Murray Hill can trace his roots as a performer back to Wigstock, the seminal New York City drag festival organized by legendary queen Lady Bunny. Hill was so inspired by what he saw at the festival, weeks after moving to the city from Boston in the mid-1990s, that he decided to chart his own path in the scene. The first step was to adopt a new name as a hat tip to his first neighborhood.
“To me, Murray was always a standout,” Lady Bunny told The Guardian in a 2016 profile of Hill. “He always took being a drag king to a new level, which was more fully realized than most kings.” As the years have gone by, Hill has become far more than a pioneering drag king, queer New York nightlife fixture, or campy, charismatic trans comedian/actor. The 50-year-old has long struggled to find the right words and terminology to describe himself.
“I keep saying, when I talk to young people: We just didn’t have the language and the ID politics, we had nothing. Nothing,” he says. “Basically, it was butch or femme or tomboy when I came up. Now there are so many things. There isn’t one of these many words and identities that actually fits everything that I am. There’s no gender ID that is called Everything Under The Kitchen Sink. So I just go by Murray.”
While Hill’s background is on stage, 2022 is shaping up to be a banner year for Murray in the realm of television. He is currently a supporting player in the instantly beloved, heartwarming HBO series Somebody Somewhere starring Bridget Everett. Next month, Hill stars as Amy Schumer’s eccentric boss in the new Hulu dramedy Life and Beth. And he’ll also make a guest appearance in Welcome to Flatch, the new FOX TV series created by Paul Feig of The Office that begins airing mid-month.
But first, Hill will make a triumphant return to the stage for his first live, out-of-town show in two years with Burlesque-A-Pades at the Birchmere. “Before the pandemic, I was touring for 15 years all over the country,” says Hill. “What the audience can expect is maybe an additional 35 pounds, and my hair is gray. I’ve actually shrunk in height. And the jokes are so old, they’re going to seem new.”
Angie Potani, the mastermind behind Burlesque-A-Pades, isn’t the least bit worried, knowing that Hill is a natural, consummate entertainer, one she refers to as the “perfect man” to serve as host of the annual Valentine’s-themed burlesque bonanza. “Murray gets the audience right in the palm of his hand,” Potani says. “He just sets a perfect tone for the show, because a burlesque show is fueled by the audience’s energy. And Murray just gets it right where it needs to be. He’s really wonderful to work with.”
For the return of Burlesque-A-Pades after a year off, Potani set out “to cast all of my favorite people who we’ve brought to The Birchmere over the years” — a roster that includes The Maine Attraction, Gal Friday, Eva Mystique, Tequila Honeybee, Mr. Gorgeous (a “stunningly gorgeous” boylesque artist and contortionist), the Brian Newman Band, led by a frequent Lady Gaga collaborator and Potani’s husband, and Potani herself, who has been dubbed the International Queen of Burlesque. “My real tagline, which Murray gave me, is the Italian Stallionette,” she laughs.
Hill refers to his Birchmere return as “kind of a homecoming,” after near-annual appearances with the show over the past decade. “I just love that venue,” he continues, “and people in Alexandria and the D.C. area always seem like they’re ready to have fun. Like in New York or in L.A., they’re like, ‘All right, show me what you got.’ At the Birchmere, they’re like, ‘All right, we’re out, let’s have fun. Let’s see what these city kids are going to do tonight.'”
There’s one additional incentive that keeps Hill coming back to the Birchmere: the venue’s chicken fingers.
“It’s not the closest drive from Brooklyn. And I’ve got to be in the car with Angie and a whole bunch of burlesque performers,” Hill says. “But knowing at the other end of that rainbow is a pot, not of gold, but of chicken fingers, makes it worth it.”
METRO WEEKLY: You’ve got a lot on your plate with several big TV projects coming to fruition all at once in a rather rapid succession. What can we look forward to?
MURRAY HILL: It’s just mind-blowing that we’re finally here — all three shows coming out this winter and spring. So I’m very excited. It’s been interesting because before the pandemic, Bridget’s show got greenlit and then I was cast in Amy Schumer’s show. Then I’m in an episode of Paul Feig’s new FOX show, Welcome To Flatch. All that stuff happened before the first lockdown. I’ve been working towards this my whole career, trying to become a regular on TV as somebody like me, and it finally got there, and then everything halted. It ended up that I shot Bridget’s show last summer, so it was almost a year and a half in between making the first episode and the second episode.
MW: And what about the other shows? Were any of those episodes filmed before the pandemic?
