Deconstructing Patti O'Furniture

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Behind every good drag queen is a conservative, inhibited gentleman. At least that’s the case with Patti O’Furniture. When not in character, her alter ego is all of these things, and I use the term “conservative” loosely given ties to the Democratic Party in this state. From a long line of public servants emerges a different type of servant. Join me as I sit down with the man under the wig.
 
           The heart and soul of Patti O’Furniture.
                    The incomparable, always charming, ever-polite Pat Patterson.
 
A little background: I’ve known him for years. We’re from the same town, attended the same schools, and ran in similar circles growing up. We knew each other, but I wish we’d been closer. Sharing a lunch table would have been fun. As adults, our worlds collided in ways we couldn’t have predicted as kids, and we’ve been dear friends ever since. I’m a huge fan of his voice—literally, it is deep and perfect for radio, which is good considering he makes a living booming it loudly from a stage as an emcee. It is also confident, polite, witty, and gracious.
 
It’s a voice originating from a Southern place infused with red-state politics. It’s a voice I recognize. A voice I understand.
 
Here, in that voice, he talks about that place versus where (and who) he is now, with an emphasis on politics, family, and the birth of his drag queen persona.
 

Pat and I at our 20 year high school reunion, Spartanburg High School, Spartanburg, SC
 
When did you create Patti O’Furniture?
 
It was a very clear, distinct decision. I was faculty advisor to the LGBT student group at the University of South Carolina, and it was the fall semester of 1998. At the very first meeting of the year, they were planning the activities they would do, and one was a campus drag show. They called it the “Birdcage,” after the movie. The year before was the first one, and it was successful, but they wanted to make it bigger. To do that they needed $500 to hire a DJ and rent a bigger space. And, so, I said, “Guys, you need to raise $500.” The students were like, “We’re never going to be able to raise the money.” As an educator, I thought, "How can I motivate these students?" And, spontaneously, I blurted out, “If you raise the money, I’ll emcee in drag.” Thinking, of course, that they wouldn’t be able to do it. But the very next week, they showed up with $500. I went away for Labor Day weekend with friends and shared it with them. A girlfriend asked, “Have you thought of a name?” I said, “Well, I’m inspired by vampy, campy queens of 80s soaps like Dynasty and Dallas and Falcon Crest, so I think I’m going to be Krystal Stone, but Krystal with a ‘K’ like Krystal Karrington from Dynasty and Stone like a diamond.” And she looked at me and said, “Girrrrl, no. You need something funny. You need something so that when people hear it and see you, they know you’re in on the joke. You need a name like…” She knew my first name was Pat, and she said, “Patti O’Furniture.” My eyes just lit up. I was like, “That’s perfect.” That same night, it was like a scene in a movie, like Cinderella where all the mice scurry away and come back to make Cinderella’s dress, and she’s amazed at how it’s coming together. My friends had disappeared into closets—they were in theater and had costume training—and pulled out wigs, costumes, shoes, jewelry. They said, “Here’s some stuff.” And that’s how my nickname was born: “The Yard Sale with Legs”—because of hand-me-downs loaned to me that night.
 
A couple of weeks later, I went back to my alma mater, Wofford College, where I was involved in theater as an undergrad, and the director of the department gave me two costumes to wear. From there, with the help of other friends who did drag (one being Nicole Roberts, who is legendary in Columbia), they pulled me together and put me on stage October 11, 1998. I have been shuffling around [as Patti O’Furniture] ever since.
 

Patti O'Furniture
 
You come from a political family, you’re a native South Carolinian, and I happen to know you grew up in the Upstate because we sort of grew up together…
 
(At this point, Pat interjects: “Not just the Upstate, Spartanburg proud,” to which I smile and nod, approvingly…)
 
So, tell me about your past. What was it like growing up around politics?
 
I didn’t understand that my family was political. I assumed everybody had public servants in the family. We all give back to the community in some way. My family’s just fortunate enough to do it in office. I am proud of the fact that my Mom, Liz Patterson, is the only woman to have ever been elected to U.S. Congress from South Carolina on her own. She wasn’t a widow appointed to fill a term. She actually campaigned, was elected, and served six years representing the Upstate—Greenville, Spartanburg, and Union—in the U.S. House of Representatives. Before that, she represented Spartanburg County in the South Carolina State Senate. Prior to this, she was the only woman to serve on the Spartanburg County Commission, which turned into a county council. Also, her father—my grandfather—Olin Johnston, was the only two-term governor of South Carolina until the modern era, meaning he served two non-consecutive terms. He served four years and because he could not succeed himself due to the way the laws were written, he sat out for four years, then ran again and was elected to a second term. In the 1940s while serving that second term, he decided to run for the U.S. Senate, where he served 20 years as the senator from South Carolina. He was one of the only men to ever defeat Strom Thurmond. While Strom was a great statesman, I like to think my grandfather was better. Several years ago on my birthday, my mother gave me his old license plate that says “U.S. Senator 1 South Carolina,” and I have it on my car. I take great pride in being Olin Johnston’s grandson. Additionally, my aunt, my mother’s sister, was mayor of Sullivan’s Island and serves on the Coastal Council.
 
