Cabaret Singer Daphne Always Is Still Evolving

The NYC performer talks upcomings shows and trans identity in the drag world.

Daphne Always
Daphne Always | Photo by Cole Saladino for Thrillist
Daphne Always | Photo by Cole Saladino for Thrillist

I first saw cabaret performer Daphne Always at a RuPaul’s Drag Race watch party at a gay bar in Williamsburg a few years ago and I saw her one-woman show a few times before the pandemic shut everything down.

I caught up with her over Zoom to talk about her new show, what’s keeping her busy when she’s not performing, and how history is a coping mechanism.

Thrillist: Why don’t we start by talking a bit about what your performing life was like before the pandemic and how that’s evolved to now?

Daphne Always: Yeah, it’s been a big recalibration. That’s been my word. Before the pandemic it was bar gigs, it was nightlife gigs. And it was very much about the weekly gig at the bar that you can have a tenuous agreement that they will keep on paying you on a week by week basis as long as you help keep their bar sales up.

What I realized for myself is that this was an unsustainable model for me and my happiness to have this pressure that every week you’re going to draw the same crowd to the same place for the same show. It was really about the hustle of trying to get as many gigs as possible.

In 2019, I was starting to make this switch towards more of a rhythm where it’s like, ‘Hey here’s this show this month, buy tickets and see this show that I work on for the month’ rather than struggling to keep up with new looks, new numbers. And then COVID hit and it all disappeared. After a few months of spiraling, I wound up getting a job as a tutor. I tutor kids in math and physics and Latin, and that keeps me stable while I work on shows. So that’s really nice.

Daphne Always
Daphne Always | Photo by Cole Saladino for Thrillist

Your current show is Daphne Always: Sumtimez, Always—Still?!

At one point, I was a drag queen Daphne Sumtimez and then I started transitioning and I realized that my relationship to performing had changed enough that, because the pun Daphne Sumtimez is that I was only Daphne sometimes, but then I was Daphne all the time. That was such an event—a real chapter for me. And then it’s like, a few years and a pandemic later, like, still? We’re still here?? I guess it’s a show about looking back and taking inventory of what parts of ourselves we’ve managed to bring along with us and which parts we’ve had to leave behind.

I went to a really spiritual place, and I started having this obsession with history. I majored in classics so that obsession was always there but it was really helpful for me to zoom out and see this as one event in human history rather than this consuming thing that’s happening right now. It drove me down a rabbit hole and I started translating these ancient Greek songs and seeing how they’re still relevant today.

Then I connected with this cult of priests of the goddess Cybele. Kind of anachronistic to call people from other time periods trans, but they celebrated this earth mother goddess and they were born male and as part of the rights of initiation would castrate themselves and live as women. I kind of connect that to what drag is today. Also, the show has lots of dumb, stupid parody songs that make me laugh.

It seems that it’s becoming very normal for drag performers to come out as trans, even though—in my own observation—there’s a bit of misogyny against women in that if you’re a drag queen and a woman, you’re somehow not valid. So, what was that like, being a drag queen and then transitioning?

This is one of those pendulum-of-history things where, maybe before Drag Race, there wasn’t much of a line between ‘I am a man who dresses up as a woman on stage’ versus ‘I’m a woman too.’ I think without the internet-driven vocabulary paradigms, there wasn’t as much of a need to draw such a difference between ‘I was assigned male at birth, but I identify as a woman and am a woman and live my life that way’ versus ‘I was assigned male at birth and feel like a woman sometimes.’

Drag Race and Tumblr and the 2010s was an era of complexifying structure versus now it feels like we’re going back to something a bit more fluid. It feels like everyone is trans or gender fluid or non-binary or all sorts of different kinds of trans. And I think that’s wonderful. Sometimes I feel quite outdated that I’m just she/her over here. [Laughs]

Daphne Always
Daphne with C'mon Everybody's door dog, Ziggy | Photo by Cole Saladino for Thrillist

You were recently in a music video, which is my favorite art form.

That was Ezra Furman, who just released a new single, “Forever in Sunset.” She asked me to be in it and I play—in Ezra’s description—a trans femme James Dean, who sees in a bar this fellow queer just get real messy, get hurt. We share a moment where it’s ambiguous if we’re strangers or not but we share a moment of nurture and care that’s very sweet and tender and swimming in bisexual lighting.

How would you describe yourself as an artist?

That’s always the question. I’ve found that ‘cabaret performer’ says what it is. There was definitely a time when ‘drag queen’ really upset me, but that was a previous chapter and now drag queen doesn’t bother me so much.

A lot of what I do is really influenced by drag, and lately a lot of my gigs have been burlesque shows. I’ve been emceeing shows at Bathtub Gin and Mr. French. Boo Bess, whenever she’s out of town I fill in for her.

My life has trickled down in this interesting unique little way where I’ve found myself part of the burlesque community, which is largely, almost entirely cis women. I feel at home there in a way. There is an understanding and embrace and I feel very welcomed and I have a lot of gratitude.

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John deBary is a drinks expert and writer. His first cocktail book, Drink What You Want, is available now, and his next book, Saved by the Bellini is expected in early 2023. He is also the co-founder and president of the Restaurant Workers’ Community Foundation, which is dedicated to improving the lives of hospitality industry professionals through advocacy, grant making, and impact investing. John is also the creator of Proteau, a line of non-alcoholic drinks.