In the lightly edited interview that follows, Ian Morrison who performs as Brittany Lynn, and is the Don of Philly's Drag Mafia says his priority is for folks at his shows to have a good time. That's a bit of an undersell, but the way it happens in the café the day we met up is that he doesn't mind my being a few minutes late and he's wearing the coziest cream sherpa-style jumpsuit. His steady, open demeanor (and glowing skin! tell me your secrets!) makes his unmistakably South Philly cadence that much more charming. He describes Brittany as "a mom from South Philly," peppering performances and social media posts with "Hey, hun," and our conversation with "do you know what I mean(s)?" that sound a little more like "jknowwhaddImean?" When not performing or managing the Drag Mafia, Morrison recently starred in Parrot (dir. Kyle B. Thompson, 2021), a short film about a drag story hour that gets attacked by armed protestors, filmed before this year's intensifying aggressions against drag performances. Morrison is also a children's book author (the main character of his books, Miss Kitty Popcorn, was inspired by Kylie, the cat he shared a home with for twenty-one years), the host of Drag Queen Story Time all over Philly; he's been doing these for free since 2015 for any museum, library, or school that wants them, funded by book sales.

I show up for drag, Brittany, and co-editing this cluster as a visual studies person who's thought a bunch about making property from pictures (which ended up having much more to do with performance than I thought), and with respect for queer histories, cultures, and queer studies scholars that have fashioned "thick and juicy" (R. Andrews 2013) possibilities and languages for the politics of pleasure, love, and sociality. They are why I can name whenever "estoy living" (E. Extravaganza 2021), with viscera tugging their insistence that "opulence" (M. I. Diamond, 2019) isn't the sole purview of capital.

A 1973 profile in Drag magazine, for example, prominently displays a copy of a nineteenth-century tintype of Harriet Huestis Jackson, which the author found "among a collection of family photos."1 The author describes Harriet as "an unsung heroine," "who lived a quiet existence as a mother and wife on a modest farm in New Brunswick [Canada]."2 The profile's text clings to the margins to make room for Jackson's long, oval face, bust covered in a dark outfit, and hands. She covers most of the page, braids on either side of her middle part adorned with what could be ribbons, gathered in back, maybe to make room for and keep the focus on her plush beard. Her mustache is neatly trimmed, almost a feathered curly bracket setting off her upper lip. "But it would be facile," the author writes, "to imagine her personal narrative was an untroubled one. The work-worn hands are eloquent testimony to a life of physical hardship . . . "3 Theorizing Black gay life, Jafari Allen insists on "the unthought facileness of our common articulation of naïve (and/to) optimist and the converse assumption of sophisticated pessimism . . . There is so much more to consider beyond pessimism or optimism."4 And so, inspired by Allen, and without the kind of facile perspective that imagines a world from either/ors, is it possible to imagine that Harriet styled her beard with care (with wax, proudly? with oil, slowly, sumptuously?) even on days when it wasn't for a portrait, even if there were also other kinds of days?

I also show up for drag having been raised by a seamstress, my grandma, who never trimmed her chin hair or mustache and taught me to tame my arm and leg hair with lotion. She didn't teach me to sew she wanted to, but unfortunately, I was a young grumper. She did, however, show me how to hold onto craft like a lifeline. Craft is just a word for work that has accepted a charge and a lineage. Craft is expansive enough that it can include how you style your beard, how you stitch together a look, how you contour a living from precarious conditions. Craft does not disappear the differences among where craft happens: it honors the forms of work it took to make, because it fundamentally includes its own conditions.

At a dinner party, someone's lovely witchy-artist mom said she thought of herself as part of lineage as the global working class of artisans and craft makers, more than someone who aspires to sell her art for big money or big recognition. Her distinction between these conditions for making bears on the drag that stitches this cluster and Brittany Lynn's stories together. Not because of a taxonomic divide between the two. Drag Race as a reality TV competition program and global franchise relies on now-emphasizing, now-eliding the distinction, as though the performance economies it funnels into itself are merely incidental, silently expendable, and inexhaustible. And as Morrison described his career as Brittany Lynn while I tried to hide my dorky fan-girl grin behind an iced coffee, drag performers the world around can't really afford that particular fantasy.

