The only way to make sense out of change is to plunge into it, move with it, and join the dance.
There have been some big changes talking place in the Big Apple even though you might not have even realized it. With Bianca Del Rio winning the most recent season of RuPaul’s Drag Race, she’s clearly not going to be around nearly as much, that leaves a larger than life and an obnoxious void in the city’s drag scene. Mimi Imfurst has moved on to greener pastures and a fresh start in the City of Brotherly Love. Dallas DuBois retired from drag and moved to LA, presumably after the Rockettes refused to hire her. Epiphany is spending large chunks of the year overseas and I can’t blame her even slightly for that. But even with the outgoing talent there is still a lot of established talent in the city as well. Drag Race villainess extraordinaire, Phi Phi O’Hara made the move from the Windy City to New York. Legends like Lady Bunny, Sherry Vine, Hedda Lettuce and others are still killing it. The cupboard is clearly not bare.
But now, more than ever, there are a ton of young, hungry (by hungry I mean ambitious…and, well…hungry queens out there. Most of these skinny bitches need a sandwich or three) crop of young drag talent ready to burst into stardom. As a part of this series, NewYorkNowNext, we’re going to be taking a look at some of this talent that is blooming all around the Big Apple. Ladies and gentlemen, I am very happy to talk with Miss Chelsea Piers!
Chiffon Dior: Hi there Chelsea! I’m glad we were finally able to connect for a little bit of gurl talk! I know between Paige Turner’s Christmas show and everything else going on this time of year, its uber-hectic! How are you doing my dear?
Chelsea Piers: I’m fantastic. Just saturated in holiday cheer. So happy to finally have an afternoon off to chat with you and sip coffee on my new couch.
CD: Hopefully you have one of those classy plastic covers on it to protect it in the event of a spill!
CP: This one came from an outlet in the Bronx. I’m a girl on a budget now that I’m no longer living my rich white lady fantasy in Hell’s Kitchen. It was on clearance, so I’m sure she can handle a light sprinkling of coffee. Plus, my OCD would never allow that.
CD: Amen to that! So let’s hop in the Delorean and go back in time a little bit. Where are you from originally?
CP: Long or short story?
CD: Long is good. It’s my site. No one is going to edit me.
CP: Gorgeous. I was born in Honolulu, Hawaii. My dad walked out when I was pretty young, so my mom, who is flawless by the way, moved us to New Jersey where we had lots of family. I went to elementary school in NJ. After that, I auditioned for a performing arts high school in NYC and was accepted. I moved to the city when I was fourteen, and I’ve never quite been able to leave since then, with the exception of a few stints in Boston, Miami, Provincetown, and beyond.
CD: I guess your mom is where you get your flawlessness from then! Was that a big transition for you, from Hawaii to New Jersey?
CP: She’d like to think so! To be honest, I think I was young enough that I sort of rolled with the punches. I had visited Jersey before and my mom had always taken me into the city to see Broadway shows. I guess I could feel the spotlight from across the river and felt right at home. I’ve always been decent at adjusting to new ventures.
CD: So was the city your first exposure to drag?
CP: In a sense, yes. To me, drag is the ultimate form of theatrical expression. After all, Broadway has the best lace fronts, costumes, and sets money can buy. Pus, I was totally one of those kids who wrapped a towel around my head as hair and loved nothing more than twirling around in my mom’s slip. You know, humble beginnings.
CD: When did you first see an actual drag queen, not including some overly made up Broadway starlet?
CP: You don’t consider Bernadette Peters a drag queen?
CD: Well of course I do. Her tuck is better than mine!
CP: And that weave. Come on. Hmmm, it’s tough to say. As a kid, I was OBSESSED with the film, Mrs. Doubtfire. It didn’t necessarily represent the traditional notion of drag, but I was just fascinated by Robin Williams‘ transformation and how tastefully the subject matter was handled. In my mind, it’s a masterpiece. Eventually, I’d love to do drag on that large of a scale.
CD: You just want to stick your face into a cake. Be honest.
CP: And shout, “HELLOOOO!”
CD: Really what would you need to do after that? Bucket list complete!
CP: Nothing. I could die happy. Unless they ever decided to cast Glinda as a man. Other than that, now that I think about it, I did go to Lucky Cheng’s when I was pretty young for a friend’s birthday, who obviously had very liberal parents.
