[Photo: Pheral Lamb]
When last we spoke on here nearly two years ago, Myanmar-born queen Emi Grate had just won the first preliminary week of the penultimate season of the vital “So You Think You Can Drag?” competition. Immediately after that interview was published, Emi dropped out of the competition and her entire career trajectory would change. Today she is an essential figure in Brooklyn’s nightlife scene, our current reigning Mr(s). BK, a fierce voice against social injustice both in the queer community and beyond, a much-discussed Bushwig performer, a brunch bitch… and as much of a Celine Dion enthusiast as ever. Emi and Thotyssey revisit this wild ride from then to now!
Thotyssey: Emi, hello! Yay, catching up is fun! So let’s begin with the topic of the hour… DragCon! What does this mean to you… and will you be there?
Emi Grate: I have mixed feelings about DragCon. It’s a very special convention, but it’s built almost entirely around the Drag Race franchise rather than the art and the community surrounding drag… and there is a heavy emphasis on marketplace and celebrity worship. Maybe I’m too jaded cuz I know where to find all these shops / sellers online, and if I wanted to meet particular RuGirls for whatever reason, I could always make it happen without standing in line or paying money.
But I take it as a great networking opportunity. People fly in from across the country and across oceans, folks I wouldn’t meet otherwise, drawn into town by this event. I look forward to the panels that deal with different aspects of drag. I myself actually proposed to moderate a panel on diversity and representation within drag circuits through a RuGirl friend of mine, and so far I haven’t gotten a response … so I guess that’s not happening.
But yes, I will be there. I’m just waiting for someone to give me free passes. I didn’t buy a pass last year, and I’m not planning to this year!
I feel like everyone these days has a connection for free Con tickets (except me). Between your Insta lewks and your reputation as a performer, you must have a fanbase now that extends beyond your Brooklyn fam. Is it weird to interact with people who only know you from afar?
I never really had issues with interacting with folks from afar. I had to interact with folks in the US before I came here. Once I got here, I had to keep in touch with folks in Burma. And I’ve been to several states in the US.
As for drag, I used to be this fangirl from a rural Midwestern college town exploring and observing drag in larger faraway scenes. I’m just arriving at the receiving end of admiration now. I know what it means to baby queers when artists from distant places are doing their own thing, and how special it can mean when they share a piece of their time with you over the internet. I used to watch videos from Nightgowns and Look Queen on YouTube on the weekends back in school, and brainstorm what I could do with the few resources I had in college and what I could do if I were in the City. I once hit up Bianca Del Rio through her website about her audience participation “Wig in a Box” game (where she makes audience members put on a wig and makes them lip sync), and she responded… which is a special memory, cuz this was kinda right after she won Drag Race and she took the time.
Speaking of Nightgowns, I guess it’s safe to say that that show’s curator Sasha Velour (now a Drag Race winner)–and that show itself and the serious themes behind it–have had a big influence on your own drag.
Oh, absolutely! I see myself as the legacy of Bob and Sasha. Bob championed excellence as a queer person of color: she is truly versatile in all areas of the trade, very professional, and yet doesn’t take herself all too seriously. Sasha champions community organization / engagement: She brings people together, and she’s one of the two most gracious people I know in showbiz – the other being Paige Turner. Sasha is invested in exploring gender as the medium of drag. And in a world where everyone and everything is aggressively gendered, anyone and anything can be drag. Their philosophies and approaches to drag manifest in my work both when I’m a solo artist and when I’m engaging fellow artists.
Now that you mentioned Paige… the last time you and I spoke here, I was congratulating you for winning the first night of your season of So You Think You Can Drag (which Paige hosted) two years ago! Almost immediately after that, you had to drop out of the pageant, and then it seemed like everything changed for you. It’s been a crazy journey!
It’s been wild! I really wanted to go to grad school. I dropped out of SYTYCD for the GRE. I studied for 3 weeks, took the test, did well, and happened to not need it to apply for an MFA in stage makeup and hair. I got admitted to University of NC School of the Arts, then I found out I wasn’t eligible for student loans because of my immigration status. I ended up applying for LGBT asylum since I wasn’t going to school, but needed to remain in the US for my safety and well-being. Most of these big moments happened in spring 2017, and I came back a different queen in the summer.