Even on the Patterson side, my paternal grandfather was a community leader. He was involved in the church, raised funds for the library, and was a banker in the small town of Laurens, also in the Upstate. Mr. Dwight, as they called him, would help people in times of financial need. So I get public service from both sides.
 
But it was a challenge growing up with a mother in a public position, especially in high school. Spartanburg High School is when politics began to get divisive for me. It was hard having a mother running for U.S. Senate on the Democratic ticket in a school dominated by upper-middle-class white Republicans’ kids who didn’t want to hang out with me for that reason. But it didn’t diminish my pride in any way. She was elected, and when I went to college in Spartanburg [at Wofford] it was better, but there still weren’t a lot of Democrats running around. I remember somebody telling her, “You could be governor, senator, even vice president if you switched parties.” And my Mom said, “You can’t make a leopard change its spots. It’s not that easy.” She was socially liberal and fiscally conservative. She didn’t want to waste money, but at the same time, she felt programs like Head Start were important. Funding for healthcare—I mean, back in the day, we’re talking HIV and AIDS, which is a cause I champion due to a fraternity brother I lost in the 90s to AIDS. Mom championed those issues in Congress. She believes a function of government is to help citizens.
 
I’ll probably never hold elected office as I remember how hard it was to have people say such negative things about my mother that I knew were not true. But I funnel [that political legacy] into other types of service. I volunteer on the boards of several community organizations, such as the South Carolina Gay & Lesbian Business Guild, the AIDS Benefit Foundation of South Carolina, Palmetto AIDS Life Support Services (the oldest AIDS service organization in the state), or Trustus Theater in Columbia. I have a passion for public service, and I get it honestly from my family.
 

Old Senate license plate that belonged to his grandfather, the former two-time Governor of South Carolina and U.S. Senator, Olin Johnston
 
When you attribute the comment to your Mom about a leopard not being able to change its spots…being gay that resonates with me. I’ve heard many times, “You can just change.” As children of the 70s and 80s, which you and I both are, were there people that thought you could change? Did they pressure you to change? Were you able to come out? Or did you face challenges in that regard?
 
I came out at 23. People will not believe this… everybody’s like, “You didn’t know in high school?” “You didn’t know in elementary school?” And I honestly didn’t think about it. I was more concerned about fitting in and getting into the Key Club at Spartanburg High School, or the fraternity at Wofford, or being accepted by my peers. In January of 1994, I was at a magazine newsstand in the lobby at the Charleston Place Hotel visiting my parents for the weekend, and I saw a copy of Out magazine, which had just started being published. On the cover were two men posed like American Gothic—the painting with the farmer and his wife in front of the farmhouse with a pitchfork—and the minute I saw it a lightbulb went off. I was like, “This whole time I’ve been looking for the person on the other side of my pitchfork, and I never thought it could be a guy.” I bought the magazine, ran upstairs, locked myself in the room, and read it from cover to cover. From then on, I thought, “This makes sense.” I was in grad school at the time at USC in Columbia, and I spent my last semester there coming out. Never once was I met with a surprise. Not even from family. I never got an “are you sure?” Everybody was like, “Okay.” Which was a pleasant surprise. I hope and pray all who have the courage to come out are met with the same kind of positive response. Usually, I got “we already knew.” Mom said she knew when I was four because I told her I wanted a stove and vacuum cleaner for Christmas. Dad said it was seven, when he took me to get a birthday cake at Spartan Bakery. He wanted me to get the cake with plastic dinosaurs, and I was like, “Nope, I want that one,” and pointed to the Wonder Woman cake.
 
