Circuit Mom interview with ChicagoPride.com
Sat. February 21, 2004 by Jon Groat
Matthew Harvat, the man behind the “performance artist, not drag queen” and production company of the same name, is only turning 40 this fall but he says that now is the time for Circuit Mom to slowly exit the stage. In fact, Harvat says that this year’s Fireball performance was his last at the Hearts Foundation event.
But just like Cher’s final farewell concert tour, don’t expect Harvat to disappear completely.
He’s still going to do an occasional performance, while focusing more on music production and DJ-ing.
Recently, Harvat spent some time with ChicagoPride.com, discussing the highs and lows of his career, as well as the “highs” that he says have hurt the party circuit:
JG: I heard Circuit Mom started out as a birthday gag?
MOM: The whole Circuit Mom, performance-wise, started, not in any sort of seriousness.
I had done an employee drag show for charity when I worked at Roscoe’s (for 7 years), I had done Who’s That Girl for Patrick Russo a couple times. But I had this friend who wanted me to come to Crobar all dressed up and sing “Happy Birthday.” And that’s all he wanted. It’s CROBAR, you know, so I got Todd Kiech, my choreographer, and I said, “Well, it’s Crobar, I gotta do a little more, I gotta do a show.” So we got two dancers, I had my makeup done and (Todd) choreographed it.
That was 1998.
JG: And you got the name “Circuit Mom” at Hotlanta, a circuit party in Atlanta.
MOM: The event ran out of water and there were still many hours to go for the party.
I was coming back from bathroom and I discovered a catering kitchen and there were all these people frantically filling cups to get people water.
I, being one of the funniest people I know, I grabbed 6 pitchers of water to take back to all the Chicago guys, cause I thought it would be funny. Well, the crowd parted, and somebody said, “Oh you’re here to save us,” referring to those old Kool-Aid commercials. And somebody said, “You’re our circuit angel. No, you’re our circuit mom.”
JG: What was your stage name before “Circuit Mom”?
MOM: Jean Poole
JG: Would you call yourself a drag queen?
MOM: I’m more of a performance artist.
Drag is a little more of a way of life. This is more of a costume, a way of interpreting the music I’ve chosen.
Most people get it, most people will take me (in costume) to their friends and introduce me as Matthew.
It’s a character, not a way of life.
JG: Is there a goal with each performance?
MOM: I just want people, that when they hear a certain song, they’ll remember that performance.
JG: You’ve done that for me--New Year’s Eve of 2000 when you performed Kina’s “Girl from the Gutter.”
MOM: I had people crying at the end of (that performance). It’s the most political I’ve been by choice.
I get asked to be political all the time, and I don’t think my political beliefs have a place.
JG: That song goes: “Here’s a little look at me now, seems like karma’s making its rounds, it’s my turn, I won’t be held down low. Karma’s going to visit you too, you’re gonna pay for the things you put me through, I hope you do, I hope you do.” Were you trying to send a message to your critics?
MOM: When Circuit Mom first exploded, I went from a tea dance on Sundays to Fireball, to Toronto Pride, to Black and Blue, all in 19 months.
Then Disney and Cherry.
Early on I would get random e-mails that you couldn’t respond back to, “Die you old hag with a stiletto through your heart.” It would destroy me.
What did I do? I don’t understand, I just performed a 7 minute song.
Eventually I learned to get past it.
I know and understand who I am as a person.
I stand behind my beliefs and actions.
I’ve been called a gay icon—I don’t want that responsibility.
Maybe if people were as honest as I am, and put an effort out, maybe we would be farther along as a community. We wouldn’t have differences that were unnecessary. Roger (Matthew’s partner) has really helped me to choose my battles appropriately, to realize that if they’re not gonna like me, they’re just not going to like me.
Maybe in hindsight I was sending a message.
JG: Pretty harsh words from anonymous e-mail.
MOM: You can’t put a face to that type of criticism. If you don’t like the show, fine, tell me how I can be better for you.
Die you tired old hag? That accomplished nothing.
JG: Like it or not, you are an icon in Chicago’s circuit, along with Crobar, the old Glee Club, Hearts Foundation and Fireball. Do you think of yourself as a role model?
MOM: It’s little daunting—you look at your role models and wonder how they handle it…For myself, I don’t change, I’m the same if you see me at the grocery store.
It’s like somebody once said I always have that little wink-wink. It’s almost like I’m letting you in on an inside joke with one of my shows. But I’ve never intentionally turned my shoulder on someone in need who is a proactive person.
JG: But some would say the circuit scene encourages destructive behavior. Are you helping encourage that?
MOM: The circuit scene definitely comes with a stigma at times, and deservedly so. I represent or try to represent what the good is and what the good was, what it initially meant—the heartfelt music and people coming together to celebrate life.
Things have changed over the years, musically and otherwise, which is frustrating at times.
Within the circuit scene, I think I guess you could say I’m a positive role model because I’m reliable and trustworthy. I’m not a mess.
There are people out there and, you know, shame on them for the example they’re setting.
I’ve set an example of what it can be. Somebody came up to me and said, “I don’t know how you can do all those shows high.” I don’t do them high.
And there’s nothing so important that I have to be awake for four days.
I want a quality of life when I’m older…I hate this when it comes to this part of an interview. I don’t want to sound preachy but it’s frustrating how GHB and Crystal have ruined it for everybody else.
