On Point With: Captain Wonder

The color and mystery of New York nightlife draw many talented photographers to capture the scene, but here’s one of that world’s only true videographers–with a footage archive over a hundred thousand fold. Dr. David Howe has a busy life–now even busier, thanks to very recent family additions–but as GLAM nominated IG star Captain Wonder, he is still out here recording Everything Drag in a way that Thotyssey can definitely respect!

Thotyssey: Hello, Doctor Captain Daddy! Thanks for finding a minute in your increasingly hectic life to chat with us!

Captain Wonder: I always have a minute for Thots! Thank you so much.

Your new twin babies are so damn cute… what can you tell us about how they came into your life, and what fatherhood has been like so far?

I have yearned to be a father for as long as I can remember, but worried it was an opportunity that was closed off to people like us. It caused a bit of anguish until I realized I didn’t have to accept society’s rules on this, and could find my own way.

So about five years ago, I explored the possibility of finding lesbians to co-parent with. I wanted my kid to have two mommies because mommies are everything! There’s a whole world of matching sites out there. I found the right couple, we both swiped right, so to speak, and we began the long process of getting to know each other and finally making attempts.

They don’t tell you how hard it actually is to get pregnant and we spent years of failure after failure… which was hard on us all. But we didn’t give up on our dream, and finally this year we were blessed with not one but two legendary children for the House of Wonder! Fatherhood has been pure bliss. They have three parents who love them so much and fought so hard to bring them into the world. And I enjoy every minute, every burp, hiccup and coo.

I bet balancing your day job, fatherhood role and a nightlife presence in 2021 must be… exciting, to say the least.

They live with their mommies, but for sure it’s a balancing act. Lots of naps and sugar! All of those things bring me so much joy that you just figure it out though! I’ve always been a busy bee like that.

So if I understand correctly–which, there’s only like a 45% chance of that thanks to all the cocaine and cum in my brain–you are a Doctor of Psychology, and yet you work in the corporate world, right?

You know, I don’t know if anyone has measured the impact of brain cum on memory function… but you are right! Talk about multi-tasking–I finished my PhD at the same time I was starting [my social media presence] Captain Wonder, and working full time, and hatching top secret baby plans.

I’m a behavioral researcher and cultural anthropologist looking at the impact of culture on thoughts, feelings, and behavior. Academically, I looked at US / India comparisons, as well as social class and race within the U.S. This anthropological lens informs my approach with Captain Wonder when it comes to documenting drag culture.

And yes! Now I do behavioral research for a design team for an automotive tech company to improve user experience with our sites. Ironic, since I don’t even have a driver license here in the Big Apple.

And you’re originally from Florida… so I guess that stereotype isn’t true for all of you, lol!

Yup! I grew up on a dirt road in sunny St Petersburg, Florida, the city that holds the Guinness Record for most consecutive days of sunshine. Naturally I hated so much damn sun, and escaped to New York City as soon as I could! Still got some of that Southern twang peeking out occasionally… and an unnatural love of biscuits and grits, though.

I feel like when it comes to your meticulous documentation of NYC nightlife via your videos, you and I approach covering the scene with a similar academic mindset.

Yes we do–Thotyssey is really crucial to my process because of the tight schedule, and I love it!

Tell us about how you discovered drag culture here, and what about it drew you to document it so meticulously with photos and videos.

Where to begin? I’ve been peripherally involved in NYC nightlife for a long time, starting with the old East Village scene, spending lots of time with Jonny McGovern and all of those colorful characters. Candis Cayne, Bianca Del Rio and others were favorites along the way.

More recently, I was enthralled by the Olympian level talent of queens like Kizha Carr and Monet X Change. I thought more people need to see what’s happening here; NYC drag is phenomenal. Sometimes these performers would be giving their all for empty rooms; they deserved a bigger audience.

At the same time, there was a lot of chatter about “Instagram queens” who had the look but couldn’t perform. I wanted to provide a balance by showcasing performance. I started out with photography, but found video better captured what drag is to me: movement, vibrancy, energy, life.

I was also inspired by the trailblazing work of people like Joe Jeffreys, Linda Simpson, Nelson Sullivan and others who painstakingly documented and archived what was happening in the queer scene for the benefit of future generations. I currently have 110,000 videos of drag.

Finally, I just wanted to find my place in the community. I’m not a performer or a big personality, but this was something that spoke to my quiet strengths that helped me contribute and belong. All that said, I took it to Instagram (and later TikTok) in fall 2016, and the response was overwhelming from all over the world. Over 25 million views as a conservative estimate, and so many messages from everywhere.

