If you think it’s a bad idea to let a drag queen play with fire… you’re probably right, as a rule. But this queen doesn’t go by the rules, and her amazing pyrotechnics–combined with her slinky freakshow aesthetic and Big Top showmanship–bring us an entertainer unlike anyone else in nightlife. Coming for you like a circus tent on fire, she is at war with the world for your attention, and she will get it. And you will love her for it. Ladies and gentleman, please welcome the incredible Madame Vivien V!
Thotyssey: Hey Vivien! Happy Holidays! Who would you rather hang out with if you had the chance, Santa or Krampus?
Madame Viven V: Hey Gurl! Happy Holidays to you too! I love this time of year, and would definitely rather hang with Santa. He’s like the ultimate daddy: furry, fun, and loaded with gifts.
That is kinda the dream, isn’t it?
So, congrats to making it to the final round of Miss Rockbar recently! Was that your first pageant?
Thank you! It was exciting and unexpected. I don’t do well in competitions usually, so I was legitimately shocked when they kept moving me forward. It wasn’t my first “pageant,” but it was the first one where I enjoyed every step of the process.
I got some fantastic opportunities out of it. For instance, I performed yesterday at City Hall with my colleagues Vic Sin and Clara Beaux for World AIDS Day. One of the judges [from Miss Rockbar] was moved by a piece we presented, and asked us to bring it to the event. It was very exciting, and such an honor to represent the queer and and drag community at such a place.
Can you describe the piece?
Sure! It a modern dance and drag performance we created as a way of expressing our mourning of the LGBTQIA massacre that happened in Orlando this past summer. With that tragedy we, like most others we know, were filled with anger, sadness, courage, fear, confusion. It was such a discombobulation of emotions.
We created the piece as a tool for us to process what we felt, and presented it as a message of strength and hope at our burlesque variety show Lip Service. It’s a tribute to those 49 killed and 53 wounded brothers and sisters. I’m very proud of it!
So, you have certainly brought the drama on stage before, but you also bring the funny, the fierce and the harrowing. Let’s get to the beginning of all of this! What’s your hometown?
Aw shucks! I was born in the in the panhandle of Texas, where you see nothing as far as the eye can see, raised on a pig farm in Washington State, but grew up in Milwaukee, WI. I’ve lived in the top four states occupied by the most notorious serial killers.
That explains a lot! What’s pig farming like? I heard that they’re actually very clean and smart animals.
If we were talking in person, my eye roll would shock you [laughs]! Pig farming is anything but like it’s depicted in film and television. It’s hard work that never ends.
We didn’t just have pigs. We had a massive variety of animals including emus, specialty breed chickens, Scottish Highlander cattle, and more. All farm animals are as smart as any other animal I guess, but they all need looking after. It could drive a person insane! You wake up with work to do, you go to bed with work to do. The sense of accomplishment is rarely reached, and you constantly smell like shit and blood. Being raised in that environment instilled a powerful work ethic in me which I treasure… but damn, I never wish to do that again.
Wow! How did you find the time to even explore the creative, artistic side of you?
Well, smelling like shit all the time doesn’t really attract people to you, and I was always kind of the odd one out. So I used my imagination to entertain myself.
Another perk of farm life is, you are always outside. I did get to play and explore, and I got to do so in a very raw, fantastical environment. Our farm was in the woods at the base of Mt Rainier. It was beautiful.
My mother and father also encouraged my artistic side. I’ve been as flamboyant as winter in Alaska is long my entire life. They saw it plainly, and tried to find environments where I could flourish. Acting class, improv, drawing. They tried to tiptoe around “the gay thing,” so there were limits. But they did the best they could with what they knew, and I’m grateful to them for that.
How and where did you start to develop as a performer–whatever type of performer you were, in the beginning?
My first dream was to become a cartoon. I thought that was an actual thing people could just transform into. My mother reacted with recommending acting classes, so I got involved with the Drew Harvey Theatre in Yelm, WA. The director there was Nancy Hillman, a fabulous, strong woman with an unmatchable stage presence. She did the entire run of Oh Calcutta, the Broadway revue from the late 60s performed entirely nude. I guess being naked in front of thousands of people over time really builds confidence.
That woman was such a role model for me. No BS, and no mothering. She taught me to always be present, aware, and commit. As an actor, you need to not be afraid to expose the person you are when no one is around, which is so much more difficult than people think.
That’s intense! Some people would think, though, that drag is more about becoming something you’re not then being more true to yourself.
There is no one thing that drag is about. Drag is about everything and nothing at the same time. It’s rebellion.
What I’ve seen, and what was the case for me: when people start doing drag, they try to be anything but themselves. They try to hide. I know I didn’t like myself very much before starting drag, but the love and fascination you receive from open-minded people around you when you are in drag can penetrate the mask you’re hiding behind.
I intended Madame to be a sexy, sultry vixen with a sassy side. All character, all the time. But that was very short-lived. I learned myself was enough. People who liked Madame liked [my boy self] Scott, and Madame has become an amplification of myself. She is me with my confidence turned on full blast.
