Sporting a diversity of glam looks and a stage presence that’s both weirdly funny and seriously smart, this queen has been turning the party in both Brooklyn and Manhattan for a few years now. And with her “always look ahead” attitude, she’ll be evolving and conquering our venues for years to come. Let’s get into Elizabeth James!
Thotyssey: Hello, Miz Liz! How’s the week been so far?
Elizabeth James: Good morning love, my week has been great. Oh, the promise of spring!
This has been a pretty mild winter so far, only that one blizzard that turned out to be kinda meh. Did that one ruin any of your gigs that night, or plans?
No, I was actually off that night so had a great dinner and watched old movies.
Perfect! As a way-booked queen, do you get to have a reasonable amount of downtime, or is your life like 93% drag-related?
I work a lot, whether it’s on stage or not. Liz is somewhat all-consuming. But my days off are usually Monday and Tuesday, and I really make it a point to disconnect and put my focus on things outside of my career. That keeps me fresh, but it took a while to earn those days off.
I bet! You certainly put a lot into Liz. How long have you been doing drag now?
It’s been four years now, New Year’s Eve is my drag anniversary.
That’s interesting! What made you want to try drag on NYE?
I lived in Nashville, TN at the time, and a guy we knew asked my friend Kaleb and I if we would host his party in drag. When my first song ended, I remember running back stage and telling my friends “Something special just happened.” I was hooked.
I heard that you named yourself “Elizabeth James” after a certain photograph.
Yes. One of Elizabeth Taylor taking a nap in James Dean’s lap. But that was long before drag; I thought I would name a puppy that, or maybe an adopted daughter. Never thought I would do drag. Truly.
I love that her face is on the gossip mag he is reading:
That is adorable! Human, but still glamorous.
‘Human but still glamorous’ I think that maybe the perfect description of Me.
Absolutely! Mostly glamorous, though.
You’ve spoken about how you had to cut ties with your mom and stepdad at a young age because they didn’t accept your sexuality. Do you think they’ll ever be able to get over that hump?
No, I don’t. But I also don’t think I’m missing out on anything by not having a relationship with them. Things happen in your life that may seem wrong at the time, but end up being such a blessing. If they hadn’t done that, I would still be living in Kentucky trying to make them love me.
And now you’re in NY and everybody here loves you… it’s their loss! Having a Trump in the White House validates people who have intolerance towards “alternate” lifestyles, of course.
Everything is validation to the ignorant, because they don’t understand the true meaning of their choices. And very little chance getting through to them.
Gilda Wabbit is also from Kentucky, is it possible that there are more Kentucky-born drag queens in New York than there are in KY?
So funny to think about how I thought of it then. Drag, like being an artist or dancer or something, isn’t a thing you realize is a possibility. I imagine there are just as many drag queens in every location of the world; they just don’t see the possibility.
I’m sure that’s true. So what brought you to NY specifically: did you want the lifestyle, or were you maybe looking for a career in performing in some capacity?
I was offered a job as Liz, and things literally just fell into place, so I did it. Best decision I have ever made!
Where was that?
Sugarland, of course! I worked with a blogger at the time in Nashville name “Holly Hollywood,” and her publisher sent us around to interview different people in nightlife across the northeast. New York, and more specially Sugarland, was our last stop. I was offered a job on the spot and a free couch.
I arrived in Chinatown October 15th at 11am with a suitcase and $35. It was [originally] $75, but I paid my phone bill and got a bag of Cheetos at a gas station on the way up.
The first time I ever saw you perform was at the old Boots & Saddle on Christopher Street. You did lots of guest spots at first, and eventually hosted your own weekly show there.
Boots was a hell hole, but It did teach me how to carry a show. Sink or swim, you are there for two hours. After sinking a few times, you make it a point to swim. I will also say that [”head” Boots queen at the time] Victoria Chase was always so good to me, and taught me so much about the business. And I miss her directness.
