When Michael Chase DiMartino started posting his intricately choreographed and stage sign language interpretations of popular songs on YouTube, it was an after-hours hobby he did for fun. But his video for Britney Spears’s “Womanizer” wound up on the pop star’s website, and theater companies and charity fund-raisers started pursuing the 25-year-old performer and sign language interpreter for professional gigs.
Now DiMartino is back with his latest video (Lady Gaga’s “Bad Romance”) and his first single as a singer (“Nasty Habit,” recorded under his stage name, Chase). The Brooklyn, N.Y., native sat down with Advocate.com to talk about skimpy costumes, antigay bigotry, and the YouTube comment that almost ruined his annual work review.
Advocate.com: You’re a stage performer, a musician, and a sign language interpreter. What inspired you to combine all three?
Michael DiMartino: I felt that singing has always been the greatest form for me to express myself, and with my hands, it was an equal form of venting and expressing. I did a talent show when I was in the interpreting program, and it completely changed my mind about music in terms of how it could be received, by a hearing or a deaf person. Both languages are so expressive, when you put them together, it’s a ka-pow!
What led you to go into sign language interpretation?
I could not roll my r’s in Spanish [laughs]. Basically, I needed a language requirement in college, and I just fell in love with it.
So much so that it became your major?
Yeah, so much so that I left the college that taught the classes and I went into an interpreting program trade school and then, from there, took it to the performance arena.
And you do this as your day job too?
Yeah, I work every day, from 8 to 4, full-time job for a woman. I’m her personal interpreter. Through the day I’ll interpret any kind of meetings, any interactions she has with consumers. And, you know, interpreting goes both ways — it goes between the hearing person and the deaf person. Sometimes it’s hard. Sometimes we have like 15 meetings a day and there’s eight people to each meeting. So it gets kind of overwhelming. You need an ice pack at the end of the day.
What is the first song you interpreted and posted on YouTube?
“Gold Digger” — Kanye West.
And then “Womanizer” is when people really started to sit up and take notice.
“Womanizer” was posted on Britney Spears’s website. That’s when people said, “Oh, shit, look at this.”
Were you shocked by all the attention?
Shocked is not the word ... [laughs]. We do annual reviews at my job, and I have to interpret, literally, from 8 to 4 that day. I was sitting in this huge conference room and we had all these tables set up. I got a comment and my phone vibrated and it says, “Britney Spears posted this on her website. Awesome job.” I screamed in the middle of the room. Everyone’s quiet, talking over their paperwork, and I scream out, “Oh, my God.” I pulled it up on my phone and there's my picture there. Apparently a deaf woman — a deaf fan of Britney Spears — contacted Britney or her camp and said, “Look at this.” And so they put it up. It was really exciting.
Response has been huge from the deaf community but also from the gay community? Were you surprised that both were on board with what you were doing?
Yeah, I’m surprised about the gay community, a little bit. I mean, clearly, I’m pretty much shirtless in every one of these videos, so obviously, it’s going to get some kind of attention from that. But I’m kind of shocked there is such a large following from that, because I would say it’s equal. I’ll venture to say maybe more gay guys than deaf people. A while ago I posted a “Gays Should Not Marry” video, and it was a spoof on gay marriage. That, I think, brought people too.
Well, and the fact that you focus on Britney and Lady Gaga doesn’t hurt.
Well, they’re gay icons. Of course.
Why specifically the two of them?
I don’t know. Their songs are just a lot of fun. Specifically, with Lady Gaga, even if she wasn’t really popular, I think her music is very creative, and it allows you to have your own ideas about the song without ever needing to see her or her videos. Britney I grew up on. She has these awesome beats. And that’s another reason. When you’re interpreting music, I don’t particularly care for slow, monotonous. You need something that can make you move, and make your hands move as well as your feet.
These seem like really elaborate undertakings ... the signing aside, the videos themselves are well-produced. How long does the typical video take you, start to finish?
It depends. I tend to procrastinate, so if I take away all of the procrastination, it would take me about three to four days of editing nonstop, and filming could take about a full week. There are all the costumes ... I fund everything myself. I buy all these weird metal chains. I go to the hardware store and he’s like, “Oh, what do you need the chains for?” “I’m wrapping myself up.” “Um, OK, have fun.” “Bad Romance” is actually the fastest video I’ve ever done, and it’s also the most expensive. But like I said, I actually had the idea in my head already, so I didn’t have to think, Hmm ... what would I do here?
Has doing these videos actually led to more work as a performer?
Yes. That’s another kind of a shocker. YouTube is kind of a weird dichotomy. People think, Oh, it’s YouTube. But people see you through YouTube ... it is a huge platform. Broadway Bares found me through there, and I told them, “I’m not really a dancer. I can learn, but I move with my hands.” But they wanted me to do it. There were others. The New York Public Theater — I interpreted one of their plays, right there on the stage with the actors. It kind of constantly brings me to a place where I’m able to perform more. I’ve interpreted off-Broadway shows.
And you have a song out now?
Yeah. YouTube has made people know me through my sign language, because that’s all I was putting on YouTube. And I didn’t want to be one of those YouTubers who are like, “Look at me sing.” I’m not that kind of person. That’s kind of cheesy. I love singing. It’s my first passion. So I figured, “Let me have fun with it. Let me make songs that I like and that I write myself.” I write the instrumental tracks myself. Not the one that’s on iTunes right now, that was another person. I’ll make the video for it the same way I do other artists. It doesn’t have to be this cheesy, “pick me,” kind of thing. It’s a hobby, and I’ve always wanted to sing, so why not. Why not be the performer that I want to be.
What been the most shocking response to your videos?
I get hate mail ... a lot of hate mail. For example, for the “Bad Romance” video, I got things like, “Well, why do you have to wear things that a gay, stereotypical man would wear?” Or “That was like a giant porno flick.” And I’m like, you know, “Did you happen to see the real artist and what they were wearing?” They were wearing thongs and boob cones that are sparking, and you’re talking about my videos? Really? As far as the costume, it goes with the artist — it goes with the vibe of the song. I did “Break Ya Neck” [Busta Rhymes] and I was wearing this puffed out coat with a backward hat with a gold tooth in my mouth. It just goes with it.
Does the hate mail ever go beyond the costumes?
I used to have this guy who’d come on my page all the time — “Faggot, you’re going to burn in hell.” He’d send me videos of the Southern Baptist church. I specifically got it when I posted the “Gays Should Not Marry” video and it went viral. But now it’s kind of stopped. I don’t know, I guess YouTube isn’t the place for that kind of social interaction anymore. I used to get hounded. The other shocking thing, I guess, is when I’m recognized walking down the street.
What is the next video you’re working on?
The next video will be for my song “Nasty Habit.” It’s kind of a gay “... Baby One More Time.” It’s all Catholic schoolboys with the Harry Potter ties, the teacher’s kind of hitting on me, we’re in the hallways with the lockers, dancing. There’s a shower scene at the end of it, which is really kind of hot.