THE KINSEY SICKS
America's Premier Dragapella Beauty Shop Quartet
by Samantha Byrne Leyte
I'll tell you a little bit about myself. I'm a drag queen. I like men and women. I'm very fascinated with the comportment and costumerie of women. When I was 8 years old, I watched Shindig and Hullabaloo.
I wanted to have hair like The Ronettes, The Shangri Las, Martha & The Vandellas. I wanted to mimic the fashions of Mary Wells, Petula Clark, Dusty Springfield, Jackie Deshannon, Nancy Sinatra, Sandie Shaw, Marianne- Faithfull. I was a big fan of the British Invasion Bands and the American garage rock bands. But the guys in those bands weren't my type. Instead I liked the music. And I probably would've never bought a B.B. King album or a Muddy Waters album if it weren't for the Brits or the garage bands. I heard the first Velvet Underground album at a friend's house in 1970. In 1972 I was a fan of The New York Dolls and of Jayne County in 1972.
Call me crazy but I think rock should be fun, not educational. The Kinsey Sicks from San Francisco fit the bill very nicely. Although they're not exclusively a rock and roll act, they could be described as a drag Chordettes meet The Shirelles meet The Chiffons, with just a touch of The Lennon Sisters. The girls combine many different styles of music including girl groups sounds from the '60's, cabaret, R&B, '40's & '50's hit parade, broadway songs, doowop. The Kinsey Sicks write their own songs in all of those styles and more. They perform acapella. They are all four gay drag queens. Their songs and their performances are full of humor that is not for the faint at heart. Their concerts feature a general line of funny banter any gay or transgender person can relate to. And really, anybody who's LGBT or straight either one would think all of it was funny.
The Kinsey Sicks began in 1993 when the four friends went to a Bette Midler concert in drag. They found out they could sing as a four piece acapella group the first time they got together. All four of them come from musical backgrounds, which meant they could easily work out the harmonies, the notes and the lyrics. Their first major gig was on a street corner on Castro Street in San Francisco in July 1994. The girls drew a large and enthusiastic crowd. The foursome consists of Ben Schatz (Rachel), Irwin Keller (Winnie), Spencer Brown (Trampolina), Jeff Manabet (Trixie).
Ben Schatz is a Harvard trained civil rights lawyer. He was an advisor to President Clinton on HIV issues. Ben is the former director of the National Gay and Lesbian Medical Association. Irwin Keller is a Chicago trained lawyer and linguist. Irwin was responsible for getting Chicago's Gay Rights Ordinance passed. He is the former director of San Francisco's AIDS Legal Referral Panel. Jeff Manabet is responsible for the group's hot couture and high harmony and is the one behind Trixie's almost over the top glamour. Spencer Brown is an actor and singer from Kansas City. He was already known in the Drag world for his "Daisy Bucket" character.
The Kinsey Sicks have recorded eight CD's: Dragapella, Boyz 2 Girlz, Sicks In The City, I Wanna Be A Republican, Oy Vey In A Manger: Christmas Carols and other Music, Sicks! Sicks! Sicks!, Each Hit and I and Electile Dycfunction. The group has performed all over The USA and in Canada, Mexico, Europe and Australia. In 2001, the girls produced and starred in the critically acclaimed Off-Broadway Hit Dragapella Starring The Kinsey Sicks.
In 2006, they had a long and very successful run at The Las Vegas Hilton. The Kinsey Sicks are also the subjects of two feature films I Wanna Be A Republican and Almost Infamous. They've been on National Television including 20/20 and CBS Early Show With Bryant Gumbel. The New York Times did a lengthy feature on The Kinseys in The Arts Section too.
Certain questions come up as minds meet over this beauty shop quartet who call themselves The Kinsey Sicks, such as "What about The Youth of America and do we want them to grow up to be like The Kinsey Sicks"? And more urgently "Would you let your son date a member of The Kinsey Sicks." I know those are ponderous questions. Let's put this into perspective and assess the situation.
