This dynamic drag performance artist draws from a deep cache of menacing props and costumes, mysterious audiovisuals and penetrating themes for their stagecraft, leaving audiences with feelings of dread, bewilderment and wonder. But one thing’s certain: you’ll never be bored. Bringing their unclassifiable sorcery to the Bizarre stage this week, it’s the ominous, glorious Hystée Lauder!
Thotyssey: Hello Hystée, how was your week?
Hystée Lauder: Pretty swell, excited about the warmer weather!
It’s funny, I only know you from your stage performances, which tend to evoke a sense of fascinating horror… I can’t picture you, like, skipping around Central Park with an ice cream cone.
Neither can I! I avoid Manhattan for the most part, but love being able to walk to work, and all the trees coming back to life. I spent 18 years in Miami, so seasons beyond hurricane/dry have always seemed unnatural to me.
Is Miami your hometown?
It’s where I grew up, but not where my parents grew up. And I no longer have any family there, so my sense of “hometown“ is kind of diffuse.
Understood. So, what were your early creative interests that ultimate got the Hystée ball rolling?
I’m a very late, awkward bloomer when it comes to whatever the hell it is that you’d call what I do. I’ve always been a weird kid, but I’d say the closest analog to what got me interested in this is political performance and interventions.
My veeerrrryyyyyy first drag show was for Christmas Eve at Metropolitan with my then roommate Ash–who did Mariah, of course. And I have no memory of the names of any of the other performers, but one drag queen from San Francisco did “Mississippi Goddamn,” and I was absolutely floored.
I had no idea that drag could be militant, pointed, critical like that. Most of what we see in pop culture is much more low key illusion, glamour, you-can’t-believe-what-your-momma-told-you, be-what-you-dream kinda subversive… but doesn’t always pierce through to shatter larger ideological illusions. This was in, like… 2012 maybe? Time gets kinda fuzzy after a while.
The “drag” as a thing that I actually do didn’t start ‘til after I moved to Vermont and met my Brooklyn seasoned drag uncles Jonathan Bitchman (formerly of Switch-n-Play) and Billy Burg, Queechee George & Ron Doubt, and fell in love with the charisma and spectacle of sharing your desire and joy on stage with an audience.
I still feel like an egg, though, and haven’t reached my final stage in terms of what I really would like to be doing.
I haven’t seen you perform a ton of times, but I’d use the word “harrowing” to describe what you do. We can’t take our eyes off of you while you’re performing and we won’t soon forget what you give us, but it’s not a totally comfortable feeling watching you.
Lol, thank you. Anyone that I’ve ever spent time talking to about my drag has heard me describe it as ‘not commercially viable’, and I’m incredibly grateful to every producer who has taken the risk to invite me to perform or put me on the bill. Crimson Kitty invited me to the very first LadyQueen at Dixon Place, which was my NYC debut, and I’m sure she had no idea what she was getting herself into (thanks babe!)
What are your “goals” for a Hystée performance?
I mean, I have so many. To improve as an artist and performer learning late in life how to relate to my body as a three-dimensional movable visual object signifying meaning, and how to potentially be read by the audience in a particular way; to work with and develop symbols from my own dreams and past and self-image as a kind of autoanalysis; to be perceived on multiple layers in the eyes of each audience member– as a body, as a performer, as a character, as a gender distortion; to heighten awareness and excite uncomfortable feelings in myself and others; many other things that I am not entirely conscious of.
I saw you perform at Sasha Velour’s last “Nightgowns.” You were helped onstage wearing a foil bag over your face; you clearly couldn’t see and I’m not particularly sure if you could breathe. You gave us a piece incorporating Patrick Bateman and Bjork, and I was terrified–partially from the eerie content and the message (which I took to having to do with body shame), but also wondering whether you were going to suffocate or injure yourself.
Ah! Yeah, it was clips from the American Psycho opening monologue with “Venus As A Boy.” People came up to me afterwards–usually I think most performers get something like, “You were great!” Or some such. I got a lot of “I was worried about you!”–which is awesome! I love that uncertainty.
What’s it like to perform blind like that, on a stage where everyone can see you but you can’t see them?
When you think about it, most stages are set up with bright lights shining in your eyes, audience off somewhere in the dark… so in that respect it’s not that different, just made more explicit perhaps. And Sasha Velour and Johnny Velour always do a wonderful job making all of the “Nightgowns” performers super comfortable to get to a vulnerable place on stage.
I incorporate obscured vision or blindness into my performances a lot–in smaller venues (i.e. darkened bars), it’s especially fun getting off stage and running through the audience and feeling your way around, as a performer, where movement also becomes sensation, navigation.
It’s like the exciting vulnerability of crowd surfing, almost!
So when you are creating these performances, what do they usually start with? A theme, a song, a prop?
Oh wow, good question. Usually a deadline. I am always coming up with ideas inspired by songs, videos, current events, materials… but nothing really coalesces until I have a show coming up that I can plan for. Some ideas have been cooking for years and are waiting for the right venue (I’ll be debuting a few pieces May 4th at the one year anniversary of “Failure” that have sitting on my phone since last August).
Depending on the venue and style of the show, I’ll try to reel it in a bit and not go off the Hystée Lauder deep end, but I don’t really create performances with the intention of performing them more than a few times. So it’s usually what I’m going through and interested in at the time. Bringing back an old piece is actually very hard and generally uninteresting, unless I’m able to reconnect with it emotionally in a new way.
You’ll be part of the first anniversary of “Failure” this Thursday, as you’ve said. This event is considered a workshop as much as it is a show. How do you think your own style and purpose meshes with what the event’s creator Ragamuffin does there?
“Failure” is like my favorite thing ever. I wish I had taken advantage of it more when it was a weekly happy hour show at TNT (RIP), but I love this new format at Bizarre. It’s shows, workshopping new stuff, conversation, and an opportunity to fail in public on stage and talk about it afterwards.
The hosts Ragamuffin, La Llorona, and Ms. Ter do a great job of cultivating a space for openness, and I’m really excited for the low key talk show portion. So many brilliant NYC performers do what they do on stage, and we never really get a chance to ask questions or hear them talk about it afterwards, in discussion with each other, over cocktails–it’s like the best late late late night show I’ve ever seen.
I’ve done “Failure” a few times, doing the weirdest shit I want, and I keep getting invited back, so I must be doing something right ! My Bushwig performance from last year started at (or as) a Failure, actually!
Who should win Drag Race Season 9?
In answer: go support your local drag performers, in person. Tip them according to your ability, respect their art, support them in continuing to improve their craft, develop intergenerational networks of support and affinity, resist the homogenization of queer culture, corporate commodified representation is not the same as liberation, no one is illegal, black lives matter.
Anything else that needs to be said?
My goal over the next year is to try to get more video of what I do, so if you see me tag me on Instagram. Lastly, I pronounce my name Hiss-TAY LAW-der.
Thank you, Hystée!