A drag performer, recording artist and truly independent spirit, New York-born Robyn Banks is a queen who plays by her own rules. A lover of performing, she’s someone we’re going to be seeing–and hearing–for some time to come!
Thotyssey: Robyn, hello! Thanks for talking to us! So, DragCon has come and gone… did you partake?
Robyn Banks: Yasss! I went for Day Two as well as Day Three. Day Two was AMAZING! I also was there with Drag Queen Story Hour, so that made it even more special.
You’re a Story Hour queen?
Yes. I just actually had my one year anniversary with them.
Congratulations! They’ve done great work with exposing kids to both gender fluidity and literacy. Isn’t it great to do important things as a queen besides just entertaining folks in bars all the time?
I really enjoy it. It’s one of those things where you really get to see how smart children are. Every time I do a reading, I am just either amazed or super emotional. I actually enjoy when I have a reading, and then a bar gig in the same day.
We have some bar gigs to talk about! But first, let’s get the background on you! Where are you from, and what were you like as a kid?
I was born and raised in Harlem, New York. As a child, I was always very outgoing. I wanted to be on TV so bad, so I would do and say things from shows such a Buffy, Saved by the Bell, Charmed, etc.
I had a really good childhood. I hated being active, though… the thought of hurting myself was the scariest thing ever. So I never rough-played with the boys–always played Double Dutch or hopscotch with the girls.
My teenage years, I went to Harvey Milk High School, which at the time was an all-gay high school
(now it’s an alternative school). I discovered drag there, and was always in the halls filming things with my flip cam. I graduated school president. Then I went to college for early childhood education. So, working with children is something I’ve always wanted to do!
Were you always musical?
Yes. So my mom plays a ton of instruments, and my dad is still a DJ. My mom taught me the beauty of hearing music, and taking a song apart and just hearing everything about a song individually. I was obsessed with Mad TV, and I loved when they did music video parodies. And I wanted to do just that. I was always funny. And I was always able to make up a random song on the spot!
How exactly did drag come into your life?
When I was in high school, I was asked by a dance teacher to fill in for a Tina Turner number… and I was handed a wig and a black dress! After the show, I was told how I had really nice legs (something i had been told my whole life). I was then told that I should do drag, but I had no idea what it really was yet.
The school was having its first “Miss Stars Pageant,” and my friends all said I should do it. I figured, hey, I love to dance and act a fool, but over all just entertain, so why not? I did a number. My friends backup danced for me. We had to incorporate a safer sex message into it, so I made a evening gown out of condoms and I won!
I saw you also recently wore a gown adorned with MetroCards… do you often use found or used objects to make your looks?
Actually, no. I just try to go big for big events. The MetroCard gown was something I wanted for the first DragCon, but I knew the cards wouldn’t fly well since DragCon was in LA. I saved all those MetroCards for three years. I try to think outside the box and use interesting things to make a big statements. I have no idea what I’m doing next year!
I’m sure it’ll be extraordinary! So, there are a few other Robyn Bankses out there… have you had to duke it out with any of them yet?
No, they don’t want it! Just kidding. No, I’ve never met one. But I was recently at a bar and met a queen, and she’s like “Damn, you came all the way out here from Colorado?” And I’m like, “No, I live in Harlem.” I then looked up that Robyn Banks, and it was an older white woman! And I was asked by a person if I used to be a stripper. Googled her, and it was a big booty African American woman named Robyn Banks that was a stripper! God I wish I had her body!
I was introduced by Vitani to Drag Wars about two years ago, and that year I was there faithfully. And then I was there about two weeks ago, and it has changed a lot. And I love that there’s just so many new faces! I’ve never done Star Search, and I did Look Queen back in June and won. So that was fun.
I love those compilations, but I don’t know… I realize I just enjoy performing, acting a fool, just being me. There’s so much pressure when it comes competitions. But there are a few thoughts in my head about possibly doing a few next year!
So you are actually part of NYC drag history… you were the last queen hired to host a weekly show at Boots & Saddle Drag Lounge!
OMG, yes! I was.
You had a weekend happy hour show for the last few months of that bar’s existence. What was that whole experience like for you?
It was amazing. Honestly, it was also a lot of work. I give it to the girls who have more then one weekly show. That was my very first one. The first month, I was so confident… like,”I got this, I can do it.” But to entertain for two hours… it was a lot. I was used to just doing a 3-5 minute song. I learned a lot from doing that, and I’m forever grateful to Robert for giving me that chance, and to DJ T-Boy for really guiding me through the first month.
You’ve said that doing that show helped you fund the making of your album Jawbreaker. When did you start writing those songs?
I started writing for the album mid-2016. I went to film a show which was then canceled, and then I went through a breakup after being in my first adult relationship. So then I took a break, and in 2017 started writing. But it was super depressing, and my producer was like, “Nah you can have one song on there like that, but you gotta use that fuel to write bangers.” So we scrapped all 7 songs and started over. Doing the show and starting to be In the drag world helped me see what people were dancing to and enjoying. Originally, I wanted to call Jawbreaker “La Discotek,” but there wasn’t enough dancie songs on it.
