This is a transcript of the Nov. 19 edition of Working. These transcripts are lightly edited and may contain errors. For the definitive record, consult the podcast.
Jacob Brogan: You’re listening to Working, the podcast about what people do all day. I’m Jacob Brogan. This season on Working we are, in the parlance of our times, working it. What we’re gonna be doing is talking with individuals whose jobs touch on a variety of aspects of LGBTQ life. For our first episode, which you are listening to now, we sat down with Miz Cracker, a profoundly delightful drag queen from New York City. Over the course of our conversation, Miz Cracker leads us through the process of creating her space princess–inspired outfits, talks about how she makes money, and discusses the influence of RuPaul’s Drag Race on contemporary drag culture.
She also talks about the structure of her performances and explains what happens when she walks through Manhattan in full drag. I love all of our guests, but it’s been a long time since I’ve had this much fun talking to one of them. You are in for a treat. Then, in a Slate Plus extra, Miz Cracker discusses some of her favorite songs to lip-synch to. If you’re a member, enjoy bonus segments and interview transcripts from Working, plus other great podcast exclusives.
What is your name and what do you?
Miz Cracker: My name is Miz Cracker. I am 33 years old, and I am a drag queen in New York City living in Harlem.
Brogan: You are here today in Slate’s New York studio in full drag.
Cracker: It’s gorgeous. The drag, I mean, and your office.
Brogan: Our office is OK. The drag is fantastic.
Cracker: You’re welcome.
Brogan: Can you talk us through your look today just to give our listeners a picture of you and how you are in this moment?
Cracker: Right now, I look like a delicious pistachio ice cream dessert.
Brogan: That is an insane, but somehow accurate description.
Cracker: Yeah, right? There it is. It’s either mint chocolate chip or pistachio, but it’s dessert either way. I have this girl that I work with in Jersey, her Instagram is Nails for Queens and she sent me these gloves with these incredible rainbow gems all over them and I saw them, and I was like, “I have to make an outfit inspired by this.” So everything from head to toe is sort of inspired by these gloves that she made. They’re not gloves for radio. These are definitely gloves for QVC. They’re gorgeous.
Brogan: Yeah, they have heavily bejeweled nails on them. They look like a supervillain’s gloves.
Brogan: Like you could claw someone to death with them. They would probably break if you tried to do that.
Cracker: Oh, these are durable. Nails for Queens, your gloves, are very durable. Yeah, it just—when I see something like this, I’m inspired to respond to it, so that’s what I do.
Brogan: You got this one garment, this bejeweled set of long-nailed gloves. Your dress has a lot of stones on it.
Cracker: It’s covered with matching stones. For all the queens out there, these are all AB stones. I’m covered in AB stones.
Brogan: What are AB stones?
Cracker: It just means when it’s a crystal, but it has the iridescent sheen to it. For all the kids at home, that’s what she’s wearing. She’s wearing a pistachio garment made out of neoprene, which is my favorite material because it has this nice weight to it, and then covered with AB stones from head to toe.
Brogan: You have these extremely blousy sleeves that go just past the elbow.
Cracker: Yep. It feels very royal to me.
Brogan: You’ve got giant earrings on in the same AB stone style.
Cracker: You’re learning.
Brogan: I’m learning.
Cracker: Be careful.
Brogan: Picking up the vocabulary.
Brogan: Those earrings look like a madman’s chandeliers.
Cracker: Absolutely. Yeah.
Brogan: And your wig, please describe it to us.
Cracker: My wig is sort of a super-white, victory roll, like 1940s futurism thing. I’m very inspired by Flash Gordon and retro futurism in general. Whatever people in the ’30s through ’40s imagined that their future would look like.
Brogan: That’s your thing?
Cracker: That’s my thing. I want them to picture me.
Brogan: You look like you’re ready to fight Ming the Merciless.
Cracker: Right. Or like, Robot Hitler, or something.
Brogan: Robot Hitler does not even stand a chance.
Cracker: No, he doesn’t.
Brogan: All right. We’ve gone through your look and it’s fantastic. But I also want to know about the job. Is drag a full-time job for you? Is this what you do for a living?
Cracker: Drag is what I do more than full-time. I feel like I’m forever interning in drag because I’m doing so many unpaid hours. Basically, what happens is I wake up in the morning and I say, “I can’t believe I let last night happen. It was no good. We’re starting from the ground up. I’m gonna do a completely different thing today.” I sit down at my sewing machine. I’m like, “OK, I have two hours to sew this.” I sew a brand-new outfit ...
Brogan: When you say that last night was not right, you mean the look that you had?
Cracker: Yeah, whenever I go to bed, I’m always ... Oh, there goes my earring. Let’s take these off. They’re driving me crazy.
Brogan: For the listeners ...
Cracker: Chandelier earrings and headphones ...
Brogan: Miz Cracker’s earring has just straight-up fallen off.
Cracker: Shablam. They’ve been fired. I had to let them go.
But, yeah, when I wake up in the morning, I’m always thinking about last night. Even if I went to bed feeling good, I always feel like it wasn’t enough.
