Simply one of New York City’s most graceful, gorgeous, poised, positive and professional nightlife performers, Brenda Dharling is probably the only drag queen that no girls really mind losing the pageant crown to (they better not, she has like fifteen of them). This fierce dancer brings her A-game to every stage she’s on, and if we all didn’t love her so much, we’d simply just respect the hell out of her. And oh, what a busy December she’ll be having! Thotyssey breaks it down with the incredible Brenda Dharling.
Thotyssey: Thank you for talking to us, Queen Brenda, and happy holidays! So, let’s start with the most important question: What do you want for Christmas?
Brenda Dharling: Hi Jim! Christmas time is of course my favorite time of the year. This Christmas, I would love a vacation. It doesn’t have to be a long one, but I would love to get out of the city for a bit and not worry about anything except rest and relaxation.
Gurl, you deserve it! You are one of the hardest working, most Turnt-able queens in NYC.
Thank you, I am very thankful to have a career that I am passionate about in such an amazing and competitive city.
I think you’ve worked everywhere by now. Speaking of which, this just in: XL is closing! Any reaction to this news, or any XL memories to share?
Of course I find it unfortunate that a venue which allows our community to gather, let loose and have fun has closed. I have performed at XL for pageants and awards shows, and I would have to say sharing the stage with my friends during the awards shows is what I will remember the most.
It was a great venue for big events and pageants.
So, you’ve been tearing it up for awhile now… how long have you been in New York?
I’ll be celebrating my sixth NYC anniversary in January. It has gone by so quickly!
OMG congrats! And you’re a Connecticut native, so I’m sure NYC has been in your life for a long time. What was it like for you, growing up in Bristol?
Yes I grew up in Bristol, CT, which is home to ESPN headquarters and Lake Compounce Amusement Park (the oldest in the area, but quite updated). My dance studio is in Bristol, and is a great location to visit both NYC and Boston because it’s right in the middle.
Dancing and performing have always been in your family.
Yes, both my mother and my sister danced. My parents truly made us do everything: swimming, tennis, musical instruments, scouts, dance and gymnastics. But as you get older, things get more expensive, and I chose to continue my dance education.
Good choice! How were things otherwise when you were a kid–did you get along with other kids?
Growing up, I was always a social butterfly. I wanted to talk to everyone, and do everything. Middle school is when the gay bullying and comments started, but it did not last long. I have never been one to feed into or promote negativity, and I feel that surrounding myself with like minds really helped me to come into my own.
Your friends and fans have always appreciated your wonderful outlook, it’s part of what makes you such a great queen!
So, when did you become Brenda?
Well, besides a couple of Halloween costumes back in the day, Brenda really debuted a year before I moved to NYC–in Philadelphia, at a bar called Woody’s. RuPaul’s Drag Race was just starting, and I was asked to do a mini-competition (so mini it was just three contestants!). I performed maybe once every month or so, but things really got going once I moved to the city.
And who influenced your drag early on?
My biggest influence is Victoria Le Paige from Chicago. She is a former multinational pageant title holder. She is always put together: class and style, very talented and humble. She makes eye contact and acknowledges everyone. I just live for her.
Do you remember what your first number was?
Yup! My first number was “Hush Hush” by the Pussycat Dolls. I had a black swimsuit with plastic rhinestones, knee-high socks, pumps and a white puff coat. I thought I was the T [laughs].
Oh, I’m sure you were! Were you afraid to dance in heels at first?
I was not afraid to dance in heels. I definitely was pumping around my apartment, and was practicing. I did learn which ones I like to dance in, and which ones were for walking around and posing.
When you ultimately moved to NYC, were you looking for drag gigs, dancing gigs or something else?
When I first moved to New York, I was looking for a change of scenery and life. I have always danced in concert dance companies, and was looking for something new. I was looking for any gig in performance, quite honestly. I saved some money, and was lucky enough to live with my best friend which let me get on my feet.
There were so many opportunities to perform in drag that I was out and about five days a week, mostly drag competitions. It was doing those appearances that really pointed me in the direction that drag entertainment was more than a hobby; it was a career.
