Metro Weekly

Exclusive Interview: The Drag Queens of Pulse Nightclub

The drag queens of Orlando's Pulse nightclub talk about their tour, how they're coping with the fallout from last month's massacre, and the overwhelming support they've received

Mr-Ms Adrien -- Photo: Victoria Elizabeth Black

Mr Ms Adrien — Photo: Victoria Elizabeth Black

For the first time in his adult life, Axel Andrews wanted to hide from the world.

“I didn’t even want to leave my house,” says Andrews. A bartender and drag entertainer at Pulse nightclub, he witnessed firsthand the carnage of June 12, when a lone gunman walked into the Orlando club and killed 49 people. As the world tuned into the aftermath of the tragedy, Andrews wanted nothing more than to shut it out.

A week passed, and Andrews was still holed up at home. Determined to help, his drag mother, Roxxxy Andrews, came to see if she could coax him out.

“Roxxxy was one of the first ones to be like, ‘Axel, you have to be strong. Because you’ve got to be strong for everybody,'” Andrews recalls. “So that’s what I’ve been trying to do.”

Strength is a recurring theme amongst those who survived the shooting. Strength to pick up the pieces of shattered lives, strength to help one another, strength to make sure that those 49 didn’t die in vain. The Pulse staff, which the performers liken to an extended family, rallied together to provide emotional support for one another — particularly necessary when they were allowed to enter the club for the first time since the shooting.

“I hadn’t seen the place, so walking in there after everything was just so surreal,” says Adrian Padron, better known as Pulse drag performer MrMsAdrian. “We would take turns crying. Somebody would be sobbing, and we’d all be comforting them. And then another person would start crying, and the same person who was just crying is now strong and comforting. It’s been a great support system for everyone that’s been there for each other.”

While emotional support has been plentiful, financial support is less assured. Pulse remains closed, and many of the staffers have been left with no regular source of income. Several other Orlando nightclubs have booked the Pulse performers to ensure they can pay their bills as a stop-gap measure, but for Salvatore Barcia, an area resident who knew several of the victims, that wasn’t enough. His solution was simple: A national fundraising tour, with the Pulse queens as headliners.

“I went to school for event management. When the whole Pulse thing happened, I wanted to give back using my skills,” says Barcia. “I wanted to start a tour and help raise money for the displaced employees. I got Adrian, Kaija [Adonis] and Axel together. They were all on board to travel and help raise money and get themselves back on their feet. That’s how this whole tour commenced.”

As tour manager, Barcia has pitched the Pulse drag queens to various nightlife venues across the country, including Town Danceboutique, where the queens will appear this Saturday, July 30, alongside members of Town’s resident drag cast.

To raise money at each location, they will be selling rainbow ribbons. Crafted by Ben Johansen, Orlando resident and owner of Embellish fx Orlando, the ribbons — 60,000 in total — were made to honor the victims of the shooting, with proceeds going towards the Pulse Employee Fund. The response has been phenomenal: During a recent tour stop in Philadelphia, ribbon sales brought in more than $70,000.

Padron, whose entire income depends on drag, can finally make a living doing something he has loved since age six: performing and making people laugh. But the tour has also been laden with somber moments.

“Every day has been just happy, sad, happy, sad, happy, sad,” he says. “I can’t decide how I feel, because on one hand, I’m so happy that I get to travel and see all these amazing people and comfort people. But every time I’m having a little too much fun or enjoying myself a little too much, I remember why I’m there. Because I’ve been saying it at every stop: we all got attacked that night.”

Traveling with his fellow Pulse employees has been a source of immense comfort in those darker moments.

“I couldn’t do it without them,” Padron says. “I’ve done one stop by myself, and I was a mess. It was was really emotional for me, but at the stops when I’m with my friends, I just look at them and think, ‘Thank God you’re okay, and thank God you’re still here. Thank God we’re here together doing what I know we’re supposed to be doing.'”

That camaraderie, that love for one another translates into a show that’s surprisingly upbeat, given the context. Andrews expects many to leave filled with the same “good energy” that the performers are bringing to the stage.

“We’ve all got our distinct personalities. We all have our own styles when it comes to entertaining,” he says. “It’s a good dynamic that I think we have, because there’s a little bit of everything that we’re offering. We work really well together. We all get along, so it’s just like we’re a little group of fun.”

Above all else, though, Andrews hopes that the tour brings some aspect of healing to others in the LGBT community who felt helpless in the aftermath of the Pulse shooting.

“The important part is that I can be a comfort for a lot of these people, to see me and to hear that I was there and to see that I’m being strong,” he says. “It’s helped a lot of other people be strong.”

