Born Alex Michaels in Manhattan, Alexis Michelle is a talented figure on the Gotham bar scene, playing Boots & Saddle on Wednesdays, Therapy on Thursdays and the Ritz on Sundays, with performances at Pieces Bar, as well. I voted for her in the local competition So You Think You Can Drag? after she did a smashing “Don’t Rain On My Parade” complete with fake nose. And now, Alexis is a competitor in a much larger contest—RuPaul’s Drag Race (premiering March 24 on VH1). I just caught up with her for some girl talk.
Hi, Alexis. Was this your first time trying out for Drag Race?
My eighth time.
Oh! So it was ALMOST your first time, ha ha. Why do you think it clicked this time?
For the interview portion, I said, “I’ve got to put myself out there and say, ‘This is who I really am, take it or leave it’.” I had such an agenda in the past about trying to say something I thought they wanted to hear. It made a huge difference. Also, I feel the Acting Challenge is very strong. I used a lot of iconic film references. We had a scene given to us that I believe was the Acting Challenge on Season 7. I used the framework of the script, but inserted lines from The First Wives Club and Dreamgirls and Steel Magnolias and Mommie Dearest, and I think Ru’s a fan of that kind of referential humor.
Who was your best friend on the show?
It’s so hard to say because I love a lot of these girls. I’m probably torn between Charlie Hides and Trinity Taylor.
Were there any negative moments for you?
There was a good deal of stress involved. It was one of the hardest things I’ve ever done in my life, for sure. I’ve read this in interviews with Drag Race girls before, but it is a race--that’s not a joke. Time is definitely valuable when you are at RuPaul’s School For Girls. It was stressful, and you’re keenly aware that the pressure is on, especially when there’s a camera rolling.
What’s your view of drag’s purpose? Should it come from a place that’s positive and upbeat?
It depends. If you’re a look queen and you’re about giving people a feeling just by looking at you, that’s fine. That’s what you do. But if you’re an entertainer—and most drag queens are--it’s the same as theater; offering people a chance to step out of their reality for a moment and let go and enjoy themselves. Right now, with the climate we’re in, it’s so important that in addition to bringing that lightness and entertainment, that we speak up for our community. Especially the Drag Race girls, I believe, have a responsibility to speak up for the community because we have far reaching voices right now. It’s important to use the platform for good, not just exposure. It started that way with Stonewall—drag queens have been leading the gay rights movement from the beginning.
Amen. When did you first do drag?
Technically, when I was three or four. I used to dress up in my mom’s closet. It resurfaced again when I was 12. I was getting ready to do the Halloween parade. I was going to wear a Richard Nixon mask, but by time I left the house, I was a witch. Halloween is the gateway of drag—that night when men feel they have permission to dress like ladies, and for some people it sticks. Well, it stuck.
What do you do if there’s a heckler or people not paying attention?
I work in a variety of venues where you either have peoples’ attentions or you don’t. You just kind of roll with it. If people are enjoying themselves and talking and drinking, that’s a part of what I signed up for, by working in bars. I don’t get upset with that. And I’ve been pretty lucky. I haven’t had too many hecklers. The worst is somebody drinking too much and wanting to get involved in the show, but I sort of enjoy that. It’s spontaneity and whatever happens on the fly is actually fun when people get a little churned up, but you also have to know how to shut that down when it goes on too long. You’ve seen me lose a few battles. [laughs]
You always win! These days, it seems like drag queens get gorgeous boyfriends. Does that work for you?
Well, I’ve been in relationships, but in the three years that it’s been my full time gig—I’ve been doing drag for 14 years, but solidly full-time for three—I haven’t been in a relationship. I don’t know how much that’s because I’m doing drag. It’s such a huge commitment. My mom texted me, “You have to make time if you want a relationship.” I said, “Mom, can you find me some extra time in the day?” There’s a lot of guys that would be happy to date a drag queen and plenty who are not so interested in that. I find that to be a little narrow minded or frustrating, but at the same time, you can’t force these things. If that’s a preference they’re gonna have, they’re gonna have it.
Fuck ‘em. Congrats, Alexis. Good luck on the show.
