In this episode of “Going Out With Jake Cornell,” host and former NYC hospitality pro Jake Cornell chats with pop culture writer and DJ Eric Shorey. What cultural shifts has Shorey noticed in New York’s queer nightlife scene over the years? Has the drag scene benefited from social media and TV shows like “RuPaul’s Drag Drag Race?” Tune in for the full conversation.
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Jake Cornell: Obviously, you just mentioned you haven’t gone out in a while. But looking at your writing and also being a DJ, you are someone where nightlife is the main focus of where your energy’s going.
Eric Shorey: It’s funny, no. I’m a full-time psychotherapist.
E: I supported myself throughout my training with nightlife. But that’s not my main focus now. I’m playing a good trick on everyone.
J: The mirage is effective.
E: Yeah, I’m really good at this.
J: What just happened is a peek into my own bias, because I worked in bars and restaurants for a decade and I was always coming at it from the point of view of doing that job to be able to get into a creative job. And you were doing creative work to get into a degree-holding position. I always forget that people can do it in the reverse because my brain is so ingrained in viewing it in the opposite chain of events. When you got into nightlife, did you know that psychotherapy is where you actually wanted to end up? Or was that a longer process?
E: No, not at all. I learned how to DJ in college. I went to grad school thinking I was going to be an academic. I didn’t get into any Ph.D. Programs because academia is really insane and competitive. So then I didn’t know what the f*ck I wanted to do with myself if I wasn’t going to be an academic. I was still DJing. I was throwing parties. I was throwing art shows in basements.
J: Was this all in New York?
E: I learned how to DJ in Boston. I went to grad school at the New School. So for a while, while I was in grad school with a bunch of my grad school colleagues, I ran an art space called Morgan Avenue Underground. That was like 10 years ago. That’s really weird to think about. It was called Morgan Avenue Underground, and we threw a monthly party with a theme that had art on all the walls that was related to the theme. We had performance artists come and perform, usually drag queens, but all kinds of performance artists. We had a cult do a weird spell at one of our shows. It was very strange. So I was doing that. Because I didn’t get into any Ph.D. programs, a professor of mine was like, “You were really good at psychoanalysis when you were writing about it. Have you ever considered becoming a psychotherapist?” So I tried it out for a few years. I loved it. But when you’re training as a psychotherapist, you only make $30 a session at most. You don’t get a ton of patients at one time because they don’t want to overwhelm you. For a while, I had a full-time job as an assistant editor at Random House. For a while, I was freelancing full time as a writer. I was doing everything and then eventually I just got my psychoanalysis license, and that’s what I’m mostly doing now. And taking up DJ gigs wherever I can. I was also working on a YouTube show with two of my closest drag queen buddies, sisters, girlies, and then that supported me for a while. It’s really all over the place of trying to figure out how the fuck to live in an artistic career.
J: Totally. It’s such a piecemeal together sort of thing.
E: I would have loved to have been able to do nightlife full-time, and I would have loved it if that was financially possible. But I’m sure you’re aware, isn’t. The girls who are full-time in nightlife work harder than anyone I’ve ever met. They sleep less than anyone I’ve ever met. I don’t know how anyone can do it, especially now in this economy. The pandemic, of course, was the deciding moment. All right, you’re not going to be a full-time nightlife person and it’s not doable right now.
J: Totally. For a period of time, it just couldn’t exist at all. I agree with you. Because I was in restaurants and bars for so long, the nightlife party scene was a real blind spot for me. I feel like it’s really hard to do both when you’re also trying to have a career outside of it. You can’t have all three. I can’t go to the party that starts at 1 a.m. after a restaurant shift. There’s only so much energy before I die, because I also have to do shows or rehearsals during the day. This past year was when I started to explore that scene a lot more when I was phasing out of restaurants. I was seeing the people who produce nightlife events, produce these parties, the DJs who put them up, and then how intense the parties themselves are. In terms of the amount of hours and production that go into them and the stamina you need to be at one, plus all of the promotion, all of the organizing. I instantly realized, these are some of the hardest working people.
E: Absolutely. There were moments, and this is peak 25-year-old behavior, where I would wake up at 8 a.m., write five articles usually about true crime, go to see patients from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m., go to class from 6 p.m. to 10 p.m., and then go and DJ until 4 in the morning. That was a normal Wednesday for me.
J: I feel like I’m smoking a cigarette.
E: I don’t know how I didn’t die. And I would be drinking. As a DJ, you’re drinking 11 to 15 drinks in a night and then doing it all again. It doesn’t make any sense how anyone can do it.