And then Brooklyn came calling.
One night, I had a conversation with Mocha Lite during afters about how there are a lot of Asian queens, but we don’t get to be ourselves or work together much, and she prompted I do something about it – cuz she recalled me doing a number on post-colonial trauma. Sasha Velour had just won Drag Race, and I was feeling confident about community organization and diving deeper into identity politics. A+ started in July, and I gave the talk show-drag show hybrid a second shot in November as a monthly. A+ is now over a year old, and Last Month Tonight turns one soon.
Mx Nobody 2017 was the first competition / pageant where I didn’t quit or flop; I placed third. I finally earned a title with Mr(s) BK in April this year. I have a weekly brunch with The Nobodies, and I pop up here and there in Brooklyn and Manhattan.
I’m currently trying to scale back a bit on drag work though, cuz I finally have a work permit and I want a Muggle job with a steady reliable income.
[Photo: Mike Brand]
Your recent Bushwig performance got a very strong reaction!
Oh yes, I had a moment. The number is rather plain in description: I stripped naked to Celine Dion’s “My Heart Will Go On.” It came from a series of acts I’d been working on with regards to exploring my relationship with myself – my physical body, in this case. People come and go in life, but my body stays. It’s the longest relationship I’m ever going to have, and it needs to be a healthy one. Why not the ultimate love song for the ultimate relationship? I’d been workshopping the act with different versions of the song, but for Bushwig I decided to go for the definitive version we all know from Celine’s studio album “Let’s Talk About Love” (the version on the Titanic soundtrack is different. Look it up, if you’re curious).
I was given a primetime spot between Alaska and Patti Spliff – which was intimidating. It was a challenge and an opportunity, and I rose to the occasion. There was a singalong–and boy, does she love a singalong! People were screaming and crying and banging on the stage after the performance. I made $50+ in tips, which was the most I’ve ever made with a single act. I like to think the audience got my message. Alaska and Lucy Balls said in Paper Magazine that it was “instantly iconic,” and Alaska was quoted saying, “That kind of shit is why I started doing drag.” Those were pretty high-profile remarks, and it was really a new high for me – even beyond Nightgowns and Mr(s) BK, I’d say, but of course, I may not have gotten the prime slot without having done those two.
[Photo: Ken Casteneda]
Let’s talk about your monthly “A+” for a sec… you’re right, before you created that show many of us had no idea there were as many Asian performers in the city as there are. It seems like nightlife wants to put a cap on how many established Asian queens there can be at one time, and the queens who do come through are kind of expected to be a Certain Way.
I feel like Asian people have the largest diaspora, and yet are the most stereotyped – and it’s insane. It’s hard for us to come together, cuz there is no one unifying factor. I guess back in antiquity, a bunch of Greeks pointed to the Aegean Sea and said, “Whatever’s East of that and however much of it there is, that’s Asia. What’s South of the Mediterranean? That’s Africa,” and it stuck. Learning about the diaspora myself has been a trip: there has always been migration within the continent and among Pacific Islands throughout history; people got moved further and farther with the advent of European colonialism. There are refugees due to post-colonial conflicts; and there are people moving because of economic booms. I’ve come to know about South Asians who had settled in East Africa before the Europeans arrived, and South Asians who relocated to the Caribbean and the Americas with the British, still worship Hindu gods but identify with Caribbean cultures otherwise. It’s fascinating.
What we do at A+ is, we look at the different backgrounds we come from, reconcile / affirm our queerness and explore what it means to live, survive and thrive in the US. It’s really an intersectional approach. And instead of looking for a unifying factor, we end up celebrating the varied experiences and the multiplicity of identities. I’m very proud of it, and everyone who’s come through to get on stage!
The first big difference is, we make more money at the Monster. We now charge a mandatory cover, and it’s at a very central location. I’ve always said the space was of queer Asians, by queer Asians, for queer Asians. Next, we’ve been able to reach our target demographic better. We get more students from NYU, and people who work corporate. It’s early on a Saturday night. It’s basically a theatre, variety show experience with familiar people you wouldn’t meet otherwise talking about familiar experiences you don’t get to hear otherwise. $10 is a very reasonable cover–you drink some and you get a full show. And the Monster has their own graphic designer for promo material, so it’s less work for me. We haven’t had press coverage since we moved, though. I need to work on that.
