The life of an international housewife celebrity must be tough, what with all of the cooking, YouTube videos, cleaning, Tina Turner impersonations, and martinis. But Mrs. Kasha Davis makes it look easy. Usually wearing a smile as big as her pearls, the Rochester drag queen has performed locally for 12 years, and has developed a persona that calls back to the best — and often most cringe-worthy — aspects of your favorite lush aunt. Constantly reminding audiences that "there's always time for a cocktail," Kasha's classic camp, snappy wit, and 1960's housewife style has made her a favorite here.
Now, after seven hard tries, Kasha has a shot at charming national audiences on the seventh season of Logo TV's "RuPaul's Drag Race," premiering this spring. She will be the third Rochester queen to compete on the reality TV show: Pandora Boxx came in fifth during the show's second season — and has appeared on several "Drag Race" spin-offs since — and Darienne Lake placed fourth in Season 6.
"Drag Race," produced and hosted by RuPaul Charles, has become something of a pop phenomenon, with each season increasingly more popular. The fifth season, in 2013, premiered to more than 1 million viewers. An official start date to the 2015 series hasn't even been announced, and the contestants are already being talked about like celebrities. Since the announcement of the Season 7 contestants in December, Kasha's Facebook fan page has grown from around 600 followers to more than 4,100. Her Instagram followers were around 350 the day of the announcement, hit 1,800 by the next morning, and now sits at 5,100.
Under Kasha's makeup and big brown hair is Ed Popil, who regularly acts in theater and appears on social media out of drag. And if you look through Mrs. Kasha Davis's online store, you'll find posters and T-shirts of both faces side by side. The design was created by Popil's husband, Steven Levins (the real-life Mr. Davis).
In a recent interview with City, Kasha talked about the elusive start date to "Drag Race" season 7, why Mrs. Kasha Davis and Aggy Dune make a great team, and what's in the Rochester water. An edited transcript of the conversation follows.
City: You've auditioned for "Drag Race" seven years in a row.
Kasha Davis: All seven seasons. I wonder if I am a glutton for punishment or just persistent. I will say, though, that it's very well known that I auditioned for all seven seasons. There's no secret there, and I'm proud of that. Listen, I'm going to be 44 years old in March and one of the biggest things I want to get out there for people of all ages is to never give up, no matter what it is.
There were points throughout that seven-year process where I was like, "This is not going to happen. Face the reality. Do something different." And every time it would roll around and I would tell myself, "You know that you really want this. It's a dream of yours to go to Hollywood and film something. Do it." And I'm proud of the fact that I did.
What do think clicked this time? Did you wear them down?
- PHOTO BY TAMMY SWALES
Honestly, if I look back at the audition tapes, I cringe. I think every actor, if you're really into your craft, you look at yourself and you take that criticism. And sometimes our worst criticism is from ourselves. I look back at some of those videos and I was trying so hard to give the producers what I thought they wanted. This particular time, I could see the difference in the video where I'm like, "That's just me." Throughout this whole audition process, every time I felt like I was trying too hard, or I was trying to give somebody something else, I stopped. I just relaxed and said, "OK. This is me. This is what you get."
Logo is tossing around the date for starting "Drag Race," teasing fans, and not committing to anything yet.
The official statement is spring 2015. Spring is a lot of things to different people. In TV land, I think the spring season is going to happen sooner rather than later. And what I'm learning from "RuPaul's Drag Race" — it being the biggest show on Logo — they manipulate their programing to make sure they premiere the show in the right timing so that another network doesn't pick up something and put it at the same time. That's the information we were given. There's strategy here, and I guess they want people to be grumbling, because they are grumbling!
You've poked fun at that a bit yourself, with your Instagram video declaring "Coming spring 2025!" Is this frustrating for the contestants?
It's extremely frustrating. A lot of things are done already, but some things are not done, so we're in limbo. I have a full-time job and I'm waiting to see what's going to happen. How do I tell people that I might not be here for a premiere party? The tentative plan is to have premiere parties in Vegas, New York City, and L.A., so "Drag Race" is going to say come on out. "Ok! When?" I'm sure they'll give us ample notice, but it is nerve-racking. I talked to Pandora Boxx, and she's like, "The days of planning are over. It's spontaneity. You get a gig, and you take it." It's exciting.
