Tammie Brown is one of a handful of drag performance artists who push boundaries and defy molds, but also have a wide appeal. Her mash-up of Hollywood glamour and femininity with kookiness, humor, wonder, and intelligence finds influence in earlier drag and theater, but is nonetheless unique. Ms. Brown has more in common with the avant-garde cross-dressing theatrics of Charles Busch, Andy Warhol, John Waters, and Paul Reubens, than most contestants we’ve seen on RuPaul’s Drag Race. Although if we trace her lineage in the show, we find among a few others Pandora Boxx, Mimi Imfurst, Willam Belli and Sharon Needles who also feel more like performance artists and never “typical” drag queens. Alaska Thunderfuck and Jinkx Monsoon seem the likeliest contenders in the new season to push the boundaries of drag as more than just female impersonation or camp, or any narrowly defined genre. Each of those artists, past and present season, has a fully constructed character and is adept at finding new ways to push something creative out into the mainstream.
I had a fun phone conversation with Tammie a few weeks ago, and found her as upbeat, offbeat and quick witted as she seems in her work and on TV. Here are some of the highlights of our chatty ramble on a Sunday afternoon.
Hollis Hollywood: There is a sense of childlike wonder in a lot of your performances as Tammie Brown. What were you like as a kid? Did you have the same quirkiness and sunny disposition you have today?
Tammie Brown: I was always nice and positive and friendly. I always conversed with people. I liked shiny things. I liked to swim. I always wanted a Barbie doll, but they got me a Ken, but that was okay with me. I wanted a costume made out of this ladyboy, I mean, this ladybug fabric. The ladybugs were green orange and yellow on a black background. I wanted a witch costume made out of it.
When I was four I had a Raggedy Ann doll and we took a trip to Mexico where she was put in a washing machine. The maid had told me to take her in the pool and I guess they decided they needed to wash the bleach out. That was the last time Raggedy Ann was seen. So on my fifth birthday, what did I ask for? I asked for another Raggedy Ann doll. And Andy would do; I’m versatile, you see. But then on my birthday, what did I get? A two-foot long cherry red fire truck. I was like, “Ohhh. Yeah. Right.” So I took that fire truck to the shed and smashed it to smithereens with a sledgehammer. Later on I did get a Raggedy Andy doll from the same woman who gave me the firetruck, but what did my mom’s boyfriend say? “This is for faggots!” And he threw it out into the bushes. The good thing about being out in the bushes, though, was that there were all kinds of wild berries. So I ate a bunch of them.
HH: What were your earliest inspirations that influenced your drag career? Was your family supportive of your performance ambitions?
TB: I was always interested in dressing up as a kid, like being a witch for Halloween and things like that. And I always had fantasies but I was versatile so I would try to make them my own and create my own thing out of them. The movie Tootsie was such a big inspiration for me. I loved the character, and that she got to dress up in drag and work it out as a lady. And Tootsie herself, I loved her look and her character. She’s so wholesome, and very stylish too. I love the soundtract to the movie as well. Mostly I love that she dresses in drag and gets away with it, plus it’s just a great movie. Then later I found out about RuPaul and I really liked him. From RuPaul I learned about so many other people as well.
My mom has always been supportive. She spoiled us kids a lot. She traveled often and she always brought us stuff back from vacation. She took care of us through high school and got depressed when I left for college in California. I was depressed too, so was my sister. We used to cry and I would say, “Oh, if I could only be famous.” But I loved California and in college I started doing drag and discovered Buddhism and realized this is what I wanted to do. I was twenty. After I finished school, I moved back to Texas for a year and a few months. I took from my experiences here in California and I regrouped. I bought my Jimmy the Jeep and I had a great time with my family and went on vacations with them and stuff. It was really cool. And I made more friends, then I moved back to L.A. in 2003.
HH: Did you perform while you were back in Texas?
TB: Yes. I started dressing up there, then I started performing. In college I had started getting my look together, but hadn’t really performed.
HH: How did you wind up such an unusual type of drag performer getting your start onstage in Texas? I guess I’m guilty of having a stereotype about drag there, that it is more about pageantry and traditional female impersonation than experimental theater.
TB: You know, that’s how I got my name was [in] Texas. They said I needed a “name.” I was thinking to myself, “Well RuPaul is RuPaul, and that’s his real name.” And later on I learned about Chad Michaels and lots of others. So my name was going to be Glen Schubert. But as a kid I thought of lots of performer names. I liked how Tina Turner was given her name, and I thought my name could be “Tootsie” (because I like Tootsie so much) and then “Turner” (like Tina). So I wanted to be Tootsie Turner. And also when I was younger someone told me the name Esmeralda and I wanted to be Esmeralda, which means emerald. Nobody sees that one.
HH: What did you study in college? Performing arts?
TB: I did when I moved back to California. I also took a photography class and one in opera and musical theater. I also waited tables and made jewelry and sold it at a gallery.
HH: Tell me about your work with kids. The whole “Walking kids in nature,” thing is an oft-repeated funny sound byte from RuPaul’s Drag Race, but was also a serious comment and an interesting part of your life.
TB: I used to volunteer with the Children’s Nature Institute here in Los Angeles and we took kids from the concrete jungle on nature walks. We’d talk about trees and sing to them and focus them on different things. The walks took about two hours. I was a docent there once a month and would drive an hour out to Malibu Canyon or nearby and take up to twenty kids on a walk. They were anywhere from three-year olds to ten-year olds, and their teacher would go and some parents and it was really nice. I did it for two years, and I was doing it when I got booked on RuPaul’s Drag Race.
