Self-described as a “Nuerodiverse Drag Deity” and an “Uptown Cultural Werker,” activist and drag artist Themme is queerness personified — and with their work via Reina Project NY and Nurturing Networks, they’re here to foster your own best possible queerness as well! [Cover photo: Marques Daniels]
Thotyssey: Hello Themme, thanks for chatting today! I read a profile of you recently that mentioned you were bicoastal… where are you now?
Themme: I’m born and reside in NYC, but “Themme” performs in both NYC and the Bay.
Let’s force you to make decision, lol! Which particular venue, on either coast, has been your favorite place to perform in?
I genuinely loved working at Oasis in the Bay. It’s a tentpole of the queer community out there, so I felt humbled and honored–as well as magical on the “Princess” stage.
Locally [in NYC], anywhere The Cake Boys are.
I recall judging a “Polish the Queen” at Playhouse here in NYC several months ago where you won the night with a rousing number and royal red “quing” look! How would you describe what you want to achieve on stage with your numbers, generally?
I want folks to feel affirmed by my drag. When I started going to drag shows years ago at Boots & Saddles — now Playhouse, since you mention it — my favorite part of the experience was the care and comradery of some of my favorite entertainers and people who worked there. I want people to feel held and entertained by my presence and art. On a deeper level, I want folks to recognize that drag is not just about impersonation. Good drag is about artistry and connection, not just stunts and often unsustainable choreography.
How did you begin as a performer?
As a young kid, I was pushed into choral and opera music through a church program early on and sang from the ages of 11-18ish, going to high school for it also. And then drag: going to spaces like Boots, and seeing people being themselves and furthermore embodying various emotions and characters. I felt excited, and made it me feel seen. So early on I did cosplay and once a year, a variety show for things like GLAAD, the Trevor Project, etc.
And in 2019 I decided to start producing my own shows, which I did early on through Reina Project NY. Taking everything I learned from supporting and seeing drag shows, I was able to do drag. And I still do it — for Mutual Aid, community initiatives, and other grassroots efforts. So my drag has mostly been in community spaces, and I’m now coming into the NYC “drag scene” to mark 6 or 7 years into my drag journey.
Tell us a bit about the Reina Project, and the programming you did with that. I recall you were performing under a different drag name during the early days of your time with that organization, and presented as more “traditional” femme queen for those shows.
Yes! Like many of us coming up in the Drag Race era of popular drag culture, I thought that to perform I had to present more feminine to be validated in my work. But I already led a life and perceived myself as feminine: feminine in the likeness of the woman I adore, the aunties who make you feel good, the powerful woman I admired. So the makeup and heels only hindered my performance, and sometimes my ability to function because of the dysphoria — which I wish we talked about more openly in the scene, ’cause it would help us all.
So I was Hotmess Everdeen at the time, and through that space I was able to collaborate and build with various organizations and independent artists from New York, California, Puerto Rico and all over the world. These organizations and artists hardly ever receive direct support for their work, so in collaborating I was able to shift my attention from popular organizations (GLAAD, Trevor, etc.) that folks are often already aware of or donating to, and seeing what resourcing directly to these initiatives accomplishes and supports.
Now you’re also spearheading “Nurturing Networks,” a fellowship geared to support upcoming drag and queer artists. What can you tell us about that?
Nurturing Networks has been a collaborative space to support and connect with artists and even resource them in their work. Though it’s taken a different shape from what I set out to do, it’s been a very enlightening experience. The folks who I have collaborated with for the program are all stars and rising in their own rites: Paloma LaMona recently won “Ultimate Diva,” just materializing all that talent I saw in January; and Plant X Change (an org that one of my fellows runs) is actively supporting queer folks in learning about and caring for themselves through learning about plant care.
So it’s been great to see these folks continue to carve their own spaces, and see what it’s like to not just lead a space but be an active cheerleader for others. As leaders in our community and established drag artists, we have so much to offer others if we take the time to step back — if we learn how to share some of those skills, space, and lessons that worked for us. Also we need spaces to teach folks about the history of drag being born from uptown Black trans communities — specifically Ballroom, and how rich that history is. And we need to be recognizing that as queer people taking on this legacy, we must educate ourselves so that we aren’t unintentionally appropriating–or claiming we discovered something–when all that we do has an origin.
