Drag, French cabaret songs, and pizza are not ideas that usually appear in close proximity to one another, yet somehow, on a Wednesday night, I found myself sitting in Dino’s with Seattle’s premiere drag chanteuse. The world is funny like that.
The performer in question is Mal DeFleur and more specifically, I was sitting across from her creator, Bradford Schroeder. In drag, DeFleur is a statuesque, romantic figure with Dietrich brows, usually swathed in column dresses and turbans. She’s performed regularly around town, including gigs opening for Joey Arias and as part of the Mo-Wave Festival.
Out of drag, Schroeder is tall and stylish. He speaks animatedly and with an air of sophistication. In between sips of red wine (him) and cheap beer (me), we talked about Mal DeFleur’s inception, her upcoming show with Vinsantos DeFonte and the Seattle creative community. Check out the highlights below.
Ok, so tell me about Mal DeFleur. She’s, what, about two years old now?
I’ve been doing her publicly for about two years, but I workshopped her for about two years previous. I worked for a very long time at a circus tent called Teatro Zinzani, and while I was working there, I got the opportunity to work with this amazing performer named Liliane Montevecchi. She won the Tony award in like ’78 or ’79 for the musical Nine. She’s eighty-three years old now and I was just completely enthralled and fascinated with her.
Oh yeah, she’s amazing!
Yes! I’ve always had an affection for Judy Garland, Marlene Dietrich, all the staples of gay cabaret life. But there was something about Liliane that seemed even grander, maybe because she was an actual person in front of me. So she inspired me a lot and her kind of grandeur seemed really feasible. And then my mother-in-law gave me a very generous Christmas present one year, a couple hundred dollars, and told me I should use it to start taking voice lessons again. So I kind of looked at this money in front of me and I figured I could use it to take about three voice lessons, or I could invest it in creating a show. I’d been creating this character that was sort of an impersonation of Liliane. I wanted to sing these French songs and dress like her and that was kind of the impetus for it. But it quickly gained its own momentum and became something very different. Liliane could very well live to 110 and I would not be surprised, and she could continue to work and influence the world for another thirty years, but it was also a question of what happens when she’s no longer here. Does all her work, the legacy of these older queer icons just stop? So I really felt a need and a desire to communicate that to people. I consider myself lucky enough to be continuing that conversation.
Tell me about your musical background. I’m assuming this didn’t just spring up overnight.
I’ve always been a vocalist. In middle and high school, I was always doing singing competitions and performing in front of people. It was what I did in my small town that I was good at, and that felt validating and right for me. So when I got to college I started out thinking I was going to do musical theatre. And I just…wasn’t into it. I didn’t love the people or the musical theatre world at the time. It didn’t feel truthful. What I was presenting didn’t feel truthful, where I was didn’t feel truthful. So I completely stopped performing, singing, everything. From the age of like, twenty, to when I started doing Mal DeFleur at the age of thirty. So almost ten years. I performed straight plays and things in that time, but no music.
In that time where I wasn’t doing music, I started becoming a lot more truthful about the kind of performer I wanted to be. I started consuming a lot of older performers that inspired me–Judy, Marlene–and I also started learning a lot more about the history and the art of cabaret. You know, Justin Vivian Bond and Joey Arias. I just realized that I didn’t have to be into indie rock bands and all these things I said I was into. What I was really into were these countercultural figures. And I just didn’t know that they existed. It was also something that I became a lot more honest about as I got older. It was like a badge of gay shame, liking Judy and Barbra.
Were you living in Seattle at the time?
I was in Minneapolis till I was twenty-five, When I first moved to Seattle I met Marcus Wilson who performs as Ursula Android, and he really did open me up to the idea of being a punk rock faggot who could also be into Judy Garland. He helped me understand some other performers of that ilk. I guess maybe unwittingly I was doing my homework–watching old movies and consuming fashion and stacking everything on top of each other until it culminated as Mal.
And there’s are a couple people that help with her creation, right? I know Jack [Caton] does your makeup.
Yes, Jack does my makeup because… you know you can’t be good at everything.
