There is something about seeing Kareem McJagger working the room in a fully-realized look that makes you realize how colorful, creative and wonderfully fringe nightlife can be. A gifted performer and social media sorceress–and 2016 GLAM nominee–Kareem is a true authority on “making it work” when it comes to the hard science of nightlife event planning. It’s times like now that have us all coming to good time gurus like Kareem for glorious distractions and community gathering. Get into this!
Thotyssey: Hi Kareem! Thanks for talking to us today! I got a chance this past Thursday to catch your guest performance at Dusty Ray Bottoms’s final Boots & Saddle show. You did a Britney Spears live singing number, with your own original mix of background vocals. Great job! Do you have a lot of pre-produced backing tracks like that in your arsenal?
Kareem McJagger: I have a quite few. I’m often asked what I specialize in as a performer, and that’s hard to say. I’m most comfortable singing live, but I didn’t want to necessarily get pegged as yet another “live-singing queen.” And in a city where my colleagues have all kinds of professional theater experience that I don’t, I saw making custom backing tracks as a way to set myself apart from girls screlting over karaoke tracks. I have a couple of semesters of electronic music composition/recording under my belt (and a shit-ton of performance, training, and theory) from college, so it was a way to play to my strengths early on while I learned how to walk in heels.
I have lip-sync mixes, and I love a good round of drag suicide as well. My goal is to be able to be versatile for different audiences and gigs.
Everyone in nightlife should find creative ways to be as adaptable as that. If you were given your own show now, where it’s just you performing, it would probably be a pretty diverse experience.
I’d like to think so. Granted, I’ve never had my own weekly proper show. I’ve filled in and guested, but the only burden of weekly fresh content I’ve had for a show is when I was a co-host for Honey Davenport’s happy hour show with Flippe Kikee at Boots and Saddle. It was an amazing opportunity, and I refer to it as drag boot camp (I’d only been performing a few months when Honey threw me in). It set a solid foundation for my presence on the mic, which is vital for the gigs that come my way. While I’m seen more as a host/promoter, I’m especially grateful to my close NYC family that pulls me in to perform at their shows!
Speaking of hosting, how was co-hosting the Spunk 4-year anniversary at Monster with Honey?
I always enjoy working at SPUNK. Filling in for Holly at The Monster was one of my early gigs. I usually fill in when Honey Davenport has a gig out of town, but Honey and I got to host together for the Anniversary. I’m hoping we can do the same on Fire Island next summer, too! Luis and his husband Dan have built a sickening franchise, and I’m grateful to be a part of it.
So, let’s go back to the beginning: you’re from South Carolina, right? What was it like growing up there for you?
Yes, I grew up in Columbia, SC, where you can’t go 15 minutes without seeing “COCKS” on a bumper sticker, t-shirt, or hat (the mascot for U of SC is the Gamecocks). While I don’t see myself ever moving back, it was a decent place to grow up. Plus, both my parents grew up in NYC, so I spent summers and holidays here. I was a scholarship kid at a small private school for first through 12th grades. I did all the school musicals in middle school, but somehow convinced myself that track and cross country were better uses of my time.
SC isn’t exactly known for being a leader in education, so by the time I got to high school, it was basically universally understood that I would be leaving SC for college, which would require tons of scholarship money. So I spent almost every waking moment on homework, SAT prep, and extra-curricular activities to become the ideal applicant. I definitely didn’t fit in with the rest of my classmates, most of whom lived in exclusive subdivisions on the other side of town, but I was lucky to not have had to deal with much bullying or blatant racism.
And it helps to spend your formative years surrounded by COCKS!
Were you aspiring to be a performer of some sort then, being in all the musicals, etc?
I wasn’t really even aware that one could make a living as a performer. I thought you were either a superstar or living with your parents. It wasn’t until I did a semester in Sydney and befriended a dancer that I even thought of performing as an option. I wanted to be a surgeon until senior year in high school. After that, the plan was to slay my grades, go to some grad school program, and then be able to afford to live in one of those exclusive subdivisions (but not in SC).
But I took piano lessons in elementary school, and I was always in at least one choir. I probably would have taken dance, too, if I wasn’t afraid of being teased for it. If anything, I would daydream about being in a group like En Vogue, learning just about every voice part to every track on their first two albums. I didn’t ever see myself being a solo artist, and I had to basically be forced to sing solos in my choirs and at weddings. I much preferred to harmonize.
A real turning point was the summer in college when I worked as a singer/dancer at an amusement park. A few people suggested that I audition for cruise ship shows once I moved to NYC, but I always choked on picking up choreography until the following day. After a few failed auditions and a reminder from my father that health insurance was a priority, I set my sights on a corporate job. I ended up at a TV network for 6 years working in post-production and social media/digital marketing.
