Eight turned out to be the magic number for Alex Michaels. He had auditioned for Logo TV’s Emmy Award-winning reality competition series RuPaul’s Drag Race seven times before as his drag persona, Alexis Michelle. But he hit the jackpot on his eighth try.
“I’ve been doing drag a long time [14 years], but only full-time for the past three years,” said Michaels, who won a spot on the show’s ninth season. “So it’s with that complete commitment that I think things really started taking shape for me-just by walking the walk.”
Walking that walk -no doubt with “hips kind of swivelly and swirly” (in the words of Oscar Hammerstein II)-has made Michaels (BFA ’06) a popular fixture in Manhattan’s cabaret venues, including the venerable Feinstein’s 54 Below. And now it has made him a contender on Drag Race, which has been credited with revolutionizing drag by bringing it to the masses. The current season began in March, with Lady Gaga a guest judge on the first episode-validation that the show is officially pop-culture gold. And Michaels had the good fortune of being singled out by Gaga as “one to watch.” (At the time this magazine went to press, he was still in the running to become “America’s next drag superstar,” which comes with a $100,000 cash prize).
The queens are judged on their aesthetic, wit, acting, modeling, makeup skills, and all-round creative talents: putting together costumes, writing and performing sketches, and walking a runway with flair. Singing is not mandatory, but can be a big asset. Michaels, therefore, arrived with a secret weapon: in a field full of lip syncers, he’s the real deal.
Though it’s not unusual in New York to find drag queens who sing, Michaels stands out for his impeccable performing arts training. Not only did he graduate from Michigan’s renowned musical theatre program, he also attended the Interlochen Arts Academy for two years (as well as four years at their Summer Arts Camp) and NYC’s Fiorello H. LaGuardia High School of Music & Art and Performing Arts (the “Fame” school).
It was at Interlochen that Michaels met Brent Wagner, the former chair of SMTD’s Department of Musical Theatre, who visited the school to talk to prospective students. “Before that I had not planned on going to college; I was going to go directly into acting. But after hearing Brent talk, I remember calling my mom and saying, ‘Mom, I know where I want to go to college.’ And I think she let out a big sigh of relief.”
A native New Yorker who grew up in SoHo, Michaels declared at age five that he wanted be an actor, after seeing the Broadway production of Into the Woods. “There were indications of what my career would become right there, because I said I wanted to be an actor, but simultaneously I was playing dress-up in my mom’s closet. So the recipe for where I am now has been cooking for all those years.”
Although the passion for “dress-up” cooled during his school years, Michaels’s interest in drag was ignited just before his senior year when he saw a performance by the drag star Edie (Christopher Kenney). Michaels was dazzled by her chic 1960s style. “She lip-synced Dusty Springfield’s ‘Son of a Preacher Man’ in a little black dress with a black bob, and two boys dressed in black doing this Fosse-esque number behind her; that left a huge impression.”
Michaels had also just seen a revival of Chicago, which was equally formative. That early influence came full circle at the March 7 premiere party for Drag Race in NYC when he performed “All That Jazz” with alumni of the musical’s Broadway and Chicago productions-including SMTD musical theatre alums Dani Spieler and Anne Horak. It was, he said, a dream come true.
But Michaels didn’t always use his well-trained voice in drag; in fact, he resisted it, feeling that his baritone didn’t jibe with the “natural” drag style he had adopted, which he calls a “female illusion.” He doesn’t see drag as an alter ego, or a character that he takes on. “It feels very expressive in a theatrical way, but through the lens of a female perspective, as opposed to the lens of some other person or other character. I feel very much myself, but am expressing myself through a feminine sensibility.”
The inspiration to sing in his act came from the drag queen Alaska, the deep-voiced winner of Drag Race All Stars, Season Two. “The way she sings and speaks is so effective and so theatrical,” said Michaels. ‘So I said, “Okay, I have a voice, so I’m gonna use it.'”
Audiences ate it up. Michaels now has the pleasure, in his cabaret act, of merging his love of musical theatre with his talent as a drag artist, with repertoire such as “Ladies Who Lunch” (Company) and “Somewhere That’s Green” (Little Shop of Horrors). But while he’s enjoying great success as Alexis, he has every intention of continuing to work as an actor.
“I would still call myself an actor first,” he said. “I would be really thrilled for this opportunity to lead to any and all acting work, whether it’s on stage, in TV, or film. Somebody asked me recently, ‘Would you sooner make a Broadway debut as Alexis of Alex?’ My first answer was ‘I’d sooner do it in drag because that would ultimately be more expressive,’ but then I quickly corrected myself. It’s really just about a good part, one that I can sink my teeth into.”
Should he return to acting in the future, Michaels wouldn’t walk away from drag. “I would say that drag is one of the things that I do, one of my tools,” he said. “So I wouldn’t necessarily feel the need to put it on hiatus. That would be such a revolutionary thing, given the visibility that I have now in drag-if I could step into a male role on stage, and still be very visible as this well-known drag queen, I think that would just be terrific. The world is becoming-slowly and with some stalling at the current moment-more sensitive and flexible about gender and about gender identify. And show business is an area that needs to catch up, frankly. For being the arts, it can still be a very narrow-minded field sometimes. So if I can help break down some of those boundaries, that would be really neat.”
Taking this road less traveled into show business has taken guts, and Michaels advises the current crop of musical theatre graduates to embrace fearlessness as they enter the field.
“You are so fortunate to have had the education that you’ve just had and to now be in a family of people who have come from this beloved school and program,” he said. “The world is yours to take. Be as excited and fearless as you can, especially in this early time. And claim as much of your individuality as you possibly can. Whether that’s an unusual vocal style, or the way you dress, or a unique speech pattern-embrace those quirks. Because I think that’s what makes stars-it’s something unusual. To not be afraid of being a little different is really where it’s at.”
By Marilou Carlin, director of communications and editor of Michigan Muse.