Originally an established and beloved drag star of Pulse Nightclub in Orlando, Mr Ms Adrien left it all behind for a fresh start in NYC just a few months ago. Today she talks to Thotyssey about the joys and perils of starting over, the differences between Florida and New York drag, and how she survived the devastation of the Pulse shooting. [Cover photo by Victoria Elizabeth Black]
Thotyssey: Adrien, hello! Thanks for talking to us today! So, how are you adjusting to summers in New York?
Mr Ms Adrien: Hey Jim! I loved living in Florida for 25 years, but one of things I was most looking forward to escaping was the weather. Turns out it’s just as unpredictable here! But other than the heat, it’s been incredible. I told my Mom when I was 7 years-old I was going to move to this city one day, and here I am! It’s every bit as exciting, inspiring, challenging and beautiful as I imagined it.
How long have you been here, now?
A little over three months! It’s weird how some days I feel like I’ve been here forever, and some days I feel like I got here yesterday. I just had to ask my roommate when we moved in!
It must be a struggle though, to be a well-known and successful queen in one city and to have to almost start from scratch in another. Is it frustrating, trying to navigate that?
It’s tough, I’m not gonna lie. It’s no question that my time in Orlando made me the artist who I am today. The audiences in Orlando are some of the most loving and supportive people I’ve ever had the opportunity to meet and perform for… but drag turned into a 9 to 5 job for me. After seven years there, I knew where I was performing every week, what time, what I was going to wear, what I was going to sing, what the check was going to look like… it became so mundane and uninspired. And when an artist has no inspiration, there is no art. That was my biggest fear.
So I made the scariest jump I could think of, quit all my gigs, packed up my costumes… and here I am. I don’t know where my next check is coming from, I’m back in competitions which I haven’t done for years, I’m paying for my own drinks (gasp!), and it can all be very humbling after being so “comfortable” for so long. The frustration and occasional meltdown I have adjusting to being back at square one is worth my newfound love for my craft. It excites me again, and that’s worth everything to me. My thought process is, if I climbed the ladder once, I can do it again… I’m convinced it’s more about having the balls to make the climb than anything else.
So, are you a native Floridian?
I am! Born and raised in South Florida. I love my home, despite the fact we can’t seem to figure out how to vote!
Ha! In general, are you secretly annoyed by all the news stories that people share about Floridians doing weird, crazy, kinda dumb stuff? Like, is that just Florida getting an undeserved bad rep?
Naw, we deserve every bit of the bad rep we get. Florida’s crazy. But the crazy can be so, so charming! If you’re drunk, anyway.
That’s fair! I understand that it was acting in a production of The Rocky Horror Show during your early years that opened your eyes to drag.
Yes! A perfect example about how beautiful the crazy in Florida can be. What other state would let a high school put on Rocky Horror? We had a fabulous time. I had been acting in plays and musicals my whole life, and that was the last show I did before leaving high school. And when it was over, I had never missed a theatrical environment so much in my life. It physically hurt to be ripped away from such a beautiful and freeing world.
So I bought the movie, researched the productions, started listening to the “If you liked Rocky Horror, you might also like…” suggestions on iTunes, and became completely obsessed with queer theatre. I found La Cage, I found Hedwig, and the rest was history. I was hooked, and I immediately knew what I was going to do for the rest of my life. I was done auditioning for the gay best friend, and I was ready to create my own vehicle: a limitless, fearless, genderless, timeless and relentless superhero. And that’s how MR MS was born.
Tell us how you began performing as a professional queen.
My very first performance as Mr Ms was at Pulse, and I can literally remember that night like it was yesterday. Truthfully, I was depressed studying theatre in college because they wouldn’t let us on stage as freshmen, and I was smarter than most of my professors. So I signed up for this talent contest at Pulse as a one time thing to cure my depression, and because I missed Rocky. I had no idea how drastically that competition, that club and that stage would change my life. The audience was electric, I felt so powerful, and there was so much love in the room that I was hooked. And thank God I lost that night, because I said, “that means I get to come back next week!” And that became my home, every Tuesday, win or lose, for the next two years.
After those two years, Pulse offered me my first cast position alongside legends like Roxxxy Andrews and Angelica Sanchez… it doesn’t get better than that. They taught me to paint my face, sew my own costumes, and how to be a true professional. And for seven years I performed with the best of the best, and for the most amazing audiences you can imagine.
What I didn’t realize was what I had lost in those seven years. Slowly my lashes got longer, my leather turned to fringe, my wigs got longer, my tits got bigger… I went from Rocky Horror to Drag Race, and didn’t even realize it. That was the beginning of the breakdown… the illusions started to fade, the reality I had built began crumbling down, and I didn’t know who I was anymore. That’s why I started writing my music.