Should we start with a Drag Race tie-in?

Brittany Lynn
So sometime around 2008 or 2010, two people from the New York Film Academy wanted to follow me around, and film everything that I did, as a project for their students, and to pitch it to cable TV. The idea was that I was the young It Girl for the moment, when all the big night clubs were still a thing, and I was a local Philly person that toured for drag it was rare back then for somebody from Philly to do that, it was mostly New York girls like Lady Bunny. It was house music, ecstasy, you know what I mean? People still went out dancing and raving. There was Nation [formerly Capital Ballroom]5 in D.C., Renegade6 in Rehoboth, [The Brass Rail Bar and] Studio Six7 in Atlantic City, Hunka Bunka8, all these places. I worked with a lot of DJs because I was a Shampoo9 hostess, I was Shampoo's girl when it was Philly's biggest club of all time. They would send me to the other big night clubs they owned as tie-ins, like Shampoo at Large.

Tracks was a big booking agency in New York; I worked with them, too, and they booked everybody from Lady Buddy to Deborah Cox to Christine W. and all the DJs: TSO, when he was starting out, DJ Escape, Eddie Baez, this and that. I got all the DJ's music as a perk when I performed. There was Napster and LimeWire, but these DJs sent me their personal mixes for me to perform to get their music out; back then you had to go to a nightclub to hear their music. I was getting all these good gigs, and the people from New York Film Institute found me and followed me for two years, filming every show that I did.

When they were completing filming, Shampoo was closing10, like a lot of the other major night clubs, because hip hop had really helped change nightlife. But when they started pitching it, here comes RuPaul announcing Drag Race. They had planned our thing as, like, drag queen of the world, a big reality show; the ending was gonna be a show in New York City, bringing in queens from across the country like what Drag Race was planning. So then all their funding got canceled, and the show got canceled after two years of filming.

Oh shit.

Brittany Lynn
We actually did a big show together in 2002 here in Philly, and I interviewed her [RuPaul] for the Philadelphia Gay News when I was still a reporter and the second album she did was bombing. She was more than happy to let me interview her then for whatever stupid blog I was writing for, I think it was Rainbow Express. We did a concert together at Chrome nightclub on Delaware Avenue. She asked for $12,000 for a full concert and drove herself in a Winnebago because she liked the lighting in there.

[At the drag mafia's last holiday brunch this season, Brittany appears before the show officially starts with her makeup on, without a wig, and in her daywear to greet the audience packed into the Victory Beer Hall at Xfinity Live!, a parking lot away from Lincoln Financial Field, home of the Eagles. She's encouraging the tables of mostly middle-aged women (including yours truly) in holiday sweaters to buy more drinks, to take a lap over to the atrium where a sweetie pie was selling handmade soaps and Ven Schmidt, who illustrated the Miss Kitty Popcorn series, was signing and selling books. Note: when you order a "glitter mimosa flight" in Philly, they will serve you three enormous glasses of champagne without a drop of orange juice because the juice "ruins the effect of the glitter."]

Did you ever audition for the show?

Brittany Lynn
I auditioned twice. I went in with the delusion drag queens have, this weird sense of entitlement. I had done drag for so long, and I had been given so many opportunities, that I shit the bed on my audition. I didn't think to change my face, I did it all in one day. Back then they wanted twenty-some outfits. And my drag wasn't my main thing, I just bought whatever shitty outfit. I was doing old Hollywood face tape; back then you learned by watching other old ladies putting on makeup. It wasn't what queens have today, even the technology of the makeup is different. There wasn't people to buy wigs from. There wasn't designers banging out outfits for everyday drag queens. My stuff was limited, and I rushed through it. They were like, You have seven days, we need 14 outfits. Now, for audition tapes, you just do three looks. The producers don't even care anymore, because like, who's even left?

But I don't need it anymore, you know what I mean? The money I make now, Drag Race girls come to me for bookings. What is the show gonna do for me? When you go on, you sign your life away. And I don't think I have thick enough skin to go through what they go through. You post one photo and millions of people are ready to tear you apart. I'm just not that girl. I will answer each and every comment no matter how long it takes.

