Pride Series; From Mummers To Drag Queen Story Hour, Philadelphia Legend Brittany Lynn Is Making Drag Count

In her decades on the scene in Philadelphia, there is not too much Brittany Lynn has not accomplished. From bringing her own touch of fabulousness back to the legendary & historic Mummer’s Parade to building one of the most popular Drag Queen Story Hours around, it is no surprise that Brittany Lynn is widely considered to be the queen that holds the keys to drag in The City of Brotherly Love’s Gayhorhood. While quarantine has recently sidelined us (and COVID-19 sidelining Lynn herself), you can’t keep a good queen down. Lynn is back performing weekly Drag Queen Story Hours online and has fantastic plans for her career post quarantine. I sat down to talk for an extended talk with this legendary doll. While we discussed everything from the glory days of Shampoo, the queens she absolutely adores, and her advice for the new girls coming up, one thing is abundantly clear; the love affair between Brittany Lynn and Philadelphia is most definitely mutual. 

Michael Cook: Take me back; the origin of Brittany Lynn. When was it, what were the circumstances, and how did it happen?

Brittany Lynn: Picture it-1996. I was working at Woody’s, a group of us went to the 12th Air Command, where I saw Tinsel Garland host the drag contest. That lady is still one of the funniest people I have ever met. I saw how she could perform stand-up and run the show. Some queens did comedy, one sang live, some lip-synched. No matter what they did, I thought, “here’s my way IN.” I always wanted to be a comedian, but never had the guts to get up and actually do the damn thing. After talking to Tinsel, she convinced me to toss on a dress and get my tits wet. A week or two later, I came out lip-synching Celine Dion’s “River Deep Mountain High” and I tied for the win my first night. Tinsel handed me money and said “you better come back lady-and make it FUNNY”. I learned I could do my stand up behind that makeup and some big hats. About a month later, I got my first gig at Club Evolution (thanks to Scott Johnston and AD Amorosi), then Bob & Barbara’s, then started on the competition circuit. Within three months, I had my own show.

MC: How do you think you went from a baby queen to the leading queen in the city of Philadelphia?

BL: I feel like it was all a push from the universe. I was starting to perform at my own gigs, serving live singing and comedy, in order to stand out. My main job was being an editor at the Philadelphia Gay News. I got to know all of the managers and staff from all the local venues, and they would ask me to appear at their clubs. I left PGN & became the Advertising and PR director for Gay Live, the phone chat lines. Through that gig, I met all the big NYC promoters like John Blair & Mark Berkeley. Dan Contarino was running the biggest nightclub Philadelphia had ever seen-the legendary Shampoo Nightclub. He brought me in as a host, and then brought me in to have my Drag Mafia show every first Friday. Once you were Shampoo family, you went on the road. We did all the big clubs-Nation in DC, Renegade in Rehoboth, Studio Six in AC, and places like the Limelight and Sound Factory. It also meant you were listed with the booking agency, Traxx, that had THE ONLY ROSTER of all the “original queens” of the NYC nightlife heyday, as well as every track artist you can think of like Deborah Cox and Kristine W. I would tour with Robbie Tronco, Eddie Baez-and met every other legend of the turntables you can think of, like DJ Escape & Tiesto! Everyday the universe was like, “meet this person-they are good people and your future.” With my friends Justin Bruno and the iconic Phoenixx, and Miss Rose-we started Shade Productions that had the only all ages party that Delaware Avenue has ever seen. We brought in everyone from Abigail to RuPaul herself for Pride. To this day, most of the bookings I got are from friendships and contacts I made at Shampoo or my days as a journalist. Mark Segal, the publisher of PGN, was the one who sat me down with Mayor Kenney and the city council members who asked me to bring drag back to the city’s largest parade every New Year’s Day. While I made these connections, don’t get me wrong-Mother worked hard! I paid my dues, and then paid them even more. Twenty four years later, I still pay my dues to push myself to where I need to be.

Photo Courtesy-Brittany Lynn (Facebook)

MC: Tell me about the days of Shampoo and the formation of the Drag Mafia. It’s like Philadelphia’s own Justice League!

BL: I owe a lot to my work at Shampoo. Dan Contarino gave me my chance and believed in me-and I worked till I got myself right. Shampoo was the zenth of Philly gay nightlife. I could not have asked for a better way to spend my twenties. Shampoo was our Studio 54. Gay night, straight night, goth night-it didn’t matter what night, we were all together. We had the hottest people working at the door, to make sure you looked right before you got inside. Then three floors with different themes in every room. The greatest bartenders whose names are still legendary. And wall to wall celebrities. Lady Bunny would come to host and DJ, Sky and Corvette, Vivacious, Amanda Lepore, Willie Ninja, Lady Kier-I even partied with Ian McKellen during the gay film festival parties. Drag Mafia always had a few hundred people watching the show for close to ten years. We had the godfather of house-“Walk for Me” Robbie Tronco in the booth, and later Guido Osorio from Razor and Guido fame.