J: Yeah, the biology doesn’t light up.
J: The more I have explored the nightlife and the party scene, I feel like you do encounter a lot more people who don’t drink. And I think it’s because of that. Either they’re sober or they choose a substance that isn’t alcohol because they need to keep going. I do see a lot less alcohol consumed in those spaces than the nightlife industry-adjacent spaces where I was in for a long time.
E: Yeah, I think bartenders are drinking people and I can’t imagine being a sober bartender. But I do know a decent amount of drag queens who are sober. I mean, Lady Bearica Andrews, who is like my sister in the drag world, she had a really long sobriety journey throughout her nightlife career. She was a serious drug user. This is public information, so I’m not spilling her tea. At a certain point, she does way, way, way less nightlife now because it’s just not a healthier or safe environment for someone who has struggles with addiction. I do know there are a lot of queens who are completely sober, but it’s rough. I can’t even imagine. I would be DJing and I would be handed pitchers of vodka. Well, I’m just going to drink it.
J: Yeah, you would have to be unbelievably vigilant, just to make sure that you don’t accidentally consume something. I actually know a fair amount of people in the restaurant bar industry that are also on their own sober journeys. It is similarly incredibly challenging because your career is built in proximity to it in a lot of ways. That’s been really exciting to see. I feel like the non-alcoholic cocktail and beverage world is blowing up. That’s really great. I can’t speak to it because I’m not someone in recovery, and I’m not someone who identifies as having struggles with addiction particularly. But I think part of what makes it hard is, in spaces like bars and stuff, it feels like that’s the only option. When places develop their non-alcoholic menus and their non-alcoholic options, it doesn’t look any different to order one of these gorgeous non-alcoholic cocktails or these weird non-alcoholic beers or nonalcoholic seltzers. The fact that we’ve gone full-circle to nonalcoholic seltzer is the most insane thing in the world. But it makes it a little bit easier to not feel like you’re sticking out. I think that’s really important.
E: What Lady Bearica ended up telling me was that one of the weirdest things was being a sober person, and then as a drag queen, your job is to sell drinks. So you’re sitting there being like, “Drink specials are this, this, and this. I’m not drinking any of them, but you should.” It’s a really tough situation for the queens to be in if they’re trying to stay sober because their job is to get people to buy drinks. Oh, we’re going to play a stupid f*cking trivia game — oh, am I allowed to curse on this? My bad.
J: Oh my God, say whatever you f*cking want.
E: OK, great. I’m going to play a trivia game. Here are five questions and then we’re going to give you a shot at the end.
J: It’s all alcohol. I hear a lot of people complaining, especially the queer nightlife scene and the drag-adjacent scene, about having alcohol at such a center point. I hear that criticism, I think it is a huge issue and it does suck. You shouldn’t feel like you have to drink to be involved or feel like you’re going to put your sobriety at risk of being involved. But at the same time, if you want these to be salient business ventures, which they are, then you do have to understand that if there’s not going to be alcohol, then the ticket probably has to be $55. And it sucks because then it becomes fiscally exclusive. If there’s a bar, they can keep the ticket price either nonexistent or low, because then the bar can make up the difference. But then you are going to have proximity to alcohol. You also can’t expect free labor. Something has to give somewhere, and I think that’s where it gets a little challenging.
E: The other side of it is, let’s start putting drag in non-bars. Do it in theaters. But first of all, theaters aren’t interested in having drag because they still have these old ideas and outdated ideas about what theater actually is. And second of all, part of drag and nightlife is that it is in these designated integrated spaces where you’re around other queer people, there’s family, you feel connected to the people because you’re in this space. You’re in a theater and it’s much more anesthetized. So it’s a really tough balance. I have gone to drag in theaters. My friends do this show called “Unavailable Emotional Carnivore,” and it’s this gonzo psychotic, surrealist, bizarro drag show. And they do it at the Cell Theater and it’s really cool. But it is not the same as a bar. It does not have the same energy.
J: Totally. I’ve gone several times to Sasha Velour Nightgowns, and I think that’s a similar thing, it’s in a theater venue space. It is a drag show, but I feel like the term “drag show” harkens to that idea of a bunch of people in a room and there’s a community element to it. Not that a theater totally wipes that out, but we all did have our designated seats and we all had to sit where we were. There wasn’t as much shared energy. It is much more focused on the stage, which is different. I do think that the conversations you and I are having right now are happening throughout. And I do feel like events are evolving to figure out new options and figure out new ways to approach it all.
