On Point With: Tuna Melt

This native New Yorker, producer and music industry insider is here for both a fun new weekly in Queens and a very important event in Brooklyn: the King of the Sea, Tuna Melt! [Cover photo: Désirée De Sade]

Thotyssey: Hiya Tuna! We’re passed the summer halfway point… how has the season been treating you?

Tuna Melt: So far, so good! June was a whirlwind of my day job plus my first Pride month performing as a drag king. Many plates were spun! July I’ve focused on rest, working on my weekly at Savage, and connecting with close friends at Jacob Riis. I would love to hear how your season is going, too!

Good! Getting busier and dipping my toes into new waters… even though these dog days of late summer tend to be nightlife’s slowest! All drag is sweaty in the summer, but I bet king drag is particularly a challenge in this heat.

Facts. My mustache just won’t stick. Prosaide. Waterproof makeup. Eye liners. Eye shadows. Setting sprays to the max. I’ve tried it all; my sweat is my kryptonite. I’m feeling blessed, though, that rompers are still a thing… I love a gaudy men’s romper.

So how long have you been Tuna now?

My official one year dragiversary will be on August 20th; I shouldn’t be surprised one bit that Tuna is a Leo. My first performance was at the #TakestheCake competition produced by The Cake Boys. It took some convincing from my drag dad aka my actual biological father Theydy Bedbug for me to sign up. A slot opened up, and I figured “Why not?” I had no idea the adventure I’d go on, or that I would be the runner up. It’s been a truly transformative year for me in and outside of drag.

Let’s discuss the Tuna prequel story for a moment: where are you from originally, and were you always a performer of some sort?

I was born in Manhattan at St Lukes, raised in the sticks of the Hudson Valley. My family is Chinecuadorican (aka Chinese, Puerto Rican, and Ecuadorian). My parents are from Ecuador and Puerto Rico, which meant they instilled in me as a kid that I had to work two times harder than everybody else.

I fell in love with music when I first heard SWV’s “Weak” in my parents basement. I remember this vividly; it felt exactly like the way I fell in love with a partner. That song hit me like a ton of bricks. I have a large family of aunts, uncles, and cousins in NY, and we all love performing in one way or another. My refuge as a kid was choir. I didn’t fit in the town I grew up in because it was mostly white; I was definitely made fun of and bullied for being Latine and Asian. My parents are my heroes, and instilled in me a work ethic because they came from nothing. I also never really felt like I fit because I never got to know my Asian culture (something I’m reclaiming and learning now) and… I was never Hispanic enough.

The town I’m from is extremely conservative in New York, so I couldn’t wait to get away… and college was that getaway. I went to Wagner on vocal scholarship for an Arts Administration degree, and my senior year I interned at Atlantic Records. I knew from a young age I wanted to work in music, and I’ve worked myself up to be a Music Business Administration Partner in Music Tech under the best licensing teams in the business. Getting my foot in the tech door was also life-changing, but I was alone as a trans nonbinary person. That’s what led me to drag.

There’s a growing number of drag performers who aren’t doing the usual female drag today, but surprisingly few true kings. What inspired you to make Tuna a Mmanly Man, if that’s accurate?

Lol, a manly man! That’s so funny because Tuna is also in a lot of ways a reflection of the cis and trans men in my life that inspire day-in and day-out, but also poking a little fun of the seriousness of masculinity. Tuna is fluid, but is going through his gaudy boss phase. I’m very inspired by Walter Mercado, Elton, Gaga, and Liberace. I wish my bank account was just as inspired–gaudy suits ain’t cheap!

My dad really broke the machismo mold as a Latino man. He could have been more like my uncles, but he’s sensitive, caring, generous, and a huge supporter of my drag. What I know of my grandfather was that he was a community leader in Ecuador for the Cantonese population.

I also work in a cis male dominant industry, and the cis women in the music industry are just as much of powerhouses on my teams as the men. As a trans person in this space, I’m trying to navigate my own glass ceilings and creating my own path, so Tuna on stage is my way of channeling the way I wish I could take up space. And off stage, it’s being cognizant of the drag kings and Things around me, because we’re very much fighting for our own representation as a community. So in summary: strong dad energy. Also to note: dad energy doesn’t belong to only men. We all have dad energy!

The Cake Boys were great trailblazers for the current wave of Kings and Things coming up in NYC drag, and their weekly showcase at The Q was a fun way to present these performers with a popular stage in Manhattan. It’s such a shame, but certainly understandable, that they cancelled the show after news got out via Frankie Sharp’s lawsuit of former fellow manager Alan Picus‘ alleged inappropriate behavior with racist / transphobic door policies and employee interaction, among other grievous activities.

I hope in the near future The Cake Boys get their roses for the space they have created in NYC. I am proud of them, and all community members that are committed to holding venues accountable in their racism, transphobia, sexual misconduct, and misogyny. I also hope people see this as an opportunity to give us more weekly homes, monthly show spots–as Kings and Things, and also alternative drag queens and burlesque artists. We need community more than ever, and what separate an actual community from a group of acquaintances is committed action and mutual support for each other.

