RePoint: Gloria Swansong

When last we spoke, Gloria Swansong was in the middle of the “So You Think You Can Drag” competition, slaying challenges and giving life. After a strong second place showing, they’ve become a force to be reckoned with: designing looks for one queen’s stage show, and channeling a legendary performer in some shows of her own. Let’s dive back into the Swan Lake with Gloria!

Thotyssey: Gloria, hello again! How was your Easter?

Gloria Swansong: It was very low key and wonderful. It was so warm! And I’m a sucker for laying in the park in a tiny bathing suit.

That’s universal! So, you’ve been real busy since last we spoke, when you were in the middle of competing in this year’s “So You Think You Can Drag.” Now that it’s long over, how did you enjoy the experience… and has it helped your drag at all?

I don’t want to gush too much, but it really did change so much about my life–drag and non-drag! I have a whole network of drag sisters and mentors now. Not to mention gaining audience from the exposure.

And of course, I discovered a lot about my drag while I was doing it. One of those key discoveries was doing Judy for the first time!

Tell me about this connection you now have with Judy Garland. What is it about her and her music that has given you such inspiration lately to interpret her?

That’s a good question. I often wonder that, and also wonder why she’s become such an LGBTQ icon. I think both answers are wrapped up in the fact that she had a double identity, like many queer people do. To the world she was this horribly tragic, terrifically gifted legend who was in pictures and had records literally her whole life. There really isn’t a modern equivalent to what she was: actress, singer, dancer, vaudeville entertainer, and TV personality.

And yet, she had this personal life that was distorted and slandered to sell papers. Most of those rumors proved to be completely false. But she was raised on a Hollywood MGM lot and developed an early dependency on prescription uppers and downers and weight loss supplements. But she wasn’t sick, and it wasn’t an addiction because that way of thinking about substances hadn’t really taken hold in the medical community.

Now… none of this is what draws me to Judy. In fact, most of it I’ve only learned in just the last five years. But all of that life experience meant that the time she was onstage or on camera–that magical quality she had that permeates film, records, and decades of time–I truly believe that was the only time she was herself. There were no managers, no problems; her performance was a true escape. It’s interesting to think that in those most iconic  “Judy Garland” performances, she’s actually probably more Francis Gumm, the little girl raised in vaudeville.

So, when you choose to perform as Judy, is it for the purpose of channeling that spirit, or are you more interested in educating people about who she really was and why she’s so vital?

Exactly, both actually… and hopefully at the same time. I try to bring the raw emotion she had into live performance. Unbridled joy, aching pain, bittersweet longing – I strive to be as expressive as her, and also to allow myself to escape a little bit too.

Education is important too. My last show touched on that a little bit, and this one is going to take it further. I don’t want to lecture people with facts. There are so many documentaries in the world about Judy–almost as many impersonators too–and many of them expound on the facts of her life, sensationalizing her tragedies. But I’ve never seen a documentary or an impersonator who actually tried to understand her in a meaningful way. That’s the void I’m trying to fill.

So I’ve limited myself to only using Judy’s words in my show. No other content. I’m trying to make this show about her interior during those MGM years. I’m leaving it up to the audience to make the connections and read between the lines.

Did you basically watch all her her movies and listen to all of her records when you were creating these shows?

Yes, and I’m still unearthing new material! I haven’t seen all of the films–some don’t really exist in their entirety–but I’ve done my research. And I’m still doing it! It’s amazing how much stuff she did in such a shortened life

I want to talk a little about costumes for your Judy series; since SYTYCD, you’ve developed quite a reputation in the NYC drag community as a designer and tailor of gowns and looks. 

Yes! Actually that was one of my fave parts of SYTYCD, it forced me to make two outfits every week. And I had a ball doing it.

What have been some of your favorite Judy looks to recreate so far?

It’s subtle, but I was very happy with how my “The Man That Got Away” dress turned out! I don’t have photos of it, but I do have a sequin top/cigarette pant outfit that I think is incredibly iconic to her concert performances. 

I think two of my favorites are in this upcoming show, because her clothes in her movies were so iconic! They’re both from Meet Me in St. Louis. One is a dress inspired by the red dress she wears to the Christmas dance, and the other is the blue and white striped dress she wears in the first scene. I did the blue and white striped dress for SYTYCD, but it wasn’t quite right. So I revamped it and added a lot more detail!

