Tina Burner came to the drag world at the relatively late age of thirty, but since first planting her feet in a pair of six-inch heels, she’s certainly made up for lost time. Known primarily as a fan favorite from season 13 of “RuPaul’s Drag Race,” Burner’s eclectic career has encompassed musical theater, stand-up comedy and performance. (Not to mention that, in another life, she was part of a boy band!) She puts her wide-ranging skill set to work in “Maybe This Time Live,” a self-devised cabaret that she’s bringing to Franky Bradley’s Oct. 7 and 8. The performance draws on Burner’s experience as a contestant on the mother of all reality competitions and her lifelong self-expression through showtunes. PGN spoke with Burner about the birth of her persona, her natural theatricality and the lessons she learned from RuPaul. Some responses have been condensed and edited.
I want to ask about your origin story. When did you know you were destined to be a performer, and what steps did you take to make your dream a reality?
Ever since I was really, really young, I used to sing and dance and be in all the school plays. I did tap dance from a very young age, and I got back into it when my parents divorced. Daddy wanted a football player, but mommy wanted a dancer. When I moved to New York, I did some work outside of the city and some shows Off-Broadway, and if you watched the show, you know I was in a boy band. But to be a drag queen was a different story. I started working at a gay bar, and I hadn’t performed in years. I was mostly bartending, and you can make good money working the gay bars. One night they needed a host of karaoke, and they were like, “Do you do drag?” Well, I did it on the Fire Island Invasion a few times, but it can’t be that hard. Mind you, I had eyebrows that looked like the McDonald’s golden arches at the time. Hid-e-ous. I just did it and had a good time. I realized that I really missed performing, I missed singing, all of it. So, I’m thinking I can get paid to do this… and I can drink on the job? It was amazing! It kind of just snowballed and spiraled, and the next thing I knew, I was doing like nine shows a week.
How would you describe your personal style?
My style was playing sports as a kid, so then I became a linebacker in a dress. [Laughs.] No. My style for drag has just become a higher version of myself. I wanted to always be honest, to be blunt, to push boundaries and be political. I feel like as a drag queen, we have the opportunity to address so many audiences, so it was important to me to get their attention. I wasn’t trying to be the pretty girl, or this girl, or the splits girl. Let’s face it: I started when I was thirty, so I wasn’t going to be doing any splits! I work with what I got. I’m like six-foot-three out of drag, so I wanted to be this tall, Amazonian comedy queen. And I wanted to make people laugh.
Tell me a little about the show you’re bringing to Philly. Where did the idea to blend stand-up and music with a full orchestra come from?
When I was on “Drag Race,” we did the Ru-Sical, and I played the role of the EmShe. It’s based on the Emcee in “Cabaret.” I got placed in the bottom, and for a lot of people across the world, it was the first time they got behind me. They were like, what is this about? How is she even in the bottom? I thought when I came home I’d watch it and think, this is interesting. How do I take that and put a positive spin on it? I love doing Broadway, and I thought it would be amazing to create a live cabaret based on the Broadway classics, and also use them to tell my life story. And to tell it backwards, from now until I first realized I was gay. Because when you watch a television show, you only get so much of the story. And my life is interesting, to say the least. I’ve lived thirty lives already, and I wanted to tell why I am the way I am. It’s important to share our stories. There are a lot of people out there who will see it and say, “Oh, I’m not that crazy!”
What are some of the songs you’ve chosen?
“Somewhere That’s Green.” “The Ladies Who Lunch.” “I Am What I Am.” “Maybe This Time” is the title track. “My Way” — which is not so much Broadway but is a very personal song, and it’s New York. A lot of them have very cool orchestrations. With “Somewhere That’s Green,” we took it and made it very Madonna in “Dick Tracy” or Jessica Rabbit. I believe Audrey was that character. She was a little broken, and I feel like if she was to do that song, it’s not about being some little housewife. It’s about being in the strip club, in a sense. It was important that people focus on the stories of why I chose these songs, because it all relates to my life.
Have you ever performed in Philly before? What are your impressions of the city?
That’s a really good question. I thought about it long and hard, and I’m going to say this is my first time as a drag performer. You know what? I just lied to you. I did do it once with Iris Spectre at a bar there. I know the whole 13th Street scene, and I love Philly. I love that it’s a bigger city but there’s such a centralized gay scene — which is a bad thing if you’re sleeping with everybody but a good thing if you like a small place to gather.
So, I’d be remiss if I didn’t ask this: Any chance we’ll see you on a future season of “Drag Race All Stars”?
Baby, if they ask me, you bet I’m going! I love a competition. A lot of people ask why I’d put myself through it again, but I had a great time. It was drag queen summer camp! I learned a lot, and I didn’t think I’d be able to sponge so much after doing drag for eleven years. But I’m always open to learning more.
Tina Burner will perform “Maybe This Time Live” Oct. 7-8 at Franky Bradley’s, 1320 Chancellor St. For tickets and more information, visit tinaburner.eventbrite.com.