She’s the Queen Mum of the Vaccine – and if you have ever been a baby queen going through the weekly drag competition circuit all over the city, then you’re probably one of her many Drag Nieces by now. Known for both her tireless advocacy for sexual health and her tendency to provide an invaluable service of paparazzi-of-one to new queens, it must also be said that she turns fierce, athletic, campy, fun numbers when it’s her turn on the stage. She’s a veteran performer, having practically invented live sex shows in the city (!), but hasn’t been doing drag for nearly as long as you’d suspect. Have a taste of Stella D’oro’s cookies with Thotyssey!
Thotyssey: Miss Stella, it’s always a pleasure to chat with you! And allow me to officially thank you for going to the Look Queen finale and taking / posting a thousand pictures. I felt like I was there! How did you enjoy the night?
Stella D’oro: Hey Jim! Each contest is different, and attracts a different crowd and different competitors. These particular queens were fierce and try to outdo each other, which makes for a great contest. Also this contest introduced me to new queens, which is great for me to get the word out about trying to get the word out about Project Achieve!
I find it hard to believe that you, who goes to nearly every Star Search and becomes Auntie to every new queen who’s ever lived, can possibly still meet a new queen.
They keep sprouting up! I joke to the new queens that after five months, they are now old queens! The turnover is incredible.
It’s true! And of course, Drag Race is to “blame” for the endless drag explosion.
For this particular aspect of drag, I wouldn’t call it blame. New queens coming out have a new-found strength to put themselves out there, and that is one of the positive aspects of Drag Race.
As far as the hiring of local drag queens and actually making a living out of doing drag, that’s another story, which I’m sure you have discussed in many of the columns.
It’s an on-going discussion! By the way, I saw the footage of you dancing in your underpants at Cherrys recently, and you looked great! You’re freakin’ 68! What’s your secret?
Well, I have been dancing for 63 years! Also I never smoked, drank or or done drugs. Never been high or drunk, ever.
Really? I had no idea that you didn’t drink.
Never. I come from a Greek family that owned a restaurant where there was smoking and booze everywhere. There are a few dry queens that don’t drink, including my pal Peppermint.
Absolutely. It gets me a little frustrated when I get introduced as someone who has been around the scene for a long time – meaning I’ve been a drag queen for a long time – and that is not the case. I didn’t start till I was 54, thirteen years ago. So I don’t mind the old jokes, and “a legend in my own mind” kind of jokes. But I don’t want to misrepresent and have people think I’ve been around the drag scene for as long as people like Sherry Vine, Gusty Winds, Flotilla and all those kids in the 90s.
Of course, my gay activism goes back to the 1980′s with ACT-UP, AIDS Prevention Action League, Sexpanic!, GMHC as a team leader and buddy, and of course Project Achieve (since 1992) and the Columbia Research Unit.
We’ll get to your wonderful activism in a bit, but we better start back at the beginning. You must be a native New Yorker, or at least a New Jerseyite, right?
Absolutely not! I come from Worcester, Massachusetts. I went to college at the University of Maryland, and wrote my Masters thesis on Bob Fosse there in grad school. Then I moved to New York to pursue directing and choreography, which I did for about 15 years. But in between, I thought I needed to make money, like the rest of us. So I ended up in television at HBO and 13 WNET, as well as doing special promotions and video compilations for the American Lung Association (no need for smokers to apply for that job!).
I was at WNET when I started drag, which was for many of us, a dare. I was at my first GNI gathering – you know, a thousand naked gay men in the Poconos – and they had a drag competition, so I entered. I won a trip to Mexico.
I didn’t even have a name. Some stranger named me, and I thought it was age-appropriate and happened to be my grandmother’s name – which is also tattooed on my back in Greek! I do remember Kizha Carr texting me a picture of the Stella D’oro cookies and said, “I finally got it! Never saw the cookies before!”
I was gonna ask about the cookies! They were a very popular snack in my day, but not everyone knows them. I assumed they were a local phenomenon, and that’s why you must’ve been a native.
Nope! The name came out of nowhere. But fit perfectly!
And then you just started performing around town as Stella?
From that GNI, I came home thinking that was it. A one time thing. Then a new club, Therapy, opened in my neighborhood, and they had a night called Cattle Call. I went to take a look and saw all these young kids (I was after all, already 54!), but thought I could go there in drag. So I did, and did my number and won that night. And as usual, the hostess, Alison Tilsen, asked what I was going to do with my winnings.