MC: The diversity of the Philadelphia scene was celebrated at that time correct?

BL: Absolutely. Shampoo gave me a platform for my POC and trans brothers and sisters. During this time the Philly drag scene was mostly trans performers, and we all worked at Bob and Barbara’s. Other clubs just asked for strictly drag queens. Shampoo let me bring my trans brothers and sisters and welcome them into this nightlife scene. Most of my friends today will tell me that their first time meeting a trans person was at one of my shows. When Shampoo closed-it really was a hit to Philly. Like I said before, every booking I get begins with, “I used to see you at Shampoo.” I really took my time there for granted as it seemed like the days would never end. I’m so very grateful I got to experience that moment of gay history.

MC: You have recently created a Drag Queen Story Hour in Philadelphia and it’s arguably one of the most successful and established around. Tell me about what made you fall in love with doing that and how it’s taken off.

BL: I thought working with the kids was going to be rewarding, but I never knew the impact it would give me as a person. I did my first appearance at Lume Studios here in South Philly, then the Fumo Library picked me up and sent me off to all the other local libraries. When the Please Touch Museum hired me, it exploded! Philly Parks and Rec now sends me to places like Love Park, the River Rink, the Horticultural Center-it’s amazing how the city has embraced the program. My version of Story Time is for both the kids and the adults. I can throw in some jokes that get laughs from the parents, and the kids stay involved with singing and art activities-runway dancing-it’s fun for all ages. I really cannot express how wondrous it is to look into the audience and see not only the same-sex parents, but also the heteronormative parents. They bring their boys in dresses with nail polish, their girls in superhero capes-and they really show me that this generation of parents knows no gender boundaries.

MC: It must be absolutely surreal to see a societal change that you are helping to contribute to.

BL: I get really emotional at some of these events because I know this program is giving visibility and insights of other cultures and lifestyles to these kids in the audiences, and my generation had never seen this kind of programming as adolescents. It would have made coming out so much easier to my generation to have seen such visibility in my life. I even changed up my program last summer to include puppets which asked questions that parents or their kids may be too scared to ask like, “can boys wear dresses”, or can “girls play sports?” The Please Touch Museum gives me access to their child educators that help me evolve the program every year in to something bigger and better, and I’m grateful that i can have this platform to help give visibility to this new generation of families.

MC: Philadelphia and otherwise; who are some of your own personal heroes and why?

BL: I have to first give it up to my sisters that made it onto the big “Race”- Ariel Versace and Alexis Michelle, who I met one year in Miss’d America and also performed in the Golden Gurlz Live shows with me last summer. They are amazing, wonderful people and have stayed true to themselves. I love me some Harmonia Sunbeam-that lady works EVERY DAMN DAY; and she embraces it with a smile. She’s a Drag Story Hour sister, and she’s funny as hell. I need to give a shout out to Lisa Lisa of Bob and Barbara’s, who’s show was featured on Jimmy Kimmel Live as Philly’s longest running drag show-and who helped me get my start. Of course I love my big sis Martha Graham Cracker-we can just get on stage and the jokes flow sis! She’s a singing powerhouse and we can duet together. Can I also give a shout out to the Senator of the Drag Mafia Crystal Electra so she don’t hit me with her big buffet purse?

I have to make a huge shout out to Honey Davenport who taught me the most valuable lesson. Every queen working should read this: She booked me at the Claridge in Atlantic City (when she was the current reigning Miss’d America), at a lounge/club that a mutual friend had just opened. The manager (who we both worked with at ProBar at Resorts Casino) came i and told us, “Well there’s only a handful of people out there…Without missing a beat, Honey said: “Well we are gonna give those people the BEST show they ever saw.” It’s not the size of the crowd, it’s the professionalism of the Queens in the show. It was a big lesson for me; Honey is one of the queens that is out making amazing and important content after her season of Drag Race. Honey works hard to give you a show and to create fresh content-weekly. She’s a drag hero.

MC: What are some of your biggest career highlights? Not many queens can say they have marched in the city’s biggest parade as well as having their own day!

BL: Getting my own day from the city at my 40th birthday party has to be the biggest career highlight. It was a surprise from the City Council of Philadelphia and Mayor Kenney-thanking me for my work in bringing drag back to the city’s Mummer’s Parade-Philly’s largest celebration. I’ve done some stuff with MTV back in the day like TRL, Real World, and had Snooki riding on my shoulder as J-Wow did runway with my wig on season three of their show. I’ve opened for my Sandra Bernhard, as well as Debbie Gibson, Big Freeida and Taylor Dayne. I got to spend a day long pub crawl with Lance Bass and sing “Bye, Bye, Bye” together. Winning the Community Hero Award from the DVLF was a huge moment for me. The DVLF is the umbrella group that gives to all of the other local charities. I had the most nominations in DVLF history from working with just about every charity at some point here in Philly. For all of them to step forward and nominate me was the moment that I knew I made a difference with my drag.

