Dan Donigan: Meet the Milk Man
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