Hooray for Thotyssey!
And “Last Month Tonight” is your monthly Tuesday talk / drag show at The Rosemont in Brooklyn. It has a good following now, but I bet it was a challenging project to get going. People don’t automatically associate panel discussion with a night out drinking.
Girl… it was a carry to get it going. It’s also kinda tricky with the setup at the Rosemont: there’s the bar in the front, a corridor (of sorts), the performance area, then a backyard. When I started there were more people at the bar and in the backyard than in the seats – and it was in the winter.
We always plan the topics in advance. When booking guests, my roommate / assistant Grant and I check rigorously for compatibility. Are the guests too similar or too different? Would they jive? Do they have common topics of interest? I limit the discussions to the first set, and we encourage the audience to chime in.
People who are really into that kind of discussion show up early, and if they RSVP on Facebook we sometimes tell them what we’ll be talking about. Those who want to see shows show up toward the end of the panel discussion. And per Brooklyn tradition, I have the last set as open stage for new performers or seasoned ones who want to workshop material. We’ve had the most sign-ups this month and I make them sign-up in advance to ensure turnout; I had to cut off at 10 and scratch my number for the last set.
It helps that it’s a Tuesday night; people only come out if they really want to see what you’re serving. It helps that the Rosemont can pack a crowd as well as be intimate. And it’s good to have a variety: we start slow with a panel discussion, then we do back-to-back numbers, and we end by workshopping some new acts.
That sounds like a very enlightening evening! And now you are also a brunch queen, alongside Ariel Italic and Lady Bearica Andrews of the Nobodies at Bizarre on Sundays. For some reason, I didn’t think drag brunch would ever work in Brooklyn, but you all have been killing it for awhile now! What are the joys and challenges of drag brunchery?
Brunch audience is vastly different from a nighttime audience. We do have our nightlife following come to brunch once in a while, but we have a whole other set of brunch regulars. They don’t really follow us online, but they always come back. A lot of us in nightlife have run into the issue of patrons being too preoccupied with drinking and dancing to pay attention to shows. Brunch audience is preoccupied with drinking and eating, but somehow manages to pay attention to shows. They come for this multi-sensory experience, and they want to be served: food, drinks, looks, shows, you name it. I’ve never been in an audience at drag brunch, so I can’t fully tell.
But as performers, we emphasize entertainment at brunch. You know I can be a little too serious a little too often. Brunch is when I let loose. And between the Nobodies and me, we unhinge further as the show goes on and people get more drunk. I balance the tip bucket on my head; Ariel chugs whole drinks during guitar solos. Bearica pretends the floor is lava, and gets around the space on chairs. It’s a hoot, always!
Lol! What is a go-to “let loose” number or artist for Emi Grate?
I could tell you, but I recommend seeing those in person!. I like parodies, bad covers, reinterpreting serious things to be silly and frivolous, and anything I can overact.
Belated congratulations on being crowned this year’s MR(S) BK! That’s basically the biggest pageant in Brooklyn, so that’s quite an honor!
It was a milestone for me. Starting with the birth of A+, I’d been examining my relationship with the world and people around me through my drag. It all culminated in the work I presented for Mr(s) BK. Since then, I’ve shifted focus on exploring my relationship with myself – my own mind, body and spirit. And I’ve been working on being a better producer and curator, cuz the pageant gave me many a new connections. I’d been around a few years already, and people know my name but weren’t necessarily aware of what I do. I got on a new platform and it was an much-needed affirmation of, “Yes, we see you. You’ve been doing your thing, and it’s great. Please keep it up!” For the first time ever, I haven’t had to worry so much about turnout, and I’ve been getting around. I’m grateful. #EmiGrateful
[Photo: Jay Kay]
Amen! As in all pageants and competitions though, there was some shade–mainly from certain other queens who believed they should’ve won instead. Does that phase you, or do you take it in stride?
