A drag queen since the ‘90s, this musician and entertainer has been one of the scene’s best known and most successful charity fundraisers. And with her final benefit for her AIDS Walk team the CandyWrappers going down at the Albatross this weekend, we’re very much catching her during her busiest season. Join Thotyssey for a taste of the amazing Candy Samples!
Thotyssey: Candy, hello and thanks for talking to us!
Candy Samples: Oh, it’s my pleasure!
How much Easter candy did you get this year?
I didn’t get nearly enough..where are my Peeps?!
Do you see that Peeps Pizza is a thing now? Are we okay with this, or do people need to be punished?
People need to start incorporating more veggies into their lives. Y’all, folks have gotten crazy with these hybrid dishes here in the Big Apple!
I know, it’s wonderful. I mean, terrible!
So, we’re getting very close now to the AIDS Walk, a cause that’s almost synonymous with you and your walking crew, the CandyWrappers, at this point. You’ve been hosting fundraisers and CandyWrapper-related events for months. Are these weeks leading up to the Walk the busiest you are all year?
Jim, you are right on the money! This is the craziest part of my year, leading up to the AIDS Walk. We’re just about a month away, and I’ve been working alongside my co-captain, Jesse Pasackow (aka Tucker Bowles in the burlesque circles) on all kinds of fundraising events.
Believe it or not, we had our first fundraiser this past October! Yes, we’ve been doing stuff since then! April really is big for us, though. We have something– or two somethings–every week until May 21st.
Has fundraising gotten more or less difficult since you started leading the CandyWrappers?
This is the sixth year I’ve had the CandyWrappers AIDS Walk team, and this is definitely the hardest year to fundraise. It’s all really due to how social media has changed in this past election. I know folks in our more liberal circles are seeing it. We are more involved: going to protests, town halls and the like. But folks aren’t running to make donations right now. Plus, folks are making donations to other groups that are threatened, like Planned Parenthood.
This new administration has got us scared. But this is the time we need even more for AIDS. New York State is well on the way to ending the epidemic levels of new infections by 2020. So groups like GMHC, Housing Works, etc. must thrive right now. We have to keep it up if we want to be a model for the rest of the country.
It’s interesting, the role that social media has played.
Facebook and Twitter have become much more political. It used to be me posting about AIDS Walk in between people’s vacation or dinner postings. I miss seeing what y’all had for dinner!
What’s been your favorite fundraising event leading up to the Walk this year?
My favorite fundraisers are the small events I do. I host a group to watch RuPaul’s Drag Race at my home in Astoria. About 10 people come each week, and I make a little something to eat. Jesse brings some wine, and folks drop $10 at the door. We get to visit, eat and enjoy each others company. Jesse and I will talk about PrEP; folks always have questions, or we just get to check in on how the fundraising is going. Some of my guests are team members and others are just supporters. I love to have folks over for cocktails, and this is a great way to “party” with a purpose!
Just quickly on the subject of Drag Race while we’re there… you’re a live-singing queen and a songwriter to boot, and you’ve been performing since the 90’s… is it suddenly a reality now that live singing queens do NOT lip sync, like Charlie Hides says?
I’ve lip synced in the shoots for every one of my music videos! Seriously though, I’m not a great lip sync performer. I’ve had to do it in the past, and let’s just say there’s a lot of girls who do it better! But if I were lip syncing for my life, well, I think I’d pull something out!
I bet you would! Okay so, let’s get the full Candy story. I believe you’re an Atlanta-area native, right? What was it like growing up there?
I’m from Stone Mountain, GA, right outside Atlanta. I actually got my start in drag there in Atlanta, doing an AIDS benefit pageant: Miss Pool Slut 1995. I was the winner! I was given my name when I entered the pageant: Candy Samples, Miss Hershey Kisses.
And growing up in Atlanta, well, lets just say… y’all know it’s a Red State, right?Georgia was a bit oppressive for me, and I sure am happy I made the leap to New York City!
Where were you hanging out when you got here? I’m gonna guess you preferred the cruisy, divey West Village joints over the Limelight.
It wasn’t until 2002 when Candy came back as a karaoke host at Albatross Bar in Astoria that I really came into my own. I’ve never been a scene queen, but having a weekly gig taught me how to get out there and work a crowd. God bless those divey bars!
What’s the history of Candy the songwriter?
I was writing music since I was 11. I wanted to be the next Debbie Gibson (who still holds the record as the youngest person to write, record and produce a number 1 hit, “Foolish Beat” back in 1988). Anyway, I was always writing. I recorded demos in high school, and then sidelined the writing to study theatre in Boston at Emerson College.
After moving to NYC, the songwriting bug came back to me, and I found that I could pepper in an original song or two while working as a karaoke hostess. Eventually I left Albatross (2006) to form a sketch comedy drag troupe, Gender Offenders, where I did a lot of composing. Then in 2009, I released my first EP, “Sample This!” and basically have been doing my music ever since.
