His tagline is ‘Mr Showbiz – the hardest working man in the biz.’ We meet in the cafeteria of Manhattan’s LGBT Community Center on 13th Street, right after his therapy session. The few days he is spending in New York are a welcome break: he is currently on tour and tells me he has two thousand unanswered emails in his Inbox. He is clearly used to making people feel comfortable, he has an easy manner and jokes around a lot. Wearing a variation on what he refers to as a ‘schlep’ outfit: baggy shorts, baggy T-shirt, worn sneakers, he isn’t in drag but he also isn’t out of it exactly. He both is, and isn’t, Murray Hill, and I find myself wondering what pronoun to use. After our conversation I walk him to the bus stop, see him get on the bus, and then return to 13th Street. I watch as men who all seem to know each other laugh and mess around as they spill out onto the street.
Clothes were a huge issue for me growing up. I always dressed like a tomboy: T-shirts, shorts, jeans. I always loved sneakers and caps. Some of my earliest memories are about not wanting to wear girl’s clothes, ever. I didn’t want to sit with the girls; I didn’t want to be with them. I thought I was a boy. I didn’t know I was queer; I didn’t even know what that was. I just thought something was wrong with me.
I come from a conservative, religious background in New England, so everything was always repress, repress, repress. Then add my gender issues to the mix, and you can imagine what growing up was like. When I see pictures of myself age six or something with a bowl cut, looking like a boy, I’m like, ‘Why didn’t anybody tell me?’ I didn’t come out till college – clueless, the whole time. It would’ve been nice if somebody, in twenty years, had pulled me aside and said, ‘Look, let’s have a sit down.’ No, that’s not how it worked. I had to go through the wringer.
Growing up, I had no consciousness of gender but at a certain point in school we were separated by it, at gym class, at lunch, at home ed. I was always getting put back, like, ‘No you have to go with them.’ Clothes went with that, and so did hair. I always rejected those conventions and it culminated into… It was a whopper. It was homecoming – I didn’t want to go with a boy, but I felt all this peer pressure. It was a blow-up situation. I literally had a panic attack in the changing room, putting on dresses – my first panic attack. Everything but my conscious mind was saying no, no, no. I did get a dress – velvet, with lace at the bottom – but I got completely loaded to deal with it all and I ended up getting suspended. I still have a hard time standing in the women’s section in a store with my friends or girlfriend or whatever. I still carry that ‘I’m in the wrong place’ feeling. Like, I shouldn’t be here.
I generally always feel uncomfortable in clothes but when I dress like Murray, I actually feel more like a man – even though it’s a comedic persona. I feel more confident and more comfortable wearing a suit; it’s more natural for me. It just feels right. From a gender perspective, my suits fit more comfortably in the head, but wearing them is also like armour. A suit covers all my feminine parts.
When I first became Murray, I would wear suits that just didn’t fit. I had a big belly and I’d get these old polyester pants and get them hemmed but the jackets would be so fucking big. All my suits would have little Italian guy dimensions. I looked less masculine because my suits looked like clown suits. I just looked like a woman wearing a baggy, vaudeville suit. The first thing I did as Murray was run for mayor of New York, so I wore a blue polyester suit, an American flag tie and a white shirt. Back then I wore only polyester suits that I got at thrift stores. Crazy polyester. They were all ill fitting because I was chubby. Eventually I started dressing more like I am now, a sort of Atlantic City/Las Vegas lounge lizard. Think Jerry Lewis and Dean Martin in the Seventies, back when you could smoke on TV. They had these velvet suits with huge lapels and bowties. That’s always been the look I’ve gone for. It’s out of fashion now, but to me it’s the quintessential Las Vegas lounge comedian look. Over the years I’ve graduated from polyester to custom made suits, but I still use the same references. Now I’m with Dita1 I wear tuxedos: I get them made for our shows. Very showbiz. Lately I’ve been wearing these ruffle tuxedo shirts that I get off-the-rack at Screaming Mimi’s downtown. They actually fit, well except for the one button. I’ve got fifteen in six different colours: white, pink, red, black, and like a lime green. Oh and baby blue – my favourite colour. I wear them with velvet clip-on bowties: always black. When I’ve got a tuxedo on I also wear a pocket square, always silk. I’m very traditional when it comes to my tuxedos, it goes back to that Dean Martin/Don Rickles vibe. But I like to wear ridiculous funny joke socks: I have socks with drawings of boobs on them for example. And I have, like, three hundred ties, so ugly they’re beautiful.
When I met Dita and learned more about fashion and about custom-made suits I realised that for the illusion of looking male you have to have a suit that fits correctly.
