“He smelled like fresh air and all of my exes…”
photography by Matt Gunther, shot in Chelsea, New York. styling by Memsor Kamarake. grooming by Jessi Butterfield hair by Dennis Bailey. tuxedo KRAMMER & STOUDT, ring OFFICINA BERNARDI
by Christopher Leo Daniels
He was that close. My in-person interview with Dyllón Burnside was set up and booked, but my schedule wouldn’t allow it. I was horrified. The idea that someone else would interview him, meet with him – that someone else would hear his trained baritone voice, feel and share in the joy he’s feeling now – as his star ascends, as the universe begins to resonate to his frequency – was something I could not abide.
This interview had to happen, in person, with me. I promised myself. Sure, we could Skype, or I could send a questionnaire. His people played hardball. That was that. He couldn’t spare another hour. But that would defeat the point. As I studied him, I realized I had to meet him, in person – if only to exorcise myself of whatever spell I was under.
Eventually, a new date and time was worked out – Tuesday at 12:30pm. Then the real terror set in. Dyllón Burnside would be actual, not just the mystery man with the weaponized smile, but real, sitting across from me. I would ostensibly be able to smell him. I could then be free of him – or so people tell themselves.
I waited with my notes in a beautiful lounge of a beautiful hotel. I set up a bar tab, just in case. I didn’t know what else to do. He was two minutes late, then three. I received a text – FROM DYLLÓN!!
“Hi Chris! It’s Dyllón. I’m almost there!”
How did he know to call me “Chris”? I instinctually took a screen capture of my text. I imagined I could show it to people when he wins an Oscar®.
He was about to walk in that door, all the way across the lobby. But first there would be a seemingly endless parade of fake-outs and decoys, each more disappointing than the last – until…
He walked in, sixty feet away, looking for me. Dyllón Burnside. I stood up and his eyes locked onto me. At least he looked like Dyllón, only in hipster black skinny jeans, with gaping holes ripped in the knees and thighs. He wore a black brimmed hat that brought him firmly into 2018. And as the cliché goes, he was smaller in person, not shorter, but Hollywood teeny. I flashed back to when I was twentysomething, with a twentysomething waist.
For the past month, I’d watched every video, read every article, found and grilled mutual friends, and binge-watched the series POSE, until there was nothing left to read, hear, or see. I knew him. But this person was still brand new. He smiled brightly, waved at me like a long lost friend, and suddenly life became very simple. Everyone needs someone whose face lights up, when they walk into a room and see you.
He then lifted his head, picked a focal point, and “walked” towards me with all the confidence and poise of a trained runway model. It was no affectation though. The years of ballet were internalized. It was beautiful. It was strong, effortless, and natural. This was nothing like his character Ricky on the series POSE, walking for Butch-Queen Realness in 1988. Ricky is supposed to be the sexy stray cat, the charmer, the player who gets played and falls in love. Instead this was Dyllón Burnside, chest out, shoulders back, and he was poetry in motion – and as thirty years of evolution would have it, he was better and sexier than Ricky could ever dream of being. As over-prepared as I was, I wasn’t ready.
We hugged and I felt nothing, because I was still processing his entrance. I think I asked him if he wanted to get something to drink. I don’t remember but I must have, because we were headed to the lounge bar.
Clean shaven, his face would get him carded at even a dive bar. In person he could read as seventeen – albeit the best possible GMO version of seventeen imaginable. But then I had to remind myself that he wasn’t seventeen – that I was looking into the eyes of a veteran of seventeen years of cold, hard showbiz. I knew, as a stranger, to physically take him to the bar and let him order. I wasn’t simply going to present him a drink. We hadn’t built that trust. That’s not a personal thing. That’s just a New York thing. That’s just hot boy politics in the big city. We both knew it without saying it. But even then the conversation was flowing, with no recorder going. We took our drinks back to the lounge.
What did I want to happen? Did I want a simple quickie interview so I could move on with my life? Or did I want us to forget all about time, forget about food, stare into each others’ eyes, and begin finishing each other sentences?
And then a funny thing happened. Ten minutes into the interview we were staring into each others’ eyes and finishing each others’ sentences. Don’t believe me. I’ve got a 1:43 minute recording, that you will never hear, as proof. Yes, he was just that easy to be with and talk to – one of his many mutant powers I found. He sort of floods a room with his intelligence. I can’t resist smart people. I was in big trouble.
But I had an interview to conduct, and I was hellbent on knowing something about him beyond the press kit.