E: Totally agreed. It’ll be interesting to see where it goes. Digital drag, for a moment, presented a new opportunity, but the girls don’t make enough coin on that sh*t. People don’t tip on a digital show because they feel like they’re not interacting with the human. They feel like they’re watching a screen, because they’re literally watching the screen.
J: The comedy world had a similar thing where they were going into the digital space for a while. I think I did one digital show and I was like, “I’m never doing this again.” It just had such a sterility to it and such a disconnect that I was like, “This is unfortunately not for me. This makes me feel worse.” I also was in a place where I was still working in restaurants, so I didn’t need the money. It’s a complicated situation.
E: We were trying to do digital shows at the beginning and we put together one or two collections of digital events and they were fun. They were actually some of our coolest-looking shows because people were able to do really interesting things. As a DJ, I just have a different role in the show. But Bearica was explaining to me, “Do you realize how weird it is to stand in front of your camera with no one in the room to do a lip sync to a song that’s just playing on your sh*tty Beatport speakers and no one’s cheering?” How do you even perform like that? It doesn’t make any sense. It’s not fun.
J: So much of learning to be a good performer is training your ear and your brain to link up with the sounds of the audience and modulate. Oh, they’re liking this or not liking this. Especially with something as free-flowing as drag, lip sync is really about living in the same moment. With standup, it is a little bit more choreographed, but you still do need to respond to laughter and feel where you are. After years of training your brain that silence — unintentional silence, because intentional silence can be wonderful — but unintentional silence is indicative of bombing. Your brain is screaming at you to be, something’s wrong, fix it. No there’s just no one in this f*cking room. I’m in front of a goddamn computer. Your brain is like, “I don’t know how this works. This is antithetical to how I was trained to perform.”
E: As a DJ, it’s funny because there is this similarity. If you see people dancing, you play more of the same genre. I’m the worst. And I just play whatever I want, no matter where I go. So that hasn’t been a problem for me. I’m technically not a good DJ because if I’m playing noise music and no one cares, I’m going to play even harsher noise music. My goal is almost to punish people listening to me because I’m the worst. But for a normal DJ who’s playing Lady Gaga and Ariana Grande, they have to kind of see who’s feeling what.
J: What is your drive behind that? What is your kind of approach to DJing?
E: First of all, I love gay people. I love queer people and I want to play music by gay and queer people. I am not going to show up to a gay bar and play a bunch of music by straight people. I do not care about what straight people are doing in the music industry. I don’t think they make good music and I can hear that on the radio and I can hear that wherever I go. So if I’m in a gay bar, I want to hear music by gay people. So that’s my primary thing. I play a lot of ballroom music. I play rap music by gay people. I play pop music by gay people. That’s really it. I also have very obscure interests and I like noise music, and I like really harsh sounding music. I got into DJing because I’m a snob. When I would show up at parties, I would take the iPod, unplug it and plug in my phone. I’m going to control this space.
J: What’s your sign?
J: OK, yep.
E: I think art that is challenging and difficult is more interesting than art that is accessible and fun. If I am doing something that is hard to sit through, good. I wrote my master’s thesis on transgressive art, which is art that is kind of pushing the boundaries. Art that is totally offensive, violent, bloody, sexual, and so that’s the kind of music I’m playing. I wrote about this for VinePair. So often, you go into a gay bar and it’s Gaga, Britney, Beyoncé, Madonna. I like pop music, but that’s not interesting. It’s entertaining, but it’s not interesting to me. Obviously, my take on being a DJ is really different. I also play full-on hip-hop sets. I play a lot of rap music by women. In my history as a DJ, there’s been a lot of pushback against that because of racism in the gay bar industry, which I’ve written about also. I think it’s really f*cked up. There’s so many calls for diversity now, but DJs just show up and play the same five artists and it doesn’t make any sense.
J: There’s a little bit of matchmaking that has to happen. People need to understand that that’s not the kind of DJ, so they shouldn’t come to your set if that’s what they’re looking for. I sometimes just want a night where all I do is dance to Gagas and the Britneys of the world.
E: Obviously, of course.
J: Who doesn’t? But then, I also am not going to go to a techno party and be like, “Why aren’t they playing ‘Rain On Me'”? I think that’s part of it, as well. It’s about understanding what space you’re entering and what you’re showing up to. If you don’t like it, you can leave or you can stay.