I never thought about how many iconic looks she had, but you’re quite right. Generally speaking, were you very surprised to find yourself making stuff for other queens after SYTYCD?

I haven’t actually made that much for that many people… I’m working on a few projects that are hush hush at the moment (‘’tis the season, if you get my drift), but really I’ve only made things for Sutton Lee Seymour’sFAME-ISH” and “Queens Against Humanity.” Both of which I’m excited to see!

So, how did your first Judy show at The Green Room back in February go? You already described it a little, but did it convey what you wanted it to convey?

It went so, so well. It was a very cohesive show that I’m excited to add to for the “Judy at the Stonewall” show in June! It was really mostly about me seeing if I could actually do it, and if people would be interested! Turns out I can, and [director] Gina Tonic and I are mounting these as a sort of workshop for what we hope will be a larger, more heavily produced Judy Show in the future that spans her whole life. Big dreams!

How about the show on April 23, back the Green Room again? Will this be similar to that February show?

Judy at the Green Room: The MGM Years will be all new material exploring the relationship between her early life and the autobiographical tapes she made in the last year of her life. Those performances were so joyful and bright, when behind the screen her life was riddled with insecurities and substance dependencies.

Why do you think Judy was so sympathetic and loving of her queer fanbase, at a time when almost no one wanted anything to do with the LGBT community?

I’m glad you brought that up, because it’s a common modern misreading of Judy. She had a wide, wide audience that spanned sometimes four generations in a family. She had queer fans, she had a wide international fan base, she had people who loved to slander and hate on her for her multiple marriages and reported fits of drama.

Among all of that, yes… she had a very very strong fan base of gay men (mostly closeted for obvious reasons in the period). But she wasn’t vocal about her support for their “equal rights” because, frankly, that concept didn’t yet exist. She couldn’t openly support homosexuality in that period. No one could. So instead, you see her spreading a message or “I love all of my fans, I don’t care who they are.” Which sounds very dull to us but was quite provocative in the period.

And of course, as you may know, she was incredibly close to her father and hated her controlling stage mother. Her father was a musician and taught her how to perform. Her mother attempted to cultivate that talent into something that could make them money.

Judy’s family moved a lot because her father was trying to escape a growing criminal record for “being a Sodomite.” In other words he was gay, and when people found out about his affairs, [the Gumms] left. Judy never addressed this publicly, but privately she admitted that some of her adoration for her father would transfer to the gay men she met in her life (including her first husband, supposedly).

A sad pattern for her life, but a groundsbreaking worldview in a matter of speaking. That brings us to Stonewall, and whatever her feelings towards her gay audiences, Judy and Stonewall will forever be intertwined. So it’s great and fitting that you’re bringing her there on June 18th and 19th. What’s that version of the Judy Experience gonna be like?

It’s really going to be a celebration of her whole life. I’ll be doing it all: early movies, later movies, the concert years, her wartime stuff, acting monologues and stories she told on mic. It’ll be a ‘highlights’ reel of her life.

Do you have plans for any other icons to get the Gloria Swansong treatment in the future?

Oh my gosh. I’m so glad you asked that. YES. They will. I have several I’m interested in doing–including my namesake, Ms. Swanson.

She was also pretty fascinating! And you certainly have your fair share of turbans and headwraps for that show already! Okay, what else should we know about in Gloria’s world?

Well, I should take this chance to say that I will be leaving NYC for a little bit to design some shows. But no worries! I will be hopping back and forth frequently. But it does mean I won’t be doing as many weekly engagements/guesting. But come August, I’ll be hustling me a place to have a regular show!

Werk! Okay, last question: as Feud reaches its finale on FX next week, tell us: are you Team Bette or Team Joan?

I AM A BETTE DAVIS ALL OF THE WAY! I hate Joan Crawford.

Take that, Joan! And thank you, Gloria!

Gloria Swansong stars in “Judy at the Green Room” (New World Stages) on Sunday, April 23rd (8pm), and “Judy at Stonewall” on June 18th and 19th (7pm). They can be followed on Facebook, Instagram, Twitter & YouTube.

Previously: Gloria Swansong (10.12.2016)

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