Pluck and showbiz savvy brings a dedicated fan base to this hard worker
The success of self-described “Showbiz Spitfire” Paige Turner may seem like an overnight story, but it’s been long in the making.
She has built a name for herself the old-fashioned way, without benefit of television exposure or social media manipulation. Her pluck and showbiz savvy—as well hard work through countless live performances- have won her a dedicated fan base that has grown steadily since she began her drag journey fifteen years ago.
Paige (Daniel Frank Kelly offstage) has weaved her unique blend of wisecracks, escapism, and fairy dust in Manhattan, New Hope, and many more LGBTQ-friendly locales finding new audiences susceptible to her charms. She’s made such an impression in Provincetown over the years that she was invited to play her first full season of headline performances at the Pilgrim House this past summer, alternating as headliner with drag legend Miss Richfield 1981.
She co-created So You Think You Can Drag, a long-running (and decidedly friendly) drag competition which debuted at Manhattan’s New World Stages and has sported celebrity judges such as Charles Busch and Jackie Hoffman. She also appeared on Shade: Queens of NYC on Fusion TV in 2017.
A longtime fixture at Therapy in Hell’s Kitchen, she now hosts bingo nights every Tuesday from 6:30 to 9:30 at The Spot, a short walk from Times Square. She took time to chat with me about the joys and challenges of the past year, what fans can expect from her Christmas shows, and much more.
You had already worked as an actor and performer for years before doing drag. What inspired you to start your journey as Paige?
Paige Turner: Drag kept finding me through roles and theater. When I did it for fun it had a very Hannah Montana response with people and I felt like a rock star. Plus, I realized I could make people laugh. It’s very much clowning for me, and I mean that in a very positive way. I just happen to be a pretty clown.
I [remember] I saw this clown go into a tent in my hometown when I was little when my mom was working at a fair, and he came out with the huge shoes and the wigs sticking out of the bag, and I thought “Oh! I discovered a secret!” He was fooling people in some way, and I loved it. And that’s always sort of stuck with me. I love putting on the character. You transform!
I get the sense for some drag performers that the stage persona is simply an extension of themselves, but it seems to me Paige is a whole-cloth character. Where does Daniel end and Paige begin?
PT: I would say I morph between both. I change my voice, in an affected way, sort of out of showmanship. It’s about a finding of my voice and a meeting of the minds. I’m definitely more quiet and observant as Daniel… probably because I’m always tired from doing shows! I’m definitely not shy as a boy or anything, just like Paige, who definitely has a strong personality. It’s not Daniel’s personality—it’s heightened. Joan Rivers always said she played the part of Joan Rivers, and I feel like I play the part of Paige Turner. It’s my personality mixed with what I probably couldn’t get away with saying in real life. Also, I’ve realized in the past few years, this is about expressing your queerness, too, which I realize that I get to do and maybe was shamed for before. Plus, there’s also the tawdry, dirty side!
You have talked about having a hard time as a kid, including being bullied. Is there a thought of wanting to help foster a world that’s kinder than the one where you grew up?
PT: Definitely. I remember dressing up and lip-synching to [the cast album of] Peter Pan in elementary school. I mean, that was [Mary Martin] playing a boy—I don’t know, me as a boy playing a woman playing a boy? It was very confusing for everyone, including myself—[but] that’s part of why I called my last show Joyride. I’m always like “Spread some joy, make room for a rainbow…”
You’ve described your shows as children’s entertainment for adults. Is providing levity and escapism your main mission?
PT: I always thought that if I was gonna do drag, it would have to be something that brings people together—whether it’s just laughter, or reminding them about something from childhood, or helping them forget about their problems. Plus, I love looking like Rainbow Brite, but with a potty mouth. That’s where the clowning and tomfoolery come in. Also, I love children’s shows—especially the creepy old ones we find on YouTube and think “how did we grow up with this?” I love all of it.
Someone told me recently I look like a Lisa Frank sticker and it was the best compliment ever! We should all be constantly tapping into our inner child. It’s funny when people will come up to me after a show and say something like “Thank you, you don’t know how much I needed that” and I thank them back, but the thing is I need it, too, or I wouldn’t be doing it.
You’ve amassed quite a following for yourself, first in New York, without TV exposure or social media notoriety. That’s almost unheard of these days.
PT: Yeah, it’s interesting. At the end of the day, I [wouldn’t] want people to come see me just because I’ve been famous on TV, which can sometimes be for the wrong reason, like if you’re portrayed as a villain or whatever. I’d want it to be because they think I’m talented, where people will say “Oh, let’s go see her, I know she’s always good” as opposed to “Oh, God, it’s a packed house because she was on TV but the show was terrible… ” But yes, it’s been hard work. I still feel underground sometimes. Sometimes someone will come see my show in New York and they’ll act like they discovered me, like I just started out, but I take it as a compliment.
