On June 22, Robyn Banks, a 20-year-old Harlem-based drag queen, performed and read stories focused on inclusion and acceptance during Macy's Drag Queen Story Hour, held at Macy's Herald Square. Afterwards, she shared her thoughts about various topics relating to her background and life as a drag queen.
What children's books did you read at Macy's Drag Queen Story Hour?
I read “It’s Okay to Be Different” and “This Day in June,” which I think is a pretty appropriate book for this month because it talks about the amazingness of Pride month. The children really took to it; some of them had heard it, some hadn’t. But everyone knew “It’s Okay to Be Different.” That’s one of my favorite books to read because it wraps up everything in one package—at the end of the day, we are who we are, and we’re individuals and it’s okay to be different. While reading it, I noticed there were a bunch of signs in the background that were very much for gay rights and equality rights.
What do you want people to know about drag queens and Drag Queen Story Hour?
Being a drag queen is a platform for doing positive things. I feel there are a lot of people who don’t understand drag and that makes me a little angry because, at the end of the day, we just want to entertain and educate. I’m a middle school teacher and I get to educate my kids during the day and I get to do Drag Queen Story Hour on weekends. So, for me, it’s a full circle.
We’re helping kids expand their horizons because we want them to grow up and be able to accept everything and everyone. That’s why we do the Pride marches and the Pride events and all of these fun activities during Story Hour—so that people know that it is okay to be different and it’s okay to be gender fluid. We get parents that ask us questions about these things. Drag Queen Story Hour is a positive platform to show what we can do besides lip sync in a club.
What would it have meant to you as a kid to have attended a Story Hour like this?
My mom was always very accepting and I count my blessings because not a lot of people have that. So I think as a child seeing someone like me doing drag and performing at a gathering would have had the same effect as usual—like, oh, so it’s okay?
As a kid, I didn’t want to play with Barbie or Ken dolls; I just wanted to play with hair. My mom is a wig stylist and I just loved seeing her do these magical things to hair. I would sit down and help her comb things out, try to cut the ends. Having seen that, I don’t think Story Hour would have gotten me into drag, but I would have been super excited to know that I have the option to be something else beyond what society tells me I have to be.
When did you start doing drag?
I started drag when I was at Harvey Milk High School, which is an all-gay high school. Someone told me that I have really nice legs when I did a Tina Turner number and the conversation turned to drag. I learned that drag is more than just wigs and a dance number—I learned that you can make money from it. I thought, I gotta pay my cell phone bill because I’m 18. So I did drag at little centers and I made money and it’s just been a fabulous experience. You meet so many different people and you exchange experiences. You meet wonderful performers. Drag has really changed my life a lot.
Describe your drag persona, Robyn Banks.
I’m from Harlem. I’m classy but ghetto—something I call “bughetto.” Generally, I wear big bangles and bracelets.
I love to entertain people with Missy Elliot songs and R & B, Mary J. Blige, things like that because I feel like there are not enough of us hip-hop urban drag queens out there. I want Robyn to be the front person of Harlem drag.
Anything that is about varied people of color in Harlem, I represent. I’m also a representative for black trans girls because they are dying. I’m not trans, but I’m an ally and a lot of my friends are trans, so I’m here fighting the good fight with them. They are a part of our rainbow, they are a part of our acronym [LGBTQ] and I want them to be seen, heard and understood.
How did you evolve your drag persona?
When I started drag, my name was Sandy Beaches. It was funny, but I didn’t think it fit me. I had a friend whose last name was Banks and the way he spoke was really silly, and I was always obsessed with Robin Gibbons, who is a well-known actress. I remember, one day it just hit me. I felt like I didn’t want to always do a Britney Spears number. I didn’t want to do Celine Dion. I wanted to pop up and drop it and twerk. And I realized that I wasn’t seeing that stuff out there and that made me want to elevate Robyn a little more.
Share your thoughts about the following statement: The beauty you’re born with is the most important kind of beauty. But it’s also important to learn how to make the most of it and let it shine.
For me this means just standing up and doing what you think is right for you, being the star that you are. We’re all stars and we’re all given momentum to do what we want with the gift. It’s just about how much effort, time and energy you put into it.
Please respond to this comment: It’s not how you dress or what you put on your body that determines who you are, but it sure can help you express it.
I think that if I wake up in the morning and feel like a tree, then I should be dressed as a tree. This is something I believe we have to right to do. Accepting that you feel one way one day and another way another day and then expressing that is a good practice.
How does one come by confidence?
I think, for me, confidence came from family. When I came out to my mom, she said, “I don’t care what you do just as long as you’re a respectful gay black male.” And that is something I live by and that is something that has helped me be able to project myself into the world, be Robyn Banks and enjoy the fact that people are enjoying me. So, I think that confidence is a mixture of what you are given and the type of support that you are given, whether it’s from friends, family, the next-door neighbor or the dog—my dog is my heart.
And I think walking with a purpose and strutting like you mean it and own it is also a path to confidence.
What motivates you to play with gender?
I think the motivation comes from getting messages from people who see me in social media and see what I’m doing and say, “I see what you’re doing, and I thank you for it.” I get a lot of thank yous. Sometimes a message will come on a bad day when I’m just kinda over it and don’t want to deal and it’ll uplift me. I’ll think: ‘Oh, so someone who I’ve never met really appreciates what I do.’ It just makes me feel like, okay, I can keep going because if there’s one, there’s more. That’s an amazing feeling, honestly.
What’s hard about being a drag queen? What’s the hardest aspect of this choice?
Just traveling on the subway is a huge thing for a lot of queens because they don’t feel protected or supported and, just overall, don’t feel safe. I know a lot of drag queens that say, “I’d rather spend $50 on an Uber than get on the train.”
I, however, will get on the train because I buy a monthly Metro card for $126. Friends will say, ‘Oh just keep your head down.” But I’m not going to put my head down in shame over something I love doing. So, it’s been baby steps for me to feel comfortable in public like that. I’ve learned that putting on sunglasses helps because you get people that stare and sometimes you want to stare back—like, ‘what are you looking at?’ But that may not be the safest thing, so I just have glasses.
Would you talk about the sense of empowerment you get from being yourself onstage?
When I perform, I always try to feel the crowd. I want to see what they want because I’m going to entertain them. If they’re feeling very pop heavy or hip-hop heavy, I’ll work around that. Seeing them sing the songs, even songs that are brand new and they know word for word, helps me feel like this is my moment. It’s like, they’re living, I’m living, let’s live together.
It also helps when my performance connects to them on a personal level. It may be a breakup song for me, but for someone else it may be the first song they heard when they got together with someone and they’ll say, “Oh I love this!” People just connect on many different levels and I feel it through my bones and my veins and my heart.
Follow Robyn Banks on Instagram: @therobynbanksshow
This interview has been edited for brevity and clarity.
Watch the inspiring stories of members of the LGBTQ+ community who live authentically and help others to discover and express their true selves.