material. The West Village crowd does too. I think the Hell’s Kitchen crowd are the ones who don’t really get it. But also, you know, in Russia we say, “you can train your audience.” I don’t really perform in HK to train my audience. You know what I mean? They usually only get the looks that I’ve done for Voss Events, so I can’t blame them for not being aware of what I do, and what my artistry is about.
Let’s talk about the wildly successful Voss drag brunch, that you serve as door goddess for. The first attempt at the latest Señor Frogs location drew a huge crowd every week, but the venue as a whole couldn’t make it a year, and closed. What’s the dirt on that?
Well, I don’t know. The rent is high, not enough advertisement. I’d never heard of Señor Frogs before we started doing brunch there. It was a really good place though, the management and the stuff were incredible.
But now it’s at the Hard Rock Cafe, also in Times Square, and that’s a huge deal. It sold out day one, and it’s got to be the most successful drag show in the city now. Is it a really different vibe, seeing drag queens perform on a venue meant for rock bands, to an audience that must be largely straight?
When I walked in last week [the opening week], my jaw hit the floor so hard it made a tunnel to China. The stage is beyond! There are screens that show you what’s going onstage in every corner. And you should have seen those dressing rooms!
That’s exactly what this city is lacking, and I’m glad we’re there. And god bless Brandon Voss for making this brunch happen, and for all the events he does. Because more and more mainstream promoters just got rid of drag queens, trying to save money. Make us work, and use it in your favor.
You gig here and there plenty, and as of this writing you’ve just done the Pieces happy hour show. But do you miss performing in your own weekly show on a regular basis, like you did at Boots & Saddle?
I do. A lot. I also do a lot. I got one of the best complaints after the show [at Pieces] today: “you perform equally for the room of six as for the room of 300.”
And I’ve always seen codependency on my audience as my weakness, because that’s not my fault, or the fault of the six people who came to the show, that other people didn’t come. I still want to give them a good show.
I think tonight was very successful. I’m proud of my new approach to life, and drag is a part of my life, so the approach of that also changed a lot.
I recently was filling in one time for Lola Michele-Kiki at La Carbonara. I had a blast, the audience had a blast, and the management was happy. I’m pretty sure that soon I’ll get one or two weekly things going for me, where I can express myself fully. and it will only benefit the people and the venue. So if you have a bar or a dinner theatre (because bitch likes to eat) and you’re reading this interview, hire me!
You have a lot of loyal fans, especially from the Boots shows, who became your friends, and I guess that’s a common dynamic with drag. That must be very rewarding, until some of these people turn out to be cuckoo, right?
I’ve had those! And yes: a lot of my good friends moved away, but every time I go somewhere, I make new followers, and it is very rewarding. Though I have such a bad visual memory, and it is not a good thing for someone who tries to network [laughs]!
How about your love life? Has drag helped it, harmed it, or hasn’t really affected it? Or is it hard to tell because you’ve been a queen of NYC nearly as long as you’ve lived here?
My love life is fucked up on its own! I don’t put any “drag effect” in the mix. If anyone is giving me a hard time about what I do, it’s a wrong person to be with. It didn’t help me either though; I don’t have sex in drag [laughs]!
Let’s awkwardly segue back into politics for a minute. It’s bad enough that Trump is running for President, but these ties to Russian President Putin that keep popping up must be very alarming to you. Do you think Trump is a Putin puppet?
It is so complicated. I think Putin definitely benefits from Trump’s candidacy. American people will make fools of themselves electing someone like this; no one in the world arena will even consider the US a leader anymore. People are ready to elect a racist demagogue, a reality show TV star who’s clueless. If I wanted a reality TV show star running the country, and I cared about economics, I’d ask Chris Jenner to run for office. She turned that talentless family into an empire. That’s a real fucking American dream!
Jenner/Honey Boo Boo 2020! In seriousness though, we the Sane People have to do everything in our power to make sure he isn’t elected. And I’m happy and grateful that you’re performing for Night of 1000 Pants Suits, the Hillary Clinton fundraiser at Hudson Terrace on Tuesday.
First of all: do you like Hillary’s more colorful pantsuits, or are they too Teletubbies on her?
I really don’t care what she wears or what kind of hairstyle she has, to be honest. As long as she doesn’t come in a Wonder Woman costume to an assembly, I’m fine with any pantsuit
Well, the event is auctioning off some incredible prizes, Justin Vivien Bond and nightlife legends everywhere will be taking part, and there will be fun events, including a Hillary lookalike contest! Do you know what your look and number is gonna be yet?
It’s gonna be a pretty simple number with a clear message. This is not a place to be provoking!
Anything else you wanna talk about?
I don’t think anyone is ready to read that much about me at the moment! But I’m always open to provide more and more information, and discuss more. I’m in a very interesting place in my life right now, and I don’t know where it’s gonna take me.
It will take to you to great places, because you’re a great person and an amazing performer. Okay, last question: if you were going to form a superhero crime fighting team with three other NYC queens… Who?
I can’t. I’m fine playing a villain on my own. I love too many queens dearly, it’s impossible to choose just three. I think it’s already like X-Men up in here, so much talent and diversity.
Excellent pageant answer; you’ve learned, girl! Thanks Svetlana, and congratulations again on your Miss West End win!
Svetlana Stoli is the newly-crowned Miss West End, and she is the door queen for the NY Hard Rock Cafe Drag Brunch on Sundays (shows at 12:30 & 2:30pm). She appears once a month as a guest co-host of Linda Simpson’s drag bingo at (le) poisson rouge (Fridays & Saturdays at 7:30pm), and she will perform at the “Night of 1000 Pantsuits” Hillary Clinton fundraiser at the Hudson Terrace on Tuesday, September 27th (starting at 7pm). Svetlana can be followed on Facebook, Instagram, Twitter & YouTube.