I looked out to the crowd thinking I could give Project Achieve and the NYC HIV Vaccine Trials a plug. So I did, and Alison said, “So you’re the Queen of Vaccine!” That’s when the light bulb popped! I was already on the Community Advisory Board for the NY Blood Center (a part of Project Achieve)
as of 2001 until 2009, so I went back and asked them if they did outreach at night in the clubs – and back then, it was not a big thing. So all of a sudden I started to go to Therapy every week: for the next five years!
Some new kid took over in 2005 from Alison: Pepper..something! Ha! And I started Vaccine-o-licous, and asked Peppermint to host. By 2009, when I got laid off from WNET, I gave up drag and my “crown” to Pep. I thought it important to have a person of color represent for the HIV Vaccine trials.
But – within a year, Pep lured me downtown to a club called, uh, Barracuda, where she was hosting Star Search! I went, and never left – until I had Achilles tendon surgery in 2012. I was away for almost two years, and only came back because I needed to annoy that Tina Burner woman who took over at Star Search. I’ve been there every week since Tina took over.
So, what motivates you to dedicate so much of your life to medical-based charities?
Interesting that you call it “medical-based.” In the 80s, there was only that emergency, and those of us who could help, did. It just continued. But I also encourage healthy sex, and never slut shame. Many in my generation did not come out until much later than today’s kids. But when I came out, I came OUT!
I always talk about my days at the Show Palace Theater on 42nd and 8th (now part of the Westin Hotel) and how liberating it was to have live sex on stage! Back then, you went to the porno movies to: 1) actually SEE a movie, and 2) to have sex in the back of the theater. Show Palace changed all of that. After a brief time of entering gogo / stripping contests there, and winning, they asked me to “work” on the weekends, and BAM! They started live sex on stage.
It was completely liberating for me coming out. And I was the old guy in the group, at 31 (in 1980!). Also, the audience was not filled with dirty old men in raincoats, but young kids that didn’t have a clue about sex. So Stella – ah, John at the time – showed ‘em! And I think that shaped my identity, and my mission to promote sex as a positive thing in the gay community.
Of course, as soon as HIV hit in 1982, all that stopped. A lot of us just stopped having sex at all for a few years. Then ACT-UP happened, and a new community of young and older gay men – and women – formed an alliance. And sex started up again in the late 80s.
Since I came out late, I didn’t have a lot of gay friends. And since I didn’t drink or smoke, I hated the bars. So my mode of operation was with the baths, or directing a show! Either way, plenty of gays around!
But in 1989, my roommate died on an underground HIV trial, and that sort of set me off on my volunteer spree. I was already a member of ACT-UP and a GMHC buddy, but resources then were very scarce. I had to go public to the New York Times about the trial (it was a Page One story), and that is sort of seared in my memory.
I live in a two-bedroom apartment, so I’ve always had young(er) gay men as roommates. Sometimes I’m a mentor, sometimes not But usually, I impart my history and knowledge, and they show me how to use my iPhone! (Well, two of them showed me more than that, but this is a family blog, right!?)
That’s quite a history! Here’s a broad question, but do you think today’s young generation have a “healthy” sex life, when considering Grindr, internet porn, etc.?
I actually did a little stand-up in the Village last year, and I brought that up. First, I realized in retrospect that almost every gay man in the 70s and 80s carried with them a magic marker when they when out at night. Why, you may ask? Well it was their Grindr and Scruff! Back then when you went to a gay bar, disco, etc., there was graffiti all over the bathroom stalls and walls, like “for a good time call Tina Burner (ooops!)” – and they actually left phone numbers. And not only that, a picture of their dick! Now really, who are you going to believe, the dick size on the wall or the Grindr profiile?
I think it’s six of one, half a dozen of another! Same thing! Everyone is going to have sex, doesn’t matter what generation. How they get to it is the story. And at least today’s kids have more information. REAL information, if they look in the right place.
I have no problem with the new apps except for the attention it takes away from all of us drag queens when we are performing! Ha!
And what about porn?