I sensed he would be able to melt me down to butter his biscuits. He was a cruel pastiche of every boy in high school, every dream man in college with whom I imagined living happily ever after. The ultimate man you could take anywhere.
What does anywhere mean? Well? In equal measure I easily could picture Dyllón winning an Oscar®- or hosting The Oscars® – or leading a protest against The Oscars® – and all of it generating from this deep place within his hardwiring. The man wants nothing less than safety and opportunity for all – and all means ALL.
How is this dude Mr. Mental Health Week at such a young age? So I asked him exactly that. He felt exposed. What’s motivating him to dance, sing, act, write, teach, create fragrances, and be an activist? Why so many irons in so many fires?
“I don’t know, Chris. I really don’t.” (He laughs) “I need to get to the bottom of that.”
What comes easy for him?
Life, career, going after and getting what he wants. Even he’s surprised by how smooth and “pleasant” his ascendance has been. He believes in specific education. He studied hard, auditioned hard, and worked. You can’t tell him hard work doesn’t pay off because Dyllón worked hard, and it paid off. He originated a role in a Broadway show straight out of school, “Who does that?”
If you watched POSE, you might wonder why we don’t see his character Ricky until episode two. Well, it goes like this. He auditioned for the part of Damon, the gay kid who’s cast aside by his parents, sleeps on a park bench, then takes a temporary detour from his dreams of ballet and finds his home in the underground world of the ball scene – a part he didn’t feel was quite right for him. Apparently neither did Ryan Murphy, because after meeting him, the role of Damon’s love interest, Ricky, was created – for and around Dyllón Burnside.
That really happened!
“I didn’t get scenes for Ricky until about a week and a half before we started shooting.”
“Ryan Murphy directed that episode, and one of my first days on set, he kept giving me this note about wanting to see Ricky be vulnerable, and I was still trying to figure out what vulnerability looks like for Ricky. My journey with POSE was that I didn’t know who Ricky was until about a week and a half before we started shooting, because they created this role for me, so what you see at the beginning is all I really knew about him. I was still piecing together who he was and where he came from and how his vulnerability showed up, how his anger showed up, where his pain came from, how his joy presented, and I was just there trying to figure it out in front of an entire crew of people, who were staring at me like, “What do you have for us today?“”
“…and I thought, ‘This is incredible but it’s also terrifying, and I’m here for it, and I’m going to rise to the occasion.’“
His acting process is in layers.
“I found that I have to start somewhere with script analysis and be very cerebral about it and figure out who this character is on the page and become an investigator. I dig into it, which is why it was so difficult for me to approach Ricky when I didn’t have all that information. So, then I create this backstory and dive into what those circumstances would be like. And then go through a range of emotions. I’m doing that on my own time. And I know Rickys, and there’s a way they deal with their shit, like he has a specific thing that helps him cope with whatever he’s dealing with and he finds that thing that people respond to that’s going to give him that feeling that he needs right now. Ricky shows up, the boys and all the girls are checking for him and he gets that validation to make him feel better about himself.”
“Music is also important. I try to find a theme song for the character. I won’t tell you the song but, Ricky‘s favorite artist is Prince. I play it and I can drop right in. Maybe I can tell you the song.”
Me: “No, don’t. It might stop working.”
“I also read this interview with Cynthia Erivo, where she was talking about having a scent for when she played Celie in The Color Purple. So, I went to a perfume maker and had a fragrance made for Ricky.”
Me: “WHAT?!! You did what?!!”
“Yeah I went in and smelled a lot of different fragrances, and she’s like, ‘Okay, pick out the ones.’ And I picked those out and I gave them to her and then she mixed it with different things – and I only wear it when I’m playing Ricky.”
Me: “Would you wear it in real life?”
I smelled his hair. He didn’t have it on. He smelled like fresh air and all of my exes; I can’t explain it exactly. He then smelled my hair.
“See? I would wear that! What is that?!”, he asked me. I never tell anyone. But I told him.
So, what comes hard for him? The flaw he admitted to was that patience comes hard. Even that, out of context, could be a job interview answer – virtue signaling – a kind of unintentional humble brag. But when Dyllón says something, he’s already thought nine layers deep on a subject, especially if the subject is Dyllón. He meant every bit of it.
Me: “You really know yourself.”
“I’m trying to know myself. I work towards it.”
Here’s a window into Dyllón. If you don’t call him after a date, he will preemptively move on, pre-reject you – much like Ricky throwing out the pizza after being stood up by Damon on episode two.
“That’s a total Dyllón thing.”