You frequently perform in Rev. Yolanda’s recitals at the Sidewalk Cafe, and you two appeared together in the Men in Heels documentary (which screened at Excelsior in February). Is it fun performing with Yolanda… and will you two maybe record together someday?
Yolanda is my sister! I sure hope we will. We just need to get together and write that sister duet! I can’t believe we haven’t done that already.
Is is so much fun performing with Yolanda. We have quite different writing styles, and that makes for a great collaboration when we’re doing “Church with a Two-Drink Minimum.” She’s the evangelical and I’m the protestant!
“Queen of the Bears” is my favorite Candy Samples song. Is the songwriting process always a blast for you, or is it stressful?
I so enjoy writing music. I write about my life: my experiences, my hopes, dreams, acceptance, fears, all of it.
“Queen of the Bears” is about how the bear community lifted me up just when I was thinking of throwing in the towel and leaving performing life. They all encouraged me to really go for it and pursue my music… and I did! And “Queen of the Bears” came out of that.
I enjoy telling my story, and I’m able to do that through song. Through sharing all the highs and lows in my life, I think audiences connect to that. And AIDS and fundraising for it has become a huge part of my story.
You’ve written songs about why you do the AIDS Walk, and about you’re father’s death.
I was 15 when my father died. He was hemophiliac and contracted HIV through his transfusions he took regularly. At 16, I had written a song about him, when I recently started singing in my shows called “Everybody’s Missing Someone.”
I also have a song about doing the AIDS Walk called “I Walk,” and that really sums up why I do what I do. For years I did nothing, and never talked about it. It took a long time for me to let go of the fear and anger and get out there and make a difference in someone else’s life. We’ve got to do something–anything –to help end this epidemic.
Your father’s condition must’ve given you a unique perspective on AIDS and HIV: that it was not strictly a “gay sex” disease, even while, of course, gay men were dying in droves of the virus in the ‘80s and ‘90s.
It was isolating. We had to be very secretive as a family. And on top of it, I was coming into my own as a gay person. It was tough. I think I carried a lot of that with me for years.
During my “growing up” years, even with those sad news stories, I found something comforting at least seeing people like me–people who were gay. This was the only coverage we were getting on TV: AIDS stories. I felt horrible that my father had what I thought was “supposed to be” my disease–that HIV had to be my destiny. When you see stuff on TV all the time, you start believing it. Thank God for the ACT-UP stories that started coming on the news in the late 80s. Those guys gave me hope.
It was a terrifying and devastating era. Now in the age of PrEP and other HIV-related medical breakthoughs, lots of younger people don’t understand this history, or are even all that concerned about contracting the virus. Does that disturb you, or is it maybe a sign of good change?
Well, I think folks need to know how it was; especially when the Reagan administration wouldn’t even say “AIDS” out loud. We’re now looking at a lot of funding that is proposed to being cut, and some of that money is for HIV drugs. People need to know how the world worked back then, so we don’t ever go back.
The Ryan White Act has helped a lot of people have access to affordable medication. We need to keep those avenues open! It’s no longer a death sentence, but once you test positive, you are part of the health system and you need to ensure you have the best, most affordable care possible. I do my best with the CandyWrappers Team to educate and inform, and to just keep the discussion about HIV out there. We should never stop talking about it.
And that brings us to your last big Walk fundraiser of the season, on April 23rd at your old haunt, the Albatross: Sunday Services! How do you think the show’s gonna go this time around, and what can we expect?
This is definitely my last big push on fundraising. Of course, we’ll be out at Mr. Rockbear and things like that, but Sunday Services is my Big Hurrah!
I’m really excited about Sunday’s show at Albatross. First, it’s always good to be home. It’s where I started. I love small spaces; as a songwriter, I love the small venues. So intimate.
The show will consist of my “bear” numbers, and old goodies like “Green Bean Casserole.” And I throw in a bunch of stuff that will be on my upcoming album–which is slow to record, but it’s coming along. The songs about my father and the Walk are in there.
We also have a fabulous duo, Fein & Dandee, dear friends of mine that will be doing a small set in the middle of the show. Jesse will be selling raffle tickets, and we’ll do some prizes throughout the show. It’s gonna be the best Sunday Service you’ve been to in a long time!
And they check out my podcast, The Candy Show, free on iTunes. I talk about upcoming shows and all the HIV/AIDS fundraisers.
And tell your readers that I say, Use your “Powers for Good?” Love y’all!
By the way… you don’t actually do the Walk in heels, do you?
No way! I have to walk 10K and lead my team to the finish line without ending up in a wheelchair. I wear tennis shoes.
That’s a relief! Okay, last question: as near and dear as Walking and fundraising for the Walk are to you… what’s the first thing you’re gonna do when it’s all over this season?
And that will be well earned, indeed! Thanks for everything you do, Candy!
Candy Samples will star in the fundraiser show “Sunday Services” at the Albatross on Sunday, April 23rd (5-7pm), and will join her crew The CandyWrappers for the AIDS Walk on May 21st (8am-2:30pm). Candy can be followed on Facebook, Instagram, Twitter & YouTube. She also has a website and a podcast. Support The CandyWrappers here.