LOCAL LEGEND: BROOKE COLLINS

@itsbrookecollinsbitch

Brooke Collins has spent more of her life doing drag than not. A Charleston native, she is the unofficial, unelected queen of the city's drag scene. From her weekly stomping grounds of Dudley's on Ann to the esteemed Gaillard Center, she has performed at nearly every venue in the city, an accolade she credits to her consistency, professionalism, and punctuality. Continue to read a conversation between our Junior Art Director, Tyler McCormack, and the famed Brooke Collins.

Tyler McCormack

Brooke Collins

Hi, Brooke! To start us off, I would love to hear sort of your origin story and how you decided to start pursuing drag.

     I was a dance major: a ballet dancer. I went to the North Carolina School of the Arts for college. That’s kind of where I discovered drag. It was in Winston-Salem; I went out to a gay bar there, when I was just recently coming out. And I saw drag–it wasn’t the first time I had seen drag, but it was the first time I had seen really good drag. Then, I found out that not only do they get to choose when and where they want to work, but they get to pick their own costumes, pick their own music, all these things. As a ballet dancer, I wasn’t the best in the business, so I knew I would probably always be chorus and probably traveling around for minimum wage on a bus, so I said, y’know, this sounds like something I might want to do. I dressed up for a costume party, one time, and that was all it took. I switched my career, left school after a year and a half, came back to Charleston, and enrolled in cosmetology school here. It took me probably two years to get through a ten-month course because I was doing drag and traveling in and out of town so much.
     I did my first talent show in January of 1985 in Myrtle Beach, and I won that. The show director there kind of took me under his wing, and said, “You need to do pageants.” So I said ok, and a month later, I competed in the Miss Charleston pageant, and I won that; three months later I competed in the Miss Myrtle Beach pageant and won that, and before you knew it, in August, I competed in the Miss South Carolina pageant and won that. So my career started out really fast and really furious. Now, was I pretty at that time? Probably not, but, I was extremely talented at that time, because I was fresh out of dance school, so I could flip, spin, kick, all that stuff. That’s how my career started, and from then on, I just kept moving forward. I taught myself how to make costumes, I taught myself how to make jewelry, I learned how to take care of wigs; I learned very early on that if you didn’t know how to do everything yourself then you had to pay other people to do it for you. That was how I got my start, and I really haven’t slowed down since. In 2025, that will make 40 years of drag, so we’re in the 4th decade of me doing this crap. 

Wow! That's exciting.

     It’s exciting, but it’s also a little painful at my age, haha. But, we get through it.

So, have you always been Brooke Collins? Was it the first name you picked and it just stuck?

    When I had to pick a name, my middle name happens to be Brooks, with an ‘S’. At that point in time, Brooke Shields was extremely popular; she was making all of her movies as a young girl and stuff, so I settled on Brooke. I dropped the ‘S’ and added the ‘E’; there was a show, which you won’t remember, called Dynasty with Joan Collins, and the fashion was over the top. It was all suede, and fur, and beautiful stuff. She played the character of an extreme bossy bitch, and I said, “That kind of suits me,” so I stole her last name. So, I used a combination of dropping the ‘S’ off my name, plus Brooke Shields and Joan Collins, and that’s how it came to be.

Lovely little formula you've got there. In your experience, I'm sure you've noticed drag as a performing art change, but I'm curious if you've seen any changes in your audiences as well?

     When I first started doing drag, it was strictly gay bars. That was the only place you were gonna find a drag show. And, it was probably not going to start until midnight or one o’clock in the morning. Here in Charleston, we had to close at the early hour of 6 o'clock in the morning, so we could start our shows and run them as late as we wanted to. The music was different too: it was lots of high-energy dance music, which we still do today, but it was also a lot of Broadway show music. Over the course of the years, it’s become more radio, pop, and stuff like that. We have entertainers from all different walks of life that do all different kinds of music. But the music has changed over the years.

     I will say the audience has changed as well. It used to be strictly in the gay bars, and over time, more straight people and other people got involved in our shows and wanted to come out and see them. I will say, ever since the debut of RuPaul’s Drag Race, that made a huge difference. Even though I don't think it shows exactly what drag is all about, because it's a reality show, it did bring some form of drag into people's homes that would never venture out into a gay bar. Slowly but surely, we got more of a demand for drag from the straight community, and now, as you can probably tell, every restaurant wants to do a drag brunch or some kind of show. We are not limited to just the gay bars anymore, and our shows at the bars start so much earlier: I mean, on the weekends, we start our show at 8:00 and do our late show at 9:30, which isn't so late. It kind of works out for the best, because not everybody wants to go out and see a show. A lot of people do, but this way, they’re able to catch the show, and around 10:30, if they wanna come out and start dancing, that gives them time to do that too. A lot of bars will have separate rooms for drag, where you have a dance room on one side and a drag bar on the other side. We’ve never had one of those here in Charleston, and I used to think all the time that I wanted one, but now that I see my friends in other cities that have them, they start working around 8 o'clock, and stop at around 2 am, so they don’t have to take a break so people can dance. Music has changed, and drag is constantly evolving. I do Top 40 and radio and stuff like that, but I really just love to perform drag classics: things that have been around forever and are still relevant today.

You mentioned touring to other cities. I'm curious if there's anything that you think separates Charleston's drag scene and makes it unique relative to other cities' drag scenes? 