Cracker: So I sew a new outfit, I make a new wig, and then I try to do something new with my makeup. Use makeup I’ve never used before. Then I’ll sit down with a number, the number I’m going to perform that night, listen to it on my headphones, go out completely exhausted from my day. At this point, I feel like I hate drag. I don’t want to do it anymore. Then I step into the bar and everyone’s happy to see me, I’m like, “Oh, I’m just kidding. I love drag. This is great. What a great time. I love gay people again.” Then run through my show, which we’ll talk about.
At the end, I’m talking to my friend Kaitlin, I’m like, “What a great time we had. I was so stressed out when we started, but now it’s wonderful” and watch some Will & Grace, go to bed, and do the whole thing basically the next day.
Brogan: The next day.
Brogan: Cycle of endless occurrence.
Brogan: How do you actually make money as a drag queen?
Cracker: You don’t.
Cracker: You really shouldn’t. The thing is, even if you are a queen that’s been on Drag Race and you’re making $3,000 to $6,000 every time you walk on stage, the point of drag is to do too much. So however much money you’re making, you spend more than that and that’s called “drag.” So you’ll see the girls that have been on RuPaul’s Drag Race, when they’re at the RuPaul’s Drag Con, their booths that they’re displaying their stuff at have cost them thousands of dollars. The great queens are losing their money on what they’re doing because we live in a world where everything we do, including play with purpose for preschoolers and sex for intimacy and other absurd stuff like that, as adults, everything has this purpose tied to it. Drag doesn’t. It’s unnecessary. So we do it to an unnecessary degree.
So, no, you do not make money at drag if you’re doing it right.
Brogan: It’s the excess that makes life worth living.
Cracker: Yes, absolutely.
Brogan: This is your job, though?
Cracker: This is my job. Yeah.
Brogan: So your job is to lose money?
Cracker: Yeah. My job is to lose money. They give me a lot of money and I lose all of it.
Brogan: Does the money come in tips? Do you get paid by the gig?
Cracker: It depends. It really depends. But for most working queens, you get paid a certain very low amount per gig and then you try to double or triple that with tips from the audience. You hope you have a good crowd that night. You hope that they’re generous. Then you’ll do side gigs, you’ll do charity stuff, you’ll literally do bat mitzvahs. I have done that.
Brogan: A drag bat mitzvah, it sounds like, or bar mitzvah, any kind of mitzvah.
Brogan: It’s a mitzvah.
Cracker: It’s a mitzvah. It’s a good thing.
So, yeah, I’ve done all of that. You do whatever you can. Whenever you have an opportunity to do drag, you do it and you hope to get some coins out of it.
Brogan: How did you get started?
Cracker: I didn’t want to do drag at all. I never wanted to do drag. I didn’t wear my mama’s heels. I didn’t dress up like a lady for Halloween except one time and that was Winehouse and she’s barely a lady. I started because a friend basically forced me into it. The moment that I saw myself in drag, I was like, “This is what I want to do.”
Brogan: How old were you?
Cracker: I don’t know. I’m 33 now. It was seven years ago. I can’t do math. I’m only half Jewish.
Cracker: I was 26 years old. That sounds right. Yeah, so I was talked into it. I was basically worn down. Now it’s the full thing.
Brogan: How long did it take you to make a career out of it? To get from that first experience?
Cracker: Five years.
Cracker: Five years. For about two years I was doing absolutely nothing except wandering around in drag. Then for, let’s say, three years after that, I had one gig a week uptown on 109th Street at Suite Bar near Columbia University, where I learned everything I needed to know in order to be a performer. Finally, five years in, I started getting enough gigs so that I could quit my job as a fundraiser.
Brogan: Your persona, the Miz Cracker persona, is clearly part of who you are as a drag queen. Is that something that you developed over the course of the last seven years or was that there for you the moment that you got into drag for the first time?
Cracker: Well, you know how you are when you’re with your friends having a really good time, insulting someone that you all dislike?
Brogan: One hundred percent.
Cracker: That is what it’s like to be in drag. It’s not somebody else, it’s just you in a particular mood. You know what I mean? When you are out with your friends, you can be absolutely free because you all agree and you’re all talking about the same thing. When you’re in drag, you are like that with every gay person in the room. You all know what you’re talking about, the drag queen, and you’re all in the same mood because the drag queen is creating that mood.
Someone pointed out the other day that when I’m on the mike, I don’t change my voice at all. Some queens do, but I don’t change at all for drag. This is my voice, this is how I act, this is my scatterbrain behavior. It’s all me. The only difference is that I’m having a good time because I look amazing.
Brogan: And you do.
Cracker: Yeah. You’re welcome.
Brogan: Thank you?
Cracker: Be appropriate.
Brogan: This may be an ignorant question, but ...
Cracker: I love ignorant questions.
Brogan: All right. I’ll do my best to make it mid-level ignorant.
Cracker: What is a—a well-informed question sounds like it’s already been answered.
Brogan: That’s a good point.
Cracker: So ask an ignorant question.
Brogan: All right. Here’s my ignorant question. Is there a difference between you, whatever that means ...
Cracker: And whatever you’re gonna mention ...
Brogan: ... and Miz Cracker?
Cracker: A difference between me and Miz Cracker? Yeah. I’m wearing a visual art piece right now. I’ve made all of this. You change a little bit when you’re wearing art. As a boy, I have one pair of jeans, one pair of khakis, two button-down shirts, and a button-down T-shirt. And that’s it. Visually, my boy self is not an experience and I hold myself in a different way because I am very happy being invisible as a boy, whereas I want to be very visible as Miz Cracker, and it’s clear.
