Metro Weekly

Peppermint centers the trans experience in new EP ‘A Girl Like Me’

Peppermint stands up for the Black trans community and opens up about past relationships on her new album

Peppermint, trans, transgender, music, album, ep

Peppermint — Photo: James Michael Avance

Known as New York’s sweetest diva, Peppermint really can turn the world on with her smile and her talent. The performer can also light up a conversation with the wit and wisdom of a woman who has learned, seen, and accomplished a lot in her career as nightlife promoter, actress, singer, Broadway ingenue, and RuPaul’s Drag Race royalty. The effervescent quality certainly can be fun and entertaining. Just try, for example, to get through the viral clip of Peppermint and Bob the Drag Queen cracking each other up on the Drag Race recap show The Pit Stop without laughing along in delight.

But Peppermint has also been highly visible sharing her wisdom in a more serious light, as an activist for trans awareness and racial justice. In the wake of weeks of protest sparked by the killings of George Floyd, Ahmaud Arbery, and Breonna Taylor, she and Bob the Drag Queen were handed the reins to NYC Pride’s centerstage event to host a Black Queer Town Hall.

“We were really fed up with the videos that we were seeing, the tragic stories,” says Peppermint. “And we really wanted a way to be able to celebrate Black queer joy, in addition to being reverent of what was going on. We didn’t want to distract or ignore what was going on, but we wanted to be able to have some space to be able to celebrate Black queer joy, artistry, and also recognize our pain and talk about those things.”

Organizing events like the Black Queer Town Hall is work for no mere influencer, but for a true leader, a role that Peppermint embodies as one of the few Drag Race performers to openly identify as trans. She also co-hosts OUTtvgo’s pioneering talk show Translation, with Drag Race alums Carmen Carrera, Jiggly Caliente, and Sonique. And with her debut Broadway role in Jeff Whitty’s 2018 Go-Go’s-inspired musical Head Over Heels, she became the first out trans woman to originate a role on the Great White Way. She describes the experience as “life-changing. It was great to be a part of the Broadway community.” But she believes theater, like many other systems, is still one in need of reform. “There’s some real reorganization that Broadway has to do,” she says.

“I think that’s really tragic, and of course, the world of entertainment and definitely the world of Broadway has seen a major hit,” she adds, acknowledging that many have lost their lives or livelihoods during COVID. “But this time is a gift that Broadway producers better take advantage of when it comes to reopening. We better see more people of color and more queer people and more trans people on that stage when you open next year. This is a warning to Broadway.”

Peppermint sends another heartfelt “time’s up” in the form of her new EP A Girl Like Me: Letters to My Lovers, led by the slinky first single “Best Sex.” The first of a trilogy of albums exploring a recent relationship that ended, A Girl Like Me puts the subject, and stigma, of a cisgender man dating a trans woman front-and-center. “There’s really not many other places where we can see a trans woman, or a trans person for that matter, in their relationship where the trans person doesn’t end up dead,” Peppermint notes, once again taking up the mantle to lead a conversation that needs to be had.

“When I talk to you about stories and television and movies, name one where the trans person doesn’t end up dead. I’m sick of the tragedy porn. I want to be able to show people tenderness.”

Peppermint — Photo: Magnus Hastings

METRO WEEKLY: I interviewed Bob the Drag Queen on the eve of your Black Queer Town Hall, so I wanted to ask you first about that. How did you feel it went? And, in general, why is it important for you not to just show up and perform at these sorts of events but to organize?

PEPPERMINT: Well, I’m happy to show up and perform at events like this. Certainly, before June, there really weren’t that many events that were focused on Black queer entertainers that I was able to see. I’m sure there were some, but they weren’t that common all over the place, which is part of the reason why we decided to put together the NUBIA Tour, with me and BeBe Zahara Benet and Bob the Drag Queen and Shea Couleé and Vixen and Monique Heart, and so many other talented Black queens.