Speaking of Pandora Boxx, what is in the Rochester water?
Exactly! You know what, it's a great question. I've had the privilege of meeting a lot of different performers, and every one of them is talented in their own way. It's true, everybody has their different angle. What Rochester has is unique, in terms of our community, not just the drag community, but theater and all the different aspects of the arts. It's open, but it's sort of a secret. You stumble upon it. You realize more and more the different companies and different groups. We have so much where we can go out and get exposure.
Years ago, there was Muther's. There was a drag mother there. Her name was Naomi Kane, and she owned Muther's bar, and we would all — Aggy [Dune], Pandora, Darienne [Lake], myself, Samantha Vega — all of us in the community would go in there. Naomi Kane was a tough mother. She would get you on stage and sort of try something and be like, "Was that really what you wanted to do?" And she would say, "Come on, baby, you've got to try harder!" She's the one who named me Mrs. Kasha Davis: she's like, "You're married; you have Mister Davis." I'm really proud of the fact that I don't know any other missus drag queens; it's my shtick.
The bottom line is that our community helps one another. The drag community can be vicious, and anybody that goes on the "RuPaul's Drag Race" website and all the other sites: the comments out there can be cruel. But I think that's part of the fun. It's like going to karaoke. We all go to karaoke, and we all go, "Hmm, that person can't sing." A true singer hates to do karaoke, because they know they're going to be ripped apart. In drag, you get tips, but you also get ripped apart. The criticism is there. But backstage, the group here — Aggy, Darienne, Ambrosia [Salad] — we've all helped each other.
You've been doing this for more than 10 years?
How would you describe the scene today, compared to even a few years ago?
Every year, there are a couple of new performers, and in the drag world, you get a drag mother so many of us who are getting a little older help some of the younger kids out. They appear a lot now on Facebook and they do a lot more videos, versus going out to the clubs, so a lot of people are doing drag that way.
But what's happened with us: Aggy and I have our gig, The Big Wigs, we've kind of taken drag out of the bar scene. I like to say out of the bar scene and into the mainstream. We do shows at the JCC. We do shows at Golden Ponds. It's a different show; it's an actual show versus just a number.
You've really embraced YouTube. I know your series has more than 70 episodes now.
My husband really is the one who does all the brain work in terms of the editing and the filming, but it is another way to get out there. If you don't have a show every week, at least you can put a video or a photo out. I don't have any control on how they edit me on TV, but I have control right now to push out videos and give a little taste of who I am. However they decide to edit me, if I'm Big Bitch, then at least they get to see the other side of me.
I've seen you perform; I don't know how they could edit you into being Big Bitch.
You know, there are long days. And it's an exhausting experience. It's the most amazing experience I've had in performing to date, but I've learned a lot. And I've learned how far I can be pushed.
How did you get started?
I went to school for theater. Ever since I could remember, I wanted to do theater. I wanted to be a star, I wanted to go to Broadway, all of this stuff. Then the reality set in later in life, so I decided to do it on the side — if I didn't do it on the side, I felt like I was dying. The reality, is if you have a passion in our life and you don't do it, you do sort of crumble.
I had been a fan of drag, just going out to see it, but it never even entered my mind to do it, because I don't physically have the body to be a lady. Steve and I went to Provincetown for vacation, and we saw Miss Richfield 1981. Now Miss Richfield 1981, her shtick is that she won a beauty contest in 1981 — and she's hideous, and she sings terrible, and she's like "HELLO!" I was like, "Oh my God, she's hysterical." Everybody here is beautiful, all the queens are beautiful, so I never put it in my head that I could be beautiful. I saw this campy, ridiculous, no boobs, tight dress, dress is up too high, doing handstands, just ridiculous humor improvisation, and I was so inspired. We saw the show like three times.
On the nine-hour drive back, I said, "Well, what if I did drag?" Steve said, "I can't see you physically doing that." "Yeah, but she looks nothing like a woman, and she has us cracking up." Then we started saying, "What would be your name?" First pet and first street. I called Muther's and I said, "Hey, I want to do a show. Can I get in?"