Axel Andrews -- Photo: Timothy Snaps Thomas

Axel Andrews — Photo: Timothy Snaps Thomas

AXEL ANDREWS

METRO WEEKLY: What got you started in drag?

AXEL ANDREWS: I’ve always been a social person, so I met people really easily and I started getting involved with all different groups. The nightclub scene was something new to me and I got a really good friend. His name was Eric, and he would bring me out every night. I wound up meeting some of the entertainers, getting kind of close to them.

I saw an entertainer performing, Kitana Gemini. She wasn’t as polished and feminine as some of the others. She was more of a club kid, and she came out and did a Fall Out Boy song. I didn’t have any gay friends or anything like that, and I grew up with a lot of rock music, so when I saw her do Fall Out Boy, I turned to my friend and said, “Wait a minute. They can do boy songs? I don’t understand. I want to do something like that because I don’t see myself as a feminine character.” I love rock music and Fall Out Boy, Panic! at the Disco, My Chemical Romance, things like that.

That same entertainer would host charity events every once in awhile, and he said, “Listen, I have an empty spot for an amateur. I know you’ve been wanting to do it, so if you want to try it out, let me know.” I decided to take that spot and I did the show — and I was terrible, of course — but it opened the door for me. It was a lot of fun and I started taking it really serious. Then, Roxxxy [Andrews] adopted me and I started polishing up my look and who I was and my character, and I have been doing it ever since.

MW: How is the drag going as a professional career?

ANDREWS: I’ll be honest, pretty hard. I’m extremely fortunate, because in Orlando, they do take care of us. Especially pay-wise, because in a lot of towns, the entertainers don’t get much of a booking fee. I’m also very fortunate that I’m able to host, so I’ve had some very stable gigs. Some entertainers just show up, they do their job and they go home. I try to get involved, which has bitten me in the butt sometimes, because I take on more responsibility than I’d like to, but I try and really help the night to be successful.

People don’t understand that tips are really what helps support us, because our booking fee is just basically our check that we take going home. The tips are what support the costuming and the makeup and the new looks. People don’t realize. Could they imagine going to work at Ross every day and having to make a new costume that costs over $100? You’re spending almost your pay on a new costume every time, so the tips help.

Personally, drag is fun for me, but I couldn’t do it five nights a week. I had to throw something else in there and I picked up bartending, so I do that three nights a week. It’s a mixture of the two, bartending and performing, that really help me to stay on my feet.

Axel Andrews -- Photo: Timothy Snaps Thomas

Axel Andrews — Photo: Timothy Snaps Thomas

MW: Do you work anywhere else other than Pulse?

ANDREWS: I also work at Southern Nights and at a bar downtown called Ember.

MW: What was it like going back to work after what happened at Pulse?

ANDREWS: I haven’t been back to Ember, because personally, the bartending aspect has made me very uncomfortable, and it’s just something I’m dealing with. It was my own feeling, so I haven’t come to bartend since.

MW: On the night of the attack, were you bartending or performing?

ANDREWS: I was bartending.

MW: Did you know what was happening when the shooting started?

ANDREWS: I did not at all. We thought it was the music at first. A lot of us denied it or thought maybe someone was setting off fireworks. The amount of shots that were being shot off, it just didn’t feel real. We got down anyway, because it’s a natural reaction. After that, everyone just dispersed. Everyone ran every direction they could.

MW: Did you know any of the victims?

ANDREWS: I did not know a lot of them personally, the ones that passed. Some of the ones that were injured, yes. One had a picture of him smiling and being in good spirits. It went viral. His name is Angel, and he was a regular of mine and a friend of mine. Then I also had a friend. Her name is Angelique. She was shot as well, and they both are okay. Our barback, Victor was shot as well.

I was… I don’t want to say I’m fortunate, but I didn’t personally know any of them. They’re regulars. I saw them almost every Saturday. I recognized their faces. A lot of them would get drinks from me, but did I know their names? No. I don’t personally know them, but they were definitely there. They were part of that night for so long.

MW: Since the shooting, what’s been the community reaction?

ANDREWS: It’s affected everyone, but the amazing thing is everyone has been so brave and so strong. I’ve never seen our community be this strong before. I know I’m young, I’m only 28, but I’ve been in it now for about eight years. It’s amazing. The straight community is coming together with the gay community. I walk down the street here in Orlando and I see a straight guy wearing a Pulse T-shirt, and businesses all over that say, “Orlando Strong,” “Pulse Strong,” or, “One Pulse,” things like that.

It didn’t matter if you were there. It didn’t matter if you lived in Orlando. While I’m traveling, I’ve noticed that it has affected everyone. People look at their local clubs and their safe zones and all of a sudden they start to imagine, “Oh, my gosh. It could’ve been here. It could’ve broken out just now.” Clubs all over the world right now and businesses all over are really doing a lot to support our community.

