Donna Summer is iconic. The big hair, the bellowing voice, the platforms. She is a caricature of the disco era—the embodiment of ’70s glamour. Brandonna Summer is even more outrageous. A songstress like her namesake, Brandonna is an international pop star, jet-setting DJ and muse for the likes of Yohji Yamamoto and Karl Lagerfeld—fashion’s most unsung it girl. But that’s bound to change when she takes over New York at this month’s Fringe Festival NYC, with her debut, Brandonna Summer Lives, Live!
The alter-ego of LA-based actor and writer, Brandon Alter, Brandonna Summer is part socialite, part self-help guru. The original musical, written by and starring Alter himself, shows Brandonna returning to New York to reclaim her identity, offering advice from all she’s learned along the way.
“Honey, I’ve been through a lot,” she says. “If I can pull myself back up—and I have—so can everybody else.”
In the process, both the superstar and her creator have learned to, as she puts it, “love [themselves] outrageously,” with Brandonna serving as an outlet for all the parts of himself Alter was told to hide, growing up a gay man in a conservative Southern California community. Clad in Lanvin, Brandonna represent more than wealth mixed with New Age wisdom, and the musical transcends entertainment. Brandonna Summer Lives, Live! is a testament to the importance of authenticity in a world where there’s little difference between real and filtered, and Alter is certainly not just a drag queen. His own level of spirituality offers depth to his performance, and his artistic commitment makes Brandonna Summer her own woman.
BULLETT had the chance to talk with Brandon about drag, self-empowerment and becoming Brandonna.
Tell us about Brandonna.
I think of Brandonna as the High Priestess of Self Empowerment. She’s an over the top, fantasy character that is directly inspired by all of the beautiful and complicated women in my family and in my life—that also includes me. Being a gay man, I’ve always been very in touch with my feminine side, and I’ve always wanted to celebrate it. In a very kind of psychotherapist sort of way, Brandonna really is a sort of celebration of all the things I was told to be ashamed of growing up. So it’s really reclaiming identity and having the courage to be proud of the things in my own character that I’ve struggled for some time to bring into the light.
Has being Brandonna given you a new level of self acceptance?
Brandonna inspires me on the daily. When I have struggles in the world, I constantly think, ‘What would Brandonna do?’ and it gives me just another perspective of how to approach the situation. She’s so unapologetic, and I’m a really nice guy—I’m constantly aware of other people’s feelings and perceptions and projections, and can very easily fall into this trap of people pleasing. And Brandonna doesn’t give a FUCK. She owns herself completely, and I think that’s something we all can—myself especially—continue to grow with and grow into. Brandonna has taught me how to love myself more.
There is a running theme of self-love and acceptance throughout her persona. Is Brandonna a self-help guru?
I think the humor of Brandonna is that her advice is good, but her frame of reference is so outside of the norm. She can solve all of her problems with money, or with always being one step ahead, which doesn’t really apply, but what she has to share can apply to everybody. I think part of why I’m doing this through Brandonna, as opposed to just making a bunch of yoga videos or writing a self help book, is because I think people are much more receptive to truth when it’s funny.
Are there similarities between you and Brandonna?
It is endlessly interesting to me that this woman, Brandonna Summer, who looks nothing like me and lives such a completely different life, is actually from the marrow of my being. She is such an authentic version of myself, but you would never know it just to look at me. It’s in almost the tradition of mask work or court jesters—it’s like putting something on, so that people can actually see you more clearly. […] I think we get so locked into our limited versions of identity, that we forget how expansive we are. For me, Brandonna is really just one way to expand my perception of self.
Tell me about your upcoming show, Brandonna Summer Lives, Live!.