Although they coalesced in San Francisco and they were there for a long time, the Four Kinsey Sicks members live spread out all over country when they aren't touring or in the studio together now.
I interviewed L.A.-based Jeff (Trixie) by email. Jeff was touring when I contacted him and he graciously consented to an interview.
PSF: What are some of the more interesting places you've been to on tour?
Jeff: The Kinsey Sicks have been bringing our special blend of music and comedy for over 20 years, to performing arts centers, music venues, comedy clubs, festivals, and other special events throughout the USA (40 states!), Canada, Mexico, Europe, and Australia. Decades of performing have produced many memorable experiences. Some highlights include shows in big cities like the off-Broadway Show in New York, headlining a run in Las Vegas, participating in Sydney Mardi Gras, and our sold-out 20th anniversary celebration at San Francisco's legendary Castro Theatre. But there are equally memorable and important ones in smaller cities or places with a conservative bent like Lubbock, TX, Salina, KS, Salt Lake City, UT.
PSF: Are the four of you well received in general on the road?
Jeff: Yes! I mentioned the conservative communities before. It's been wonderful to find that audences are extremely supportive of and enthusiastic for America's Favorite Dragapella Beauty Shop Quartet.
PSF: Did you and the others collect records while you were growing up?
Jeff: I can't speak for everyone in the group, but I had a wide range of styles that I liked listening to when I was growing up: classical, video games, the doo wop era, The Beatles canon, '80's pop, '90's, disco, jazz standards, musical theatre.
PSF: Were you or any of the others into Top 40 radio back in the mid-'60's with people like The Ronettes, The Shangri Las, Martha & The Vandellas, The Supremes, Marianne Faithful, Sandie Shaw and others?
Jeff: I wasn't around in the '60's, but my mom introduced me to that kind of music when I was younger. Even though it was a little bit before my time, that kind of music still feels like it was part of my childhood.
PSF: Are you or any of the others old enough to remember '50's and early '60's top 40 radio and artists like The Shirelles and The Crystals?
Jeff: I'm not old enough to remember when they first came out, but because of my music loving mother, I became familiar with them and liked their songs.
PSF: Do you like country music like Patsy Cline, Jeannie C. Riley and Dolly Parton?
Jeff: I have to admit, country music is one of the few styles of music that wasn't on my radar until I was much older, That said, I think country music has some of the best vocalists of any genre, and I continue to be surprised by how much of it I find appealing.
PSF: What are some of the places you like to shop for clothes and makeup and stuff?
Jeff: In my personal shopping and for the Kinseys, wherever I go, I look for a sale, or have a membership at a store to take advantage of discounts. It's important to spend wisely!
PSF: When you were growing up, did it take you a few trips to get used to buying clothes, lingerie, makeup, wigs, etc.? It took me a few times.
Jeff: It certainly took a while for me to develop my own personal sense of style. However, when I joined the Kinseys a little over 10 years ago, each of the characters were already fully developed, So the wigs and makeup and some of the costume styles were well established. However, if you take a look at photos of when the group began and the way it looks today, you can see there is quite an evolution.
PSF: Are there any really cool places like Drag Couture in New York or fifi-mahony in New Orleans where The Kinsey Sicks like to shop?
Jeff: I wish I knew more of them. Most of our costumes are custom made, many of them are actually custom made, many of them designed by yours truly. I'm lucky to have worked with some excellent seamstresses and costume designers in San Francisco and Washington, DC over the years, as well as great hairdressers in San Francisco, Oakland, LA, DC and Vegas.
PSF: There must be all kinds of cool places for transgender shopping, clubs, bars, etc. in San Francisco. I've never been there but that's what I've been told.
Jeff: There must be. San Francisco has long been a place that embraces diversity, and I hope it stays that way.
PSF: Do the Kinsey Sicks have a personal seamstress? Or do you do your own sewing?