Obviously, the tour was stopped, but within the Drag Race community, there was definitely a feeling… I guess we were able to read the tea leaves as queens of color and as people of color in general. A lot of the stuff that we’ve been talking about with regard to systemic racism and the necessary change, that’s something that we’ve been talking about and experiencing our whole lives. So it certainly wasn’t new to us, the Black queens from Drag Race and Black queens in general. That was a conversation that we’ve been having in the inner circle.

So the question wasn’t whether or not to have it or whether or not to do it, whether or not to be involved. The question is, how do we do it and engage everyone else and get them to be as excited about these conversations, about these types of events or shows, as we are? Of course, after the tragic summer that we’ve had, the times brought us to that moment. It wasn’t about a handful of Black entertainers or Black people trying to convince everyone that we should be talking about these things. Suddenly, we found ourselves in a situation where other people who don’t identify as Black folks and Black queer folks were asking about these things and wanting to engage and wanting to hear our story. And the Black Queer Town Hall was such a success that we did another event in Minneapolis that was more locally-centered. We were able to raise over $30,000 to pay the performers and everyone. Those were both really good events. We’re actually gearing up for a third initiative that I can’t announce just yet, but it’s a voting initiative with Black Queer Town Hall and our partners at Vice [Media]. It’s been fantastic so far.

MW: Something cool about Black Queer Town Hall is how it brings together movements. Right now, a lot of people are perceiving that there’s not enough queer representation in the Black Lives Matter movement. Through doing Black Queer Town Hall and other events, have you felt that gap being bridged a little?

PEPPERMINT: It’s early yet, so I’m sure there will be many more opportunities for people who are considered “in the mainstream” or at least have access to a more mainstream identity. Being cis and hetero is mainstream. Being Black isn’t necessarily. But people who are in that larger segment of the Black Lives Matter movement, and all of those efforts, I think there’s going to be many more opportunities for them, unfortunately, to fight for us as queer people and really be able to walk the walk. So, yeah, I hope that that continues.

There are a couple of people that I really admire that I think are doing a really good job. Me saying to somebody, “You should be more open-minded,” or, “It’d be great if you could learn this or that,” is one thing, but being able to see them take those ideas and speak about them in a way that shows that they take it to heart, and that you can see that has an effect on them, that’s where the payoff really is. So, people like George Lee, aka The Conscious Lee, people like the actors Matt McGorry and Kendrick Sampson, [podcast host] Lex Numan. These are people in my area that I’m able to see. These conversations are taking hold, and thinking of LGBTQ people isn’t just an afterthought or add-on, and they seem to understand the nuances and the urgency behind including LGBTQ people in their stories. One step further, they understand the sensitivity when it comes to not only feminism and misogyny, the flip sides, but also understanding the urgency of taking care of Black trans women, specifically in light of the alarming murder rate that seems to just be breaking its own record every year.

And I speak about those folks because these are the people that I consider are part of the mainstream, and they don’t have to acknowledge Black queerness or Black transness, right? But they do, and it seems to be central in a lot of their conversations. I think that’s good. I think it’s necessary. It’s important that we see men grasping true feminism. It’s important that we see heterosexual men, cisgender heterosexual identified men, grasping the importance of learning about Black trans lives and those things.

MW: I haven’t seen your talk show Translation with Carmen Carrera, Jiggly Caliente, and Sonique, but…

PEPPERMINT: You probably won’t unless you move to Canada. For some reason we’re only airing in Canada.

MW: Is it too reductive to say it’s like The View, but from the perspective of four women who are trans?

PEPPERMINT: No, I think that’s the best way to sum it up. It is us literally sitting and talking at the table, and we’d be remiss if we didn’t give some credit to Barbara Walters and all the ladies that have sat around that table at The View for 20 years now. If you like The View and you’re open-minded, then you’ll probably like Translation. It’s very similar. I can’t even say it’s through a queer lens. It is completely us creating our own space. It’s a bunch of trans women creating our own space to talk about what we want to talk about first. Even in the past, an LGBT-focused event, two, three, four, five years ago, would’ve looked like 10 white gay men, one Black lesbian, and maybe someone who’s trans. You know? And so it’s a lot different. Out of the four of us, there’s three people of color.

