Q&A: Bryan Watkins
There’s a new dame in town. Bryan Watkins plays host for the male-female, adults-only revue 53X at Paris. But, it’s not Bryan on the stage, it’s his drag persona, Shannel. You might recognize Shannel from season one of RuPaul’s Drag Race and the All-Stars season, on top of his sometimes-hosting duties at Frank Marino’s Divas Las Vegas at The Linq Hotel. At 53X, Watkins steers the sexy show, throwing in comedy and sass, in addition to interaction with the audience. Las Vegas Magazine’s Kiko Miyasato recently sat down with him to talk about his new role, and life as both Shannel and Bryan.
Congrats on your new hosting duties with 53X. How’d that come about?
Bryan Cheatham, who’s the artistic mind-set behind the show, I’ve known him for many, many years. I was here in Vegas for nine years and he used to come out to my shows I had. When this idea for 53X came about, me living in California, I had a show in Santa Ana, I had these huge Halloween shows. Apparently him and some corporate guys came down to see the show and were in the audience. He had been trying to get in contact with me from the get-go to have me as a host, but I never knew it. He finally got ahold of me on Facebook and said, “I really, really need you to contact me immediately. I really want to bring you out to Vegas and I want you to audition for my show.” So we started talking. And I told him right off the bat that I’m not a dancer and I’m assuming the show was calling for a dancer position. I’m more of a visual artist, a host, an emcee. He said, “Don’t worry about it.” So they got me on a plane in less than 24 hours, flew me here. I went and saw the show. Instantly knew I’d fill in for a couple dates for the past host, Shangela. They recorded it, corporate loved it, and they offered me the contract.
What is your role as host of the show?
I’m guiding the audience through the journey. I’m kind of the house mom. The Momma Morton of the show. I am the over-the-top, grandeur personality. Lots of sequins, rhinestones, beads, feathers, big coats. And, I’m introducing all the numbers, but I’m also the comedic act between the numbers, too. I basically am taking the audience on a journey. A lot of stand-up comedy. I’m in some of the numbers; I’m dancing in some of the numbers. Their mind-set, when they came to me, is that they want this to be a Shannel show, and everyone else are like the players in your arena.
Is it ad lib or scripted?
It’s a scripted show in the sense that here are the points that you have to absolutely hit and you can fill in everything in between. A lot of the comedy that I do is improvisational and it does change nightly depending upon the audience. You never know what to expect.
Has it always come easy for you to do comedy or ad lib?
Comedy is difficult, but doing this now 23 years and I’ve hosted all over the world for different shows, I understand the different dynamics of an audience. This being not a gay environment, it’s a middle-America crowd, you have to cater to that personality. So, I’m kind of sassy and witty, but, I have a filter on. You can’t go too over the top—you don’t want to scare the people. But you have to push the envelope a little because, hey, the show is about sex!
In your opinion, what sets this adults-only show apart from others in the city?
I think that, first and foremost, having a drag queen as the host of the show is ingenious. First, because drag is so mainstream now and it’s become so popular. And besides Divas Las Vegas and Zumanity it’s the only other show that has a drag element. It’s a coed show revue so you have very up-to-date, current music, beautiful wardrobe and you have a cast of amazing men and women dancers. You’re getting props, conceptualized numbers, and, you’re getting a beautiful, smaller, cabaret-style theater and ambience. So, you’re not in a showroom with 1,000 people; anywhere you sit in our room you’ve got a great view of the stage and it becomes a very hands-on feel with the audience. I’m really able to see everyone and speak to everyone.
You have a history performing in Las Vegas. How does it feel to be back here and performing again?
You know, I love it. I had shows for nine years here. I had a show in the downtown Vegas area. I used to work on and off when La Cage was at the Riviera. And Frank Marino has had me come in and host the show for him on different occasions. I’ve had nightclub shows as Gypsies and Piranhas. So in the nine years that I was here I did a lot of different things. Then RuPaul’s Drag Race came along and I did season one and then the all-stars season so in that time span I was in California and also traveling. So coming back here now is great because it’s like finding my roots again and it’s comfortable and I know a lot of the people and understand the entertainment value of things in Vegas.
What about this city is special for entertainment, for the industry that you’re in?
For me, growing up I had one dream and one dream always—and that was to be a Las Vegas headliner. I always wanted to see my name in lights and wanted to be on a billboard. It wasn’t necessarily that I had to do drag, but I wanted to be a Vegas headliner. Anyone I think that’s in the entertainment field ... there’s a pinnacle, there’s a mecca, place you want to be, and for me in my line of work, in my opinion, there’s nothing bigger than actually being a headliner on the Strip. So it offers all those things. I love nightlife. I love casinos. I like the whole ambience of it all. It’s kinda like the perfect marriage for me.