    When I started doing drag, there was really no such thing as a cast, where we have a group of people who work every weekend. Back then, if you wanted to make a living in drag, you had to travel. I would usually run out just for the weekend, but if I was going somewhere further like Indiana or Ohio, I would go for like two weeks. That's the only way you could make a living at it if you wanted to do it full-time. Now, casts have become pretty much a staple around the country, and we still bring in guests from out of town, but mostly we work our local entertainers that are hired to work at that bar.
     I think we are very fortunate. When I decided back in the early 90s that I was going to kind of take control of the drag scene here and clean it up a little bit and make sure we had people that weren’t necessarily doing the wrong thing, whether it be drinking too much, or drugs, or stealing, yknow back in the day that used to be a big problem. I guess I kind of trained everyone, and told them if we want to be treated as professionals, we have to treat [drag] as a business. Whereas they do that in a lot of different cities now that have great casts, I feel like having the community and the camaraderie; y’know we fuss in the dressing room, but it's all play, going back and forth. Now is everybody best friends? Absolutely not. But everybody gets along, and I think thats a very important part of modern day drag, because some cities don't have that. They still are in the past, where they talk crap about one another, and do evil things to one another. I'm so fortunate we don't have that. Even if they're not on our Dudley’s cast–there's a lot of entertainers in Charleston that arent–and a lot of them are very young, but they see the way of the road, and if they go the wrong way, they're quickly told by a seasoned entertainer what is what. Just like any other business, people talk, bar owners talk, show directors talk, so if you get a bad reputation, you're not gonna get work in this business. Charleston’s unique in the fact that we are such a good community– we support one another, we work with one another, and that ultimately brings a better experience and a better show for our audiences. If we aren't getting along in the dressing room, it reads on the stage, for sure.

I love hearing you talk about when you made that decision to "clean up" Charleston's drag scene. Did that look just like building professionalism in yourself and your fellow entertainers or were there other aspects?

     Drag was not viewed favorably when I first started. When I first started, my friends, a couple from high school and a couple from the gay community here, I was running around dressed like them in my little khaki pants with my polo shirt, which I still wear some of that today, but as soon as I put on a dress, everybody that I knew from that era or area just quit talking to me. So I pretty much lost all my friends–only one stuck by me–and so I had to make new friends, which were the drag queens. Drag was very low paying in this city, and I don't want to name any names, but everybody that was doing it was doing it for drug money, or some kind of party money, they weren't doing it for the right reasons. We weren’t respected. We had the reputation, y’know, don’t get around her or she’s gonna steal your wallet or she's gonna do this. All that needed to change in my opinion.

     I don't know how I did it, other than I just pushed my way forward and started working with the bars, and said, this is what I wanna do, and I put a cast together and made them come to rehearsals and teach them the value of being respected, and now, drag is like being a star, a celebrity; people wanna be around you, they want their picture taken with you. They're no longer in the corner pointing and talking like “I bet that bitch right there stole somebody's wallet tonight.” It took some time, but ultimately, when I saw drag in North Carolina, North Carolina was a powerhouse of drag. They had these groups of helpers and people to help put them together and help them compete and win pageants and stuff. In Charleston, we had nothing like that, just a few queens, like I said, that were doing it for fun money, and I said, “we've got to turn this into a business.” so I got a good group of girls together and we just worked and worked and worked and we changed it.

Over your career, would you say that there's a highlight or something you're most proud of? 

    I've had great moments and performed in great places. I don't think there’s a theater or a venue in town I haven't performed in, including the Gibbes Art Museum, the Gaillard, the aquarium, I mean, I've worked just about every spot. The thing that I'm most proud of is my consistency. I'm always on time, I always go above and beyond to do whatever is asked of me, and I always try to leave with a good reputation, and leave them satisfied with what they paid for.

Fabulous. This has been so good! My last question is more about your perspective on the world at large: I wanted to talk about the uptick in conservative rhetoric around drag and drag performers, and see if you've noticed that impacting your job recently.

    It's a shame what's happening. I feel like it's something that some conservative people tried to throw out there, but I just don't feel like this one stuck. They are trying and trying, but every time, it seems like a judge somewhere in Tennessee or wherever strikes it down. I haven't seen it in Charleston–well, let me take that back. When this first started, there was this show they were doing at the music farm once a month, it's a show that starts at 9 o'clock, music farm is 21+. We had two women standing across the street next to Sharehouse–because they were right next door to Dudley's, we could see them–with signs that said “Leave our kids alone. No Drag queen story hour” and they were only out there for about 15 minutes before someone informed them no one was reading stories to kids, it was an adult show, and they looked really really stupid, so they left promptly. I know other cities have had major problems with it. I have friends down in Florida who are having major problems with it and they're having to rally and march and all that stuff. It's probably because we are a coastal city: if you drive to Columbia and continue for another hour and a half to Spartanburg, you're gonna find totally different demographics. People up there think totally different than people down here. They're much more conservative. Since we’re in Charleston and known for our fabulous food, and everybody being in a melting pot and all that stuff, I guess we avoid some of that nastiness. 
     I feel like it’s just going to be another thing that conservatives try to put out there that will just fade away until they find their next thing they can jump on to collect more money or collect more votes. Ultimately, that's what it’s about for them. They want to find something that they can say, "Hey, this is wrong, send me 20 bucks." The sad part of it is, is these people who are saying this, they're not uneducated. They're smart people. I've seen what has come out of Nikki Haley’s mouth, and other people, and I’m like, “Girl, you know you know better.” You're saying this just to appeal to a certain group of audience and get their votes and get their money. I feel like its a shame, but thats the way this world works, unfortunately. I think, this time next year, hopefully, all of this will be under the rug and will just be a little bump in the road. Because theyre not gonna get anywhere with it. In my opinion, theyre not gonna get anywhere with it. I see the way celebrities dress for their concerts– the way some women walk down the street to go to the club! It’s a hell of a lot less covered up than what I wear.

"Girl, you know you know better." 

- Brooke Collins, on politicians pushing drag bans

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