CD: I guess Chuck E. Cheese was booked? Did you apply for a job on the spot?
CP: I was honestly a little spooked because, at the time, it was on the lower east side and exposed me to the more tawdry, gritty side of drag. Plus, a drunk bachelorette told me she wanted to give me my first wet dream and kissed me on the mouth, which was traumatizing on so many levels.
CD: Oh dear….How many years of therapy was that?
CP: Still recovering. It didn’t help that I ended up working there for a brief stint last year. Talk about salt in the wound.
CD: She didn’t come back looking for you, did she?
CP: Fortunately, she wouldn’t have recognized me with my clown face on.
CD: How did you ultimately get your start in drag?
CP: After college, I spent the summer working in Provincetown. I did it all. I was a houseboy, a waitress, a receptionist, you name it. In the summer of 2010, the producers of Naked Boys Singing needed to fill the 10:15 pm time slot at The Post Office Cabaret, so the venue asked them to produce a drag show. They knew little about producing drag shows, but decided to call it ICONS and recreate the choreography and costumes of your favorite performances from Madonna, Beyonce, Gaga, Britney, ect. The whole town was expecting it to flop, but it ended up selling out every night. One of the backup dancers left when the show extended it’s run, so I ended up replacing him. I did the show on and off for about two years as a shirtless male dancer. When they were prepping for the third season, I got a phone call asking if I was interested in coming back. At the time, I was starting to lay down some roots in NYC again. I was about to decline when they told me they wanted me to star in the show in the main drag track. I almost choked and passed out because I had never done drag professionally before, but they assured me that I would be in good hands. Several weeks later, I was headlining the show nine performances a week in P-Town. It was a dream come true.
CD: Wow! Did you get bit by the drag bug pretty quickly then?
CP: At that time, I was already completely infatuated with anything drag related. Doing it myself seemed like the only logical next step. ICONS was my crash course in learning how to make it a reality.
CD: How did it all work for you once you returned to New York?
CP: Funny you should ask. It was definitely a shift for me. In P-Town, I signed a production contract and was an actor being plugged into a mostly predetermined equation. I was Justin Nako as Celine Dion, Katy Perry, Christina Aguilera. I didn’t have a drag name. My costumes and wigs were built for me. Suddenly, I arrived back in New York and people were interested in booking me, but they had questions about my drag persona I didn’t yet have concrete answers to. That’s what prompted me to start building the character.
CD: So I can imagine where Chelsea Piers comes from but for the readers outside the city, could you tell us how you decided on that name?
CP: Well, originally my name was Trannie Oakley. I soon decided it wasn’t a good fit and changed it, thank god. Can you even imagine in light of all the drama this past year?!? Plus, who wants to respond to drunk twinks screaming that on 9th avenue?
CD: I don’t know. A weekly show called, “Trannie Get Your Gun” might have been big. Or Mayor Bloomberg would have had you stopped and frisked. Probably no middle ground.
CP: Exactly. Chelsea Piers is an homage to New York. This city has, and always will be, my home. I like that it’s a bit tawdry, yet still suggests an iconic prestige. It’s also an homage to my mentor, Paige Turner. Her alternate name would have been Chelsea Brownstone, so I’m Chelsea Piers!
CD: Love it! So how long it take you to hit your stride once you got back to the city in all your new found drag fabulousness?
CP: You know, after over two years, I feel like I’m really just hitting it now. Still, I’m very grateful to have had the opportunity to perform consistently from the beginning. Making it to the finals of “So You Think You Can Drag’ Season Three really set everything into motion for me. A year later, I won the GLAM Award for Breakthrough Artist 2013, which was incredible and opened a whole new set of doors.
CD: The focus of this series we’re doing here at NS4W is about the period of change that the New York City drag scene is going through. What changes have you seen in the time that you’ve been a part of and for that matter, have been following the NYC drag scene?