I rehearsed non-stop. I had two songs: "Lime Jell-O Marshmallow Cottage Cheese Surprise," and "I Enjoy Being a Girl." I went to the Goodwill and I bought a maternity outfit — because I didn't know what I was buying. I bought this big mother-of-the-bride blue dress and I had big brown hair and barely any make-up and I knew every freaking word. I brought every friend from work, and it was like, "Wow, I could do this on my own." Everything is on my own: the costuming — I don't have to rely on anybody. No one has to rely on me. I was able to fulfill that need without interrupting work.
- PHOTO BY TAMMY SWALES
Sounds like that first performance was great.
It was great! I thought it was the best thing ever. I look back at the pictures, I'm like, "Jesus, didn't you have any make-up?" I had red lipstick, eyelashes, long gloves, really hairy arms. Horrible! But everyone goes through the early stages. You look back through your photos and you're like "phew." My favorite thing Aggy ever said to me when I first met her at Muther's was, "You know honey, you don't have to be afraid to try and look pretty." We perform very well together. I liken her to Lucy and I'm Ethel. In any classic comic duo, you have the straight man and the goofball.
What is that makes y'all work so well with one another?
We had an instant connection. Aggy had been looking for a way to go a little bit more mainstream. Aggy does get booked a lot as Cher, and impersonations at parties and things like that. She was like, "I know I can do more." We just know each other at this point — where the joke is landing, when to pick up on the other line — and there's that connection. We've had the best of times and the worst of times, and we've worked it out, because we know there's a connection we have on stage that we can't explain. We get on stage, and we get it. We could be sick, we could be fighting backstage, and then get on stage and "bing!"
If we needed to get a show together tonight, we could put it together and go. We could go into a pre-school and entertain. We don't have to go for the crotch for a joke. Still, the adults in the room might get some tongue-in-cheek humor that the kids won't.
How do you feel your own performance has changed in 12 years?
Well, I'm less afraid to try and look pretty. [She laughs] I don't consider myself pretty, I consider myself diva-like. Kasha is modeled after my mom and my grandmothers. My grandmother was a whistler in Vaudeville — she performed at Radio City and she showed me all of these newspaper articles and the things she did. And her headshots, and it was like, "I want to be her." I have Italian and Ukrainian backgrounds, so just these strong characters that I just loved, so I thought I could take a mix of them.
My cooking is horrible, but if you're drinking while you're cooking, then everything tastes terrific. I have to remember: Be Mrs. Kasha Davis; be the housewife. Every housewife out there may want something more. What's funny about that? They may be home and lip-syncing into the vacuum hose, or they're dancing around and, "You know after the kids grow up, I'm going to go get this." That was the way my mom was, and I just kind of thought it was so funny — and you know, they may be a little tipsy.
You've been described as old-school camp, but I'm curious as to what you would say about your style.
I think old-school. There is a new form of camp — but I totally agree: camp, character, comedy. Trixie Mattel, one of the other contestants, is the new camp, which is really over the top, sort on the lines of Ambrosia Salad, but Trixie really takes it to the next level. But my style could be considered classic.
I am very comfortable learning a new song, but I have to be careful, because a lot of times, it just doesn't work. It's like, if it's funny that a 40-year-old mom or older is trying to be hip by singing a song, then it works. But if I'm trying to be Ariana Grande, the audience is like, "You're Kasha Davis, what are you doing?" I've kind of made that, as they call it, the brand.
What do you look for in a song that you would want to perform?
If I can feel the song; it's just the energy level of the song. I'm a major fan of Tina Turner. If it's got that dance rhythm to it, where I can just get out there and explode on the stage, I like that. Ballads are not my shtick, necessarily, unless it's funny
I have a one-woman show that I've been working on for several years, and we have a lot of singing in that. I swear at this point there's got to be 14 or 15 songs, and they're all tied into the housewife. So there are songs like "If I Knew You Were Comin' I'd Have Baked a Cake," and old-school songs like that which I love to bring to the audience, because they just haven't heard them.
- PHOTO BY TAMMY SWALES
- Mrs. Kasha Davis and Mr. Davis.
Your husband plays a massive role in a lot of the things you do. Tell us more about him.
He's my dream come true in so many different ways. When I moved here, I couldn't imagine meeting somebody. I came from this small town called Scranton, Pennsylvania, but they're backward, and there was no such thing as a gay relationship. So when I eventually met Steve, he had daughters and I got to be a step-parent, and that was amazing. We really support each other through the different endeavors in life, he's always been there.