E: I mostly have DJed drag shows for most of my career. But because of my involvement in the pro-wrestling world, I did a lot of wrestling shows. So I’m DJing deathmatch nights where dudes are cutting each other with switchblades and choking each other with barbed wire. And they’re the toughest f*cking dudes in the world. I’ll play ballroom music for them, and those people have never heard anything like that before. And a lot of them actually wind up really liking it because it’s loud, it’s intense, it’s aggressive, it’s high energy.
J: And wrestling is drag, wrestling is masc drag. I had a WWE bout a few years ago where I got into the hardcore for a year. I was like, “Because this is drag.” It’s the same thing. There are plot lines. There are personas. It’s so similar and so fun. How did you get into the wrestling world? How did that happen?
E: It started really as a joke. I’ve been a lifelong wrestling fan. I loved it when I was a kid. And then, a few years ago, they introduced the WWE Network and I bought it. It was cheap. It was like, what, $4 a month? Great, fine, love it. It had all the old stuff. I was going back and watching every single China match. I was going back and watching all the Lita matches. All of my friends and I started watching every single pay per view together. It was really fun and we all got really into it. People might know my friend Jordan Olds, he’s Gwarsenio Hall the comedy show “Two Minutes to Late Night,” which is a heavy metal comedy show. He was like, “This is the funniest thing. You’re in a room full of drag queens watching pro wrestling. What if we did a show about it?” We were like, “OK, girl, whatever you say.” He booked a whole film shoot for us. We really showed up thinking that it would be Jordan with an iPhone, and we were going to record for five minutes and then it would go on YouTube and we would laugh about it, and then that would be it. The first video got 30,000 views in one day. We just stuck with that for a few years of just exploring exactly what you said, this intersection between drag and wrestling, There is a huge overlap.
J: Yeah, it’s an enormous overlap.
E: I’ve always said it’s not a different art form, it’s the exact same art form. But as we were doing our show for four or five years, there was a huge explosion in this underground queer wrestling movement. Now, all across the country, the most popular wrestling shows on the indies that are selling out are all LGBT shows.
J: I did not know that, that’s f*cking awesome.
E: If you go on IWTV, which is Independent Wrestling Television, it’s another streaming service of all these indie wrestling shows. But every single time they do an LGBT show, it does better than all the straight shows. It’s this whole new movement in that scene that happened. I’m not going to take credit for it, but it happened simultaneously while we were making our show.
J: You were certainly a part of it. There’s no denying that.
E: Again, I don’t want to take credit for it. But yeah, I mean, I think so.
J: Yeah, I think it sounds like it.
E: Great, thanks.
J: You mentioned switchblades. Is it still choreographed or are they actually fighting?
E: I don’t want to give away any industry secrets. Yeah, of course it’s choreographed.
J: I didn’t know if indies run similarly to how the pros run.
E: It’s not a fight club. This is not you trying to kill each other. There is a fight club in the Bronx, and I would love to DJ it. So if anyone listening can put me in touch with whoever runs that Bronx fight club, I would love to be playing ballroom music while dudes are legitimately trying to kill each other. That would be a dream come true. The spots are preplanned, but as with any wrestling event, you have to be able to change everything on the fly.
J: There’s an element of improv to it. I love that. I’m obsessed. I did not know that at all about the queer wrestling scene. That is so f*cking cool.
E: Yeah, it’s really cool.
J: So what does going out mean to you? How do you like to go out?
E: Now or four years ago?
J: Well, honestly. I want to hear about the journey.
E: Now, I go to my friends’ shows and that’s really it. Or DJing. I will not go out unless it’s a good friend who is putting on a show or I’m paid to be there. It really does speak to the community element of drag. I love seeing the new girls and I love watching the dips and the splits and everyone carrying. But I want to see my friends. I’ve made friends with some of my favorite artists in the entire world. I think my group of friends and the shows they put on are the best drag shows in the world. So that’s where I’m going. Then if I’m paid to be somewhere, then I’m there. Not to sound like Lady Gaga, but it was like, “Club, club, another club.” It would be a drag show, rave, ball all in one night. We’re hopping around trying to see as much as possible, and do as much as possible. I just wanted to take it all in. I loved every single part of the underground queer culture, and I just wanted to be a part of all of it. You can only do that when you are 23 to 27, and then your body is like, “No more.” It’s a young person’s game.
J: Every once in a while, you meet like a 45-year-old who’s still at it. God bless, and I hope you don’t drop dead at 52.