You identify as neurodivergent. Does that affect your choices as a drag performer in any specific way?
Not necessarily–it’s helped me understand where im accepted and not. I think understanding ableism is more of a factor in how I operate. If I feel a space or performer is not nurturing of people of all body types and ability, I’m just turned off and move on with my life. A lot of the bias in our community can be felt, so part of the reason I wanna make sure I hold an affirming space is to make sure people of all identities know that if I’m at a gig, they will find someone who can maybe hold space for them… and if not, see themselves in the work.
Also, as drag artists I think we use the facade of “crass humor” to tell jokes that are just usually punching at, or down at, other people. And that’s been the foundation of most humor and comedy. So im trying to find the sweet spot of connecting with people while still being funny, appropriately shady, and personable.
Speaking of shady: The Q in Manhattan — where you made many guest appearances care of The Cake Boys’ weekly show — has been in the news this week for the exposure of some unsettling racist / transphobic door policies, among other things. They have a new general manager and are quickly trying to turn things around. Could they be successful, and regain people’s trust?
Eh! I’m an antiracist and trans equity consultant in my daytime hours. I know the kind of work and resources it takes to shift a really harmful existing culture. Could they do it? Maybe. Wil it change anything? I don’t know.
A lot of our bars — not to be shady — are run by folks with antiquated ideals, who don’t want to give control over to Black and trans artists in fear of “alienating” white folks. But what they’re really doing is limiting their streams of income, and making it uncomfortable for artists to work in their space.. which then impacts employee and artist morale, which then impacts sales and crowds… and then the bars close down. One of the things I’ve learned hopping back and forth from the Bay is that it’s drag culture is thriving because the bars and its management collaborate more openly and generously with artists then they do here. Not to say it’s perfect, but there’s more openness amongst the artists because of it. Also there’s less competition-based shows, and more variety spaces… which is a thing I think NYC could come to adapt.
Speaking of the Bay, that area’s drag artist and producer Tito Soto and company make “Princess” a big party there. What can you tell us about what it’s like, as it prepares for its NYC premiere at 3 Dollar Bill on Friday, July 15?
Princess is an experience. I’ve honestly never worked with a more well-coordinated group of producers. As they come over here, I’m even learning more about the process… and I’m inspired by their organizing. So folks are in for a very intentionally put together show!
Also, they do a great job of incorporating kings and other alternative drag artists — especially at Oasis, which would be the 3 Dollar Bill of the Bay; that’s something the big producers who do shows at the larger local venues in NYC still fail to do (or there’s one of us on each lineup). I’m grateful again for The Cake Boys, ’cause if it weren’t for them we wouldn’t see the large local stages. And that’s something Princess also does for their scene.
Drag Race is another platform that’s denying a king presence, for now. But that’s not to fault the stars who emerged from that show like Lady Camden, who will be on the 3DB stage with Tito, yourself, and a hoard of great New York and San Francisco performers on July 15! Have you met Lady C. before?
I have not! The most recent RuGirl I’ve met was Manila, and that was also backstage at Oasis! And DiDa Ritz in Port Bar in Oakland. Another thing I have to commend the Bay on: how many times do kings get booked alongside these artists? And I got to do it twice, in like two weeks time.
What else is coming up for you?
I’m starting a new monthly brunch at Savage Astoria starting July 24th. Its 420 themed and aimed at being a space for femme, trans and all queer folks. So we will have myself and other drag artists there turning out shows, and creating a new brunch experience with kings and things. We will probably be raising money for a reproductive rights organization that day. So come out! And support The Cake Boys, In Living Color and Neverland Collective! I can’t stress it enough to the folks in our local scene to also support non-queen spaces / shows.
Wonderful! And lastly: what’s your absolute favorite number to do these days?
“Sweetest Pie,” Meg thee Stallion featuring Dua Lipa.