Tell us more about this music.
I honestly didn’t even realize I was writing music at the time… I had never written music before and never saw myself as a writer. I was just scared and confused and lost, and began to write to make sense of what I was feeling. It wasn’t until I wrote about 30 or so songs, narrowed it down to 15 and put them in order, that I realized I had written my full story.
My album MR MS tells my story from that first competition at Pulse, to my last performance in Orlando. It begins on the outside of the community looking in–and so desperately wanting to be a part of it–and ends with me so wrapped up in it that I’m desperate to get out and find something new. I slaved over this record, which was a completely new medium of storytelling for me, and am very proud of how it turned out… but something in me kept me from performing it in Orlando. Even after I released it, I stuck to performing the songs I knew the audience wanted to see me do: Gaga, Beyonce, all that. I didn’t have the confidence or bravery to show them who I was under the fringe and rhinestones and wigs… which is ironic, because the whole point of drag to me in the first place was to be myself.
Luckily, the second I got to New York, that all went away. I found myself with nothing to lose and a story to tell. I’m determined to get this album out there for as many people to hear as possible, because I don’t want them to make the same mistakes I did.
So, you were not at Pulse the night of the shooting three years ago, but I imagine you lost several people close to you. I simply cannot process what that experience must have been like for you or anyone involved. How does one get through that at all, let alone continue on in nightlife?
It’s been over three years, and I still can’t process it. What we went through as a community (and when I say community, I mean as small as the Pulse family and as large as every LGBTQ+ person in the world), nobody should have to endure in their lifetime. It was evil, it was nonsensical, and it was unnatural. Unfortunately, there’s no natural way to deal with something unnatural, so you continue on. You do what you do, because if you don’t, the evil wins. And that was never an option for me, and I know a majority of the community in Orlando felt the same. We were back out at the bars that following week, if I’m not mistaken, for the biggest celebration of life, love and what it means to be a queer person that I have ever witnessed.
‘Til this day, I have a hole in my heart that I know will never be filled… but it doesn’t hurt when I’m on stage, and it doesn’t hurt when I’m with my queer family. So I’ll keep being who I am and doing what I do, because I know the 49 beautiful people we lost that night would do the same.
That’s a such an elegant and poignant way to see things. And, you were part of a group of Pulse queens that traveled the country to raise funds and awareness after the shooting… that must’ve helped with the healing process somewhat.
That experience really saved my life. I had never felt so small and helpless. When we came up with the idea to travel and raise money, we felt like we had a purpose… and this was our way to fight back. While knowing we were raising money helped, nothing healed me more than hearing the stories and seeing the faces of the people all over the country who shared in our pain. I was so busy trying to inspire everyone not to feel scared or alone, that I didn’t realize how scared and alone I felt. But meeting all those incredible people from all around gave me so much strength, made me feel so brave, and really made me realize I was part of a global community. It makes an impossibly heavy load much easier to carry when you know how many people are carrying it with you.
There has been talk in the past three years about maybe reopening Pulse, but today it looks like there are plans to put a memorial / museum on the site. What do you think about that?
I try not to think about it, to be honest. There have been so many rumors, so many plans, so many “promises”… I actually put off moving to New York with the hope that we’d have a glorious and triumphant return to the Orlando scene. But things get in the way, priorities change, plans get cancelled… I got my hopes up enough times to realize I needed to let it go. Pulse was our beautiful little club, and now it belongs to the world, and it means so many things to so many people. It’s bigger than us now. So when it happens, it happens. And I hope when/if it does, that they can recapture even half the magic that was inside that building because… Pulse was, quite literally, heaven.
Do you have any thoughts about Madonna’s anti-gun “God Control” video? It’s obviously well-intentioned, but some survivors connected to Pulse and other mass shootings were angry and horrified by the imagery she used.
While I think her new album is terrific and I’m a huge fan, I have chosen not to watch the new video. I’ve heard enough about it to know it’s not something that was made for me. The way I see it, everything is not for everyone. In the same way I’m sure it’s very difficult for someone directly affected by 9/11 to watch a film about 9/11, or the way a rape victim might react to a rape being depicted on film or television, I know I would not be able to get through that video without a meltdown. Madonna’s an artist who had a story to tell, and she told it. A trigger warning is always appreciated, but if an artist creates their art with a fear of who they’re going to offend or upset, they’ll censor themselves until there’s nothing left. So while I will not be watching that specific video, I completely respect her freedom as an artist to make it.