There is actually gonna be a “town hall” of sorts to address these issues–which will also function as a benefit show for those affected by the Q situation and related discrimination issues in nightlife–this Sunday at 3 Dollar Bill. The organization We Together is producing the night, Neon Calypso and Cake Boy DJ Senerio are hosting it, and you’ll be appearing onstage. What more can you tell us about “Art Riot?”

I’m truly honored to be a part of this. “Art Riot” will be an educational town hall that will address issues such as racism, misogyny, transphobia, fatphobia, sexual harassment, etc. and coming up with specific and concrete solutions, suggestions and visions of changes we would like to see implemented in nightlife.

I am moderating a panel with Themme, Klondyke and Lucky Pierre for Drag Kings and Drag Things, discussing our experience. In addition to the Cake Boys, these three represent some of our most talented and hard working Kings and Things (and everything in between) and I really need everyone that’s not us and committed to changing nightlife there to listen and take action.

One thing I will say about the King and Thing community is that we show up for each other, but we also need the larger drag community to show up for us. Key words: show up for us. I do not expect everyone to love my drag, or understand it, but that doesn’t mean I’m any less of a drag performer… and all of us are necessary to create change.

Everyone who can come out, should! Meanwhile, you have a fun weekly situation up in Astoria care of the newly re-opened and rebranded eatery Savage! “Belt with Melt” is the Thursday karaoke party you host, where you get the chance to rock those well-honed choir chops. How has this new night been so far?

It’s been a learning experience, and also does not feel like work because singing is what I love. My goal is to bring more Drag Kings and Drag Things to Astoria. I also have my own point of view of karaoke as a King: I’m not afraid to try multiple genres of music… and also I make mistakes when I sing, too. I want this space to be a space where anyone who wants to sing, can. People fear public speaking more than they fear death, so for me karaoke people always bring me joy. There’s something special about someone who comes up and says, “fuck it. Today I’m singing my song.”

Savage Latin is also a vegan venue! Big shout out to them: I went to the owners and said “this is what I want to do on Thursdays,” and they said “go for it.” [The venue has] really let me run with my idea, and I’m hoping to bring a different singing experience as a King. I went to audio school, so it’s my goal to make sure everyone feels like they are a star when they are on the mic. It’s my way of combining the niche (Tuna) with what’s universal: singing.

There’s a also a show in Astoria that you produce seasonally, at Grove 34, called “Transcendence.”

“Transcendence” came from my love of Astoria and performance. I’m in my first year, and my goal is to do four shows in 2022 with the intention of producing four shows in 2023. No matter how you paint your face, drag is not easy… yet the demand for it is growing. There is a demand for queer culture, and I wanted to create my own space. I heavily rely on my corporate event planning experience to make this happen, and I fully fund each “Transcendence” show. My artists get $200 for two acts, and a $50 cab stipend.

This came from my first year as a King and Thing when I was hearing sometimes that our drag is viewed as “less than,” and that we don’t draw crowds. Well, if you have a bad time slot, how can you draw a crowd? I’m going to turn 36; most of my friends have kids and need to wake up early, so I said, “let me invest in my own space… a space where performance, in particular underrepresented and/or trans performers, can feel like they can breathe, and the audiences that love us can breathe, too.” My goal is to invest the community and it’s performers, and I’m open to sponsors to keep this long term. And also, I want to show people that a trans masc nonbinary person of color means business. The next “Transcendence” is 9/24, and the line up is amazing!

By the way, it’s great that you get to work so frequently with your spouse, burlesque artist Redd Flag!

Redd Flag is my co-producer with “Transcendence,” and 100% someone I frequently collaborate and perform with. They brought into this [nightlife] world when we first started dating! I was a corporate stiff who gave up on performing before Redd Flag. There would definitely be no Tuna if I hadn’t met them. I started by watching them perform when they were taking classes at the NY School of Burlesque. They have a raw talent in them, and I am excited for them to create new solo acts. There’s nothing I love more than seeing them perform.

[Photo: JF Sheehan]

Is there anything else to add?

One thing I want to say is that in face of the problems our entire community [is confronted with], I’m hopeful we’re going to come together.

Same! Which brings us to the Great Queer Uniter, Beyoncé, and Renaissance! By the time this interview comes out, it will be a Thing. By your prediction, will the new album change our gay lives forever?

I have loved Beyonce since “No, No, No Pt. 2.” Beyoncé changed the way we released music, from visual formats down to the day it’s released. I’m going with “Yes.” I think she is someone who is constantly looking for ways to reinvent herself and her art. #beyhive

Thank you, Tuna!

Check Thotyssey’s calendar for Tuna Melt’s upcoming appearances, and follow him on Instagram and YouTube.

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