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BWW Interview: Gloria Swansong and Maxie Factor - Two Sisters Making Each Other's Dreams Come True PART ONE

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When these two vintage Drag Queens met they completed a circle of sisterhood that feeds their art and souls.

BWW Interview: Gloria Swansong and Maxie Factor - Two Sisters Making Each Other's Dreams Come True PART ONE In circles both show business and LGBTQIA+ there is a philosophy about the family you make being as important as the family into which you were born, especially the LGBTQ community which, historically, is one riddled with those who have been ostracized from their biological families. Armistead Maupin beautifully calls this the "Logical Family" in his Tales Of The City novels, and the television show POSE leads with a focus on these non-biological families. The writers who take it upon themselves to tell the stories of these Logical Family units do so because there is never a bad time to tell the story of human beings who come together in love and support, which is exactly why this writer and the Broadway World Cabaret page wanted to tell the story of Maxie Factor and Gloria Swansong, two sisters in drag and in life.

Miss Swansong, an ace costume designer by trade, hit the drag scene only slightly before Miss Factor, a crackerjack hair artist who has (of late) been banging hair for a super-famous television show about a lady stand-up comic named Midge. While balancing the often choppy waters of working for a living while living to create art, the two ladies were skillfully brought together by another drag sister, and when they met, they discovered a kinship most important to both.

After seeing Gloria and Maxie in their recent show at Don't Tell Mama, I asked if the two glamor girls would like to do a sit-down with me and a tape recorder (ok, the voice memo app on my iPhone, but let's keep the story vintage-sounding, shall we?) for a round-table discussion about their lives, their art, and their sisterhood. The hour-plus chat we had was so enjoyable, fascinating, and eye-opening that I am presenting their interview in two parts for Pride.

And it is with great pride that I welcome them to Broadway World Cabaret and introduce them to all our readers.

This interview has been edited for space and content.

Gloria Swansong and Maxie Factor. How are you today?

Gloria: I'm fine. Okay, good. I'm great. Maxie?

Maxie: (Laughing) I'm fine.

How was Mrs. Maisel today?

Maxie: Mrs. Maisel was fine. We had a very busy week. We did five days. It was very glamorous as always, (we have) a brand new set and tomorrow a 5:00 AM call. We're doing a game show and the main character in our world is the woman who invented the beehive. So I'm extremely excited.

Because you're one of the hairdressers.

Maxie: Yes.

So you're doing a lot of beehives.

Maxie: Not yet. She was the first, so we're not there yet. It's very much Jackie Kennedy era hair.

So while Maxie is off doing hair for Mrs. Maisel, what is it that you do when you're not on stage, Gloria?

Gloria: I make a lot of custom clothes for people, which is mainly what I've been doing in the pandemic. Before the pandemic, I was doing a lot of theater and film as a costume designer, and of course, that all evaporated - I was making custom clothes and designing custom clothes for (mostly) drag artists - in the pandemic, that continued to be a thing. I also made masks for people, but that now seems to be not a thing anymore because people aren't wearing masks anymore.

Maxie: Oh, wow.

I'm still wearing my mask.

Gloria: Or people just aren't buying them. Now my commissions have picked back up, now that a lot of drag Queens have gigs again, and P-town is happening and Puerto Vallarta and things like that. So while Maxie is on set, I'm in my own sewing studio at home making clothes.

So let's talk about having to have a day job and then working at night, doing drag. Is there a common misconception about the life of a drag queen when it comes to paying the bills if you're a drag artist who hasn't had the benefit of being on a Reality TV Show?

Gloria: I think what I would say about that is that it's different for everybody. When I first started in costume design, costume designers all told me (starting out after my master's degree) "You should get a job that is not in our field that can help you pay the bills between costume design gigs" ... and that's what I feel about drag, too. I think I can speak for both of us: we're not the kind of Drag Queens who are going to be at the Midtown bar every week on a Tuesday night. We are not weekly show Queens because that's a very specific kind of drag, and we just don't fit that niche. We don't fit that audience. Our drag is a special occasion for us and for our audience - it took me a while to learn that but I feel like Maxie has always known that.

