A prolific drag performer who arrived in NYC during a pivotal and iconic era of queer nightlife, Eileen Dover continues to be a compelling presence in the scene and on the stage.
Thotyssey: Thanks for chatting with us today, Eileen! So how was your summer?
Eileen Dover: Summer was okay. I had surgery on my foot, so that kinda put a damper on things… but I definitely caught up on movies and TV!
Let’s get right into it: what are your thoughts on the state of nightlife today? Much has changed since you first came into the scene, from mass popularity of drag, to social media and phone culture, to masses of straight folks in gay bars. Are some of these changes good, or does it all make you miss the good old days?
It’s not better or worse; it’s just different. If I’m being honest, when I long for the good ol’ days it’s more about me longing for my own youth — the ability to stay out for 15 hour club marathons and get by on only a few hours of sleep, eat whatever I wanted, and not feel the consequences. The carefree, reckless days where everything seemed possible… when guys might have been The One! The music was better though, as evidenced by the fact that many artists today are sampling the songs that ruled the dance floor in my heyday. Then again, in my day disco was sampled… so I guess every generation borrows from the past. Drag was bound to go mainstream, and I adore straight people.
Social media is a double-edged sword. Back in the day, one had to go out and collect fliers or hear about things via word of mouth, which I think made it more gratifying. Then again, social media makes finding information so easy. I do wish that folks would try to live in the moment when they’re out rather than being on their phone. I like to talk to people in person. I think everyone remembers the scene, or whatever they were doing when they tasted freedom for the first time, or when they were young and having fun, as the best times ever. The kids of today will say the same, I’m sure, when they’re older.
You’re from a loving and supportive family in Massachusetts. What made you want to come to New York, and how did you discover nightlife and become Eileen?
My family is amazing, but I grew up in South Boston (Southie). It wasn’t a place that encouraged individuality. I went to Catholic school for 12 years, and in those days teachers and nuns still hit students. I was mercilessly bullied, as the age old story goes, and I couldn’t stay. My high school Spanish teacher who was 63 years old groomed me and abused me, but he took me to NYC in 1991. I guess I figured his abuse was the cost of admission to the queer world. He’d send home phony permission slips, and would bring me to New York under the guise of “field trips” for the school yearbook.
I fell in love with NYC immediately. I had never felt so free. I was a few hundred miles away from the bullies, and though I had to put up with his nonsense I was still able to enjoy the city and make friends with people like Hattie Hathaway, Franklin Fuentes and Lady Bunny. I graduated high school barely, moved to Boston’s south end and spent half my time going back and forth to New York.
Eileen was a way for me to express all the pain and kookiness I had inside of me. I didn’t know it then, but I was gender fluid and I was an artist… and drag allowed me to explore both my artistic side and my feminine side. I was given the name Eileen Dover by a friend who lost his friend who I reminded him of to AIDS. That friend has since passed, so the name means a lot to me. I trademarked it now that drag is such a business — not to stifle anyone else, but to protect what I’ve spent 30+ years cultivating.
What was the scene like here in New York when you got here?
It was amazing. There were places to go every night no matter what you were into. I loved Jackie 60, Tunnel, Sound Factory, Limelight and The Palladium. I used to go to places like Save the Robots, Sugarbabies at CBGB’s Gallery, and Bar d’O. There were so many options. Back then, there were a ton of iconic drag artists… but the scene wasn’t overly saturated. I was amazed by the queens who danced, and the queens who were walking art installations. There were club kids and celebrities and gogo boys and DJs mixed with everyday people and LGBTQ people.
There weren’t so many labels, so it felt more free to me than it does today. I don’t know, maybe it felt that way because I was tasting freedom for the first time and living life on my terms. I really felt a sense of community in the mix of all the creativity and craziness. People put so much work into nightlife and going out, every time, was an occasion. House music was king and there were disco nights and Eighties nights.
Having said all that, it was also a time of legalized homophobia, zero protections, and the word “transphobia” didn’t even exist. Transgender people were treated horribly, but they were often revered in certain circles in the clubs. People were also still dying of AIDS en masse, so that was tough. We used to go out to get away from our troubles, and back then we had troubles that were lethal.
I’d love to see people come together and stop fighting; I miss feeling that sense of community. Even though things were less than perfect, we had the escape of nightlife. And though things are allegedly more progressive today, it felt as though there was less hatred back then… at least among queer folks. I know I was naïve to a lot of the world’s problems back then — I was so focused on AIDS, and problems we faced just being us.
