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I sit down with Darrell Thorne in his studio, a small, high-ceilinged room, with a storage loft stacked with bins of fabric and art supplies. There’s a workbench opposite the entrance and two bags of Swarovski crystals lay open on the floor. Yet anything practical or mundane about the space is immediately overshadowed by the faces of the artist and performer’s work, which glower, sparkle, and beam intensely from the walls and shelves around us. Masks and helmets of moss, bone, and twisted tree branches adorn expressionless mannequin heads. A brilliant unicorn headdress, topped with flowers and feathers in aqua and fuschia, juts off a high shelf, while a horned, S&M-tinged Baphomet looks up grimly from below. There’s a Ganesha, glittering skulls, and a legion of martial-looking pieces that wouldn’t be out of place on the enchanted warriors and knights of “Game of Thrones.” Featureless, blank-faced metal masks seem to hover, almost menacingly.
Despite the glitz and horror, there’s a kind of solemnity to these works, a gravity that makes anywhere they’re hung instantly feel a little something like the Metropolitan Museum’s arms and armor wing. It doesn’t feel like you’re looking at “costumes” exactly — the headpieces seem possessed even without a human occupying them. But as intricate and awe-inspiring as they look on display, these aren’t museum pieces. Thorne creates masks and costumes for stage and screen, outfitting dance companies and fabricating work for music videos like Madonna’s “Living for Love.” He performs at clubs and events several nights a week and leads a troupe of dancers who put his otherworldly outfits to work, complemented by head-to-toe body paint and elaborate, provocative costumes.
“The minute you put on one of these things, you become something else, something bigger than your usual self,” says Thorne, who tells me that sense of transformation is at the heart of his work. When he’s performing, he says “there’s certainly this grand deity, regal, fierce, beautiful thing that comes out, that I run with. But some of it is really dark and really sexual and very intense.”
Thorne has toured with RuPaul’s “Drag Race,” led performances at the Park Avenue Armory Gala for several years, and was on the Out 100 list in 2014. Earlier in February, he made his television acting debut on HBO’s weed-delivery drama “High Maintenance,” playing a sort of version of himself: a nightclub performer who saves the day when an unexpected crisis hits. The episode featured Thorne in full space-opera regalia, blue-skinned and transformed into what one reviewer called “something out of ‘Pan’s Labyrinth.’”
“If I can see my natural skin color, it’s just not interesting to me. It’s not exciting,” says Thorne. “There’s something about having your body painted that [creates] a fuller transformation in a way that I don’t really get from costume necessarily.”
“You literally don’t recognize yourself,” I offer.
“Right,” he agrees, “which I like.”
I’d actually met Thorne before this interview. We both rent studio space at the same arts and events venue in Brooklyn. A few days before we sat down to speak, he’d thrown an opening party he called Iconic Apex, where he exhibited a decade of work and celebrated the move into his new shop.
The night’s cabaret featured a show-stopping turn from vogueing pioneers Iconic House of Ninja, who carry on the legacy of the late dancer and choreographer Willi Ninja; they drew audible gasps from the packed room. The house bar whipped up cheap, strong drinks, and statuesque men in elaborate helmets and full-body, blue-and-orange paint motifs served complimentary prosecco. Many in the crowd were almost as elaborately made up as the performers, baring some skin on the unseasonably warm winter night.
Nightlife has always been intertwined with Thorne’s work, and he made his first serious pieces for costume nights, drag events, and big annual parties. The performances and characters he creates aren’t exactly drag, but “drag influences what I’m doing,” says Thorne. I’m definitely interested in creatures that are gender neutral or gender fluid, or combine genders. … Usually it just falls somewhere in the middle, neither male nor female or a little bit of both.”
Thorne came to New York 16 years ago by way of Chicago and L.A. and spent his teens in Missouri and Arkansas. As a child, he lived with his parents and four brothers in Red Devil, Alaska, a speck on the map with a population of 23 people, as of the 2010 census. Thorne’s father had always dreamed of living a simpler life, and in Alaska, they settled off the grid, with no electricity or running water. His mother made clothing, mukluks, and hats for the family; his dad taught at the local one-room schoolhouse and ran a trap line for food.
“Many of the horns that you see are from deer — like that deer skull,” says Thorne, pointing at a cowled, antlered plastic head. “That’s a deer my dad killed. A lot of the skulls and horns come from him. And also he raises peacocks, so my peacock feathers come from him.”
Thorne tells me they’re now close but getting his deeply religious Christian parents to understand who he is and what he does was “a process.” He imitates his father, putting on a gruff Southern accent: “‘Well I don’t agree with what you’re doing, but you’re real good at it’ — that’s what he tells me,” says Thorne, laughing.
The recent “High Maintenance” episode featuring Thorne also focused on themes of moving away from a religious upbringing: His character’s story is interspersed with that of Baruch, a young man who has defected from Brooklyn’s Hasidic Jewish community and haplessly looks for new meaning, or maybe just a good time. When Baruch (spoiler alert) chokes on a bodega sandwich in the episode’s dramatic climax, Thorne, in the store looking for contact lens solution, cooly takes command and performs an emergency tracheotomy with a deli knife and a plastic pen tube. “I’m a doctor,” Thorne assures the gathered customers and employees, as he jams the tube into a hole in the gasping man’s throat. The onlookers seem unsure if they’re witnessing a medical intervention or an alien abduction.
“For 15 years, that was my life, working in the hospital by day and then going out and performing in clubs at night, so it felt very natural to take that role,” Thorne tells me.
The real Thorne isn’t a doctor, but he was a medical administrator for a decade before he was able to switch over to full-time performance and creative work. And as a spokesperson for HIV Stops With Me, a campaign that features “real HIV positive people talking about real issues,” Thorne also worked to help stem the spread of HIV and counter stigma attached to the disease.
He gestures around his studio and walks me through the event space outside, where 20 or so of his costume pieces are still hanging from his exhibition, as he explains the stories behind each one. He shows me a series of headpieces based on Mesoamerican deities, commissioned for an immersive musical about “blood and chocolate” called Cocoa Dios, which premiered last year at Brooklyn’s House of Yes. Past the green feathers framing Quetzalcoatl’s serpent head is a black, furry “dark Aslan” commissioned for a costume party. Thorne says he’s greatly influenced by science fiction and fantasy, particularly the “Chronicles of Narnia” and “the Lord of the Rings”.
“Those giant wings there on the ceiling were for the Black Party,” says Thorne, referring to the infamously hedonistic New York gay nightlife event, where he’s performed for several years. “And that kind of samurai green alien mask, that was for the Black Party last year.”
Thorne says an increase in bookings and commissions over the last couple years has been a turning point in his career. “I feel like this is a different kind of momentum than I’ve had before. I’ve committed to my work in a different way.”
He tells me a story, a sort of personal parable on endurance and Thorne’s favorite theme, transformation. In his early 20s, says Thorne, he fell in love with dance, and decided “this is what I want to do; this what I want to be.” But even after four years of study, he says he “just wasn’t good enough.” He worried that he had started too late in life and, at least partially, resigned himself to the pursuit of more ordinary ambitions. Ultimately, though, his unique vision was able to provide for a personal transformation of a more enduring nature than even the magical Cinderella spell a costume or mask can create.
Despite setbacks and self-doubt, “I am dancing after all,” says Thorne. “Now I get to work with some of the best dancers out there. I’ve gained the respect of this community I’ve always admired so much. And so to have them be so excited to work with me and be in my company is quite amazing.”