Gloria Swansong Bring Judy Garland Back To Life

Photo by Michael Kushner

Hi there Gloria! It’s good to talk with you again. The last time we sat down to chat was before the finale of So You Think You Can Drag. How have you been?

Very busy but very good! I have been guesting a lot all over the city, meeting lots of queens and experiencing new venues. And I’ve been traveling a lot for my design work. But that’s how I like to stay – busy!

They say idle hands are the devil’s hands. They say that right? I feel like it’s a southern saying?

*Laughs* I believe the idiom is ‘Idle hands are of the Devil’s workshop’. I actually had a sewing teacher who had a very elaborate Southern myth about the Devil betting an old woman on a porch that he could make a quilt faster than her (he based this on the fact that she always sewed with short thread). The Devil, thinking he was clever, took a very, very long thread and needle and tried to beat her. He got tangled in the knots of his thread and lost the bet. Moral of the story? When it comes to hand-sewing, long thread is a sign of a lazy stitcher. Apparently it’s a very old Southern story passed from grandma to granddaughter in quilting circles.

I guess storytelling is a good way to pass the time while sewing. As a costume designer, how did you first learn how to sew and create?

My mom bought a sewing machine and didn’t know how to use it. So I embarked on teaching myself to sew using her manual and the Vogue guide to sewing. I really had no idea what I was doing in high school, but there were no ‘moms who sew’ to help us with our shows, so I took it all on. When I graduated high school I had an internship at the Nashville Rep. The woman who ran their costume shop had been a mentor to me. She employed (and I think still does) a woman named Nancy who worked for a very long time in garment manufacturing – Nashville used to be a HUGE garment producing hub – and Nancy is the one who taught me how be very good at sewing. The first garment I made with her was an 18-piece 1860’s bodice. And on an industrial machine no less! It was a fast and furious learning experience. Since then, I’ve gotten two degrees in costume design and have learned a lot about patterning, draping, and creating. But I always stop to say that I’m not a costume maker at heart. I can design and create what I designed, but I have friends who are truly geniuses at the costume making side of things – and that’s what they specialize in. Their skills and knowledge are far beyond what I could ever do.

Photo by Jan Sport

Wait, wait, wait! Your FIRST  garment you made with her was an 18-piece 1860s bodice? I managed to sew a pair of fuzzy dice in Home Economics. I feel a lot less proud of my effort now.

*Laughs* Yes it was very intense. I also made the hoop skirt that went under it. It was a lot for an eighteen year old.

I guess if you get thrown in the deep end you either swim or sink. Is it something you liked right from the start?

Yes. I’ve always loved making things. It’s meditative for me, helps me block out the world and all of my swirling thoughts and just focus. My parents are both engineers, so from an early age we were always making things or building things in our house. We spent a lot of family time together renovating our house. Subsequently, I’m surprisingly good at a lot of home improvement things! My dad and I were pretty boss at hardwood floors.

There seriously must be a special place in hell for all the people who put linoleum over hardwood floors!

There is, or worse, carpet over hardwood.

Truly. So between all the sewing and sanding, how did you find time to develop an interest in drag? Do you remember what your first exposure to it was growing up?

I think the first time I knew what a drag queen was was when I saw To Wong Foo when I was nineteen. I really was sheltered in the South. And I remember being very scared of drag queens for about a year… Then I got tapped to design makeup for a production of La Cage, so I had to throw myself into learning drag makeup 101! *Laughs* That was how I got into it, through a musical!

Drag and a musical? Such a strange combo! 

I do love that musical though, and it’s so surprising how well it sold in such a conservative community. They extended the run! Goes to show, that as long as the story has heart and good writing, it can work.

So how did you end up in New York City?

When I graduated from my masters program, coming here seemed like a no brainer. It’s the center of American theatre, and in design people kind of don’t take you seriously unless you’ve at least paid your dues in either NYC or LA.

So wait….what was your degree in?

Costume Design, both of them! An MFA and BFA

Its a miracle! It’s become a running joke because almost every NYC queen I interview majored in Musical Theatre.

Oh no, I got a degree in something with at least a decent chance of employment!