BWW Interview: Gloria Swansong and Maxie Factor - Two Sisters Making Each Other's Dreams Come True PART ONE
Maxie Factor

Maxie. Yes. Everything we do is so intentional, everything has a reference or a reason or an emotion - always a nostalgic reason for the most part. It takes time and we can't do what we do without the time. I would take all the time in the world and perform once a year or twice a year and prefer that, versus the other way. We're lucky that our jobs are so connected to why we do drag... like Maisel - I'm so fortunate, after going through last year, it's in my drag period, the early sixties, that's my favorite period; so it's almost interconnected.

Gloria: In a way, you're doing more Maxie hair than you would ever do for Maxie, on other people.

Maxie: (Laughing) Yeah!

Gloria: That's why I make clothes for other people too: I can't really justify making a million gowns for myself - and I can't afford to do that because every time you do something for yourself, you have to think of it as you're paying yourself to do it, because it's taking up time. So making stuff for other people allows me to keep doing the thing I love but actually pay my bills.

You touched on your drag aesthetic being the Sixties, Maxie. It's very clear that Gloria Swansong is influenced by the Thirties and Forties, but Maxie is right in the Sixties. How did two young men decide to pick the Thirties and the Forties and Sixties as their drag aesthetic? How did you first become aware of the divas that inform your art?

BWW Interview: Gloria Swansong and Maxie Factor - Two Sisters Making Each Other's Dreams Come True PART ONE
Gloria Swansong

Maxie: First of all, Gloria is non-binary - just wanted to put that out there. But no worries - we have to discuss.

It's very good to do that. I have nonbinary friends and trans friends that continue to help me grow in my awareness, my verbiage, and my alliance. I've gotten pretty good at it, but I'm not always on top of it. So thank you for helping me grow today in my awareness.

Maxie: And drag is hard with gender because it's been very black and white for a long time, so it's hard, but it's good to discuss. My drag is directly connected to my grandmother. She was born in 1941 and she helped to raise me. She taught me what beauty and glamour was. So literally when I do drag, my most prized possessions are her Polaroids from the early Sixties... and it's just her standing in front of her home in Cleveland or her in her wedding dress in her living room or her in front of Niagara Falls wearing the best dress out of everybody. (Gloria laughs) So it's a visual: I want you to be in that - when you open a scrapbook and you see your grandma... and it's not easy to do. (Gloria laughs heartily)

Did your grandmother live to see you create?

Maxie: She never did. Weirdly, she passed when I turned 18 and her grandmother passed when she was 18. But she is with me every day. We're getting ready to shoot her wedding dress. I still have it, it fits me.. a little short, but... (Gloria giggles and claps)

Oooh, that's amazing!

Maxie: We've been discussing the plan, finding a vintage veil...

Gloria: The black dress.

Maxie: Oh yeah! The shoot we did for the Don't Tell Mama show - I wore my grandmother's engagement dress in black velvet. I still have it.

BWW Interview: Gloria Swansong and Maxie Factor - Two Sisters Making Each Other's Dreams Come True PART ONE
Gloria Swansong and Maxie Factor

Obviously, you were very close growing up with your grandmother. What does it feel like to be so influenced by someone that meant so much to you, in your artistry?

Maxie: It's such a gift. It's rare. Not a lot of people have such a strong, direct vision and feeling towards a person, where it comes out in every single thing I do. Everything I do is for her or for my mother. I'm very grateful for it. Always.

Gloria, what about your journey with the divas and goddesses of the Thirties and the Forties?

Gloria: We have a similar, but very different story in that I had three grandmothers, and all three of them loved a different era of old Hollywood, so all three of my grandmothers focused me on different areas of old Hollywood. My mother's mother introduced me to Judy Garland - she was born and raised in Little Rock, Arkansas, and very Southern and from the era where everybody loved musicals. Everybody knew all the musicals, and men loving musicals wasn't gay. My grandfather knew every word to every song in South Pacific and he was in the Navy and that's why he loved it. It was just a different world and he loved Judy Garland and they introduced me to Judy Garland and musicals and movies of the Thirties and Forties.