I’ve never had anyone try and change me. When I hear about people who are sent to rehab, or reparative therapy, it makes me sad. Just like my mom being asked to switch parties, it’s something inherent in you. It’s who you are. Yes, you can experiment. And I know people who did, and do… just to see. But I’ve been blessed. The only two times there was friction involved my younger sister’s thoughts on dating around her kids, and my mother’s response to seeing me in drag. My nieces and nephews have never known me with a partner. So, my sister was cautious as to how to approach that with them. I respect that, but eventually they’re going to ask questions, and that put me in an awkward position and made me feel uncomfortable. In the other instance, students at USC made a film documenting my transformation into character, and it was submitted to various film festivals. It wound up on the cover of the State newspaper, and some folks in Spartanburg —our conservative, sweet hometown —saw it and a lady approached my mother in grocery store. She congratulated her on my success and said, “You must be so proud of Pat and the film he was in.” To which my mother did not know what to say. I was very understanding, and I said, “Mom, when someone tells you they’re proud of your child you say, ‘Thank you.’ ” But she was confused. Did I want to be a woman? Was I transgender? With all due respect to my trans brothers and sisters, I’m content with my gender identity. I’m a boy with boy parts who likes other boys with boy parts. We entered a period of family counseling, and on the second meeting, the counselor looked at my mother and said, “Mrs. Patterson, your son is comfortable with this topic. Your husband is comfortable with this topic. So, if it’s okay, you and I are going to keep meeting until you’re comfortable with this topic.” Finally, she realized Patti was a character I’d created like when I was a kid and pretended to be Captain America. She believed, on a deeper level, I created characters as a mask of protection so I could be someone else because I was different. I don’t think I realized that, and you and I were in high school together. While we weren’t the closest of friends, we sort of ran with a similar crowd—it’s a big school—and I knew I didn’t fit in. I always wanted to be on student council, I wanted to be in the popular clubs. So, yeah, maybe I did use characters as a way to be someone else because I wasn’t completely content with who I was. I wasn’t as popular as I wanted to be, and, heaven knows, in high school being popular is what it’s all about…
 
I wonder how my life would have turned out had I stayed in Spartanburg. It’s a wonderful town to be from, and it will always be home. I go back and there are charming things about it. But I know the opportunities I had moving to Columbia, where we both lived at one time, and where I still live a majority of the time—just being exposed to a more diverse community, people of different faiths, beliefs, and socioeconomic backgrounds was crucial. Charleston is an even more diverse town. I use the analogy of a salad bar. I may never eat the chickpeas or the pickled beets, but having them there brings more people to the table. It makes life more interesting.
 
Spartanburg is an iceberg lettuce, cheese, and cucumber town.
 

Pat holding one of his mother's campaign signs
 
Speaking of broadening horizons, you perform across the state in Spartanburg, Charleston, Columbia, and Charlotte, NC. Recently, you made a trip to West Hollywood. Will we see you on RuPaul’s Drag Race?
 
Look at you trying to get a scoop. I was fortunate enough in December, while in Los Angeles attending another fundraising event, to be invited to perform with several cast members at Micky’s, a preeminent gay bar in West Hollywood. That sort of got the buzz going. I can honestly say, at this point, I am not a contestant on RuPaul’s Drag Race. That show has given female impersonation a platform it never had before, so I can’t say I would never do it. But I’m realistic about my style, which is campy, comedy drag. I’m very much an emcee. I’m not a dancer or illusionist or anything. I use my mouth to bring awareness to causes, to make people laugh, to bring people together.
 
(“Spoken like a true politician,” I said…we laughed.)
 
You mentioned the film documenting your transformation. What happens when you go into a character? Is it a process as each layer of makeup goes on? Is it instant? Explain what’s going on when you’re looking in the mirror.
 
It’s very much an instant thing. There is a definite, clear moment. It takes about an hour to get ready. I can put on base, eyeliner, lashes, lipstick—but I’m Pat. It’s not until the wig goes on that Patti takes over. Then I have super powers. I will talk to anybody, touch anybody, be completely uninhibited, cheeky, and fun. Things I would never do as Pat. I’m much more reserved socially as Pat.
 
If folks want to see you perform, where should they go?
 
Every Thursday night at Dudley’s on Ann, I host the Patti O’Furniture Show Live at 11 pm. The money I make in tips is donated back to the community. And, often, the owner of the bar, Daniel, matches my tips or makes some other type of donation.
 

Patti working the crowd at Dudley's on Ann
 
Are you available for hire or content with performances you’re doing weekly?
 
I’m never content to sit still. I expand to fill the space that you give me. As long as I have room on my schedule, I will fill it with gigs. So, yes. If I can use my talent to raise awareness for a cause, perform at a private event or function, I would be thrilled. Folks can reach out through my website, www.thepotluckclub.com, or find me on Facebook as Patti O’Furniture.