On Point With: Honey LaBronx

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This truly inspiring Sober Vegan Warrior of the drag world has a long history of both entertaining the masses and fighting for the civil liberties of humans and animals everywhere. Now she’s bringing a play that she’s written about her life before drag to a major theater festival in the city, while lighting up the internet with podcasts and video cooking shows. Lets enjoy this sticky-sweet moment with playwright Ben Strothmann, aka queen Honey LaBronx!


Thotyssey: Hello Honey! You must be real busy this week, fine- tuning things for a brand new production of your autobiographical play Virtual Memory, which premieres Friday as part of Dixon Place’s HOT! Festival! What is the most surprising thing you’ve learned about theater production from this experience?

Honey LaBronx: Honestly, I’m learning how much work goes into getting butts in seats! When I first presented a staged reading of Virtual Memory, I asked very few people to come. It was really something–I thought I was just doing for myself. I was hoping that maybe 20 people would show up; but somehow we had 85+ people there. It was full to capacity, and people had to stand in the doorway and watch from the hall!

This time around, I just assumed “Okay, so those 85 people will show up–plus, a healthy fraction of the new people I’ve met over the last three years!”  Not the case–especially in August! I forget that August is dead for theater. So many people leave NYC in the summer, and it seems like everyone is going out of town that very weekend.

So I actually made a spreadsheet to track each and every person I contacted about the show. So far, I’ve texted/ emailed/ Facebooked 591 people. I have 88 confirmed butts-in-seats, 9 uncomfirmed, and 107 maybes. Not bad, considering the space holds about 120 people. I really want to make a strong first showing at Dixon Place; it’s the only way I can truly show my gratitude for this opportunity. Tom Amici (director) once told me the secret to selling tickets is making personal phone calls to invite people… but I just haven’t had the time.

I ended up spending the better part of two weeks just promoting the show, rather than actually working on it. Now, it’s three nights before I take the stage, and I’m still worried about putting everything together and doing the work as an actor.

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Many nightlifers recognize your drag persona Honey LaBronx from gigs, or from your online vegan cooking web show. Why did you decide to make Virtual Memory a Ben Strothmann production, and not a Honey LaBronx production?

Well, the show is just about Ben Strothmann. To be honest, Honey LaBronx didn’t become a part of my life until roughly where this play ends. So who knows… maybe there will be a followup play. Becoming Honey, or something like that!

Without giving away too many juicy details, since I’m sure much is discussed in the play… where were you raised, and what was life like growing up gay and fabulous?

I was born in Milwaukee, and raised in Wauwatosa, a suburb of Milwaukee. Growing up gay was pretty lonely. I’m not that old, but I can already say it was a much different time back then. The internet wasn’t really a thing until I was 11… and even then, most people didn’t really get online til about two or three years later. So I grew up not really knowing any other gay people.

It wasn’t until I was 11 that we got the internet, and after a few years, once I was out to myself I started finding other people like me. I think that was really scary for my parents, that I was using the internet to find other gay men when I was barely a teen. But through it, I found fabulous friends in New York who worked in the theater, a friend who traveled the world and was able to expose me to so much culture, and I really got that I was okay and accepted.

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How, when and where did Honey get born?

Honey was actually born in the apartment of Alexis Michelle from Season 8 of RuPaul’s Drag Race. Alexis (Alex) and I were in a production of The Cradle Will Rock and he mentioned that he does drag. Some friends were organizing a drag pageant for charity, and I asked if they needed help. I wasn’t expecting to be in drag, but they said it would be great if I could be there in drag to help sell tickets and work the crowd.

So I went to see Alex, he painted me, and after 11 years of already having my drag name picked out, Honey LaBronx walked out that door and onto the streets of Manhattan. I didn’t know what to expect! I wore a large men’s raincoat to hide my drag underneath. I must have looked so awkward. I was convinced that people would stop and say something to me…  like, I’m not allowed to do this, or like I was breaking some rule, or something!

I got to the venue, and backstage I met a guy named Caldwell who was putting his face on, and asked if his highlights were even. They weren’t, and I was the only one willing to tell him. We became best friends and roommates for four years. He asked if he could be my drag mother and I said yes, somewhat reluctantly as I thought maybe letting Alexis paint me made her my mother by default.

Caldwell / Kittin Withawhip later changed her drag name to Bob The Drag Queen – and we all know how that worked out for her.

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How would you describe your drag performing style, or Honey’s stage persona?

Midwestern mom drag. A slightly less brief description would be to say: Honey LaBronx – the Whitest Lady Ever.