My other grandmother loved Hitchcock and introduced me to Hitchcock. So it was really my grandmas... but for me, it comes from a little bit different place because I really did feel very trapped growing up in Nashville, Tennessee, growing up in an Alcoholics Anonymous household, growing up in a very small town; I felt like I was a white sheep in a family of black sheep in a whole town where I didn't ever see anyone else like me. I was 16 before I knew you could be a costume designer. I didn't see a professional theater production till I was 17. I just didn't know: I was so sheltered. For me, old Hollywood and Golden Age musicals and Hitchcock and all of these old movies were really an escape. I really loved the women in them because they were so strong and because there was always a man raining on a woman's parade in an old Hollywood movie. I was always like, "I love this movie, I wish there were no men in it" ... except when Ginger has to dance with Fred (Laughing) or when Judy dances with Fred or Gene Kelly. I think of The Wizard of Oz or A Star is Born and I forget all the other characters other than Judy Garland. That's where my drag comes from - just loving all these women. And my mother is a diehard disco, diehard soul train, diehard Motown person, so she introduced me to a lot of black artists that I didn't know... my mother was such a diehard fan - most of her favorite music is black women, so she introduced me to a lot of black women vocalists. That's where that love comes from.

You discovered, I think you said when you were 16 or 17, that you could be a costumer for a living.

Gloria: Oh yeah.

What about the hairdressing? Is it just wigs or do you do hair that's still on peoples' heads?

Maxie: Honestly, everything I've done in my life has led to this. You have to know how to do everything... men's haircuts, men's wigs, everything.

When did that begin for you?

Maxie: Once again, my grandma. My grandma had arthritis. She had diabetes, so she didn't live long... you know, diabetes will get you... but she got arthritis and had been teasing her hair since the Sixties. So she had this little boy here who came over every weekend. She taught me how to tease her hair and set it. I would do her hair whenever I went there.

Gloria: I didn't know this!

Maxie: You didn't know this?

Gloria: No!

Maxie: Yeah. She treasured things. My grandma taught me how to treasure things. So I'm very connected to the movies because of her. She treasured them. We were at those tapes, girl (Laughing).

Gloria: Oh, yeah (Laughing), oh yeah!

Maxie: We were watching those tapes off of TNT or TCM, whatever you're watching, A&E, (Everyone laughing), The Bravo Network. Amen! She also treasured her childhood things or things from her youth - she had her dolls from the Forties when she was a little kid and I gave them all makeovers. I did my first French Twist on a doll from the Sixties. So it's just all kind of interconnected to her. She gave me so many gifts without even knowing it, by putting me to work.

(Everyone laughs hard.)

May I know your grandmother's name?

Maxie: It was Lillian Neumann.

During your show, you said that this is your ten-year drag anniversary, Gloria, and Maxie it is your nine-year anniversary.

Gloria: Yes

Maxie: Mmm-hmm

Have the two of you known each other long enough to have witnessed each other's entire drag trajectory?

Gloria: No, we didn't meet until 2016 or 2017. One of my drag sisters knew Maxie and was like, "You have to meet Maxie Factor," and we met at So You Think You Can Drag several times... but I think the first time I really remember meeting you in drag was at my very first Judy show at the Green Room, the first one, at New World Stages. And you were a vision in Edith Piaf...

BWW Interview: Gloria Swansong and Maxie Factor - Two Sisters Making Each Other's Dreams Come True PART ONE
Maxie Factor

That's a compliment

Maxie: (Laughing) That was the day I learned who she was, I'm not going to lie, she was not my grandmother's idol.

Gloria: (Laughing) I have tunnel vision for real, so we're so good together.

Maxie: Cause she teaches me all the time... now I love her, but I was like, "Who, what do I look like?"

You thought they said Edith Bunker.

(Everyone laughing)

Gloria: I had, obviously, made all my clothes - a large reason that I had done drag up until that point was because it was a way for me to make clothes... and the hair did not live up to the clothes at that point. (Laughing) The clothes were great and the hair was whacky.

I bet that happens a lot.

Gloria: Yeah.

Maxie: It's the biggest issue.

Gloria: It was such a struggle for me because I didn't have any money and so much of what I do as a theater artist is about collaboration. Some Queens will just buy a wig off the internet that someone has styled, but for me, it has to be about a collaboration conversation. I don't even want to venture into it unless I know it's going to be a collaboration with somebody. So when Gilda Wabbit introduced us...

Great name.

Gloria: She sings opera.

Because why not? Do you know that reference? Gilda Wabbit?

Maxie: Yeah.

Gloria: (Singing) Gilda Wabbit...

Maxie: (Singing) Gilda Wabbit...