[In her 1972 ethnography of drag performers, Esther Newton notes the distinction between "comedy queens" and "glamour queens" as foundational to how performers thought of themselves and one another.11 I point to Newton's text despite its limitations to mark some of the historical-lexical continuities in drag performance cultures that her study reveals. She writes "the fundamental split between glamour and humor among female impersonators has its foundation not in the female nightclub acts, but in the...subculture itself."12]

If you were going to describe how Brittany came to be, I know you did Rocky Horror first, but how do you tell that story?

Brittany Lynn
I auditioned in 1990 when I was 18, turning 19. I had never seen Rocky Horror, I thought it was a horror movie. I auditioned with "Luck Be a Lady" from Guys and Dolls, because that's what a theater gay I was. I got the lead, and that's how I learned how to do my makeup, which still looks like Frank N. Furter. That's how I learned to walk in heels and stage dive.

I got cast a year later in The Brady Bunch live show. They wanted a man to play Alice, the housekeeper. A year after that, our show got shut down by Sherwood Schwarz because Ann B. Davis complained that I was playing Alice in drag.

I started drag officially after that. It was Tinsel Garland, Philly's (and New Hope's) first big hostess, who told me I needed a drag name, so I just told her my little sister's name, and kept it. (I told my sister that she could go to any nightclub in town and say she's Brittany Lynn and get in.) But because I was Shampoo's girl, and they owned half the city, I got to work wherever I wanted. I literally worked at every club, straight clubs, gay clubs, all of Delaware Avenue when it was all mafia run. I was either your hostess on a straight night or a security guard in drag with an eye patch like Kill Bill. I'm still 6 foot 5, you know.

[When Brittany returns to the stage in a form-fitting sparkly red dress, with a waist-hugging gold bow belt detail, and trumpet sleeves lined with white fur, she describes the very tall grey-blonde "loaf" she's wearing as "ready for anything, a pageant or a funeral." Brittany was the six-time first runner up for Miss'd America Pageant. She kicks off the show with a number about her "asshole neighbors" in South Philly who are "actin' grand."]

How would you describe who Brittany Lynn is?

Brittany Lynn
You know so when I talk to people, I have this big, thick South Philly accent, Hey, hon, how're ya doing? That wins anybody over, you know what I mean? The hun is a big thing. It gives I'm The Mom At Your Bar Mitzvah, and everybody feels safe. My mom's side is Italian, and my dad's side is Jewish. I put comfortability before anything else.

But, you know, if I'm running late, I go on stage ugly. I'll go out with a full mustache and be like, This is what it is. There's no single aesthetic for me. It's whatever. Sometimes I forget a tit. I get out there and tell people, I have one tit today. If I do my face and something's wrong with it, I don't start over. This is what you're getting today, everybody. When the show starts, wherever I'm at, that's what you're getting. I'm not trying to be something I'm not. I don't change my voice either. I feel like people pick up on that kind of realism.

Brittany Lynn (You can find her on Instagram here: By courtesy of Ian Morrison.

Do you think the show has affected what you do in Philly?

Brittany Lynn
I wasn't able to tour anymore once it started because people only wanted Drag Race girls. Now, all these franchises, they each have fifteen girls. They're pumping out at least 100 girls twice a year. There's no way they're all getting tours, only one or two tours happen. And if you're not on it, if you're not the It Girl from the season, you're not getting that work. Once you're off, that's kind of it. Either you go to Vegas, or one of the Voss events tours, and that's it.

When their season's done, they're callin' me like, Hey, Brittany. People like Kasha Davis, who's really nice, come to Philly to do brunches. My budget for those is anywhere from $1,200 to $2,000. I know what I'm getting paid, I'm doing all the work: I'm making graphics, doing the PR, or paying somebody to do it. All I ask is for these girls to send me two goddamn songs and maybe click share if I put their name on the event. But if you're a Drag Race girl and coming here, the most I'm giving you is, like, $300, because I have a million girls here that need work, and these Drag Race girls don't promote or anything. I can get a local girl that'll work ten times as hard.

Drag Race girls mostly stay in their city and try to ride it out. You do have your Biancas, your Jinkxes, your Ben de la Cremes. But you have 70 look queens that don't really give you nothin', they show up to the gig, they'll do Diana Ross "I'm Comin' Out," and just walk around with a dustbuster to collect money, givin' people paper cuts while taking the dollars out of their hands.

