There comes a point in life when you’ve got to look yourself in the mirror and ask the hard question: “Who the hell am I?”
There also may come a time you ask yourself an equally puzzling query: “Who the hell is Brandonna Summer?”
While there may be no crystal-clear answer to either of life’s mysteries, the latter is our humble focus today. Brandonna is the drag alter ego of Brandon Alter, who you may recognize (under all the makeup) from the 2014 surprise hit Dear White People, or in shows like NBC’s Heartbeat and TruTV’s Rachel Dratch’s Late Night Snack.
She’s been hard at work bringing an original musical — Brandonna Summer Lives Live! — to New York City’s Fringe Festival, and next week she’ll finally take the stage along with the cast she’s assembled.
We caught up with Brandonna to learn about the show, what makes her tick (hint: it’s expensive) and how she stays grounded in this big crazy world of ours.
Queerty: Hi Brandonna. Thanks so much for doing this interview.
Brandonna: Oh no honey, thank YOU. It’s been so long since I’ve been in the spotlight. I forgot how good it feels, you know, I’ve been hiding out in Venezuela the last three years.
Q: Yeah, I want to hear all about it. But I think I’d like to start by hearing about you. Who is Brandonna to Brandonna?
B: Oh honey, well, I’m an Upper East Side Jewess with a good plastic surgeon and daddy’s credit card — no, no I’m just kidding. It’s so funny, I’m sure all my friends would probably tell you, ‘Oh Brandonna loves to talk about herself,’ but when you put me on the spot, all I want to do is talk about you. You know, I do so much charity work, which I really inherited from my mother. I have my heart-centered life-coaching for wayward teenage girls, I have this fantastic annual fashion show that I organize for the homeless who are still able to walk in heels. I’m a philanthropist and a supporter of the arts. As much time as there is in the day, I try to give to others as much as I’m giving to myself. Which is a lot honey, because I get a facial everyday, just like Jennifer Lopez.
Q: And now you have this show coming to New York.
B: This show is my comeback to New York City, my favorite city in the world, and it’s really just a chance for my friends and my family, and my American fans, to find out where I’ve been and who I am now.
Q: What can everyone except to see?
B: Oh honey, you’re in for the ride of your lives. First of all, I want to let you know you can order drinks during the show, so don’t be afraid to come thirsty. I think people can expect some phenomenal new music — they’re going to walk out singing a lot of those songs in their heads, you’re welcome. I think they can expect some drama and some danger, they can expect more glitz and glamour than you can shake a Van Cleef and Arpel zipper necklace at. And they can expect to have a deeper relationship with themselves, because they have had some relationship with me. Ask Jeff Goldblum about that.
Q: What have you been through, in a nutshell, what made you who you are today?
B: Well, you know, my mother was a very strong and powerful woman and I feel like I threatened her a little bit with my own youth and beauty. It took me a long time to crawl out of her shadow, and I did that through one of my favorite things which is international travel. I took myself on a trip to Japan because I always wanted to see the cherry trees blossom, and I visited the temples, I knelt before the Buddhas, I finally learned how to use a pair of chopsticks successfully. Then I got discovered by Karl Lagerfeld just walking through the fashion district in Tokyo one day, and I had a hugely successful Chanel campaign in Japan. As my good friend Oprah says, you have to dream a bigger dream, because what life dreams up for you is even better than you can imagine. In Europe, I became a DJ, just traveling through the islands. It was amazing but you know what Dan, I have to be honest with you, after a while I got bored of wearing other people’s clothes and playing other people’s songs, so I started writing my own songs and one of them, ‘Find a Feather,’ became a HUGE HIT and I toured for over a year. I sold out every city of a seventy-five city tour.
Q: So tell me something people wouldn’t expect about you. You’re all about the glitz and glam, but you’re also very passionate about your charities.
B: I am. Well, you know, I think people would be surprised to know that I’m a very devout yogi, I’m actually developing a yoga video series called 24karat yoga, which I’m going to release next year and I’m very excited about that. I think people would be surprised to know I’m a regular meditator, that I love to steep myself in shamanic traditions and that I’m really a lover of nature and the natural world. To me, there’s really nothing that gets me more in touch with the core of my being than laying on a pristine, white sand beach with the turquoise water and feeling the wind of god ruffle my hair.
Q: What does your style say about you?
B: That I’m rich as hell, honey! And that money’s no object! No I’m kidding! Am I? I think my style says — well here are things I love: I love leopard, because it’s a neutral, gold particularly rose gold, I love leather, I love lace. I like to feel feminine but I don’t want to feel like I can’t chase after a cab if I have to. Although, since I’ve come back to New York and Uber exists, you don’t really have to chase anything anymore. It just comes to you.
Q: And what are the biggest no-no’s? What are the biggest fashion faux pas you’d never touch?
B: Oh, honey, well I think I would stay away from anything that feels overtly sexy or a little too much like going out on a Saturday night to the club, if you know what I’m saying. I feel like there’s nothing sexier than a woman who knows what she can reveal, but that the best things are left to the imagination.
Q: Can I ask you a list of favorites and guilty pleasures?
B: Of course, guilty pleasures are the only pleasures worth having!
Musician or Artist: Cher, honey. She’s an inspiration and I can’t wait to meet her one day. I feel like we’re just going to talk for weeks, non-stop. We have so much in common.
Album: My favorite album of all time — It’s a live Donna Summer album from 1999, it’s so fabulous and she really let her guard down with the audience and she’s never sounded better.
Song: Probably the one that I wrote, ‘Find A Feather,’ because it made me a fortune and it’s just the gift that keeps on giving.
Film: Funny Girl, honey. Because what’s better than Barbra Streisand when she’s on that boat, belting her heart on in the middle of the ocean. Nothing’s better than that — except my show, live.
TV Show: Well, I have to say and it’s not just because I know some of them personally but the Real Housewives of New York, Melbourne or Beverly Hills are really my guilty pleasures. But you know, the one thing about the housewives that I think is such great entertainment but I do disagree with a little bit, is that these women don’t fully own themselves. That’s why they cause all this drama. So, sometimes I like watching The Real Housewives as a primer in how not to be, how not to behave.
Book: I’m a voracious reader, which is probably something else people wouldn’t know about me. My favorite book of all time is Brideshead Revisited because it’s a classic and it just continues to unfold. It really shows how religion and family upbringing can destroy the most precious things in life which are relationships and connection. But, I also — I do love poetry, I love Rainer Maria Rilke and I just adore Mary Oliver.
Item of Clothing: It’s like trying to choose a favorite child! I would say right now it’s this gorgeous gold Lanvin one-sleeved little cocktail dress. It just goes with everything, I can wear it everywhere, I wouldn’t leave home without it and I’m just terrified of how I’m going to pack it.