What a concept! I had said to Gina Tonic the other day that musical theatre degrees seems to be a one way road into a dress.

*Laughs* It’s true, at least in New York City!

Photo by James Michael Avance

So after you finished with La Cage, did you think you would be finished with drag at that point?

Not at all. For me, drag is largely about me creating a vision I have in my head on myself. So often I’m creating visions on other people, within the confines of a script and a production, and I immediately saw drag as an opportunity to just freely design and do whatever I want. I’m also an actor who was always too femme or too waifish or just didn’t fit traditional ‘male’ characters. Come to find out years later that the words for what I am is trans non-binary. Drag allows me to be and play all of the roles I always wanted to play.

Well way to ruin my next question Gloria! I thought I got to be all woke and talk about gender fluidity and drag. I guess I’m just going to sit over her in the corner and pout. And probably eat some chips and salsa.

*Laughs* Gender is entirely unique to each person. And while Gloria is definitely a woman character, that doesn’t mean a woman can’t be androgynous or challenging the binary. But I also think that you can’t just play one note in drag. Variety is the spice of life! If you can be anything, why not try a wide variety?

Now which was was Variety? Was she the replacement one they tried to bring in after Ginger Spice left the Spice Girls?

VARIETY SPICE! I’ve made a new Spice Girl! She’s a sister to Penzey Spice.

Looks like the reunion tour is back on! But before I drive this interview right off the highway and insist we watch Spice World together, I should really get things back on track. One of the reasons we’re here is to talk about your upcoming Judy Garland show at New World Stages. One of your strongest moments during SYTYCD was when you did Judy one week. How did you discover that you could channel her so well?

To be honest, I was terrified of doing Judy. In the application, Paige (Turner) asked us what we would do for a legends and divas number – Judy wasn’t even on my list. I’ve admired her and loved her for so long, some of my first music purchases were her albums, I just thought she was untouchable for me. I had seen a lot of queens do Judy and, in my opinion, not do her justice. So I chose to avoid it rather than fall into a trap of doing something that I didn’t like. In SYTYCD something inside me flipped on. The fourth week I did a very emotional, very personal piece of poetry that I didn’t feel went well at all – I almost lost it on stage. But I clearly remember Sutton (Lee Seymour), who was judging that week, telling me afterwards that the emotional vulnerability I had was what was so engaging about the piece. And Paige had just told me what worked about my Dixie Carter was how ‘on fire’ I actually was. With all of that in my bonnet, Judy’s Battle Hymn of the Republic came up in a shuffle play of my iTunes and I knew I had to do it. That performance of hers brings me to tears, so I channeled that. That’s what I try to bring when I do Judy, that intangible electricity she had, the feeling that she was always teetering on the edge of not getting through the note or the song or over the rainbow.

Photo by James Michael Avance

So what can people expect from your upcoming show at New World Stages? (Get more info here!)

A mix of some of Judy’s most joyful, youthful performances and some of her darkest, most private moments.On one hand is the MGM performances as the ‘girl next door’ that propelled her into stardom. On the other hand are the private tapes she made in the last year of her life, prepping to write her tell-all autobiography that never got written.

Why do you think that nearly 50 years after her passing, she is still so revered and so iconic?

She was such a magnetic performer, her quality supersedes her lifetime. She created such intensely rich performances, it only makes sense that everything she did became an icon or a hit. I’ve said it before, but I think it really comes down to the amount of passion and importance she put into her performances. She really felt like that was the only time she was truly herself. In a way, those incredibly public performances were her most private moments. And I think that’s what’s kept people coming back for more. Her authenticity and the feeling that her performances are an escape. You also really feel that she uses her songs to work through her emotions. And that level of raw emotion is very universal, I think.

Are you able to relate to her on any level?

I think I relate to her more than any celebrity I know.

Are you friends with a cowardly lion too??

Unfortunately, I’m allergic to cats. He had to go. But tin and straw in fine with! *Laughs*

Photo by Utica Queen

*Laughs* When you got involved in the world of drag, did you expect to have such a focus on one character illusion? What other aspects of drag do you enjoy exploring when you perform?