Porn is now so boring! Even the rogue outfits. And you don’t have to pay for it at all! I did my first porn movie when I hit 50! And it was also a ‘streaming video” for Cruising for Sex.com – back in 1999! Streaming was the thing back then! But yes, I am out on video somewhere. And yes, someone came to one of my sex parties and recognized me (10 years later!). He said it was one of his favorite movies!
So in a nutshell, I have been around – still here – and trying to keep the kids entertained and educated at the same time, especially with our yearly Vaccine-o-licous events, now in its 13th year! And giving out my cards to the kids every time I perform is important. So is taking pics and tagging the new queens so that they can keep Stel, sex and Project Achieve in mind when they wake up the next day after clubbing and read my card!
I also work with Broadway Cares/Equity Fights AIDS, as they give a yearly grant to my non-profit organization, Dancers over 40 (I’m president). Stella sometimes pops up at their dance concerts! In 2012, Stel got to perform the “Cell Block Tango” at the Ailey Citigroup Theater with Chita Rivera and the original ladies from the 1975 Chicago. And when we have our DO40 Legacy Awards, we have them at Lips, and I hire some of the Broadway girls to do numbers from the shows that our honorees had performed in decades ago!
The motto for Dancers Over 40 is “Our History, Our Legacy, Our Lives,” and I have used that for the drag and gay community as well. The kids may have a lot of information at their computer keyboard fingertips, but that doesn’t mean they will go and learn the history of who paved the way for them to have the freedoms they have today.
Talk about your performing style as Stella for a bit. You hearken back to classic show tunes and campy comedy mixes, and stand out uniquely among other queens with your material. No Rihanna for you, usually! Do you like standing out in this way, or do you at least occasionally feel the need to go all Beyoncé on the children?
Once I started with that one number (”Cell Block Tango”) and made the decision to continue to perform, I realized that as a director and choreographer in my other “life” I had been choreographing and directing songs in my head for years – but I never thought it would be ME doing the performing. So I was channeling Eartha, Della, Diahann, Bette and staging their numbers long before I became a drag queen. All I needed was a mirror in my apartment to clean up the number – and of course, get costumes and wigs!
I enjoy entertaining the kids and making them laugh, and on occasion will throw in a senior citizen death drop and pass out a dick pic our two (that usually gets me the win that night!). The important thing for me is that I perform for the audience, not at them. I try to connect and give them story and presentation.
That’s why I love doing Busted’s show in Cherry Grove. She’s clever, innovative and a smart cookie – and no hair-flipping or death drops there! We met at Barracuda back in 2010, and have had a mutual respect ever since. When I go out to the Grove, she always has me as a guest, and her audience is so attentive and smart – and get both of us!
And, yes, sometimes I will freak out the kids and do a Janelle Monet rap number or a Liv Warfield Prince-inspired number. Or just take a Jasmine Rice LaBeija Facebook rant and mix music to it, for fun and games! And yes, that Burner woman is a great one with the mixes. So I have tried a few fun ones that the crown would not usually associate with Stel.
I was wondering if we would ever see a weekly Stella show from you, somewhere.
Now that I’m retired (!), I do have more time for drag. But I enjoy guesting at shows and meeting the kids. I don’t think there is a market for “all Stel, all the time.” I think I’m better in small doses! More potent! It would be interesting to see if the kids would pay attention to the classics, comedy and Broadway all in one package
I performed at a benefit for Orlando at Boots & Saddle the day after [the Pulse shooting] happened, and the crowd went bananas! The owner came up to me and thought I was a “new gyrl!” He loved my performance. and never knew I had guested there for Ari and Delilah and others for years. I have to give credit to the other gyrls who are classic entertainers, like my dear friends Mahogany Blu Dijonae and Jasmin Van Wales. These ladies are at the top of their game at what they do, but don’t get seen as often in the, uh, regular clubs. Some of the youngsters are there to carry on their history, like Zarria and Akasha Love, and many more I can’t name because I’ll forget one and get lots of messages!
Okay, so the Miss Project Achieve / Columbia Research pageant presentation! You’re co-hosting the show with Harmonica Sunbeam at Therapy on September 7th (6pm). Tell me a little more about the history of this.
As I mentioned, this is the 13th year for Vaccine-o-licous. It started out as me asking the singers, performers and drag queens at Therapy to participate in the show. I have to stress this is not a fundraiser. It’s to entertain, educate and recruit! There is no admission charge, ever. So the first few years it was just that, with Jiggly, Jacqueline Dupree, Honey Davenport, Kelly King, Chanel Divine Roberts, a young kid called Brittney Houston (now Mila Jam!) – a bunch of performers.