My first custom suit was made by Bindle and Keep, when they first started making suits for the queer community. Getting measured was a little uncomfortable at first but it wasn’t anyway near as uncomfortable as getting my first bra as a kid – that was hell. Because I’m short and have a belly, there were little things I had to tell them, like for example if I button my jacket it looks like I have hips which I don’t want. I always leave my jacket open, so it hangs straight down. Vests, the fashionable people wear them so you can see the belt and everything, but I want to cover my belly so mine are buttoned all the way up. I’m half Italian and half Irish. I have my mother’s Italian characteristics – little hands, little feet, little head – so I have to adjust for these things with the right clothes. My suits are cut for an illusion. My jackets are short so I look taller, as are the sleeves in order for my hands look bigger. I buy my shoes bigger too. The hair’s a whole situation. I use Layrite wax: it’s a water-soluble pomade. When you put it on, it lays right. That’s how it got its name. My hair does not move. And I wear glasses, prescription glasses, Fifties-style. And I’m superstitious so I always wear my name ring.
What I wear has always depended both on where I’ve been at in my career, and on my waistline. I’ve got a whole closet full of suits that I can’t fit into at this time. I probably have about twenty suits now, but only two that fit. I’m holding on to the other eighteen, in case I drop those twenty to forty pounds again. I had to get two new tuxedos made for my most recent tour. I found the designer who makes my suits now on Instagram. I was with Alan Cumming at a show and this guy liked a picture I posted of the event. I looked at his profile and it said ‘suit-maker’ so I went, ‘I’m doing a photo shoot, do you have any suits?’ And he said, ‘I’ll just make you some.’ Showbiz.
I’ve been wearing tuxedos and suits so much lately that I just like wearing tracksuits, Adidas tracksuits, when I’m off duty. When I’m doing Murray it’s all dry cleaning, necktie, bowtie, perfect hair, always. Everything is so regimented. I am very specific with my Murray clothes. My suits are very well taken care of, dry cleaned, in little suit jackets – precious. Everything else, I don’t care about. When I do laundry I throw it all in, all the different colours, all the different fabrics. I just put it all in, say goodnight and that’s it. But the suits? Oh they’re delicate. Now that I’m older – and I put on a little extra weight this summer, I mean last summer, well, let’s say this summer – anyway, now that I’m older, it’s all about comfort. Whenever I’m not wearing a suit I feel like I’m on vacation so I dress in vacation wear. I go for the Palm Springs look, or, as it’s also known, the ‘holiday dad’ look.
The feminists in the Seventies used to say, ‘the personal is the political.’ When I started as a performance artist, I took that and merged it with queer male theory. I was performing as Murray – being Murray really – and I had a very informed, specific goal in mind. Now it’s a career. At some point it all got a bit blurred – who is Murray, who am I? – and I had to learn to separate. I used to be out every night, all night, as Murray and he started to overshadow my personal life a little bit. Then I got a girlfriend so I had to have a personal life. I’ve been talking to my shrink about that. I have different personas, and each has a different look, whatever, but still, Murray is me. In a way, Murray has taken care of me. I have travelled all over the world thanks to this character I created. I live off of Murray. Through him – i.e. me – I’ve met so many people; I’ve had access to so much. I never, ever, thought I’d be an international traveller. Today I like to say that I’m a semi-famous comedian. I don’t get free dinner but I might get a free dessert from time to time.
I’ve always said that when I’m dressed as Murray, it’s ‘him,’ but I still get ‘her’ when I have a suit and moustache on. There’s really no frame of reference. There’s a lot of confusion around me for sure, but I don’t feel I have to correct people on pronouns or educate every single person. I let it roll – otherwise I’d be correcting people all day. The people who know the new terms, which are very specific and compartmentalised, are probably half a percent of the population. The language is changing but I think it’s gone too far. There are, like, seven pronouns now. There’s just so much division. Today queer culture is all about how you identify. Someone called me a ‘moc’ the other day: ‘masculine off centre.’ I didn’t even know there was such a term. When I was young, there was butch and femme and that was it. There was nothing else.
I used to have a lot of shame about being misidentified, but when I come across it today I use my humour. My DJ names – I have two – are DJ Half and Half, and the other one is DJ Sir Madam. Every single time I fly I get that: ‘sir madam.’ ‘Sir madam can I get you something?’ Today I got into an Uber and the driver said, ‘Hello sir’ and, not even looking at the guy I said, ‘Hello.’ He was like, ‘I’m sorry, ma’am’ and I said, ‘No, you’re right, both,’ and that was the end of that discussion. All day long, no matter what the fuck I’m wearing, I get ‘Sir, Miss, Madam, Lady, Sir, Oh I’m sorry.’ It’s always an issue. I live with it and I’m not complaining because I look the way I do, but even today I’ll get constant barrage of mistakes and names. It’s always attention. I’m always attracting attention even when I’m not trying to. I’m working on this in therapy. I don’t want attention when I’m wearing fucking sweatpants. Like, ‘Christ, leave me alone.’
I’m against being identified by my sexuality and my gender – especially amongst queer people. I don’t want to be known as a ‘gay comedian,’ or a ‘transgender performer.’ I’m old school – call me Murray, that’s it. I guess I’m transgender by the literal definition, but I don’t go around saying that I’m transgender – I feel it’s reductive. Straight people don’t go around saying ‘I’m heterosexual.’ To me, equality is when we can all just hang out.
This interview was originally published in Vestoj ‘On Masculinities.’
Anja Aronowsky Cronberg is Vestoj’s Editor-in-Chief and Founder.
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