CP: My makeup and hair are much better. *Laughs* Truthfully though, I was a little intimidated by the drag community in NYC when I first entered it. Several years ago, it had a reputation for being very catty and elitist. However, I was so pleased to find that the majority of girls welcome new talent with open arms. I’ve found that we’re moving toward a new generation of sisterhood in which we celebrate each other’s work and accomplishment and don’t try to tear each other apart. Sure, there are still a few bad apples out there, but nobody really gives a damn about any of them. I operate under the belief that there is enough success to go around for everyone. There’s no need for jealousy and conflict. I’m instead inspired by my colleagues. Furthermore, I think there’s been a huge emergence of this hybrid of drag and theatre, which is what I’m most excited by. My sisters and I are always striving to up the ante and elevate the caliber of performance in the industry. Just watch Alexis Michelle’s “Into the Woods” performance and you’ll see what I mean. Or my viral “Candy Store” performance with Jackie Cox and Nomi Sas. Wink wink. Bob the Drag Queen, another mentor of mine, always reminds me how important it is to be kind to those around you. Sure, we might tease and read each other, but it all comes from a place of love. Can’t wait to see the mean girls tear that response apart!
CD: With some of the more established queens in the city moving on to new projects and phases in their careers, there is a bit of a vacuum at the top. Who do you think is poised to fill that void?
CP: I work with so many ferocious queens and it’s impossible to name them all, but fuck it I’ll try: Paige Turner is on her way to super stardom and I’m so fortunate to have her guidance. My girls of GYPSY HAUSING (Sutton Lee Seymour, Jackie Cox, and Nomi Sas) are a force to be reckoned with. My final five SYTYCD girls are all stars. Dusty Ray Bottoms and Alexis Michelle have become two of my very best friends. Brita Filter just came on the scene and is killing it. Marti Gould Cummings is a trail blazer. Pusse Couture will always be my scene queen. My auntie Crystal Demure is nailing it on the national tour of Kinky Boots. This community is overflowing with talent and I’m lucky to call many of them family.
CD: Oh gurl! I think so and so is going to be SO angry that you forgot her!
CP: I love so and so just as much as the girls I just mentioned. I’ll make it up to so and so with a guest spot at one of my shows.
CD: Even after what so and so wrote about you on Twitter? That’s very gracious of you!
CP: Oh sorry, I misunderstood, you meant so and so?! Forget her, that bitch needs Jesus.
CD: What do you feel that you bring to the scene that is unique? What makes Chelsea stand out from the crowd?
CP: Definitely my versatility, and not just in the bedroom. You listening fellas? I believe I have the unique ability to transcend genres, scenes, and contexts. I’ll give you a mix that blends Bye Bye Birdie and Iggy Azaela. I’ll perform a swing number and then tap dance during the second act. I’ll serve a flawless Celine Dion impersonation one night and then turn a punk rock princess look the next night and host a party at a swanky club. You’ve got a check, I’ve got a talent. Ironically, the fact that you can’t categorize me as one thing is what makes me stand out. I’m not just a Broadway girl. I’m not just a party hostess. Sure I have my preferences, but no matter the setting, I’m always able to find a way to fit in.
CD: Boom! Well said Chelsea! So aside for starring in the remake of Mrs. Doubtfire, what other goals do you have for your career?
CP: Most immediately, I’m working on a self contained solo cabaret that features all live vocals and reveals a great deal about my journey as a performer. It’s called “Lend Me a Baritone”. Stay tuned for details! In my wildest dreams, I want to perform in drag on film, TV, or ideally, Broadway. Oh, and to make enough money to afford a wig by Bianca Del Rio‘s guy.
CD: Broadway might be more realistic than affording one of those wigs!
CP: On my current non-equity salary, yes.
CD: So let’s try to remedy that! Where can people come see perform and then stuff money in your undies?
CP: You can catch me every Monday at 11pm at XES Lounge for #GYPSIES with my rotating cast of girls and at WERK Wednesdays with Paige Turner at Hardware Bar. This Tuesday night is A Paige Turner Christmas at New World Stages with yours truly, Sutton Lee Seymour, Jackie Cox, Nomi Sas, Alexis Michelle, and the Spitfires! Tons of production numbers, you don’t want to miss this one. 9 pm showtime!
CD: Well, Chelsea, I think we’ve just about reached the end here. Thank you so much for all your time my dear. Do you have any final words of wisdom before we call it an evening and go talk bad about So and So over drinks?
CP: The pleasure was all mine my love. Since all the gays have moved to midtown, I would just like to remind you all that CHELSEA IS NOT DEAD. She’s alive and well, now lives in Harlem, and would like you to cast her in a project for which she’ll earn equity points. And I heard so and so writes bad checks. Kisses!