LIFE’S A DRAG
A Spotlite on MILAN of RUPAUL’S DRAG RACE Season 4
By Lori Zimmer
If you ever feel out of place at a magazine party, my friend Jonathan Grassi suggests challenging the most fabulous dancer to a dance-off–which is exactly how I met RuPaul’s Drag Race Season 4’s wonderful Milan. Jonathan and I were oddly wallflowering at a Papermag party, unable to get into our social groove, when we spotted a party guest dancing up a storm, looking glamorously androgynous in a giant afro, sparkly chainmail necklace, no shirt and red spiked heel boots. I began artistically sauntering in the general direction of the fabulousness, forming a dance-related friendship that would continue through many other nightlife events.
Ever since I can remember, I’ve been into RuPaul–at 15 I wanted to be either RuPaul or Lady Miss Kier, or a combo of both. Rather than car keys, my 16th birthday brought Ru’s autobiography and platform sneakers, so you can imagine how thrilled I was when I learned that Milan was on the new season of RuPaul’s Drag Race! A vicarious dream come true!
Dwayne aka Milan is not simply a drag queen who looks devastatingly beautiful while mouthing the words to other divas’ songs, but instead a powerhouse of raw talent. Sure, Milan can embody the flawless glamour of a beauty queen, but she isn’t afraid to be ugly, if the character calls for it. She ain’t just pretty, but hilarious too, and can turn out a psychic hotline calling-gold-toothed Tosha Jones just as well as a perfectly coiffed Donna Summers. In fact, I consider Milan to be an overall performer, who happens to do drag, and not the other way around.
Surprisingly, this versatility is sometimes met with adversity within the New York drag world, which has somehow slid a bit backwards in recent years. The “freaks” I remember from my first days in New York in the late 90s are few and far between, having been taken over by a pageant-like scene of beauty and glitz. But Milan’s shows still embody that freakish creativity that the late 90s did, and are more akin to 1970s variety show revivals, much like PMc favorite Anna Copacabanna, with some entertainment for everyone. But then again, Milan is more real than most queens I know, having a heart bigger than even the biggest Donna Summers wig.
Season Four of RuPaul’s Drag Race has just debuted, and has been the highest ranking season as of yet. I’ll be watching every week on Logo’s website, rooting for my favorite dancer.
Lori Zimmer: How did you first get into doing drag?
Milan: I was back-up dancing/choreographing for Nicole Roberts, a talented local queen in South Carolina who became my drag mother. She convinced me I should get dolled up and start doing it myself. I won my first talent show and the bug started there.
LZ: Your performances encapsulate a cast of characters, rather than beauty, glitz and glamour all the time. Why? Do you find criticism for these character looks by others in the drag scene (as well as the audience)?
M: I like doing beauty and glitz at times (when impersonating artists), but I also like to do drag along the lines of creating sketch characters. I like to do more Carol Burnett meets Eddie Murphy or Dave Chappelle meets Tracey Ullman with my drag. Oftentimes in clubs people only wanna see drag that is reflective of the current trends and top 40 hits so that can be challenging because I want my drag to have more originality to it. I’ve managed to compromise both worlds by incorporating my characters into a club atmosphere while choosing songs clubgoers like, that are reflective of that character, but most of my stuff belongs on TV or on a cabaret stage. I like smashing the club and theater world together with my drag at times. Some don’t understand till they see it. Then it becomes the Oprah “AHA!” moment.
LZ: Unlike many girls who just lipsync, you can actually sing. Do you ever sing live for your drag acts? Do you sing elsewhere?
M: I do sing, but I don’t sing like a woman, and in today’s club world, when you are in drag they expect you to if you are dressed that way (which is why I should investigate cabaret settings more). I solve that dilemma in the club world by creating an androgynous pansexual band called Da lipstyxx. We have since disbanded. My drag was more like Prince in this setting and it gave me the freedom to use my vocals while still playing in “Prince drag.” I also rap in drag. Sometimes for kicks though, I will sing “Old Man River” in an evening gown, but I’d l love to play Angel in Rent. I think that’d be the best of both worlds.
LZ: What do you hope to bring to drag race as Milan?
M: Aside from showcasing my dynamic and versatile performance skills/looks, I want people to see my heart. Drag performers are not all bitches. We are humans with feelings. I’d hope people would be educated, inspired, and entertained by what I do. I don’t consider myself a “character.” I’m an artist who uses drag as an extension of my artistry. I consider Milan as an “actress” who morphs into a desired role. That’s what I do as Dwayne the actor. She’s just prettier…at times.
LZ: RuPaul has been an integral part of introducing Middle America to the drag world. What effect and impression do you think RuPaul’s Drag Race has on Middle Americans’ perception of they drag (or simply gay) culture? Negative and positive?
M: I think when Middle Americans watch this season of RuPaul’s Drag Race they will gain a better understanding of the spectrum of drag culture. You don’t have to be gay to do drag, but it helps. You can only do so much in one hour so I don’t expect Middle America to understand everything, but I do believe it raises an awareness to a point where a dialogue can start amongst those who don’t understand. Starting a dialogue with family, co-workers, friends, etc. is a positive thing to me.
LZ: Are you at all concerned with the outcome of being thrust into the limelight? You’ve said you were a sensitive person, do you worry what will happen when America chooses a favorite (whether it is you or not you). The internet can be a cruel place.
M: I have to be honest and say I do have image issues at times and I am a sensitive person. For me my life has been all about being judged: going to endless auditions and being “liked” or not, dealing with rejection, so when thrusted in the mainstream world this does concern me. At times I will be scrutinized for doing me and not following conventional rules. Because I am aware of this, I no longer read blogs and try to stay neutral to it all. If people realized I have nothing but love and talent to give and my character/spirit is commendable, it’d be great, but I have put myself in a different position by doing a drag reality competition and have to deal with it. On TV people like fights, drama, etc. and sometimes that equates to more financial gains for parties involved and honestly makes me a little sad. I hope while maintaining my dignity, I’ll be able to do my art successfully and live.
LZ: How did you get involved with drag race?
M: I sent in an audition tape. I hadn’t auditioned before because I was doing Hairspray on Broadway and traveled in Europe, but after those two things ended, the opportunity came along. It is the Broadway of Drag.
LZ: Has doing the show changed you or your performance in any way?
M: The show has made my social life shut down to a degree. It’s harder to keep up with family and friends, but they understand. I have to buy way more pairs of pantyhose from all the performances! I’ve definitely gained a bigger appreciation of drag in general and work harder now. People don’t honestly realize how much work is involved.
LZ: Who are your influences for your characters?
M: Carol Burnett, Eddie Murphy, my mom, Dave Chappelle, Tracey Ullman. I love In Living Color, people I grew up with, religion and pop culture.
LZ: What projects are you working on next? What’s cooking for Milan?
M: I’m going to travel a lot with the drag stuff, but I want to pursue my writing more. I have tons of drag-related ideas and sketches for TV/stage/film/recording projects so I’m hoping to find investors, co-writers and producers to bring these ideas to life. I want to do more schooling, more community service, more teaching, get married, get a dog and rest my dogs (aka toes).
Milan is a New York City based performer, actor, singer and drag queen. RuPaul’s Drag Race Season Four airs Monday nights at 9pm on Logo.
Milan interviewed by Lori Zimmer
Written by Lori Zimmer
Photography by Jonathan Grassi
Design by Marie Havens
Dwayne Milan (Contestant on RuPaul’s Drag Race Season 4), Portrait session at M-B Auto Collision, Brooklyn, New York, January 28, 2012, All Photography by Jonathan Grassi