A musical stage luminary who now serves us fiercely narrative performances and sultry sounds as an androgynous drag character who does not abide by anyone’s drag rulebook, the hilariously named Ella Fartzgerald is making her mark on Brooklyn stages and digital screens
Thotyssey: Hello Ella! How is the world of digital drag treating you lately?
Ella Fartzgerald: Hey there! Navigating these digital spaces has definitely been challenging, but also rewarding. It feels really cool to see how we’ve been able to maintain a sense of community, even though we are unable to be together physically right now. I’ve just returned from a bit of a hiatus from creating, so it has been really nice to get back into my artistic groove.
Although I miss being able to perform on stage with a live audience, the editing aspect of these digital drag shows allows us to be even more adventurous with our concepts and execution. I think we get to see new layers and ideas from performers that we wouldn’t necessarily get otherwise. So, digital drag is treating me pretty well.
You’re a versatile live performer with a powerful singing voice. Are music and / or theater things that you studied growing up?
Thank you! Yeah, I’ve been singing ever since I was little, and I grew up performing in church. It wasn’t until my junior year of high school that I got involved with theatre, and I kind of blindly decided to pursue a musical theatre major after going to a musical theatre intensive at a college in my area that summer. I had never been in an actual musical going into my freshman year of college, but I knew that it was what I wanted to do.
Where are you from originally?
Northern Virginia. I went to school in Philadelphia, and worked there for two years after graduation… but the queer community and theatre opportunities are what drew me to New York.
How did you become Ella?
“Ella Fartzgerald” was really just a silly handle I came up with when I finally got an Instagram in 2014. I was pretty pleased with myself, but I never really thought of it as a drag name. People were always telling me that they could see me doing drag, and I always wanted to–but I knew I didn’t want to do it until I was ready to really do it.
My sister Suburbia was the first person to ever ask me to do a solo drag number for her Grace Jones show “Pull Up to the Bumper,” and I was so nervous but really excited. I created a mix and bought myself a dress and props, and right before my number she asked me how I wanted to be introduced. I said my government name–and she side-eyed me a bit, then got on the mic and announced me as Ella… and it just made sense.
I love that! You have a unconventional look for a queen (if there is such a thing as a “conventional” drag look)… you still have facial hair, for instance. Do you want to express a certain idea with your looks?
I love to play with androgyny in my everyday style, so I think that just extends to my drag. Most of the videos I’ve made during the pandemic have been clean-shaven, because I’ve been wanting to lean into that hyper-femininity. But I also really love doing looks with facial hair. My favorite thing about drag is that it is personal, and you can be what or whoever you want. I think part of what kept me from doing drag for so long was this idea that I had to be–or present in–a certain way in order to be accepted. I’m really glad I realized that wasn’t true. There are no rules, and that’s why I love it so much. If there were one word to describe what I want to express with my drag, it would be freedom.
What are your performances generally like? And is the original Ella an inspiration at all?
My performances definitely vary between lip syncs and cabaret sets, but the theatre influence is always there. I like to feel like I’m giving a full story with each performance. My persona is a mix of Ella Fitzgerald’s legendary presence and command, Cinderella’s innocence and vulnerability, and my own queer rage and feminine power.
Have you had a favorite number or gig that you’ve done?
I’d say my favorite gig would be Low Pone, which is a queer event produced by some awesome people in Indianapolis, Indiana. Suburbia, Tina Twirler and I were invited out to perform, and they took amazing care of us. I performed one of my favorite mixes that night called “I am Your Mother” about problematic moms featuring the theme from Reba, a scene from Hereditary, “Rose’s Turn,” “Call Me Mother” and “The Big Big Beat.”
Yes! I love the work that Foxy Belle Afriq / Uncle Freak produces, so when they asked me to be a part of the show it was a no-brainer. As a Black queer person, I’m familiar with feeling shut out and overlooked. My piece is meant to be a meditation on loving the skin you’re in, and claiming the space that you deserve. I can’t wait to see what the other performers have in store. Our show is this Friday at 8pm EST, and donation based tickets can be reserved here.
What else might be coming up for you?
I’m also going to be a part of the next installment of The POC Drag Art Collective’s new monthly “Blegends” showcase on March 21st. The theme is “Motown Blegends,” and the full cast is being announced soon… so stay tuned!
Any Drag Race thoughts by the way, if you’re watching? Who’s your favorite to win?
Good luck to them all!
By the way, I must note that there’s another new-ish live singing, occasionally bearded queen in NYC, and her name happens to be Lena Horné–I feel like you two are meant to co-host a show!
Wait, I love that! [Minutes later] I just gave them a follow.
Work! Okay, last question: movie theaters are coming back next month–at limited capacity, of course. Will you be going back to see a movie anytime soon?
Oh, gosh… I really don’t think so. I miss being out so much, but the social anxiety that this pandemic has created is far too much for me to be going out again, until I’ve been fully vaccinated at the very least. I miss theaters and performing, and I do believe there’s a safe way to get us back into these spaces. But I do not trust our government to put people over profit. I’m gonna hold out until I can let it all hang out again. I am very much looking forward to whenever that is.
Same! Thank you, Ella!