I always liked your sense of humor as a performer, kind of warm and kooky, but smart. Untitled Queen compared you to Goldie Hawn. Is that your natural state, or does that have to be turned on when you’re on stage?
I’m fully myself. I love performing, and I love making jokes. And the only way for me to be good at either one is to be me. The thing that Liz does for me is give me the freedom to put my mind in the shoes of different people. And of course, my life is what I talk about on stage and in my comedy. My look informs my performances, and my performances are informed by my life.
You certainly do not have a specific look; I’ve seen you go very high glam and very downtown chic, and everything in between and beyond.
People tell me all the time I should be one look. But the people who enjoy what I do enjoy change and diversity. I love to push things and try new ideas. It doesn’t always work at first, but I always find it.
Do you have style icons?
It’s tough to give a name. But I think my style is more so influenced by inspiring personalities. One well-written line of dialogue or lyric can give me weeks of visuals to play off.
Interesting! You hosted a Rocky Horror screening back in October.
Yes, for Pace University.
That movie must’ve been an influence style-wise, right?
Even that… I was sort of a hybrid of different personalities from that. I’m not an impersonator, I don’t have that level of self control. I will never directly copy. There is no point to it.
I bet you could do a mean Cher, though.
Oh, I love her! Do you know, in 5th grade when “Believe” came out, my teachers would pull me out of class into the empty halls of my small town Kentucky elementary school to do my Cher impersonation!? They loved it! I laugh about that all the time. Drag was my destiny!
I can see that! So, I imagine you must miss Sugarland and another now-closed Brooklyn venue where you performed, TNT, quite a lot.
No, I really don’t miss them. I had a blast there, and those times in my life were important, but I don’t hold on to things in that way. No point, just slows you down. I love my shows much more now.
I had worked at those places from the time I arrived in New York, so I was a different person, and it was time to move forward. Things don’t close because they are doing well. And nostalgia is boring.
I know what you mean about nostalgia. It’s especially boring, I think, when people just try to recreate something that was successful in its time. I’m thinking right now of all these live action remakes of classic Disney animated films, which I don’t see the appeal of at all.
But you wouldn’t, because you have your set of memories about those works. So the “new” isn’t necessarily for you, it’s to inspire the young ones who don’t care about the versions we grew up loving. (This is clearly the proverbial “you” and not pointing directly at you.)
But I think it’s weird that a live action version would be more appealing to today’s youth than animation. I figured animation would be timeless.
I think the energy of live action feels fresh to people. That’s why Reality TV is so big: it feels in the moment, when done correctly. But animation: come on, I love colors! what’s your favorite classic animated film…. classic meaning anything before the glory and awe of Pixar?
As far as Disney goes, probably Pinocchio? Creepy and beautiful and sweet and devastating, all at once.
Pinocchio is amazing…. the color stories through it are really special.
What’s your favorite?
Peter Pan… But [as far as characters go] I liked Cinderella the most, because I felt she had a quiet sass. But the pixie dust is beautiful!
Okay, let’s gab about gigs! I actually wanna start with Manhattan. You and your partner-in-crime Ruby Roo are the toast of the borough! In the West Village, your Sunday night show at the Duplex with her, “Two For The Show,” just turned three years-old, and you have quite a following there. What’s the best part of doing this show for you?
Duplex is such a special baby. We were so new when that show happened for us, and we have grown up with that show. So it’s now finding a solid ground of success three years later, and Ruby and I both seeing our past dreams come true is incredible.
And the staff there, including Tony our manager and the venue’s owner, have let us figure it out and learn our craft through it. That doesn’t happen in entertainment very often, where you either HIT or you’re out.
You two have the longest-running drag show there, and all the other queens on the roster also happen to be Lips girls. Do they ever try to recruit you into that fold?
No, I think everyone understands that’s not a good fit. But those girls work hard and are 100% professional, Ruby included.
