Trannika Rex, Chicago

I had the pleasure of interviewing Trannika Rex a few months ago for the “Drag Landscapes” project out in my gallery in Wicker Park. All I knew of Trannika was that he was running a lot of successful drag shows out in Chicago, and rightfully so. At his shows he was hilarious, quick witted, celebratory, and yet at the same time he could control hundreds of people with a single word. Because of this power that he had, I have to admit, I was a little intimidated in meeting him, but over the months I slowly got to know Trannika more and more… , and I finally got the opportunity to interview him. In our meeting, I was completely blown away by his story, and this was probably the most pivotal point in my project, as I realized that the stage can often act as a wall, barring people from knowing our stories.. … and just.. knowing us.

Trannika was raised in Fort Pierce, a small town on the mid southeastern side of Florida. While his father was mostly out of the picture in his life (and passed away when Trannika was 16), he was heavily supported by his mother and grandfather.

“My mother’s side of the family, who are from Chattanooga, Tennessee, were heavily involved in the arts. My grandfather was an art dealer and dealt with a lot of great artists, and I even remember him selling Rembrandt’s sketch book to Johnny Cash at one point. He was a huge influence for me as a kid when it came to the arts.”

Trannika continues, “He pushed me to do a lot of things. When I was little, everyday when I would come home after school, I would illustrate and write in these art books… and he had this file folder of all of my work, and would push me to create everyday. He was always helping me, and when I decided I wanted to do theatre… he put me in every theatre camp for eleven years. My mom has also been very supportive, even when I started doing drag. She’s been nothing but encouraging and has even come to my shows. She’s so on board with it.”

Even though Trannika had support from his mother and family, life outside of them in Fort Pierce proved to be somewhat difficult.

“I didn’t have friends and I got bullied a lot, Trannika says, “I was very effeminate and had a girls voice until I hit puberty. I was a chubby kid and I looked like a girl because I l had long hair and looked like I had boobs…. and I was just a very clunky kid. As I grew up that started to change, especially when I was 16/17, because thats when a lot of things happened. We lost our home, car, everything to a hurricane that year. It was also the year my father died. I had a nervous breakdown when he passed away. I was such a sensitive kid growing up and I cried a lot, but after that I hardened… I don’t really cry anymore.”

In regards to Trannika’s sexuality, he mainly stayed in the closet until he was 18 due to the homophobic environment of Fort Pierce back then. He recalls that he was called ‘faggot’ and ‘gay’ in such harsh ways, that coming out would have proved to be far more difficult than staying in the closet. “The closet was a safety net, because if you get outed which is this horrible blinding thing, people will be worse to you”.

When it came to coming out to his family, Trannika says “It was the day before Valentines Day, and my mother asked me what I was going to be doing. I mentioned ‘I’m going to hang out with my boyfriend’. There was a pause, and then she said ‘You know, even if you weren’t joking right now, I’d be okay with this’. I told her I wasn’t joking and she responded ‘Ok. Cool! Tell me all about him! Whats his name?’… and just like that it was so easy. My mom is very supportive and I’m lucky I have that.”

Trannika eventually left Fort Pierce for a new life at college. It was at this point where he realized that he was no longer going to be pursuing theatre, and instead decided to get his education in business at the University of South Florida. It was here that Trannika later combined his education with what his grandfather taught him as a child, and merged the arts and business together. He soon opened up his vintage clothing business called Sister Man Vintage (“Vintage Party Gear For Ladies of all Genders”), which became highly successful.

Trannika eventually moved to Chicago after leaving USF, and had initially planned to move to New York City afterwards. “I visited Chicago when I was 8 years old, and its just been in my head ever since that I wanted to move there. I figured I’d use it as a stepping stone, but after 2 years I realized that Chicago was my home. I had really kind of figured out who I was, and I didn’t want to leave.”

He eventually ended up starting to get interested in drag, especially when visiting Boystown. Being incredibly social, Trannika made friends with a lot of the patrons and queens there. “I wanted to see drag so I went to Berlin to check out the shows, and I idolized the hosts. I was still doing my vintage business so I’d show the queens some of the outfits I had and talk with them.”

It was here where Trannika decided to start performing. “Mind you I was a horrible performer,” Trannika says, “I was absolutely awful, BUT I brought a lot of people, and that got me on the cast. Contiunally I’d ask here and there if I could host every now and then which worked out for me. Eventually one of the hostesses had to take some time off, and I got the opportunity to host more.”

It would be at Berlin, where Trannika would take over “Drag Matinee” and begin her career as hostess of the show. With her incredible wit and ability to command the crowd, Berlin let her start her other event “Crash Landing”, a night where she was able to give new performers all over the city to have a place to perform. From here, Trannika rose to the top of Chicago’s drag circuit, and its only been upwards ever since.

When it comes to his work, Trannika states “Drag was the missing link in my life. I had tried painting, theatre, and the vintage business. Drag was the full circle for me, and the reason why I do the drag I do is because its filling all the voids in my life and I can combine it all.” Trannika continues, “I’m a better foreman than a worker bee when it comes to drag. My brain sees charts and graphs and nothing more. When you come to one of my shows its completely rounded. You have to look at creating a show with every point of view and I do that. I put my all into it.”

While being a heavily booked queen, emcee, and running multiple shows is certainly an impressive thing in a heavily drag-centric city, Trannika does mention the difficulties that come with the responsibility. “I know I was a bit headstrong in the beginning, but I felt like I was harsh because I had to prove something when I was new in this role. This city is highly competitive, so I felt like I had to come in swinging. I’ve certainly softened up over the years. This business is a tough business so the biggest challenge is finding your medium.”

Trannika maintains the Chicago drag nightlife with an amazing sense of humor and lightning quick wit, all the while giving opportunities for new drag performers to explore their craft. From the confusion and chaos of a small Floridian town to the bustling challenges of Chicago… Trannika has risen to the top in such a brilliant way, and all her successes are well deserved. She paves the way for a lot of us, and gives us the opportunity to witness such beauty and entertainment that rivals even the most famous nights in Los Angeles and NYC.

It is with this portrait, which was based off a photograph from Adam Ouahmane that I concentrated my vision of her being one of the most prominent hearts of Chicago. Without her, we would have no beat.

Thank you and I love you Trannika.

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