Alexandra Billings, the fantastic transgender artist who has shows this Friday and Saturday at the Loring Theater's pre-pride festivities, doesn't really consider herself a drag performer. She's a performer--she sings, she tells jokes, she acts, she tells stories cabaret-style, and she happens to be a transgender person--but the show itself isn't really about creating the illusion of being a woman. She is who she is, and audiences are presented with a performance that is entertaining, funny, and gives them a sense of who she is as a whole person.
"I've never been fond of the term 'drag performer,'" Billings says. "Unless it's like RuPaul. Then I get it. He really embraces that word, you know? He really likes it and it makes sense for him, and I guess that makes that sense, but I sort of feel like I'm an actor."
[jump] Billings has been acting ever since she was a little kid when her father, who was the musical director for the L.A. Civic Light Opera House, cast her in the chorus for The King and I. She made a career as an actor before she started doing her solo work. She's been onstage at the Steppenwolf Theatre in Chicago, as well as television shows like Grey's Anatomy, ER and the Emmy-nominated documentary special From Schoolboy to Showgirl.
When she was in her late 20s, Billings got laryngitis, and needed to figure out what to do while her voice healed. "I started singing because I needed to eat," she says. "I never really thought of myself as a singer. I still don't think of myself as a singer. I'm loud--that's really all I am."
Humble, to say the least. She has a fantastic voice; rich and full with a huge range. While rehearsing for her show this weekend Billings, dressed in jeans and a t-shirt, showed she's got a wonderful voice. Her performing is layered and natural, and she's very funny.
When she had laryngitis, one of her producers, who was also a friend of hers, suggested that she do some funny songs with just a little talking so that she wouldn't have to use her voice so much. "So I started doing it and then I started adding my favorite songs and it just kind of happened."
In addition to performing, Billings teaches acting and "viewpoints," a kind of physical theater training she learned at Steppenwolf at the University of California, Long Beach and the American Academy of Dramatic Arts.
Billings says she loves to work with young people, especially those from the GLBTQ community. "I love being around the twentysomethings," she says, "the teens, just finding out their gender identity, or what they're drawn to sexually and romantically--I love being around those voices."
For Billings, she has known ever since she was a child that she was transgender. And though for many years she struggled with her parents, she considers herself lucky that in the end they were able to accept her for who she is.
Being transgender was never a decision for Billings. "I know people see gender as something very unique in the world, and I think it is, but all of us have that uniqueness. I think all of us transition in some kind of way. When you do that, you get larger and you shed things. Things that you used to be, you used to think, you used to hold true and dear... all of that goes away, and you become your authentic self and who you were meant to be. And I guess for me, as a transgender person, that happened when I was five. It happened at a very young age when I was like, 'This isn't who I'm supposed to be.' I didn't know I was 'wrong' until other people told me."
Alexandra Billings performs at the Loring Theater (1407 Nicollet Ave. S., Minneapolis; 612.353.6781) Friday and Saturday at 8 p.m.