Obviously, we’re all trans women. So it’s a really refreshing space, and these are the types of conversations that I have with my girlfriends, my other girlfriends, sitting around when I’m at home or not doing a TV show, or the people I call when I’m in need and the people who I know have my back and understand me. The first step is to see Laverne Cox or someone on Time Magazine, or Trace Lysette on television in a starring role. But then the next step is to be able to see queer people actually creating their own spaces and having authority and being able to be in positions of power, even within their own communities. We haven’t really seen a lot of that with trans women. Seeing more than one trans woman on some type of a screen, talking about what’s important to them, is just, I think, rare. I’ve never seen it.

MW: Obviously, one of these other talk shows could have one or more hosts who are trans. They already have hosts like The Talk‘s Sara Gilbert, who is queer. But they don’t have any trans women. Have you ever been approached about doing a show like that, and do you feel it’s only a matter of time before we see that kind of representation?

PEPPERMINT: No, I haven’t. Of course it would be a dream come true. Not necessarily for myself, I think it’s inevitable. I don’t necessarily mean we shouldn’t fight for it, and it’ll just come automatically. But I think that it’s a goal that feels very attainable. At some point, you go from overlooking a certain group to specifically working hard to exclude them. In two, three, four, five years, talking about these issues and understanding who trans people are will be even less rare. So to not see us included in these spaces means that someone is actively working against that.

MW: What about representation in a different arena, on Broadway? I don’t consider myself naïve, but I was surprised to read that you were the first out trans woman to originate a role on Broadway. Were you also surprised by that?

PEPPERMINT: Yeah. The truth is it’s really difficult to know what that means, other than the literal, because when you think of Broadway, we can all name a handful of shows, at least. And when you think of one show, every single week, each cast has 10, 20, 30, sometimes 50 people as a part of the cast. For shows that have been playing for years, there are performers that come in and out of those shows. So one show probably has thousands of people who have auditioned, and been cast in these roles that just keep going on and living on for years. To know that Broadway is 100 years old, and we certainly know there’s been queer people, but to think of not one of those people identifying as trans seems a little obtuse. I definitely think that some of these people have probably identified and maybe even lived as trans people at one point or another. I don’t know who, but I’m just imagining. I have to hope and pray that there have been some really successful trans people who did make it onto a Broadway stage but no one knew. Who knows? But, all that to say, yes, it was an honor. It was kind of a surprise.

Peppermint — Photo: Karl Giant

MW: How did the process for Head Over Heels work for you? Did you feel that there were people really supporting having a trans performer in the role? Was that always what the playwright Jeff Whitty wanted?

PEPPERMINT: I don’t think so, especially considering my role wasn’t a part of the original story. The character that I played was not in the original script. When Head Over Heels was originally produced at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival, my character was actually two different people. The show was about three or four hours long. Of course, it was a hit and they loved it and they wanted to bring it to Broadway. But when they revised it, they shortened the show a little bit and retooled some of the characters, and mine was one of them. So my character, Pythio, the nonbinary oracle, was born out of two different characters. Basically, it was a composite. So I’m not sure if it was a part of the original thinking, and I have no idea what the conversations were before I got into the room. But my sense is that they work from the outside in, if you know what I mean. I think that they knew it was a good idea, but I think that they just probably didn’t know exactly how to implement it. On one hand, you’re like, “Whatever, it doesn’t matter. They’re trans. Put them in the show, give them a script, and they perform.” That’s true, and that’s what it should be. But there were some considerations that needed to be made when you’re thinking about a trans performer and what their needs may or may not be versus some other people. That’s obviously a personal conversation that each performer has to have with the producers and the agency and everything. But I think that there was some learning. I learned a lot because it was my first Broadway show, and I also think that the producers and even the cast and the director, everyone, we learned a lot from each other, and I know that they learned a lot having worked for the first time, many of them, with a trans performer. So I would like to say it wasn’t like I was walking into The LGBT Factor. It was not that, you know?