Did you pick up anything from that line of work that helped you in nightlife later?
Totally! I did some video editing, which helped with the interviews I’ve done with the queens from various seasons of RuPaul’s Drag Race. Also, writing copy and taking advantage of Facebook’s algorithms are key. The network had a very high standard for what went out to consumers, so I try to carry that over for my own promotion efforts. Also, just a general sense of professionalism can really set one apart in nightlife.
Totally. You also had a popular Tumblr for awhile, detailing your nightlife adventures. Did other projects like the Drag Race videos just replace that, or did you lose free time or interest in continuing it?
Ahh, yes. I started The Blackout Blog as a stepping stone. I wasn’t sure what for in the beginning, but when I started writing for Next Magazine, it felt like it had served its purpose. But I had no intentions of actually entering nightlife when I started it.
And how and when did that happen exactly: your nightlife debut?
It was maybe three and a half years ago. Shameless asked me to guest-host his Tuesday night underwear party at Hardware. Not long after, I started guest-hosting at Manster at the Monster on a monthly basis. And around the same time, DJ Nandi asked me to host the monthly underwear party he had started at The Ritz, which I ended up promoting for a year.
I remember that underwear party at the Ritz upstairs, fun times! I can’t picture underwear parties working in Hardware though, wow.
So, you’re certainly known for turning fierce gender bending club and drag looks, which is a reason why pretty much everybody wants you at their events. Was there a first time you went out to a place saying, “I’m gonna try something different,” and things just evolved from there?
There was a Tuesday party in SoHo, Sebastien Ra’s RaRa at LeSouk, that featured a bunch of club kids turning ridiculous looks each week. I went semi-regularly after covering it for Next, and the hosts (among them: Dina Delicious, Amanda Lepore, Herra C) were always very welcoming to me.
One night, I painted my face white, stuck on some huge red lashes, and donned a Speedo and a pair of platform heels. People seemed to love it, so I started stocking up on looks. I wasn’t even using the term “drag” until Honey Davenport started announcing me on the mic as her drag daughter. I always joke that she kidnapped me.
That’s a unique way to get adopted! So, you gravitated more towards drag through Honey?
Oh, totally. She basically sat me down and was like, “That’s cute. But if you wanna look like a human, try this…” She also pulled me into her weekly show a few months after I started performing, so that was my drag boot camp. But I’ve acquired a wealth of knowledge about performing and conducting business in nightlife by watching her.
So, when it comes to hosting, is it easier (open to interpretation) to work the room near naked like you do at the Cock or underwear parties, or in six inch heals and a corset and giant wig like you do in other venues?
For me, it’s much easier to work a room in drag because most of my work is done before I even arrive at the venue. When I’m in a look, people are just drawn to me (a blessing and a curse). I do my best to engage with everyone who shows interest, because I know what it’s like to be blown off when you’re trying to be nice.
Sometimes, it can get exhausting: not just the drag on my body, but the constant engagement on my emotional stamina. And that’s part of the reason why I’m usually very low-key in the back of the bar when I’m not in drag. And the reason why I don’t always judge actual celebrities for their lack of engagement. However, it comes with the job, and I’d much rather walk through a gauntlet of people with nice things to say than the opposite.
That being said, when I’m at The Cock, I’m bartending and running the party. So the room is working me!
Let me ask, as a blogger/commentator of all things Drag Race... has the show done good or bad for nightlife? Has it created an unfair and sanitized standard, or has it introduced the world to a great art form? Or both?
I will start with this: look how many paying drag gigs there are in NYC now! Hell, my first weekly gig was a Drag Race viewing party!
But it’s a double-edged sword. The popularity of drag means more gigs, but it has caused a flood of queens to enter the market who want those gigs. That increased supply drives the price for hiring a queen down. And some venues that want a piece of the action but just aren’t properly equipped for drag entertainment (don’t get me started on the months of changing in an office with several co-workers without so much as a mirror).
But anything coming into the mainstream is going to be watered down in some way and will go through growing pains. I’m thankful to work as much as I do and for the success I’m planning in the coming years.
And for those of you asking, Drag Race is a game that rewards a rather specific skill set that is especially difficult to cultivate in NYC. One of my biggest assets on my mind is my people skills. How friendly can I be if I’m wearing a 6 foot head piece and a 60 lbs. beaded gown that someone could spill a Fireball shot on at any second?
And how would I get these elaborate outfits to the venue? I have a gown or two that touches the floor, but what floor is that clean at 1am in a bar in NYC? No, really, you write about all the events, so I was hoping you’d know.