[The typology Brittany and Drag Race queens use recalls Newton's. She wrote, "There are four basic types of female impersonation: dancing, singing, glamour, and comedy."13 As recently as the S15 promos, Marcia Marcia Marcia insists her audiences are "surprised" that she is pretty, and can dance, and is funny. No matter how many queens on the show have been all these Alyssa Edwards, Monét X Change, Shea Couleé, Kylie Sonique Love, Symone the prevailing mode is to think of particular talents as distinguishing queens from one another.]

Was it the feeling of the party, or why do you think you were drawn to drag?

Brittany Lynn
First it was for money, because back then drag was all competitions. There weren't any shows except Bob and Barbara's was the only one that paid, and it paid $35. You did three numbers, danced behind the bar or jumped on the bar, and collected tips. I did it because in competitions I won a lot, so I would get the $100. Then drag got really big for me during that dance music era up until 2010, and then it kind of died here because the big nightclubs died. There wasn't a lot of drag happening. If people needed somebody, I was the go-to girl. But it was few and far between. I was getting $150 for those. But they wanted the whole world for that $150.

And then around 2016, I was working for Taboo as their entertainment manager, and I started booking all drag and burlesque shows, and it became a big thing. I brought in girls from New York, like Alexis Michelle, Thorgy Thor. Bob the Drag Queen used to do shows for free or like $75 and take a Megabus down. She'd stay the next morning and do brunch for free. Ariel Versace started with me. Aquaria started at Taboo when she was underage. She would do Sinful Sundays at night for free. So many girls came through there.

[The holiday brunch lineup includes Miss Red, Nivea Shea (Brittany's drag daughter), the dancing queen Papi, Morgan Wells (who is also a designer), Ariel Versace, and Brittany's rendition of "Let It Go" with special (frozen) effects!]

So I kind of kickstarted this new era of performance spots, with Taboo as the hub. A lot of people now copy what I do. Even girls that I fired do their own show and use my exact same formula. They can copy it, but don't have that spark, you know what I mean?

Then with the pandemic, I took the initiative and met with health officials in every area of the city, and asked, what do I need to do to perform outside? They gave me a list of what I could do, told me everyone needed to be six feet apart, that we needed to be outside. I kicked off the outdoor shows here in Philly. Chatayee Thai [Restaurant] was the first one. During the pandemic when nobody was working and everybody was home, I was getting $600 a week and I had no idea what to do with it because everyone was sitting at home. We were packed on a Monday at 4:00 p.m. Then here comes Bob, and Barbara's asking if I can do an outdoor show for them, and then Xfinity. I kept everybody working from 2020 we were working, making more money than we ever did. I donated thousands of dollars because we were the only people making money. I financially backed some protests and marches here and did my drag queen story time free of charge for any place that wanted it.

[In 2015, the Delaware Valley Legacy Fund, founded in 1993, which supports the LGBTQ+ community in the Philly area, awarded Brittany the Community Hero award.]

How many girls are in the drag mafia?

Brittany Lynn
There's always around ten. We made a list at the beginning of Pride, there was well over 100 girls that have come in and out. Some have retired, some have passed, 80% have been fired. I say to them, you don't want to be 50 years old and worrying about stupid shit, worry about a roof over your head and money in your bank account and doing your job. Don't worry that she has the same pair of boots that you ordered from a mass-producing boots website for drag queens. Like, don't be upset that this person's doing Ariana Grande when you're doing Ariana Grande.

I have a hard time worrying just about myself because I've been doing this for so long. And my main goal starting Drag Mafia was to take care of the girls because there wasn't, like, a drag union. So my only thoughts were: hire everybody, make sure everybody makes money. Now there's a million people. When I get these baby queens that are like, I just started doing drag and I want to do this and this . . . well, I'm not going to make you work for free. If I don't have a paying opportunity for you, I'm not going to just put you on stage for the sake of filling space.

Sometimes they come back, sometimes you put people on a break, like a financial time out. You can't be like, I'm a drag queen this is my job, and show up two hours late.

Brittany Lynn. By courtesy of Ian Morrison.

Were you that queen earlier in your career?

