Switch n’ Play’s sexy snake charmer has seen sweeping changes in the forms and faces of NYC nightlife. And now that she’s serving us fierce shows on screens big (a feature documentary) and small (Instagram Live and QUIBI), the incomparable Zoe Ziegfeld may be leading us into a bright new future as well. [Cover Photo: Matt Monath / NewNowNext]
Thotyssey: Hello Zoe! Thanks for chatting today! So, how’s your quarantine treating you?
Zoe Ziegfeld: In truth, not the worst; there’s a lot of perspective to be gained right now. This whole situation is obviously a nightmare, but for me personally it’s really highlighting where I can add gratitude to my life. I have a loving partner and five perfect animals, and we find plenty to laugh about. We have a roof over our head, we can afford food, we have friends that we love and miss. I feel very fortunate.
That’s pretty wonderful. Do all the animals get along?
For the most part, yes! The three cats tussle, but they’re all friends. The dog and the cats are finally becoming friendly after two years of cautiously co-existing. The snake mostly keeps to herself, but she has an ongoing romance through the glass with one cat in particular. It’s hard to explain, but they seem to really be enamored with one another. Wow, is that the gayest shit I’ve ever said in my life?
I am sure it’s very romantic! Is this the snake that I’ve seen perform with you occasionally over the years?
I actually don’t work with her very frequently. The two places where I most often work with snakes–The Metropolitan Opera and Coney Island USA–bring in their own snakes.
Werq, professional snakes! Have your serpentine dance partners always been perfectly competent, or were there ever any mishaps when they were uncooperative–like maybe they tried to escape, or even eat you?
They would never try to “eat me” per se, but I have been bitten by snake colleagues–it’s never onstage, and it’s always my fault. I’ve only ever been bitten because I was giving poor signals about what was about to happen, and they thought I was food.
Once during a dress rehearsal at The Met, a snake tangled the end of its tail into my costume, minutes before we were supposed to go onstage. I had to rip the costume apart to get the snake out, and a seamstress was called in to quickly stitch up the hole while we stood in the wings. It was a bit nuts.
I bet! The Met is one of the world’s greatest performance spaces, and you’re part of a special Coney Island-themed production of Mozart’s Così fan tutte there. What on Earth is it like performing on that stage?
Working at the Met has been the dreamiest, most wild thing. I just finished my third season there. The Met donated comp tickets to my high school, so I went to many shows there as a teenager – I never thought in a million years that I’d get to be on their stage (because frankly, I can’t sing for shit.)
Also, working in nightlife… everything is so fleeting, and a lot of the preparation work happens alone. So it’s a special experience to go into rehearsals with your cast mates six days a week, and really hone your craft together. Plus, I really do love a dive bar… but it’s pretty special to perform in a sold-out 4,000-seat world-renowned opera house. Yes, I’m bragging.
You’ve been a nightlife performer for a while.
Over 10 years now!
Where are you from originally?
I was born in Hell’s Kitchen at the end of the peep show era, and raised in NYC and Woodstock.
And then, what ultimately drew you to this world?
There are so many things I can point to as driving forces in my journey to nightlife. My mother was in the circus for a hot minute and I was raised on those stories, and my grandparents helped found an off-Broadway theatre–so, I guess showbiz is part of my heritage.
When I was a teenager, I would sneak into Peppermint’s party called Rated X (she was “Peppermint Gummybear” at the time) and take my top off during the dance contest. I never won.
Then in 2009, I finished a bachelors degree in performance art out in New Mexico–I was looking for art-making opportunities and I saw a post on Craigslist for a local burlesque troupe holding auditions. I auditioned, I was accepted, and here we are 10 years later–tits out whenever possible!
I’ve always suspected that as far as burlesque goes, it seems like it must be a long journey of trial and error, open-mindedness, risk-taking and creativity to really find your own specific take on the genre.
Oh yeah, definitely a long journey… and still ongoing! At the start I definitely thought I wanted to do classic, elegant burlesque–feather fans and satin and jewels and glamour. It took me a few years of being mediocre at that before I found my niche with the queers and weirdos. Finding Switch n’ Play was a turning point, of course – it was like coming home to myself as an artist.
When did you join up with them?
I have been with them for a while now. I did my first SnP show in 2011, but didn’t become a regular until 2014.
Switch n’ Play was originally a more ‘traditional” drag king group. You must have seen so much transition from the group’s origins to what it is today.
It’s changed a LOT! It started as all kings, and when I first found them it was still mostly kings. But they did these “open drag nights” that weren’t king-specific–it was a cross-genre queer performance night that was as much about fostering community as it was about the art of drag. The kind of work we present now (and the overall quality of the shows) has definitely shifted, but the eye on inter-sectional community-building has remained the same.