Brogan: When do you become the character? When do you become Miz Cracker? “Character” is the wrong word, maybe, but when do you click on that mood?
Cracker: When do I get into that mood? Everyone has a different moment and it develops slowly while you’re putting on your makeup, but for me it’s when I put on all five of these lashes.
Brogan: Oh my God, you do have a lot of lashes on.
Cracker: You’re welcome again.
Brogan: Thank you.
Cracker: It changes the proportions of your face in a different way because everything else is two-dimensional paint and lashes are a 3-D addition. You suddenly become this different object and that is when the big change happens for everyone. You doubt yourself, you doubt yourself, you’re not sure if you’re looking, you put on the lashes, like, “Oh my gosh, she’s a woman. Here she is.” That’s when like, if you have a cold or if you’ve been broken up with, or you’re broke yet again, all of that stuff slides away because the person that’s broke is the guy. Now you’re a wealthy woman.
Brogan: Indeed. Do you travel to and from gigs in drag?
Cracker: Absolutely. A lot of people don’t and I don’t get it. I work all day long on this mess. When you go to a show, it’s about a two-hour process and only what?—100, 200 people are gonna see you if you are so lucky. So I like to take the train and walk the street because I want as many people to see this as possible to make it worth it. Like I said, I’m not making money. This experience that we have together when you are in the same room with a drag queen, that’s what I want people to have. It makes you feel a certain type of way and that makes me happy. I can’t do drag by myself. I need you. It’s like if a queen falls in the forest, is she fabulous? No. If a queen death-drops in a forest, is it fabulous? No, it’s not. It needs an audience.
Brogan: What kind of reactions do you get when you’re traveling to and from? You live in New York. You’re taking the subway, I guess.
Cracker: I live in Harlem, specifically. So it’s like the best of the worst reactions. Usually women and men by themselves are like, “Oh, you look beautiful. You look gorgeous tonight.” If a man is with his straight friends or with his girlfriend, he’ll be like, “What the fuck?” I always say you can call me what they call me in Harlem, which is “Da fuck?” That’s what they call me. I’m like, “Oh, that’s my name.” I answer to that. “That shit’s fucked up, man” or “That’s a man.” I’m like, “Yes, it is.”
I enjoy both. I enjoy both reactions. I’m like that kid in the back row of the classroom. If it’s positive or negative attention, I’ll take it. I just want the attention.
Brogan: Fair enough. But does it ever feel unsafe?
Brogan: You live in still a very homophobic world.
Cracker: Yeah. I like my career like I like my sex: completely unsafe. When I walk out on the street, first of all, it’s enjoyable to take that risk. Some people bungee jump. I go to work. I like that thrill on one level. But on a deeper level, my family is a very peculiar family. We were Jewish in a very Christian area and so we sort of had this option. We could hide who we were all the time and get ragged on, or we could just celebrate who we were and be really strange and be really Jew-y and get ragged on. So we just chose the second one because we were gonna get ragged on either way. I told myself at one point I was never gonna avoid anything because of fear. I could avoid it because it was stupid, I could avoid it because it wasn’t me, I could avoid it because it wasn’t gonna be enjoyable, but fear was never gonna be a factor. Hashtag fear factor.
So I was like, “Yeah, I’m afraid when I leave the house, but goddamn it, I am not going to let, not even homophobia, I’m not gonna let other peoples’ concerns about themselves affect what I do.” Because a very confident straight man is never upset to see me. It is a down-low gentleman that is upset. One time I was walking by this guy’s Porsche and he almost fell off. Screaming “faggot” at me. I was like, “Your day is bad. Not mine.” It took awhile for me to learn that, but I’m there now. I really just enjoy the reactions.
Brogan: Yeah. Let’s talk about process.
Brogan: It seems like the makeup, the whole face, is a huge part of what it means to become Miz Cracker.
Brogan: What does that entail? Let me ask a dumb question. How long does it take to look as good as you do right now?
Cracker: Oh, it used to take me three hours. Now it takes me an hour and a half, goddamn it.
Brogan: That’s a long time.
Cracker: Yeah, it used to be ... Some queens take a long time, but from sitting down at my vanity—which is a pile of furniture that I’ve pulled out of the garbage over several years—sitting down at my vanity to walking out the door, it can be like two hours. Sit down, paint my face in 45 minutes, put my wig on, strap my genitals to my back, and then throw on all this padding and cinchers and tights that I’m wearing right now. It can be a two-hour process if I’m just jumping up and going.
But, yeah, it’s super-involved. The only thing I wanted to put in here is that there was a drag competition at Barracuda Lounge in Chelsea a couple years ago and they were short one girl. They needed seven girls or something. They’re like, “We need one more person,” and they pulled this girl up from the audience, a drag queen that was not in drag, and she put a scarf on her head and did a number just as a boy with a scarf on her head for hair and won. This is all important and it’s all part of the art of drag, but it’s one of the three legs of the stool. You can do away with the other two parts if you do the performance super-well. This is a luxury and this is great and I’m glad I can do it, but it’s not necessary.