That sounds like the perfect state of being!
It is pretty awesome!
So, at what point did these circus / freakshow / carnival elements start becoming part of your act and persona?
I used to throw knifes as a kid, and always had an affinity for top hats; but running away to the circus was never a dream. Neither was drag, for that matter… but I started drag about a year before I started picking up any circus talents.
I was drawn to fire for some reason. I think it was because I had a near death experience with a gas stove and was once engulfed in flame, but left unharmed. I still remember feeling the fire hit my eyes. I was shaken, but I feel the incident burned away the natural fear of fire (see what I did there?).
So in summer of 2013, I started learning poi from the one of the best teachers ever, Claire de Luxe, and she opened my eyes to a world of talents and creative people. The shows I produce are not like those you see at most gay bars. They are anything punk and expressive, and showcase vast talents you won’t commonly see at a standard drag show.
Because these elements often have specific venue requirements, I was forced to find new places to perform, and thereto found new communities: burners, carnies, strippers; worlds of talented people. Now I’m surround by mindblowing acts on a nightly basis. It’s epic!
A drag queen must be even more flammable than the average person. Have you had any close calls with the pyrotechnics, or did that early childhood incident make you magically immune?
[Laughs] that super power would be awesome! Yes, I am highly flammable as a drag queen, and have had a few close calls. But I practice, and always perform with trained fire safeties who can extinguish me should anything go awry.
New York is going through a transition with fire performances where performers are now having to be licensed by the FDNY to perform fire, and venues are having to be properly fireproofed and licensed as well. This is so we can avoid tragedies like what happened the other day in Oakland. Fire is no joke, and I put my life at risk every time I perform with it.
In September, at my monthly show Bordello at Bizarre, the FDNY tried to pull the plug on my fire performance because my costume was not fireproof. I was livid, because this had never been an issue in the past and I already understood the risk. In response, I got onstage and told them on the mic I appreciated all they do, but they need to know when to step back and let me create my art. Then I pulled off my wig, got naked, and did my performance anyway. Can’t have a flammable costume if you’re bare!
At the end of the night we spoke, and they are now considering giving fire performers annual waivers releasing the Fire Department from any liability if a performer is injured. It’s the same wavier they give stunt workers. It’s amazing, the change a dick in the face can make.
They have been working very hard to understand us, and we them. And so far, it’s been a fantastic relationship. Very Odd Couple.
So, when did you come to NYC exactly, and what brought you here?
I came to New York in November of 2011. I drove through the night from Milwaukee to a job interview, and had my first job within eight hours of being here. I got lucky: came to work on Broadway, and I did.
I started as the administrative intern at Dodger Properties, and later became the assistant to the president of the company, Michael David. It was a complete fluke, but I actually quoted Michael heavily in my high school graduation paper I wrote on commercially producing theatre. He is such a brilliant man, and the opportunities granted to me by working for one of the most spectacular Broadway producers to ever contribute to the Great White Way were life-changing.
In my time there, I worked on the launch of the Jersey Boys second national tour, Matilda, the latest revival of Jesus Christ Superstar; it was a dream come true. On his reference, I was able to attend the Commercial Theatre Institute, and gain valuable knowledge about achieving success as a producer.
My goal now is to continue exploring myself as an artist, and finding ways to step up my game as a producer. I like creating experiences. People are so disconnected from the world, and I feel the overwhelming use of technology blurs one day to the other. I wish to give people moments, memories to treasure.
And now, I’m searching for ways to incorporate my love of nightlife to that dream, and produce powerful works that will reach mass audiences. My second production of Smutcracker is my latest stepping stone.
Let’s talk about that for a bit. I saw your recent casting call for this year’s edition. Can you describe the first production? Was it actually influenced by the ballet?
Some of it was! Last years production was a raunchy retelling of The Nutcracker filled with naked aerialists, fire-eating stilt walkers, violin playing gogo boys, and a whole mess of shit. Our finale was a simulated orgy. It was fantastic!
This year will be a bit different. I wrote the show early in the fall with my friend Vagina Slim, and it was hilarious and stupid. But then the election happened, and we felt we had to make it into a bit more of a statement. We rewrote it, and it’s even more ridiculous and filled with debauchery. But it also has an empowering message.
We would like people to see to the show, and leave feeling courageous and passionate towards fighting for their beliefs. There’s a chance with this new administration that much of what we believe will be put under attack. This show is a reminder that if we stay strong and band together, we can’t be knocked down. We’re calling it Smutcracker: The Defeat of Fascism.
So, the Brooklyn scene is an ever-changing landscape, and we sadly lost a major drag hub there, This-n-That, a few months ago. I guess you had moved on to other venues to accommodate your specific performing style before it closed, but it still must’ve been a crushing blow to you, right?
It was very upsetting. I started at TnT, like so many other Brooklyn queens. I did Scarlet Envy’s Scarlet Fever numerous times, invaded a few nights, kissed many boys, danced my nights away. It was my go-to haven.