Switch n’ Play’s massive success has been really fascinating and inspiring to watch. Such a huge part of that success is, like you said, the group’s inclusivity of gender identity, performing genre, aesthetic, etc. It really embodies all of what has happened in Brooklyn nightlife (and in all queer culture, actually). Did any of you have an idea that what you were doing was gonna be so impactful?
Oh gosh, no, I don’t think so. But in hindsight it makes sense –I think we were all feeling like we didn’t fit into mainstream queer nightlife as artists, so it stands to reason that audiences were also feeling that void.
It’s hard to pinpoint what “impact” we’ve had per se, but it is really meaningful to think about the vast landscape of Brooklyn drag now. When I first joined Switch n’ Play, the only queen who would hire me to perform was Rify Royalty. No shade to other producers, but it wasn’t that long ago that my art and my body weren’t “right” for queer nightlife. Shout out to Merrie Cherry, too–she may not have been booking burlesque back in 2014, but she did invite members of SnP to compete in DragNet, which was honestly major. Things have changed a lot since then, and it’s amazing. (Get with the program, Manhattan!)
Hear that! SnP were doing these amazing shows at the Branded Saloon twice a month, to great success and fanfare. You must really miss those!
UGGGGHH I MISS THEM SO MUCH. There’s nothing like being in a packed room full of sweaty queers who are ready to uplift and celebrate each other. But we’ve found a cute rhythm on IG Live, in the meantime. We’ve had people tuning in from Brazil, Australia, Canada, the UK, folks who can‘t see us in person so easily… so that’s been cute.
Sorry, I just said “cute” twice in a paragraph. But seriously. It’s fucking cute.
So cute! Members of Switch n’ Play have frequently appeared in Nightgowns, the surreal, emotional, multimedia showcase founded by Brooklyn-based Drag Race winner Sasha Velour. Have you performed in any of those shows? And might we see you on Quibi soon?
If you look carefully, you can see me on Quibi right now! I’m the stage kitten / assistant stage manager for almost all live Nightgowns shows, so they brought me in as the ASM for the taping of the live show for Quibi as well. You can see me in my headset and skivvies giving a time call at the end of episode one.
Occasionally Sasha has me perform a number in Nightgowns as well, and it’s always an honor to do an act for her and for her incredible audiences. But I really love running around doing the production stuff, too. I enjoy being recognized for my art, but I also love being recognized as a strong, badass, hard femme who makes shit happen.
Switch n’ Play has actually been featured in their own documentary that’s been making the rounds at festivals! Tell us a bit about the experience of filming that.
The filmmakers (Cody Stickels, director, and Chelsea Moore, producer) were already friendly acquaintances and regulars at SnP shows, so when they asked to film the documentary we felt like we could trust them to honor us and our vision. They took really good care of us throughout the whole process, and made it very clear that they wanted us to feel affirmed by the final product–which we do. We spent two years filming, and there was some notable glow-up over that time. So on a personal level the film feels like this very precious time capsule.
But bigger picture, it’s amazing to think about queer people who are more isolated or have limited access to queer / chosen family or inter-sectional queer spaces. Those people can now watch this film wherever they are and know that there’s a place for them, there’s a family out there waiting for them. And people who rarely get to see themselves represented on the big screen might see this film and feel a sense of belonging or kindred that doesn’t happen through mainstream media. That’s pretty magical.
Do you know if A Night at Switch n’Play is gonna stream somewhere soon?
It’s still on the festival circuit (or it was, until society came to a screeching halt) and we don’t know what will happen after that. But it’s certainly the hope!
Definitely something to look forward to! In the meantime, you and the rest of Switch n’ Play will be returning to the Instagram stage this Saturday. Are you enjoying doing these shows from home, or is it just completely bizarre?
It’s totally bizarre, and I usually have an existential meltdown 12 to 24 hours beforehand. But then showtime comes, and it’s a total blast! This Saturday is gonna be extra special, though; we’re celebrating the incredible Nyx Nocturne’s birthday, and we have the whole collective plus two of my all-time favorite guest performers, MiscAllaneous DomTop and Vander Von Odd!
It’s not easy to discuss the future amidst all this uncertainty, but is there anything else coming up you might wanna plug or discuss?
I mean hey, if you want to keep chatting, I have lots more to tell you about my cats. But other than that, I think we’ve covered all the good stuff!
I can also talk about cats for hours, but I feel like I should start a new blog for that! Okay, so my closing question for all my QuaranTinas is,what have you been binge watching through all this?
I mean, Sasha Velour’s Nightgowns on Quibi, just playing in a loop forever, obviously. But also I’ve never watched The Office before, so that’s what we’re binge watching right now – we just started Season 8. It’s brutally offensive, but if I said it didn’t make me laugh out loud, I’d be lying.
Whatever gets us through! Thank you, Zoe!
Check Thotyssey’s calendar for Zoe Ziegfeld’s upcoming appearances, and follow her on Facebook, Instagram, Twitter and YouTube.