Michael-Birch Pierce (they/them) leads something of a double life. By day, they’re a jet-setting textile artist working with industry heavy hitters like Diane von Furstenberg, André Leon Talley, Amazon, Zappos, and even the Obamas.
But when the sun goes down, Pierce transforms into Grace Wetpants (she/her), who they describe as “a fashion girl, but a party girl. She’s kind of rock and roll, but kind of a dumb pop slut.” This may sound like a far cry from the successful, assured, Pierce, who’s currently a professor of design and prominent community leader in Richmond, Virginia, where they reside.
We caught up with Pierce via Zoom from their Virginia studio to discuss how drag informs their art and identity, their inspiration for Grace Wetpants, and what they’re doing to help support Richmond queens affected by COVID.
Werrrk: Today’s your birthday! Happy birthday. What’s your birthday wish?
Pierce: To just keep looking younger and younger through pharmaceutical intervention.
Werrrk: I love it. You look freshly pumped. You’ve worked in fine art and fashion for over a decade. Can you tell us a bit about your professional background?
Pierce: I originally started as a fashion designer. I went into the industry designing menswear and textiles. Then I went to Savannah College of Art & Design for my masters in Fibers.
I worked with Diane von Furstenberg, Andre Leon Talley; I freelanced a lot. Now, I teach fashion design at VCU in Richmond.
Then I’m also a fine artist, so I make and show work in museums and galleries and all kinds of cool places.
Werrrk: You also designed a Christmas tree skirt for the Obamas. Which is iconic!
Pierce: I did! 2010, the official Blue Room Christmas tree. I embroidered 56 feet of text around a Christmas tree skirt I made in 48 hours. So, ya know, the Obamas love me.
Werrrk: You’re basically the third Obama daughter.
Pierce: (Laughs) Exactly.
Werrrk: So, at this point in your career, what does drag bring to your life, professionally and personally?
Pierce: The way I came about drag is really funny, actually. It was never a plan! I’m in my mid-thirties with a great career, and I think that’s why I like it so much. It’s not a job, but it’s something I’m passionate about.
In my artwork and the things I create, the common theme is a study of identity and artifice. How do we as queer people develop a language, both verbal and visual, to communicate with people who we are through code-switching and self-preservation?
All these concepts I think about a lot — all the time — so it’s been the artwork that started to inform my own investigation of my gender and my deeper identity. Coming out as non-binary has been directly linked to the work that I’m doing.
I think the work I create in the studio has brought about this need for…I don’t know, this need for gender play and expression. Wanting to turn things on its head and experiment as Grace.
Werrrk: You picked a really interesting time for that exploration because you have to navigate this new art form as it changes and evolves through quarantine. What’s been your experience as a COVID queen? What have your gigs been like?
Pierce: It’s been really interesting to do drag in quarantine. In the beginning, everything was just over! I had a show with some queens I was really excited to work with at the Fuzzy Cactus, where I host my show What If Theme Was Sluts?
It was a total bummer to have it canceled and not be able to do that or work with these girls – but throughout quarantine, I’ve had these cool opportunities, and I created more opportunities to do drag. I had to see my friends who do this and are used to performing all of the time start to struggle.
So I’ve looked for ways to help and serve my community, so I started this drive-in drag show at Diversity Richmond, an LGBTQ center here in Richmond that I’m on the board of. I book four queens every two weeks to do a Sunday evening show because we don’t want to overlap with anyone’s virtual drag brunches or other shows. We want to make sure everyone can get their coin!
We do two shows a night, and I think something like thirty six cars can fit in the parking lot with a stage and DJ. It’s been really cool to do and see the success of it. Everything I’ve been doing has been a question of how can I help? How can I serve? How can I be a drunk slut and get more attention?
Werrrk: That’s a solid pandemic plan! Speaking of drunk sluts, can we talk about your drag name?
Pierce: Of course.
Werrrk: What’s the origin of your Grace Wetpants?
Pierce: It’s really funny. I came up with this idea that I wanted to do this acoustic folk/country duo called Miss United States. It’d be me and another queen, and we’d come out on stage, and I’d go, “She’s Beauty!” Then my partner would say, “She’s Grace!” And then we’d say in unison, “And we’re Miss United States!”
So I had this idea that was based only on that pun to introduce us. Then I started to think like, “What would Grace’s last name be?” Somehow I was driving in my car and I was like, “Grace…Wetpants.”
Which was perfect because “Wetpants” is funny on its own, but then you put Grace in front of it, and it’s “Grey Sweatpants,” and you just think about a man’s bulge swinging around in a pair of grey sweat pants. And it gets you all wet.
Werrrk: Which is very on-brand for Grace.
Pierce: Totally! I thought, if the pun is all about a bulge, then if my tuck isn’t great, it doesn’t matter because it’s part of the pun. But also, on Grace’s Instagram page, her stories are nothing but pictures of men in grey sweatpants.
Werrrk: Who are some people that inspire Grace?
Pierce: Oh boy…Shirley Manson, Samatha Jones, Alexis Rose…definitely Courtney Love.
Werrrk: Okay, so with all of your experience in fashion, I want to exploit you for free labor.
Werrrk: Let’s play a quick game, I’m gonna give you an item, and you’re gonna tell me how you would dress it up. Ready?
Werrrk: Dress up a mask for going to fire island.
Pierce: I would dress it up by attaching it to a ball & chain that would keep you the fuck at home and not at Fire Island.
Werrrk: Dress up a harness.
Pierce: I’d dress it up with a floor-length fur coat and a jumbo bottle of poppers.
Werrrk: Dress up an ex-boyfriend.
Pierce: I would dress him up in a lovely suit and a tie that brought out the color of the lining of his coffin.
Werrrk: Dress up a pair of grey sweatpants.
Pierce: Dress it up with the biggest, thickest, swingingest, veiniest d**k known to man.
Werrrk: That sounds about right. Thanks so much for chatting today!
Pierce: Thank you! This is going to ruin my career…