Everyone: (Singing) Gilda Waaaabbit!

Of course, because if you know all the way back to the Thirties and Forties with the movies, you have to know Bugs Bunny and Kill The Rabbit. Okay. So you folks meet, you got a busted wig. (Gloria and Maxie laughing). Did you ask her to fix your wig or did you volunteer to fix it?

Gloria: The whole reason we were introduced was because I was starting to do Judy and I was like, "Mama, we gonna do Judy, we gotta do Judy right." Gilda Wabbit was like, "You got to meet Maxie Factor. And I think... Is Meet Me In St. Louis the first hair you ever did for me?

Maxie: Mmm-hmm.

Gloria: And what harder hair-do to ask you to start with.

It's impossible.

Maxie: I nailed it. (Laughing)

Gloria: And they do not do it right in Me and My Shadows.

Maxie: Whoooooooooooooooo!

It's so awful.

BWW Interview: Gloria Swansong and Maxie Factor - Two Sisters Making Each Other's Dreams Come True PART ONE
Maxie Factor and Gloria Swansong

Gloria: So it was kind of history from there. And when I met Maxie... you were wearing almost exclusively vintage...

Maxie: You're right.

Gloria: ...all vintage clothes. So we started a collaboration of like: you'll do wigs for me and I'll make some clothes for you.

So it was sisters at first sight.

Maxie: Yeah,

Gloria: Truly.

So you were wearing all vintage at that point.

Maxie: Yes.

This is a really ratty question... You're really tall. (Maxie laughs heartily). How did you find vintage off the rack to suit your stature?

Maxie: I would go and just mostly eBay, I love eBay. She took my measurements, and that helped a lot, but you just kind of trial and error it... but I am very blessed to have a small, what is it called, a short waist? Like, my measurement is quite short for my height, so I'm able to wear things and they're just a little short in the leg area.

But you've got great legs, so that's okay.

Maxie: Thanks.

And the Sixties was a leggy era.

Maxie: Yeah.

So here you are doing wigs and here you are doing costumes, and how soon after that meeting at the New World Stages did you do your first performance together

Maxie: It was a while... at least a year.

Was it even in the air?

BWW Interview: Gloria Swansong and Maxie Factor - Two Sisters Making Each Other's Dreams Come True PART ONE
Maxie Factor

Gloria: The first outfit I ever made for Maxie was a recreation of Ann-Margret in Bye Bye Birdie, the yellow outfit in front of the blue screen, for Maxie's Stonewall talent. I was doing Judy shows that were mostly solo, and there was a gimmick in the show where I changed clothes on stage while Judy did monologues... which is great until you get to some zippers. (Laughing) And then it got to a point where I was like, "Why am I torturing myself like this?" and I don't know what possessed me, but I was like, "Maxie, you should come and do the shows at the Stonewall with me and you'll do a number and I'll change clothes." It's now evolved to where we create little mini-sets because, in every show, Maxie will do one number... and a lot of songs from the Sixties can be very short (Gloria and Maxie laughing), like a minute and 59 seconds! As we started doing Gloria and Maxie, not Judy and Maxie or Judy and Doris Day, it was like maybe we should create little mini sets so we can create a little fantasy, live out a look, and also give the other person time to actually change clothes and hair.

You started out wanting to do hair and you started out wanting to do costuming. How did you find your way into performing when that doesn't appear to have been something that was on the career path you had both chosen?

Maxie: When I was a kid I was diagnosed with Asperger's, so I had a severe social disability, and what got me out of that was choir. By singing in a choir, in a group of people, I was able to learn how to socialize and make connections, and it took me many years but now I don't have an issue. After I graduated high school I was gay, living in Ohio, and I was so afraid to go to gay bars. I didn't have any gay friends, it was not really a big community where I lived, in the suburbs, and I was lucky enough that the salon where I worked, we went to a gay charity event and we were at the drag queen booth. I met a drag queen there and she was my first drag mom, Miss Sonshine La Ray. Hey! It was my way to go to a gay bar and feel comfortable by going in drag. Over time, it just morphed into her saying, "You're performing next week. Get ready." That's how drag is.

Gloria: You're never ready.

Maxie: And I never wore a Shake-N-Go.

Let me clarify that for our readers that don't know: Shake-N-Go is a brand of wig.