That’s fair. And makeup is hard!
Mal was initially supposed to be this one-off project at Gallery 1412. So at the time I didn’t know Jack as well, but I knew he was a great makeup artist. We’d DJ’d together and I was doing this show, so I asked if he could do my face for it. And he did and it was amazing. When I realized I wanted to keep doing it, I wanted to pull back a bit and learn how to do my own face, but Jack told me that I was too old and too good to look busted in the face. And he’s right.
Wise words. You can’t come out looking like a baby queen.
Yes. I don’t have that luxury now, but that’s ok. I have done my own face before and I look like a shaky, gin-drunk relative. Jack also does a lot of my booking stuff too, so he’s sort of a manager-slash-makeup-artist.
And who does your wardrobe?
If I don’t do my costumes myself, Jordan Christianson does them. He’s great because I can just send him an idea, give him images, and he’ll somehow get into my brain and pull everything out of my imagination. Anything off-the-rack comes from Le Frock or Indian Summer.
In performance you work with you accompanist Christopher Jones too, so tell me about that relationship. Any relationship between performer and accompanist is important.
It is. I originally started with Jordan O’Jordan, who’s an amazing concept artist who plays the banjo. He’s incredible. Originally it was Jordan on accordion and my friend Ashley on piano. They were two people that I trusted when everything was just starting out. But eventually Ashley got too busy and so Ryan Weadon became my pianist, and then Jordan moved, and then it was just me and Ryan, and then Ryan became too busy. Christopher is a friend of a friend and I’d actually asked him out on a date like eight years ago–he quickly shut me down–and I knew he was a super talented pianist. So I took him to lunch and explained everything to him. He ended up having enough time and he made me feel safe so it just went from there.
I’m curious–as somebody who seems to be kind of synthesizing a lot of references into what you do, who are the performers, other than yourself, that you think people need to be aware of, both locally and at large?
Well I will say that Sarah Porkalob is such an incredible local performer who just blows my mind. She’s an amazing singer, she’s an amazing actress, she has amazing taste, she’s fucking glamorous. Right now she’s my number one. She also took me out for hot pot last week so… she’s doing everything right. Always Princess Charming. Her one-woman show at Gay City was amazing. She’s an incredible story teller. Always Cucci [Binaca]. Cucci, Cucci, Cucci. She’s fucking amazing and she doesn’t give any free passes. Trixie Linoleum, who’s leaving town really soon, is amazing. If I have anybody that feels like a drag daughter, it’s her. She has this new character that’s some kind of doo-wop thing. The Lady B is my sister and she is everything. Oh, and all my current feelings are Solange.
Ohmygosh Cucci. She’s the queen of everything at this point!
Totally! I feel like every generation or so there’s a big name that kind of crops up and ushers everyone else in. Sylvia O’Stayformore, Ursula Android, Jackie Hell, there’s always that sort of mother who’s steering the ship.
You have a new show happening really soon! Tell me about that.
Yes, the new show! It’s the 23rd of October, with Vinsantos [DeFonte]. She’s on tour right now doing an “introspective” so she contacted me about doing this show with her at The Royal Room. She’s doing a seventy-minute show that’s a mixture of live performance and lip-sync. I totally consider her the matriarch of Southern, punk drag and I could not be more thrilled. I opened for Joey [Arias] at Pony and now I get to open for Vinsantos. So I’m thrilled. I’ll be doing a new number from a show that we’re working on. We’ll be doing like, six songs–a couple of new songs and some standards and then a remix of two older songs that we’ve mashed together.
Why should people go see this show? Give me your pitch.
Well first of all, you can get your passport stamped because it’s in Columbia City. The Royal Room is a great room too. If you’re interested in drag you’ll love it, or if you’re interested in cabaret as an art form or even just live music in general. Plus, we’re in the Pacific Northwest and this is a great opportunity to see some Southern realness. Honestly, it’s just an amazing opportunity to see two men perform acoustically while dressed as women.
Tickets for Harlequeen Nights: A Vinsantos Introspective (with Mal DeFleur) can be purchased online at Stranger Tickets.