It’s two hours before the show starts and the line outside is already dozens of people deep. I clunk my way through the doors of Sony Hall and down the staircase into a sprawling auditorium bustling with queers and queens in various stages of painting.
It’s the 20th Annual Glam Awards: the biggest night in queer New York nightlife.
Brita Filter, who I’m here to meet, arrives after procuring a fresh pair of tights. At last year’s Glam’s, the queen won Best Host and the prestigious Entertainer of the Year award.
She takes me downstairs where Jan Sport and Rosé—two thirds of the drag girl group Stephanie’s Child—are already beating their faces.
“It’s about the community for me tonight,” Brita tells me before lamenting that she forgot to bring drag underwear.
Her performances at the Glams have been lauded for their precision and production value, employing numerous dancers, light cues, and spectacle embodying the concept of high drag.
Tonight she’s giving them something they won’t expect: “I was gonna do a Whitney Houston number that was gonna be a remix and it was about Grindr...Um, and something cutesy or whatever. And then I had a nightmare about it and I was like ‘I’ve gotta do something that speaks to me,’ and so I decided to do a ballad...and It’s truly where my heart’s at. I want it to say something.”
The dressing room begins to bustle as the ceremonies draw closer. Performers pass around food menus and Red Bulls as they shimmy for space in the mirror.
I peek into the auditorium where the house just opened. The hundreds of people who’ve found a family in New York queer nightlife shuffle in, serving looks and eager smiles.
* * *
Each award presented sparks a sudden warm reunion, from the banter between presenters to the cheers of the audience to the gratitude of the winners. Everyone is family tonight.
Tina Burner slays with a viral newscast-inspired number, nailing all of its six costume changes, “each uglier than the last,” Bob the Drag Queen jokes as the crowd stands in ovation. Tim Young from Mary at Club Cumming glides into stratospheric high notes in a performance that leaves the audience fulfilled yet thirsty. Jada Valenciaga and her dancers serve a show that makes mainstream pop royalty look like serfs.
It’s time for Brita to change into the outfit for her performance. “Where’s my other tit?,” she asks as I zip her into the emerald gown. She hands me a pack of matching brooches, asks me to pull the pins out.
“Why would you want to rip the pins out?”
“Those are earrings.”
“Are you gonna glue those to your ears?”
“That’s drag, mama,” Ms. Filter informs me, applying the super glue to her lobes before setting the gems.
She waits backstage to go on. “I’m nervous. I’m so nervous but I’m so excited. And this song really means a lot to me.”
She takes the stage on the far side as “I Know Where I’ve Been” from Hairspray fills the theatre. The trademark precision of her lipsyncing, the impeccable attention paid to each gesture doesn’t take away from the breathtaking spontaneity that makes a Brita Filter performance stand out. Audience members jump out of their seats to scream for her as she makes her way to center stage.
It’s not a production number, but it is a production. A story is told unaided by dancers or props or elaborate set changes. It’s a reminder that, though Brita can turn a show like nobody’s business, she’s just as comfortable inviting the audience in for intimacy.
At the climax of the song, Brita flicks back her head in victory. Her wig falls off.
It’s an accident, but no one seems to know, and those who do don’t care. They leap to their feet and hold her in a minutes long ovation.
Backstage, while changing out of her gown, she rolls her eyes at the mishap. “I really wasn’t expecting my wig to fall off at the end, but truly, everyone thought it was part of the performance, which I guess it could’ve been cause the song pretty much just says ‘I know where I’ve been and I know who the fuck I am,’ so what a perfect moment to take it off.” She elaborates on what the song means to her. ”That song...reaches out to me, because…’I Know Where I’ve Been,’ the LGBTQ community still has so much to fight for, especially for our trans siblings, so that’s the specificity I use.”
She’s not the only performer at the awards noting the political climate. Honey Davenport, whose call to action against racism in New York’s queer nightlife made WUSSY headlines last year, again called nightlife denizens to take arms against discrimination in the community, decrying the homogeny of all-white managers, gogo boys, poster models and more. “Check yourself, y’all. Cause that shit hurts!” she says as the audience cheers.
Marti Gould Cummings walks away with the coveted Entertainer of the Year award. After the 2016 election, the political activist began using drag as a platform to rally communities and shift perceptions while fighting for her queer siblings. In 2018, she upped those efforts even more, speaking at rallies for Cynthia Nixon, marching in protests, and serving on New York City’s Nightlife Advisory Board.
“This year has been a year about taking my drag and using it to do something bigger than just entertaining people,” she tells me later. “Marsha Johnson and Sylvia Rivera who paved the way for drag queens like me to have a voice politically, I think tonight was a nice moment of recognition for them and the work that they have done.”
Attendees, nominees, winners, drag superstars, lost kids, proud moms, and every facet of humanity pours out of the theater after the show. Most are heading to the afterparty at Therapy in Hell’s Kitchen. We make our way up the street to the bar, a queer caravan.
* * *
The after party is already starting to swell and people are beginning to recount the night. “My family are here. New York is singular...New York’s a talent hub, and coming home to the Glams was so heartwarming, to see my family,” Alexis Michelle, longtime New Yorker and Drag Race alum tells me as she sets her stuff down in the basement.
“It is and it should be the best night in New York City nightlife. It should be the night that everyone looks forward to, that everyone wants to attend.” Still, Vincent Cooper, producer and director of the Glams, is glad the pressure is off until next year. “I’m so relieved that it all worked out the way that I wanted to. Everyone did such an amazing job. All the performances were so impeccable, I’m just...I’m happy it’s over in a good way.”
Brita never seems to be with fewer than five people at any given point during the party, but we still find time to talk. Her voice softens but I can still hear her over the pounding music in the club. “When I sit in that chair to paint my face, it’s a very spiritual, ritualistic moment of being in front of the mirror and like transforming Jesse to Brita. It’s wild.”
Everyone’s bodies swirl together in a sea of sequins, tule, feathers, fishnets, rhinestones, and garbage bags. Heaven is a Place on Earth blares and we dance until after we’re tired.
* * *
It’s 5 in the morning and I’m on the couch with Brita as she takes off her face. “I’ve been doing drag as of this week for five years. When Brita Filter stepped on that stage at Stonewall? Exactly five years ago.”
She winces as she pulls the duct tape from her scalp.
“Do I get caught up in it sometimes? Yeah...Am I better because I got caught up in it? 100%. Would I get caught up again? ...Not as often.”
She stops what she’s doing and faces me.
“Performing at the Glam Awards and making my mark on nightlife is the reason why I am the person I am today...I was meant to be a fucking drag queen.”
She cranks up an episode of The Great British Bake-Off before waking up tomorrow to put on everything she stripped away.
Evan Brechtel is a queer writer living in New York. You can find his body of work at www.evanbrechtel.net. @EvanBrechtel.