Brittany Lynn
No, never. I'm a Pisces, but I've always been OCD about everything. I did legendary drugs, but I was on time. When you had to hand out flyers outside the club, I've been through that, through Friendster, learning MySpace HTML coding, when Facebook was just for college students, I made a fake profile so I could message people about my shows. I've always put in the work. When everybody else was at the office blowing lines, I'm sitting there trying to type stuff.

On a related but different topic than the work drag takes, is there a way that you think about "the fantasy"? Someone in my job would ask whether you have a theory of fantasy?

Brittany Lynn
I would say, instead of fantasy, there's delusion with drag performers that once you put makeup on, you're a different person. There's another delusion and fantasy that once you get in drag for the first time, you're going to be a famous, popular, and booked person without doing any work, of being a performer on the road, making money, making it your profession. And it's all a severe delusion. I'm lucky that 26 years later, I call this my job.

These kids get a Party City Shake-and-Go wig, do a wing tip and a lip, and the next day, they have merch. There's five new drag queens a day in Philly. Philly is a very bra and panties city, meaning these kids will go and put on a bra and panties set with ripped fishnets and think that's all right because they see Willem or Alaska do it. But there's getting ready, getting to the gig, doing the gig, going home, taking it all off, washing your costumes, and doing all that. No one is ready to do all that work. No matter how much they think they're ready for it.

[When "I'm Comin' Out" played during the curtain call, just before "Like a Virgin," my friend leaned over our variously spilled glasses of sparkle glitter champagne to ask me, "Are we still doing this? I've been out for over two decades. Are we really still doing this?" Reader, we were one thousand percent and definitely Still Doing This.]

I can't let you go without having you tell me a little more about how you think about the craft part of drag.

Brittany Lynn
Here's my thing: if you're somebody that sings, that's your talent. It's not really drag. If you're somebody that dances, that's your drag. I'm a stand-up comic that happens to be able to sing. But no one's hiring me as Ian at 50 years old. I think your talent is your craft rather than drag being the craft. Drag is the medium you use.

When I book, I have a formula: I'm the old lady. And I'm going to have a dancing diva, a singing person, and a dancing queen or burlesque performer. I don't want six girls that look the same, throwing themselves on the ground. I used to do lifts and shit, but I was high. Nothing could hurt me because of the amount of drugs in my system. They're gonna have to decide what to do when they can't throw themselves on the floor.

I could go on forever, but I gotta go get my dog [Buddy], and then I gotta go get ready.

[In Philadelphia, the Mayor and the City Council deemed March 15th Brittany Lynn Day. Please celebrate accordingly. And remember to tip generously.]

Monica Huerta (@drmonicahuerta) is an assistant professor of English and American Studies at Princeton. She is the author of Magical Habits (Duke University Press, 2021) and The Unintended: Photography, Property, and the Aesthetics of Racial Capitalism (forthcoming NYU Press, 2023). She is part of the editorial collective of the Writing Mattersseries at Duke University Press. Her writing has appeared in J19: The Journal for Nineteenth-Century AmericanistsArtForum, Women & Performance: A Journal of Feminist TheoryLos Angeles Review of BooksThe New Rambler Review,and Critical Analysis of Law: An International and Interdisciplinary Law Review.


  1. Ed Jackson, "The Body Politic," Drag 3, no. 10 (Lee's Mardi Gras Enterprises, 1973) 20.[]
  2. Jackson, 20.[]
  3. Jackson 20.[]
  4. Jafari S. Allen, There's a Disco Ball Between Us: A Theory of Black Gay Life. Durham: Duke University Press, 2022, 309.[]
  5. Closed in 2006. The lot owners, Potomac Investment Properties, sold to Opus East in 2007. An office building was built on the lot.[]
  6. Closed in 2003.[]
  7. Sold to the Sherwood Management Group in 2005. Closed in 2007.[]
  8. Closed for renovations in 2003 and reopened as Starland Ballroom. Sold to Anschutz Entertainment Group (AEG) in 2007.[]
  9. Known for Shaft Fridays and the all-nighter summer parties Whistle and Bang![]
  10. Closed in 2013.[]
  11. Esther Newton, Mother Camp: Female Impersonators in America. 1972; University of Chicago Press, 1979.[]
  12. Newton 56.[]
  13. Newton 43.[]