This past Sunday at the MTV Video Music Awards, Miley Cyrus invited a group of well known drag queens on stage with her to perform some of her newest album. It was a big moment, and whatever you want to think or say about "appropriation," there was undoubtedly some kid somewhere who caught their first glimpse of drag on Sunday and realized that being different is something to be celebrated.
One of the featured queens on stage was none other than RuPaul's Drag Race alum Tammie Brown. The world first got to know her on the first season of Drag Race as well as the first incarnation of RuPaul's Drag Race: All Stars, but Tammie has been delighting audiences around the country for years. Tammie's unique stage presence and look are instantly recognizable, a true accomplishment for any artist but a particularly impressive one for a drag performer. Trying to sum up Tammie's point of view in words is a bit like trying to paint a poem or something. For a little taste of Tammie, watch this recent lip sync performance of Lou Reed's "Walk on the Wild Side" at the West Hollywood drag staple Showgirls Weho.
In addition to lip-syncing to offbeat greats like Amanda Lear and Dottie West, she's working on her newest album of original material and continues to be a major fixture of the Southern California drag scene, as well as a featured performer on stages the world over. Tammie's fearless self expression fueled her journey from her birthplace of Rockport-Fulton, Texas to countless stages and televisions, and is a perfect example of how artistic commitment really can pay off. Take a look at what she had to say about performing, being a self described folk artist and her experiences with "reading."
I've read that you originally wanted to perform in drag using your given name Keith Schubert, but that some fellow queens had different ideas. How exactly did you land on the name "Tammie Brown?"
It kind of was made up on the way to the club one night. We were doing the three-way calls, and a friend was named Bob Brown, and I just thought to myself that I could make Tammie Brown out of it! Oh Bob Brown, what a terrible name...
It's interesting that you initially wanted to use your birth name performing, because one of my favorite aspects of watching you perform is how completely genuine you come across on stage. It seems very personal for you, even if you're lip-syncing to another artist's song. Do you find that you are in a different head-space performing as Tammie than performing out of drag as Keith?
No. Actually, no! I like entertaining and that's my thing. I never saw myself as a different person when I started doing drag. It's who I am -- nothing different. It was a fantasy I wanted to pull off, really. I mean, of course it's different because people make you feel different when you're in drag -- they put that agenda on you, you know? But that's who I am, and I've always been who I am. I used to fantasize about dressing up in drag... I had a fantasy of going to the mall and getting everything and dressing up, then going in one restroom and coming out the other in full drag. I don't know how I was gonna do that, but that was the fantasy!
Photo by Brett Saari
What is your favorite part of performing?
I like engaging with the people the most. To be honest with you, when I do live concerts of my own material I feel connected even more than when I do a lip-sync act.
You started entertaining at a young age -- was there ever a part of you that was truly afraid of going onstage?
It's only natural to have stage fright, but I just get on the stage and do my thing. Since it's from me I don't really have to worry too much -- it's from the heart.
Reading and listening to some of your other interviews, the list of references and inspirations for your art that you give is just amazing. Everyone from Joan Crawford to Sylvester, Tina Turner to Dottie West. Did you grow up in a very culturally rich household, or did you have to discover the artists you love on your own?
My household was pretty diverse. My mom in the 80s had stuff like Dire Straits and Talking Heads, Sade... different things like that. Then my dad liked things like Jimmy Buffet, which I also took a liking to. There's an album of his called Last Mingle in Paris that I really like, it has a lot of really fun songs. He also liked Tom Petty and stuff like that. Then living in Mexico there were all these other artists I liked -- Gloria Trevie, and lots of other amazing artists like her really influenced me as well. Also just the Mexican culture -- the way they do their media there with telenovelas and stuff is just very different, and was definitely a big influence. Tina Turner wasn't someone my family was into so much, but when I watched the movie What's Love Got To Do With It? It was sort of a light-bulb moment for me. Like, oh I'm an entertainer, OK! She's such a quality, positive influence.
When you began performing in drag, did you have an idea that you also wanted to make music, or is that something that you developed along the way?
I always knew that I wanted to make my own music. I wanted to be a pop star or a rock star; I wanted to be in a big arena. In high school I used to have ideas about how I would perform, like maybe midway through the show I would come in and out of drag, and I would have singers that would reflect me. If I was wearing a certain color, their costumes would be the opposite... kind of like Ricky Martin I guess? I always visualized that, it's what I wanted. To write my own music was something I wanted too of course, although I was a bit scared at first. I realized though that I had learned how to write and that people liked my writing style which was really cool, and people even liked my voice! Singing can be very hard but I studied -- I studied in choir and I studied in college.
