Kat Graham Learned Everything From Drag Queens
Although best-known for her role as Bonnie Bennett on the hit series Vampire Diaries, Kat Graham's true love is music. With her voice and sexy choreography, her new single "Put Your Graffiti On Me" has caught the attention of names like Perez Hilton and RuPaul's Drag Race contestant Jiggly Caliente. And as an appropriate rite-of-passage for the rising actress-singer, she's even been noticed by Sherry Vine, who has has already produced a naughty parody of the song. Graham speaks to The Advocate about pursuing her music career, her obsession with drag queens, and her close ties to the transgender community.
The Advocate: I know you’ve been acting for a while, but when did you find a passion for music?
Kat Graham: Well, I was a backup dancer when I was 14 or 15 years old. That’s when I started to dance for other acts. I was pretty young. I saw what they were doing and I saw myself in the background of it. I thought that I could do what they did. I actually got into music around that time. I started making mostly beats and making tracks in my bedroom. That eventually led to everything, from working with Will.I.Am to signing to A&M/Octone Records. So it’s been a natural process. It’s been a hustle and a struggle, but it’s been great.
You made the beats, you wrote the songs, you did all the choreography, you made the costumes, and I read that you were taking acting jobs to pay for your music. Where does this resourcefulness come from?
You have to do what you have to do with what you have. You can’t rely on someone else to stamp and say, “OK. This is great. Let me do everything for you.” Even to this day I still do a lot more stuff on my own than I ever have. It came by default. I had to; it wasn’t a choice. You have to pull yourself up by your bootstraps and handle it if it’s something that you really want to do. The music industry right now is not something that I would recommend anyone getting into unless they would die doing it because they love it so much.
On that note, how did you go about booking yourself on a gay club tour just a couple of years ago?
You know, it’s so funny. It’s like you’re this little black girl walking into Fubar and talking to everyone saying, “Hey, I’d love to perform here for free if you would give me a chance.” That was the first step into everything that has become so much a part of who I am and so much a part of my performances and lifestyle in the gay community. I’ve been so completely influenced by performers in the community, drag queens especially. I feel like most of the world, or the mainstream, has the complete false perception of a drag queen or a transgender performer. There’s so much incredible beauty and style and ferociousness that goes into it. I feel like what I want to do, the more I grow as an artist and the more known I become, is to help raise that knowledge of how incredible these performers are. I feel like so many artists take different things from different queens and the originals never get any credit. For me, I’m like, “Listen, honey, I learned everything I know from a drag queen.” I’m part of a house in Atlanta, the House of Brooks, with Phoenix and Nicole Paige Brooks.
So a lot of RuPaul’s Drag Race contestants.
Yeah. [Laughs]. That’s so funny. So we’re all in Atlanta and we stay together. We’re all very much a family. We help each other with costumes, with ideas, and to have a family that is performers, I just feel so lucky. So for me, starting a gay club run was a first step. And I’m on one right now by the way. I came full circle.
You really did.
For me, no matter what show I’m on or whatever I’m doing in my career, whatever level I’ve been able to shove myself up on, I will always do a gay club run. I will always do a pride, if they’ll have me. I’ll always do a San Fran, or L.A. or ATL pride, because for me those dreams never change. My best audience and where I’m happiest is in the gay community. That’s where I feel the most accepted. It’s a community that appreciates pop culture like no other. For me, that’s where I’m home and I always want to come home.
Perez Hilton says “Put Your Graffiti On Me” could very well be the next drag anthem. What do you think about that?
That’s a really heavy quote because I’m in those clubs every night. I would be so flattered and honored if anyone performed my song. People should perform what they feel in their heart and what is a part of them. If “Put Your Graffiti On Me” has enough fierce sass for them then by all means go for it. It would be such an honor for me. A couple of my friends have told me that they perform my song. I actually met Jiggly Caliente at the airport randomly. We didn’t know each other but she recognized me and I recognized her immediately. She was like, “I performed your song.” I remember feeling so honored. I feel like drag queens are the fiercest, most fearless performers in the world.
Are you a big fan of RuPaul’s Drag Race?
Are you kidding me? Like every morning after the show airs we rewatch it in hair and makeup at The Vampire Diaries. They know I’m a massive fan of RuPaul. In fact, Ru doesn’t know this, but I met her the first time at Perez’s birthday party and I was with my boyfriend. Ru was dancing on the floor, just like living, you know? I started to cry when I saw her. I finally got up the guts to meet her and introduce myself. For me, I have a deeper connection to everything. I sometimes feel that with my music people look at it like it just might be pop or they try to put me in a box, like it’s kind of Pussycat Dolls or whatever. In my mind, for me, Paris is always burning. I think I’m a drag queen and if somebody says I look like one, you don’t understand that you’re giving me a compliment because that’s where I live, that’s where my music flourishes and grows. My ideas grow from the gay community. That’s where I live mentally.
So where did your inspiration for “Put Your Graffiti On Me” come from?
Different places. One, I’ve always been about self-acceptance and self-love. I wanted to express that in sassy way, where it’s like if you want me come and get me. I wanted to put it in a song that had euphemisms. So when graffiti came about, it was perfect because I was singing about someone who I wanted, if they really wanted me, to come and put their name on it. It’s the attitude I have.
Who are some of your pop idols?
I feel like there isn’t that many in the era I grew up in. I’m 22 now, but when I was a kid in grade school it was all the Janet stuff. I would actually have to archive stuff from the early ‘90s and watch old Janet videos. It was always Janet for me. Right now I feel there’s a space missing where there aren’t a lot of the Madonnas or the Janets who are dancing. Having that element to your performance is a must, like the Paula Abduls. There aren’t that many now but I always look back to the ‘90s for my deepest inspiration.
Your best friend is transgender. Tell me about her.
Alissa Brooks is incredible. She actually was assisting me for like a month because after “Graffiti” came out it was insanity. We were just trying to keep up with everything and trying to take as many opportunities as possible. I perform with her sometimes and I go to her shows. I support her. I’ve literally done the lights for her show, pulled the curtains back, introduced her, everything. For me, it’s totally normal. She’s just Alissa. She’s my heart and a lot of my inspiration. She’s fearless and she’s strong. What we want to do is eventually change the perception of the world. I know it’s a lot and I know it’s going to take some time but for me, one, I’m on both sides. I’ve had discrimination from being Jewish to being African-American, and here I am fully waving the rainbow flag everywhere I go to whoever will listen to me. I’ve definitely been dealing with a lot, everything from racism to discrimination. So for me, it’s even more of a fight, and I will fight for any sort of inequality, especially for my team. My managers, my agents, my best friend, I mean everyone is in the LGBT community. I feel like I might as well be. It’s no different. I feel like I’m so out of the closet for not even being gay. But, you know, for Alissa, she’s not the only transgender friend I have, but she’s my best friend. I want to empower people that are different like me. I want it to be normal. I don’t want people to think that I’m forcing it down people’s throats. I want people to have a natural progression to understand that people are people regardless of their age, sex, color of their skin, race, religion, whatever. [They need to] really start looking at people as people and stop judging them because they might be transgender or gay or bi or straight or whatever. I hope I’m doing that. If my music doesn’t go further than where it’s at right now but the message that I have goes beyond me then I will have succeeded.
Purchase "Put Your Graffiti On Me" here.Watch the video below.