Brogan: One thing I’m wondering, just about the practice of putting makeup on, and I ask this as someone who has never applied much makeup in his life, but do you have to think big when you’re doing drag makeup? You’re performing for an audience of 200, I would guess, but maybe I’m wrong, that the kind of makeup that you’re doing with the expectation of lights of various kinds and audience that may be sitting way back in the dark, that that kind of makeup looks really different than the makeup you might do just to sit across the table from someone at dinner or something like this.
Cracker: Right. I mean, you kind of split the difference. It happens both ways. You’re on the stage and people see you that way.
Brogan: But you’re also out in the crowd.
Cracker: But you’re also in the crowd. Yeah. If you’re lucky, it’s dark in the bar. No, you do keep that in mind, but there are as many different kinds of makeup as there are drag queens and people do it all different kinds of ways. There’s Trixie Mattel, who’s a living nightmare up close because her contours are so hard. Her contours are harder than my childhood, which is pretty hard. But it’s a beautiful art piece. It’s like a Franz Kline. Then there’s Miss Fame, who paints so soft, so beautiful, so feminine, and it takes you a minute to be like, “Oh, I guess that’s a drag queen,” but all you see is a model. So you can do it either way.
Brogan: It sounds like that’s a great pair of case studies in the importance of makeup, though, because it sounds like the style of applying makeup is part of what a person’s drag persona might entail.
Cracker: Yeah. And it’s like the story of who you are as a drag queen is in your makeup, because you learn from different queens. They affect you, and then you can look at someone’s face and point at the different queens that are in there. You can tell the story of who they’ve met and who they’ve known, who they’ve been influenced by and inspired by. You’re like, “I know that YouTube video” or “I was there that night too.” “I was doing drag at a time when people were doing that with their lashes as well.” So there’s a story in the face. You can tell a queen, where she’s from, by her face.
Brogan: What story does your face tell us?
Cracker: I’m a huge conglomeration of influences. Miss Fame inspired me. That’s where I get my cut crease from. That’s this line here above my eyelid. Bob the Drag Queen inspired me, which is why I haven’t set my powder properly. I’ve been inspired by Trixie Mattel, which is why I have these super-harsh contours here under my cheeks, and I get some of my nose contour and my wings from a drag queen called Aquaria, who’s a Brooklyn queen.
These are all sort of mixed together and then I make them my own. But you can see who I know and who I love. Alexis Michelle taught me how to raise my eyelashes so that they hold up on the sides and give me an almond eye instead of drooping down in the corners.
Brogan: They look like an elegant bird’s wings.
Cracker: Exactly. They should look like they’re taking flight, not like they’re desperately trying to stop from landing too hard, which is what I had before.
But, yeah, so the story of my face is the story of the queens in the city, really.
Brogan: Yeah. Part of what you’re saying is striking in part because it speaks to forms of community and communal education that seem like they’re an important part of drag more generally.
Cracker: Drag lore. That’s what it is. Bob the Drag Queen always says that there’s college for clowns, but there’s no college for queens. There’s a college for almost everything else, but there’s no school for queens. So the only school is experience and the only teachers are other queens. That’s why these lines of influence are so important because it’s not just about influence for an art, it’s the story of gay people.
Brogan: Does that sense of history and community play out in the way that you develop your outfits as well?
Cracker: Oh yeah. Yeah. You can look at a dress in the store and be like, “A drag queen wore this.” Do you know what I mean? It’s like there’s a certain aesthetic. Over-sparkly, overly bright, big, all the areas that women don’t want to accentuate. The hips and the tits. We go overboard with things that women want to hide generally, or are supposed to want to hide. So, yeah, there’s a taste that develops in regions of drag. You can tell a southern queen—she’s gonna wear a formfitting gown. You can tell a New York queen—she’s gonna wear literally whatever is at Rainbow on clearance. You can tell a San Francisco queen. You can, I can’t. I’ve never seen one.
Brogan: I don’t know that I could, but I believe you that someone might be able to. All right, but where does, at a practical level for you, where are your outfits coming from? From what you were saying before, it sounds like part of your day is spent making, shaping, crafting the outfit. You’re not stitching a dress from the ground up, are you?
Brogan: You are?
Cracker: I have a bunch of bolts of fabric in my apartment.
Brogan: Holy shit.
Cracker: I sit down at the sewing machine. ... Please don’t swear, there’s a woman here.
Brogan: I’m so sorry.
Cracker: Not in this room, but over there. Yeah, I am full of images from films like Metropolis and again, from Flash Gordon and from the comic books that I read as a kid. It also sits in my head. Then these outfits come out of that sort of trove. I am aware of the runways as far as fashion goes a little bit because sometimes it will come up on other peoples’ Facebook timelines, but I really, from my imagination, that’s where I make all of this stuff. I made this in two hours. I sat down, I cut it all out, sewed it together, put it on. I was like, “Great, it fits.” Then my friend and handler, Kaitlin and I, sat down with some superglue and put these stones on and then while it was drying, we went out and did a show.
Brogan: So you made this yesterday?
Brogan: That is unbelievable.
Cracker: I woke up and I was like, “I hate my life,” and I anger made this. Then we stoned it and off we went.
Brogan: That’s incredible. You do that every day?