So, if I said, “Let’s talk Bryan versus Shannel. Bryan is …”
Bryan is actually pretty quiet and reserved. I’m a homebody. I spend a good portion of my time in my home. I’m a Lucille Ball collector. I have one of the largest collections of Lucille Ball memorabilia in the world. I have a museum in my home that is literally wall-to-wall filled with memorabilia. I like to kick back and watch movies with friends. I’m not a partier. I’m not a drinker. I don’t do drugs. I’m not crazy and over the top. I’m a shorts-flip-flops-baseball-cap-kinda guy.
“Shannel is …”
Shannel is an over-the-top, larger-than-life, grande dame. She walks into the room and knows every eye is gonna be on her. It’s all about opulence. It’s about creating living art through what I do. And, that’s what I like to think of my drag as, it’s living art. I’m not a dancer; I’m a visual artist. I want my eyes, my makeup, my wardrobe, my hair to captivate your mind. And I am outspoken and loud and over the top, and that is so the opposite of who Bryan is. Bryan created Shannel so obviously there’s bits of me in Shannel, but I know that as Shannel I’ll walk into any room and every head is gonna turn.
Any new looks or costumes that you’re working on?
In the show, we put in a brand new opening number, a burlesque number. So I had to have all new costuming done. There’s a military number in the show that I had to costume, too.
I was checking out your social media accounts and your costumes and different looks. They’re so detailed. How much time: 1.) does it take to create a new look and; 2.) how long does it take to actually get ready, start to finish?
After doing this for so many years it’s become a paint-by-number. I probably spend an average of 90 minutes a night getting ready, and that’s from start to finish. As far as putting together new looks, it’s very detailed. I’m sitting down with my costume designers and we’re creating wardrobe, drafting renderings, we’re having to decide what the music is gonna be, what the hair is gonna be. So there’s a very long, involved process. Fortunately, I have an amazing costume designer out here, Coco Vega, who’s a gown designer, he’s in Frank Marino’s Divas. He does all of my wardrobe for me. We’ve worked together for so many years and he understands me and knows my body and knows what works. But putting one costume together can be like a two- to three-week process.
Since you work with makeup a lot, any quick tips or beauty tricks that you’ve learned?
I was actually a makeup artist for Chanel for 10 years so I did makeup on real woman. So obviously, always having good skin care and eye cream is really important. I think for most women, having a great concealer, a great brow, a great mascara and a great every day lip—those are your vitals. Maybe even a tinted moisturizer. Basically things that will perfect uneven skin tones and keep darkness from underneath the eyes. Defining the lip, the brow and the eye is always the most important thing.
Could you imagine having any other career than you have?
If I wasn’t doing this, I’d want to be an interior designer. I love interior design. It’s a passion of mine. I love painting. I love furniture. I love every aspect about it. When I was very, very young, before drag was even a thought, my goal was to become an interior designer for a living.
You’ve said Shannel was born when you were 15 years old and you dressed up for Halloween. What life lessons have you learned between that moment you became Shannel to your life now?
It’s really important in whatever you do in life to make certain that you’re always true to yourself. Finding and taking inspiration from other people, other things, other environments is what allows us to be able to build upon ourselves. But at the end of the day, you have to be able to look in the mirror and be comfortable in your own skin. I’ve had weight issues my whole life, I’ve always fluctuated. I was a very overweight child. I’ve yo-yo’d between my weight now and 80 different pounds. I’ve always been across the board. And finding and making sure you’re truly comfortable in your own skin is what will allow anyone to become successful in life. And there’s a fine line between being confident and being a bitch. And in the world of drag it’s very difficult for people to sometimes decipher the difference. A lot of the female impersonators have a hard time separating their real life from their stage persona. And for me, because I’m a businessman I’ve been successful in doing that; I know how to separate Bryan from Shannel. It all comes back to being comfortable in your own skin and staying true to who you really are.
What things keep you grounded?
My friends. My mother, who is no longer with me, but she was my biggest supporter. Whatever I’m going through in my life, I always veer back to her, in her always saying to me, “I don’t care what you do, do whatever you want in life, but I want you to be the best at it.” So I hear that in my head all the time, and so I know she’s always the guiding light for me, making sure that no matter what—no matter how much money you have, no matter how much success you have, there’s always somebody bigger, there’s always somebody better and you never take anything for granted. And I don’t. I am appreciative and am blessed for everything that I have.