HILL: No. Amy’s show was filmed last summer, and then Paul’s show, I went down there — I think it was North Carolina — actually before everyone was vaccinated, the week before Christmas time, in 2020. It was a high-risk situation, but I was like, “I’ve got to be in that show!”
It’ll be my first — what do you even call those anymore, network shows? It was nuts. I went down there and isolated and all that, and filmed. I’m in one episode and I play a magician. Murray Hillman is my character’s name. I don’t know where they come up with these things!
MW: Let’s switch gears and explore how you got here. Where did you grow up?
HILL: I like to broadstroke it because I’ve got quite a story. But the gist of it is, I grew up in New England, on the East Coast, and I came from a very conservative Catholic background. And when I was growing up, there wasn’t Internet, there wasn’t queer, there wasn’t trans, there was nothing. What I associated with gay was the butch gym teacher — there was something wrong with her. And then the kid in the chorus — there was something wrong with him. And people would say they were gay, but actually, there was no knowledge. And I didn’t even know what that meant, except that it was bad.
So I grew up in that environment, and I didn’t know what was going on with me. I literally would be like, “Why am I different? Why? What’s going on here?” I was so naive to everything. One of the things I developed to survive my own childhood was humor, making people laugh. And that was my coping skill, survival method. I was an artist and a tomboy. Once I had the chance to get out of New England, I did. I went to art school in Boston and spent five years there, and that was more liberal than where I was before.
Back then I was a photographer. I got really obsessed with black-and-white documentary photography, and Nan Goldin and Diane Arbus. And I had a great teacher, Stephen Frank. I used to go out, as this young college kid with cheekbones, into the clubs with my camera and say that I worked at the Boston Phoenix, and I would go take pictures of drag shows. You’re not going to believe this, but, all these years ago, I took pictures of Lady Bunny, Lypsinka, Girlina — all the old school New York people.
So I was seeing this entire world, and unconsciously laying the groundwork of what I would eventually be doing. It was this whole world of the queer community, and everyone was accepted, and individual and expressive. It was like a family. But I was an observer at that point, behind the camera. With that body of work, those photographs, I ended up getting into the School of Visual Arts in New York City.
That’s how I got to New York. And then I was taking photos of drag queens at Wigstock, by the second or third week. This was well before RuPaul’s Drag Race and stuff. It was considered mainstream back then because Chase Bank sponsored the West Side Pier Wigstock that year. We just didn’t know how big it was going to get.
By my third weekend in New York, I had an epiphany: “Oh my God, everyone’s taking pictures of drag queens. What’s on the other side of this?” So I found a drag king pageant at this place called the Hershey Bar in the Meatpacking District before it became gentrified. I went in there and I said I worked for the Village Voice this time.
MW: But you never worked for the Voice or the Phoenix, they were just your ruse to get in there with your camera, right?
HILL: Yeah. So I got into the club, and it was this whole different world. It was very different than the drag queens — different humor, different energy.
With the drag queens, I loved the camp humor, which has been such a part of drag queen and gay male history — since dirt was invented. With the queens in the clubs, it was a world of positive energy, laughter, and safety. And the politics and the problems of the community are dealt with through camp. So I just really absorbed all that, and then when I went to the drag king shows in New York, there wasn’t really any humor. It was more about passing, passing in masculinity. I guess today they would call it trans masc guys.
It was a very different energy — just gritty and real. So my brain was working, unconsciously. I was like, “I could bring a camp element into the scene.” I was kind of slowly going over toward the fence of becoming a performer.
A friend of mine from college got me a suit — my first suit. I was photographing drag kings, and then I became the subject matter. When I first hit the scene in the ’90s, I was, and still am, very much influenced by the early drag queens that I saw — very campy, use humor to disarm everybody, to deal with political issues, all that. I brought this Jackie Gleason, schmuck, kind of chubby white guy, and poked fun at masculinity and ding-dongs and stuff, in a campy way that’s not threatening, where you can get your message across and entertain everybody at the same time, and bring everybody together.
MW: I understand you recently turned 50.
HILL: I did, I turned 50 on Thanksgiving. I finally became my character’s age.
MW: Your character’s been 50 for how long would you say?
HILL: I have been 50 for thirty years. I don’t know if you heard about my recent troubles — the universe does crazy things. On my 50th birthday, on Thanksgiving Day, nine weeks ago, I was hanging out having dinner with Bridget Everett and Ana Gasteyer, and I got a phone call at about 11 o’clock that night saying that my apartment was burning down in New York.
So it was a real, “Oh my God! My 50th birthday” — like a big birthday, and then my apartment burned down that night. So it’s been a real trip.
