Dan Doni­gan: Meet the Milk Man

Hello Mr. Magazine - - DAN DONIGAN: MEET THE MILK MAN - In­ter­view by Michael Bolognino Pho­tog­ra­phy by Mar­cus Mor­ris

When I saw the pre­views for sea­son six of Rupaul’s Drag Race, I was im­me­di­ately drawn to Milk – I could tell from her lop­sided red curls and sig­na­ture gap teeth that she was un­like any queen we had seen be­fore. I was ex­cited (and some­what ner­vous) to see how she’d bring her own creamy ver­sion of camp to a world where “fishi­ness” and glam have his­tor­i­cally ruled.

In the first episode where Milk ap­pears, RuPaul echoed my cu­rios­ity, ask­ing how her camp aes­thetic would meet high fash­ion. She re­sponded week af­ter week, with her run­way looks alone: bil­ly­goat fa­cial hair shrouded in a floor-length veil, a Pinoc­chio nose and se­verely cropped or­ange bob, and a disco ball-like baby bump, to name a few.

I first met the self-de­scribed “Mup­pets-meet-90s-su­per­model” when she was host­ing a view­ing party in Brook­lyn – for the episode that turned out to be her last, a sur­prise to us all. The bar was more packed than I’d ever seen it, with a mix of drag queens, Brook­lyn boys, and even Man­hat­tan gays tak­ing up ev­ery avail­able inch of the place, in­clud­ing on the ques­tion­ably clean floor.

As I watched Milk watch her­self, I won­dered what the man be­hind Milk, Dan Doni­gan, thought about all of this. We met up a few weeks later dur­ing a rare break from Milk’s post-show world tour, this time with­out the fans and makeup. I sat down with Dan at the Mar­itime Ho­tel bar in Chelsea to learn about his evo­lu­tion from up­state fig­ure skater to NYC nightlife fix­ture to re­al­ity TV cult celebrity and Hello Mr. cover model.

Tell me about your path to drag.

I mis­un­der­stood drag when I first got a close-hand look at it. I was not well versed in “be­ing gay” at the time. Drag seemed dirty, un­nat­u­ral, sick, twisted, all of the above!

Then what hap­pened? What was the turn­ing point from twisted to cu­rios­ity?

It was back in 2008. I had just started dat­ing some­one new and he and his friends would put on makeup for ten min­utes and go into the liv­ing room, lip sync, and record it on YouTube. At first I thought, “I don’t know if I can date this guy, he wants to be­come a woman.” But then I re­al­ized that they were still able to em­brace their mas­culin­ity on a daily ba­sis and this was just for fun and to be more creative.

Six months later I did half-drag (the lit­tle mer­man). I was wear­ing heels. Boy on top and lady on bot­tom. I loved the sen­sa­tion of wear­ing heels. It made me feel awe­some. Like I was queen bitch.

Ev­ery De­cem­ber my boyfriend per­formed with the bal­let and ev­ery year they would have a night out where they dressed up as char­ac­ters from The Nut­cracker. I knew noth­ing about makeup but I took part in it. I put on a corset, James did my make up, and we went out and had so much fun.

I knew of these friends be­fore they were in drag, so I could see them as who they were as boys and who they were as per­form­ers. I saw how much fun it was to trans­form your­self, have silly times with friends, lip sync to mu­sic, etc. I had a to­tal change of heart. From then on, ev­ery day off I ever had I spent on YouTube search­ing for makeup tu­to­ri­als. James would get home from work and I’d be in the same ex­act spot as when he left. He was wor­ried that I wasn’t eat­ing. I was ad­dicted.

So once you had this change of heart, when did your cu­rios­ity evolve into Whole Milk?

Milk wasn’t fully pas­teur­ized un­til mov­ing to NYC. New York brought her more out­side of her car­ton. I think it was prob­a­bly the first time we (The Dairy Queens) went out here in NY. Liv­ing in Bos­ton, our drag wasn’t the norm of per­fect hair and se­quin dresses. In New York, there was more en­ergy and more imag­i­na­tion to play with.