What was this canceled show you were involved in?
It was a reality show for MTV called Last Square Standing we made back in March of 2016. And then when we got back a week later they canceled it, only to revise it. It had one season, and then it was canceled officially. That was, like, the third show I had that was canceled!
Yeah, I did a MTV show in high school called Dissed. They showed the first three episodes, and then it was canceled! But they sent it to me on DVD.
Wow, MTV sucks!
Do you have a favorite track from Jawbreaker?
Oh, God! Well, I honestly love “Karma,” cuz it was something I wrote about my ex. I had told my producer the story [behind the song]. and he said it needed to be a trap song. I had never done trap music, so “Karma” is also the song that I struggled with the most out of my whole discography. But I love it even more that Lola Michele-Kiki is on the remix!
That’s going to be available soon… the remix track with Lola and its video.
Yes, we shot the video along with a ton of other NYC drags back in August and September. I’m just waiting for iTunes and a few other [downloading platforms] to approve the single (or maxi-single) to finally give it a release day! Meanwhile, I’m hoping for a GLAM this year for my single “Back It Up,” and then go for another with the “Karma” video!
What was the most surprising thing for you about the recording process?
How good I sound. Let tell you something: producers are the way of the world. When I recorded this album, I didn’t want it to seem like I was another drag doing music. I did music as a boy under “Manny Montag,” so I was excited when I record my first album Robyn cuz I got to do music, parodies and drag. If I played you the demo I got for “Karma,”you would be like, whoah! That why I’m also a fan of a capella, cuz it’s just amazing what a producer can do with your vocals. Just ask Lola, lol!
Werk! Any ideas for future recordings?
I originally wanted to extend Jawbreaker into a deluxe, but I’m just now really getting into dance music. Plus, I enjoyed working with all the NYC girls during the video shoot, that it’s given me an idea. I stared working on new stuff. I felt like Jawbreaker was an intro into who Robyn Banks is. But the next album… she did not come to play! I will tell you that the name of the next project is Drag Mafia.
So, onto a serious topic for a moment… we’re in the middle of a shitstorm right now with The Manhattan Monster Bar dealing with outraged pushback from the nightlife community after some racist policies of management have been exposed (specifically, the general manager made a comment in a text about how the black dancers featured in an event poster should be replaced with “beautiful” ones in order to minimize black patrons). What are your thoughts about all of this? How should the Monster make this right, if that is even possible at this point?
Well, I pride myself in belong a black drag queen. And I am always excited to see my black sisters of color doing the damn thing. So first, shout out to Honey for exposing them. But also, shout out to Zarria for getting that spot at the new Boxers. I feel like this: there aren’t enough black drags out here that are really booming, and really making that stand.
Don’t get me wrong… I’m in love with all different types of people–age, skin color, types of drag. However, there needs to be more of us having a shit ton of shows per week. I’ve been begging a certain bar owner for two years for my own one night, and all I get is “we’re booked…” But there’s a ton of new girls who ask, and BOOM they get it. And I have yet to see a black girl have there with her own show at this venue. It just sucks, cuz at the end of the day we all just wanna entertain people, but also have our craft be taken seriously.
So for the issue at the Monster, I feel that the black community wasn’t taken seriously. Now, the owner said sorry and the general manager has been removed. But where’s the apology to Honey? To the black dancers? To the BLACK community? I’m sure The Monster isn’t going anywhere. But my mom used to go, and she said at one point about 70 percent of it was filled with ethnic people. Like, even RuPaul pops in there randomly!
Yes! They definitely don’t seem to understand who their patrons actually are. Disgraceful! We can only wait and see if they will be able to recover from this.
Yes, I’m super excited about it! She is a good Judy. We often get ready together, and kiki… it’s fun. She helped with the “Karma” video. She shot and directed my music video for “Back It Up,” and she has a movie, Neon Boys, coming out next month.
[… and back to Stonewall on Sunday] with Catrina Lovelace for her first Invasion…
I also have a few Drag Queen Story Hour readings this month, as well as our second annual fundraiser event. So, October is busy! And here I thought I’d be able to grow my beard out!
Also,the “Karma” song will drop this month, the remix will follow it next month, and the dance remix video will drop on New Years!
Congratulations and have fun with it all! What are you gonna be for Halloween?
Aye, I don’t know yet. I feel like with drag, it’s always Halloween. But I just got my own apartment last month, so I think I’ll take this year to just stay home with my dog, watch some movies, and just have some Me Time. I know I do have a DQSH reading that morning, so maybe I’ll be a cute bumblebee or something kid friendly.
When I was a kid, we weren’t allowed to celebrate Halloween. I didn’t really celebrate ‘til 2016 after my breakup, when my friends dragged (haha, drag) me out to have fun. I don’t know, maybe my mind will change.
Werk! Anything else?
My favorite Halloween song is “The Monster Mash,” and my favorite Christmas song is “Rockin’ Around the Christmas Tree,” so I’m trying to get the rights to re-record those, lol!
A busy musical bumblebee indeed! Thank you, Ms. Banks!