You know, I don’t really define my drag with Judy. She’s like her own thing outside of Gloria, like a role Gloria plays. I really love to do burlesque! I want to put together more strip acts. It’s incredibly creative and fun – and of course all about the clothes! I also have a southern Baptist version of Gloria Swansong – Sister Gloria – and she is DYING to have her own weekly Southern Baptist Ladies Auxiliary Sunday Bruncheon. I tried her out to Gilda Wabbit and Gina Tonic‘s Brunch crowd at L&W Oyster Co. last week to wild success. We had the whole restaurant shouting ‘AMEN’! *Laughs*

Taking people to church WHILE they have their french toast and bottomless mimosas, I think you might be on to something Gloria.

The Good Lord giveth, and he taketh away!

He better not taketh away my french toast before I finish but I digress. Are you game for the Lightning Round questions?

Hit it!

Must have makeup item?

A bold, matte, red lipstick. Must have.

Drag role model?

Peaches Christ.

4am post drag food craving?

Popcorn made on the stove and sparkling water.

Best part of drag?

When the outfit makes the crowd go wild

Worst part of drag?

People hitting on you.

Most surprising thing about you people might not know?

I’ve never tried alcohol, cigarettes, or drugs of any kind.

If not for drag, what would you be doing?

Finding another way to perform, I’m sure.

Guilty pleasure?

I love to take long candle lit baths and eat in the bathtub. *Laughs*

Death row last meal?

My mom’s fried chicken and veggies from her garden. And iced tea with lemon tart for dessert… but why would I be on death row?!

Netflix binge recommendation?

The Great British Baking Show! It’s what we need in this world right now!

Queen you would most like to see on season 10 of Drag Race besides yourself.

Lucy Stoole. She’s a Chicago queen and she is incredible.

Last one, most embarrassing song on your phone?

Omg. I still have the Let It Go mix Vicky Boofont and I battled it out to from the finale of SYTYCD. It haunts me. But Covered by Demi Lovato nonetheless.

So you’re saying you still can’t…..let it go?

Goodbye Felicia. *Lets go* *Jack sinks into the ocean*

There was room for him!

She was damsel-spreading! That shit may fly in the middle of the Atlantic, but not on the motherfucking MTA!

She kicked him right off. Little know fact, Rose went on to found United Airlines.

THE MORE YOU KNOW!

So looking beyond your New World Stages show, where else can people see you and follow your adventures?

Well I have a Judy at the Stonewall show coming June 18&19 – that will be a Judy lifetime review! We will be doing all of the hits and favorite numbers and costumes. It’ll be just two weeks after her birthday and days before her death day. And of course, her death was directly tied to the Stonewall Riots, so it’ll be a very special and unique experience for the LGBT community.

Photo by Jamie Gross

Glimpsing into the future for you, what kind of goals do you have in your proverbial drag bucket list?

I have a weekly show and monthly show that I’m hoping to mount at the end of this summer at some good venues! So that’s what’s I’m looking at in the near future. I’ll also spend my time at summer stock this summer working on lots of new, gag-worthy looks! Including some for the Look Queen finale in August! In the further future, I really want to keep growing to develop my performance and brand to be more and more authentic and unique to me. Someday, I would love to be a queen with a loud voice for social action and change – maybe even dipping into political. I’d also love to start developing a philanthropic side to Gloria.

I just want to congratulate myself quite honestly for not saying Judy Darling instead of Judy Garland once this interview. But beyond that, I want to congratulate you as well for how you have brought this iconic figure to life. The last time I saw you, you had gotten even better at her and you were pretty damn good to start! I’m excited to see where your career goes! Thank you so much for your time tonight Gloria. Do you have any final words of wisdom to leave the WERRRK.com universe with?

Well thank you Chiffon! All of this Judy was a seed you planted into my head! What I have to say to the WERRRK Universe? Stay sexy and don’t get murdered!

About Chiffon Dior 454 Articles
Despite being a drag journalist for over five years, Chiffon only recently realized that she missed a golden opportunity back then to change her drag name to Rhoda Story.

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