Lots of drag fans say that the New York scene is about performance and hosting, whereas in Florida it’s mostly about that pristine pageant aesthetic. Based on what you mentioned earlier about how your own aesthetic changed over time in Orlando, can I take it you see some truth in that?
That was completely the case in my experience. A majority of show directors in Orlando won’t even give you a second glance if you don’t look a certain way (or haven’t been on a certain television show). I’m very fortunate that I came from a performance background, so the show came naturally to me… where I needed a lot of work was my look. Fortunately, it’s much easier to learn how to stone and sew than it is to learn stage presence!
But that intense environment forces all the girls in Florida to step their game up, and quickly. And that’s how you end up with, in my opinion, one of the fiercest drag communities in the world. It’s the girls with the look and the X factor that end up on top in that scene. And it’s that strict and meticulous education in drag that I received that I trust when I perform anywhere else.
The unfortunate thing about the drag scene in Orlando is the way most of the show directors have trained the audiences. Unfortunately, the motto for most drag shows in Orlando was “get it over with, and get them to the bar.” And if the host hosted a little too long, or we performed a number longer than five minutes, we’d be yelled at and accused of messing with bar sales. I wanted to scream, “let us do our jobs! They’re here to see us! Help us help you!” I don’t think gay audiences are stupid. I think they’re very smart, and I think they deserve smart entertainment, even when they’re drunk at midnight in a gay bar. So I wrote an album, I produced a drag-musical version of The Devil Wears Prada, I performed an hour long Lady Gaga concert tribute, and every time they told me it wouldn’t work, and every time it did.
Now, thank God, I’m in a city that encourages exploration and risks and pushing the envelope. And push I shall! Hopefully with a little more enthusiasm (and funding) from the show directors here!
I watched you guest perform for Boudoir LeFleur and Kimmi Moore’s Tuesday weekly at Pieces Bar last week… what an amazing show! Have you already gotten to bond with many NYC queens… and I’m guessing there are some you knew already?
Yes, wow! I have to pinch myself! I’ve had to opportunity to work at so many of my dream venues, with so many incredible performers that I respect and love. Kimmi and Boudoir, Kristy Blaze, FiFi DuBois, Tina Burner, Rify Royalty, Sookie Sterling, Novaczar, Isabella Rio, Kiki Ball-Change, Tiffany Anne Coke, La Zavaleta, Maddelynn Hatter… just a handful of the many girls who have been so beautiful and welcoming and supportive of me since I’ve gotten here. A few of them I’ve considered sisters for years like Tina, Maddelyn, Tiffany, Kiki and Isabella, and most I’ve only just met that have treated me like family. I couldn’t be more blessed, and I can only hope that they know how much their support means to me, and that I can always deliver the best performance I can when I share the stage with them.
I love her so much! This will be our first show together. I actually met her at my very first show in New York! My great friend Kiki Ball-Change brought me on as a guest for her show, “Kiki with Kiki” at the West End Lounge after she won the Ultimate Drag Pageant. And that was only my second day here! All these girls are killing it here. And it never feels like a competition. All these queens are superstars. It’s so inspiring and makes me want to be the best me I can be.
And I am very honored to have you as part of the lineup of Thotyssey’s blogiversary at Pieces on Saturday (8pm), Night of 1000 Thots! That’s also gonna function as Honey Davenport’s afterparty for her own stage show, Raw & Unfiltered (at the Laurie Beechman Theatre). I can’t wait!
Yesss I’m so, so excited, and was so honored you asked me to be a part of it! I’ll be performing one of my favorite songs off my album! It’s called “Born to Wear Stilettos.” It’s a banger!
What else is coming up for you?
I’m kind of open to wherever the wind takes me at the moment! Going to as many events as I can, meeting as many creative people as I can, performing on as many stages as I can. Soaking up the scene, and all the inspiration that comes with that. I would love to bring my Gaga Ball to New York, along with my Devil Wears Prada Musical! I know exactly who I would want to cast in it, too… just gotta find a theatre! Currently I’m looking forward to competing in the finale of Polish the Queen on July 23rd at Stonewall, and if I win I get a cast spot at Stonewall! That would be a dream come true, so I’ll be rehearsing and stoning my life away ’til then. My biggest goal is to find a spot to present my album as a full out theatrical concert. I have a few leads, so keep a look out for that!
Tremendous! And finally: Gaga’s new beauty line! Exciting, or Not So Much?
Of course, my queen can do no wrong. Lady Gaga releases makeup, I will be wearing said makeup. Done deal! She’s the best we have: pure talent, hard working, authentic, and free. Everything I aspire to be.
You’re already there, girl! Thanks Adrian, see you Saturday!