Hoo boy! I’d never addressed this publicly, but I shall – exclusively for Thotyssey. I aced the interview portion in the finale, which was half the score, and my number was the most technically-challenging piece I’ve ever done. It’s hard to explain cuz it was a 12-person project with 9 people on stage – with props and projections. It was as much about me as a person, as it was about Brooklyn drag as a community.
And I can assure you, no other contestant was as invested in the pageant as I was: I went to every preliminary round in a look, chatted with the contestants, judges, producers and host, and fully observed the competition and audience. After all, I entered the pageant cuz I’ve been around a while, and I had nothing solid to show for it. I did my homework, I understood the assignment, I delivered, and I earned the title. And I bought a new laptop with the prize money. I never felt the need to justify or explain anything.
I’ve been on an ABBA kick as of late – yes, because of the Mamma Mia sequel, but more so in opposition of it. I feel like the movies are tragic substitutes for the ABBA reunion we deserve but may never get (for those of you who may be wondering, I love ABBA as much as Celine Dion, if not more). I’m digging up “The Piper.” It’s mysterious and folksy; it talks about people coming together but not necessarily in a good way, cuz they fall under the spell of this charismatic musician. There are interesting layers to the song I can play with.
And I created projections for Enya’s “On My Way Home” a couple of months back. And it’s about making peace with myself, finding love and comfort where I am and enjoying life. It’s calm and comforting by contrast. I’m looking forward to it.
Full circle back to DragCon: you’re going to be involved in something very interesting and important that week! DRAGS, the second annual benefit event centered around Gregory Kramer’s photo book of the same name, returns the city, at Marquee on Thursday the 27th! This time the Ali Forney Center will be the beneficiary, Monet X Change is hosting, and you’ll be performing! Were you were featured in the book?
I was not. I’m not sure if I’m allowed to say this: there’s a sequel coming and I’ve been shot for it. Gregory heard about me through Wang Newton, who used to host A+ back in Brooklyn, and reached out to me. I make a point of doing one charity show a month, and DRAGS is such a high profile event with some legendary figures in NYC gay nightlife.
And right after DRAGS, you’ll be running down to Bizarre for your own DragCon warmup party!
- Cheddar Gorgeous’ daughter Donna Trump from Manchester, UK
- Live-singing queen Ophelia Love from London, UK
- My Filipino sister Bombalicious Eklaver from DC. Remember her huge serpent look from NY DragCon last year? ICONIC!
- Punk princess Kilo Kikii from Dallas, TX, and
- The Worcester City Sirens, Poise N Envy and Harley Queen from Worcester, MA. And Poise is the newly crowned Miss Gay Worcester 2018.
Friends I’ve come to know from my travels and internet connections. It’s a full lineup. I’m very excited.
Sounds like you’re gonna be ending September in a bang! Okay, so is there anything else you want to mention or discuss?
Toward the end of July, two very prominent figures in NYC queer nightlife were accused of rape – one in Brooklyn and one in Manhattan. The Brooklyn case took 5 months to break, and the accused is being outed as a serial abuser who has physically intimidated and emotionally manipulated peers and newer folks in the scene.
The Manhattan one took three years. I’ve seen the victims be ignored, invalidated and vilified. And the accused have made no efforts to make amends. On top of that, some of us have chosen to stay willfully ignorant or to actively side with the accused / aggressors without question. Summer has ended, and these dangerous people are still working full time amongst us. This is not okay. This isn’t fair to the victims. It makes the scene less safe. It makes us a bad example as a drag scene, as a hub of progressive ideologies and practices. The least you can do is hear out the victims, and distance yourself from the accused until you feel informed enough to make a stand.
Thanks for sharing, Emi.
Emi Grate hosts brunch at Bizarre Bushwick on Sundays (1pm), “Last Month Tonight” at The Rosemont on monthly fourth Tuesdays (10pm), and “A+: The Pan-Asian Revue” at The Monster on monthly third Saturdays (7:30pm). Check Thotyssey’s calendar for all of Emi’s upcoming appearances, and follow her on Facebook, Instagram, Twitter & YouTube.
Previously: Emi Grate (9.13.2016)