Raven Snook is a modern Renaissance woman, appearing here, there and everywhere, doing everything from acting to hosting burlesque shows to writing for the likes of the New York Post, Time Out New York and The Village Voice, among others. I first saw her read about her drag queen persona at East Side Oral, and was blown away by her glam look and honest glimpse into issues of size, gender and nonconformity on many levels. Here, Raven tells all about being Lucky Cheng's first "female female impersonator," her Maury Povich appearance and talk show sensationalism, Jewish families and body image, having her image on the cover of a book of smut, and exploring her inner (and outer) drag queen, along with survival tips for New York artists. Catch Raven while you can, in her April 30th performance with Allison Tilsen, Too Cool for Shul, because she's about to give birth in July (you can check out her ultrasound photo on her blog). Raven uses the words "performer," "writer," and "diva" to describe herself on her website--all fitting, but I'd add one more: fabulous.
Firstly, is Raven Snook your real name, and whether yes or no, do you feel you’ve had to "live up to" such a bold name as "Raven Snook?"
What kind of Jewish mother would give her kid a name like "Raven"? No, I was born Rebecca, and the follow up question people always ask is, "so… your last name is Snook and you changed your first name?" The truth is, I never felt comfortable with the name Rebecca. It just wasn't me. Maybe it was too biblical or something. Even as a young child I tried numerous times to change it. I have a journal from third grade where I wrote, "From today on, everyone will call me Cynthia." Clearly that never took. I remember trying the name Amanda at some point. But convincing all your friends to call you by a new name is harder than it sounds. Then in ninth grade, I met my first boyfriend and he immediately dubbed me Raven because I wore all-black clothing. It wasn't the most original nickname, but it fit. And combined with Snook it's an absolutely unforgettable moniker. And I love living up to it, both on stage and in real life. People assume so many things about you when you have a strong name. My favorite name-related anecdote occurred when I was interning for The Village Voice while in college. I wrote a bunch of theater reviews and one day I met someone who had been reading my work and he said, "So, you're Raven Snook. I always figured you'd be a bitter old drag queen." How perfect was that?
You wear many hats, including writer, performer, playwright, reviewer, host, model, and now soon-to-be mom. How do all of these coalesce and interact for you? Is one primary over the others?
I guess these days I think of myself primarily as a journalist. Once I got pregnant, I knew I would have to cut back on my performing. My body and brain are just too tired. So since last November, I have been making the bulk of my living penning arts-related articles for various publications, mostly Time Out. But when people ask what I do, I always give the same response: "I'm a performer, writer and diva." I feel like those three categories cover everything about me, both personally and professionally. And soon I guess I will have to decide whether I want to add "mom" to that list. In terms of how they all coalesce, they don't! I'm always running around like a maniac. There are nights when I run to review a play, then host a burlesque show right afterwards. But I like the nuttiness of it all. I thrive on stress.
You’re known for your one-woman show, How I Became a Drag Queen Trapped in a Woman's Body. Can you tell me more about the show and how you found your inner drag queen?
It's an autobiographical cabaret show that chronicles my evolution from ugly, Upper West Side Jewish nerd to the glamorous diva that I am today. Even as a child I never felt like a girl. I wasn't perky or petite or good at the parallel bars. I desperately tried to figure out exactly where I fit in with my gender. I tried being a tomboy. That was unattractive! Then I tried being a girlie girl (lots of ribbons and bows) but that didn't work for me either. By the time I turned ten, I had gotten my period, confirmation of my gender, but I still didn't feel like "one of them." At age 12 I met my first love, Andy, at a musical theater camp. (I bet you can guess how that relationship turned out.) By the end of the summer, he had come out of the closet, but even though we were never intimate we did absolutely everything together. We shopped for corsets, wigs and false eyelashes and attended The Rocky Horror Picture Show every weekend. We even ended up losing our virginity to the same man!
Through Andy I realized that I only felt like a girl when I dressed the part. I started to express my womanhood via drag. Every morning when I woke up I would look in the mirror and see a blank, genderless slate that needed to be defined. I costumed myself throughout high school and college in vintage gowns, platform shoes and glamorous makeup. Pretty soon I was calling myself "a drag queen trapped in a woman’s body." I even started booking gigs as a drag queen! I appeared on The Maury Povich Show as a "female female impersonator" and wrote and performed my one-woman show on and off between 1996 - 1998. Although I haven't performed the show in its entirety for many years now, I still cannibalize material from it. One of my signature songs on the burlesque scene is a parody of the old Leiber and Stoller hit "I'm A Woman" where I sing about being both a woman and a drag queen. And of course a lot of my comic material is derived from my years passing as a drag queen.
