By Mikkel Hyldebrandt
She is known as the drag mother to us all and Atlanta’s favorite charity queen – and this year she is celebrating her 20th anniversary as the hilarious and illustrious Ruby Redd!
For twenty years Raymond Matheson, better known as the camp queen Ruby Redd, has strutted across the stage in drag with the primary purpose of supporting local charities and nonprofits, so they would get well-deserved attention and donations – something that she to this day instills in new drag talent that wants to get a start in the city and her shows. Her signature style of drag may come off as less polished to some, but her firm belief in staying true to yourself and that no style of drag is wrong, has made her a mainstay and trademark of the Atlanta drag scene since she dressed up for a Halloween party as Ruby for the first time two decades ago. We sat down and talked beginnings, inspirations, challenges, and charity with Ruby Redd.
Tell us a little bit about how Ruby came to be.
There was a place called Tully’s on Tenth across from Blake’s where Jason’s Deli is now. I was one of the managers, and we did a Halloween contest for patrons and employees, and I dressed up in the wig and the waitress uniform, and they were calling me Fraulein Ruby because of my German background. Shortly after that, I was at the Red Chair, where Ruby Redd was invented. For Sunday brunch, I would go up on the street corner with a sign saying ‘Red Chair Now Serving Brunch,’ and the manager named me Ruby Redd and it just stuck. I then started doing little gigs at the old Metro, Backstreet, Armory, Blake’s, and Burkhart’s, and it just caught on.
What inspired Ruby’s distinctive look?
The inspiration comes from my grandmother Vona and even more from my two aunts, Sybil and Hazel. The red hair, the way too much makeup, dousing themselves on cologne, the gaudier, the better outfits the. And how can you not draw some sort of comedy from the names Vona, Sybil, and Hazel! I used to do the blue eyeshadow and the pin cheeks – like an old-time small-town waitress at a diner. My look has changed, since twenty years ago when I started doing it. I shaved and plucked and did all that back then, but it was a losing battle for a bear in a dress. Back then I was told I couldn’t have a beard, but I started to realize that it is true what RuPaul says that we’re all born naked and the rest is drag, and I thought to myself that I don’t have to conform to everyone else’s way of drag. I can just be me. So when I got back from a vacation with a full beard, I didn’t shave because I was going out of town for a bear event next week – and I just went out there with the beard and people loved it. I did get a lot of flak from some of the other queens in the city at the time, and now it’s kind of a thing! I’m not saying it’s all because of me, but it’s definitely a thing.
How would you describe your style of drag?
Just campy and fun. And charity is very important to me because it runs in my family. So like a fun, camp queen who wants to raise money for charity, and if I can make a few dollars along the way, then great! I feel like drag queens have a certain responsibility, and for someone like me who has been doing it for 20 years, I feel like I owe something back to the community. They’ve kept me around for 20 years, and it’s been an absolute blast, so the least I can do is show up to a charity event.
You have become a drag queen mainstay in the Atlanta community – where has 20 years in drag taken you?
I have done shows just about everywhere and at all the bars throughout Atlanta and Georgia and beyond. I ‘m at Midtown Moon, which I consider my home bar, where I host Birdcage Bingo every Wednesday night for charity, and in December it’ll be our tenth anniversary! If we keep up our good rate, we’ll be hitting over a $100,000 we’ve raised. Then we have Ruby’s Redd Light District on Saturday night, which is an early show at 8:30 pm, which I like because people can lounge around with a drink and take it all in. And then we do the Heifer review Sundays at Joe’s on Juniper at 1 pm, and afterward, we have the Heifer Stampede afterparty. And now we’re already going into the Holiday season which means I’ll be doing a bunch of stuff with the Sisters, the Rainbow House Coalition, and Joining Hearts.
You have an impressive lineup of events and parties behind you – and they all share the common trait that they somehow benefit and give back to the community. Why is that so important to you?
These different organizations like Rainbow House and Lost-n-Found they want to get their name out there and get the recognition to get that money, and even in my darkest days or when I think I’m broke, or can’t afford this and that, I just think of how petty it is. I see homeless youth on the streets, or our trans community being murdered, or kids being kicked out of their childhood homes for being gay, and I look at my life, and I feel pretty lucky. I was pretty blessed growing up with a family that always instilled in me that you should give back when you can. Yeah, it’s nice blowing money on things and taking that trip to Paris – you should be able to treat yourself and take care of yourself – but also look around in your community and take care of people there too. My philosophy for when I perform is to say to people that for a moment forget your troubles and enjoy yourself with a drink, and hopefully, I can give that to people – and raise some money and help relieve someone else’s pain in the process.
Your Birdcage Bingo is one of the longest-running bingo events in the city, but it has experienced a bit of a rocky road in the past few years. Tell us about that.
It started at the Mellow Mushroom Midtown, and after a while, it ran it to some problems because they wanted it to be ‘family-friendly,’ and maybe they were worried about appearances for the straight crowd. So when they suggested taking the winter off, I thought this was a good time to make a move, so I talked to the Hideaway, and it worked out with them, and we were there for seven years. When we left the Hideaway, it was mostly because I and the girls wanted to make it more of a production with lights and music, and it just wasn’t set up for that. I’m very grateful that we had that spot for so many years and it worked out beautifully, and everyone was very supportive, but when an opening came up at Midtown Moon, I just had to take it. It is set up for a bigger show with the music and lights and different rooms. We have a bigger crowd, and I feel like people tip more and perhaps even enjoy the show more now that there is a stage and special effects. And Marco is amazing, and he is so supportive, so it’s been a very good and positive move.
Few other cities have such a great drag presence as Atlanta – why do you think that is?
Because it’s a large city, and it has one of the largest gay populations in the country, so it’s the location. People strive to be here. And it’s just fun! I mean if you are young and new to the city, what a fun way to meet everybody in the city.
What is the current status of the Atlanta drag scene?
I think it is bustling, but it is also going through changes. The nightlife is changing and with it the drag scene. I feel fortunate that people still want to have me around, but in order to keep up, you have to humble yourself and be willing to change. You never rely on a status quo, and you have to be able and prepared to rethink new ways. All the bars that are doing drag are doing an incredible and impeccable job, and they even manage to put a little different flavor to their drag in the different parts of the city. Nobody’s drag is wrong, and everybody is going to grow into their own. There’s no right or wrong in how you look or perform; If you are having a good time, then that’s how it’s supposed to be. And that is what makes Atlanta a big drag capital, and I think it always will be.
Tell us about your Pride lineup of events – where can people experience Ruby Redd?
I’ve got VIP tickets for the park so I can come and go. We are doing supersized shows and events all Pride week at Midtown Moon, which we kick off Wednesday night with a special edition of bingo. Unless I get picked up by the Other Show on Friday, I have Ruby’s Redd Light District Saturday with a big Pride show, and then Sunday me and all the girls will be in the parade. After the parade, we will have the stampede afterparty at Midtown Moon – and maybe a little show too, but we’ll see about that! So I get to do enjoy Pride this year doing what I love!