 

MC: What advice do you have for the queens of Philadelphia now, both established and new? You literally helped push down the doors for them.

BL: Sisters-Make your drag count! Show the world who you are. Don’t be bitchy because you want to be on Drag Race and become a meme. The girls that stand out most are the girls that deliver something different than a lewk. Don’t forget the ones who helped you get to where you are now. Don’t forget the queens that fought for you so that you can walk the runway on those stages. Show respect to us old girls no matter how cunty and jaded we are because we got this way putting up with bullshit so you can have shows to perform at. And please, stop with the ripped fishnets and the Amazon bodysuits. Drag is more than a death drop. Shine baby.

MC: You have branched out into wedding officiating recently; what is it like helping two crazy kids tie the knot?

BL: It’s having the best seat in the house during the greatest day of your friend’s new lives together. My first wedding was with two of my closest friends on a plantation in South Carolina-the infamous #RetroBoom wedding! It was wall to wall Philly royalty hun! I kept telling them to breathe and keep it together during the ceremony because it is such an emotional day. As I pronounced them husband and husband, I lost my shit and started crying. It means so much to me that my friends would have me perform the ceremony that unites them in marriage. It’s a day they will remember forever, and it’s an honor to be by their side. I have done more weddings since that day. Each of the weddings I’ve done so far has been for friends that I have known for at least ten years, and I’ve known these couples since they started dating (shout out to my brunch sisters Bret and Andrew, and my back in the “Fun Woody’s days” Troy and Dan). So to have been there with my friends from the beginning of their relationship to the very culmination of their wedding vows, is a true joy to be front and center with them on their wedding day.

MC: Next up, it looks like you are helping bring the LGBT community of New Hope PA back; tell me about how that came about.

BL: New Hope has had its share of losses when it comes to nightlife. The Prelude closed its doors, the Cartwheel burned down, and now the Raven has closed its doors and has been torn down. And while New Hope still has a few spots left to venture out to, it needed a venue that can still give the locals everything it needs in one location. And that’s the Clarion Inn. Yes it’s a hotel, but it’s so much more. There’s a restaurant, an amazing piano bar, a wonderful cabaret and lounge space, and a huge pool and outside cabana bar-with more coming. And they were looking for an events manager. I had left my previous job as events manager after six years at Tabu, and took 2019 off to write my first children’s book and gig myself out. My good Judy Joe Black, a New Hope staple since the Cartwheel, recommended me for the job, and the timing was right for me. My book, “The Adventures of Miss Kitty Popcorn and Cheese” literally just hit Amazon and Barnes and Nobles that week, and I did what I set out to do in 2019. Now I needed something to sink myself into moving forward. Brittany literally grew up on the Cartwheel stage. I started competing there in 1996 as a baby queen, and right before its demise, I became a host for the Monday night competition after the passing of Monica Rey.It was full circle. I performed with the likes of Paris Dupree, my Shampoo sister and legendary pageant queen Shae Shae LaReese, Victoria Lace-oh the legends that graced that stage hunny! And I was honored to have penned the obit for Mother Cavellucci upon her passing. I have roots in New Hope. As of this writing, the hotel is currently closed, but when it re-opens, just wait and see…

MC: What would you tell the Brittany Lynn that was just starting in drag all those years ago?

BL: Do everything you want to do and do it the way you think you should do it. Handle your shit, and make your drag count.

MC: You were one of the first prominent members of the LGBT community in Philadelphia to publicly talk about your own battle with Covid-19. Tell me about how it felt and what you have learned post-Covid.

BL: I thought I had pneumonia, so in my head, I was just like, “Get a z-pack hun, and let it take it’s course.”When that virus hit, BABY, I sat in bed for days afraid to sleep because my chest was so tight, I thought I would stop breathing if I laid down. Then there are after effects when the virus leaves your body that you do not hear about on the news. I tell everyone it’s like Interview With a Vampire, when Tom Cruise is telling his girlfriend Brad Pitt, “The dark gift is different for everyone.” I had circulation problems in my hands and ankles. It hurt to walk, my nails got blood blisters. That was when I went to Jefferson and got admitted. They did ekg’s, blood work, xrays-they said that z-pack really helped with the pneumonia symptoms in my chest. Then they tested me for COVID and I tested positive. They said my vitals were good, and that I was a healthy, vibrant, YOUNG woman and let me go home.

MC: How do you think the LGBT community of Philadelphia is going to be different in a post-COVID-19 world and what do you think we all can learn from it?

BL: Every drag queen here in Philly will be out of makeup because right now they are all going live on Facebook everyday just putting on faces (laughs). There is obviously going to be a weird transition when the bars open and spaces are limited with their capacity numbers and the whole social distancing thing. It will be a reminder to us all here that these gay bars are our homes, and the people inside them are our chosen family. Whether we get along or not, we are a community that is only strong if we stick together and support one another. AND are gonna act the fuck up!-trust and believe that ma’am…

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