Speaking of drag, you were the first biological woman to perform at Lucky Cheng’s. When did that happen? What was that experience like, and would you do it again? Were you treated differently by the other staff? Did customers know?
As far as I know, I was the first biological woman to perform at Lucky Cheng's, although many have come after me including The World Famous *BOB*. Back in 1996, a drag queen named Baby Jane Doe who was working there asked me to do a weekly show with her. We called it Men Are From Mars, Women Are From Venus, and Drag Queens Are From Uranus and we sang a bunch of silly song parodies. We wanted it to be a total gender fuck. We wanted audiences to wonder who was the "man" and who was the "woman." Unfortunately, people (at least the ones who patronize Cheng's) see what they expect to see. And since they knew they were in a drag bar, they just assumed that I was a man and so they kind of missed the point. Drunken girls were always coming up to me and saying, "I can't believe you're a man! You're so feminine! I wish I had your tits!" Sometimes I'd reveal myself and they'd just stagger away, inebriated and confused. It was hilarious. Everyone on staff was sweet to me. I wasn't an employee of Cheng's per se. Baby Jane was the one paying me. And I was already close friends with many of the girls there. In general, my experiences with drag queens and transgendered women have been very positive. However, as with any group, there are bad apples. Sometimes I have encountered prejudice or been dismissed as some kind of drag queen groupie. For example, when I appeared on The Maury Povich Show I met a very nasty transgendered woman who complained that "real girls" were inferior to transgendered women because they didn't "work" for it. I explained that I didn't believe that to be true. I certainly feel like I work hard, not only on my looks, but also on my entire identity.
How do weight and body issues affect your relationship with your gender? Have you found that drag queens have an easier time with body image than most biological women seem to?
When I put up my first Web site with the subtitle "a drag queen trapped in a woman's body," I received a number of e-mails from women all over the world who also considered themselves to be female female impersonators. Some were performers. Others just had outrageous personalities. But we all had one thing in common: we were full-figured. I found that very interesting! This of course was back in the mid-1990s before the birth of the neo-burlesque scene. I think there are numerous biological women working in burlesque these days who consider themselves female drag queens, and many of them have traditionally perfect figures. For me, even when I was thin I thought I was fat, and that judgment stems all the way back to my childhood. I suspect it's one of the reasons I never felt like other little girls. Hell, I was wearing a bra at eight!! So it was hard to feel like my peers. Drag allows you to transform into the ideal you. Weight really is irrelevant when you're dolled up in corsets and seven-inch heels. As for whether drag queens have fewer issues about weight, I really can't say but my guess is that they have just as many issues as biological women . . . at least in their day clothes. But confidence is any drag queen's most important attribute. You can't be worrying about whether your butt looks fat when you're onstage being fabulous.
You’ve been on talk shows such as The Maury Povich Show, where the audience had to guess whether you were actually a woman or a drag queen, and it seems like many Americans, especially outside of New York, get their information on drag, gender, transvestism, etc., from talk shows. How do you feel about their treatment of such topics? Is it sensationalized, or is there room for some reality in that format?
My Maury Povich experience was so odd. On the one hand, it was fabulous. I got to sing The Eurythmics' "Would I Lie To You" on syndicated television, and the audience totally loved me, mainly I think because they could tell I was a biological woman (although one old biddy guessed my gender as male at the end of the show). Simultaneously, the audience treated the transgendered women (the ones they could clock anyway) like shit, yelling crap like "I can see her penis" and "no real girl has knees like that." So while the performing side of me felt like a total ruling diva, my political side was like, "Fuck you! Learn some goddamn manners, assholes." Of course what did I expect from Maury's audience? What did any of us expect? Like the patrons at Cheng's, these people only saw what they were told to see. Since they were looking for "men," they saw men, even though I felt like every single person up on that stage was at least as much of a woman as I was. But I guarantee you, if any of those transgendered women had passed any of those audience members on the street, they would have "passed." Ugh, that is such an ugly word! I know many transgendered women who are proud to reveal their gender or who consider themselves both male and female. They're not interested in hiding. In terms of Americans outside of New York (and San Francisco, etc.) getting their info on drag and transgendered people from talk shows, sigh, part of me thinks it's better they know something rather than nothing. But in general, shows like Maury and Ricki Lake are just so damn exploitative, I sometimes wonder if these people would be better off being completely ignorant of the subject.
Out of all types of performance you’ve participated in, what’s your favorite type of event to host or perform at?