If I must elaborate, I would say that Honey is a comedy queen, a singer, and when people aren’t expecting it, a shock queen. I’ve pulled a few stunts in my day. I may have been involved in an incident with an apple at The Ritz but that’s another interview.

There’s something I’ve observed about my performances: behind much of what Honey says or lip syncs on stage, there’s usually an attitude of “–and I shouldn’t even have to be saying this…”

You were involved in the staged gay weddings of couples on the street that Bob,  Frostie Flakes and other friends used to oversee, as a public protest to anti-gay marriage before it was legalized. What’s your “favorite” memory from those times?

Yes! Those were started by Bob, Frostie, and Azraea. I used to be a waiter at… *sigh*… I used to be a waiter at Dave & Buster’s in Times Square.  And so I could never join–nor even see them on Saturdays. For the first many months, I would be at work knowing that my best friends were fighting for our rights just blocks away. Finally, I worked out my schedule so that I could join them.

My favorite memory was the first time Bob and I walked down the “aisle” together. It was a pretty well-staged and scripted event. We walk towards the “priest” as if down the aisle, and then we exchange “wishes” instead of vows.  We wish for a world where foster children aren’t refused parents, where gay men can donate blood, and other protections for LGBTQ people.

As we were walking the aisle, Bob said to me, “get ready for this moment. When you turn around, there are going to be about 200 people hanging on your every word.  It’s a really powerful experience.”

I turned around and held Bob’s hands, wedding style. We started the ceremony. What seemed like hundreds of people from all over the world gathered around, listened, took photos, applauded…  and I was raising my voice to describe the kind of a world I wanted– no, DESERVED to live in…  Bob was right. It was an incredibly powerful moment.

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Bob made me an activist.  One day, I came home and Bob said “You know what? Too many gay people just accept the fact that they don’t have equal rights. I am not okay with that.” And from there, he devised his plans for the Drag Queen Weddings – and later for blocking traffic as part of Queer Rising.

I discovered veganism around the same time–and because I already had an experience of myself as an activist, it was only natural for me to carry on fighting and demonstrating for animal rights.

After working so hard and fighting so fiercely for marriage equality, does it boil your blood to see this monster in the White House so recklessly piss away queer civil liberties?

No. What boils my blood is to see how many friends and family are complicit.  Hearing “We love you – we support you” all my life from so many people, not only my family, only to see them support a man who would piss away my civil liberties. I have never been this angry in my life. I still don’t know what to do with that anger.

Honestly, that’s what fueled me to bring back this show, and to tell my truth as a gay man. Hearing about the gay holocaust currently taking place in Chechnya, and watching the world just allow it, made me finally say “Fuck it – why am I sitting back and not giving the world every ounce of me?”

I don’t see how the two correlate. But the idea that there are men like me in Russia who…  I can’t even let myself think about what is happening to them right now. I have an opportunity to live my life that they don’t have–and only because of geography, not because I am more deserving of my freedoms.

I refuse to squander those freedoms, so long as I have them.

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What specifically motivated you to become an animal rights activist and a vegan?

The book The Face On Your Plate by Jeffrey Moussaieff Masson. My friend John J. Oliver recommended it to me, and after I read that book I knew that I could no longer justify taking the life of an animal for the sake of my palate. And that’s all it is.

We don’t need to eat them. There is nothing a human being needs from an animal. I actually believed we had to eat them. We don’t. But we continue doing so–despite the fact that it causes heart disease, cancer, stroke, diabetes, and all sorts of illnesses that almost never happen to humans who simply don’t eat animals.

It really angers me that there are people out there who say “But I could never give up fill-in-the-blank…” meanwhile, their “personal choice” is decimating the only planet we have.

Non-vegans are like Uber passengers who decide to loudly and generously fart in your car, and when you tell them you can’t breathe, they tell you you’re pushing your beliefs on them.  Sorry, not sorry.

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So then, what would you say to someone who states they would never become a vegan because it would be too impractical of a lifestyle?

I tell them if I can do it, they can. There is nothing about me that would ever suggest I’d become a vegan. I am born to a food business family in Wisconsin. My mom is a dairy celebrity. My dad’s family owned a German American restaurant that was in our family for four generations. There is nobody alive who was brought up on more meat and cheese than myself. Anyone, from any culture, can point to any aspect of that culture and cite reasons why they “could never” be vegan. And yet, there are people from every single one of those cultures who are making it happen.

