Since sashaying onto TV screens 10 years ago, RuPaul’s Drag Race has changed as a show almost as much as it has changed drag culture. This year, Yvie Oddly bested three fairly traditional queens to win season 11, nabbing the crown thanks in no small part to her off-kilter personality and outside-the-box approach to the artform. The previous year, the idiosyncratic Trixie Mattel was crowned winner of RuPaul’s Drag Race All Stars.
But in 2009, it was a different scene. Unabashedly embracing oddity served as a hindrance to irrepressible oddball Tammie Brown, the Texas-born queen who was eliminated on just the second episode of the first season.
Despite her early exit, Brown’s profile refused to fade into the shadows like many of her first-season compatriots. For starters, a heapin’ helping of the show’s most iconic lines (“see you later, in the magazines”; “Tootsie Loo!”; “Ha! Ha! I’m acting”; “Come on, Teletubby! Teleport us to Mars!”) came from Brown in the space of just four episodes (two on Drag Race, two from the ill-fated first season of All Stars). Additionally, Brown has continued to make some of the most satisfying, peculiar art of any Drag Race alum, from her eclectic music to her opening spot on Mattel’s recent tour to the “cancer-curing comedy” delivered on her YouTube channel (not to mention her activism, which led to the viral “I don’t see you out there walking children in nature” clapback to Ru).
Ten years after debuting on Drag Race, it seems that the culture-shifting show is finally catching up to Tammie Brown’s aesthetic — and the boundary-flaunting performer is ready to take her career to the next level now that weirdness in drag is suddenly a greater asset than fishiness or pageantry.
But it’s not 2009 anymore, and Brown isn’t the same queen either. While she remains impossible to pin down, the Brown who lets Billboard into her new musical collaborator’s Bed-Stuy home studio one summer afternoon seems more focused than ever before.
Well, at least musically speaking. While Brown’s mind veers from bemoaning the state of women’s rights in the South to the plethora of roadkill in Missouri within the space of a minute, the songs Brown plays for me display an attention to compositional detail and stylistic focus we haven’t seen from her before. While past releases have touched on everything from bluesy guitar to B-52s absurdity to ukulele ditties, Brown’s upcoming release, Schubert (the T, in reference to Brown’s birth name Keith Glen Schubert, is silent and accented), is laser-focused on a pulsating, ’80s synth-indebted sound courtesy new collaborator Pierce Rolli. A recent college grad who studied music and business, Pierce linked up with Brown online. After exchanging ideas in the ether, Brown is visiting his Brooklyn studio for two weeks to record this “concept album” based around the character Schubert, applying those indelible Tammie Brown vocal inflections to these sleek, sly club tracks.
“It’s a little more sassy, very tongue-in-cheek — like Amanda Lear, that was the inspiration for Schubert,” Brown says, noting that the French singer/model’s best material is “very absurd and over-the-top, but it’s really good and really gay.”
Apart from Lear, the muses for Schubert are predictably random for Tammie. “When [Pierce] asked for ideas, I mentioned the [Tina Turner] album Break Every Rule. Amanda Lear, of course, and Mexican artists like Lucia Mendez with ‘Corazón De Piedra’ and Dulce with her song ‘Tu Muñeca,’ which has these really pretty melodies and synth ’80s sounds.”
Much like the lightning-fast mental ping-pong game that seems to be ever-raging in Brown’s head, the diverse influences on Schubert speak to her Wikipedia-esque brain and instant recall.
“My mother hates it,” Brown laughs of her trivia savvy. “I like to study. I’m astute and I look. I am dyslexic, but I work with it. I retain lots of information — and I’m a stoner. I’m not saying I want people to go out and get high all the time, but I can smoke marijuana and I’m actively creative.” And then, as if to prove her effortless mental gymnastics, Brown adds, “I guess I shouldn’t say stoner – I’m a gemologist,” she slyly puns.
That musical wordplay crops up amidst the pounding, shiny synths of Schubert via Brown’s wickedly hilarious lyrics, which run from willfully campy (Brown rhymes “Schubert” with “disco lair” on the title track) to the absurd (one track calls out a bald daddy in Spanish) to the affecting (another song deals with HIV/AIDS). Another song, “Queen Killer,” is “a metaphor about a fame chaser,” Pierce explains, which Tammie says came from a real-life experience of someone trying to use Brown as a bank account.
“I paid for [this guy] to come out to Los Angeles, and then he wasn’t going to hang out with me — he was just using me for a ride and making excuses. But I have a good friend named Kelly Mantle,” Brown says, referencing the season 6 competitor. “She got his information, called him, and within 20 minutes all my money was back in my account. She told him she was going to kick his face into the gravel. She’s mean, by the way, nobody knows that about her, but she is – ask Gia Gunn.”
That romantic misfire Brown describes wasn’t a one-off situation, either.
“Dating is a weird thing,” Brown says in a rare flat moment. “I need to be more cautious with things, meeting people. I’ve had people even stand me up. I guess they get shaky in their boots.” But quickly enough, the pep picks back up. “But with human papilloma swingin’ around, who wants that anyway?”
For someone who came out while still a high schooler and started doing drag in a small, conservative Texas town, Brown is tough enough to weather getting stood up. In fact, Oct. 19, the release date of Schubert, is the same day Brown celebrates 20 years of performing under the name Tammie Brown.
“I’d been doing drag before [becoming Tammie Brown] for two years in high school,” Brown says of growing up in Fulton, Texas. “I was fortunate enough to be doing it in high school — and supported, too. I went to the prom in drag.”
“Supported,” however, is a relative term – life wasn’t necessarily safe. Brown says the reaction to doing drag in her town was “50/50, but I paid no heed, I didn’t worry about that kind of stuff. What’s the point? I mean, okay, I made sure I always looked good in case I was found in a ditch or something,” Brown says bluntly.
“Every day I got called f—-t. Well, big deal. Every day I’m over here living my truth, so what’s the big deal. And then I had people that were protecting me. Teachers and other male students who were hetero, which was wonderful.”
Less wonderful, though, is the culture Brown returns to in our current political landscape.
“Of course, things are changing – with the president, now Confederate flags are out in my small town, which we didn’t have before,” Brown says sadly. “This is a white America. We don’t even know why we have an eagle – it comes from the Iroquois Nation, which is why the [American] eagle is holding the united arrows and the branch. They’re the united nations [of Native American nations], the Iroquois, Mohawks and all of them together.”
Again, there’s that remarkable repository of knowledge on instant recall. It’ll be on display when Brown brings the A Little Bit of Tammie residency to Provincetown, Mass., this summer… and perhaps we’ll see it on a future season of Drag Race.
“I would go back on the show for the fans,” Brown opines, not sounding particularly concerned either way. “Of course, the extra publicity would be great. Maybe [an extra] 16 million followers. If the fans wanted and they asked, I would. I would suggest the fans write World of Wonder and let them know how they feel.”
If Brown did return for a future season of All Stars, what might we expect?
“I’ll go on the show and run my mouth as fast as I can and make as many soundbites as I can, which I do normally — it’s easy for me, a stroke of genius, to run my mouth.”
As for the music, the goal for Schubert – which will be preceded by a non-album promo single titled “She’s TaMMie Brown” on Sept. 6 – is easy enough. “My goal is to hit the top of the pop charts,” Brown says wryly. “My dream was always to have a No. 1 single, and after that, nine lower ones. A No. 6, 9, No. 8, two No. 7s, maybe. Why not?”