I must say I’m glad to see people of color and trans people standing up and demanding equality. It’s about time we purge racism and transphobia and homophobia for good!
Many drag performers today will say that their drag personas are mostly heightened versions of their own personalities, as opposed to fully different characters. Would you say the same of Eileen… and what sort of divas inspired her?
Eileen used to be a more heightened version of me, but as I age she and I are kinda the same person. I was inspired by Madonna, Debbie Harry, Eartha Kitt, Cyndi Lauper, Aretha Franklin, Boy George, George Michael and so many others.
One thing I like about our new world is the continuing progress in the understanding of gender issues. I used to use drag to express myself, and I found freedom in that. I now realize that I identify as fluid, and I think if I’d had that option or understanding years ago I’d have been less angry and less confused about myself.
I know my answer to the last question called out some of what I see lacking or some of the things I see as challenging in our new landscape, but there has been progress. I only wish that folks understood that the people they see as “outdated” or out of touch are actually responsible for the progress we’ve made. We fought for gay marriage, and healthcare for people living with HIV / AIDS; we made it easier for the next generation! I’d like to say “you’re welcome,” but no one is saying thanks. So I’ll just say, “stick together folks, they’re coming for us!”
What were some of the wildest episodes you remember in the early days of Eileen?
I used to hitchhike, and I used to run around dressed in so little clothing that I was almost arrested several times a month, lol! As I mentioned, I used to go back and forth between Boston and New York. I wasn’t always staying with friends or in hotels. There were times I slept on rooftops of buildings I broke into, and took the Greyhound bus on a whim. I was cute then, so men would offer me a couch — they were total strangers. I slept in the homes of folks I didn’t know.
I was fearless. I guess I figured I’d been through the hard stuff in Southie and I could take care of myself, but looking back I can’t believe the risks I took. I’ve had guns pointed at me, and I’ve escaped situations by the skin of my teeth. It wasn’t as though the cops or the world were looking out for people like me, so I guess I got lucky and I’m still here.
And who were some of the greatest talents from nightlife that you’ve known or seen, in your opinion?
Get ready for a long list! Mona Foot, Lady Bunny, Flloyd, John Dellarocco and Michael Svat who ran nightlife in Boston, Linda Simpson, Kevin Aviance, Hattie Hathaway, Franklin Fuentes, Paul Alexander, Amanda Lepore, Lypsinka, Joey Arias, Raven O, Mizery, Lina, Candis Cayne, Miss Chris and Melody, The Hat Sisters, Zola, Aphrodite Lily White Ass, Cherry Forever, Tiffany, Boy George… I could go on and on, and these are just people from the clubs. There are people like Ryan Landry and the Gold Dust Orphans, Penny Arcade, Gail Thacker, Antony Cherrie and my castmates in The Village, Nora Burns, Scooter LaForge, Jorge Clar and others from the art and theater worlds. I’d go on, but there is and was so much talent out there and so many talented people who I’ve met and am blessed to call my friends. One day I’ll make a list and publish it as a manifesto, lol!
You were also a well-known door queen during that time, along with greats like Kenny Kenny and Roze Black. We don’t see as many of them today… do you think that’s an important thing the scene is missing now?
I do. Nowadays, a person can just buy a bottle and in they go. There was something fabulous about having a tough door person who had style and attitude. I’ll tell you a secret, though… most of those bitchy door people were softies. I know I personally always made sure the misfits and the people who I saw being discriminated against in the world got VIP treatment. Trans folks and people of color and other marginalized people were always my VIPs. I turned away jocks and cheerleader types. I turned away anyone who was being vile toward women and queer people, or anyone who I thought was judgmental or mean. I turned away queer people who were assholes — I hate to say, they do exist. I turned away gay men who were misogynistic.
I loved seeing people put effort into their style and their look, too. The more colorful and outrageous a person was, the more likely I was to lift the velvet rope. And I took bribes, of course! I had wealthy customers who came to the door and slipped me a few hundred dollars to get in… but they were there because they wanted to be surrounded by the other people who I let in. I thought of it as more of a tip, because had they waited in line I’d have let them in. They paid to get to the front.
I was a soft touch, though. I truly felt as though I could make people who felt neglected by the world feel like stars in the club. I think that’s what’s missing today; money is all it takes today. I admitted to bribes / tips, yes. But if a person was nasty, I refused entry no matter how much they offered. It was rare that a person would drop much money to hang out with people they hated, so it rarely happened that way.