E: We ran a pageant, Arielle Italic, and Lady Bearica Andrews, and I called “The Mix Nobody Pageant” for four years. I hope to bring it back someday, but for a number of reasons, it’s really hard to do that. But we had Stella D’oro, I think she’s a 60-year-old drag queen. She was one of the judges for one of our nights. We’re total f*cking weirdo shows with girls bleeding all over the stage and puking all over the stage or whatever. And Stella got up there and did an old-school show tunes-y number. An entire Brooklyn bazaar filled with 400 punks with dyed hair were cheering her on like they’ve never cheered anyone I’ve seen in my entire life.
J: I f*cking love that. I have a question, and maybe this is not true and an anomaly among me. I have encountered a lot of queer men in the nightlife space who are also therapists or psychiatrists.
E: Oh, really?
J: I feel like there’s a huge overlap. Is that your experience or is it just me? I can name five off the top of my head.
E: Are you serious? Who are they? I don’t know those girls.
J: One of them is one of my boyfriend’s best friends who actually lives in Toronto and commutes down all the time. Because my boyfriend loves to go to those parties and do the late night scene. And I don’t, to be honest. I rarely go with him. It’s a lot of people I’ve met in passing and I’m like, “Oh, what do you do?” I’ve asked Nate, “Why are you partying with psychiatrists?” What is going on? I truly don’t know any other names that I could tell you. I think you might be the fifth.
E: That’s crazy. I know that Katrina Loveless, who’s a drag queen, used to be a social worker. I don’t know if I’m blowing up her tea right now. I met someone in Mexico city, I forgot his name. He was a DJ and a music producer who was also a psychotherapist. He was really cool, and his music is incredible, and I’ve forgotten his name. Those are the two I can think of. Maybe Viva Vidalia was a social worker at some point.
J: I was curious if there was some sort of Venn diagram of interest or passion that would lead to that overlap.
E: None that I know of. I feel like a total f*cking anomaly. Obviously I’ve spent my life among drag queens. I was raised by drag queens. They’re my favorite people in the world. They’re a very self-absorbed group of people and you need to be an artist and a performer. But I don’t think most of the drag queens I work with even know that I’m a psychotherapist. If I were to be like, “Oh yeah, I got to go to work tomorrow. I have 10 patients,” they’d be like, “Oh, I have a photoshoot tomorrow.” OK, girl, have a good time.
J: How did you get here? How did you get into this scene? How did this all happen for you?
E: I grew up on Long Island, and I grew up in a town that’s closest to the city. So when I was a kid, I could just take the train into the city and I started doing that when I was 14 or 15. I would get out of school at 3 p.m. and then get on the train and go into the city. Long Island is a really nasty, weird, cruel, secluded, hyper-wealthy, bizarro nightmare world. And I really hated every single part of it. So every single thing in me was like, “Go find the exact opposite of this.” I was sneaking into raves and gay bars and clubs since I was 14 or 15. You get really good at going through the back door. I made friends with some older raver DJs and I would carry their vinyls into the venue so that no one would check my wristband or my ID. So I just got really good at sneaking into it. I’ve just been in and around the underground nightlife world for a very, very long time. When I was in college, I eventually learned how to DJ and then everything else happened from there.
J: That is so f*cking cool. I grew up in the woods of Vermont, and I always fantasize about doing anything interesting in the city. It sounds like you were doing exactly what I wish I’d been doing.
E: I’m lucky my parents trusted me. I didn’t even do drugs when I was a kid.
J: That’s probably why it worked out, to be honest.
E: I was very honest with my parents where I was going. I was like, “I’m going to this rave, like, I’m not going to do any drugs at it. I’ll be home at 4 a.m, and I will still get all straight A’s.” They were like, “OK, I mean, that’s fine.”
J: Damn, are you the youngest?
E: Uh huh.
J: Yeah, that’s how that works. As the oldest, that sh*t doesn’t fly.
E: The youngest can do whatever the f*ck they want.
J: That’s interesting, because that means that you’ve really seen the drag and New York nightlife scene evolve over a long period of time.
E: Sure have.
J: How has that been for you? Do you feel like it has changed in ways that you like, don’t like, both?
E: The biggest change is “Drag Race” and that didn’t exist and has changed the entire industry in a massive way. Everyone is a drag queen now. Every single person in the world is a drag queen now. That was just not the case. The other very weird change is that, when I was a kid, I was a raver. I wore the big UFO pants and tons of sh*tty candy bracelets. When I would go into the city, the older rave kids would be like, “Be careful of the punks. They’ll beat your ass.” Punks don’t like ravers. And nowadays, anyone who’s weird just gets along. All of the subcultures have kind of turned into one weirdo subculture.