Cracker: I do that every day. Unless I’m completely over it and then I’ll wear something that I’ve worn before. When I go to bed, I’m always like, “I’m not making something tomorrow. I’m spending some time for me.” Then I wake up and I say, “Well, I’m gonna do one small thing,” and then I make an entire new outfit and then off we go.
Brogan: How did you learn to do that?
Cracker: Again, from various drag queens. I took lessons from a young queen, Clarice DuBois, and then a more experienced, we’ll call her an older queen, Jasmine Rice. They gave me the basics and then I got a feel for the materials and wanted to experiment and then through experimentation here we are today.
Brogan: Do you ever make outfits for other queens, for other people?
Cracker: No. I used to make wigs for other queens because not many queens can style hair, but it was such a nightmare because every queen has a specific vision for how they want to look and your vision for the hair will never be the same as theirs and I got so tired of moving bangs to the left a couple centimeters overnight for somebody. Unless it’s a queen that I absolutely love, I won’t do it anymore even for hair. And for outfits, absolutely not. Never.
I love wearing what I make, so there’s no money that could pay me to make something for someone else.
Brogan: It seems like that’s at least partially because what you make is a self-expression, part of what your working as Miz Cracker involves. Not just about the show, it’s also about producing this look that is your look, that is you.
Cracker: Right. It’s like I have a bank of images in my head and I’m manifesting them all the time with makeup and hair and stuff that I find on the street becomes part of my imagination. Then it becomes part of an outfit. So it really is this ... Is it chimera? Is that what is this, from my imagination, this beast comes forth. So to see it on someone else, unless I like that person, it’s not fun. If I love somebody and I put them in one of my wigs, we have this moment together where my imagination is on them and that’s great. There’s an intimacy in that. But money is not going to build that relationship. It has to be genuine, authentic relationship.
Brogan: What does wig-making involve?
Cracker: You know when you go to ... You’ve seen a wig on the rack. It’s just a wig. It’s straight hair, right? It’s like a hat with hair glued to it. Then wig-making is the process of going from that very flat thing to this.
Brogan: And by this, you mean this incredibly structured series of ... I don’t know enough hair terms, but these heavily curled ...
Cracker: These are called victory rolls.
Brogan: These victory rolls.
Cracker: I wrote the idea down. I was like, “White victory rolls.” Then I looked at it and I was like, “White victory rolls,” it just sounds very KKK to me. I was like, I’m gonna change that. I was like, “White hair, comma, victory rolls.” So yeah, it’s like you do what you have to, to torment this hair to make it behave how you want. That’s taking a very nice, very clean, straight, soft wig and grinding it with a comb until the finish is off of it and then it sort of behaves how you want. You’re breaking this hair.
That’s another big part of drag is destroying things. I have definitely destroyed my scrotum.
Cracker: Yeah. It used to hurt to tuck because I had to take my scrotum to my back, essentially. Then one day there was this horrible tearing sound and after that it didn’t hurt anymore. So I don’t know what that was, what fascia that was, but it’s gone now, and now I’m a drag queen.
Brogan: For the listener at home, my mouth is literally hanging open.
Cracker: Oh yeah, mine was as well. It was horrible. I use duct tape to tape everything back, and one time I pulled off a dime sized piece of skin from my scrotum. Ladies, scrotum is where I keep my testes.
Brogan: I actually keep mine there too.
Cracker: Oh my God. That’s so great.
Brogan: Yeah, it’s a coincidence. So I had meant to ask about this earlier, but we’ve come to it. I’ll ask about it now. Tell us more about taping.
Cracker: Everyone does it a different way. Some people just take a jockstrap or another pair of underwear and they pull up really tight to flatten everything.
Brogan: You just tuck it in there?
Cracker: Sort of like Silence of the Lambs style. Sort of tuck their genitals back between their legs and then pull the underwear up to hold everything in place. That works for some people. I have enormous testicles.
Brogan: OK, fair.
Cracker: So where most queens can sort of take their testes and put them back up into the canal from whence they came, I cannot do that. They won’t fit. It’s like trying to put a bowling ball through a hose. So what I do is I just take heavy duty duct tape and smash them until it has a labia look and then I put my patting and my tights on over that.
Brogan: Do you wear compression underwear or anything like that to help?
Cracker: Yeah, I’m wearing Spanx right now. The duct tape does the job and then the tights are really about compressing and smoothing all the padding that I’m wearing. But yeah, it looks like a jockstrap made out of duct tape, essentially, and it is a nightmare. If I’m not careful I can pull off hunks of my skin and there’s weeping sores, which is my new band ... No. It can be really ugly. I have to do it really carefully. But some queens have an easier time of it.
Brogan: Talk us through a performance. Once you’ve done all of this work, you’ve built an outfit, you’ve made your wig, you’ve got some beautiful gloves on, you’ve got your makeup on, you’ve got your enormous testicles tucked up as far as you can get them. Now you’re gonna put on a show?
Cracker: Right. So now you’ve clamped off your genitals and your anus and you’re experiencing toxic shock, adrenaline is rushing through your body and you’re ready to do a show. A show is essentially, there’s a very set format in New York City. You walk into the bar, you put your hand on every single person that’s there. You’re like “There’s gonna be a show,” and they’re like “Oh, word, girl. I’ll be here.” They never are. They always leave.
