This southern romantic artist and Trans activist, whose youthful drag is both nostalgic and cutting edge, has earned acclaim from a strong win in Reddit’s annual online pageant, Now they’re turning fierce looks and numbers in the seminal “So You Think You Can Drag” where they’re competing among friends for the coveted nightlife win. Get On Point with Gloria Swansong!
Thotyssey: Hi Gloria, thanks for making time for us! So, did you happen to watch any of that last Presidential debate? What a shit show.
Gloria Swansong: I saw the last twenty minutes, and have listened to a few podcasts about it… it seems like it was really a wash for both sides. Nothing has really changed for either camp.
It was basically just the two of them firing up their bases with rhetoric (although Hillary still kicked ass in that respect). I wish the democratic process were more like “So You Think You Can Drag” sometimes.
I would love to see them lip sync for their lives! I think Donald has mysteriously picked up some sassy drag queen gestures along the way.
Yes, all pointing and chair dancing and coke sniffing! Well, congrats on making it this far in SYTYCD, by the way, it’s certainly not a challenge for the faint of heart. How have you been enjoying the experience so far?
I’ve enjoyed it a lot! It does require a lot of stamina and time management, but I’m kind of sadistic and love overloading myself. And it’s just been really fun to create new acts, pull out old ones, and share them with a new audience every week.
Like what Taylor Mac just did in Brooklyn this weekend – that 24 hour performance where judy and the audience get totally exhausted from creating art: that sounds amazing. The ultimate test of marathon drag!
Yeah, that seemed like it was pretty extraordinary!
You had your own Lip Synching for Your Life experience last week against Beverly Leslie Sills. She won, but I heard it was everything. I didn’t realize that that was a regular part of the competition. What was the song?
“Holding Out for a Hero” – yes, it was pretty epic! I even gashed my arm open in the process without realizing it. So yes, the top two lip sync against each other each week and [host] Paige chooses the winner. One person is the “popular vote” and the other is the “judge’s pick,” though Paige tells us it’s almost always ends up being the two people with the most votes anyway.
This was actually my third time in the top two, and my third time placing second. The other two times were both against Vicky, actually. And if you go back and line them up with the RuPaul’s Drag Queens All-Stars episodes, every night I synced and lost is a night Katya synced and lost! So I’m a little oddly invested in Katya winning…
She’s your Parallel Lifequeen! One thing that must suck a little about competing Thursday nights is missing All-Stars when it airs… do you yell NO SPOILERS at everyone at the end of the night when you’re heading home?
Honestly? I ask Emi Grate to tell me what happens (because she usually gets in face early and goes to someone’s gig to watch it). I don’t really like surprises, nor do I really care that much about All-Stars – they’ve all already made it! They’re icons of drag queens with oodles of booking opportunities! I don’t feel sorry for them when they go home or lose out on a $10,000 tip (that they probably don’t get). Also – you overestimate how many RPDR fans are on the train at 3 am. I wish there was someone on the train to spoil it for me!
But what does suck is that many people don’t come to our event because they’ve already gone to an All-Stars viewing. We were hoping people who were out already would feel compelled to stop by, but that hasn’t really been happening.
That sucks, I know a lot of venues were kind of blindsided by the success of the show this season. Well, All-Stars ends next week, so people will be packing in for the SYTYCD finale!
Yeah, hopefully. They’ve been pretty full houses in my view, but I wasn’t around for last season. And the people who come are 150% invested in the performances, which is great to see.
So, let’s go to the beginning: where are you from?
I’m from what used to be a small town called Mt. Juliet, right outside of Nashville, TN. Since then, I’ve lived in Memphis, Southern Utah, Southern Wisconsin, and Pittsburgh! But I’ll always be a born and raised Southerner, and I’m proud to say that both sides of my family are Southern back to before the Civil War.
Both sides of my family fought in the Confederacy, and while I’m very liberal and progressive-minded, I try to understand and respect what my ancestors’ world must have been like after that war. The effects live on in the imaginations and lives of many people today.
That’s an interesting and poetic way of putting it! Was it difficult to connect with kids and neighborhoods when you moved around?
Well Memphis, Pittsburgh, and the other cities came in college and afterwards. My parents still live in the same house I was brought home to from the hospital. So my best friends in elementary school were my best friends in high school, and we still reunion about once a year.
But after college, when I moved from Memphis to Pittsburgh for grad school, it was definitely difficult to change people’s minds about what the South is. Hell, it’s still hard to try and explain what the Civil War meant to people down there and why the feel the way they do about it… I often feel like I’m stuck between where I came from and who I have become.