MW: Were you a Go-Go’s fan heading into the show?

PEPPERMINT: Oh my God, yes! In fact, it felt like kismet because several years beforehand, I did a drag show and I was a back-up singer for Belinda Carlisle. That’s a part of her act. When it’s just Belinda and not the whole band, which sometimes that’s what the budget is, she brought drag queens to be the other Go-Go’s. So I was an honorary Go-Go for a few shows when she was touring years ago. And the song “Head Over Heels” was one of my favorite songs by The Go-Go’s, and it was very prominent on my getting ready playlist. So years later, after auditioning, we were able to chuckle about having met, Belinda and I. We’re still in contact to this day. We were actually just talking over her birthday last month.

I remember when I was doing the show, after months of rehearsal and even performing in San Francisco, I sat down on my first day to do my makeup and put on my drag getting ready playlist, and there’s the song “Head Over Heels,” but it felt completely different and I had to take it off my playlist, because I was hearing it every single night and I was like, “Oh, not this.” There was one time where the playlist came on, and the song “Head Over Heels” came on, while the cast was singing it. I was backstage. So while the cast was singing it onstage, it was playing on my player, and I was like, “This is too much Go-Go’s.” [Laughs.]

MW: Getting to your music, A Girl Like Me is billed as the first of a trilogy exploring your personal life. How much of parts two and three have you already recorded, and when can we expect to hear them?

PEPPERMINT: Most of it’s been recorded, and we’ll probably hear them next year. I would never drop all three of them on the same day — I really want to give part one its own moment, especially considering it’s the introduction and there’s a lot there. Most of the feel-good stuff is in part one. All the other stuff, the breakup stuff, we don’t want to rush to the breakup, do we? But next year is probably when part two and three will come out.

MW: If this is the feel-good part, does that make A Girl Like Me the slow jam, lovemaking part of the story?

PEPPERMINT: Oh, yeah, this is the slow jams, the lovemaking. There’s some rock-and-roll and some upbeat stuff on the other albums, but for this one, I want people to really be able to engage. I’m the only one who really knows what the rest of the songs sound like, but it’s really important to me for people to be able to see the love and the tenderness, and what it looks like to care for and accept a trans woman and be proud of dating someone who’s trans and uplift that and not want to hide it and show that off to the world. That’s something that we don’t always get to see, trans people don’t get to see, and I think cisgender people — whether they’re queer or not — I don’t think a lot of people get to see that. I think it’s important for straight cisgender men to be able to just look across a room of women and see a trans woman as also a viable partner. That it isn’t something to be ashamed of, and that he won’t get made fun of and called gay if he’s dating a trans woman.

I also think that gay men should be able to look across a room of men and go with who they’re attracted to, whether he’s trans or not, and have there be no stigma behind dating or having sex with someone who may have a vagina but he’s a man. So I really want to be able to show people, at least create a world where those taboos are not necessarily as existent and the dominant is this love with this trans woman between herself and her partner and how much he adores her and how much she adores him. Because we need to be able to see that tenderness.

MW: A lot of the songwriting is from a first-person perspective, dealing with men who feel the social stigma or fear of being seen in public with a trans woman. It takes courage to put that reality on record in a first-person voice. Have you ever allowed yourself to be that vulnerable in your music before?

PEPPERMINT: Oh my God, no. This is definitely by far the most vulnerable, raw, and real I’ve ever been on an album or in music. I’ve always wanted to do it. On one hand, I thought that people weren’t ready, but maybe I wasn’t ready. Maybe I wasn’t ready to really go there. Of course, I needed to have the relationship and the breakup to bring me to those spots, so I could speak from a place of truth. And I did. Last year, I had a relationship, a great relationship. It obviously ended. It allowed me a lot of space and time to grow and heal. I think this album and putting this out is a part of that healing process. Especially when I was in the heat of my breakup and the midst of my depression, if you had told me that I was going to write something, a story about this, songs about this relationship, that would end up being something that I was so proud of and that was so beautiful, I wouldn’t believe you. But here we are.

