When it’s all said and done, Ian Morrison can look back and know he entertained millions, lived the high life, raked in the cash, hobnobbed with celebrities and even once had Ed Rendell’s hands all over his ass. “But I’m not done yet!” Morrison laughs on a recent afternoon, cocktail in hand, while sitting at a table at the back of Uncle’s, a bar in the heart of the Gayborhood. Today, however—decked out in a black cocktail dress, garters, exaggerated makeup and a blond wig reminiscent of Music-era Madonna—he’s not really Ian Morrison but rather his alter ego, Brittany Lynn.
Nearly 7 feet tall in her high heels, the towering Brittany walks over to the open front windows of the bar and leans on the railing overlooking Locust Street, smiling and gesturing like Eva Peron on a balcony above the adoring masses. Drivers slow down to gawk and honk. Pedestrians stop and the cameras come out. “Gorgeous, darling!” a man shouts from across the street. “I’ve still got it, baby!” Brittany exclaims.
Indeed, after a two-decade rollercoaster ride, the multi-talented 37-year-old performer is still the reigning queen of Philadelphia drag queens.
As a kid growing up in Northeast Philly, Morrison didn’t play dress-up but he inadvertently prepared for his future calling by singing along to his father’s Barbra Streisand 8-tracks. A bright student, he was placed in the gifted program, and by 10th grade Morrison had completed all of his graduation requirements, so he filled his schedule with theater and choir classes. “My voice didn’t change until senior year so I could sing the high notes of Mariah Carey no problem,” he recalls. “I can still hit those notes, even with all the cigarettes.”
While he didn’t come out until college, Morrison says he was known in the area as “the town gay” but that nobody messed with him in high school because he was already 6-foot-2 and built like a linebacker. He enrolled at Temple as a journalism major and got a writing internship at the Philadelphia Gay News .
At 18, on a whim, Morrison scored the part of “Dr. Frank-n-Furter” in a stage version of the Rocky Horror Picture Show at the TLA on South Street. “It was my first thing in drag, and it completely changed my life,” he says. “Everyone there was in their mid-20s and so artsy and cool, and they showed me the ropes.” Education came in other forms, too. “I was such a dork in high school—I never drank, never even touched pot, but we had whatever [drugs] we wanted,” Morrison laughs. “We did our Halloween show on acid.”
After Rocky Horror, he moved on to playing Alice in a local production of The Brady Bunch . One night, the cast went out to 12th Air Command (now iCandy) for a drag show—the host asked Morrison to entertain the crowd while he did a costume change, and Morrison did such a fabulous job that he was invited back to perform the following week. He created “Brittany Lynn” (named after his younger sister) and honed his act—spot-on Babs/Liza/Whitney impersonations combined with raunchy stand-up comedy—and by 1996 Morrison had formed Shade Productions with three friends. Soon, they were helming decadent, over-the-top drag parties, featuring top DJ talent like Junior Vasquez, at Philly’s hottest clubs—Shampoo, Deco, Evolution, Glam, Chrome and more.
Their empire expanded to Manhattan, Atlantic City and D.C. Brittany was bouncing between three to four clubs a night, six nights a week, raking in thousands of dollars and having to turn down thousands more. Dressed as superwoman, she served as bodyguard for Dennis Rodman when the former basketball star came to Philly with porn vixen Jenna Jameson. She smoked blunts in a bathroom with Korn during a joint appearance at HMV Music in Center City. And she appeared on MTV’s TRL and Real World: Philadelphia. “It was so rock star—limos and private jets and anything you wanted,” says Morrison. “I was in my 20s, so I could do three days straight standing on my head. Some clubs would put five hits of ecstasy in my pay envelope. But when people are handing you envelopes full of money four times a night, that’s what keeps you going.”
But by 2004, it all came crashing down. Superstar DJ culture fizzled, the parties began to get stale, and clubs pulled the plug on the long-running drag nights. “It felt like my very own episode of Behind the Music,” Morrison laughs. He took regular jobs, such as PR director for the phone line GayLive and, lately, as a bartender at Uncle’s (where he works as Ian, not Brittany). Still, Brittany’s reputation and following has allowed her to keep working on the side. These days, she runs a popular Sunday karaoke night at Yakitori Boy in Chinatown. She hosts private corporate events, Mummers benefit shows and gay pageants around town. She’s also the city’s “drag queen of choice”—a couple years ago she was Rendell’s “date” at an LGBT fundraising event at Shampoo, where the then-governor mugged for the cameras by grabbing Brittany’s behind. “It’s pretty amazing how much gay culture is accepted in Philly compared to 20 years ago when I started,” says Morrison. As for the money, “it’s not like before, but I still get paid, and everyone in the city knows who Brittany is. It’s not so bad.” He’s also shelved thoughts of retiring Brittany when he turns 40, mostly because he says the new crop of drag queens around town can’t sing (they usually lip-synch) and they’re mostly devoid of personality. “They’re not a threat to my throne. Until they can get a clue, I’m still gonna be here. I don’t care if I’m in a wheelchair, I’m still gonna work it.”
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