MW: What was the cause?
HILL: There was illegal construction in the building next door. And I live in Brooklyn, in an old Italian neighborhood, so all the houses, they’re all connected, so three buildings caught.
MW: Did everything burn?
HILL: Yeah. So this show is — I’m not nervous, because it’s like going home in a way — this is my first big show after a very massive life change. I’m excited to dip my toes back in at the Birchmere where I feel comfortable and I really like the audience that we attract.
It’s just been such a trip. And I’m in a new place now. Actually, Angie started a GoFundMe to help with all the moving and replacing furniture, and the community really rallied around me, and it’s very touching. It made me very hopeful for humanity. As a comedian, I’m always doing benefits for charities. Then to actually be on the receiving end, that was quite moving.
MW: Is the GoFundMe page still active if people want to contribute?
HILL: No, we closed it up. It’s all good. I’m on the rebound.
MW: Back to your history, do you recall the date of your very first performance?
HILL: I remember my first time I was on stage in New York as Murray, but I don’t know the exact date of that. There is a photo of it. That was probably 1994, maybe ’95.
MW: Do you look similar to now? Or was it a different look and presentation?
HILL: Yeah, actually, I do. I had a baby face back then, and my hair was a little darker. Recently, in a box of old stuff from my childhood, I found a program, and — this is so nuts — I hosted a Battle of the Bands competition my senior year in high school. So that was probably 1989 or ’90. I think that’s the first time I was actually on a stage with a microphone.
MW: The fact that you were hosting the event, of all things.
HILL: I know, it just blows me away. It’s just like, “Okay, maybe there is some universe involvement here.”
MW: Were you active in high school?
HILL: Oh yeah. I was overly active, an overachiever, because my home life was very conservative. So I really blossomed the second I left the house, my childhood home, every day. Where I was from, there was arts, but it was a sports town. So I played all kinds of sports and everything. I was like a little jock and a visual artist, and then those things kind of melded eventually into Murray.
MW: What part of New England did you grow up in?
HILL: Well, I was born in Massachusetts, grew up in Connecticut, and then Boston. It all blurs together to me. That’s why I’m like, “New England.”
MW: That’s seemingly far removed, at least geographically, from where Somebody Somewhere is set, in Manhattan, Kansas. Is that where you filmed the show?
HILL: Some of it was filmed in Manhattan, Kansas. That’s where Bridget’s from. The show is loosely based on her life. So she made sure that all the details were authentic. But we filmed it in a suburb an hour and a half from Chicago in the corn fields. I’d never seen that part of Chicago. I was like, “Where are we?”
MW: It’s interesting to hear you talk about struggling with your identity growing up, even though you were far from Kansas, in a part of the country many consider liberal and progressive.
HILL: Well, that’s one of the things about the show and especially the choir practice — the title is Somebody Somewhere. This kind of dynamic, especially for those of us in our late 40s, almost happened in any small town in the country, whether you were in New England or Long Island or Middle America or Texas or Florida. Things have changed a little bit, but even in Kansas City, you find your people, and you come together as a community, and that’s how you get through it and survive. I definitely had that growing up. You might think it’s liberal, but it really wasn’t.
I remember I got to Boston and I was like, “Oh wow, it’s so different.” And then I think it was in my senior year, I had taken a photo of a drag queen, and my professor put it in the lobby of the school. And then the next day it was gone. So I was censored because of the subject matter. And as a young person, I just remember thinking, “Oh, this would’ve never happened in New York City.” I was like, “I’ve got to get out of here.”
MW: It all makes you wonder if that’s still happening out there, even in this day and age of increased LGBTQ awareness and media visibility, and when drag has essentially almost become mainstream? I know RuPaul hates it being put like that, calling it mainstream.
HILL: Well, I happen to know he moved into a $20 million mansion in Hollywood, so I’m sure he doesn’t hate it too much.
The thing about today that’s different is that, as a kid, I couldn’t hide in my closet — no pun intended — and look online and see and talk to and text and social media other queer people. So in that way, the technology and all the changes in media over the last 10 years. Even RuPaul’s show has done such incredible advancements for the drag and the queer community, just because of the pure visibility of it all.
So it is better, and I think there are places for people to go to feel seen and to see people like them. But you see how the country is still grappling with some age-old issues, so it still happens.
MW: Somebody Somewhere is not billed as a gay show. The lead character is straight and struggling to reconnect with her biological family. But it also focuses on the chosen family that she’s stumbled into and nurtured, showing that it’s not just queer people who have struggled like this, and it’s not just queer people who can find and make a chosen family for themselves.