I feel like there are so many great artists and stories from New York nightlife in the late 80s and early 90s who are often overshadowed by Michael Alig and the “Party Monster” murder. When all that went down, did it feel like the end of an era for nightlife that it’s often made out to be, or was it more of just a very sad and disturbing chapter in an ongoing book?
It was sad, and it was all anyone was talking about… but I think it was more of a scar on the Limelight than anything else. The other clubs were doing just fine. It was the beginning of the end, however, for the whole “club kid” phenomenon. Fewer and fewer people wanted to be associated with Alig, or anything else that reminded them of that event.
That was also only one scene. In New York at that time, there was still a punk scene and a disco / glamour scene and a circuit scene and a drag scene, as well as emerging scenes. I think it affected the scene it came from. It’s unfortunate, because so much creativity came out of it. But honestly, anyone from that scene who had real talent moved on and found other things to do… and the life cycle of a trend is so short that even if that didn’t happen, it would have fizzled. It’s a shame it had to fizzle because of a brutal murder.
Michael Alig contacted me when he got out of jail. He truly could not understand how anyone could be angry with him, or why he was so hated. A true psychopath! I blocked him on social media after I attended an art show he took part in, and I could see he was the same narcissist he was before everything happened. He developed a fan club as well, which I thought was disgusting (then again, there are still Trump supporters… so we live in a world where sickness is prevalent). I’d tell people to remember what he was famous for, and I’d say how sweet Angel was and how he, like me, just wanted to be accepted. I was not at all shocked to learn that Michael died, and how he’d died.
I think it’s important for people of that era to tell their stories, to take some of that spotlight back. There’s a great book by an author named Shawn Driscoll called We Are But Your Children about a nightclub in Boston called Manray. I worked there at the door and in every other capacity, and I added my voice to the narrative. It’s a fun read. I’d tell folks to look for other stories, as they do exist.
I think it’s fair to say that you evolved over time from a flashy scene queen to a stage performer and writer. Who or what inspired that shift? And speaking of books, would you ever consider writing a tell-all about your own experiences?
I’d definitely consider writing a book, and am in the process of writing one. I think hanging out with different kinds of artists outside the scene inspired me to try new things and to work outside of my comfort zone. I’d love to work with a ghostwriter if anyone is up to the task!
Nightlife is hard to sustain when you get older, simply because of the hours. Every artist evolves, as do all people. I have been saying yes to many things I’ve never done, because I love to challenge myself and do new things. I’ve seen others evolve in many different ways… which all have shown me that it’s possible to do anything one puts their mind to.
The last uploaded episode of your podcast with Gail Thacker of the Gene Frankel Theater features your interview with Kevin Aviance! Isn’t it inspiring how Kevin is back in the spotlight this year, thanks to the sampling of his music in Beyonce’s Renaissance? Also, do you have any plans of reprising that podcast, or starting a new one? I’m a new podcaster myself… they’re fun!
We definitely will be doing a second season of the podcast. Gail is family to me, and we’ve got some amazing folks lined up. I also have a YouTube channel that I’m trying to figure out what to do with.
I think it’s so awesome that Kevin is having a massive renaissance… and I think it’s because he too began to work outside of the scene, and has been finding new audiences in more aspects of his art. Kevin is awesome. The last time I spoke with him, he was talking about enjoying the things he was doing. He made and gifted me the dress I’m wearing in The Village promo. And who wouldn’t want to be included on a Beyoncé album!? I was so happy to hear the record, and glad to see his talent get recognized by the mainstream. He’s worked so hard!
By the way, I also stumbled across an actually amazing t-shirt that you’re selling on your site with a gorgeous Pop Art design. Were you hands on with the creation of that, and other prolific Eileen merch?
I designed one, and I also sell one of a kind one-offs. My friend Alex Nights designed a whole line. What Alex did was make me look fabulous in cartoon form, and he sent them to me to be sure I liked them… and I have yet to see one I didn’t like. My friend Franklin Fuentes designed a few as well, and I love them. It’s such an honor when any artist wants to use one of my looks or one of my photos on a tee or on merchandise. Many of my newest looks (dresses or performance attire) have been designed by Suze GX in Boston. It makes a girl feel loved.
Who do you remain close to in nightlife today, or who are newer friends you’ve made in the scene?
I’ve become really close to Antony Cherrie, Glace Chase and of course all of my cast mates and the whole crew from the play The Village have become like a family to me. Nora Burns has become a friend and confidant and I’ve been so close of course to Gail Thacker for years now. Linda Simpson and I are neighbors and became closer during the pandemic, and Lady Bunny and I check in with each other to share a joke or brighten each other’s day. Boy George and I have a 25 year old friendship, and he’s always making sure I’m okay.
