From the studio to the red carpet to backstage, veteran photographer Billy Hess gets all the best shots of the biggest celebrities and most luminous nightlifers in town. Now an interesting new collaborative project will put him at an entirely new vantage–behind the wheel!
Thotyssey: Hi, Billy! You just came back from Fire Island–how was it?
Billy Hess: It was a needed getaway; sometimes you just need to hang naked from a chandelier, lol!
I hear that! Did you see any of the Invasion shenanigans? That was quite a whirlwind of activity!
I stayed away from that.
Tourists and amateurs!
Yes, not my first rodeo on Fire Island, lol. I enjoy hanging with friends I have made on the island: queens, workers, business owners… oh, and newcomers always welcome.
Do you take a lot of pics up there, or do you leave the camera away on your downtime?
Speaking of cameras: as a veteran shutterbug, do you ever miss old school film stock at all, or is digital just so easy and convenient to manage that there’s no reason to miss film?
I miss the artistic side of it, when you develop your own film [and have to decide] what paper, chemicals to use, etc. But now we have everything to do that on the computer.
Where are you from originally, and what kind of things were you into while growing up?
I lived in low income projects when I was young. My father always liked to take pictures. He gave me my first 35 mm camera (showing my age) when I was young; he bought it while in the service. I shot photos to get the heat off me, so to speak. It relaxed me.
I also had a movie camera [with which my friends and I] would shoot horror movies–getting chicken skins covered with fake blood and putting them on a friend’s face, and a cat would eat it off! The neighbors thought we were crazy, but it kept us from getting in trouble on the streets.
I used to sing when younger–I did rockabilly and new wave shows, and even Elvis Presley shows. Then I put my passion for singing into shooting photos; that’s why I love shooting concerts. And I loved every lesson in photography I learned shooting LBGT entertainment in the city–in bad lighting, etc. What I learned before and after made me ready for anything I face when shooting concerts.
I networked and made many friends. Like The Devil Wears Prada movie, where she is at a party and her assistant tells her who’s there–lol, that’s what I need! I have shot music artists, celebrities and many LGBT artists who have helped me along the way by [letting me] shoot their photos. I always therefore remember LGBT artists who need help.
So you never had an extreme moment of being starstruck on the job?
No I didn’t. But once after shooting Liza and Alan Cumming at the Ice Palace, when Liza walked into Cherry’s and said hello and my friend next to me gave her a hug, I did forget at the moment I had a camera in my hand, lol.
Some photographers probably forget in those situations that they have a professional role, and aren’t just there to play around!
I am writing a book about how to get access to shooting concerts and celebrities. There is a lot of Photographer Etiquette that photographers don’t know to follow. When I work and shoot for a celeb–whether at an after party, or backstage, etc.–I always think of their image, and would never take a shot that wouldn’t be good for them. My reputation is that celebrates can trust that their image is my focus; if you are not trusted, you will not get to shoot.
That makes you different than, say, the paparazzi.
I hate paparazzi–they shoot for tabloids to sell photos of actors not in their best moments, even to [go so far as to] chase Princess Diana… and we know what happened there.
I met Eileen through a LGBT UK singer from a boy band [Aaron Paul] trying to make it in the US; I helped him by doing his photo for him. [Eileen and I] hit it off pretty much right away; now she interviews a celeb and I shoot it. We always have so much laughs and fun traveling together; we fight like sister and brother at times, but love each each other and always have so many laughs. I am a loyal person and am always there for my friends when needed.
You’ve now been nominated for a few GLAM Awards, thanks to your work with Eileen and Get Out.
I always went to the Glam Awards, and always love the work Cherry Jubilee and her team does. she is amazing… love her! When I get nominated I am so humbled and honored.
Is there any one particular shot of yours from your whole career that you cherish the most?
Hmm, good question. That’s a hard one; I call them the “money shots.” A professional photographer may shoot 70 shots in a model shoot and only choose from three. I will be picking some of what I think are the money shots when I put out my book: I have favorites from studio, stage, etc.
I enjoy shooting sexy people. Sometimes I see someone and say to myself, “I have to do them.” I also have shot fashion runways–I love fashion. And I love helping an artist in getting their photos for their brand. And I love to try different shots and ideas that I saw that they may have not–that’s my favorite.
Regarding fashion and sexiness: you and chic salon owner Mark de Alwis make quite the power couple! All the ‘mos wanna know: what’s the secret to a successful… marriage? Long-term relationship?
We are not married, but have been together 20-plus years. We definitely had our ups and downs in the beginning. We try to keep it fresh and be there for each other. You have to give your partner what he needs, not just what he wants. We all get what we want, but cant always get what we need.
It was fun when you two would produce runway shows at Mark’s salon as charity events, with models showing off the salon’s hairstyles and various indie label designer collections. Any plans to do that again?
We will! I loved doing it for Meals on Wheels because they saved my mom’s life, but I think we want do other shows for LGBT youth. But even though it was in our salon, it’s a lot of work. Everyone says we should do it in a bigger venue, because we always sell out. But so many people had fun there–it’s limited space, and you can mingle with VIPs and celebs.
Tell us a bit about “Shut Up & Drive,” a new interview series that takes place in a “fake cab” starring yourself, Eileen and comedian Ike Avelli!
Last year, Ike came to Eileen with an idea to drive all around NYC and pick up celebrities. Unfortunately, Covid prevented them from getting in a car and being inappropriate with anyone. So, beginning this summer Ike, Eileen and I will be kidnapping your favorite celebrities and holding then hostage while transporting them to their gigs or their illustrious hangouts via fake Uber. The show is called “Shut Up and Drive.” Of course, Ike cannot do this without a driver, and asked me. When Ike, Eileen and I are in a car together it’s always hilarious, so I immediately said yes! Once we pick up the celebs, the doors will be locked and the “guest stars” will have no choice but to answer our questions. The show will be airing mid-July via social media platforms.
Fasten your seatbelts and hold on to your wigs!
This should be amazing, can’t wait to see it! Anything else to mention?
I want everyone to remember that together we’re strong: don’t fall for division tactics. I never get political because I believe in entertainment–we’re there to make people happy and get there minds away [from difficulties]–but we all must be there for all people with broken hearts.
Well said! And lastly: what’s a subject or a concept that you’ve always wanted to shoot, but haven’t yet?
Hmm. What I always wanted do for Halloween is a True Blood-type of shoot with queens and hot celebrities. Very erotic, but artsy. Maybe we can collaborate together on that.
I’m there! Thanks, Billy!