J: That sounds objectively good, in a way.
E: In certain ways. You lose a little bit of the, like, tight-knit community aspect of it because every weirdo is just a weirdo. But everyone’s really stylish now. I remember reading when Michael Alig got out of jail, he wrote this essay for this book called “The Fun.” It was all about how confused he was that back in the ’90s when he was a club goer, stylish people were really rare. He’s like, now I look around and everyone knows how to dress cool and everyone looks cool. So that’s another big change. Like I said, the biggest change is “Drag Race.” Before “Drag Race,” I don’t think people really thought of drag as art, they thought of it as something so stupid that happened in bars and it was an illegitimate art form. It was not taken seriously.
J: I remember thinking of it when I was really young as one of the worst possible symptoms of gayness. Oh, they got an extreme case and they do drag. That was sort of how we were taught about it. I get a little bit of a bee in my bonnet about that. I was on TikTok the other day and saw this 16-year-old ranking the seasons of “Drag Race,” and which ones were good. He was ranking a lot of the earlier seasons lower. No, babe, you need to understand that when Bebe Zahara Benet was being Bebe Zahara Benet, it wasn’t cool to be a drag queen. Everything you saw her doing on that stage was in spite of an unbelievable amount of rejection. Rejection isn’t even the right word, the word is like escaping me. She was doing that because that’s who she was, and that’s what she needed to do. But she was making herself a pariah in society because that’s what a drag queen was. When you add that context, in a certain way, that’s better than anything that Trixie Mattel can do. The context makes it so much more. She’s overcoming so much more to do it in a certain way. Maybe Trixie wasn’t the best example.
E: No, I know what you mean. Drag used to be an art form that was only communicated through secret, clandestine family groups. There were no YouTube makeup tutorials, you had to learn from a drag mother.
J: Oh, that didn’t that didn’t even occur to me. When people used to say drag daughter and drag mother, they were truly handing down the family secrets of how they contoured.
E: How they painted, padded, danced.
J: It’s so f*cking real.
E: For the same reasons, you can go look back at Season 1 of “RuPaul’s Drag Race” and their faces look jacked. Because there were not any videos on YouTube of, “This is how you paint your face. This is how you do this.” There were no makeup products designed for drag queens. It was not the same thing. But culturally it was not the same thing. The simplest way to put it is, before “Drag Race,” being a drag queen was not a career option. It was not something that you could make money off of. It was just something stupid that faggots did in the back of a sh*tty broke down at the bar. There were no conventions. There were no albums, singles, or fanbases. That’s the biggest change. It’s so weird to me because I am, at this point, an old crone in the drag scene, and now there’s all these 21-year-olds coming up who don’t remember a time before drag.
J: They weren’t cognizant. The drag scenes you talked about being in more recently are, I guess for lack of a better word, alternative drag.
E: Yeah, sure.
J: Was it always that way or did you find yourself moving into that as mainstream drag ballooned into what it’s become?
E: It’s different because there’s another change. The ravers always really liked drag queens. So there would be drag queens at raves, right? I used to see Acid Betty at raves like, And that doesn’t really happen anymore either, because now what you have is this weird schism between the techno scene and the drag scene. Techno gays in drag gays is a joke that’s always on Twitter. That’s not how it used to be, girl. That’s new. There used to be weirdo artists and performers at raves and burns and whatever. I guess because of “Drag Race” there’s kind of a schism now.
J: There’s a proclivity to want to distance yourself from “Drag Race” if you want to seem alt or you want to seem esoteric. Going to the raves and going to the cool parties can be. But if drag gets involved, then people think it’s a little mainstream now.
E: But even the alt queens aren’t at raves most of the time unless they’re DJs. There are a handful of drag DJs who are incredibly good, but I don’t know. It’s a weird thing. When I was starting to go to drag shows, there was an all drag scene. It was harder to find, though.
J: Because the nature of being drag was alt already.
E: Facebook didn’t exist. You had to know someone.
J: Yeah, this is pre-Facebook.
E: Yeah. You had to know a person who would hand you a flier or call you on your phone and tell you where the gig was. You could go to Lips and get a drag show with Madonna, or you had to know someone in some kind of alt scene. The mainstream-alt divide was all so secretive and different, to think of there being a mainstream drag scene and an alt drag scene back then. I mean, to some extent there was. But the things don’t map on to each other in the same way.