I’ve heard about this struggle before. Lot’s of people dismiss admiration for the Confederacy as pro-slavery, but it’s usually much more complicated then that. I think that dichotomy is responsible for a lot of our great Southern writers or artists. What were you’re earliest creative or performing interests?
I have always been a visual artist, always, and primarily a painter. I started formal training in painting at 8, developed into a private study in oil painting around 12, and kept that up until I graduated high school. I continued it in my training as a costume designer, but diversifying into watercolor, acrylic, and drawing medias.
Performing-wise, I started in music. In Tennessee, music programs like band and choir can be right up there with the football team. And in my school system, people went to games to hear the band and choir! So I started singing and piano at 11, and have been doing it ever since–though I realized at some point in high school that I wasn’t gifted enough in either to pursue them as careers.
Theatre didn’t come until I was in high school–and where I’m from there still aren’t really any formal theatre programs in schools. They’re pretty rare. But I fell in love with acting and design right off the bat. Like drag, it combined all of my talents into one event–and that was pretty exciting, to realize I could use my many mediocre talents to be really good at one thing!
That’s actually a pretty good description of a winning drag formula.
When did you start playing with drag?
I designed makeup for a production of La Cage in 2010, and that’s when I gave myself a crash course in drag. I had done it casually at parties, but didn’t have a drag name or anything. So that’s when I learned to block my brows, contour, tuck, all of those drag 101 things. And that summer I was working in Southern Utah and one of my good friends became my drag sister when we were asked to host an event in drag.
I didn’t have a name yet, though. One day when I was doing laundry for a show, I was listening to an interview/biography on Gloria Swanson, and then it just hit me – Gloria Swansong. And that’s when she was born!
I take it you’ve seen Sunset Boulevard? Gloria’s Norma Desmond was the greatest drag queen of all time.
Yes, I grew up watching that movie, and many of her silent films! She’s always been a huge aesthetic influence on me (hence why I was listening to her bio). And I love the story of Sunset Boulevard, it mixes in everything I love about drama, suspense, costume pictures, and campy humor into one movie! I love the musical too, though not quite as much. My Ms. Desmond will be making an appearance in this competition, don’t you worry!
Glad to hear it!
How would you describe Gloria Swansong as a queen, and a character?
First and foremost, everything is a Swansong. Meaning, every performance is a showstopper, an eleventh-hour ballad, a torch song–the stakes are always high for Gloria. And everything is a “costume picture!” I think a huge portion of any performance is visual, and I carefully design myself so the way I look heightens the performance.
And lastly, I think everything I do is a homage of some kind. I’m an incredibly nostalgic human, and I really love the power of transformative acting. So I try to do that as much as I can, in as many ways that I can. Gloria is often funny without meaning to be, and she’s very, very good at throwing Miranda Priestly-level shade. But outside that, she’s gracious and elegant, and usually a solo act. She can’t have pesky Eve Harringtons upstaging her!
You’re my new role model! What was your first time onstage as Gloria?
I hosted a fundraiser event for the Utah Shakespeare Festival as Gloria with my drag sister Savannah Van Cartier! We did a lot of Gaga and stuff like that, but from that night I consider ‘Don’t Rain On My Parade’ my first number as Gloria.
What ultimately brought you to New York?
I came here to launch my costume design career. I also have a lot of friends and colleagues here, so it seemed logical to go where there was a support system. And I would be lying if I didn’t say I’ve always dreamed of living here. I read books obsessively about NYC history in high school and college.
And where was Gloria’s NYC debut?
I have filmed quite a few lip sync videos in NYC since moving here. You can see them on my YouTube page! I won Reddit’s LSFYL competition last summer with a Sunset Boulevard sync at Lincoln Center Plaza–and I most recently did a Whitney Houston sync on the Brooklyn Bridge!
I’ve performed at a few bars in the city, namely with The Nobodies! Who seem to always be moving around. But I think you could also say I’ve had many public performances in those videos, and the many takes it took to do them.
So while people in NYC may know me for what I’m doing in bars and in SYTYCD, there are scores of people on the internet who know me for doing very public lip sync performances with lots of random people in the shot.
That’s awesome! Ariel Italic from the Nobodies also started in the Reddit pageant.
Yes! She’s the season One winner. We are about to collaborate on an All-Stars season of R/LSFYL.
How did this Reddit & internet fame prepare you for SYTYCD?
It definitely built up my repertoire, but most importantly it really sharpened my lip sync skills. I started that 13-week competition to get better at lip syncing, and to hopefully find a passion for it I was lacking. And now, I have a lot of tools to fine tune a lip sync and I get a lot out of that process.