He hates waiting, so don’t keep Dyllón waiting by the phone. Immaturity, pettiness, maybe even a little spoiled brattiness – at long LAST!!! Then again, what fool would keep him waiting by a phone.
He was front man of a boy band called 3D from age 12-22, and his mother was his “momager”. The trio was Dyllón’s idea. He enlisted his cousins Dre and DJ. Get it? 3D.
But by 22, after touring with single-named phenoms like Rihanna and Stevie and an Atlantic Records contract, the weight of his rigid, limiting role as boy band heartthrob, and all the expectations and obligations that role brought, began squeezing his emerging identity, his goals and ideas. It meant redefining his relationship to his entire family, as a grown man with agency over his life and career.
“She’s not Mama Rose (…the obsessive stage mother of the show Gypsy…) but…there was a point when we were on tour with Rihanna and she was standing in the wings and fighting with the sound engineer because my mic wasn’t turned up enough. And I’m looking over and thinking, ‘That’s my Momma.’” (laughs) “I didn’t know what my relationship with her was outside of that. So, I didn’t want mom as manager anymore I just needed mom as mom, and she is, but it was just a complicated thing, as I got older, for a teenager who’s trying to figure out things on his own and also trying to figure out what being in this group meant for who I had to be and the role I had to play.”
“Growing up there were a lot of the things that I felt I wanted to push up against, not because I was some revolutionary child. The things that I was interested in didn’t necessarily align with my family’s or society’s idea of what it meant to be a man. So, I decided, once i was able to decide, that I wanted to fuck that up. I can still be a male and sing mozart or take a ballet class and that it not have anything to do with anything other than I wanted to take a ballet class.”
Like his audition for Damon, he knew he didn’t quite fit the role – so he needed to create a new one. And that meant studying. So at age 22, Dyllón Burnside, the pop idol, blew his life apart, and that meant, in essence, firing his own mother.
That also meant the already musically trained Dyllón would enroll in conservatory as a vocal major and sing Mozart, who was also born on January 27th.
“My birthday twin. Genius. I’ve known that since I studied Mozart in undergrad, music history classes, and you have to learn all this information about all these composers, and their music, and all these dates and what period they’re in, and one of the moments that woke me up was when Dr. Lauderdale told me Mozart’s birthday was Jan 27th and I was like, “Oh, I’m awake now. Tell me more.””
It eventually meant a move to New York, ballet class, acting class, and Broadway. A Raisin In The Sun might cross his path, however for Dyllón there was to be no dream deferred. But for a brief year as choir director for a church, he’s been a working actor. But there’s a lot more going on.
As I dug down into the Dyllon Burnside of it all, the word “feminist” kept coming to mind. I got this impression he was on a mission to destroy toxic masculinity. I told him so.
“I am. All of the work that i seek to do and the work i want to do is about pushing the boundaries or blurring the lines of what it means to be a man. I think manhood as a construct is very dangerous and has caused a lot of pain and destruction in our world, both the outer physical world that we see with our eyes and the inner worlds that we feel and live with and walk around with every day.”
“I really just discovered bell hooks, about six months ago. I’m surprised I hadn’t found her before now.” He seemed microscopically miffed that he was only just now discovering bell hooks – as if the rest of us were negligent in not telling him.
“I love James Baldwin, and I read things that make me think about life and things in a different way – Eckhart Tolle and Marianne Williamson – for fun.”
The word on the street about Dyllon: smart, driven, smiles a lot but very serious. So, is he the ‘hang with friends’ after a performance type or the ‘stay in on vocal rest’ type? His answer split the baby in half. He hangs out sometimes after a day on set or on stage, but his idea of a hang-out looks more like vocal rest.
“I prefer to hang out in very beautiful, chill spaces with beautiful chill people. I prefer it to look like this (the beautiful luxe, lounge surroundings in which we conducted the interview) as opposed to…um….”
Me: “As opposed to the ball?”
Dyllon: “As opposed to the ball. (…a moment of personal discovery washed across his face. Processing, then…) Yeah, the ball is way too much stimulation for me.”
“I get off on having these kinds of conversations. That’s something that really lights me on fire, just having these beautiful, complex conversations about complex topics. A lot of my friends are super smart. I’m really attracted to that.”
As I sat with him and reconciled the ways in which he was and wasn’t his character, Ricky, it all came to a head. The quality both personalities elicit from me is clear.
“Dyllón. You’ve got this quality. I don’t want anything bad to ever happen to you. It even comes through the character. Every week I’m thinking, “Please don’t kill Ricky!””
