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PHOTOGRAPHS BY CHRISTIAN MILES
I always wanted one of those punny drag names … like Chandelier Period or Kitty Litter … something like that.”
That’s Kevin Bertin (“the whitest name that ever was a white name”). The year is 2012, and he’s out with a friend at some BBQ place on W42nd St, looking for inspiration. His drag career is in its infancy, and he still needs a strong identity.
“We saw a currency exchange booth across the street and I was like, ‘Oo, currency exchange, there’s something there.’”
Currencia …? (“I’m not Spanish, but whatever.”) Money …? “And then I just got Monet. Monet X Change. People still come up to me, three years later, and they’ve just clicked. They go like, ‘Ooooh, you mean the MONEY exchange.’ I’m like, ‘Oh my God! YES!’”
Up until that point he’d been a jobbing opera singer. He’d finished a gig for the summer, come back to New York, and needed to make some cash fast.
“A friend told me about this amateur drag night where you could win a hundred bucks and I was like, ‘Oh, that’s perfect, because my AT&T cellphone bill is $96.47.’
“I’d never done make-up before. I didn’t really know what I was doing, I was wearing this shitty wig I got from Ricky’s for about ten bucks, and I went and did it.”
If Disney did drag, he’d have won against all odds and the rest would be history. But it doesn’t, and he didn’t. He still had a blast doing it though, so kept it up, just kind of learning as he went along. By February the following year, he had his own show at Phoenix in the East Village. “I still had no idea what I was doing. I could barely walk in heels – I was literally like Bambi. But I kept working and performing, and now I work six nights a week.” Most of those nights this girl is working her ass off in Hell’s Kitchen.
“When you first go out, you think, ‘No one can tell I’m a man. I am a woman.’ Meanwhile you look like Wesley Snipes in To Wong Foo.”
“Hell’s Kitchen is looked at as the pinnacle. It’s like ‘I want to be a Hell’s Kitchen queen.’ But the New York audience is not very forgiving. We have so much art around us that I think sometimes it’s hard to appreciate. I perform in Chicago a lot and if I just walk on stage and tell a joke and fart they’re like, ‘OH MY GOD! YOU’RE SO AMAZING!’ if I’m in New York I could set myself on fire and you guys are like … *slow hand clap*
“We have to work very very hard to make the audience excited.”
The make-up, the wigs, the dresses, the performance – it’s all been a case of trial, error, and hard graft. “You cannot take a class in how to do drag. You just do it and do it and either you sink or swim.”
Two years into his career, Bob the Drag Queen (remember? Season 8 winner of Ru Paul’s Drag Race? Keep up!) took Kevin under his wing, taught him how to sew, how to “captivate an audience and make them fall in love with you. He’s not my drag mother but he taught me a lot.” And now it’s payback time. “I’m mentoring a couple of girls. I give them opportunities at my shows, because that’s how I got my start – people let me perform for just drinks tickets or tips.”
They’ve got to be serious though. “You can look at upcoming queens and tell who is going to be doing it in a couple of years and who is just doing it to pass the time. Not to sound shady or rude, but I’m not going to invest my time in you if I know this is just a little thing you’re going to do for the next couple of months. This is my career. This is how I pay my rent.
“But I do think it’s important when you see queens who are up and coming to mentor them and give them advice. ‘You know, girl, you should try doing the eyelash a little more this way so you don’t look like Snoopy,’ know what I mean?”
Oh yeah .. the dark art of drag make-up.
“When you first go out, you think, ‘No one can tell I’m a man. I AM a woman.’ Meanwhile you look like Wesley Snipes in To Wong Foo. ‘Girl, your beard is showing!’”
But for all that onstage shade, she’s just not one of the mean girls. “I was born in New York but when I was a year old I moved to the Caribbean and lived there till I was 11. So that’s kind of where I get a lot of my base from. I’ve just always been a kind person.
“People say shady shit about a lot of queens and you hear the stories, so sometimes I play that off on stage, but after the show I’m always like, ‘Girl, you know I’m just kidding, right?’”
This interview originally appeared in the June 2017 issue of W42ST. Stay in touch with W42ST and be first to read stories like this when you receive our daily newsletter. Join the conversation at w42st.com.