Then in 2009, we did a contest and offered a $1000 prize. It was off the walls! Kiki Darling won the night, with a Beyoncé number with about eight dancers on that Therapy stage. It was also the year I gave up my crown as Queen of Vaccine to Peppermint.
The next few years were, well, just performers giving their time and efforts to promote the cause. But during that time, all the other contests started up! Ms. Hell’s Kitchen, Ms. Barracuda, Ms Industry, LOOK QUEEN – all with hefty prizes. So once I got back in the saddle as the Queen Mum of Vaccine, I thought about how to brand Project Achieve and get the word out via this route instead of just a gaggle of gyrls performing!
So, this is really the first time Project Achieve/Columbia Research Unit is doing a pageant. And I think it’s a great idea for branding! I hope we can continue this yearly, and that the winners can then participate in some of the PACRU events if Pep, me or Harmonica aren’t around!
Harmonica has been a volunteer for over 10 years, and works with IMPULSE and EXPLORE for PACRU. I saw her work the room at Therapy for a happy hour a few months ago, and she was great. When we realized that Pep would be too busy this Drag Race year, the only other person to host with me could only be… Harmonica! She has been performing since the… well, longer than me! And she knows how to work a room! Another classic lady with a classic repertoire who can connect with the community in a positive and uplifting way.
And since my background was directing, and I do produce all my Dancers Over 40 events, it was natural for me to work with the kids at PACRU to put this together! And it’s really gratifying to see the kids I perform with enter the contest! Our contestants are Zarria, Jahlissa A. Ross, Loretta Stoned, Vivika Westwood, Sapphira Cristal, Yasmin Delano, Avant Garbage and Aaliyah Martinez. The hardest thing for Stel is to memorize their boy names, when FB does not allow their drag names. It’s sooo confusing!
I’m excited to announce that I’ll be judging the pageant, alongside Ms. Jasmine Rice, T-Boy, Jax Koyote and Project Achieve’s Debbie Lucy! What do you think a good judge should be looking for with amazing competitors like these?
Well, having been to many of these events and seen the drama – the highs and the lows, etc.– we decided on a transparent judging process, where the queens can view the judges’ scores after the show (they are blinded, however, so no one will know who judged each contestant). The categories are Presentation, Q&A, Performance and Audience response. We used the world “presentation” because we didn’t want to make any queen go out and spend money on a gown. This is about comportment – how they carry themselves. And yes, how they look– but gowns are not necessary.
The Q & A will be about volunteerism and community – all communities. And of course, the Performance part of the evening will be weighed most heavily as opposed to the others. Q & A is second in importance, then Presentation and Audience response.
There is one thing I would like to get off my chest. After winning 57 times at Therapy (who’s counting?) and a bunch of times at Barracuda, I’ve noticed the shift from applause to screaming and stamping. I understand vocalizing your support, that’s fine, but screaming to attract more attention is to me, just not fair to the other contestants. Standing ovations, great! I just don’t hear clapping any more! Strange to this ol’ gyrl! What ever happened to class? Ha!
Are you gonna make an appearance at Drag Con later that weekend?
I assume so, in some way, shape or form. I am waiting to see if Project Achieve/Columbia Research Unit booked a table there. If not, I’m afraid it’s a missed opportunity. At that point, I’ll be there only as a convention-goer!
Okay, in closing: what’s the best piece of advice you can give to a young queen starting out in NYC today?
You need a healthy dose of confidence and self-assurance (which grows with experience), and willingness to learn and adapt. And as I mentioned, perform for the audience not at them. Let them in. Let them see your vulnerabilities and your strengths. Be true to yourself, your ideals, and who you are. And in this competitive world that is now all a “race,” remember that supporting another queen’s success will not lessen yours!
Thank you, Stella!
Stella D’oro will co-host the Miss Project Achieve / Columbia Research Pageant alongside Harmonica Sunbeam at Therapy on Thursday, September 7th (6pm). She regularly competes in “Star Search” at Barracuda (Thursdays,11pm-ish). Check the Thotyssey calendar for Stella’s other scheduled gigs, and follow her on Facebook, Instagram and YouTube.
On Point Archives