Brogan: So this is well before it gets started?
Cracker: Yeah, so ideally you’re there half an hour before the show. You say hello to the DJ, he’s gonna be the one that runs the lights and the music. You make sure that he thinks you like him still, and you sort of wander around the audience and try to break the barrier between you guys because you’re gonna insult them later so you want them know that you’re actually nice.
Brogan: Is insult humor like a New York thing, specifically?
Cracker: Absolutely, because we have so much vehemence to burn off, we need that as New Yorkers. We just fought a pregnant old woman in a wheelchair for a seat on the subway and we need to burn off the hate that’s building up that we have for ourselves. So you wander around, you talk to everybody, you get drinks for the people that have friends. If you see someone that’s sort of a ringleader of a group, you get them drinks so they keep themselves and their circle of friends there.
Then, whatever hour it is, it’s showtime. You get out there, everyone’s drunk. You say, “Hey, I’m Miz Cracker. This is the name of the bar. This is the day of the week. This is the name of the show. I’m gonna do a show.” You do a couple dance numbers.
Brogan: Are you all by yourself? You’re the only queen on stage?
Cracker: I mean, ideally, but no. Sometimes I have a co-hostess and that can be the biggest blessing in the world or it can be an actual nightmare, depending on who you’re co-hosting with. Maybe you guys have really great chemistry and everyone just wants to hang out with you guys. Maybe you hate each other and everyone likes to watch that. You just do a show together. You each do a number, then you pull someone up on stage, ask them a bunch of questions, insult their outfit, starting with their shoes, usually. You guess where they’re from, which there’s 50 different types of Americans, one for each state. You can usually tell right away where they’re from. You’re like, “Ohio, right? OK. No, I’m not psychic. It’s just you’re wearing acid-wash jeans still and it’s 2017.”
Brogan: I feel for Ohio.
Cracker: Yeah, I feel for them too. But I don’t feel them. Then you do that little game with the audience members, then you just do the whole thing again. You do a couple numbers each and then kiss the audience goodbye and you mill around with them. It’s very palindromic. You start with mixing, you do a couple numbers, game, numbers, mixing, go home. All total, it should be two and a half hours.
Brogan: That’s a long time.
Cracker: Yeah. Especially because you’ve been getting ready since noon. Yeah. But you’re performing pretty heavily throughout and if you’re not performing doing a dance number, you’re doing stand-up comedy with someone else’s jokes or your own, depending on which queen you are.
Brogan: What about you?
Cracker: I’m a joke originator. I create jokes for the drag queen community. I’m a stand-up comic, so I talk about my life because it’s objectively funny. It’s not that hard to do stand-up in drag. I wish that a lot of queens knew that because the premise of ... The context for every sentence is funny. It doesn’t matter what you’re saying. I could be saying “I’m just having a little coffee” and it’s funny because I’m a dude in a dress. The more mundane what I say is, the better it is because I’m a dude in a dress while I’m saying it.
Brogan: Right. You have those juxtapositions that are central to most humor built in.
Cracker: Right, yeah. And it comes from the great old drag queens that first brought drag into the public eye is always that wink like, “I’m a woman. Just kidding. I’m not a woman at all. Ding.” People respond to it ’cause it’s easy, it’s visual, and all you have to do is tell gay people where they are and what’s going on and it’s funny. Like, “You guys are gay,” and it’s funny because most people aren’t. So it’s just, they’re like, “Oh my God, I am. I’ve been waiting all day to say that I’m gay but I was at my office and now someone’s saying it and I’m happy about it.”
Brogan: So some of the joy is just about being in that situation and calling attention to the situation-ness of the situation?
Cracker: Right, exactly. And because part of being gay in this generation is pretending. You have two choices. You can either pretend that you are not gay while you’re at the office so that other people in the office are comfortable, or you can pretend that you don’t care what other people think about you being gay. Either way, it is the biggest spa day to go to a gay bar where you can be what you are without the veneer of pretending on top of it, without multitasking. In a big way, that’s being eroded because as shows like Drag Race sort of help erode the barrier between gay bars and the rest of the world, more and more straight people are coming into gay bars and we’re losing those spaces to be ourselves in a time where it’s still hard to be ourselves.
Ultimately, I hope that the identity of gay, lesbian, straight, blah, blah, blah, all of it will get muddled together and mashed up and we won’t have to worry about those identities anymore. But that’s not how it is right now. So for right now, we still need those little spaces where I can do this and people know what I mean and I don’t have to sit down and explain to someone, like, “No, I’m not Caitlyn Jenner. There’s a difference.” I don’t want to explain that at the beginning of every show. And doing shows in gay bars allows me to avoid that.
Brogan: Yeah. Your job is not education in that way. You’ve also written about these issues for Slate. People can find your stuff if they search for Miz Cracker on Slate.
Cracker: Yeah. One thing I do want to say is that there is that phrase, “It’s not my burden to educate you.” I’m not all on board with that sentiment because we are all born with challenges. One of my challenges is that I am different and that people are gonna respond to that. I’m not gonna walk around telling people, like, “Let me do exactly what I want and don’t ask any questions.” That’s absurd. I am burdened with who I am and I do have a certain burden to reach out to people and to let them know who I am and see the person in here. I do accept that burden. But do I get tired of it sometimes? Absolutely.
