The Queen Of Hustle: A Summer in NYC with Madame Vivien V
Madame Vivien V is one of those entertainers who can seemingly do anything—aerial acts, stand-up comedy, lip syncs, choreography, and improv. When she's not MCing shows at Burning Man and Bonnaroo or starring in a Pines Party halftime show, the unstoppable resident drag queen at Brooklyn's House of Yes and host of Clusterf!ck Cabaret at 3 Dollar Bill can often be found jetting from gig to gig around the city on a single night and recently made her off-Broadway debut in The Housewives of Secaucus at the Actors Temple Theatre. Cell Vision correspondent Sylvea Suydam visited the performer at her Bushwick loft to chat about her life as NYC's Queen of Hustle.
Main portrait by Santiago Felipé, all other photos by Sylvea Suydam
On a Friday night in the backseat of a Manhattan Uber, I was sandwiched between a videographer shooting perpendicular across me and a drag queen rehearsing her routine with rapping sock puppets. We were en route from her first gig of the evening—where she flew around a gym on ropes in a comedic aerial rock climbing act—directly to her second, where she was performing at some sort of NFT art convention. Later on, there would be a third gig. In between sock puppet rehearsal, talking to the camera, and reapplying makeup in her mirror as we were jounced around, she took a phone call and started making even more plans. This dizzying torrent of nonstop activity was just another evening for Madame Vivien V, New York’s Queen of Hustle.
The following week, I accompanied her to the Bartschland New York, New York! party at Sony Hall, where she MC’d the evening with a coterie of artists from her home at Brooklyn’s House of Yes. In underground VIP rooms, she mingled with NYC nightlife stars (Susan Bartsch, Amanda Lepore...) in a sort of punk Marie Antoinette look with thigh-high vinyl boots and a bouffant full of pearls. Sitting by a mirror, fixing her lashes, Madame Vivien V told me she had made it onto a Dutch news program. I looked up her feature on RTL Nieuws. Watching the clip, it cuts from footage of her telling an audience about just wanting to be a slut in the summer of love (it’s the whoring twenties!) to a report about the rise of STIs among millenials. I chuckled.
On another evening not long after, I was backstage at Bushwick’s 3 Dollar Bill, looking over the lineup of “so-hot-right-now” performers from RuPaul’s Drag Race (Gottmik, Kandy Muse) and statuesque duo The Dragon Sisters. Madame Vivien V told me she first learned she was hosting the event when the venue tagged her in a post on Instagram. Whipping out a tool box full of acrylic nails, she was surrounded by assistants who began applying them to her fingers and coating them with polish. She would be spending the next week out on Fire Island at the Pines Party starring in this year’s Return to Wonderland halftime show as Alice herself. Somehow, she ran into its producers in Mexico, where they recognized her multitudinal talents and cast her to perform at the racy, orgiastic annual event.
Madame Vivien V is one of those entertainers who can seemingly do anything. Her monthly Clusterf!ck Cabaret is a mostly one-woman show augmented by professional back-up dancers, a special monthly guest performer, and lots of audience participation. She does aerial acts. Her stand-up comedy is superb. Her lip syncs are fierce. Her choreography is on point. She twirls, dances, and does poi in a corset and 10” heels. She competes in online drag pageants. She appears in music videos. She hosts drag competitions. She MCs shows at Burning Man, Bonnaroo, Electric Forest, Life Is Beautiful, and Voodoo Fest. She does Drag ‘N’ Drink Deliveries—though she herself doesn't drink. And she never seems to tire.
I visited Scott Dennis, as Madame Vivien V is known offstage, at his Bushwick loft and sat down for a chat in his expansive drag closet about how he can do it all and still have the energy and drive to always do more.
CELL VISION: Let’s just get this out of the way first. RuPauls’ Drag Race. Have you auditioned?
MADAME VIVIEN V: I auditioned a number of times. I would very much like to be on the show. And I would very much like to win.
CELL VISION: I take it that means you plan to audition again?
MADAME VIVIEN V: I will audition until I am on the show.
CELL VISION: You recently performed with Gottmik and Kandy Muse?