What was your first paid gig here?
Let’s talk about pageants! You must have close to 20 titles by now.
I have close to that number, I think only 15 so far [laughs]!
Well, at this point when Brenda Dharling arrives at the pageant, most of the other competitors are like, “well, I tried it.” What was your first proper pageant, and what drew you to that world?
I have always enjoyed pageantry and competition. I think it is a great way to learn from others and learn about yourself. You try to strive to be your best, and I feel that if you give it your all, you have got nothing to lose.
My first proper pageant was Miss’d America in Atlantic City. Of course I thought I had it in the bag; however I did not even place [laughs]!
You were a quick learner though! Your Mom has created a lot of your looks, both your day-to-day dance costumes and I believe some of your pageant gowns too, right?
My mom definitely is a great supporter, as are my dad and sister. My mother was so excited to get out and fix old dance costumes of mine and my sister’s so that I could have them for performances.
I always remember that one gorgeous black gown with the heavy gold-trimmed ruffles. Did she have a hand in that?
She did help me pick out the black and gold gown, which was my first big investment. After that I started working with Michael Perez in regards to pageantry. They both have had great input.
These days, how do you choose and research what pageants you’re going to enter? Do you have an idea early in the year what you’re gonna do, or do you kinda choose as you go?
There is a such a variety of pageants. Some are for boy/queens, some trans, some a mix of both, some are beauty, some geared towards talent and other for creativity and costumes. I think it is great to try a little bit of everything and see what you like best. There is truly something for everyone.
I have friends who have been in a variety of systems for quite a long time, and I do rely on their opinions as well as my own personal homework. Pageantry of any kind is an investment, so might as well invest well.
What’s the best piece of advice you could give to a young queen who’s considering her first pageants?
I would definitely say to go watch one first. Even better, watch a couple. Being in the environment that you want to be in will really get your head in the game. Take notes, pick your favorites and then watch the results. That way, there is some comparison to let you know what the judges were looking for. Then start putting your package together. Also, if you have any questions, don’t be afraid to ask the promoter or the reigning queen. It is their job to inform you. They want people to be involved and they have the answers.
Do you have to be a perfectionist to be a pageant queen?
I don’t consider myself to be a perfectionist. Yes, I am very competitive and I work hard, but I don’t let it consume me. Drag for me is performance art, and there is always something that can be improved upon. There is a certain aesthetic that I like–and a way I choose to present myself–but at the end of the day we are all human. So if something happens, it is not the end of the world.
Drag is something that I love. Pageants are something that I enjoy. It’s all about fun and that is most important.
Have you had a favorite pageant experience so far, either a win you really appreciate or just a moment?
Most definitely, my favorite was winning Miss Fire Island. I started visiting Cherry Grove years before I even started drag. The community out there is so open-armed and welcoming. I always felt safe and had a great time.
The year that I won, I just competed in Miss Continental in Chicago for the first time. It was a big year of planning and work. And when I was crowned Miss Fire Island, it wasn’t just validation for my year’s work, but also I was becoming a part of a community that I love.
My summer was great. It flew right by. It was my second year hosting the Pool Show with Logan, and my first doing a show by myself.
The Pool Show is one of a kind. You never know who you are going to meet, and what is going to happen. What I can always count on is having a great time performing with my friend. We definitely build each other up and help each other grow. The Ice Palace is an amazing family, as is the community of Cherry Grove. It is a lot of work during the summer, but all worth it when it comes down to adventures and memories.
Do you think the Grove Hotel will be back next summer? I personally doubt it, but they say “maybe!”
I definitely have my fingers crossed that it will be. Since the season has ended, they have been working really hard. They already have the second floor up. It is very exciting to watch their progress on Facebook. We will see!
So lets talk about current gigs: your show uptown at Suite is Blackout Friday, which that you co-host with Miz Cracker, and it’s you’re longest running show. Remind us how you two got thrown together for that one.
Well, we actually competed in a Friday night competition, and at the end of four weeks we were tied, so we got the show together.
Blackout Friday has a loyal following, and Cracker told us it’s a pretty intellectual group of fans that keeps coming.