He looked quizzically, laughed nervously, and grappled with the concept, looking for clues in my eyes as to what I might’ve meant. He got it, but he didn’t get it. He’d never heard that about himself before. But there he was – young, black and male, smart, informed, and capable, embarking on the adventure of his life – challenging himself and challenging a system, that has shown an appalling limit of imagination regarding his blackness, the use of his capabilities, his ideas and sensibilities, and his body. Dyllón himself, however, presented no such limit. I wanted him to win.
During my preparation to meet him, I thought about who I might know that would know him. In 40 seconds, I found people. The good news is that everyone really remembers him, and the bad news is that nobody has anything bad to say about him. His spell is working. Everyone just loves the f**k out of him.
I presented to him a question from a mutual friend.
“I asked choreographer Brian Harlan Brooks, with whom you worked, what he would ask if he was interviewing you. He said you had a coy quality, that you enjoyed acting but he doesn’t think you want to be a famous. Given that, he asked, “What is your ultimate goal as an artist?””
It took him a moment to absorb the question.
“Yeah, I’m not interested in fame. I grew up in a house with a very famous person (mom’s cousin, boxer Roy Jones, Jr.) and he was at the peak of his career. I grew up around that, so I know what fame is, and I also know what it’s not. I’m interested in the platform that fame brings because I want to change the narratives. I want to push the narrative forward about what it means to be a man or a black man in this world, and erase some of the limitations and boundaries, and so to Brian’s question, that’s what my ultimate goal as an artist is.”
The musical they worked on together was gospel legend BeBe Winans Born For This, based on Winans’ life. Dyllón performed in both the Atlanta and Washington, DC productions.
“The music was the part of church that really spoke to me, and so I got to go back to my roots in the church and have that, without the other garbage that comes with church sometimes.”
“I’m trying to create work that people can experience and see and feel things they’ve never been able to communicate to other people.”
“I spend a lot of time alone, and in that alone time, I love art, music, film. I love books. In that space, spending time with those works – that’s when I find myself. I’m digesting my feelings and my thoughts, and I can just sit in my apartment for hours and not have anything on and just be ruminating on all these thoughts and ideas and feelings that I’ve experienced through these various pieces of art.”
“I want to create that!”
“And I also think it’s about making this revolution about dismantling toxic masculinity, making it something that’s sexy too, making it irresistible. I think Prince did that. You couldn’t deny it even though it was askew.”
We’d gone way over – almost an hour over. I could’ve ordered food on Crush Fanzine’s dime and talked and listened to him for nine hours or more. I wanted to take him to lunch, then dinner, then a beautiful chill space with beautiful chill people. But we had to stop, because we’d already turned his carefully designed day into chaos. He had to reschedule his next appointment. He kept telling me it was fine, but I felt terrible.
And just like that, it was over – the big hug goodbye. He dashed out. Done.
What did I have left?
I had a recording. I had notes. I hadn’t even taken a selfie with him. In a twisted place in my head I wondered if the hotel would let me keep his glass. How would I explain that? Maybe I could just slip it into my bag, like a hotel soap. No.
I gathered my notes, checked the recording, closed out the bar tab, savored the air conditioner a moment, and took a breath.
What did I want to happen? He was gone. Did I want him to be waiting outside, leaned against the wall, looking coy, so I could take him to lunch so we could keep diving into art and its purpose?
About five minutes later. I left the hotel, walking out into the 93° afternoon. I looked left, then looked right. And there was Dyllón – waiting outside, leaned against the building. The universe was laughing at me.
“You waiting on an Über, Dyllón?”
“Tryna find something to eat around here. Now I don’t have to be anywhere till this fitting at four.”
Was I supposed to ask him to lunch? I couldn’t. I would’ve died if he’d said no. Chris!! Stop! You don’t just insinuate yourself into people’s lives!
I gave him a rib crushing hug. I didn’t know what else to do. “Alright then,” I said.
“I’ll see you soon.”
Huh? Ah, yes. I forgot I’d promised to come to his concert on the 23rd. He’s singing and raising money for GLSEN (Gay, Lesbian & Straight Education Network), an advocacy group for queer youth in schools. In other words he’s using the platform that fame is bringing him.
“Yep. See you at the show.” I didn’t even have a ticket yet. I walked away, dazed, confused, and relieved. I made it – I think.
What did I want to happen? I think I needed him to disappoint me, so I could escape this feeling, but he refused. He knew how to smile so brightly, I would see it forever, the shadow of it behind my eyelids when I blinked, long after he was gone.