This drag king and burlesque performer has his plate filled right now as the assistant of, and collaborator with, the great “Drag Race” queen Sasha Velour. But the Mister Coney Island 2017 competition is right upon us, which means it’s just about time for Vigor Mortis to take center stage once again!
Thotyssey: Hello there, Vigor! How was your week?
Vigor Mortis: Crazy and great! The Velours and I just got back from LA; we were at DragCon, and decided to stay for the week for “Queen Kong,” a show produced by the Boulet Brothers. It was a wild and wonderful.
Tell us about DragCon for a bit! Did fans totally lose their shit for their favorite queens there?
It is by far one of the craziest things I have ever experienced. Before they opened the doors to the convention center, you could hear a dull roar. And when they finally let them in, we could feel them running towards us. There were tears, someone almost fainted… I think we all understand how an artist’s work could really speak to someone, but when you see something like that it truly hits home just how much it really can mean.
That must have been intense. But it’s probably a great feeling to see all that love thrown at Sasha Velour… even if it might be a little terrifying!
Haha! I can see how it could have been, but it was really just such intense love, and I totally get that because I feel the same way! Although I do try not to faint; I’d make a pretty rotten assistant!
Were drag kings represented there in a significant way?
There definitely were a lot running around; unfortunately, I didn’t get a chance to see too many unless they stopped by our booth. But I can tell from creepin’ on Instagram that they showed up, and showed out in some amazing looks!
When you see Sasha and other queens going so big and far with their looks and makeup, does it sometimes feel limiting with a king’s palette?
Not at all! I think a common misconception is that kings have to adhere to any kind of social construct about masculinity. Masculinity can be beautiful, colorful, outrageous, elegant, bold, delicate, and is only really limited by toxicity.
That’s certainly true! How would you describe Vigor’s style?
Oooh, that’s a wonderfully tricky question. Vigor is drawn to darkness, gore, and everything a little odd, but is also a vehicle for impersonation. I like to put different characters on and see what comes out. I’ve done everything from Uncle Fester and Chris Farley, to Phil from Disney’s Hercules and a beanie baby. So I guess Vigor’s style is “your guess is as good as mine!”
A Man For All Seasons! So, let’s get to the origin story: where’s your hometown, and what were you into growing up, artistically speaking?
I grew up all over Connecticut, but I was born in Waterbury. It’s really not the easiest place to be different. But my parents are super liberal and love the artsy fartsy shit, and encouraged it from a young age.
No matter where our family was at–and even if we weren’t having the easiest time financially–they would try to choose schools that had strong arts programs, which exposed me to crafting, fine arts, theater and music. I was also part of a children’s dance group for about ten years, and actually have several years of experience dancing on Pointe. This helped develop my creative chops and intuition in a very big way.
The first time I was ever put in drag was at age 15 I believe, at a summer camp dedicated to Shakespeare. My now-friend/then-teacher Rob asked me, once I had been cast as the role of Don Pedro, if I’d like to try it in drag. I hadn’t come out as transgender yet, and was so far away from any kind of gender exploration, that I hadn’t even considered the option! I just figured they’d change the characters name to Dame Pedra, or something like that. So we bought an ACE bandage, strapped my chest down, stippled on some beard, and went for it.
It’s been a long and winding journey, but somehow I ended up here and I’m very grateful for that!
Did drag ultimately help you come to turns with your trans identity? I know that Theda Hammel, who dragged as Hamm Samwich, had mixed feelings about it because drag is a bit of a parody of gender on some level.
I can definitely see how a person could feel that way. There are some within the drag community that insist on a “right” way to do drag, which requires a performer to adhere to a lot of cisgender, heteronormative, general consumer society standards of beauty, body shape, and behavior. I have definitely encountered many spaces that are not interested in supporting the femininity they portray, or allowing space for masculinity that isn’t abrasive and stereotypical “dudemanbro.” This is not the kind of drag that captures my attention really, or that I’ve ever tried to emulate.
Putting myself in drag for the first time as an adult was an exploration in how I could be perceived. Being able to change the way I walked, talked, and carried myself gave me space to play with who I could possibly be.
It gave me the courage to use performance as a shroud of protection, while I felt that out, and was still there for me when I was ready to come out. Since then, it’s really helped me explore my understanding of both the masculine and feminine sides of myself, and still provides me with a space to play!
So, what about the Brooklyn scene first appealed to you?
Pure talent, hard work, fantasy, and a punk as fuck attitude. I truly believe Brooklyn drag performers biggest competition is themselves, and they always want to do one better. Because of that, it’s a very fast moving scene.
You’re associated with a drag/burlesque collective called Switch-n-Play, that does shows twice a month now at the Branded Saloon, and other appearances all over. How long have you been with them?
I’m actually one of the babies! Switch n’ Play was founded 2006, and has since rotated members. All of the founders are still out there somewhere in the wilderness, and it’s always a thrill when one of them pops by to see a show! K.James is the longest standing member, he joined in 2008. I joined in 2015.
Oh that’s interesting, I had no idea they had such a long history! Can you describe a S-n-P show for the uninitiated?
Well, I’d certainly advise you to come see a show for yourself. But you are guaranteed to find a show filled with all kinds of queerness, inclusivity, drag and burlesque performers of all kinds. And really amazing french fries. Branded Saloon does not mess around with the fries.