Hosting is so much fun but it's also a real bitch. You can't rely solely on scripted material. You really need to watch the show as it unfolds and comment on it. It's totally nerve-racking, yet insanely rewarding if you're able to come up with timely quips off the top of your head. I guess I like hosting burlesque shows the most. I have hosted literary and storytelling events too but the audiences are never rowdy enough for my taste. But at burlesque shows, anything goes and if you're dying up there you can always flash your nipples or engage in lesbian foreplay. That always brings 'em back.
As a longtime performer in the New York underground arts culture, what's been the biggest change you've seen in the last five years?
All the venues are closing or moving to Brooklyn! I mean come on, Luna Lounge, Fez, and now CBGB might be next. I know everyone's bitching about all of this right now, but as a native New Yorker I can't help but chime in. Of course whenever I start bitching and moaning my 70-year old mother, who was born and bred in Brooklyn and moved to Manhattan in the early '60s, tells me that this is just the nature of New York. It changes. That's the one thing about it that remains constant. And if she can deal with it, I can too. I guess I wouldn't mind so much if some of the venues / parties would move up to my 'hood, Spanish Harlem. But while there's lots of cool stuff going on up here, the drag, burlesque, and literary stuff is still, for the most part, centered downtown or in Brooklyn. And not even Williamsburg! Fucking Greenpoint. I went to Greenpoint once. It took me three hours to get home!
If you could change one thing about the current performance art scene here, what would it be?
Move more cool shit to my neighborhood! That and have performers support each other more. Not that they don't already. I think a lot of them do. But there are always divas in the worst sense of the word. None of us are making any money. None of us are true celebrities. There's no reason to be bitchy.
Having been on both the writing and receiving end of theater/dramatic criticism, what do see the role of the critic being? Does being a performer yourself aid or hinder you when it comes to writing reviews?
I hate to admit this, but I think that I may be a better critic than a performer. Oy, did I just say that? Although I do think I am a talented performer – I have a strong voice and a lot of stage presence – I am also really lazy when it comes to being creative. Some people are so prolific. Meanwhile I started hosting, as opposed to performing book shows, because I wanted to avoid having to write anything down. But I am a rabid cultural critic. I love seeing shows, analyzing them and then spewing out my opinions. As a critic, I know what's expected of me and I know how to turn a clever phrase. As a performer / writer, I often feel like I'm drowning. At first I worried that being a performer and a critic would be a conflict of interest. But I am very ethical. I avoid writing about people / shows where I cannot go in with an open mind. If I hate someone's work, I will ask not to cover it although conversely, if I love a theater company, I will cover them time and time again. I'd rather give good ink than bad. And since I have received positive and negative reviews myself, I try to be polite.
As a critic I think my job is to watch a show, figure out what its intent was and then evaluate it on its merits. There are times when a show is not my personal cup of tea, but if I think it's perfect for the 50-year old, suburban set, I'll say so instead of trashing it on a personal level. That's something I just despise about Ben Brantley in the Times. So often he seems to be carrying out some kind of personal vendetta against certain writers and actors, and he's quick to judge anything too commercial. I love a lot of commercial stuff, and a lot of underground stuff. And I think there's a place for both in this town. I really try to avoid being a cunt as a critic. I only really get mean if I walk out of a show wanting my life back. When that happens, look out. A few months ago I called a play "excruciating." I felt bad about that, but it truly was painful. You really have to suck to get me to be a bitch in print. Of course on my blog that's another story…
You've performed with Nice Jewish Girls Gone Bad and written for Heeb magazine, and I'm wondering how you think Jewish culture, however you choose to define that, impacts on body image, both your own and in the broader sense. It seems like that could go both ways – Jewish women are known for being more zaftig, but there’s also intense pressure from Jewish families to be thin, small, and perfect (while also eating everything on our plates).
I guess I didn’t come from a typical Jewish family then because my mom never put pressure on me to be small. She was a big lady herself, and while she certainly didn’t encourage me to be overweight, I think she was more concerned that I look presentable rather than slim. It took her quite a while to get used to my all-black, low-cut wardrobe. If I learned anything from working at Heeb, and to a lesser extent performing in Nice Jewish Girls, it’s that Jews come in all shapes and sizes as well as varying degrees of devoutness. We even did a photo shoot of zaftig Jewish girls for Heeb and I was one of them. I guess we Jews are so neurotic about everything, that weight / body image is just one of a million issues. It’s just inextricably tied in to our undying love for food.
The tagline on your website says "Performer. Writer. Diva." What does being a diva mean to you?