MW: There was a massive outpouring from the local community and further afield, but what about support from the government? Did enough happen in the aftermath to help those affected?

ANDREWS: Yes, I think that the government has done a lot. They invited the survivors to meet the president, so we got to meet both the president and vice president. They’ve had events at the Citrus Bowl that are reaching out to victims and people affected by it and trying to give them financial help and support.

A lot of people were affected. You had 49 victims, not even including people who were injured, and not even including the people who are just emotionally affected by this. I think that the government has done the best that they can given the circumstances.

MW: One of the biggest support services offered in the aftermath was counseling services. Did anyone approach you to offer help or counseling?

ANDREWS: Oh, yeah. It’s endless the amount of people who have reached out to us. I’m in the Pulse staff page, and the owner and the management, they will constantly post, “Hey, listen. If anyone wants to talk, this person is offering their services.” “Hey, if anybody wants a massage, these places are offering their services for people to come and relax.” They keep posting everything that the businesses in the community and the government are doing for us. A lot of people have reached out.

I personally haven’t spoken to anybody, because… I don’t know. I try not to talk about it too much, because then I relive it, and I think I’ve been kind of strong and I’ve been dealing with it in my own way. I, fortunately enough, didn’t have to see anything. I just had to hear things, but I’m slowly getting over that right now.

MW: What’s the message you hope to send with this tour?

ANDREWS: I want to just spread the Pulse love, because we have a really tight-knit family and we’re very close, and we’re very fun. We had a lot of things going on and I just want to share that energy wherever I go. Take the love that I get wherever I go and just keep giving it out. I don’t really see this as a tour. I don’t see it as a money opportunity. I don’t really see it as me building my name or anything like that. I see it as an opportunity to meet new people and keep the name Pulse alive and not let those 49 people die in vain.

Something I’ve been telling everybody is I’m really proud to see the community coming together, because everyone’s been so strong. We’re not letting that person win — the man who did what he did. We’re not letting him win. Everyone just needs to keep sticking together and moving forward and going out and supporting each other, because that’s what our community is all about.

Mr-Ms Adrien -- Photo: Victoria Elizabeth Black

Mr  Ms Adrien — Photo: Victoria Elizabeth Black

ADRIAN PADRON, a.k.a. MRMSADRIAN

METRO WEEKLY: How did you first become involved in drag?

ADRIAN PADRON: We got the funding cut for our theater program my last year of high school, and theater was my whole life. I was like, “I can’t not do a show my last year.”

As a big middle finger to the school, we decided to do Rocky Horror. We had no supervision, so we’re like, “Okay, well if they’re not looking at us, we’re going to do something crazy, and we’ll get in trouble for it later.” We did Rocky Horror, and that was my first time dressing up like that and wearing the fishnets and finally getting to be like that. I remember being on stage just feeling like “Wow.” Putting on the heels and everything and the makeup and just thinking, “Okay, this is the best. It doesn’t get better than this.”

Ever since that moment, I was like “I want to perform that my whole life.” And then that character just became me. Drag is my way to keep that high always, and now I do. Every time I’m on stage, I feel the way I felt that night.

I moved to Orlando for college. I went to UCF and I studied theater, and I absolutely hated it. I started freaking out because I was like, “Oh my God, this thing that I’ve literally been doing since I could walk, I don’t like it all of a sudden.” It was like everything I knew was a lie. I got really depressed in school. Really, really badly depressed.

I freaked out, and thought, “Okay, well I’ve got to change something because this isn’t me. I’m not a sad person. I’m a very happy person, so I need to do something.” That’s when I started dressing crazy. I found Pulse, and I dressed like a lunatic in leather with crazy makeup. I went out, and everyone was like, “You look great.” I was like, “Oh, okay. Here’s a place where I made sense. This is cool.”

After that, I felt comfortable enough to show up in drag, which I’d never been in before. I felt comfortable enough to go there and get on stage in front of these people. That was the kind of place Pulse was. You just felt immediately welcome, and there wasn’t even a moment where you were like, “I wonder if these people like me?” No one even had to say anything. There was just something in the air.

MW: It sounds like an incredible place.

PADRON: Again, I was a kid. I had just moved here. I was feeling depressed in school, like I said, and Pulse was my detox. My way to get my frustrations out was to dress up and go to this bar. You just started meeting people. Every night I went I would leave with five new friends, and then it just started building that way. Axel was hosting the show at the time, and then he and I started texting, and we got to know each other, and now he is one of my best friends.

Even before I started working there, I just remember I never felt like I needed to put up a front, and I’ve felt that before, because I’ve been to plenty of bars where I’m like, “Shit, I need to look like I’m something important or whatever to try to impress people.” Everybody knows that feeling, but I never ever felt that at Pulse.