So, tell us how you met the Velours, and when did you start performing/ creating art with them?
I actually met Sasha at a Switch-n-Play show two years ago. [Her husband] Johnny was still performing on the Disney Cruise Ship, so I didn’t have the pleasure until a bit later. Sasha and I were in adjacent scenes for awhile, but didn’t really become friends until we came early to a show at Bizarre and hollered about the importance of monsters in folklore and mythology and how it impacts us and our understanding of how they are reflections of “ugliness” within ourselves. We may have been a little drunk, but it felt profound as fuck to us, haha!
After that she performed a few times with S-n-P, and I performed at her monthly show NIGHTGOWNS, and we began to really notice and appreciate each other in and out of drag.
When she asked me if I would assist her and travel with her once she came back from filming Rupaul’s Drag Race, I drafted my letter of resignation at my job that day. Over one teeny tiny cup of espresso, she just handed right to me my absolute dream job; assisting one of the most wonderful and talented humans on the face of the earth. I mean, it really doesn’t get much better than that.
You’re all a great team together… I like that number where you and Johnny are her her backup dancers in suits that you did for the C.L.A.T. release party, it was very old school 80s Downtown!
Ohhh yeah, Le Tigre’s “Decepticon!” Thank you! It is such a fun number to do.
And this past NIGHTGOWNS at its new home at National Sawdust, your performance was just saw raw and naked and powerful. Is being that exposed on stage, in such a truthful moment, as daunting as it looks?
First, thank you so so much! That was a number I sat on for a year before I finally got the courage to do it. That number is less about Vigor and more about me, and I feel like I walk out there with my heart in my hands. If I don’t–if I’m guarded or closed off in any way–the number doesn’t work. Every time I do it, I’m just as nervous that no one will understand and I’ll be standing out there alone, and every time I’m overwhelmed by how people connect to me. It’s always scary and always completely worth it.
That was a dramatic performance, but for the most part Vigor’s drag/ burlesque numbers are comedic?
Oh yeah, I’d say so. There are a few dramatic ones, a few sexy ones, a few really just straight up weird ones, but a good majority is comedic.
It’s wise to have a diverse portfolio!
I am, I’m so excited! I love Viktor Devonne and the whole White Elephant Burlesque crew, they are so beautiful and talented. I have been lucky enough to perform with them a few times now, and was even nominated for an award at their Silver Tusk Burlesque Awards!
And this is exciting, you’ll be competing in Mister Coney Island on Saturday at Coney Island USA, and I imagine that must be the city’s biggest male-identifying drag competition! What made you decide to enter this year?
*Humble hairflip* I was actually asked to compete! The reigning King Glenn Marla reached out to me after we performed together at the Fuck You Revue at Bizarre Bushwick, and I am so honored and thrilled.
Also, I believe I am the only drag king competing this year! The other competitors are Mister Strange, Velvet Crayon, Machine Dazzle, Evil Hate Monkey, Hovey Burgess, Eric “Baby Bird” Schmalenberger, and myself.
It is going to be an amazing and wild ride! Especially since I will be flying to Chicago with Sasha after WE Burlesque on Wednesday, and will return on Saturday, and the competition is that night!
By the way, I see that you’re featured in the latest issue of Sasha’s Velour magazine, that Sasha and Johnny publish.
I am! It’s so gorgeous isn’t it? It’s such a labor of love between Sasha and Johnny, every page is filled with such dedication and attention to detail. Each issue feels like a queer time capsule.
That’s a perfect description! Love it! Now let’s dish about Drag Race… I was wondering if Sasha could make her approach to drag work within the confines of what the show does, and I’m amazed with what she’s accomplished so far!
I am too! I truly feel like she’s been able to find a way to stay true to her center, while still playing the game. Which you absolutely have to do if you’re on a reality TV show. She keeps taking challenges and making them work for her, just like she promised in her “Meet the Queens” video.
That Madonna look slayed.
I I loved her hot-as-hell Madonna look so much! Can I tell you a little T about that look? So for the gold tooth, the wax wouldn’t hold it on properly. Rather than risk it falling out, she super glued it to her tooth! She had to swish warm water around it for so long before it finally came loose!
Oh dear lord, that is dedication!
So back once more to Vigor… anything else to discuss?
Switch-n-Play will be having our Coney Island return show on May 19th, “Creature Feature.” I wish I could be there, but The Velours will be on the road. So somebody go and take pictures for me! We have shows at Branded Saloon every second and fourth Saturday. It’s a really wonderful Queer ol’ Time, and we love new faces!
Okay, last question: What’s the best piece of advice you can give to a baby king just getting started?
Never stop playing. Try new things, even if they don’t work. Ask for and accept critique, but always go with your gut. Don’t be appropriative. Do be curious, ask questions, and think critically. Practice in the shower, in the supermarket, in front of a mirror, while walking down the street. There is nothing like the feeling when you find your stride, and you know you’re on the right track. Do what gives you joy, and keep doing it.
Excellent! Thank you, Vigor!
Vigor Mortis will perform with White Elephant Burlesque at Rockbar on Wednesday, May 10th (8:30pm), and will compete in Mister Coney Island at Coney Island USA on Saturday, May 13th (10pm). Follow Vigor on Facebook, Instagram & Twitter.