I mean it in two senses of the word. On the one hand, I am a big, Ethel Merman-esque singer. On the other, I am larger than life and perpetually sparkly.
Your photo appears on the cover of a smut book, The Governness by M.S. Valentine. How did that come about and how does it feel to have your image on the cover of such a book?
I love being on the cover of that book. It's such a hot picture, too. In terms of how that happened, like I said before, I was one of a number of models who posed for a Heeb Magazine group photo shoot featuring zaftig women. After we wrapped, the photographer, an amazing woman named Sara Press invited us to pose for individual photos. She explained that she took photos of women on spec for the covers of "romance novels" and while she couldn't guarantee that any of us would ever make it on a cover, she promised us free prints. I'm always up for more photos of myself so I jumped at it. Less than six months later that book came out and Sara sent me a copy. "Romance novel" my ass. That shit is porn, honey! I randomly opened to a page and read an entire paragraph about clit stimulation. I died laughing. A friend of mine claimed that she and her father were in a Borders and that he saw me on the cover and asked, "Isn't that your friend Raven?" I can't believe Borders carries stuff like that!
Given unlimited resources-time, money, venue, etc.,-what kind of grand gala would you stage?
I have been working on this show for years now (in my head anyway) called Diva in Debt, which would be about all the crazy jobs I’ve worked in order to stay fabulous. Ultimately I would auction off all my outrageous belongings in order to get out of debt. I really wanted to sell stuff off to audience members, and have an electronic counter counting down my debt. Oh and I wanted back-ups singers, too. I see it as a huge Vegas revue/Sotheby’s auction. Do you see now why I have yet to mount this show?
Aside from slowing down your performance schedule, how will having a baby impact your performing/art? Are you planning to write anything about it or work being a mom into your art?
Since 99% of what I write is autobiographical, I assume I’ll be writing about the baby at some point. And I’ve already mentioned the little bugger when I’ve hosted burlesque shows. In terms of how it will affect me in the long term, I can only imagine. Everyone tells me that my life “will never be the same,” almost like it’s a threat. Well I don’t want my life to be the same! If I did, I wouldn’t have gotten pregnant. But I also don’t plan to give up my own personal artistic goals. It wouldn’t be fair to me or, frankly, the baby. I am sure it (we won’t know the gender until it’s born) will want mom to be happy and fulfilled. And that won’t happen unless I can continue writing and performing.
What are your top five survival tips for artists who want to thrive in New York over the long term?
Five, huh? Well first and foremost, do not give up on your dreams. You may have to adjust them, of course. I always figured I would be famous and dead by now. But in my mid-20s, when I realized that I probably wouldn’t ever get a sitcom, I gave up performing for a number of years and I was absolutely miserable. Then Goddess Perlman, creator and hostess of Nice Jewish Girls Gone Bad, invited me to perform in one of her shows a few years back and it sparked this whole new “career” for me. I put “career” in quotation marks because although I make some money, I certainly don’t live off performing. But getting back on stage really revitalized me. Hey, that’s how I met you! You wouldn’t give a shit about me if you hadn’t seen me on stage.
Second, don’t let one (or two or ten) bad performances get you down. Some nights I leave the stage and think, “I never want to do that again.” But of course I do. Third, if you can’t get cast in anything, create your own work. This is very important! You think there are a lot of roles – hell any roles – out there for a voluptuous, magenta-haired, tattooed Jewess who sings like Ethel Merman? Hell no. That’s why I started hosting burlesque shows / writing cabaret shows. I know how to show off my talents, even if nobody else does. Four, find yourself a really supportive partner (preferably one who will have sex with you). Having one true fan who’ll show up at all your performances is really wonderful. Five, make a lot of friends who are easily guilted into doing things. You’ll need them to come to your shows.
Is there anything else you want to add?
Since the baby is due on July 25, I probably won’t be performing much after mid-June (at least not until 2006!). So now is the time to experience me live on stage. I have a big show coming up on Saturday, April 30th at 9 p.m. at BAMcafe. It’s part of a Jewish music series called Too Cool For Shul. It’s a semi-autobiographical cabaret show that my dear friend Allison Tilsen and I cooked up about our parallel lives. Of course she’s a Midwestern Jewess and I’m an indigenous New York Semite, but we really seem to be long-lost sisters. We’re going to sing all kinds of stuff: Sondheim, Stephen Schwartz, Guns N’ Roses (yes Guns N’ Roses.) Best of all, it’s free, although there is some kind of food and drink minimum. All my fans are lushes anyway.