The New Feminist had the pleasure to talk with Pat Patterson a.k.a Patti O’Furniture one of South Carolina’s prominent drag queens. Pat Patterson is a theatre professor in Columbia, South Carolina and is currently pursuing a second master’s degree in communication. Ever since finishing his first master’s in higher education student affairs, he has been extremely involved in the Columbia, Charleston, and Spartanburg areas advocating for the LGBTQIA+ community.
After moving to Columbia to work at the University of South Carolina in the early 1990s, he found out his friend Bill Edens had passed away from an AIDS-related illness. Pat decided to get involved in HIV/AIDS advocacy in Edens’ memory. Moving forward he experienced a drag show at a work conference and from then on, he started to put together drag show fundraisers. Along the way the camp queen, Patti O’Furniture was born. Patti O’Furniture has performed in a number of cities across the United States but has long-running shows in both Columbia and Charleston, South Carolina. Patti prides herself on the fact that she gives all of her tip money to charity. She has been able to raise about 1.4 million dollars in total for charity from performing.
When did you first get into drag and start performing?
‘I was the advisor to the University of South Carolina LGBTQ+ student group, and they wanted to do a campus drag show. I said, “Sure! I’ll be glad to help you do it.” I told them they needed to raise $500 because we didn’t have the budget for it and they were like “but fundraising is hard.” Me being the student affairs professional that I was, I thought “how do I motivate my students?” Alright y’all, if you raise the money I’ll get in drag, and I’ll host the show. They had the money the next week.
Labor Day weekend, I went to a house party with a bunch of my friends, some of whom are in student affairs, and I’m telling everybody about it. I have no idea how to do this I’ve done theatre my whole life, but I’ve never done drag. I always explain it like that scene in Cinderella, where the little mice and the animals scurry away and then they come back, and they dress Cinderella. My friends all said: “Hold on, I got you.” And moments later they had costumes for me. Later that night we were thinking of a name and my friend looked around at the deck we were sitting on and immediately came up with Patti O’Furniture. I thought it was perfect. I’m Irish and O’Furniture sounds Irish, my name is Pat, drag name’s Patti. It worked out and about six weeks later, I hit the stage at USC.
October 11, 1999, is Patti’s birthday. I continued to perform in benefit shows until one day a local bar called me and ask me to host. June of 2001, I started hosting Columbia’s ultimate free drag show on Tuesday nights at a little bar and it is now the longest-running drag show in the state of South Carolina.’
What made you choose the comedy queen style of drag?
‘I love making people happy. I like seeing people smile. I come from a tradition of public service. My mother was a former Congresswoman in the US House of Representatives and a former state senator in South Carolina. My grandfather was a US Senator and former Governor of South Carolina. Public service is in my blood and one way I can make the world a better place is by trying to make people happy.
I realised that Patti is a great outlet for that. For example, I performed the night after the Mother Emanuel shooting in Charleston (2015). That was such a shocking and tragic jolt to the city of Charleston. I remember I went to the bar that Thursday night with very mixed emotions. I got up on stage and I did my show and halfway through I went backstage to change costumes, and a friend of mine stopped me and said, “Are you going to say anything about Mother Emanuel?” I paused, and he said, “A lot of us are out here waiting on you to make us feel better.” After that I came back out on stage and for my final monologue, I addressed it. A lot of people in the room came up to me afterwards and said thank you. “You’re our little bit of normal. In this chaos here we know that every Thursday, you’re here and we know that you will always make us feel better.”
Flash forward a year, and the shooting happens at the Pulse nightclub in Orlando and Charleston has a vigil to support the victims of the Orlando shooting. The mayor reached out to me and said we’d like for you to speak. It’s a more serious example, but the fact that Patti can make people feel better is probably the number one driver for why I’m still doing it.’
The area we are in is considered the Conservative South, has this presented any challenges for you?
‘I have faced minor hiccups; I wouldn’t call them challenges. I’m very well aware of the climate that we’re in, in South Carolina. I mean I grew up in Spartanburg (Upstate SC). When I came out to my parents as gay, there was a learning curve there, but they moved on and I had a great relationship with them. They were very supportive of events within the community. I had to do a second coming out with Patti because it confused my mother. After some time though she became one of my biggest advocates. We belong to the Methodist Church and it was one of the causes she championed towards the end of her life when she became involved in the leadership of the Methodist Church. That’s a cause I’ve continued to champion since mom passed away. I am very proud to say that my congregation openly accepts both Pat and Patti.’
What advice would you give to your younger self in terms of becoming the accomplished entertainer you are today?
‘Learn how to do your make up better! Also, as I came out later in life, around 23, and didn’t start performing as Patti until I was 29, I had the benefit of having a few years of experience under my belt. A lesson I think we all need to learn, regardless of profession or age, is sometimes you just have to let things roll off your back. For example, I can’t keep people from talking about me behind my back. What I can do is go out there and be the best me that I can be. Let people see through my actions and through my performances that I am who I am. I think that is a lesson everyone can learn. My most used phrase is “stay in your lane.”’
What does drag mean to you?
‘It’s a creative outlet. It’s actually exercise. I probably physically work more on stage than I do at any other time. Drag has also not just served as a creative outlet for me, but it’s helped me to be a better person. It’s allowed me to see people and see situations through another set of eyes.
People don’t believe me when I say this but when I put the wig on my head, I really become the character. Early on in my drag career, I realized how helpful this character is for broadening my worldview, as a cisgender man it makes me so much more empathetic to every woman. Also, Patti is my armour. When I become the character, I’m able to do and say things that Pat Patterson, for one reason or another, wouldn’t do or say. Patti will push the envelope because that’s what we do as drag queens, it’s our job to go right up to the line. Occasionally, we shock people because when you shock people, they learn, they see things hopefully in a different way. That’s one of the reasons when the time comes to step away from the stage and the thing I will miss the most, and have missed the most over the past year [due to COVID] is that ability to spread joy and to raise money for causes that I believe in. To have that literal stage that literal platform to advocate for the community.’
*This interview has been edited and condensed.