A rising star in the NYC drag scene, this vivacious queen sings, dances and makes us laugh. But pretty soon, she’ll be paying homage onstage to one of pop music’s most tragic figures. Thotyssey takes a hike with the fascinating Cissy Walken!
Thotyssey: Cissy, hello! Happy DragCon week! Will you be present at the Javits this weekend?
Cissy Walken: Hello hello! Yes, I will be! I’m working for Headcount.org on Saturday, getting people to register to vote and become more involved in their local elections.
OMG, you’re actually going to be doing something for the good of humanity and not just self-promoting! Have you found yourself being more politically aware / active in the past year, especially as a drag queen?
You know, yes and no. I think when I first started drag, I really wanted to be a political queen who cares about our dying planet. And I first started out with that focus at heart; it’s what made me create my Celine Dion mix. But recently, I think I’ve gotten really wrapped up in the throws of it all: make a mix, do shows, turn the party, get your coin. And while I love doing shows, I think its time to go back to Cissy The Politician.
Speaking of mixes, congrats on winning last week’s Open Call–the new weekly drag competition that Maddelynn Hatter hosts at the Ritz–with a particularly deft and funny one! You had live singing, lip sync, kooky choreo… and you totally dropped and smashed the mic, but you did it in a pretty seamless way and never stopped being entertaining while Maddelynn repaired it and handed it back to you!
Haha, oh yes! Thank you for that. I always try to remind myself to not drop the mic, but that night I didn’t actively do that… which is why it probably fell. But the show must go on, and there was no way I was gonna stop the DJ. We drag performers work so hard to just get to that one moment in the night where we can perform, and I wasn’t about to let a mishap ruin that for me. I’ll always keep singing!
Rockstar! So, where’s your hometown… and were you always a performer of some sort?
I’m from a small town in the middle of New Jersey called Hillsborough. It’s cute, but I had to get out. I didn’t know it at the time, but I was really in search of a gay community that matches me.
And it was there that I first started performing. When I was 3, I gave my family Shania Twain shows off her Come On Over album. And then in middle school, when I made the decision that sports would never work for me, I tried out for the school play and got the bug!
Do you have a favorite musical?
West Side Story. It’s the ultimate musical (sorry, R&H junkies).
How then did the drag bug bite you?
So I was a good kid, and didn’t go to the bars until I was 21. I had just moved to Astoria, and my roommate started talking about Drag Race, and so we would watch a few episodes… and of course, Gay Gay Me gagged over it. But then I started looking for drag shows around me, and I saw this queen was having a show in my neighborhood. So I stumbled into this dive bar; I wasn’t carded (which to me is like… well, damn, I could have done this sooner), and Sutton Lee Seymour began her show.
And as I watched her sing and tell jokes and stories, I started to realize, “Hey I can do this.” As a young actor, I kept feeling like I never had the skill set needed to succeed in the business. And that was only partly true; I did get work, and I did a fair amount of shows for the amount of time I spent working. But I saw my potential in drag–I love music sung by women, I love clothing and costuming, and I love to create a rapport with my audience.
How did you begin performing as Cissy?
Well, first I went out in drag without performing, once. But I was like, “yeah, I might look beat, but I really want to get on that stage.”
I went to Look Queen one night because my bestie and I love to dance at the Monster, and did the thing. It wasn’t great by any means, but totally a learning experience. And quickly, I started to hear from other girls that I should do this open stage and this contest. So I showed up. And when I didn’t do well, all I could hear from more experienced queens was, “keep showing up.”
So for the first few months, I kept doing that until working three jobs and showing up to midnight contests got the best of me, and I revisited what was possible for me. But it was never a question as to whether performing was right for me. I just began to shape my life around my dreams as a performer instead of the other way around.
You remind me a little bit of Gilda Wabbit: you have similar looks, you’re both singers and you both have this kind of feral energy… have you heard that comparison before?
All the time. It also didn’t help that we were both Astoria girls at the same time.