We definitely have are regulars. It is also located across from Columbia University, so there’s a lot of college students!
You’re known mostly for your dancing and she’s known largely for her comedy, but you both are well-versed in all things drag. What do you think the formula is for your success with that show?
We are so different, but we both do a bit of everything. It is so easy to work with her. I think the formula is variety: comedy, dance, costumes and personality. It’s a show with a little bit of everything.
So, the first time I saw you perform was for a similar contest to the one that got you the Blackout show: to be one of three hosts for a Tuesday show at the old Boots & Saddle! You did so well in that competition that the owner was just like fuck it, she gets her own show.
And now you remain with the Boots family, hosting Turn Me Out Tuesdays. That’s the only place to catch solo Brenda all year, and it’s a lot of fun. How do you think you’ve evolved as a queen since you started that show?
I think that show has helped me become more personable and witty. I always love asking people where they are from, what they do and so on. When you are hosting by yourself, you have to make sure that the show keeps pace and that your audience is into it. Drag performers are supposed to be entertaining. People love drag shows because they want to be entertained: laugh, smile, forget about work and the outside world. I have learned that drag performers are voices for our LGBTQ community, and people follow and listen to a lot of what we have to say.
You were Miss Boots & Saddle 2016, and you’ll be stepping down in December for the new winner. Do you know what the format for Miss Boots & Saddle 2017 is gonna be?
I believe that the Miss Boots pageant will begin in December and end in January. Every Monday there will be a prelim up to five girls a week doing presentation, talent, evening gown and q&a. The winners of each week will compete in the finale.
Do you know if you’ll be judging this year?
I am not sure if I am judging, I haven’t been asked yet.
But you’ve definitely judged pageants before; is it challenging to judge your friends fairly when they are competing?
I personally do not find it difficult to judge my friends. The categories and criteria for each is cut and dry. I look for the execution, creativity, clarity, and overall. There have been some times that there were some pretty close calls, so thank God there are other judges on the panel. If I had to pick just a winner, I think it would be extremely hard.
You took part in your good friend and Boots sister Prada G. Major’s MS Benefit show last month, which was a lot of fun and a huge success. And I really loved watching you two perform together with another fierce dancing queen, your girl Jada Valenciaga. Can’t you all get a regular show together somewhere already???
Prada is amazing. She is one of the people I met when I first moved here. We just clicked and have been family ever since. To take something so personal as multiple sclerosis and turn it into a positive truly gave her back her power. $5,500 [earned] in one night is unbelievable. I’m so proud.
Jada is what I like to call my ace. She’s also family. She has helped me in numerous projects, pageants, shows, dances and more. I am truly grateful for her friendship. It is so much fun to perform with both of them. We will see what the future brings!
And then there’s Queen, a huge scale, popular drag revue at Industry Thursday nights that includes a revolving cast of the city’s best drag performers–which of course includes Brenda Dharling. The 6-year anniversary of the Queen is coming up real soon. What’s been your favorite of the show’s weekly themes so far?
I can not believe we are 6 years and going strong. My favorite themes so far have been X-Men (I have always been a fan of them since I was a kid) and The Lion Queen (based off The Lion King). Pixie Aventura mentioned that theme, and it definitely was so fun to bring our drag interpretation of the Disney story to Queen.
How did it go last week with the classic dancing themes? I know you had to shop for a last minute replacement dance partner, right?
Last week, Dancing with the Queens was so fun. It was a half-theme, so the first were queens’ choice and the second was our partner dancing. We had salsa, tango, rumba, swing and waltz. Jada, my ace, came through and saved the day. It was funny because I was so much taller… but no complaints! She came all the way through, and the theme was a success.
That’s our Jada! I know a lot of celebs like to come through and crash Queen when they have goodies to pander to the gays. Have you been there for any of those nights?
I was there when Nick Jonas and Demi Lavato came. Demi performed her single “Confident” and was excellent. They were both really nice. That same night Kate Hudson was also there, but was keeping low.
I don’t think I’ve ever heard you sing… can you?