It’s a musical about Brandonna Summer, who has been missing for six years, essentially. She told her family and her friends that she was going to Japan to see the cherry trees blossom, then she was never heard from again. Now, she has returned to New York City to kind of reclaim her identity. But at the same time, this comeback show is a DEA sting operation to capture her ex-fiancee, who is the most powerful drug lord in Venezuela. I like to think of it as a cabaret that’s gone off the rails—Brandonna had to run away, so she could be who she thought she wanted to be, outside of the social pressures of where you’ve grown up and your family and your friends. Then, she kind of lost sight of who she was—she found this man, she fell in love with him and her identity got wrapped up in him. Now she’s coming home to own who she truly is after all these experiences.
Earlier, you said Brandonna represents all the parts of yourself you had to hide, or run away from. It seems like Brandonna is always running from herself, too.
That’s so much of the Brandonna Summer story—one of the things she’s best at doing, is running away. She’s constantly running, she’s constantly busy, she’s constantly surrounded by people and fans. Then when the tour ends and she’s forced to confront herself, she doesn’t even know who she is anymore. But that’s when she goes to a spa, because that’s what she always does when she has to start over.
What influences did you draw from when writing?
I think if Deepak Chopra and Kathy Griffin had a baby, and if that baby was styled by Karl Lagerfeld—that would be Brandonna.
What was your writing process like?
There’s a piece of Brandonna that I don’t really even take complete ownership of—she’s constantly surprising me, and I try to get out of the way. My process sometimes is having good ideas, but then getting out of the way so that she can give me even better ideas. The kernel of the story just kind of visited me, and I’ve just run with it.
The thing about Brandonna, which I always want to clarify, is that she is a real woman. The character of Brandonna Summer is a real woman. I play her, so that makes me a drag queen, but Brandonna is not—she is a real world woman. And I guess, I always loved the female characters in musical theater. I always found them endlessly more interesting, I loved their songs so much more. I find the male roles in musical theater are kind of boring and slightly two dimensional, and it’s really the women that are complicated and complex. Of course, I’m speaking generally—there are some tremendous male roles in musical theater. But even the older shows, like Guys and Dolls—I’d much rather be the women in that than the men. There’s just so much more fun there. That’s probably because a lot of musical theater is written by gay men, and gay men all recognize that a strong, powerful woman is the face of God, as far as I’m concerned. So I thought, ‘I just want to do that.’ I get to create my reality, and I want to create a reality where I get to be a Broadway leading lady.
She’s definitely a complex leading lady.
She’s strong, but she’s also sexy—she takes ownership of her sexuality. She can be soft, she can be vulnerable, she’s not afraid to say when she’s had a rough time or when she’s been broken. But I think that’s part of what comes when you own yourself completely—you’re not afraid to share your vulnerability anymore. I think in this day in age, we’re all so obsessed with showing our best selves—all the filters on Instagram—we literally filter our lives for people. Like, God forbid they see an imperfect moment, when really it’s the flaws that allow you to fall in love with somebody, that allow you to feel connected.
And it seems like Brandonna does really own all of the different parts of herself. She’s at the same time totally materialistic and completely spiritual. Where does that come from?
I think that’s what makes Brandonna so interesting. She is this slightly superficially obsessed fashionista and international pop star—it’s all about money and Rosé and Van cleef and Arpel. But then she also meditates, and believes in Eastern philosophy, and angels, and the unseen world. I think that’s what makes her such a unique character, because life is full of paradoxes—we’re not one or the other. Like, I love looking at Italian Vogue, but I also love to meditate. Why can’t Brandonna?
What is the most exciting part of being Brandonna?
When Brandonna comes into town, I feel so free—it’s just the freest I ever get to feel. I think that’s also part of what’s so attractive about her—just this effortlessness of being that I want to inspire other people to try and incorporate into their lives. Of course, I love the clothes. I think women’s clothes are endlessly more interesting than men’s clothes, and jewelry, of course—all the aesthetic stuff is fun, but the thing that I love the most about Brandonna, is what it feels like on the inside to become her.
You can catch Brandonna in all her glory at Drom NYC this August. Find show times and tickets here.