By Steve Weinstein
By Bryan Bierman
By Lindsey Rhoades
By Chaz Kangas
By Ben Westhoff and Sarah Purkrabek
By Jena Ardell
By Jesse Sendejas Jr.
By Katherine Turman
"I had no idea that sexuality was so fluid," he says. Dressed as a woman, he became aware, both from the reactions that he elicited from men on the street and from Craigslist's hookup pages, that gender could be fluid: both very real and very artificial. "Even though I was gay, the world to me was still so black-and-white," he says. "I had no idea that people were so sexually ambiguous. I had no idea that the Tom, Dick, and Harry that I saw every day in their business suits could also have this interest in something that was so completely not the norm."
Quattlebaum once dressed as a woman so consistently that friends and family thought he might come out as transgender. "I started to realize that all of that shit, all of that theory, all of that stuff about makeup, all that stuff that you pick up in books or in college about 'the creation of the woman'—that is real," he says. "It's real. And a little pretty boy can put on the same thing and then become that. That was the mindfuck. That was the huge mindfuck." Gender was a performance, perhaps the performance. And Quattlebaum was born to perform.
Quattlebaum's father and namesake was a longtime IT specialist at Siemens in California. He's now retired and working as a professional psychic. His mother, Deborah Butler, is a paralegal in the North Carolina Patent and Trademark Office. The couple divorced when Quattlebaum was two years old; he grew up between Raleigh and San Mateo County, California, where his paternal grandparents live. He performed publicly for the first time as a kindergartner when he entered a school talent show. "We would watch music videos and write down the words until Michael memorized them," Butler says.
Quattlebaum had always wanted to be an artist, and he hoped art school would be his ticket out of North Carolina. He was good enough at performance art and photography to get a full scholarship to the Art Institute of Chicago. But he proved an undisciplined student, and took time off after two semesters. He attempted a third before abandoning the school for good.
Quattlebaum bounced around, squatting and couch-surfing, for a few years in Chicago, San Francisco, and Los Angeles before moving to New York, where he'd been offered another scholarship, this time at Parsons. He didn't even last a semester.
He tried painting, and then returned to photography—a selection of his photos was published online by Nicola Formichetti, the stylist, Lady Gaga collaborator, and creative director of Dazed & Confused magazine—but ultimately didn't take to either. An internship at Team Gallery left him burnt out on what he calls "the snobbery, and cattiness, and cutthroat-ness, and the faux-academicism" of the art world.
"New York became very swallowed by Purple magazine—that Dash Snow socialite bad-boy thing," he sighs. "It's like, I'm sorry, but the excess of Terence Koh is not interesting."
Yet Quattlebaum had always been drawn to the stage. "I think a big part of people being able to love and accept Michael for who he is, is Michael's acceptance of himself," says Butler. As a child in Raleigh, he had an agent for acting work and carved out an identity as a teenage playwright, winning grants from a local youth arts organization to mount performance art pieces, most of which explored female subjectivity. He had always written poetry, too, and after dropping out of Parsons, he started reading it live, accompanied by music. His book, From the Silence of Duchamp to the Noise of Boys, was published by OHWOW's imprint in 2011. (The title refers to an obscure 1973 performance piece by the Italian artist Vettor Pisani.) In videos of those performances, Quattlebaum prowls the stage, often without a shirt. His delivery is fast and rhythmic. It's not hard to see how he made the leap to rap.
"I woke up one day and I was like, What are you? What are you best at? What have you always done?" he says. "From kid actor to weirdo performance artist, what are you good at? You are good at performing. You are good at being on stage."
In the fall of 2010, Quattlebaum opened his laptop, pointed the browser to Facebook, and recorded a confessional video in the character of a teenaged girl he named Mykki Blanco. From the outset, she was by turns clever and foul-mouthed, sulky and cheeky. The clips are intentionally lo-fi and cartoonish—Mykki talking about trying out for JV cheerleading, complaining about being grounded, trying on earrings at Claire's—but endearing.
While Mykki Blanco may be female, she is not always a girl. She can be a glamazon in a bandage dress or a tomboy goth in combat boots and black lipstick. Intellectually and aesthetically, Quattlebaum's persona has more in common with Kurt Cobain wearing a dress onstage than it does with RuPaul's Drag Race.
"In all my press releases, I make them use the word 'her,'" Quattlebaum explains. "Even if you're looking at a picture of Mykki Blanco shirtless in baggy pants, you are going to say 'her,' because language doesn't mean anything."