No floor is worth talking about at that hour!
Okay, speaking of floors and hours, let’s get to gigs and let’s start with Playpen Mondays! You took over Shameless’ role as the host of that party, which is a fun sexy night in t e East Village. Playpen is meant to draw a young crowd, but what do you see there every week, as far as age and “type?”
First off, everyone is welcome at all my events regardless of age, type, size, gender, orientation, animal/tribe affiliation, etc. Just be cool and don’t break shit.
For Playpen Mondays, I like to say it’s the perfect night to dip your toe in the water. From what I’ve observed, the crowd definitely skews younger than other nights thanks to the foundation (and other things) Shameless laid before he left NYC, but it’s definitely a spectrum. Since joining the team, I’ve learned that The Cock is known throughout the world, so we get people from all walks of life who have no idea how we’re promoting the night. They just come and take it in.
And what would you say to people who are kinda shy about visiting the Cock, but obviously want to explore?
If you’ve never been to The Cock, there’s no need to worry. You’re not so hot that men will lose all control and throw themselves at you (we hire go-go boys to take on that burden). People are generally very cool on Mondays, and I’ve seen a clear “No thanks” or “I’m all set, man” solve everything when a guy gets too forward. If all else fails, stay by the bar with me for the first few drinks and explore when you’re ready. We usually get a rush around 2am when other bars die down, so it’s also a perfect last stop.
Also, make sure you’re *ahem* prepared before you come or conduct yourself appropriately if you are not.
It doesn’t have to be at the Cock per se, but what is the most, er, intense scene you’ve witnessed guests in a venue engage in?
I went to Le Depot in Paris with my boyfriend a few years ago. The entrance level is a big dance floor, and it was basically empty because everyone was downstairs. The more populated floor was like a haunted house, except you couldn’t just tell yourself that the scary thing waiting around the next corner wasn’t allowed to touch you or you could sue. Actually, most of the downstairs is a maze of hallways with rooms that were either locked or open with someone waiting for a reason to lock up. And then there was the big room. Once my eyes adjusted, I got quite the multi-sensory show.
A few days later, we were two of about six Americans on a La Demence cruise from Marseilles (about 2000 gays in total). The company had already sent a cruise guide specifying where the dark room and nude decks would be, and asking guests to remain at least semi-clothed in other areas. I can’t say they didn’t give us fair warning, but I definitely could have tripped over the portable sling in that dark room if I didn’t hear the grunting coming from it during the first night’s welcome party. Deck parties with most of the attendees in jock straps, live sex shows with porn actors, Israelis. It was unlike anything I’ve seen in America!
It should be noted that I have not yet traveled to Thailand or Berlin, but they’re definitely on my list.
Well it sounds like you’re off to a pretty good start in your global Sexplorations!
Okay, before I talk about karaoke I want to talk about song parodies, which you have recorded many of, funny and very intricate one. You perform a lot of them live. What comes first with song parodies for you: the song that you want to parody, or the concept that you want to match to an existing song?
I used to change words to songs and add stupid embellishments long before I ever got on the mic. It’s just the way my mind works and how I process rhythm and syllabic placement. I get a song stuck in my head, and after repeating the rhythm enough times, other phrases find their way into the melody. I still do single lines constantly as a joke with my bf, but occasionally one is good enough to write a whole song. Or at least a verse and a chorus that I can combine with something else to make a mix (ooh, trendy!).
And sometimes it’s just taking a single word or phrase and looking at it from a different angle. Example: “Let It Go” as a water sports theme or “Alone” telling the struggle of bad credit (“a loan”).
How come you haven’t gone the YouTube video production route with your parodies– or with your singing in general, for that matter?
I think that’ll happen when the time is right. If I’m going to put the amount of effort (and coin) that a worthwhile production will likely cost, I want it to be absolutely sickening!
Yay! Okay, so you’re the second-shift karaoke host Tuesday night at Pieces! Always a fun night night. And you’ve hosted karaoke at a lot of venues over the years. When you go to karaoke as an innocent bystander to another venue, what is something that you’ve maybe seen the host there do where you’ve thought “oh, that’s not the right way to do it?”
Everyone makes choices on the mic and on stage that I may not agree with. However, that host is the one who shepherds that crowd on a weekly basis. You find our what works for them, and for you, and you work it. But I’ve also attended karaoke as a civilian significantly less since I’ve started hosting. I may have thought that about a song choice or two, but it’s important to rule things out, too.
What songs are karaoke singers ruining your life with these days?