I learned a lot from fellow competitors, and honestly just began discovering who Gloria was and what kinds of things she could pull off. R/LSFYL helped me gain some skills, and showed me the importance of diversity and variety in performance. And that’s what I’m trying to bring to this competition – things I’m really good at and using them in lots of different ways.
Regarding the Reddit pageant videos you shot out in the open, is it fun or scary to perform in drag in public like that? I’m specifically looking at this Sound of Music video you shot in Central Park… and it must have been hot as hell that day, by the way!
It was hooootttt. You get used to it being fun and scary at the same time. It helps to be working with someone who can handle those scary people for you. I collaborate a lot with my roommate Mitch Marois, who filmed that Sound of Music video, and he’s very good at protecting me from bad situations while making me look great and feel comfortable. I’ve never gotten into a bad situation, but I have had some pretty horrific insults hurled at me.
But I want to stress that I think it’s incredibly important to be visible. And while that level of visibility isn’t for everyone, I take it as a personal mission to do things like that. To take drag out of gay bars and into the streets and let people know that drag queens are good performers and good people. We aren’t mysteries or lost souls or something. I also am a Trans activist, so that’s probably why I feel so strongly about it.
Yes, that stigma still very much exists, good for you for rallying against it! So, have you been creating all your looks for SYTYCD?
Yes! With the exception of my Julia Sugarbaker, which was vintage, and the frog suit, which was created by my friend Sophie Hood, I’ve made everything I’ve worn this far. This week will also feature two looks I’ve made!
That was a lovely runway look for Pride night, with a Trans-positive message.
Funny thing, that outfit was made from a show banner at Carnegie Mellon, where I did grad school. I really like working with found and recycled materials as well as traditional fabrics.
So I’ve spoken to a bunch of your fellow contestants now, and it really is very obvious how well you all get along and how supportive you are of each other. Do you worry that dynamic might change as we approach the final run of the competition?
I’m not sure if the dynamic will change.. As it stands, we are all very close and very supportive. It’s really wonderful to see the queens cheer on the other queens during the lip syncs and hug them when they win!
I know several of us have borrowed/lent items to each other for looks; Adriana even helped me find a dancer for last week! I don’t think we would lose that camaraderie just because we get further along.
But I will say that things have gotten far less casual back stage as we progress. It’s really clear that everyone takes this very seriously, and uses time back stage to get their mind into the game. Personally, I appreciate that. I need the time to focus and get on my game.
Lots of lasting friendships were formed from that competition so you should all be good!
How’d you like Kizha Carr guest hosting the show last week, by the way?
She was really amazing, a wonderful surrogate host! She’s a killer performer, and one of the few drag queens who does Beyoncé justice in my opinion. The audience was really living for her, while being blinded by her disco ball leotard.
Awesome. What’s this Thursday night’s theme, and can you spoil anything about what you’re gonna deliver?
This week’s theme is Legends and Divas, with Movie Recreation runway. I cannot spoil it for you, but I will say that I am becoming the Legend to end all Legends… and doing one of her most iconic performances and recreating one of her most iconic movie looks for the runway! I’m so excited!
That is very exciting, good luck! Anything else we should mention?
Other than a plea to book me? [Laughs] I do want to say that I’m designing a show at American Repertory Theatre this winter in Boston. It’s called TransScripts, and is a new play that is interviews with seven trans women from around the world cobbled together into dialogues and monologues. It’s really beautiful and bound to be a ground breaking production! Being Trans* non-binary myself, I relate very closely to the subject matter and these women’s stories and can’t speak highly enough about the production. It will run Jan 19 – Feb. 5 at ART’s Loeb Drama Center.
Yay awesome! Kay, last question: what’s something the world may not yet know about Gloria, but should?
Two things: one, my preferred pronouns are ‘they, them, theirs’. I don’t usually get a chance to tell people that because usually I’m in drag and default to ‘she, her, hers’. Second, I can sing! But, I’m a classically trained Bass, so the voice doesn’t really fit with people’s traditional views of what women sound like.
I wasn’t planning on singing in this competition, but who knows! Maybe I’ll bust out a Bass Aria.
Yazzzz do it! Thanks for chatting Gloria, and good luck with the rest of the competition!
Gloria Swansong is currently competing in the “So You Think You Can Drag” competition Thursday nights (11pm) at the New World Stages. They can be followed on Facebook, Instagram, Twitter & YouTube.
See Also: Gloria Swansong (4.18.2017)