Before it’s closing, I started building a new safe space in Bushwick at Wayward Social on Wednesday nights. It’s a party called Rebel Yell. Every Wednesday, Cameron Cole and I host it as a queer night, with 70s rock and modern club kid vibes. The drinks are cheap, and the music is GOOD! Anything goes, and the community it’s building is so mixed and lovely. Everyone is welcome!
I always wondered how you were able to do that party and Lip Service at Hell Phone at basically the same time! Are those venues close together?
Very close! What people do is, they come to Hell Phone for dinner and a show, and then we migrate to Rebel Yell for drinks and a party after. It’s a great set up. This Wednesday the 7th we’re having a Lip Service/Rebel Yell night, and tickets are already on sale on Eventbrite. We’ve started offering open bar to keep people warm in the winter months.
Tell me more about the show at Lip Service, specifically this upcoming edition. Who’s your guest performer, Sarah Jane Washington?
Omg! Sarah Jane Washington is everything. A brilliant artist, singer, costume designer, ladyqueen, club kid. One of the hardest workers and even harder hustlers. She will be singing during our pre-show and between acts.
We create a sexy, jazzy, cabaret vibe. The right lighting, the right cocktails. Hell Phone is a speakeasy located behind a phone booth at Ange Noir Cafe at 247 Varet St in Brooklyn. It’s beautiful. The show I created there with Vic Sin and Clara Beaux is hot, funny, and always a damn good time. Vic Sin brings a very strong, classic burlesque element with his performances, and Clara keeps things cute and humanly with her very modern take on striptease, and I provide the brass and humor. It’s a great collaboration, and physically we just look silly together. I love it!
We rehearse our group performances every week, and do the show every first and third Wednesday. Our bartender Danielle is probably the greatest mixologist this neighborhood has ever been blessed with.
So when’s the next actual Bordello, you’re other circus-themed show that’s usually monthly at Bizarre?
Smutcracker: The Defeat of Fascism is my alternative to Bordello this month. Bordello is every fourth Thursday, and will resume back to it’s regularly scheduled programing January 26th. It’s nice to mix it up in November and December and enjoy the holidays. It allows be time to bring the show back fresh and more fun than before. That’s helped keep it alive, I think. We’ve reached our two and a half year mark!
Wonderful! And I know you’re getting some GLAM love this year with a nomination as Best Door Goddess, congratulations!
Yes! I was very flattered to get a nomination. It’s nice to be recognized by the community.
Door personality is a difficult role, because you kinda have to put on a little show outside, but you also have to be policing people. How do you like doing it?
I love working the door. I get to be the first impression, and I get to spend more time thinking of my looks. It’s easier to build relationships too. Working the door is actual work. You are policing people, handling money, stirring up walk-in business. It’s responsibility, but fun.
Right now, I work the door at House of Yes
every Friday and Saturday, and it’s wonderful. Four minutes from my house, great people, and the best venue in the world. I do performances and collaborations with them on other nights of the week.
And now you’re gonna have a new weekly gig at Branded Saloon with your frequent collaborator, Kinga, starting Thursday, December 8th! I know you two have hosted Drag Race viewing parties there before. What’s that night gonna be like?
YAS! I love game nights, and I love Branded Saloon! The staff is fab, the owner, Gerard, is the the cutest, and the food gives me life. Kinga and I will be there weekly with beer pong, flip cup, trivia, bingo, anything really that gives people a good time. It is the perfect thirsty Thursday.
Will the beerpong balls be on fire?
We have flaming shots! Does that count? I wanna find a way to do a full bar version of Kings Cup. Wisconsin taught me to be a commutative drinker, and it is my duty to educate the people of New York.
It all sounds great! Okay, is there anything else coming, or in the works, you wanna discuss?
I always have projects in the works, and I think you do a damn fine job keeping up with them. There is plenty that can be discussed, but it’s always better to do in person. So I say to everyone reading, GET OUT OF YOUR HOUSE AND CONNECT WITH PEOPLE! That is why I do what I do. To connect, create experiences, and make memories. Come be a part of this world. It’s yours, and as far as I know we only get one life.
That’s the best advice you can give! Okay, last question: Given an unlimited budget and no restrictions, what would the ultimate Madame Viven V experience be, show-wise?
Lordy. It wouldn’t be a show necessarily. Picture your idea of Heaven. If I could find a way to give each person at least a day in their perfect paradise that is what I would do.
I think it would involve twirling stuff on fire, so you’ve already given me heaven! Vivien, thanks so much!
Madame Vivien V hosts Lip Service at Hell Phone (Angel Noir Cafe) on 1st and 3rd Wednesdays (9:30), and Rebel Yell at Wayward Social every Wednesday night (11:30ish). She’ll begin co-hosting Game Night with Kinga at the Branded Saloon on Thursdays starting December 8th (8pm). She generally hosts Bordello at Bizarre Bushwick every fourth Thursday (10pm), but instead in December she’ll host a production of “The Smutcracker“ on Sunday the 18th and Monday the 19th (10pm). Vivien can be followed on Facebook, Instagram, Twitter & YouTube.