Music

RuPaul's Drag Race star Thorgy Thor on injecting stuffy symphony orchestras with big queer energy

'it was always inevitable that I'd end up front and centre in a loud costume!

RuPaul's Drag Race star Thorgy Thor

Thorgy Thor first appeared on RuPaul's Drag Race in 2018 and quickly became a cult favourite. Image provided by Thorgy Thor

Classical Pride made history last year at the Barbican in London – it was the first time any major orchestra or concert hall in Europe had celebrated Pride. Now, it’s back as an expanded five-day festival featuring performances from the LGBTQ+ student bodies of London’s conservatoires, queer classical chamber singers The Fourth Choir and the London Symphony Orchestra. Conductor Oliver Zeffman, Classical Pride’s founder and artistic director, says the aim is to continue “celebrating the significant contribution the LGBTQ+ community makes – and has always made – to classical music”.

The mellifluous festivities begin on Wednesday (July 3) with Classical Drag, a high-stakes, high-camp competition in which seasoned drag performers will show off their sass and musicality. Think lip syncs to a string section, opera numbers featuring death drops and perhaps even a conductor serving c**t. If you’ve always dreamed of seeing a drag queen pay homage to Philip Glass, the master of minimalism, this could be the night of your life.

To add an international flavour, Classical Drag has drafted in two Brooklyn-based stars of RuPaul’s Drag Race, Monét X Change and Thorgy Thor. The latter – who first competed on the US reality show in 2018 –  is a virtuoso violinist who’s made it her mission to merge the worlds of drag and classical music. “I’m not claiming I was the first to do it, but I definitely was a trailblazer in terms of beating down the doors,” she says. Here, she talks about injecting stuffy symphony orchestras with big queer energy and the increasingly expensive art of drag.

Big Issue: So, what can we expect from Classical Drag?

Thorgy Thor: It’s part competition and part showcase for all different kinds of LGBTQ+ performers who are classically trained. Obviously I’m going to be playing violin with the symphony orchestra – just to make a splash, you know – but I’m also going to be using my wonderful personality to talk classical music with the contestants backstage. You know, kind of like on American Idol or Britain’s Got Talent. And I’m so excited that my Monét X Change, my drag sister and winner of RuPaul’s Drag Race, is going to be there too.

For you personally, how difficult has it been to bring together the worlds of drag and classical music? 

Well, after I did Drag Race in 2018, I created my show Thorgy and the Thorchestra and I’ve been touring it internationally with symphony orchestras ever since. But at first, it was very hard knocking down doors. A lot of the conservative administrators at those orchestras looked at me and went: “What is this?” And so I had to say, very modestly of course, that I’m a great drag queen who’s also a great violinist. I quickly realised it was my responsibility to shake things up and put young butts on seats and show people that a symphony orchestra is freaking cool. Some of the players in those orchestras weren’t used to the LGBTQ+ flavour I was bringing, but I’ve since had quite conservative players, even religiously conservative players, say that [my show] was the most fun they’ve had playing with an orchestra.

In your experience, are there a lot of queer people working in classical music?

Absolutely, yes! The New York Philharmonic now has a Pride Alliance, which I’m on the board of, and everyone involved says they can’t believe we didn’t have it sooner. There are so many gays in that orchestra and many have said to me: “We always feel like we have to act a certain way and hide a part of ourselves to fit in.” I’m like, “Girl, that was the story of my orchestral life growing up.” In the orchestra you’re not supposed to stick out a sore thumb – everyone is supposed to dress the same and bow a certain way. I have ADHD, I’m 6ft 3in, and I tend to laugh and kick my leg up when I play, so all this served as a tourniquet to kind of shut down that part of myself. But I mean, I guess it was always inevitable that I’d end up front and centre in a loud costume!

Star of RuPaul's Drag Race Thorgy Thor in a pink dress holding her violin
Drag Race star Thorgy Thor has toured the world playing classical music. Image provided by Thorgy Thor

You did a degree in viola and violin performance, so how did you get into drag?

This is my 22nd year doing drag, I think, since I played Frank-N-Furter in a production of The Rocky Horror Show. That was my first introduction and I caught the drag bug very quickly. Then when I graduated from Purchase College [in downstate New York] in 2006, I moved right into Manhattan and spent my days teaching violin to, well, bratty little kids mainly. But my real passion – and I would do this like five nights a week – was doing drag at Brooklyn nightclubs. Obviously Brooklyn drag has exploded now, but back then, I could count on five fingers how many of us there were. Sometimes we worked for free; sometimes it was $20 plus tips. My family were like, “Why aren’t you auditioning for symphony orchestras?” But I was like, “Trust me, what we’re doing is really culturally important, and it’s going to blow up as an industry.”

How long was it before you could make a living from doing drag? 

Well, fast forward a few years and I was kind of making a living from drag, but not enough to give up my violin teaching. And then RuPaul’s Drag Race came along and changed everything. My father and sister always used to make fun of me – they’d be like, “What are you doing? Get a real job.” But now I can say: “RuPaul’s Drag Race is winning Emmys and I’m touring the globe with symphony orchestras in drag.” I’d always kind of pushed through saving every penny, but after Drag Race, I could say: “For the next concert, could we give me a better cut of the door? Could we work toward a better production budget?” A lot more is expected of me now – some fans want me to show up in thousand dollar custom outfits every time – but I still buy stuff off the rack and wear amazing vintage clothing.

Do you think it would be even harder for  a young drag performer starting out now? Fans seem to expect a certain level of presentation, and that can be so expensive.

You know, one of my Brooklyn sisters said to me: “In order to do drag now, you have to be a rich kid.” When I first got started, I knew right away I’d need to make my own costumes, so I went to Walmart and bought the cheapest sewing machine I could find. Back then, hiring custom designers to make your looks wasn’t a thing. I’d go to a thrift store, find a dress I liked, then rip it apart at the seams in my dorm room. I hope some of these young kids are finding creative ways to do drag cheap, but make it look expensive. I think that’s the name of the game. 

Finally, who is your ultimate British queer icon?

I miss Pete Burns because he was authentically himself and gave no shits. His opinion was very solid in terms of how he saw himself and the way he experienced the world. I feel like I’m being taught a lesson every time I watch an interview with Pete Burns. It’s like, whenever  you hear him speak, you gotta shut up and listen. And I always come away thinking: “What a bitch!” Which is so cool – he owned it.

Thorgy Thor appears in Classical Drag at HERE, Outernet, in London on 3 July. Classical Pride continues at the Barbican until 7 July.

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