Kuumba is the principle of Kwanzaa that honors creativity. It speaks to leaving the community more beneficial and beautiful than we inherited it. The principle has both a social and spiritual dimension and is deeply rooted in social and sacred teachings of African societies. One person who won’t have any trouble following that commitment is this week’s Portrait, the fabulous VinChelle. A multi talented performer, the singer, dancer and comedian has been winning drag shows since she first came on the scene, including taking home the title of 2017 Drag Queen of the Year. She also hosts two popular podcasts, “Black Girl Magic Philly” and “The Black Dairies.” In addition she will be one of the hosts for the Philly Gay Calendar “Philadelphia Digital Nightlife Awards” streaming on January 10th.
Can you give us a brief overview of who VinChelle is and all that you do?
I’m a professional drag queen, I’ve been doing it since 2015. I’m lucky in that I work all the time, even through the pandemic. I’m not traveling as much, but before quarantine I was working in NY, NJ, PA and Delaware. I pretty much do drag full time.
That’s great, so where are you from?
I’m originally from Nashville, Tennessee, born and raised.
I’ve never been there but I’ve been called Nashville as a nickname over the years and I’ve always wanted to visit.
Nashville is amazing. A lot of people who have never been there have negative ideas about Nashville, but it’s a great city. I love being in Philadelphia, but I’m a true Southerner at heart. I love being from the South and had a great time growing up in Nashville. I have a great family. Both my mom and dad are still together and they both are very, very accepting, Everyone in the family knows that I do drag. My grandmother, my little brother, my aunts and uncles, I’ve been very blessed.
What were you like as a kid?
I was always a gay, artsy kid. I was into the Spice Girls and later switched to Destiny’s Child. I thought I was Beyoncé or Scary Spice for sure. I was always a very flamboyant kid, I wasn’t into video games or that kind of thing, I liked staying active. I was very performative. I loved putting on shows, I’d do these elaborate puppet shows for the family over the holidays and I took them very seriously.
What was your most memorable moment?
Probably just doing shows with my little brother, he was my only sibling so I’d force him to participate, and as I said, I really took it seriously. I’d yell at him, “No! You got that line wrong!” I was crazy! But I love him dearly because though I know now that he didn’t care about performing, he took it just as seriously, just for me. I love him to this day for it and he’s always been very supportive of me and everything I’ve done.
What were the shows about?
About family and growing up, Christmas and the holidays. I wrote all my own skits and songs. I still do. Around 10 is when I started getting more serious about songwriting. During quarantine, I’ve been able to work on quite a number of new songs.
I used to do elaborate games of house, actually more like a conglomerate. I used Monopoly money and I ran a store out of the kitchen, I’d push our twin beds together and stage wrestling matches between my brother and my best friend, complete with betting options and management fees!
I love it! I put together a band. I’d get friends to sing songs that I wrote. You couldn’t tell me I wasn’t the Beyoncé of the group. I’d be like, “Y’all sing in the back doing the chorus, I’ll be up front here singing the verses.” And they let me! I’d record us performing until I realized that I could just record myself and layer it, then I kicked them all out! My friends let me be a crazy person. So shout out to all of them.
What’s a Southern trait of yours?
Slow moving! We like the slow life down South, though not enough to be late for things, I humbly say that I’m almost never late to gigs, but I am slower moving and have that “we’ll get there when we get there” attitude. I love the pace of the South.
How did you end up in Philadelphia?
I got accepted into the University of the Arts. I went to Wharton Arts Middle School and then Nashville School of the Arts High School and then UArts here.
How old were you when you came out?
I was 16; that was when I started living as a visibly open gay man. I went to all arts schools, so I wasn’t exactly the only one. I told my mother at 16, though I was 22 when I physically told my father. I mean, he knew, but that’s when I actually said the words.
I understand that your major was theatre…
Yes, I could sing, I could act and I could dance; the only thing I couldn’t do was draw, but now that I’ve been doing makeup, maybe I’ve developed new skills! And I minored in orchestra. I played the viola for 8 years. I was first chair my senior year! Unfortunately, I haven’t played in years. I don’t think I could play it if I tried these days. But I want to. I’m going home soon so I’ll have to see if I can find it.
That would be cool. What was a best and worst moment in theater?
Worst would have to be my very, very first show. It was in the 6th grade, instead of taking the bus to school, my mother was so excited about seeing me, she decided to drive me. I don’t remember what happened but we ended up being an hour and a half late! So I missed my very first performance in my first real play and I was pissed! [Laughing] We still talk about it to this day. It’s funny now, but looking back though I feel bad for my mother now because she was so upset. I don’t want to get emotional about it, but she was in tears. She’s such a great person and such a great mother and she was mortified. But now I can tease her about it. Best moment? That’s hard, there have been a lot of good ones. I’ve been able to play some great roles. Jake, from “Side Show” was a good role. Vocally, it was a lot, but I had just graduated college and got booked to do this Off-Broadway show so it was exciting. I also got on the national tour for the show. A proud moment for me was when I got cast in “Junie B. Jones, the Musical.” It’s been playing in NY for a while at the TLA theater as well as TYA, Theater For Young Audiences, and it was a big deal. I got my Actor’s Equity card out of it, but what I’m most proud of is that I got the role of the father. I was the first Black male ever to play the title character’s father. Especially since the character of Junie B and the mother were both white. I can’t thank them enough for that casting. They just saw something they wanted in me and went for it. It was groundbreaking at the time. We all played 3 characters in the show, so I also played the teacher and the lunch lady. You know a little VinChelle came out for that role.