It’s such an important curation–especially nowadays, when random drunk people are only capturing a few seconds of performances here or there for IG stories. Your higher quality videos help document changes in how drag queens are performing over the years, and gives those filmed queens access to a learning tool.

There’s a lot of people with their phones out… but no one is really saving those, tagging people, or sharing them, or trying to take focused-not-drunken footage on a consistent basis. So I try to fill that gap! The last few years have been really cool, especially with new queens coming up to me and telling me they studied drag through my page. That is always so touching, and exactly what I wanted to achieve. I also get messages from closeted teens and people in oppressive countries who say I’m their gateway to another world.

Have you noticed a lot of change in how queens perform in your filming over the years?

For sure… on many levels there have been subtle changes. I’m capturing this post-Drag Race moment where queens are very aware of how they present themselves. Audience expectations are higher than ever, and New York audiences in particular are very hard to please. So queens have higher quality looks, and have integrated more acrobatics. Many queens have retired their more offensive numbers in recent years, for better or worse, as well.

I’m really excited by all the Covid babies–they learned how to create moments within their performances that translate to social media, and are stunningly diverse in a way that wasn’t always represented in Manhattan. Diverse on every level: ethnically, gender expression, performance style and more. It’s representative of a more inclusive moment in drag, and I’m loving it. More drag please!

Do you have, or have you had, any specific queens you enjoy filming the most? And do you have a favorite moment that you’ve captured?

Kizha Carr to me represents quintessential NYC drag–musical theatre trained, which means she can act the hell out of a mix and sing as well. She can host her own show for two hours by herself, which is a very New York thing, and heavily uses spoken word mixes–which is another NY thing, inspired by the legend Lypsinka. She is political and irreverent, direct and blunt–yet kind and welcoming. Those are all very NYC drag, and so I always come back to filming her to represent NYC.

Then as far as moments… so many. Thousands and thousands, literally! But what stands out always is the night of the 2016 election. Like most New Yorkers, I was really upset. So I went to Industry to see Monet X Change at, like, 2am. I have a video of her doing “It’s Not Right, But It’s Okay,” with election results still streaming in the background from earlier. It’s like, she was reassuring us that we would make it anyway, together. It was a needed distraction, and exactly what the best drag queens do: create a shared moment of collective joy, even when the world around us is falling apart.

Then also a million videos of Drag Race girls before, during and after their journey through the show–those are wild to look back on.

Are you friendly with other photogs on the scene, or are you all fighting for the best vantage?

Oh, you want drama! Lol! I’m friendly with the New York ones I know. Jeff Eason in particular I have a lot of respect for with his deep catalogue of work. We are respectful of one another’s space. That’s key–to properly document, you want to be discreet to begin with. Otherwise you become part of the performance, and a distraction for the audience and performer. Also I kind of occupy my own niche, so there’s not really any friction or competition there–even if I was inclined for a photographer knockdown smackdown.

I would love to see that though! Speaking of battles, you’ve judged a few drag competitions as well like “Polish the Queen” and “Lady Liberty.” What do you look for when you judge?

I want to feel something… because I’m dead inside! But also, because drag should evoke visceral emotions. Most of the time, that’s joy or delight or simply something that makes you gag. Sometimes that’s reflection or sorrow or anger (at the world, not the queen). I also want a story, a tight concept and a look that makes sense. Finally, grit and passion!

Congrats on your GLAM nomination for Best Photographer… well-deserved!

Thank you! And you as well! It’s my third consecutive nomination–we don’t count 2020, when there was not category–and every time, I’m really proud and humbled to be part of this amazing tradition. She doesn’t even remember this I don’t think, but when I was 20 I was homeless for about two months… and [GLAMs producer] Cherry Jubilee was really kind to me at the time when things were a bit dark for me. So I have a huge amount of respect for her and what she’s built.

Getting the first nomination in 2018 was such a kick! I don’t ever expect to win, but it’s really awesome to be part of the whole spectacle. Plus, the performances are always stellar!

Any closing words or reminders?

Just that I’m also on TikTok as well as Instagram! I’m kind of loving a true video-based platform to share from in TikTok, though Insta (and iCloud – you don’t want to see my storage bill) are home base.

Finally, and festively: what do you want from Santa this year?

All I want for Christmas… is you! No really, I spend my day life and night life learning about other people and telling their stories… very happily so! But it’s nice to share my story for once, so thank you for the chat.

Oh, and also diapers! Together they go through 30 a day right now!

Thank you, David!

Check Thotyssey’s calendar for Captain Wonder’s upcoming appearances, and follow him on Facebook, Instagram and Tik Tok.

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