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Carla Rossi Is Portland’s Premier Drag Clown

June 14, 2022

Story: Andrew Jankowski

photo: Rak Salt

Places

Carla Rossi Is Portland’s Premier Drag Clown

June 14, 2022

Story: Andrew Jankowski

photo: Rak Salt

The pasty-faced, White Claw-slinging queen of PDX nightlife takes her name from the jug of cheap wine favored by art students.

The Oscar-winning actress Mo’Nique once warned that when you do the clownery, the clown comes back to bite. For Portland, Oregon, and its particularly twee brand of clownery, it’s Carla Rossi, the city’s premier drag clown, who bares her teeth. With razor-sharp cultural commentary on everything from the gentrification of Portland’s gay neighborhoods to white caricatures of Indigenous culture, Rossi draws laughter out of, and fires criticism toward, Portland’s prominent and powerful. 

Rossi, whose name comes from Carlo Rossi, the jug of cheap wine that is beloved by art students, is the brainchild and alter ego of multidisciplinary artist Anthony Hudson, a two-spirit Native Oregonian via the Confederated Tribes of Grand Ronde and Siletz.

Though they’re now found performing at theaters, museums and colleges around the world, Hudson and Rossi got their start in the city’s gay bar scene. Hudson birthed Rossi in 2010 while in art school, as part of a duo called the Tampon Troupe. (At the time, Hudson had only white face paint from a zombie movie project, hence the clown makeup.) “We came up when Portland was really into the thick of the genderfuck scene, although, I don’t know if we ever grew out of it—we just call it different things now,” says Hudson.

When their stage partner retired, Hudson propelled Rossi forward with outlandish ideas, each characterized by searing wit and unflinching moxie. Some of Hudson’s early plays for Rossi include 2011’s The People vs. Lady Gaga, where the world’s biggest pop star stands trial for her alleged artistic crimes, and 2014’s apocalyptic cabaret Carla Rossi Sings the End of the World. Hudson’s best-known work is their autobiographical 2016 play Looking For Tiger Lily

Hudson sees everyone as fodder for Rossi’s performances, from Portland’s controversial mayor–police chief, Ted Wheeler, to the city’s liberal hipster archetypes. “Carla’s magic isn’t just how she gets us laughing about uncomfortable truth or her inability to function as a human, it’s how she tricks us into staying in that awkward play space with her long enough to love ourselves at the end of the journey,” says drag artist Kaj-anne Pepper, Hudson’s frequent collaborator over the past decade. 

These days, while Rossi rarely makes appearances at the clubs and bars where she once performed, Hudson most regularly channels their creative vision through film series at the historic Hollywood Theatre, with shows highlighting scary movie tropes, campy classics and female comedians

“When I started out, Portland drag was profoundly political, confrontational and messy,” says Hudson, contrasting the drag scene’s underground sensibilities with the sanitation seen in mainstream offerings like RuPaul’s Drag Race. Portland was a grittier, more affordable city when Hudson and Rossi got their start. “[I stepped] away from constant gigs and five-minute numbers to treat Carla as a spiritual power and medicine rather than as a birthday clown for bars and galas—that was one of the greatest gifts the pandemic’s given me.”

Hudson doesn’t drink anymore, but says Rossi still enjoys White Claws, “because Carla is white trash.” Rossi also makes an appearance through the Hollywood Theatre’s collaborations with Double Mountain Brewery; past releases, like a Taste the Blood of Dracarla IPA, feature her dressed as iconic horror villains on the cans. 

Here, Hudson shares their inspirations, for both Rossi and the spooky Double Mountain Brewery release, along with the queer bars they continue to cheer on.

Queer Bars Carla Rossi Drag Clown Portland
Photo: Sam Gehrke

Who are Carla’s inspirations?
I love Harley [Quinn]; she is an idol of mine, but for me that’s part of an archetype I grew up loving: the anarchic queen, whether that’s Aeon Flux or Tank Girl or Harley Quinn. Those women have been a beacon of chaos and freedom and agency that’s been so inspirational to me throughout my life. I focus on those characters in fiction, but in real life too, like Valerie Solanas was absolutely one of those women for me—100 percent a freedom fighter.