Tell me about the first time The Dairy Queens went out in NY.

I didn’t have the con­sis­tency of go­ing out in Bos­ton as I did when I got to New York. One night when we went out, Eight­ies party icon Su­sanne Bartsch rec­og­nized that we had some­thing spe­cial, and I thought if she wants to work with us, we needed to get on it, so from there drag be­came a weekly thing and Milk was set on her fab­u­lous tra­jec­tory.

“Camp is sim­ply look­ing like a joke while be­ing in on the joke.”

On the topic of NYC nightlife, in pre­vi­ous in­ter­views you’ve ref­er­enced the club kid scene as some­thing nos­tal­gic and in­spi­ra­tional to you. Tell us who you’re in­spired by and what you’ve bor­rowed and built on from them, and what you’re do­ing to put your own twist on it.

One of the first gay films I saw, once I ac­cepted the fact that yes, I re­ally liked boys, was Party Mon­ster. If you haven’t seen it, it is just a sliver of how fab­u­lously fucked up the early 90s were in NYC. Up un­til then, the only view of drag that I had was big hair and be­daz­zled gowns. Yes, the club kids would wear that, too, but they al­ways had a spin, a con­cept be­hind it. Af­ter watch­ing that film I started re­search­ing. Amer­ica had Michael Alig and James St. James. The UK had vi­sion­ar­ies like Leigh Bow­ery and de­signer Pam Hogg. Nowa­days, I’d say Milk and Dan are fairly sim­i­lar. When I started out in drag, there was a level of con­fi­dence that came by throw­ing on a wig. The “Queen” in “Drag Queen” is very ac­cu­rate. No mat­ter if you are pretty or not, you are roy­alty when in drag. To have the au­dac­ity to put makeup on your face, wear some bitchy heels and a slutty leo­tard, means that you are in a class above the rest!

As a con­fused teenager I just wanted to be liked by any­one! That con­tin­ued on into my be­gin­nings

How does Milk com­pli­ment or con­trast your daily life as Dan?

in my out gay life. I would try what­ever I could to get peo­ple to like me, even if it was at an ex­pense. Milk made me re­al­ize, be­cause she has dealt with her fair share of haters, that ev­ery­one isn’t go­ing to like you. Some peo­ple just won’t get you. And that’s a-okay! How bor­ing would it be if you were liked by ev­ery­one, right? I, Dan, a.k.a. Milk, may not be for ev­ery­one, but I am for any­one!

You got some flack for not be­ing glam­ourous enough on the run­way. What did you take away from that?

I love when peo­ple say “I don’t get you.” What I do is vis­ual. I’m not both­ered that peo­ple don’t un­der­stand. Drag Race is six sea­sons in, so I made sure that what I did on that run­way was com­pletely dif­fer­ent to the last five sea­sons. What’s the point of still do­ing the same thing, the same dresses, the same looks. What’s go­ing to be re­mem­bered down the road is not a sim­ple cock­tail dress. It’s gonna be a cock­tail dress on a preg­nant drag queen, or a bald-headed bitch.

That re­minds me of Su­san Son­tag de­scrib­ing camp as “the love of the ex­ag­ger­ated, the ‘off,’ of things-be­ing-what-they-are-not.” What is camp to you?

Camp is sim­ply look­ing like a joke while be­ing in on the joke.

You and your boyfriend re­cently cel­e­brated your six year an­niver­sary. Con­grat­u­la­tions. He’s also a per­former. Tell us a bit about him. How did you meet?

James is the bees knees! He is a huge in­spi­ra­tion to me be­cause he al­ways has some­thing new on his brain, whether it is mu­sic, drag, or dance. He is a Prin­ci­pal Dancer with Amer­i­can Bal­let Theatre here in NYC, he is a ridicu­lous gay pop artist (Jb­dubs), and he is a mem­ber of The Dairy Queens! We met through mu­tual friends when we were both liv­ing in Bos­ton. His friends had ini­tially friended me be­cause they wanted the D. [laughs] I wasn’t in­ter­ested in them so I was even­tu­ally in­tro­duced to James one night at a club. They had just fin­ished up a run of Romeo and Juliet so they were out cel­e­brat­ing. Need­less to say he was a lit­tle in­tox­i­cated and kept call­ing me “Don” all night. It’s Dan.