MADAME VIVIEN V: Yes! I just met Gottmik the other week, but Kandy and I met years ago; we used to do shit together back in the day.
CELL VISION: As in drag? That could be taken several ways...
MADAME VIVIEN V: Yes, [as] in drag. Kandy is a hoot and half. A hoot and a half! That was a thrilling gig. There was so much love in the audience, so much love in the crowd.
CELL VISION: Yeah, they were into it! It was electric. You always seem to have a new show going on somewhere. Actually, I saw you just made your off-Broadway debut. How did you get cast in that? What’s the story there?
MADAME VIVIEN V: Yes! I’m in The Housewives of Secaucus at the Actor’s Temple Theater every Saturday. I think if they called it “The Real Housewives,” there’d probably be some copyright issue. My sister Pixel was in the show as an understudy and gave me the tip they were looking for more queens. The producer Nancy asked me to read some scripts with a New York/New Jersey accent. I was on Fire Island at the time, and one of my housemates has the thickest Brooklyn accent—I know there's a difference—and she ended up helping me out and recording the monologue that I had to do so I could mimic her accent. Nancy invited me to come watch the show before I made the decision to join the cast, and get this—while biking there, I got to 14th and 8th, and who do I run into but Andy Cohen! I took it as a good omen. We locked eyes. I said hi. He asked, “How are you?” I said, “I’m fabulous.” He said, “I can tell” and “Have a nice day.”
CELL VISION: That’s hot. Did you get his number?
MADAME VIVIEN V: Daddy Cohen and I will meet properly at some point, I’m sure. He was just out, running to the store.
CELL VISION: You’ve dipped your toes into the NFT world a bit at the convention where you performed, and you’ve also made an NFT yourself, is that right?
MADAME VIVIEN V: I am an NFT! I have an NFT for sale. While I was in Mexico, I got close to some friends, and they recommended me for that NFT convention. They were looking for entertainment during Pride, and they said, “You should call Madame Vivien V.”
CELL VISION: For a good time, call Madame Vivien V?
MADAME VIVIEN V: That’s right. I am in every stall in every county.
CELL VISION: I believe you, haha. What else would you like to dip your toes into?
MADAME VIVIEN V: I will be making music! Which is really a dream come true.
CELL VISION: Are you a musician?
MADAME VIVIEN V: No, I’m not, but I sang when I was growing up, and I’ve just started taking voice lessons again, and it’s been such a fabulous experience because I’m falling in love with my voice! As a queer person, you know, my voice is very distinct, and I was made fun of for it and told to be ashamed of it. So it’s really nice to hear it being celebrated now. I think, because I’m beginning to celebrate it, the world is reacting accordingly.
CELL VISION: Where did this life as NYC’s Queen of Hustle all begin? What’s your backstory?
MADAME VIVIEN V: I got here by car. I was raised on a pig farm in Washington state, at the base of Mt. Rainier, and went to school in the Olympia area. I was always a very queer kid but in extreme denial of who I was. Then I was tricked into moving to Milwaukee, where I had the most wonderful introduction into city life, Milwaukee being a gentle, small city. I was taken in by this marvelous community that really encouraged me. I put myself through school, got a degree in accounting, then moved out to New York to work in show business on Broadway—I made a lot of decisions based on Broadway musicals. After seeing The Producers, I thought, If I’m an accountant, I can work in a Broadway production office!
CELL VISION: I worked in an accounting office, too.
MADAME VIVIEN V: That’s hilarious. Well, I never used the degree, and I like to say, “I never used my degree—I haven’t paid my taxes in years!” which always gets a good laugh. But I do pay my taxes, don’t put that in print! When I moved out here, I found this loft and lived with some urban farmer hippies and a punk rock artist band, all of us all together with a dog, four cats, three rabbits, two turtles, and a worm farm.
CELL VISION: And a partridge in a pear tree?
MADAME VIVIEN V: Ha! Pretty much. They were just the sweetest people.
CELL VISION: When did drag come into the picture?
MADAME VIVIEN V: I did drag for the first time for the first performance of the first Bushwig festival. I did a recreation of the Shakespears Sister music video “Stay” with my friends; we were on at 4:15 on a Sunday afternoon. After seeing myself in drag for the first time, I fell in love and haven’t stopped. Madame Vivien V was born. I became a full-time drag queen at the end of 2015, and now I’m determined to take over the world.