MW: Has the other half of that relationship heard any of the songs?

PEPPERMINT: I have no idea. I’d like to consider us friends, but there’s some real space. So I haven’t sent it to him. I don’t really care what he thinks about it. I hope he buys it.

MW: That’s a good attitude. In terms of collaborators, who is playing guitar on “Best Sex” because you have a good, sexy guitar sound on that song.

PEPPERMINT: That is Adam Joseph, my co-writer and producer. For anybody who’s a Drag Race fan, you probably would definitely remember Adam Joseph’s “Linda Evangelista” remix with Valentina and Aja, among other fabulous songs.

Peppermint — Photo: James Michael Avance

MW: Yeah, I’m partial to Vanjie’s “Cookies.”

PEPPERMINT: Exactly. So that’s Adam Joseph. We’ve worked together for almost, good grief, 15 years now, we’ve been co-writers. He’s co-written pretty much on all of my major projects. So that’s who’s doing the guitar.

MW: And who is dueting with you on “Every Morning?”

PEPPERMINT: That is Laith Ashley De La Cruz, if you know who that is. He is a singer, performer, model, and he’s a trans activist.

MW: Yeah, I know of Laith, but I didn’t know that he sang.

PEPPERMINT: Well, he does, and he did.

MW: And very well.

PEPPERMINT: He has lots of music out, believe it or not.

MW: When you’re not listening to your own music, what is the music that you slow jam to?

PEPPERMINT: To be honest with you, I’m really into H.E.R., I’m into SZA, for sure. There’s so much music out. I always end up boomeranging back to Erykah Badu, Jill Scott, Lauryn Hill. Those are my R&B ladies, I can never forget them. I guess they have imprinted on my mind forever.

MW: I love all those ladies, especially SZA. Your album, for me, has a ’90s kind of slow jam vibe.

PEPPERMINT: Oh, I’m so glad you say that because that’s what we were going for. We were going for a ’90s R&B vibe, throwback. Late ’90s, early 2000s, there’s some of all of that in there. But we wanted to do it with a fresh take and a fresh approach. So I’m hopeful that everyone else will feel the same way.

MW: Final question. Since everybody had different plans for 2020 than what 2020 turned out to be —

PEPPERMINT: That’s the truth.

MW: — how did this past year, the pandemic and the racial reckoning that has inspired some of your activism, affect what you were planning to do? And what’s your headspace moving forward?

PEPPERMINT: I wish I could say that there was almost no effect and everything was a plan in motion. But I’d be lying. I certainly was not planning on sitting inside of my apartment for six, maybe even more, months, turning my living room into a TV studio. But initially we were going to release the album in May, and I would’ve been on tour by now. The first date was supposed to be at the end of May in London, and we were going to tour Europe and then come back to the States. That obviously didn’t happen. So I really had to struggle with whether or not I was going to even release this album at all, or should we go ahead and push it out, or should we wait? We obviously decided to wait and refine a few things, so I’m actually glad we did, because I recorded most of this stuff a while ago, and then had the opportunity to go back in and do a little bit of rewriting and a little bit of rerecording, but this time all from home, from my apartment. I think it’s even better because of it.

I wasn’t quite sure what we were going to do with the music videos, for instance. Initially, we had a real traditional plan. Go on tour, film several music videos, and release them one by one. But because of COVID and the way that everything’s been affected, we had to do it all at the same time. So we all came together, quarantined, did everything as responsibly as possible with COVID protocols, and then shot a short film, which is scored by my music. It gave me the opportunity to really bring the whole story to life, and I think people are going to be really excited about that.

A Girl Like Me: A Letter to My Lovers is available on October 16 for purchase and streaming on all major music platforms, including Spotify, Apple Music, and Prime Music.

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André Hereford covers arts and entertainment for Metro Weekly. He can be reached at ahereford@metroweekly.com. Follow him on Twitter at @here4andre.

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