What was it like to be away from him for so long while you were on the show?

When I was cry­ing on the show [af­ter be­ing elim­i­nated], a lot of it was be­cause I knew I was go­ing to see James soon. It was tough. Es­pe­cially with drag be­cause I’m al­ways do­ing it right along­side him. He has fan­tas­tic ideas and ad­vice and not hav­ing him to talk to about looks and ideas was pretty dif­fi­cult. But I did be­come a lit­tle more in­de­pen­dent.

What re­la­tion­ship does Milk have with your fam­ily? Did they know her/of her be­fore the show or did you have to come out to them?

It is not a big topic of con­ver­sa­tion with my par­ents. What is sur­pris­ing is that my ex­tended fam­ily and par­ents’ friends are re­ally into it! My broth­ers are huge sup­port­ers of Milk! Two years ago, when James and I were still liv­ing in Bos­ton, my fam­ily came to town be­cause my old­est brother was run­ning the Bos­ton Marathon. The night be­fore the marathon, James had a Jb­Dubs show at a big venue. Milk per­formed along­side. They came and loved it! They were [with me] the night of my elim­i­na­tion, which was very spe­cial. I am the youngest of three broth­ers. Thank­fully we have moved past the im­ma­tu­ri­ties of youth!

Okay, what I re­ally want to know is – do you have RuPaul’s num­ber? Do you text? And what emoti­cons does he use most of­ten (if any).

Un­for­tu­nately, no! I’m sure he has his own RuPaul emoti­cons app. I would to­tally up­grade to that!

What’s some­thing about the gears of the show that sur­prised you?

How quickly the pres­ence of the cam­eras stopped af­fect­ing me. I thought my eyes would al­ways look di­rectly into the cam­era, be­cause up un­til then that’s what cam­eras were about to me, but it just be­came “nat­u­ral” (as nat­u­ral as re­al­ity tele­vi­sion can be) to in­ter­act with other peo­ple and live on screen.

Af­ter you were cho­sen for sea­son six, what did you do to pre­pare for the show?

Def­i­nitely freaked the F out for a lit­tle bit. The main and most help­ful thing I did to pre­pare was pur­chas­ing vac­uum seal bags. It re­ally helped in the packing depart­ment!

Is there some­thing that you re­gret you didn’t get a chance to do on the show?

I like the creative chal­lenges and I wish there were more dur­ing my sea­son. I re­ally love de­con­struct­ing and re­con­struct­ing looks, so I would have pre­ferred be­ing able to or­gan­i­cally put some­thing to­gether ver­sus singing and com­edy chal­lenges.

When it was re­vealed that you were elim­i­nated, you were host­ing a view­ing party at a bar in Williamsburg, Brook­lyn. What was it like to watch your time on the show come to an end in that en­vi­ron­ment?

Tears. I have such a con­nec­tion to the en­ergy of drag in Brook­lyn that their re­sponse to my elim­i­na­tion made me so emo­tional. I felt so much love and sup­port!

Af­ter you were sent home, the first thing you asked for was your phone. How long did it take to get it back, and who did you call?

I didn’t get it back un­til I was dropped off at LAX. Ac­tu­ally, I didn’t call any­one! Of course I thought of call­ing my boyfriend, James, but I then fig­ured it would be more fun if my re­turn was a sur­prise!

What ad­vice would you give to the queens of sea­son 7?

Don’t be afraid to set your­self apart from ev­ery other girl that has ever been on the show! We are six sea­sons down, you have to know what has been done and what is go­ing to keep it fresh.

Would you do any­thing dif­fer­ently if you were brought back for the all stars sea­son?

Claw some eyes out, pull some weave, and stash a phone in a hol­lowed out plat­form shoe [laughs] #Milk­forAl­lS­tars

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