J: Yeah, that makes total sense. With “Drag Race” turning the drag scene into what it’s become, what would you say are the good things? And what would you say are the bad?
E: The good thing is that the girls can make coin now and you can actually get paid for doing drag. I think the “Drag Race” girls get way more money and they get way more bookings and it’s not fair. And they’re not the most talented drag queens in the world — no shade. They are the ones that have tons of fans, and the booking practices are so slanted in all the bars. A bar might pay their local girls $100 a night. But if a “Drag Race” girl comes into town, they’ll pay her $3,000 or $4,000 or $7,000. And that’s just not cool, those local girls are who made your bar, who keep your bar running all year round. And now you’re going to pay them dust when you show up? It’s not very cool, but it’s also just the way it is. What’s the saying? A rising tide raises all ships. If those girls are doing good, everyone does better and that’s great and we love that for them. My least favorite part of what has happened because of “Drag Race” is that as long as I have been involved in nightlife, since I was a literal child, there have always been cis women, trans women, drag kings, drag queens, club kids, drag monsters. It’s always been every type of weirdo person imaginable. And “Drag Race” presents this bizarro alternate history of drag where it’s men dressing up as women. Maybe there’s a trans woman in there and she gets to talk about how she’s representing the community. I mean, great. I’m so glad they’re finally allowing trans women on the show and that the trans women are succeeding on the show. But what the f*ck took so long? That’s always been part of drag. And the fact that there has never been a drag king competing on “Drag Race” is crazy to me. Then you have all these young kids and people who’ve never been to a real drag show in their life and just watch “Drag Race” on TV and they think they know what drag is or who should or can do it. They have all these bizarro ideas of how a woman can’t do drag. That’s never been the case.
J: Also saying, “Blank isn’t drag or Blank can’t do drag” is inherently antithetical to the concept of drag, right? That’s what I think is so funny, not understanding that the whole point is that there are no rules. The whole point is that it’s about transgression in certain ways. It’s obviously because it’s fitting within the system of capitalism. Why are you putting up these rules and regulations to make it so cookie cutter? You already have this one thing. Why not look for something that looks and acts a little different? Why does everything have to be the same?
E: There’s this drag queen named Mrs. Smith, who I absolutely love. She is considered one of the best electric guitar players in the entire world, and her drag gimmick is that she’s dressed as a little old Upper East Side lady. But then she f*cking shreds. She’s so cool and I love her and everyone should look her up. But the way she explained it to me when we were talking, and this has been my experience as well, is that when I went to drag shows as a kid, you would have a girl doing weirdo performance art. You would have a girl doing Lady Gaga. Or back then it was probably Madonna. You would have a girl eating sh*t on stage. You would have a drag king, you would have some weirdo comedy act, you would have a campy queen, then you would have a burlesque dancer. It was all kinds of different performance art. You look on “Drag Race” and it’s pretty dumb sluts. They’re all pretty and they’re all beautiful. They’re all young, they’re all gay, they’re all horny for men. They’re all the same kind of girl. They’re so talented. They’re so good at what they do, but it’s all men dressed as young, pretty slutty pop stars. That’s not slut shaming, those girls should be as slutty as they want. And I love that for them.
J: There are a lot of women on it now, too. This season has a decent amount of trans women on it, which is wonderful. It took forever.
E: We’re in Season 14, girl. It’s not OK.
J: Yeah, I totally agree. It’s interesting to see the intersection now of “Drag Race” affecting the gay bar industry and the nightlife. Obviously it has had effects on the culture of drag itself and the industries that are adjacent to it: gay bars, gay clubs, venues. Watching how upset people were when they moved the show to Friday nights, my friends were so confused by that. They’re like, “Wait, it’s more fun on a Friday night.” No, gay bars don’t need help on a Friday night. Gay bars need help on a Wednesday night and if “Drag Race” is on Wednesday it’s huge for a gay bar. This TV show has production value and production effects and dividend effects on bars. You can stream “All Stars Six” in the morning, and I think that hurt gay bars.
E: Yes, it shows how little the VH1 producers care at all about the local scenes. They knew that they were screwing over a lot of local gay bars who were making good money doing Monday night shows for several years, and they didn’t care. They have to look at their bottom lines, and I’m sure some metrics were run and they needed to make their money. But it did f*ck over a lot of people.