But whereas some girls would get threatened by someone similar looking with similar goals, she has always been kind and accepting towards me. She refers to me as “the dollar store Gilda Wabbit,” which I hold close to my heart.
Ha! Well, you’re definitely creating a different look for yourself. When I last saw you, you had a very exaggerated lip… and I understand that crazy nails are trademark of yours?
Well. I love nails but I don’t wear them all the time for a couple reasons. If I have a reveal, then my talons don’t work best for me because I’ll lose them. The other reason is because most of my sets are all busted. But I’m not gonna throw out usable product, so I figure it out! Now as for my makeup, I definitely thought I painted my lips a little too big that night. But I’ve been pushing myself with my makeup to take risks and learn from them. And actually, since that night I’ve already learned new things about application and my own anatomy that are making my process easier with better results.
You recently competed in the first season of Iconic, a new drag competition that had several weekly preliminary rounds Icon. The competition seemed VERY challenging, I must say. How did you enjoy / survive the experience?
Well, I survived! It was very challenging, and I enjoyed the challenge overall… even if it has left me exhausted. There were moments from the show I really enjoyed, one specifically at the finale when the audience showed their love for a number about my Nonna.
Ultimately, I did have a lot on my plate this summer. What kept me sane during it all was knowing that no matter what I was doing at one show, I had something else going on at another show.
That is comforting! So where can we find you in the next few weeks, before the big show?
I’m back at The Ritz on Friday [for the paid booking at Open Call that was won last week]. And I’m with Heidi Haux at The Duplex on October 10. But really, I’m putting all my time on this [upcoming] show right now.
Let’s talk about this show! First of all, tell us about your relationship with Amy Winehouse’s music. Were you always a fan?
I first got into her when she became a mega star from “Rehab.” I remember coming home from school (before I did theater) and watching TRL. “Rehab” was the number 1 video for so long that by time they got to it, they would only play, like, 15 seconds of it because we all had heard it so much. I listened to her album, but didn’t (and couldn’t) understand it as a single, social, sober kid. And I think the community I came from pushed aside her work because of her drinking problems.
But I got back into her albums in college, after she died. And everything changed from there. The Lioness became the album I immediately associate with my first fall in New York. I would listen to her cover of “A Song For You” and had no idea WHAT those words were, but I still got every bit of the story. Here I am, this kid in a big city and her music spoke to the loneliness I felt.
So putting together a stage tribute to her must be a very cathartic and emotional process. How did the idea for Back to Life come about?
Well, it started with my original Amy number. I figured out a way to tell a story through her own music. And as I continued to dig into her own music, I saw how her experience informed the music, and her stories became so relatable to my own stories. So her music needs to keep being performed, so others who respond to it like I do have an outlet for it. Her story needs to be retold so that she doesn’t rest as “The Addict” or her father’s most cherished love… because her life and death were treated terribly. She needs to reign victorious, even if that’s in her afterlife.
Well said! You will star in Back to Life at the Laurie Beechman Theatre on October 12th and November 9th. What can we expect from that show? Will you actually be playing Amy as you sing her songs?
You can expect that I will play Amy, but not for the entire show. We’re working on mechanisms to help switch between Cissy and Amy, because I do want moments of third person narrative where I can relate her songs back to my own experience.
But I’ll be singing everything! And I’ll be doing the numbers I already do, plus a bunch of new ones. Which is pretty daunting to learn in such a short time, but such a great challenge and opportunity.
Sounds like we’re in for a stellar showcase! Is there anything else that needs to be mentioned about it?
Something I need to say, just because this is my first time publicly talking about Amy, is that I hope people who knew her know that I do this act from a place of love and respect. She is one of my greatest inspirations, and I’d hate for her family to ever feel I maligned their loved one.
I think her family would be proud! Okay, final question: what will you be for Halloween this year?
High and drunk. If not, working.
We’ll see you out there one way or the other! Thanks, Cissy!
Check Thotyssey’s calendar for Cissy Walken’s upcoming appearances, and follow her on Facebook, Instagram and Twitter.