CELL VISION: What was that first drag look you did?
MADAME VIVIEN V: It was a chic black cocktail dress, vintage ‘80s, with black curly hair, white face, red lips, smokey dark eyes. And I’m a size 15 women’s, so I couldn’t find any that size. I bought a pair of one-and-a-half-inch black sequin kitten heels that were size 11.
CELL VISION: Jesus, did you have to do the Cinderella stepsister thing and cut off some toes?
MADAME VIVIEN V: No, they were sling backs, so I just stuffed my toes in and made it work, but I did want to return them after, so I put tape on the soles.
CELL VISION: How did Madame Vivien V get her famous name?
MADAME VIVIEN V: I always liked the idea of a Madame, a sexy, confident, powerful woman who uses what she’s got to get what she wants. The rest came casually to me in a conversation with a friend, but I spell Vivien the same way Vivien Leigh spelled her name because I loved her growing up.
CELL VISION: You’re the resident drag queen at House of Yes, and people probably remember some of your stunning lewks from your shows. How did you get involved with the venue?
MADAME VIVIEN V: I first heard about HOY in 2012 when I went to one of their parties during Bushwick Open Studios. I walked in during a variety show, and it was the most performance art thing you could imagine! It was a neon green spandex cocoon filled with people who had lights in their hands who were just moving around to a song for way too long. It was performance art, you know, haha. And then this curly haired woman who was MCing walked out on stage and said, “Ooooh performance art… This piece is called ‘Moving the Stool,’” and grabbed a stool and acted as if she were taking a shit.
I thought, She’s funny! Whoever she is, she’s amazing! And that woman was Kae Burke, one of the House of Yes founders. So I went for a bit as a patron, and then in 2016, they hired me to work their door, and then I became their resident drag queen.
CELL VISION: That was the first time I ever met you actually.
MADAME VIVIEN V: You met me at the door? Was I nice to you?
CELL VISION: You were—I was on the list! For a while you were hosting your Hot Mess Drag Competition there. What’s that been like to have a regular show get taken away during the pandemic? Or just nightlife in general going away?
MADAME VIVIEN V: Oh yes, that’s on pause right now, but I would love for it to come back because I’ve learned so much, and it would be a completely different show now.
CELL VISION: I’m sure there's a lot of queens out there who are ready to get back on stage.
MADAME VIVIEN V: They are READY! And there are all kinds of performers at Hot Mess; we had queens, kings, gender jesters, clowns, mimes… But now I have Clusterf!ck Cabaret, which is my pride and joy. This is my show that I am developing and will put on TV someday. My dream is to have my own version of the Carol Burnett show.
CELL VISION: You seem rather indefatigable. What’s your secret?
MADAME VIVIEN V: Well, I don’t mind stacking gigs. I’m good at it, and I like sharing my energy. My secret is eight hours of sleep and listening to my body. I eat healthy and exercise three times a week, even if it's just for twenty minutes. I stretch every day. I meditate. I breathe, and when I feel anxiety, I count my blessings. It’s all about balance, and nothing’s personal.
CELL VISION: Nothing’s personal, meaning what?
MADAME VIVIEN V: For example, right now, my grandmother’s dying. She’s 93 years old. She’s dying. I still have shows to do; I still have responsibilities. I love her, so I’m going to go see her, but I’m not going to wallow in something that is a natural part of life. I’ll cry. I have cried, but I don’t like to wallow.
CELL VISION: What is something about you that people should know?
MADAME VIVIEN V: Everyone needs to come see my Clusterf!ck Cabaret. Everyone needs to come see it. It is the highest production of drag available in New York City, and I will stand by that. [If] any other queen in this city wants to come and say that I’m wrong, they can come and try and prove me wrong, but I produce the highest production value drag in New York City.
CELL VISION: That sounds like a challenge.
MADAME VIVIEN V: Yeah, come at me girls!
The next Clusterf!ck Cabaret is Wednesday, September 29 at 3 Dollar Bill. You can get tickets and connect with Madame Vivien V online via the links below