Brogan: Is it part of the job, do you think?
Cracker: Yeah. Drag queens are ambassadors because it’s not always visible when you’re gay, but it’s very visible when you’re a drag queen. So as a visible member of the gay community, I think that we don’t have a responsibility—because drag comes with no responsibilities—but we do have an opportunity to speak for gays because we are clearly gay, ideally.
Brogan: We’ve lost a little bit of a thread because, in a good way, because ...
Cracker: I like giving you my ...
Brogan: No, I love it.
Cracker: It’s like führer speech.
Brogan: No, it’s wonderful.
Cracker: Sieg heil, guys. It’s OK, I’m Jewish. If you don’t laugh then you’re anti-Semitic. No, I’m just kidding.
Brogan: It’s true. How do you book a show in the first place? Do you do that work yourself or are you your own manager?
Cracker: Well, when you’re starting out in drag, there’re competitions for drag all over the city. You show up with a bunch of girls, you sign up, and you compete. If you do that well, then other queens book you as a guest for their shows. You kind of spread like a disease after that. That’s what I did. I know that Bob the Drag Queen and Frosty Flakes, when they were first starting out, they went from gay bar to gay bar being like, “Listen, we’re gonna do a show. It may as well be at your place.” That’s another way to do it too. I’m lazy, so I just let it happen naturally.
There’s a lot of different ways to go about it. Just like any freelance job, it’s a lot of pushing yourself and other people to their limit.
Brogan: How many shows do you try to do a week?
Cracker: There’s this sort of sweet spot. Like four to five shows a week is perfect. Any more than that, and the amount of work that you’re doing to prep for each show prevents you from doing your laundry, so you have to pay someone to do your laundry. Prevents you from cooking for yourself, so you have to eat out. Prevents you from taking the slow train, so you take a cab. All those expenses add up and start deleting your income. Any more than five shows, you start actually losing money. So four to five shows a week is great.
Brogan: Are you usually in that sweet spot?
Cracker: Yeah, I try to stay in that sweet spot. For the last couple of weeks, I have not been. I was like, “Yes, yes, yes, yes, yes” to everybody ’cause “More is better.” Just looking at my little bank account and I’m like, “OK, I forgot that this is actually deleterious.” So, yeah, I’ve got to back off.
Brogan: How much of your time do you spend hustling for the shows and such?
Cracker: Every shift is about 8 to 10 hours of work, including the three hours that you’re there and the sewing and the makeup and the commute altogether. In that time, you’re answering text messages and bothering people and trying to look out for what’s ahead this month. It’s like, you hustle constantly. You could wake up in the middle of the night, or in the middle of the morning, in my case, to a text message that’s like, “Hey girl, do you want to blah, blah, blah” and I’m like, “Yes, I do. When? Where? OK.” You’re never not hustling. Every day I’m hustling.
Brogan: Do you ever, though, get nervous about saying no? A lot of my work, I work freelance, and I can confess that I live in fear of saying no to someone, ’cause you worry that that person is never gonna ask you again. The work is gonna go away.
Cracker: I’ve been working consistently for two years now. The work has always come and so I just go out on faith. I do what I can and I don’t do what I can’t do and I don’t worry about the consequences. If I can do something, I do it. And if I feel like I can’t give them 100 percent on a show, I’m straight-up tired, then I won’t. I let the consequences be what they may.
I grew up super-poor so I’m not afraid of being poor. I’m not afraid of being hungry. Those aren’t things that bother me.
Brogan: We talked a little bit about the way that you learned from other drag queens as you were coming up. Do you have ongoing professional relationships with other queens?
Cracker: I wouldn’t say ongoing. I have various and truncated relationships with other queens. My close relationship right now is with Monet Exchange. We have a show on Sundays at Hardware in Hell’s Kitchen and we’ve been doing the show for two years and we’ve learned to trust each other. We spend time in drag together and try to do things outside of drag if we’re ever out of drag. That relationship is important because she’s an incredible performer. She’s a great makeup artist. She’s funny and wonderful and sweet. She has a better disposition than I do.
Watching her be so great pushes me to be great too. I hope it works the other way as well. That’s the kind of relationship that’s important to me, working side by side. She does a great number right before me and I’m like, “Well, I’d better not fuck it up when I go on stage. I’d better do it.” Cause I’m not gonna be the shabby queen here. That is incredible. That’s a creative partnership, which I prize above friendship. Because friendships can come and go without leaving a single mark on your life except for in your bank account, ’cause you paid for all those brunches. But a creative partnership stays with you forever. It becomes part of your creative DNA, so I value those.
Brogan: Do you ever put other people into drag in the way that you were once put into drag?
Cracker: Oh, absolutely. Yes I do. I love putting people in drag because that moment that I talked to you about where you put the lashes on, you’re like, “Oh my God.” I’ve put straight men in makeup before and they turn around and they see a new person and there’s nothing that men love more than newness, if you take my meaning. They see someone else and they just feel transformed and I love that.
So, yeah, I do it all the time.
Brogan: A lot of people who know about drag today, and you alluded to this earlier, know about it primarily through the lens of RuPaul’s Drag Race reality-competition show. Does that show play any kind of role in you, professionally—apart from its effects on the audience of drag—more generally?
