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Photograph: Courtesy Pablo Garcia

Drag queen Marti Gould Cummings talks Shade: Queens of NYC and local politics

The iconic NYC drag queen, Hell's Kitchen Democrats president and Shade: Queens of NYC star talks to us about her 2017

Written by
David Goldberg

If you’ve been to a drag show in NYC in the past five years, it’s highly likely that Marti Gould Cummings was the host. The fabulous NYC drag performer took her act to the next level this year when she helped her new political club, the Hell’s Kitchen Democrats, win two district leader seats, got married and produced and starred on the TV documentary series about the lives of NYC queens, Shade: Queens of NYC. We talked to the cutting-edge drag queen about her insane 2017.

How did your career as an activist get started?
When Donald Trump was running for office, I had this moment when I was on stage, and I was kind of making jokes about Kellyanne Conway and how ridiculous she is. And I realized that I was making light of it, but I had an opportunity to do something bigger than just joke about it. I realized that this is a great opportunity to educate myself about politics and our political system, so that I can help some kid who just moved to New York who doesn’t know how to relate to their family right now, and they’re scared about what’s happening, and they just need somebody to tell them where they can volunteer and get involved. My friend Mark Robinson and I started Hell’s Kitchen Democrats with ten people in our first meeting, and we have grown into a much larger organization very quickly. People want to help; they want to get involved in their neighborhood. We appointed two people to run for district leader and they won. That shows that it’s time to get rid of the old, regardless of what party they’re in, and time to bring in fresh voices. I’m getting involved in politics because I want to educate and empower people to know that educated officials work for us, we don’t work for them. I always say: If a drag queen can do this, just think what you can do?

Looking back, what are your best memories of organizing this year?
There are two protests that really stand out to me. The first one was right after the election, and everybody was marching on Trump Tower. And this group of guys starting calling me a faggot and saying: “This is Trump’s America now!” Then a whole group of people surrounded these guys and stood up for me. I realized that it’s a very small voice in this country that happens to be amplified at the moment. I believe in the goodness of people and the positivity of humanity, and I think that will always win out. The people coming to my defense—strangers—is what America is to me. And then we all marched to Trump Tower together.

The other one that stood out to me is that I got a bunch of my drag sisters—Jan Sport, Brita Filter, Holly Box-Springs, Jasmine Rice LaBeija and Gilda Rabbit—and we went to a protest, and it was us, Rise and Resist and Black Lives Matter holding the banner. I remember thinking: This is history. There’s going to be a time when people learn about this awful man who somehow was elected through the electoral college, and people spoke out and did the right thing.  

How has your experience been since the premiere of Shade: Queens of NYC?
As a producer, I’m happy I can help show the whole picture of being a working queen, you know, and showcase what it’s like to struggle with dating, finances, health and religious upbringing. I want to show people that drag is fun but that there are real people under the makeup. I’ve had so many messages from young people around the country saying that they are getting involved in their local politics because they saw I did it on the show and they want to learn more about it. It’s pretty dope.

You work six to seven nights a week.
She’s busy!

Has the new attention from the show affected the types of gigs you’re getting?
The hustle’s the same, but I’m now at a place where I’m only going to work for people who I believe really support drag and have the same kind of moral compass that I have. A lot of my bar owners have been supportive of my I’m here to help people, because I know that there are young and queer who are scared. political stuff, but I quit a bar last year. They didn’t want me getting political because they thought it would offend straight audience members. I was like, “well, bye!”  All people are welcome at my show, but when I’m talking about politics, I’m talking about helping a young person who is scared to go home for the holidays because their family voted for someone like Mike Pence, so my job is to let them know that there’s somebody in their corner. If you tell me to censor myself in a way—to just be cookie cutter drag—I’m not going to do that. I’m not going to change anything.

You got married this year.
It’s been a crazy year, girl! Right now I’m setting up my new apartment in Hamilton Heights. Life is good. The universe gives you what you can handle, and I’m at a place in my life where I’m really starting to be comfortable with myself, after many years when I wasn’t. The universe was like: This is the year to live your dreams, and if it gets to be too much, we’ll take some away, and we’ll give you what you can take on. My husband is such a good guy. I never thought I’d get married because I’m so busy, but i did!

What’s next for you?
My husband and I recorded a broadway album [A Very Marti Holiday] with a bunch of stars, and all proceeds go to the Ali Forney Center for LGBTQ youth. I’m just excited to be a newlywed and president of the Hell’s Kitchen Democrats and producing this TV show. I’m excited to find out what’s next. Life is such an adventure. There’s so much goodness in the world. Our news cycle focuses on negativity, and I want my drag and my activism to let people know that there’s good stuff to look forward to. I’m researching if running for office is a possibility in the future. I don’t know if I’m better suited as an elected official or as an activist. That’s something I’m exploring and meditating on and praying on a lot. We’ll see.

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