A lot of people know you from your appearances on several iterations of Drag Race. What was the most important takeaway from the show?
Probably the global exposure. As a result of RuPaul's Drag Race I was booked in London, Scotland and Glasgow, and then I was booked in Dublin. I took my bf with me, Michael, who is sort of a backbone to a lot that I'm doing, and we wound up in Paris on the street busking for some extra money. I saw this skateboarder go by me and we sort of locked eyes you know, and he turned to me as he was skating away and said, "Oh Tammie I love youuu!" We were on that love lock bridge, and there were people who came up to me from Mexico, who knew me from being in Mexico, and they were coming up and asking for pictures and things, and we were in Paris, France! Pretty neat-o, you know? The exposure is great, and it's also given me a way to share my #queenswithacause hashtag which has been great -- I've really been pushing for animal rights and for human rights, actually. I've also been able to enlighten a lot of people about issues, and they're happy because I'm expressing myself fully and that kinda lets them feel like they can also fulfill their mission.
How was the coming out process for you?
Well when I first came out when I was 13 in Mexico, I remember learning about the Native Americans and their idea of the "two-spirit." I mean I was comfortable, but having grown up in the Christian faith I was sort of just getting used to the fact that it meant I was going to hell or whatever. But, I had a friend who explained to me all about how the Native American culture really revered their gays and I thought well, if It's good with the Native Americans then I'm safe! I'm totally in the safe-zone. If they can do it, I'm fine.
For a lot of people a big part of drag culture is "reading," due in no small part to how drag has been represented on TV. Did you ever have to deal with "being read" in your drag career, and if so how did you handle it?
To be honest with you there was no reading in my drag career. There were anxieties to be had because other queens were haughtier and more pushy, but that whole "reading" business is really just hyped-up nonsense. I mean sure we would say things to each other to help each other out, but we would never be playing these weird "reading" games. I mean, who wants to be in a dressing room with all that stuff going on? Some people might play around, but people don't get into the dressing room and start tearing each other down.
A lot of the material you perform is not the standard music audiences might expect going to see a drag show -- for instance, you've been doing a number to "Walk on the Wild Side," by Lou Reed recently, which I'm guessing is a bit of a nod to Holly Woodlawn, who inspired some of the song's lyrics. Is the "accessibility" of your material ever something you consider, or is your focus on performing material that resonates with you?
Well that song is also about Jackie Curtis and Candy Darling and Little Joe (who never once gave it away) -- that song is really about drag culture, and all these people on the fringe who were working for Andy Warhol. Honestly, I don't think Andy Warhol was a very nice person. He sort of used all of them, really... and the reason Candy is probably dead is that he encouraged her to go in and get all those injections in her body that might have given her cancer. I think its appropriate right now because its a drag history song! The kids don't know anything today really. I mean I just saw some trailer for the new movie about Stonewall, and there wasn't one person of color throwing a brick through any window! I mean, come on!
Photo by Magnus Hastings
What are some upcoming projects that you're excited about?
Well currently I've gone full-head into a new album called Shubert (the "t" is silent). It's a concept album. I was so influenced when I was introduced to Amanda Lear, my creative partner Rodrigo Barroso and I were really influenced by her, and Rod was like we have to create an album called Shubert -- and we started working on songs together and I've been recording those recently.
Also I've been saving my designer nylons that have patterns and stuff. When they get runs in them I just put them away, and I've started working on these little creatures I call the Rag Queens. I've already done about nine -- the first three I gave away as birthday gifts, but I just completed an orca and a narwhal and a monkey, and a few other little Rag Queens. I make them with wire, that I then stuff them with paper and cover them with papier-mâché and I paint their little faces, and I cover their bodies with the nylons to make their little outfits. You know, in reality Tammie Brown is a folk artist. If we're gonna categorize me in reality, I'm a pop-folk artist. My music is folky, it comes out folky, my art is folky and my performances are folky.
I've also been working on building up my YouTube channel ItsTaMMieBrown and my other social media stuff, and I just reissued my first album "Popcorn!" Get it and put some butter on it!