No, it isn’t more expensive. No, you don’t have some blood type or rare disease that requires you eat animals. No, you wouldn’t have to learn to cook all your own food.

How am I so certain?  Because I’ve already been in the other person’s shoes.  I lived the first 30 years of my life arguing the opposite point.  I am delighted to have learned I was wrong.

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Tell us a little about your cooking web show, The Vegan Drag Queen.

I became a drag queen about a month before going vegan (though I had already been vegetarian a few months, transitioning to veganism and doing all my research).  When I finally made the switch, I was living in a remote part of Brooklyn (Sunset Park) where there was a dirth of options for groceries and restaurants. I didn’t have specialty vegan products.

So, I had to rely on YouTube videos to learn how to make things. That’s just how I learn. I’m not a reader. I mean, I’m literate, but I can’t stand looking at words on a page. I’d rather watch it than read it. I hadn’t yet discovered awesome vegan cooking channels like The Vegan Zombie or Black Metal Vegan Chef. I was lucky if I could find some hippie making a cooking demo and filming it with their iPhone.

Some of the YouTubers had engaging personalities. Some had good production values. Some had good personalities. Few had all three. So I decided I could do better.  As soon as I thought of a drag queen offering vegan cooking shows online, I knew it was my calling.

My original mission was to show people how to make stuff for themselves without having to rely on specialty products. Why buy seitan or almond milk, when you can make it yourself?  But as the show continues, I’m discovering there is also a need for people who just want quick recipe ideas, or creative ideas for putting together the specialty vegan products they already know and love. So, I’m enjoying broadening the show’s scope, bringing on guests… and I would love to tell you some ideas I have for future episodes but…  I’m sorry… those details are only available to my supporters on Patreon.

And you also host the Big Fat Vegan Radio podcast!

I’m sorry, the what? Did you just mention my Patreon? Why, thank you for asking! That’s right, internet queens can’t take your cash tips through the screen. So the only way to support your internet queens is to tip them on a monthly basis! What’s three dollars a month to you? You know it won’t make or break you. You don’t need guac, anyway.

If one out of every five of my Facebook friends supported my Patreon at $3 a month, that would be $3,000 a month! I would be able to afford to do nothing but make content, tour, do shows, offer classes, give speeches… Seriously, you people! What gives?

Oh, and you probably don’t know I also have a podcast. That’s okay. I’ll tell you about it anyway.

Big Fat Vegan Radio is my baby. I started it just about five years ago with my dear friend Laura, and we just dish about vegan food, culture, and news. About half of our episodes are interviews. We occasionally do silly stuff, like vegan song parodies.

What people like about our podcast is that it’s just fun. There are better podcasts out there for hard hitting animal rights news. There are better podcasts out there for information on health and recipes and whatnot. But Big Fat Vegan Radio is your best bet if you just wanna plug in and pretend you’re hanging out with your best friend who happens to be vegan, and who happens to think he’s better than everyone else because of it.

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Congratulations on being sober and continuing to work in nightlife and the arts… not an easy lifestyle, to say the least. What’s the history of your sobriety?

Thank you. This month I am celebrating nine years clean and sober. You hear more about my pre-sobriety life in Virtual Memory, but if I have an opportunity to talk about my sobriety, what I’d really like to express is that I was (and am) a marijuana addict, first and foremost.

I say that because I want to dispel the myth that marijuana isn’t addictive. It’s not a matter of whether or not marijuana is addictive as a substance. It matters whether you have the disease of alcoholism.

Not everyone with alcoholism drinks alcohol. The disease is just named that way because problem drinkers were the first group to help us discover that addiction is an illness. If you suffer from addiction, then you can’t use marijuana safely. Period.

What you can do is waste a good chunk of your life trying to prove you don’t have a problem and that you can manage it.  But here’s the question to ask yourself honestly: if marijuana has become a priority in your life–if you’re running out of money, and you make sure you have marijuana before making sure you have food–well, we’re holding a seat for you. There is hope.

I once shot headshots for one of Broadway’s greatest leading ladies of all time. I have admired her since I was a young teen, and here I was sitting across from her at Joe Allen’s, going over her photos after our session. She was even comforting me as I gushed about my recent breakup. And despite the fact that I am lunching with a Tony winner, all I could think was “How long before I can get out of here, go home, turn off the lights, close the blinds, put my sweats on, crank the AC, pack the bong, and just zone out watching TV?”

If that’s all I wanted to do with my life – I didn’t need to move to New York.