How did you get into doing drag?
I’d always wanted to dabble in it. When we were on tour and would stop into gay bars on the road, I always tried to find the drag shows. Of course “RuPaul’s Drag Race” was a favorite and in 2015 I was living in Atlanta for a little, after leaving NY. While there, out of the blue I just decided, I’m going to move back to Philly and start doing drag. So I moved back here. I literally had a pair of heels and a couple of dresses from Ross. I typed “Philadelphia, Drag” into my computer and the first thing that came up was the Philadelphia Drag Wars. The banner said that there was a competition coming up and I took it as a sign. I stayed up all night making a stupid submissions video and got accepted. The first time I performed, I knew that drag was what I was going to be doing for a long time. [Laughing] I did not know what I was getting myself into! But I got such a positive response and so much love and respect it was overwhelming. I ended up winning the competition! From there things just continued, I started getting booked for shows all over the place and it’s just kept going ever since.
Do you lip sync or sing?
I do both. I’m the queen that does it all. I lip sync, I sing, I do comedic drag, I do spooky drag, pageant drag, I do it all. I think that’s one of the reasons I’m always booked. I’ll give you whatever type of drag you want, I don’t like to limit myself.
What was the biggest culture shock moving from the South to the North?
Oh my gosh! I went from living in Nashville, actually Antioch, which is a very Southern suburban neighborhood, very middle class, to the middle of a major city. People were not as friendly, and everything moved a lot quicker than I was used to. And I was like, OMG, there’s no grass, no trees! Also, my dorm room was at 13th and Spruce! I was 17 and in the heart of the Gayborhood, seeing things I never thought I’d see in my lifetime! When OutFest happened we were like “What is going on!?!” I had no clue! But it was great and I’ve of course come to love the city and the people here.
Let’s talk about some of the other things you do.
I host a podcast called “The Black Diaries.” It’s something I started during quarantine and it’s one of the best things I’ve done. Season 2 starts in January and I’m really, really, excited about it. I also have “Black Girl Magic Philly” which was on hold in December because I was doing a lot of Kwanzaa events, but that will start again in January too. We’ll be having the two year anniversary for that in February. I also work for Jocks, which is a Black owned gay bar here in town. I do the Turnout Tuesdays there, it’s online now, and I have a lot of corporate gigs with companies like PECO and Visit Philly. I’m blessed to have the work.
What was the mission for the podcasts?
This has been a summer of racial unrest, but I started Black Diaries long before that to address a lot of the racism that happens right here in the community that we don’t like to talk about. I would find that a lot of people would come to me as if I was the only Black queen in the neighborhood. If they needed diversity, they’d call me. It was insulting to my peers, that they weren’t getting called, granted I put myself out there a lot, but there are plenty of talented performers who weren’t being seen. So I decided to start “Black Girl Magic” to showcase other performers, I’d have 20 Black entertainers of all sorts on one show, queens, drag kings, non-binary performers, singers, burlesquers, dancers, and say, hey they’re out there, we’re out here. Black Diaries is because a lot of the Black entertainers, myself included, have faced a lot racist experiences that most people don’t know about. We wanted a platform to share those experiences.
I was listening to your podcast and heard one entertainer talking about the perils of performing, she was saying how even now, people want to come up after a show and take pictures. And her response was, “The guidelines say 6 feet AND a mask, not either/or.”
I remember that episode, I think it was my drag daughter talking. It’s been tough. When we got the green light to come indoors, Woody’s was kind enough to give me a one woman show. I did a socially distanced cabaret and I was on stage in a plexiglass box! I never went into the crowd, no cash tips, and no photos unless you were in a mask and stayed far the hell away from me.
Well, you won’t have to worry about that for the Digital Nightlife Awards since it’s all digital!
Yes, it’s going to be fun. We’re going to have a full slate of entertainment along with the awards ceremony. And I’ve been nominated for about 7 awards myself!
Give me a little of the history of VinChelle.
When I was at UArts, a friend and I were looking through the incoming freshman photos, looking for cute boys, and we saw a picture of this beautiful African girl and her name was Vinchelle. My real name is Vincent so immediately, all my friends and I started using the name for me. It was just perfect! So when I started to do drag, I had to use it. During my Sasha Fierce moment I added aka Shea Butter Werk because I love punny names but that was too long to say so I dropped it.
I love the “Tribal Queen” aspect.
Yes, growing up our house was filled with African artwork. My family was very Black centric and always honored our African ancestry, which I recently found out was from the Congo. As I’ve developed VinChelle, it’s become more and more a part of her character and I love it.
It’s beautiful. What music would people be surprised to know you listen to?
I think people would be surprised to know that I can get down with some white pop music. I love me some Britney Spears, Mandy Moore, love Jessica Simpson. [Laughing] I think people will be shocked to hear that!
What would you choose for a band name?
I actually had a wedding band in NY, it was called BGB which stood for Big Gay Band.
Too bad they won’t be playing at the awards!
No, but there will be plenty of talent for everyone to see. We’re going to be celebrating amazing art and activism and highlighting the creative ways people have come up to create our new nightlife in the era of Covid.