J: It’s this question of, what are the moral responsibilities of a television production. This conversation comes up a lot with friends about “Sex and the City.” What are the moral obligations of a television show if their fandom watches the TV show and takes away the wrong message? Is that the show’s fault or the fans fault? Is VH1 responsible for how gay bars do? Technically, absolutely not. But would it be nice if they did care and did something. If they know that they can help by moving the show to Monday nights, Yeah, that would be f*cking great. There’s no true answer because it’s subjective, but it is an interesting thing that I don’t think a lot of people think about. You’re probably the youngest person I’ve talked to in terms of how young they started going out, and how long they went in terms of existing in the nightlife scene going out regularly. Do you feel like there are chapters and arrows of what changed for you in terms of how you were going out, what your relationship to it was like, what you were looking for in it, and what it was giving you?
E: Yes and no, I can’t divide it as cleanly as different chapters. Obviously, going to raves and nightclubs and gay bars when I was a kid is really different from going there as my job. That’s a really big change. Going to a bar and knowing that you’re going to be working from 10 p.m. to 4 a.m. is really different from going to a club and knowing you’re going to be dancing and screaming your head off until 4 a.m. So I guess that is the biggest thing. And then, obviously, the pandemic would be the biggest break in the next chapter because nightlife is not the same and may never be the same. And I’m not the same and may never be the same because I don’t have the energy or stamina or alcohol tolerance anymore for real nightlife. Those would be the main kind of dividing sections. Throwing my own parties in grad school was obviously huge. When I started doing that, it made me think of events in a really different way. How do you make money? How do you book talent? What do you think about what a show says and all of that? So I guess that would be another subsection.
J: I ask this question to a lot of people who work in bars or restaurants. What are the things that you wish, in that instance? What are the things you wish that customers knew or understood? And in terms of nightlife events and parties, what are the things you wish party goers or ravers understood?
E: Yes, tip the drag queens.
J: If you didn’t know that, stop listening to this podcast. You need to keep listening to podcasts and start tipping your f*cking queens.
E: The way I have explained it is that tipping is not optional. It is mandatory.
J: In every circumstance.
E: These girls are not paid enough. They put on makeup for three hours and are now dancing their asses for you. You have to give them more money. It is not an option. I think straight people are still not getting that message, and they’re not really understanding that this is an actual job. It’s not just a silly clown or something.
J: Every show has a Venmo, so don’t be, “I didn’t bring cash.” My friends are like, “I don’t have cash on me.” Get your phone out.
E: That’s obviously the huge one. This applies less to gay people who might be listening, but I have noticed that straight people tend to think of DJs as wedding DJs or something. They think that a DJ is there to play what they want to hear and that is not correct. I was hired by the venue to play what I play.
J: You’re an artist.
E: You don’t get to get angry when I’m not playing your favorite song, “Mr. Brightside” by The Killers.
J: God in heaven, no.
E: That is my No. 1 requested song in the 10 years I’ve been DJing, and it’s quite possibly my least favorite song. I will be playing ballroom music, and a girl inevitably will come up to me and ask for “Mr. Brightside” by The Killers. This is not even the same vibe. I don’t know why you think I have this MP3. I’ve had so many people come up to me while I’m DJing and be like, “Can you play this?” And I’m like, “I don’t have that track.” And they’re like, “Well go online and get it.” You think this gay bar has Wi-Fi, homegirl? They’re like, “I’ll give you my phone.” You think I’m going to rewire this whole sound system so you could play “Mr. Brightside” on your phone? No, it’s not happening. DJs are not your employees. That would be the other thing. I don’t know. Minding your f*cking business is a lot of it. That’s just my lesson as a New Yorker. If you are at a party and you see someone doing something you don’t like, mind your goddamn business.
J: If they’re not hurting anyone else.
E: Just mind your business. We don’t need it. We got enough real cops running around. We don’t need no nightlife cops running around. Just mind your goddamn business.
J: Whether you’re getting paid or not, don’t be a f*cking cop. Maybe that’s just a great rule of thumb. Maybe that’s where we should end the podcast. Honestly, just don’t be a f*cking cop.
E: For real.
Thank you so much for listening to “Going Out With Jake Cornell.” If you could please go and rate and review us on whatever you’re listening to this on, that would be really gorgeous for me in a huge way, so thank you.
And now, for some credits. “Going Out With Jake Cornell” is recorded in New York City and is produced by Keith Beavers and Katie Brown. The music you’re hearing is by Darbi Cicci. The cover art you’re probably looking at was photographed by M. Cooper and designed by Danielle Grinberg. And a special shout-out to VinePair co-founders Adam Teeter and Josh Malin for making all of this possible.