Jeff: Only one of us can sew! We don't have a personal seamstress, but we do work with a few across the country.
PSF: How about a makeup artist? Do you all do your own makeup?
Jeff: Yes, we create our looks on our faces.
PSF: It's a bit forward to ask but do you own many wigs?
Jeff: I don't own any for my personal use, but the Kinseys are armed with spare wigs, just in case.
PSF: Where do you buy them or do the wigs come from various shops?
Jeff: Here in L.A., there are many wig stores to choose from, but for years I've been going to the lovely ladies at Hollywood Wigs.
PSF: Has anybody ever gotten really offended with the lyrics the four of you write and tried to get real heavy about it?
Jeff: In writing our lyrics, we're always conscious of how the humor comes about, and we do our best to be sure the object of laughter in a particular joke or bit is not someone or a group that is already victimized or is in a position of less power in our culture.
PSF: Where does the group name "The Kinsey Sicks" come from? Does it have anything to do with the 1940s Kinsey Report?
Jeff: That is correct! It's a play off of The Kinsey scale which rates human sexual experience from 0 (completely heterosexual) to 6 (completely homosexual).
PSF: Who are a few of the female performers you and the others admire most?
Jeff: Whitney Houston, Barbra Streisand, Celine Dion, Jennifer Hudson, Fantasia Barrino... the list goes on! But the performer I admire most is Madonna. She is not a great singer, but as a performer, I think she is one of the best the world has ever seen. Few artists have survived and thrived on a global scale for as long as she has. And of the newer performers: Charice Pempenglo. She was introduced to the world as a young vocalist from the Phillipines, with a style that emulated such powerhouse divas as Whitney Houston and Celine Dion. But since coming out a few years ago, she has really come into her own. I haven't seen a singer quite like her.
PSF: Of the eight albums the group has done so far, do you have any favorites?
Jeff: They're all gems, but my absolute favorite is Oy Vey in a Manger. It's the only album of ours that is full live recording of a show, including audience reactions, so of all the albums it gives the listeners the closest experience of being at a live Kinsey Sicks performance. There's just something especially fun about hearing classic holiday fare lyrically twisted into an entirely different kind of song.
PSF: I don't know if you've thought about this but I think The Kinsey Sicks could be heroes to youth, if they aren't already. When I was 15 and 16, I thought The New York Dolls and Jayne County were very cool.
Jeff: I think that's wonderful. It's already such an honor and a privilege to share our art with the world, and it's quite special to be considered heroes to young people because of our work. I hope that we continue to bring joy, laughter, and insight for many years to come.
PSF: Did you have the harmony sound the first time you got together or did it take some rehearsing?
Jeff: Here's a tidbit of how the group got started: The Kinsey Sicks got started as a group of friends who went to a Bette Midler in San Francisco dressed as The Andrews Sisters. Assuming they'd be among many drag queens, they found themselves to be the only ones there (other than Bette, of course). They were approached that night to perform at an upcoming event. Their reply- "We don't sing" - was quickly disproved when they realized that all of them had musical backgrounds. They began singing and harmonizing that night and the seeds for the Kinsey Sicks was born.
PSF: What are the group's plans in the near future?
Jeff: For the immediate future, in December (2014), we have our upcoming "Oy Vey in a Manger" tour where we crisscross North America to bring our dragapella holiday musical to New York City, Chicago, San Francisco, Kansas City, Puerto Vallarta and more! For more details go to www.kinseysicks.com/calender We also premier our new interactive "Chicks with Schticks" in February (2015) (more than 20 new songs), several new music videos (see them at www.youtube.com/kinseysicks), as well as continue touring hilarious reality TV send-up America's Next Top Bachelor Housewife Celebrity Hourly Makeup Star Gone Wild! For more info about us (Winnie, Trixie, Trampolina, Rachel), visit us at www.kinseysicks.com, you can also say hi to us at www.facebook.com/kinseysicks
Sam the author, ready to audition for the band?
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