You and Ruby are now also lighting up Hardware in Hell’s Kitchen with SLAY Saturdays! I imagine that’s a pretty different scene from the West Village and Brooklyn. How well do you mesh there–or do you not think about it in those terms?
You have to think about it in those terms – because this is a business, and one size does not fit all. Hardware is a different thing, but from Night One we had people coming out to say how much they loved coming to Brooklyn to see us. We unknowingly already had a great following in that area. Plus, everyone in HK has dreams in their eyes, they sparkle when they walk in. Its fun to see.
All the Broadway babes!
Yea they’re glittery! But Brooklyn is my home, and nothing beats home, and all the charming people in it.
Which brinks us to BK! Your long-running Wednesday party and show at Metropolitan Bar, CAKES–starring you, DJ Horrorchata and Untitled, is fun–and there’s bare butts, so it’s even more fun in my book. Is it usually a chore to get guys to enter the Best Butt contest?
Not at all…. I hate audience participation in most cases, but that’s so much harmless, sexy fun. And you tell a room of cute guys and girls they can win $50 for showing what they just shared on Instagram, they are always down. It amazes me how every Wednesday is such a blast, great way to start my work week! We have also added Hannah Lou as our DJ, alongside Chatta.
Oh, nice! She seemed to be DJing every party in Brooklyn now.
She’s a hard worker and talented– I like her a lot!
You also host a show called ”Air Play” at Metro’s sister bar, Macri Park, right?
It’s the first and third Friday at midnight. I do two sets and I keep it low-key. It’s like my living room, and I love it.
And now: RuPaul’s Drag Race Season 9! Is hosting a Drag Race viewing party, and the whole culture of the show, a necessary evil for you–or do you get into it?
Its a cute time. I’ve hosted at a new place each year, just because, why not? This year i am at a place in Bushwick called The Well, and I believe it’s the best venue for a viewing in Brooklyn. The setup, the sound: it’s right. And it’s a great stage for a good follow-up show, hosted by me of course.
Do straight or mixed audiences get just as in to the show as a room full of queens?
That show is for everyone. I’m happy to see it on VH1; I think it’s only going to grow the audience.
So this is a dangerous question maybe, but who’s team are you on, queen-wise?
Aja. Nothing against anyone else, but the girl deserves every bit of good fortune given to her. She is so incredible, and has worked her ass off for everything she’s ever had. Special person, true discipline.
Shes amazing! Anything else to mention?
I work 4-5 nights a week. Follow me on Instagram or add me on Facebook–I post everything! And I really am proud of all my shows. So come to the one that works best for you!
By the way, I like the video you put together awhile back to Echo Friendly’s “Same Mistakes.” It’s very stylish and bittersweet. Any more projects like that in the future for you?
I am currently working on a few projects… TBA.
And I caught an old clip of Misty Meaner joking on the mic that you hate everybody. Were you in the room when she said that?
I wasn’t there, and I don’t hate everyone. I’m just not available to everyone.
I would never think you hated anyone, you’re always lovely! So, lastly: what’s your favorite part of drag?
Knowing people believe in you.
Yasss. And what’s least favorite thing about drag in NYC, or in general?
Drag in general: being hot. And in NYC, it’s taking the subway in heels. But I have to live that fantasy through, so don’t tell me to put on a flat. Like the prostitute once said, “it’s not the work, it’s the stairs.”
Keep climbing, gurl, and thank you!
Elizabeth James co-hosts “CAKES” with Untitled Queen and Horrorchata at Metropolitan Bar on Wednesdays (10pm), and hosts “Air Play” at Macri Park monthly on first and third Fridays (midnight). With Ruby Roo, she co-hosts “SLAY Saturdays” at Hardware (10pm) and “Two For The Show” at the Duplex (Sundays, midnight). This season, she hosts the “RuPaul’s Drag Race” viewing party at The Well (8pm). Check here for other scheduled appearances. Follow Liz on Facebook, Instagram & YouTube.