MW: You weren’t at Pulse that night, but did you get any outreach from friends or family in the aftermath of the shooting?

PADRON: I’m still getting calls.

MW: Really?

PADRON: From family and stuff. It’s funny, people who never even acknowledged that I was gay or what I do for a living, just random family members, are like, “We’d love to come see you. We want to come see the shows.” Then I have friends from elementary school that I don’t speak to anymore that are reaching out like, “Hey, just glad you’re okay.” Simple things like that. The outreach has been phenomenal, and it hasn’t stopped.

That week, my phone didn’t stop buzzing at all. Someone was calling, someone was texting, and it’s been like that for everybody because I’ve asked [the other performers], “Do your phones stop ringing?” They’re like, “Nope.” Everyone just wants to make sure that we don’t feel alone at any point, which is the coolest thing.

MW: How have the Pulse staffers come together since the shooting?

PADRON: From the staff’s point of view, when we get together, it feels so much like just another problem. Because obviously we’ve dealt with things, and the bar has gone through things, and we’ve pulled together.

The staff was always so good at handling bad stuff. Not that bad stuff happened often, but when it did, we were like, “Okay, here’s the problem, here’s the solution. How do we fix it?” If someone was sad, we were there for them. If someone was injured, we made sure they were getting money. We made sure they were getting paid. We have just been there for each other, and when we get together we are trying to enjoy our company.

MW: What’s the message that you want people to take away from your tour?

PADRON: I really want people to see us and maybe they come in thinking that we’re going to be looking broken or defeated. Obviously, after what we’ve all been through, you wouldn’t think that we’d be up there singing and dancing and having the best time. But that’s what we need to keep doing. There’s this thing all over the Internet that’s like “Keep Dancing Orlando.” I’m not sure who’s doing it or really the basis behind it, but every time I see it, I smile. That’s the trick. That’s how you win. That’s how you beat these people. If you just keep showing them that we’re not going to back down. We’re not going to be afraid of you. No matter what they do, we will always be there. You can’t get rid of us. Every time you try and attack us, you are literally just making us stronger and more fearless, because as more people come out, the less we’re going to be scared. I know so many people who have come to see me. Somebody said that they drove three hours the other day to come see me, and they said, “I came out of the closet because of all of this.”

MW: Because of the shooting?

PADRON: Because of the shooting and the tour and everything. I remember thinking the day of the shooting, “Oh my God, people are going to run back into the closet after this. We are literally going to go back in time.” Thank God, a few days later going to the vigils and seeing people out in just thousands and thousands, a sea of people who are so proud to be who they are.

Mr-Ms Adrien -- Photo: Victoria Elizabeth Black

Mr Ms Adrien — Photo: Victoria Elizabeth Black

MW: What’s the most meaningful reaction that somebody shared with you after a performance?

PADRON: The coolest one was a girl I got to meet that had flown so far to see me, and this just happened like two days ago. She came to see me, and she brought me this keychain, and it had my name on the front, and it said “One pulse, one love, one family” on the back. I told her, “I’m never letting this go.” It’s on my car keys. She was saying thank you to us for doing this. That was probably the coolest thing, and now I have that keychain to take with me to show everybody that Orlando is sending their love.

Somebody else told me thank you for being the face of Orlando. Hearing people say that I’m their face, and I’m speaking for them and spreading love for them, that was the coolest thing I’ve ever heard. The biggest honor is to feel like I’m doing what they wish they could be doing. They are like, “We wish we could be going around and hugging all these people and telling them it’s okay and comforting, but thank you for doing it for us.”

I just think it’s important that we know why we are doing this tour, because a lot of people have been saying that it’s about money. Obviously, we are raising funds for the victims and for the staff. I want people to know that we are doing this, first of all, because of all the incredible amount of love that has been thrown our way. We wanted to make sure that we could throw it back and thank everybody in person.

The other thing is that we don’t want anybody to feel like this is not their struggle, because this is. This is all of our struggle. This is not an Orlando thing. It’s a family thing that we all need to handle together. Every time we go to these dates and we are on stage, it’s the same faces. All these faces are just lit up because they see us up there, because they know what we went through, and they see us there doing our thing and probably stronger than ever.

Pulse Nightclub’s Axel Andrews, MrMsAdrian, and Kaija Adonis will perform with the cast of the weekly drag show on Saturday, July 30, at Town Danceboutique, 2009 8th St. NW. Doors open at 10 p.m. The drag show starts at 10:30 p.m. Cover at the door is $12. For more information, visit towndc.com.

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John Riley is the local news reporter for Metro Weekly. He can be reached at jriley@metroweekly.com