I have friends outside the creative world that are also my BFFs. I’m so blessed to have such a wonderful and large network of people who I can count on and who can count on me. I’m still close to one of my only friends growing up, Chris Moran, and my roommate Chad and I are family. Of course, my family is my rock. They taught me how to be a friend and how to treat people, and that people only come in two states: good and bad. They stayed with me through it all, and they even get the gender stuff better than most of my friends… so I’m blessed.
You’re bringing a show to the Pangea stage on Sunday, September 25 (7pm) called Does He Know Who She Is? What can you tell us about this show?
The show is bits of my memoir that have already been written, as well as songs, poems and jokes that relate. It’s very experimental, and I do lots of name dropping… and there’s lots of audience participation. It’s a journey of self-discovery and randomness. It’s easier to see it than to have it described to you, so get your tickets ASAP!
October 6th brings the premiere of The Village: A Disco Musical to Dixon Place, from writer Nora Burns, director Adam Pivirotto and choreographer Robin Carrigan. We’re excited for this… tell us everything you’re allowed to tell us about it, starting with how you got involved in the production!
I was cast by Nora Burns after we’d spent some time connecting and reconnecting, as everyone we knew seemed to be mutual. We became friends, and she cast me in the staged reading of the show because I reminded her of the character she wrote into the show who was based on someone she’d been friends with in the 70s and 80s. It didn’t hurt that when we did the reading I got laughs. My character has a lot of zingers and I’m a total ham.
We had a few conversations about her friend, and we connected over growing up in Massachusetts. It’s funny, people from the Boston area have a bond that transcends all else. We’re tough, we don’t suffer fools, and we grew up around people who were very NIMBY. (“Not In My Back Yard”) — people who front as progressive, but don’t want to be near anyone who’s different from them: “I believe in housing the homeless…..as long as the shelter isn’t near my home.” Nora and I bonded over being Bostonian New Yorkers. We’re both true progressives, artists and free-thinkers who are proud of where we come from, but we couldn’t stay there because of our need to create and to be surrounded by diversity and flavor.
Nora is someone I feel I’ve known all my life, and honestly I’m sure we crossed paths prior to this. Our adoration of each other was solidified over the last 6 or 7 years. She was one of the first people to visit me in the hospital when I had kidney failure from COVID (that’s a whole other interview). And I’ve known her BFF Paul Alexander [The Village’s costumer] for at least 25 years. He and I met at Jackie 60. What’s even crazier is that we both remember each other from back in the day. He recalls my wide-eyed little ass wandering around the clubs, and he and Hattie and other people in the scene were watching out for me… and I didn’t even know it.
I believe in the script. I believe in Nora, I believe in the cast and the crew, and I’m giving everything I’ve got to my performance. I can say that it has an Our Town feel. If you miss community and cruising and faghags and political incorrectness and sex, and the time in your life when you were having fun and living life out loud; if you want to know what life was like pre-AIDS and how AIDS snuck in like a thief in the night… this is the show for you. If you need to laugh or cry or to just check out of our divided world momentarily, this is the show for you. There’s something for everyone, and I implore people under 40 to come and find out what came before them. You need to know. They’re already stripping women of their rights, and we’re all at risk. Come get schooled and laugh out loud at the same time. Give life before social media a chance. I promise, you’ll gag… in the best way possible!
Is there anything else coming up for you that the children need to know about?
There’s so much coming up, that I can’t put it into this article. But I can say that the podcast is coming, and you should keep an eye on the Gene Frankel Theatre for all kinds of amazing things. My website is a great place to go to find out what’s happening. Flloyd, Steve Ellis and I will be hosting toast and tea events on Sundays at the artist studios in the Clemente Soto building on Suffolk St. Franklin Fuentes, Gail Thacker, Curtis Atchison of Midnite Society Productions and my castmate Antony Cherrie and I are brainstorming constantly, so it’s just a matter of time before projects evolve — and I’ll be happy to spill tea to your readers once it’s brewed. There’s so much more, but I like to leave a little mystery… so stay tuned!
Very exciting! And finally, randomly, the age-old question: what’s the better drag movie, To Wong Foo or Priscilla?
Oh, Priscilla of course. But they’re so close! I think I like Priscilla better because Australia is on my bucket list, whereas I’ll survive if I miss out on another small town in America.
Check Thotyssey’s calendar for Eileen Dover’s upcoming appearances, and follow her on Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, YouTube and her website.