Runaway Hip Hop Queen Found Inspiration Through Bette Midler, Iggy Pop, And Madonna

New York Times
From Runaway Teenager to Hip-Hop Queen
July 17, 2012

MYKKI BLANCO did not spring from nowhere. Rather, she emerged, Venus-like, one day last summer, when Michael David Quattlebaum Jr. decided to step out for the first time in head-to-toe drag, including a black bathing suit with padded breasts and fake Chanel purse.

“I call it my golden-ticket day,” Mr. Quattlebaum said, recounting how he (or rather “she”) was hit on five times. “It was like Pandora’s box opened.”

Since then Mykki Blanco, Mr. Quattlebaum’s glamazon alter ego, has become a redoubtable presence on the downtown art and cabaret scene. More avant-garde objet d’art than drag queen, Mykki wears a fearsome honey-brown wig while performing allusive rap with a radical-gay bent.

Mykki has been spotted at such A-list venues as Art Basel Miami Beach, Santos Party House and Le Baron, straddling the worlds of rap and performance art just as nonchalantly as the character blurs male and female.

Although Elle magazine declared Mykki “hip-hop’s new queen” on its culture blog, Mr. Quattlebaum rejected the term “gay rapper,” describing Mykki as “a mixture of riot grrrl and ghetto fabulousness.”

Androgyny is the animating force of his debut EP, “Mykki Blanco & The Mutant Angels,” a febrile punk record that draws on his 2011 book of poems, “From the Silence of Duchamp to the Noise of Boys.” In an accompanying music video for the track “Join My Militia,” a scantily clad Mykki stumbles through a “Blair Witch Project”-looking park, dressed (by the end) in nothing but a dead octopus.

“I’m using hip-hop as a performance medium,” he said, sounding like a graduate student defending a thesis.

Indeed, the 25-year-old is an art-school dropout twice over (three semesters at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, one at Parsons the New School for Design), who recently quit his day job at a bookstore and lives in Harlem with two roommates.

Ask about his influences, and he will mention such incongruous names as Lauryn Hill, Kathleen Hanna, Jean Cocteau and Anaïs Nin. His poems, which Interview magazine called “impassioned and sometimes illicit,” cross images of hedonistic nights in Chinatown (“I called Smith’s quits / I ran down Lafayette in an / adrenaline blitz”) with references to Rilke and Sisyphus.

But his literary efforts mostly fuel his outré live persona. Even out of drag, Mr. Quattlebaum strikes a gaudy appearance: turquoise nails, an earring shaped like a Tylenol tablet, a tattoo of the Star of David on his biceps. (His father’s side is African-American Jewish.)

“I always knew I was going to live a fringe lifestyle,” he said.

As an adolescent in Raleigh, N.C., he was obsessed with alternative icons, tearing through books about Iggy Pop, Bette Midler and Madonna. At 15, he founded a performance collective, Paint In Consciousness Experimental Theater, for which he won an Independent Spirit Award.

But he yearned for the big city.

“I wrote an e-mail to Vincent Gallo being like: ”˜I adore you. I know that you ran away to New York City when you were 16,’ ” Mr. Quattlebaum said. “He wrote back: ”˜Don’t come to New York. You’re an idiot.’ ”

That didn’t stop him. One night in 2002, he stole $100 from his mother’s wallet and took a Greyhound bus to Manhattan. He had nowhere to sleep, so he stayed up all night or crashed with men he met in bars. When his luggage was stolen near Tompkins Square Park, he rebuilt his wardrobe from thrift stores and shoplifting.

At night, he would go wherever Index Magazine or Paper said to go, and nearly always ended up at the Cock, an East Village gay bar, where he met Alexander McQueen and Ryan McGinley.

“I did the go-go boy contest a couple of times,” he said. “I would get, like, $50 for being the only one who was willing to get completely nude.”

Life as a teenage runaway was “hyper-romantic,” he said. But eventually, his mother (who had hired an investigator to track him down) relented and sent him money to stay at a hostel. After three months, he went home, where he was grounded.

He did not return to New York until 2008, when he was accepted to Parsons. After dropping out, he made inroads with an established art crowd, including Kathy Grayson, an art dealer and Jeffrey Deitch’s protégé, and Aaron Bondaroff, a founder of the gallery and publisher Ohwow. But he still had not found a voice of his own.

“One night, Kathy Grayson said to me: ”˜You don’t want to be the artsy person at the party. You want to be the artist,’ ” he recalled.

It was good advice. Mr. Quattlebaum poured his attention into writing “From the Silence of Duchamp,” which Ohwow published last June. His poems gave voice to a rebel soul adrift, and typified his “dirty, live-your-art” ethos.

They also gave him a chance to reinvent himself. He had been performing hypermasculine industrial-rock under the moniker No Fear. Mykki Blanco, initially created for a video project, was the yin to No Fear’s yang.

“Mykki Blanco was this cosmic union in my mind,” he said. But Mr. Quattlebaum didn’t know the full power of his creation until he took it to the streets.

Almost immediately, on his “golden ticket” day, a guy on the subway hit on him, and more followed. No longer a “hustler-boy fantasy,” he was now an irrepressible drag knockout.

“It’s different from feeling sexy,” Mr. Quattlebaum said of discovering his new identity. “All of a sudden, you feel pretty. And when you start to feel pretty: oh, boy, look out.”

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