On the show they had called me a loser. And they had said all these terrible things. So you know, I told them, “Well I don’t see you walking children in nature and taking care of old ladies.” And that’s another thing, my friends sometimes poke fun at me because I hang out with a real diverse bunch of people. I have had people say before, “Oh you hang out with old ladies, blah blah blah.” And I have taken care of an older friend of mine, Ms. Gay Gibson. She’s really fun. She’s the lady in the wheelchair in my “Love Pinata” video and we’ve created a show called “Drag Queen Whoopie” we plan to put online at some point.
So anyway, I yelled right back at [RuPaul and Santino]. I didn’t expect their reaction to be so crazy on the show. I mean, I really pissed RuPaul off. I can strike a chord with people if I want to, you know. But there is a choice about how to do it, and it could be positive or negative. I’m an entertainer and I’m a wonderful person and I want to share. That’s what I was doing on the show. I was not there to play any BS games. I wanted to perform and to do a good job.
HH: I have heard drag performers complain that the show has changed the landscape of touring because many clubs value the shittiest queen from RuPaul’s Drag Race over artists who might do something more interesting like live singing or theatrical productions. Lots of people will show up at a club just to see someone who has been on TV. As someone who has benefitted from the exposure, what do you think about that idea?
TB: It is what it is, and it is what it is. And I’m not going to worry about it. I’m just going to perform and do my thing and not worry about the tips. Because in reality I’m not out there for the tips. I’m out there to entertain. And that’s what I gotta do. When I go to the clubs now I am live singing. Right now I typically open with Love Pinata and close with Shakabuku U. And they are both available on iTunes. I’m just going with it. I’m an entertainer and there is a difference to me. At least I’m getting booked now and people are seeing what I can do.
HH: I loved your photographs by Dusti Cunningham in the book dr.a.g. That book was one of my favorite happenings in the drag world in 2012. It’s given a face to a lot of artists old and new that may have been under people’s radars. Who are some performers you admire that may be newer or unexpected?
TB: Well, there’s Kelly Mantle. She’s amazingly talented. Her work is rock-and-roll, real soul…it’s real life. She has a song “Satellite Baby.” She even charted in a Scandinavian/European country with one of her covers but never really pursued it.
HH: Our L.A. contributor Meagan has talked about Kelly Mantle a few times lately. She’s in the band Tranz Kuntinental with Willam, Detox, Rhea Litre and Vicki Vox, right?
TB: Yes. She’s in Tranz Kuntinental and she’s also been on Queens of Comedy on the LOGO channel She’s been in countless movies; she’s an actress too. Really talented and just a wonderful person. I really like Kelly and have been working with her and Michael Catti for the past six months. We’ve created a band called The Rolls Royces.
HH: Are you going to take The Rolls Royces on the road?
TB: We are working on that. I want to take a road trip this spring. I told them I would rent a car and we could perform in San Francisco. I’d also like to go to Washington and perform in Seattle.
HH: It seems like there is some interesting drag happening in Seattle, but it’s not a city I know a lot about.
TB: There’s a wonderful queen there named Mama Tits. She’s really talented.
HH: Mama Tits and Jinkx Monsoon are the two Seattle performers who immediately come to mind for me, but I’d be interested in who else is fun there.
TB: Do you know who else is talented? Mimi Imfurst.
HH. Oh I love Mimi. Which is oddly unpopular to say. I don’t understand the loathing she gets from people online who may have seen her on Drag Race, but probably don’t know the full scope of her work. She writes, produces, directs, live sings, plus does all of her club stuff and pop music. I think Mimi is really smart.
TB: It’s originality that she has, and she’s a little cheeky and unique, and a little different. I like him and I like his work. So we’re going to support him, right? Make sure you mention him when you write this.
HH: So this is completely random, but I’d love to see you play the lead in a film of The Holly Woodlawn Story. That’s one of my drag fantasies.
TB: Oh! You would? Do you want to sponsor it?
HH: Sure! I’ll write it if we can get the rights to her memoir. (laughs) It’s called A Low Life In High Heels and it’s scandalous and hilarious. Have you read it?
TB: No. But I’m her friend and we’re in another book together right now. She lives here in Hollywood and I’ve worked with her. She sent me letters after the first season of RuPaul’s Drag Race saying how much she likes me and my work. Charles Busch also told me he liked what I was doing, and I love his work too.
HH: When I asked some of the contributors to our blog what I should ask you about, they all mentioned your music right away. Your last album “Popcorn” is available on iTunes. Aside from The Rolls Royces, what else coming up for you?
TB: More music is definitely what’s coming up for me.
I am collaborating with a wonderful artist, Michael Catti, who has also been my muse for more than a year. We’ve been working on an album full of many new songs, including some duets. Plus he is able to go on the road with me, so I have been writing him into my skits. He’s not just dancing over on the side; he’s a featured artist in the show. He inspires me to make better music and I love to write songs with him.
We’re working on the first three songs for the album right now and two of them are in Spanish. Michael and I sing together on the first one and it’s really beautiful, like Simon and Garfunkle or Sonny and Cher. And we also do the Dottie West and Kenny Rogers duet “Anyone Who Isn’t Me Tonight.” Jose A. Guzman Colon is working on a photo for us right now, and we’re calling the project “Experience Tammie Brown and Michael Catti.”
I need to start uploading new singles, but have been hesitant to do so while I’m working on the album. But maybe I will release some songs as singles soon, and go ahead and do some grittier, more natural videos for those as well. With live footage maybe. I’m working on my live show, The Tammie Brown Musical Revue at Alex’s Bar in Anaheim, in Long Beach. Feb 10 is the first show and after that it will be on the third Sunday of every month.
Find out more about Tammie and keep up with her projects and appearances: