Years ago, when I began performing in NYC, there just weren’t that many live-singing drag queens, so when I heard about Gilda Wabbit from a singing drag competition show, I knew that this had to be a girl with chops. Suddenly she was performing all around the city and my friends were telling me, “Candy, you’ve got to see Gilda!” Her classic Hollywood beauty and openness about sexuality and HIV prevention topped with a stellar singing voice put her on my radar.
She’s since moved down south but that hasn’t stopped her from bringing her Big Gay Opera show on the road—and when I was able to catch her at NYC’s Duplex Cabaret Theatre, I was not disappointed. She’s the showgirl that tells it like it is and is a force in our community.
Candy Samples: How did you get your start in drag?
Gilda Wabbit: I moved to New York City to be an opera singer, but found opportunities to be sorely lacking. I was performing a lot, but wasn’t making any money. So one night I stumble upon this amazing performer at Barracuda, Sutton Lee Seymour, and I ask, “Is this your job? To sing the music you want for an audience that’s all for you?” And she responded that, “Yes, that’s it essentially.” It was inspiring! After that I decided that drag was gonna be something I had to try. I got all dolled up and had the opportunity to perform at the West End Lounge with Brita Filter and Terry Hyman (now Terra Rising). It was a blast and I was hooked!
Well, I’ve had the pleasure of seeing you in NYC at Icon and Albatross—and I’m hooked on you! Live singing, stunning looks and you have a great message about sex-positivity that you include in your shows. How did that come about, being a PrEP advocate and promoting sex positivity?
I’ve always been a promiscuous person, so PrEP advocacy just makes sense! It’s parallel a bit to the pill and the sexual revolution in the sixties—pre-exposure prophylaxis is another tool in our belt that allows us to have safe, consensual, and enjoyable sex. And the fact that it’s also helping to break down barriers between HIV-negative and HIV-positive people is fabulous! The stigma about status has harmed so many people and I’m glad we’re finally moving the needle on that.
You’ve recently moved from NYC to Kentucky. Do you notice a difference in attitudes about sex and sexual health out there as opposed to us Big Apple folks?
There are some differences, but I get to avoid a lot of them because I’ve cultivated my circle of friends and acquaintances really well. I will say that I see a lot more casual racism and toxic masculinity in social apps like Grindr and Scruff down here than I do in New York City. There’s also a lot more closeted men seeking queer hook-ups—which makes perfect sense. Rumors have been flying about elected figures from Kentucky for ages. The biggest difference is that there is far less knowledge about PrEP here than in New York City. I’m hoping that the coming release of a generic form of Truvada will help increase availability and use of the drug. I’m also doing my best as an advocate to help folks get on PrEP and find resources. Luckily we have groups like Transform Health in Lexington where I live that are specifically for queer folks and offer free sexual health screenings while helping people find PrEP providers.
I’ve had the pleasure of doing a show with you to benefit my AIDS Walk, and I’ve found that over the years as an artist, part of the message of my shows is a ministry of love and acceptance—and education, especially about HIV/AIDS. Do you see that that has become a component in your performance?
You know, it’s funny when you put it that way, I think a lot of my show is actually about challenging the audience. Obviously, we all deserve safe spaces and the ability to be happy and thrive. However, I think that we all have a responsibility to do better—gay men in particular have a history of misogyny and racism that I like to call into question. And now that I’m in the south, my audience leans more conservative, so I often challenge them on political issues. So, yes, I’m advocating for love and acceptance, but I wouldn’t call it a ministry. I’m not here to make the audience feel warm and cozy, I’m here to educate and to break down harmful preconceived notions.
You are doing the work! Early on, I remember seeing a meme of you that went viral. There was a snapshot of you in full drag on the subway next to a Muslim woman completely covered. Conservatives passed that around saying, ‘this is the America liberals want’—and folks in New York City were like, Yes! Unity! How was that experience, becoming a hot topic on the internet?
Oh it was wild! I certainly wasn’t prepared for it. I remember being in my friend Gloria Swansong’s apartment as my phone started blowing up because I was being tagged all over social media and then places like the BBC were calling me! I looked at her and was like, “I have to go!” Having a brief little fifteen minutes of viral fame taught me a lot about marketing and making the best of surprising situations. But the most important aspect was it taught me the power of a platform—even a small one. That meme is the reason I leaned in to being political and trying to be an advocate and activist. As a drag queen with any small amount of followers, I feel like I have a responsibility to help facilitate conversations and encourage education and healthy behaviors.
Hooray for educating those audiences! Do you find that after a show, say, that
people come to you with questions about PrEP and sexual health?
Not so much in person, but very often on social media! Folks will reach out on Instagram or Twitter. I even had someone send me a picture of their first PrEP bottle to celebrate that they’d finally gotten it prescribed thanks in part to my encouragement.
Same! I have found that in the ten years I’ve been vocal about HIV/AIDS and sexual health that Facebook has been a great tool. So many people have reached out to me regarding questions about testing, PrEP, PEP or just coming out about being HIV positive—and they’ve felt they could confide in me from hearing me in my shows. We’re the new activists that the kids are looking to.
We come from different eras—me getting my start almost twenty-five years ago. (Did I just say that out loud?!) Do you remember when you first were aware of HIV/AIDS?
I remember being vaguely aware of HIV/AIDS growing up—mostly as a joke unfortunately. But it hit me as a real issue when I came out of the closet. My mother told me about her beloved college professor who died of AIDS complications shortly after she graduated. I saw how much his death affected her and how worried she was for me. Thank goodness we live in a time when HIV/AIDS is no longer a death sentence! That conversation between my mother and I is a large part of why I’m an advocate. HIV/AIDS doesn’t just affect folks who get a positive diagnosis. It also affects their friends, families, coworkers. So all of us, regardless of our status, need to be educated so that we can support those who are diagnosed and encourage those who aren’t to take important steps for prevention. We’re all in this together!
Follow Gilda Wabbit on Instagram, Facebook and YouTube @GildaWabbit.
Candy Samples is a singer/songwriter drag artist in New York City. She has released two EPs and several singles on iTunes and is currently working on her first full-length album. In her spare time, she fundraises and raises awareness for many different HIV/AIDS organizations. She is a fierce ally to the HIV/AIDS community and encourages all to use their “Powers for Good.” For more information, log on to: www.samplemycandy.com.