HILL: Queer people in history are so used to living on the outside of society and banding together. And gay people, from the beginning of time, have always supported people — with big personalities — outside of the community who have also struggled. And that’s where Bridget fits into it. We took her in.
MW: I have to say, Bridget’s a new discovery for me.
HILL: Bridget’s known for her live show in New York with a big band. She does original songs. She’s like Bette Midler, Janis Joplin, and an eight-ball all combined.
MW: An eight-ball?
HILL: I’ll just leave it at that, sir. She’s really over the top, full blown, and she’s just gained a cult following in New York. And then Amy started having her on her show and they toured together, and then she got a Comedy Central special. But also Bridget has been in the show with me and Angie at the Birchmere. Not this year, though.
MW: One scene in the first episode takes place at a restaurant at brunch, where the waiter misgenders your character. Do you get that in real life?
HILL: Oh, every minute of every day — or multiple times a day since I was about five. It’s hilarious. In fact, that line, I improvised from real life. The waiter asks, “Sir? Ma’am?”
MW: “You were right the first time.”
MW: You say it’s hilarious, but ultimately, it’s more frustrating than hilarious, at least in the moment.
HILL: Well, it all depends on what mood I’m in. Or the context. I might not be the most objective person around this topic, but for example, when I go pick up my dry cleaning at the place I’ve gone to for twenty years, the woman goes, “Thank you, Mommy,” and I’m totally fine with that. But when I go to a restaurant and I’m dressed as Murray and I’m with a beautiful woman on a date, and a 22-year-old straight guy waiter comes up and says, “Ma’am,” then I get pissed.
So sometimes it bothers me, but it happens so much. I’m just like, “What are you going to do?”
MW: How do you identify?
HILL: My pronouns are Yabba Dabba Do.
I’m kind of old school in that I’m not a big identifier via sexuality or any of that. My whole thing as Murray is, I don’t want anything in front of my name. It’s not a popular stance in these times, but I’m an assimilationist — I want to be like everybody else. So to me, if it’s “Bridget Everett is in a new HBO show,” they don’t say “heterosexual female Bridget Everett, blah-blah-blah-blah-blah.” So I want to be treated just as a person, as Murray. Politically I believe in that.
On the other hand, there isn’t one of these many words and identities that actually fits everything that I am. There’s no gender ID that is called Everything Under The Kitchen Sink. So I just go by Murray. That’s easier.
MW: I’ve read that you were inspired by Benny Hill.
HILL: Oh yeah. Loved Benny Hill. Some people think Benny Hill’s my father. We do look a little alike. I used to watch that show when I was a kid — I would sneak downstairs to watch that because, if you remember, there was nudity on there.
MW: Yes, I do remember, although it was mostly naked women.
MW: I remember one of the local broadcast stations where I grew up would air that late at night, along with other risque movies from Europe, many of which featured sex and lots of nudity
HILL: Ah, the good old days.
MW: And as an impressionable adolescent, that helped establish my now lifelong habit of staying up late at night. Do you consider yourself a night owl?
HILL: Oh, hell yes.
MW: Which came first, watching late-night TV and finding your tribe and interests there, or being a night owl? Or is it a chicken/egg type of thing?
HILL: Oh, that’s interesting. I have never thought about it. I found my people in the late-night hours when my biological family was in bed. I would watch all these crazy characters like Totie Fields, Dean Martin, Shecky Greene, Don Rickles, all these larger-than-life personalities. It was like this whole world, it just looked incredible. And as a kid, I had no idea twenty years later I would be in that world. But I was born at two o’clock in the morning, so I think I’ve always been ready to roll in the evening.
MW: Is it true you once ran against Rudy Giuliani for Mayor of New York?
HILL: Yes, I did. I ran for mayor in 1996. That’s the first thing I did as Murray, and I campaigned on the streets. I did full shows at campaign rallies. I wrote speeches, and my platform was “Let the kids dance,” because at that point he was sanctioning club raids using these antiquated cabaret laws.
MW: And cleaning up Times Square.
HILL: But it was downtown too, because all the gay clubs — well, there are obviously some uptown too — but there was a whole bunch in the East Village where, literally you’d be having fun, partying, and then the fire marshal would come and shut everything down. Every night. For dancing. It was like, “What is happening?”
MW: People have glossed over that aspect of it all. You only really hear about those kinds of things happening in the lead up to Stonewall in the ’60s.
HILL: And the thing that’s nuts about it, it really was gay clubs. It wasn’t like the fire marshal was going into the big nightclubs. It was the gay clubs in the East Village. It was like, “Oh, the fire marshal is here again.”