There's no Mrs. Kasha Davis without Mr. Davis. We played down the whole Mr. Davis at first. We wanted him to never be seen, and just be that Mr. Davis that always grumbles. But he is so important in terms of all the social media, and the website, and all of our video and stuff on YouTube. He's teaching me a lot of these things, but we're a partnership through and through.
As an actor and just the pressure of coming up with ideas and the pressure of the shows, and stuff, sometimes I don't know how some of the other contestants are happening — unless they have a team. I'm fortunate enough to be working with Dresden [Engle Public Relations], different photographers like Tammy Swales, people just wanting to jump in and assist like Ralph Meranto at the JCC; there are so many people in Rochester that have helped.
Looking at the posters you sell in your shop, there's a dual face: one is Kasha and one is of you out of drag. I was wondering what that relationship is for you.
The T-shirt design was done by my husband, and the message is that on the show, on "RuPaul's Drag Race," 50 percent of the time you're a boy and 50 percent of the time you're in drag. So I thought it would be really cool to split the difference and have that image that way. You really are both, and I'm comfortable performing as either. I happen to be an actor who happens to do drag. I stumbled upon drag 12 years ago, but in general I'm just as comfortable being on stage as either one.
With it already being season 7 of "Drag Race," it seems like the show has really helped push drag out into the mainstream.
Oh my gosh, it's a dream come true for us. Much of what we do is nightclub work or vacation town performing; niche kind of performing. Now it's more mainstream, it's more acceptable, or people are more interested. And Darienne just came back from Australia. There's international interest.
And it's so fun to watch. When my name got announced, one night we went from 2,000 friends on Facebook to the next morning we had 5,000. Instagram just continues every day. I told Steve the other day, it's like my little slot machine. I'll post a picture, and I'll see how many more likes I can get. And all they've done so far is announce who's on. When I look to some of the former contestants who've been on, they've taken this opportunity and brought it to another level, and that's my goal. I mentioned my play, and I have a single coming out.
What's the single?
It's called "Cocktail." You can take this opportunity in any direction you want. Some individuals have chosen to keep it the status quo, maintain their performances and not travel, but the offers are starting to come in and that's exciting.
What was it like meeting the other contestants? Was there any intimidation, or were people friendly?
I'm not sure how much I can talk about, but I'll just say it's a mixture. I didn't know anybody; I'd heard of a few. It was intimidating. The whole experience at first had me kind of wanting to run for the door. I just had to breathe for a second, because it was overwhelming; there was so much coming at you. But then I settled in, learned to calm down a little bit. There were a lot of strong personalities all the time, non-stop.
For readers who have never seen the show: what is it about this season that should make them jump in?
There's definitely some twist and turns with this particular season, and they've taken some risks in terms of going a little bit off the norm. For repeat viewers, that's doing something fresh, and I think for anyone who hasn't watched it — my dad, I'd have him watch it, because it's just ridiculous.
What I find interesting about "Drag Race" is that the challenges can be absolutely ridiculous, but there's so much passion and so much heart. They get to a lot of really soft, sore spots. You can see past the drag, and see past the dress, and see past all of the impersonations, and if any of that makes you feel uncomfortable, you really do get a lot of interesting and sometimes heartbreaking stories. Everyone has a story to tell, and I think then if there's an insecurity about watching drag, you find yourself rooting for this person because you have a heart.
You posted a photo on Instagram with Aggy and the hashtag "Season 8." Do you have some inside knowledge?
Here's the secret: First off you have to think that it's going to happen. I want that for her more than anyone else. She is probably the most talented queen I've ever met.
The next season could have a fourth from Rochester?
Absolutely. Aggy's been in the process of the audition as well, and as we both have learned, sometimes, like with any show, you might not be the right choice for this particular season. Aggy has a ton to offer, and what we're doing is kind of like campaigning for her. Start saying it and getting everyone thinking it so that people really start to push and root for Aggy.
Mrs. Kasha Davis
Can be seen at The Big Wigs' "Get Your Heart On"
Friday, February 13, and Saturday, February 14
Golden Pond Party House, 500 Long Pond Road
7 p.m. | $40
And at Drag Brunch with Aggy Dune and Darienne Lake
Sunday, February 15
Edibles Restaurant, 704 University Avenue
271-4910 for more information and tickets