Can I sing, yes. Should I, well that’s a different story. Singing has never been a passion of mine to take seriously. I have done some community musicals and I love karaoke. For the most part, I keep it in the shower.
Let’s talk about Distorted–a troupe that consists of your Queen showrunner Holly Dae and cast members Pixie, Bootsie LeFaris and yourself–which runs select Friday’s at the Laurie Beechman. For most of the year, you all do Distorted Diznee, which of course sends up and taints our favorite Disney moments. It’s a hugely popular show that attracts a straight theatre audience as well as the gays, and it gets a huge response every night. For jaded gay audiences you have to set yourself on fire sometimes, because they’ve seen it all, but it must feel great to get that huge applause and fanfare from the Beechman audience, right?
Yeah Distorted Diznee has been quite successful. We have sold out all our Diznee shows this year. I am thankful to be apart of such a fun show. Since it is a Friday night, in time square, a drag Disney_themed dinner theater show, our audience has been mostly bachelorette and birthday parties. They are coming to have fun and want to see the show, as does everyone else in the audience. It’s a different energy to have people come and pay to see your show, compared to people just bopping into the bar. Our audiences have been great.
And this Friday you’ll be doing the first of three Distorted Krismesses! Did you do this last year?
Yes, this Friday we bring back Distorted Kristmess. I have done the show before… I was unable to last year due to schedule conflicts, but I’m back! I am excited, because I love this time of season and it is a lot of fun to change it up and do something different. Lots of new numbers, it’s going to be great.
As far as all your weekly shows this coming month, are you emotionally and physically prepared to do ”All I Want for Christmas Is You“ three or four times a week?
Truly the theme song of the season. I promise to my audiences and to myself that the limit of that song in one week is two [laughs]!
It’s always a fun night. I will not be performing at the awards, but I will be in attendance and performing later that night at Toys for Tots at Boots!
So, you are always so positive and upbeat, and that’s one of the reasons people are so drawn to you as a performer and a person. It looks like some pretty dark times are gonna be upon us soon. Are you confidant that you can still be a ray of light in all of this awfulness?
Absolutely. I have been doing what I love and living my life the way that I want for quite some time. No one person has the right or the power to change who you are and how you should be.
I think that we all need to know that nothing happens over night. There have been great strides and setbacks. As long as we continue to make our voices and opinions heard, we will be alright. I am doing the same things as I was yesterday, and I hope to be and do better tomorrow.
Inspirational as always! Okay, anything else coming up?
Oh, Monster! You’re a monthly recurring guest performer for Holly Dae’s show Holly & Her Dollies there on Wednesdays. But December 14th she’ll be hosting the pageant instead. Are you competing?
I am not competing. I started judging that pageant when it first started, and I don’t think that it is fair for a head judge to compete. I am very excited to see what the contestants will bring. You know I live for a pageant!
Okay, final question: we’ve got your Christmas wish covered. How about a New Year’s wish?
It would be that in a time of confusion, I hope that people don’t forget their loved ones. Many things may come up, different views and division, but we only have a limited time on this earth. Enjoy life while you can. I hope everyone has a great holiday season!
You too Brenda, and thank you!
Brenda Dharling hosts Turn Me Out Tuesdays at Boots & Saddle (10pm).On December 11th she’ll perform there for the Toys for Tots benefit (starting at 8pm), and she’ll be stepping down as Miss Boots & Saddle during the 2017 pageant beginning on December 19th.
She also appears as a monthly guest for Holly Dae’s show at Monster on Wednesdays (11:30pm), and will judge the Miss Monster 2017 pageant there on December 14th (11:30pm).
Brenda is a rotating cast member of Queen at Industry on Thursday nights (11:30pm), and will appear on the 6th Anniversary presentation of Queen on December 8th. She also performs with the Distorted troupe at the Laurie Beechman theatre on select Fridays (usually 9:30pm), and for three consecutive Fridays starting November 25th they will be doing Distorted Kristmess shows. Also weekly on Fridays, she co-hosts Blackout with Miz Cracker at Suite (midnight). Brenda can be followed on Facebook, Instagram & Twitter.