The worst is when someone takes a song I wanted to perform. “Killing Me Softly” always draws the audience in because everybody knows it and can yell out “one time!”, it has more energy than a boring ballad, and there’s room to showcase some light runs. As a host, you can really bring the crowd together if you do it at the right time. So when someone does a song like that and doesn’t nail it (passion is more important than pitch in karaoke), it can literally be money out of my pocket for the night.
Interesting! I never thought of that when I do karaoke. I usually sing crappy songs no one wants to sing anyway!
So, a big weekly party is GLOW on Saturdays at G Lounge, where you co-host with Brita Filter and a revolving, eclectic cast of guest hosts. I feel like you must do a lot of research into who’s out there and what they’re doing to find such interesting combinations of people to appear each week.
Running GLOW is like saying the alphabet backwards while walking a tightrope blindfolded. There are so many moving pieces between the guest hosts, the bar numbers, the drag suicide, bottle service, photos, flyers, balancing the budget, and a million other details.
Luckily, Brita is phenomenal with that (and super easy to work with). Between the two of us, we can pull in guests from several scenes and put on a spectacular event week-in and week-out. What I love most is being able to hire people I admire and provide an opportunity for a new girl to work and be able to take a cab home. Waiting for the subway and taking a long ride at 3 or 4am can be quite dangerous in drag, especially alone. I also really appreciate that so many of my guest hosts talk about how much fun they had working, and that’s a testament to the stellar staff and DJs that work at G Lounge.
Do hosts make the bulk of their tips from the suicide performance, or do they get a fair share from just walking around and riffing with people? I have no problem tipping party hosts but it sometimes feels weird to hand them money mid-conversation, or to just walk up to them while they’re talking to other people and hand them money.
I can’t speak to anyone else’s compensation, but I’ll just say this: if you can reach into your pocket and pull out your phone, you can reach in the other one and pull out a tip. And if you can’t afford a dollar for a queen you like, you might need to rethink your financial choices.
But if you ever feel weird, just have a tipping phrase in your back pocket. “BTW, I love what you’re doing.” “You’re killing it tonight!” Fishnets are expensive, so tips are always appreciated.
Cool. One great thing about GLOW is its diversity, in every sense of the word. Do you think the city’s LGBT scene is too dominated by white 20-somethings with six-packs?
Do you know how little body fat one has to have to be able to see one’s abs?! I don’t think that many people in our general population are in that kind of shape.
I think those gays are the easiest to notice. I think they get the most likes, which bumps them up in Facebook’s algorithm on everyone’s newsfeed. But if you actually look around the room and objectively observe at the most mainstream of parties, I don’t think that’s the profile of a majority of the people.
NYC is not just a single scene, though. Certain promoters have certain crowds. But if your thing is more niche, you can find that and immerse yourself in that scene and never have to deal with others.
One of the things I love about GLOW (that makes it harder on Brita and me) is that we try to pull hosts from those different scenes. At the end of the day, it’s about the numbers at the bar (and/or door). And if people come and have a good time at your event, they’ll stay and drink more and come back again. Whether you’re a promoter, host, performer, bartender, barback, security, or any other role at a bar, that’s what your job eventually boils down to.
And there’s no favorable exchange rate with the AbDollar these days.
So, in closing… Tuesday happened. Does queer nightlife seem frivolous now, or is it more important than ever?
I like to think we all have something to contribute to The Cause. I may not be cut out to donate tons of money or even do a highly political speech at a rally. But even our most qualified community leaders can’t keep their noses to the grindstone 24/7. They need to take a break, have a drink, chuckle, maybe make out with a stranger. And a night out can be an important part of recharging for the fight. The military has the USO and enlisted entertainment for a reason (shout out to our vets who surely have been through much scarier).
Furthermore, just being seen as we are can inspire. It’s a notion that I became glaringly clear after the Pulse Orlando, tragedy and the bombing in Chelsea (which literally happened a few blocks away from G Lounge on a Saturday as I was getting ready to host GLOW there).
I liken it to flight attendants on a bumpy flight. Seeing them carry on as usual definitely calms me down (even if they are secretly pissing their pants). But yes, I think it’s vital for us to be unapologetically ourselves and visible as much as possible, and I’m excited to be of help to those who need it.
And we thank you for being unapologetically your own fabulous self, Kareem! See you in the clubs!
Kareem McJagger hosts / bartends Playpen Mondays at the Cock (9pm). He hosts the second shift of karaoke at Pieces (beginning at midnight), and co-hosts GLOW Saturdays with Brita Filter at G Lounge (10pm). Kareem can be followed on Facebook, Instagram, Twitter & YouTube.