Gloria. I did not know that until last week.

What do you think of the Raquel Welch wig collection?

Maxie: Oh, god.

Done. (Everyone laughing uproariously) Gloria, how did you end up on stage from behind the Singer?

Gloria: It's actually the other way around for me. I've always been a performer. Ever since I was a little kid, my parents have always been in Alcoholics Anonymous and they still, to this day, go to three to four AA meetings a week. My brother and sister, when that was happening, were old enough to have childhood extracurriculars but I was young enough (like two or three) where it was like, "Well, we can't afford a babysitter and you're coming to the AA meeting." So I sat in the corner (laughing) of the AA meeting and they were like, "Here, draw and color." My parents are both engineers and they made guitars in Nashville, Tennessee - my dad is a mechanical engineer and he creates machinery. That's what he does: he builds machines that help make guitars. He's a genius, so is my mother, but my mom's an industrial engineer, which is more management and resource management, project managing, budgeting. My dad actually is an artist and draws, he loves drawing, so my dad taught me how to draw as a kid. It was like, "Here's how to draw, go sit in the corner and shut up while we talk about the most harrowing experiences humans can go through," and that's where my love of storytelling comes from: sitting in a corner and listening to these people who were basically our second family reveal things about themselves, that I was floored that they actually lived to tell the story of.

So I'm from Nashville. Everyone in Nashville plays an instrument. If you sit still and you can not hold an instrument or sing... everyone plays something. Everyone plays guitar or piano or sings, it's music everywhere. It was like my turn to figure out what my instrument was going to be, my parents were like, "Why don't you play piano, because we're sick of guitars. (Everyone laughs) And your grandmother has a piano, and she's an antique dealer, and she wants to get rid of it, and we have a piano now, and why don't you just learn to play it because you're a little too old to come to the AA meetings now." So I started taking piano lessons.

BWW Interview: Gloria Swansong and Maxie Factor - Two Sisters Making Each Other's Dreams Come True PART ONE
Gloria Swansong

At some point in high school people, I didn't have Aspergers, but I was a weird kid who loved to memorize lots of things, which is where my love of lip-sync comes from, memorizing music, memorizing poems - in seventh grade, my English teacher was like, "How the hell did you memorize The Raven, you need to be in the play because you can memorize lines and you can stand still." That's how I got into acting. I did theater all through high school and I was like, "I'm going to be an actor, I'm going to go to school to be an actor." My high school didn't have a costumer - we did have a mom who did it... I drew people, I did portraits and figure painting, and my theater teacher was like, "You draw people with clothes on, so why don't you design people to have clothes on in the plays?" My mom got a sewing machine for Christmas one year and she didn't know how to use it, so I taught myself how to, then I taught her how to use it. By the time I graduated high school, I knew how to sew and kind of how to design costumes. When I graduated, I auditioned for 12 schools for acting - did not get into a single school for acting, but half of them asked me if I wanted to be a costume designer and I was like, "You can get a degree in that?" The University of Memphis gave me a lot of money and they were like, "Please come here cause we have bad GPAs, and you have a good one (Everyone laughing) and please come to our school and do costume design." I was actually walking into a perfect situation because I got to draw, I got to paint. I got to sew, I got to talk to people, I got to do all the acting homework, but I didn't have to memorize all the lines. Costume design allows me to play roles that I could never play. It allows me to step into so many shoes that, as an actor, I never could have done because people pigeonhole you as an actor. It allowed me to be on the other side of the table. That's how I became a costume designer: nobody wanted me as an actor.

I got into drag because my sophomore year of college, a local theater was doing La Cage Aux Folles and nobody knew how to do drag makeup: they were like, "You're a costume design student. Why don't you go figure out how to do drag makeup?" and they hired me to teach 14 actors how to do drag makeup, even though I knew not an inkling of what to do. I figured it out.

That's how I started doing drag.

Look for part two of our interview with Gloria Swansong and Maxie Factor in the days to come. In the meantime, check out Misses Factor and Swansong on their social media: Gloria Swansong INSTAGRAM and Maxie Factor INSTAGRAM

BWW Interview: Gloria Swansong and Maxie Factor - Two Sisters Making Each Other's Dreams Come True PART ONE
Photo by Gregory Kramer

Photos provided by Maxie Factor and Gloria Swansong.


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