Miss Richfield  has been very supportive of me, and I adore her. When I would say something like “Oh, I only have fifty [people in the audience] tonight she’d say ‘Wow, that’s really great! It took me years to even get fifty.” It’s about pounding the pavement. She gets it.
Are your drag sisters usually that supportive?
PT: They are if they’re entertainers. In P Town, entertainers have been there for years, they’re great, and they’re supportive of me, whereas [for some of these other queens] it’s about wanting to be a star, not about having an act or [working on] a craft. I’ve had more support in P Town from other drag performers than in New York. People get threatened when someone is talented, and a lot of them want to be famous—to have a million Instagram followers, get a million views, be on RuPaul. They want the fame. [The question is] why do you want the fame? Do you enjoy an audience? Do you enjoy singing songs? I’m not speaking for every single person—I have some really lovely drag friends in New York—but it’s totally different.
I’m glad I know I love performing, and I believe the universe is giving me what I can handle, and I know what comes with RuPaul—I say this in a positive way—is not a good fit for me, mentally and spiritually, for all that comes with it.
Was So You Think You Can Drag in some ways a remedy to all that?
PT: Yes. [When it was proposed] I thought, “I want to do this, but this has to be different from any other drag competition in the city. We want to support people, encourage them to work on their craft, we want theatricality, and it’s got to have fairness.” I worked with really great people. I was happy that that was my storyline on Shade because it was real. A lot of the girls who did it went on to RuPaul, and two of them won! And all the winners are working, doing stuff… I was proud of it. It was hard work to be, like, the teacher who also does what [her students] do, but I like seeing people succeed and do well, and I made very good friends. Plus, once in a while someone who’s really young will say or post something like “Oh, Paige was always so great to me” or something like that, and it makes me really happy. Really good things have come from it for people, and it taught so much about leadership.
You’ve appeared many times on Watch What Happens Live with Andy Cohen. I have to ask you what it was like performing as Mary Poppins for Julie Andrews.
PT: I had done the show a lot already at that point, thank God, or I’d have been more nervous! Whoopi [Goldberg] was on the show that day, too and she’s also a big deal, but she took a bit of a back seat that day to Julie Andrews as far as being a big deal—Julie was lovely, and I got to really talk to Whoopi and she was great. It was kind of surreal until days later when they sent me funny stuff to post on Instagram. I would have loved to do Thoroughly Modern Millie [instead] because the movie with Julie was one of the reasons I got into theater—that ‘20s look is so great—but it’s not as popular [whereas] Mary Poppins is obviously so iconic. But doing it was great, and I could tell how genuinely surprised and overjoyed all three of them were. It was really quite special, and she’s a sweet lady—she really is like Mary Poppins.
Please tell us more about the Christmas show and album!
PT: I have two original songs written for me by Billy Recce, who’s so talented and so young—one is more poppy, and the other is naughtier. The soundtrack will be available on my website. Hurry Down My Chimney! works so well as a title for me and for this show because it’s tawdry and naughty but not vulgar or filthy—that’s what you can expect if you come.
There are special favorite things [in the show] for fans who’ve followed me for years, but you don’t have to have seen me before to enjoy the jokes and join in the fun. I will do some straightforward Christmas songs as well as some parodies where I can put a twist on them. Because everyone knows Christmas, we all have a frame of reference for these songs—they’re embedded [in our consciousness] and that opens up many possibilities!
Now that you’ve done this for a while, what do you think is the key difference between someone who’s a success at drag or an amateur? It seems like a lot of people think they can do it.
PT: I think you have to please yourself [first]. You don’t necessarily have to be a performer even, but you have to be getting something from it. It has to be in your bones. And remember, this is a business—it’s called show business for a reason. Just because I have a sequined dress and the audience laughs that night doesn’t mean life is perfect. There is so much other stuff that goes with this that I’d love to not have to do. I think you have to realize it’s a combination of work, business, showing up, and professionalism. It’s like a pie—you hopefully have a little piece of each thing that you can fill. Charisma counts for a lot, and you have to have some individuality that sets you apart. Let’s say you were on RuPaul and then the show goes away—you have that, but that won’t last you forever. What’s going to last you forever is your love for entertaining and putting something out there.
Paige brings her holiday show Hurry Down My Chimney! to Green Room 42 in Midtown on December 17. An accompanying Christmas album, as well as additional tour dates, can be found on PaigeTurnerNYC.com.