JG: At times I’ve seen you walk around a party with a cocktail when it seems everybody else is taking part in the circuit’s new electric Kool-Aid Gina tests.
Is that part of the image?
MOM: There’s something to be said for the good old days when you had a vodka tonic. Somebody recently came up to me and said, “Remember the good old days when the doors opened at a tea dance at four and the dance floor would be packed by five. What happened?” GHB and Crystal Meth happened.
It takes people darker and farther away from reality. We’ve seen the drama associated with GHB disappear.
And people are really, really taking care of the new gay event at Crobar (Anthem on Sundays). It gives me hope.
The music really took a shift in 2000. It got really deep and hard. Both the drugs and the music got darker, and they go hand in hand. There’s a difference when you’re outside at Winter Party, when the DJ takes you on a journey. And there’s a difference when you have the never ending club music (at a club) with no stopping point. In New York, when people go out at five in the morning. That’s New York, I get it. But it isn’t conducive to successful positive endings.
You need to go out and go home.
Maybe that’s just my age. Friends have asked us and I’ve tried.
They say, “Meet us at 7:30 in the morning at the Roxie.” Are you kidding me?
JG: So is the circuit scene getting better or worse?
MOM: The music really took a shift back in 2000…there’s been (another) shift.
The music is coming back around.
JG: How have you been received outside of Chicago as compared to your hometown?
MOM: Criticism is a little more vocal here, which is fine.
Out of town, there’s a little more mystery about Circuit Mom—it makes it a little more over the top.
I don’t want to say I’m pedestrian here, but I usually attract a larger audience out of town. I’ve always had the fear of “Oh, her again.” So I’ve tried to be very conscience of how often I put on the spackle here.
JG: It hasn’t always been a smooth ride along the way, though, has it? In the past couple of years, there was a falling out with Crobar as well as with Hearts Foundation.
MOM: Crobar was going to close for remodeling. So as to not lose the momentum of the tea dance, we decided we’ll find another home to continue—with Crobar’s blessing—and then their closing date kept changing. Crobar also had some staffing issues that weren’t very proactive for the gay event. Once the staffers and managers changed, it was fine. Crobar is such a powerful brand to have behind you, you’re bound to have drama. You’re bound to have the other guy who wants that name behind them…But Paolo was at our tea dances.
Paolo is and was the voice of Crobar at the time…From my perspective, there was drama along the way, but nothing so horrible. Look, they hired me as weekly person.
JG: And Hearts?
MOM: I’ve been attending Hearts events for years. A few years ago, there was a major falling out with that board and the president at that time, a falling out on a very small issue, which was business. It got resolved.
The next year, Hearts Foundation asked us to be involved.
We all sat down like adults and talked everything through, and the appropriate concessions were made. Fences were mended, no hard feelings.
But it was very, very hurtful at the time.
JG: Do you make money from Circuit Mom?
MOM: No. I do get paid for some things.
Market Days was our own event, and we donate to a charity of our choice…If this was a financially secure investment, I wouldn’t be slowing down.
Good news is that, creatively, I’ve made so many connections and friends, that I kind of already have those foundation pieces (to shift focus) in place. Circuit Mom won’t go away. It’s an incorporated company.
I own the logo and trademarks.
JG: These connections you refer to, is that how you plan on getting into music production?
MOM: I have a demo done for a remake of a song with Tony Moran. He’s one of my musical idols—I’m like his stalker (but he’s got a great sense of humor about it).
He’s been a role model for me musically.
With all the music he’s touched in the last 20 years, with him on my side, how can I go wrong? I’m hoping to have something done by Disney (Gay Days in June). The performances will not end. If somebody wants us to come and we’re interested in performing, we’ll do it. It’s just not going to be the insane, twice-in-one-day-in-two-different-cities schedule we had, unless the paycheck gets larger.
JG: So if you were to break it down between the two?
MOM: Music producing and DJ-ing together, 70 percent. Production and performance, 30 percent.
JG: You’ve done a lot of charity work over the years.
MOM: I don’t have the luxury to write a check or buy a table at every black tie gala.
If the organization thinks I can help them and I can make it, then it’s what I can do. There are so many elements that tear people in so many directions—gay, straight, black, white. If for those eight or nine minutes I can unify people in a positive light moving forward, then that’s what I can do as my part to help our community grow.
JG: What’s been the highlight of your Circuit Mom career so far?
MOM: Audience-wise, the recovery party at Black and Blue in 1999 with right at 5000 people. It was the most profound experience as a performer that I’ve done.
We did “Beautiful Stranger” with an Asian flair.
We had a dragon come through the dance floor, Asian fans, a geisha theme, explosions, streamers. There were 22 people in that cast—all those people who gave up their time to be a part. For sheer fun? Mark Baker and any of the Disney events. I mean he had me in a cherry picker, 40 feet in the air for one performance.
JG: What’s been the lowlight?
MOM: Missing out on a lot of family time. I didn’t have a Thanksgiving for five years cause of White Party. You miss birthdays and friends’ parties.
JG: Overall, what’s the experience done for you?
MOM: How can I put this?
Love it and have had a really amazing time. But it’s time for an evolution. There are other crazy avenues I want to explore.
Jon Groat has written for MTV.com, CBSMarketWatch.com and Fuel magazine.
Interviewed by Jon Groat
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