PART OF YOUR WORLD
There was a whole other drag competition when I helped judge the finals of Tina Burner’s Miss Barracuda contest at the long running Chelsea bar the other night, along with Bianca del Rio, Sherry Vine and Crystal Demure (currently starring in Kinky Boots). The evening focused on the talent category, for which a lot of the gals did Disney characters, like one rather uninspired Little Mermaid queen, who Bianca shooed off the stage (after the girl got uppity), saying, “You’re stupid. Get off!” “That’s the same thing Bianca said to Courtney Act—and she was right!” I noted. “Thank you for remembering Courtney Act,” quipped Bianca. Poor Tina Burner had to get on her knees and scrub the stage after Ariel’s waterlogged shenanigans, as I thought, “We’ve already had Pinocchio, Alice in Wonderland, The Little Mermaid…and now Cinderella!” After the Norma Desmond impersonator Sherry Pie was crowned the winner, I started to leave, but was stopped by a patron who gushed on and on about how he loves my work, as I beamed out of control. “That didn’t mean anything” deadpanned Bianca.
BURN, BABY, BURN
Someone in desperate need of splashing water, Joan of Arc gets the rock opera treatment in Joan of Arc: Into The Fire by rocker David Byrne, who’s penned a pretty-much sung-through musical (with a little dialogue) that takes her from her burning passion to just plain burning. Played by a guitar-driven band, Byrne’s music is generally very effective, though the lyrics sometimes too literally convey what the characters are thinking, making for some overly declamatory moments. Alex Timbers, who directed Byrne’s last show, Here Lies Love (a winning fantasia about shoe-bearing Imelda Marcos), supplies his usual imaginative staging, and though, as usual there are sometimes too many gimmicks, at least it makes for visual motion. Rotating steps provide Christopher Barreca’s set’s centerpiece, and the costumes go from contemporary to period, with Joan evolving from farm girl to obsessive liberator of France, thanks to her various visions and voices. The wiry and intense Jo Lampert is sensational as Joan, bringing her pure voice to the material, and Mare Winningham emerges as Joan’s mother at the end, urging a tribunal to “send her to heaven” years after Joan’s death. There are echoes of Jesus Christ Superstar, and things really kick in once Joan’s trial starts (with some words from actual history). An instant classic? No, but it’s not a trial either. [Gossip side note: Not everyone agrees with me. In fact, the dismissive New York Times review threw the show into the fire. I hear the musical was originally developed for Anne Hathaway, and I wonder if she’s dancing a jig right now.]
“It is not realistic,” warns The Glass Menagerie‘s narrator, Tom, about what’s presented in Tennessee WiIliams’ memory play, and in the new production, Joe Mantello lays a little heavier on the line than is usually done. That makes sense because, under avant garde director’s Sam Gold’s guidance, the play has been dramatically stripped down and reassembled. As you may have heard, the stage is bare except for a table and chairs and some phonograph records. The house lights stay on for a long time, then finally go out, but when there’s a blackout at the Wingfield house, all you end up seeing are lit up candles, making things alternately chiaroscuro and just obscure. Then the house lights go up again towards the end. Meanwhile, the actors are directed to not employ Southern accents, and in fact, Madison Ferris‘s Laura comes off vaguely Valley Girlish in her speech.
As the painfully shy character, Ferris is an actually disabled actor who painstakingly transports herself around the stage on all fours. It’s poignant to watch, and actually works for the piece because it makes mother Amanda’s delusions about her children seem even more extreme. And while Cherry Jones went for a kind of sunny, loving quality in her acclaimed 2013 performance, Sally Field emphasizes Amanda’s hectoring, disapproving tone, while occasionally stopping to flash moments of charm. (Sally played the same role in 2004 in a completely different production.) With all the new touches, this Glass amazingly comes of fairly straightforward a lot of the time. I found it invigorating at first, before it became dullish, though the ending—with Sally unleashing a fury of rage at her wandering son—was strong. This is truly the dividing rod of the season.
ATTENTION MUST BE PAID
While Williams is undergoing a revisionist revival, Arthur Miller is getting a more conventional one. Miller’s The Price—a battle between two estranged brothers as to their varying senses of responsibility—starts with exposition, and some laughs before building to old-style confrontations and histrionics. Victor Franz (Mark Ruffalo) abandoned his career dream to take care of his father, while brother Walter (Tony Shalhoub) walked away and contented himself with sending dad five bucks every month. As Victor banters with an old, shifty furniture appraiser (Danny DeVito), Walter enters the scene and the fireworks fly as to whether dad crushed Victor or Walter did.
Under Terry Kinney’s direction, amid some Ionesco-like chairs, Ruffalo projects a sort of Brandoesque brooding, until exploding with a riveting fury. Jessica Hecht gives a typically quirky and credible performance as his wife, who’s searching for answers and the best price. And Shalhoub comes off slick as a man who says he had a breakdown, but is now happy, even as he doles out some potentially poisonous revelations. Best of all is DeVito who, despite an accent that comes and goes, is priceless as the man who takes out an egg and eats it (a hilarious scene), while declaring that “With used furniture, you cannot be emotional.” Yes, that’s meant to be ironic.