MW: So that was a little foray into politics for you. You don’t really do that anymore, do you?
HILL: No, I think my politics are the same from when I started, and I can circle this back to the show: My whole thesis and purpose of being Murray was to raise the visibility level of people like me. Now I am so far from doing that. It is still incredibly imbalanced, but one of my goals was to get on TV, more than just a little episode here and there. I’m actually a character on two shows and that was part of raising visibility, where you can take up space, be present, be who you are.
So that part of my politics is the same. And me getting on TV — yes, it’s part of pop culture, and it’s not running for mayor or rallying in the streets or something. But it’s being who I am unabashedly in an HBO show that a lot of people are going to see, and there’s going to be kids who are going to be like, “Oh, what’s this? I’ve only been seeing 18,000 seasons of Drag Race. This is something different.”
MW: When did you move to Brooklyn? You’re still there, right?
HILL: Oh yeah, I’m still here. I’ve been here since the ’90s. When I first moved to Brooklyn, my rent was $500 for a huge railroad apartment, and I split it with my roommate. Now my rent — I could buy an island in the Bahamas with the rent I’m paying now.
MW: Are you dating anybody at the moment?
HILL: I better keep it open because I always meet some ladies at the show. It’s a Valentine’s Day show, it’s for lovers. It’s a similar thing of Liberace never telling the press that he was gay because he wanted to be available to the women, because that was part of it. So I’m going to take the same line.
He was one of the first performers, if not the first performer, to actually look into the camera. And women would swoon over him. Women loved him from the get-go. And obviously he was closeted. So it was a very specific choice to look into the camera, to not talk about his personal life in that way, so that he was seen as this charming guy available to the ladies.
MW: Which is so funny to think about. To think that he got away with it.
HILL: I know, mind-blowing. He did, and so am I.
MW: Even in your personal life, people call you Murray, right?
HILL: The only people that don’t call me Murray are my three shrinks and the IRS.
MW: I hope the IRS doesn’t call you much if at all.
HILL: No comment.
MW: Have you been able to reconnect with your biological family over the years?
HILL: That’s a whole ‘nother thing, because my mom just passed like two weeks ago.
MW: I’m sorry to hear that.
HILL: So we’ll keep the family out of it for now. But to bring it back to the show, the whole choir practice is where Fred Rococo kind of shines, and that’s a chosen family. And that mirrors my life and Bridget’s life very much, in that, it wasn’t until I got to New York and met all these incredible people in nightlife and the queer community that I really developed family relationships. I really understood and lived — and still do to this day — what chosen family is.
In a way that’s why I’ll probably never leave New York. New York City opened its arms to me and accepted me for all the different things that I am, and still does, and has given me a platform and a career. So I’m a New Yorker for life, even though it’s killing me.
MW: Because of the cost?
HILL: Because it’s New York. It’s a pain in the ass. You don’t get chicken fingers when you perform at a club here. Come on!
MW: Do you have kids? Or would you want to have kids?
HILL: No! At least that I don’t know about. It’s possible they’re out there. And if they’re coming for child support, we’ve got to get a second season of Somebody Somewhere first.
MW: What would you want to say about the Amy Schumer show Life & Beth?
HILL: I haven’t even seen it. I have a big scene in the first episode, and they told me to “play it straight.” I met Amy through Bridget.
And what I love about Bridget’s show and Amy’s show is that they just cast me based on Murray. So even in Amy’s show, it’s not like, “Oh, this is a trans character. This is a drag character.” It’s just Murray. That’s what my personal politics and ambitions are, and then to be cast in these two incredible shows of these two powerhouse women in comedy and they both, because of their power and success, were able to cast me as Murray.
In Amy’s show, I’m named Murray. And then in Bridget’s, I’m named Fred. So it’s like Murray as Fred, Murray as Murray. So, it’s just, overnight success. I’m the longest overnight success story in show business.
MW: You’re just getting started, nearly 30 years into your career.
HILL: Yeah. Write that down. Write that down, and then tell it to my back.
Murray Hill will host “Burlesque-A-Pades in Loveland” on Saturday, Feb. 12, at 7:30 p.m. at The Birchmere, 3701 Mt. Vernon Ave., Alexandria, Va. Tickets are $29.50. Call 703-549-7500 or visit www.birchmere.com.
For more on HBO’s Somebody Somewhere, visit www.hbo.com/somebody-somewhere.
For more on Murray Hill, visit www.mistershowbiz.com.
Follow Murray on Twitter at @Murray_Hill.
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