Cracker: Yeah. Drag was sort of this primordial soup before. There were surges and changes and flows within it, but they didn’t have a direction. Drag Race sort of became this end point. It made it a linear process where you started at the bottom and ideally you ended Drag Race. When you have an end point, you have a hierarchy because you have who’s there and who’s definitely not there yet.
It’s like kind of the difference between a old country schoolhouse where all the kids are in the same classroom and the teacher is teaching all grades at the same time. That’s how it was before. Now it’s a different education system. There are juniors, there’re seniors, there’re kindergartners. It sort of lined everything up so everyone could see where they were in the hierarchy. Is that a good thing? Absolutely, because it gives people something to push toward. Is it a difficult thing? Yeah, because sometimes people don’t necessarily fit in to the grade they’re told to be in. It sort of regiments something that was free, in a way.
So it’s been an incredible influence, and I think the only thing you can say is it’s been an undeniable experience. There’s been good and bad in the change, but whatever you think about it, it’s here and it has definitely changed everything, so you’d better like it because it’s created a new world. For me, it’s created a wonderful world because it’s pushing people to be great and that’s pushed me to be great. That’s what it is. That’s all I can say.
Brogan: Yeah. So tell me this, what’s most rewarding about doing this? What keeps you getting up every day after hating it at night to do it each morning, or probably maybe early afternoon, again?
Cracker: Drag affects people. If you’re on the train with commuters, you see people taking pictures and looking up and smiling. At the end of a good show, you can have the audience on their feet. As someone who used to be in a lot of trouble, personally, and found a refuge at drag shows where, for an hour and a half, you forget all of the really terrible things that can happen to you, specifically to a gay person because we do live in our own world with our own problems, that’s what’s rewarding about drag. Creating something beautiful in a world that is always coming apart.
What happens to a person when the most beautiful part about them—the people that they love, the way that they love—is called ugly? What kind of person results from growing up under that condition? A gay person. Whoever you are dating as a gay man is a man who was told that the best part about him was the worst part about him. My generation and generations after me still and behind me, we will heal from that way of growing up. But for an hour and a half at a goddamn drag show, we forget that. Being the way we are is fantastic and RuPaul’s Drag Race showed us it’s so fantastic, that it can be on motherfucking television, which is the highest honor in America.
Brogan: Or it can be in a bar here in New York City. Where can people find more about you and where to find you?
Cracker: They can find me at mizcracker.com. M-i-z Cracker.com. It has my full schedule. But I’m at Barracuda Lounge in Chelsea on Tuesdays, the Ritz in Hell’s Kitchen on Wednesdays, Suite bar uptown on Fridays, the Ride with Brandon Voss on Saturdays, and Sundays at Hardware for “Turn It On” with Monet Exchange.
Brogan: That sounds delightful.
Brogan: Well, thank you so much for joining us here today.
Cracker: Thank you.
Brogan: We’re so delighted to have you on.
Cracker: I had a great time. I love talking about myself.
Brogan: And we love talking to you.
Cracker: Thank you.
* * *
Brogan: In this Slate Plus segment, Miz Cracker talks about her favorite lip-synching songs.
What are your favorite songs to lip-synch to?
Cracker: Yeah. One of my favorite songs is Gloria Gaynor, “I Will Survive.”
Brogan: That is a good song.
Cracker: Yeah. I will survive. Everyone in the audience knows it, you know it, the DJ knows it. Suddenly you’re all on the same page and everyone’s singing along. That’s the best part of drag, when everyone’s sort of together on something, so that’s my favorite.
Brogan: Any others that you come back to time and time again?
Cracker: “Nobody’s Supposed to Be Here” That song by Deborah Cox.
Brogan: I don’t think I know that song.
Cracker: I won’t sing it because no one in America wants to hear that.
Brogan: But our audience could hear you lip-synch it if they ... See you lip-synch it, I suppose.
Cracker: [Making beatbox sounds.] That’s what it sounds like when you’re practicing a song without the audience hearing it and you just hear the lips smacking. Yeah. “Nobody’s Supposed to Be Here,” that’s a good one. Other people like that too.
Brogan: When you practice, when you’re getting used to a new song that you might lip-synch to, do you practice in front of a mirror? How does ...
Cracker: Oh, yeah, I’m all over the place. In front of a mirror, I’m on the train, I’m on the street. I just have that song on repeat on in my headphones and I just do it as many times as I possibly can.
Brogan: Do you study the lyrics?
Cracker: What I usually do is I listen and pause a song and write them down. So I have that process. Then I read them and then I try to put the page down. But one of the greatest motivators for learning is fear. So when it’s “Shit, it’s almost time for the show” you kind of like, adrenaline helps the song imprint into the wax tablet of your mind a little bit better.
Brogan: Apart from that wax tablet moment, how long does it usually take you to learn a new song and develop a routine around it?
Cracker: Usually it’s about a week to really let it settle into your bones. If you’re forced to, you can do it in a day or two days. But if you really want it to be part of your body and not just in your head, if you don’t want to read it off the back of your eyelids, it takes about a week. Do you know what I mean? Cause you’ll be like, “The next line is, I’m singing the next line.” That is after two days. But then it takes a week to sort of get into your muscle memory, which is really where lip-synch lives.