In real life there’s my dad, there’s Jinkx Monsoon [Season 5 winner and current competitor on RuPaul's Drag Race All Stars]. Drag queens have always inspired me. Coco Peru was a really big one for me growing up, and beyond that the real formation of Carla’s artistic inspirations were [comedian] Eddie Izzard, in terms of the talking; [comedian] Sandra Bernhard, also in terms of talking and just writing and creating monologues, and building into cabaret, [artist] Leigh Bowery too, because I started as a club kid and the Tampon Troupe evolved from that.

Do you have a favorite Carla performance?
I really love Clown Down so much. [Clown Down: Failure to Mount was first staged in 2019, and centers around Rossi’s musing as she lies trapped beneath a fallen Ikea cabinet. Broadway World called Clown Down “a warped tribute to Mister Rogers and absurdist theatre.”] It’s so stupid. I had done Looking for Tiger Lily for three to four years at that point, and I was burnt out but didn’t know it yet, and then doing Clown Down was such a breath of fresh air and silliness. I just wanted to make a show that wasn’t about anything. I was like, “Oh, Carla gets crushed by a cabinet, just like that episode of Sealab 2021!” and then I made a show about anxiety, trauma and depression, and it was absurd, so that was really fun for me. I love that piece.

Between contemporary art, horror fandom, the club scene and more, what is your favorite of all the communities you belong to?
I really feel most in love with and tethered to the queer community and Native community in Oregon… They mean the world to me. I have a long love for the club scene and for my sisters that I came up with in the clubs, but I’ve stepped away from the clubs because I can’t make enough [money], they’re too loud and I need a theater and tech and sound support, but I do love my sisters.

How involved are you in your annual Halloween-themed Carla beer with Double Mountain Brewery? What is your inspiration process like?
Oh, I’m in this, baby. I go in and look at the atoms under a microscope and say, “Change this!” [Laughs.]

I usually start with a type of beer I want to put out, and usually that’s one I like. Then Double Mountain helps suggest possibilities for how to shift the flavor profile and tailor it to the beer, and I trust in them and follow my cluss in how it makes its way into the final product. I’ve done a stout, juicy IPA, hazy IPA, and am now looking for an IPA for the next release.

Your art reflects staples of Portland’s whimsically individualistic culture, comparable to drag matron Darcelle XV, local musician Moshow The Cat Rapper and even the PDX airport carpet. How do you feel about the city’s connection to you and your art?
A clown and a carpet! [Laughs.] ... Ugh, the things white people accept as culture in this city…

It’s tricky, because I’m from here. I came so often to sneak up and go to the underage clubs like The Zone, Klub Z and The Escape, to dance and see [the local drag queen] Jackie Daniels. I moved here 15 years ago for art school and decided to stay the rest of my life, so Portland is a big part of me. I love a lot of things about this city, and all my communities, and I’m rooted here ancestrally; my blood goes into this soil. But I also have a lot of trouble with this city, especially watching how it changes.

For me and Carla, I’m very lucky in that she and I are both powered by love from so many different people in this city, which is really lovely; it’s been a long decade-plus of exchange between us. But I also have to use her as a way of mirroring the shittiness of the city towards itself. We get so comfortable in our smugness, and we get so insular, and we’re so white… I don’t know how long I want to be a Portlander, but to the same extent I will aways be Portland’s premier drag clown, even if I tell the city to fuck itself and I move to an island.

Do you have a favorite Portland queer bar you enjoy, or recommend to readers?
I haven’t been to a bar since before the pandemic, so I’m clueless. I will say I’m rooting for The Sports Bra and hope they crush this town, in the same way that I am rooting for every last surviving lesbian bar in the country and hope they crush society. [Editor’s Note: Doc Marie’s, Portland’s first lesbian bar in nearly a decade, is set to open July 1, and was announced after this interview was conducted.]

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Tagged: culture, queer bars

Andrew Jankowski (he & they) is a freelance journalist based in Portland, Ore., covering arts & culture, LGBTQ+ and breaking local news. Andrew’s reporting also appears in outlets including Portland Mercury, Willamette Week, Portland Monthly, Oregon ArtsWatch, Street Roots, The Stranger and Eater. Andrew has observed Portland’s queer nightlife scene for over a decade, and prefers bourbon or champagne. Along with reporting, Andrew makes and curates art.