Also, if I never knew that marijuana addiction stems from alcoholism (whether or not you’re a drinker), I never would have known that there was help for me in the 12 steps. People split hairs between alcoholism, drug addiction, or other compulsive behaviors. But the truth is – there’s ONE common solution to all of those problems.

I thank God for my life in Sobriety. I got sober at 29 (right in the middle of my Saturn Return), and I wouldn’t trade my best days then for my worst days now. I can’t believe how useful I feel today, and how much purpose life has. Not just “my life,” but life.

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What’s your connection to Iceland? You go there lot to perform and to give lectures, and I recently saw you at Star Search accompanied by a lovely young Icelandic queen.

YOU WERE THERE??? Did you say hi?

I have no real connection to Iceland. I’m just an enormous fan of Björk. After seeing her film Dancer In The Dark, I became even more interested in her, and I really started examining her music more closely. This will sound ridiculous, but I heard something in her music calling to me. Speaking to me. As if it were my ancestors trying to deliver an urgent communication from centuries past. Okay yeah, that’s dramatic. But you get the picture.

One day, I found an album of hers I didn’t know about: Gling-Gló, It’s a jazz album almost entirely in Icelandic. I never knew Icelandic was even a language. Now as a singer, I learned many languages: Spanish, French, Italian, German… I’ve never heard one of those languages sung before, and thought “My God! What is this I’m hearing? I need to hear more of it!”

But when I first heard Björk sing in Icelandic, I asked myself “Am I going to translate these songs and learn what she’s singing about, or do I just let go and listen passively?” The next thought was this:  “Ben…  FOUR year olds know what she’s singing about!!!“ It made no sense, but it convinced me.

In 2002, I started teaching myself Icelandic… which is tough, not only because it’s the 10th most difficult language, but there are very few resources for it. Especially back then (nowadays, surprisingly, there are many more people interested in learning it.)

I visited Iceland first in 2003, then again in 2006, then not until 2012. I returned last summer, and I am going there next week for my fifth visit.

By now, I have so many friends in Iceland that it doesn’t make sense not to go there often. I’ve also connected with Drag-súgur, a local drag group there, and so I’ll have an opportunity to do a few drag shows. I spoke there at the second annual Reykjavík Vegan Festival last year, which was such a treat because when I visited in 2012 people acted like they didn’t know much about veganism. Four years later it was much more prominent, and I’m told that since last year, it has grown even more. So I can’t wait to see what’s in store for me – especially on my cheat days!

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Okay, let’s talk more about your one-man-show Virtual Memory. How would you describe the play?

I hate calling it a “coming-of-age gay play,” but it’s a coming-of-age gay play. In short, it’s about everything that’s “wrong” with me–and learning to love myself exactly the way I am.  But the show is not as trite as that last sentence was.

Mark Finley is directing me and lending his vision to the writing. Thank God I have someone to help me edit.  Could you imagine if my play read like the answers to this interview?  I mean, come on!

How have you been handling the challenge of acting in a work of your own writing? 

It’s kind of weird, acting in my own stuff. I keep thinking of what Elaine Stritch said about her one woman show At Liberty. Watching the show, it just looks like she’s acting natural up there. Like she couldn’t possibly go up on a line, because she’s just telling her story.

I realize now what she meant when she said “I am an actor playing the role of myself.”  It’s very different. I don’t just get to be myself. I am still very much playing a character, in the sense that I’m not today who I was at the time of whatever scene I’m playing.

Fortunately, I’d say it’s been a lot easier memorizing lines when I wrote them myself.  Except the question has become “which VERSION of the line is it by now???”

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We’re all highly anticipating this play. What else is coming up for you?

Did I mention I have a Patreon?  Because I do.  And people can support me. Because who doesn’t love tipping drag queens?

Seriously. There are so many creative projects just languishing on the back burners of my brain, because instead of creating, I’m busy schlepping to pay the bills. If the people who enjoy my work – and who can honestly afford to do so – would pledge a dollar, three dollars, ten dollars, whatever they can per month…  It would make it possible for me to devote 300% more of my week cranking out content and creating things that change the world.

Lastly, you want plugs?  Here are some random things I’m proud of that people might not ever know to look up…

Last question… if “Virtual Memory” ever gets a big Broadway—or even big screen–treatment, who should play Ben?

Judy Tenuta.

Thanks, Honey!


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Honey LaBronx aka Ben Strothmann’s play “Virtual Reality” will be performed as part of Dixon Place’s HOT! Festival on Friday, August 4th (7:30pm). Follow Honey on Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, YouTube and Patreon.

 

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