Some people are so unique in their identity and style that they seem to defy, or perhaps even transcend, labels — not in a pretentious way, but simply because of the limits of the English language.
Murray Hill is such a person. Hill, 50, has swaggered across New York City’s cabaret stages donning his signature three-piece suits for 25 years. Hill has long been described by others as a “drag king,” but he never felt at home with that descriptor. And while he has recently started to describe himself as a transgender man, he has a general dislike like of labels.
“I’m not about labels and definitions,” he said. “It’s more powerful to just be this person and lead with that. Let’s see the heart first.”
Hill’s originality helped propel him to New York’s hippest stages and made him a star among the city’s queer and burlesque communities. But while he has performed internationally and toured around the U.S. with Dita Von Teese, his celebrity never really traveled beyond the confines of Manhattan and its undeniably cooler neighboring borough, Brooklyn — until now.
Currently starring in three shows — including one helmed by Amy Schumer — on three networks, Hill is finally getting his long-awaited taste of national stardom, and he doesn’t seem to be letting up any time soon.
“The gatekeepers, the people to take you to the next level, they would tell me, ‘You’re original, you’re great, you have a big following, you have a name in theater and the city, but we don’t know what to do with you,’” Hill said.
But while being an original and groundbreaking entertainer “closed doors at first,” he added, “finally, culture is catching up.”
From school plays to drag clubs
Originally from New England, Hill grew up as a “full-blown tomboy” against a conservative and Catholic backdrop. In pre-K, he was cast with the girls as a cornstalk in the school play, but he wanted to be Bingo, the farmer. Told he couldn’t, because Bingo was “a boy’s role,” he persisted. He got the part.
In middle school, when the class was sex-segregated for home economics and wood shop, Hill made sure he was put in shop with the boys. His gender identity confused teachers and administrators, he said, leading them to put him in a “special program to try to make my voice sound more feminine.”
His home life wasn’t much easier, he said, but he eventually found his passion and his tribe in the art world. After high school, he attended Boston University, which enabled him to pursue the arts, especially photography, and leave his constricting household behind.
“I became obsessed with going to drag clubs,” he said of his college years. “I pretended I worked at the newspaper, The Boston Phoenix, and I had my documentary camera. I went into these clubs, and I was just blown away by the whole world of it.”
During a night out at a gay bar in Boston in the early 1990s, Hill photographed drag icons in town from New York — Lypsinka, Girlina and Lady Bunny — legendary performers he would share the stage with decades later.
“I was just absorbing this whole culture. I loved the community aspect of it. Life sucked on the outside, but in these gay clubs it was fun, it was joyous, it was campy — and I loved camp,” he said. “People took care of each other. So over time, I realized that I was enjoying and loving this entire environment. But still, I didn’t see anyone represented like myself.”
Shortly after he moved to New York City around the mid-’90s to pursue a graduate degree in photography and media at the School of Visual Arts, Hill discovered an LGBTQ hangout spot on the Chelsea Piers.
“I saw everyone taking pictures, but it was all gay men and drag queens. ‘Where am I?’” he said he asked himself at the time. “’What’s on the other side of this spectrum?’ Meanwhile, all this stuff’s brewing inside me. … It’s all coming together.”
Hill then discovered a Meatpacking District hot spot called the Hershey Bar, which had a lesbian night featuring a drag king pageant. He snuck in, pretending to be a photographer for The Village Voice. It was then that he saw drag kings for the first time, but it was all so serious and heavy and steeped in masculinity. That is when he had an idea that he could become an amalgamation of camp from the drag queens paired with the toughness of the kings.
Murray Hill was born.
Starting as a “cigarette guy” and then a “fat Elvis impersonator,” he began snagging consistent hosting gigs and building a name for himself within the city’s nightlife community. He eventually crafted what he described as a “lounge lizard” persona: a smooth-talking show business hustler who is more style than substance. He even ran for mayor of New York in 1996 (he said he got 341 votes).
'The longest overnight success story in show business'
Hill’s cabaret shtick — especially his residency at the iconic venue Joe’s Pub — found him backstage with the likes of many Gotham luminaries, from Justin Vivian Bond to Joan Rivers. It’s in this circuit that he met Bridget Everett, another rising star on the cabaret scene of New York. Both of them outsiders who didn’t quite fit into the formula of mainstream entertainment, the two hit it off instantly.
“Murray gave me one of my first gigs in New York, and we’ve been friends ever since,” Everett said in an email. “It’s been about 20 years now of lifting each other up, rooting for one another and being each other’s showbiz sounding board.”
So when it came time to cast her HBO show, “Somebody Somewhere,” Everett instantly turned to her longtime friend.
“You can’t help but fall in love with Murray … onstage and in ‘Somebody Somewhere,’” she said. “He has charm and warmth that is undeniable, and is very fast on his feet with a zinger. The world is better off for having Murray in it. I’m thrilled his audience reach has expanded because of our show. He is our secret weapon and we’re lucky to have him.”
In “Somebody Somewhere,” Everett is a down-and-out 30-something struggling to get by in Manhattan (no, not that Manhattan: Manhattan, Kansas). She ends up finding her crew of Kansas misfits, who include Fred Rococo (played by Hill), an agriculture educator who hosts a queer variety show in an empty church at night. The show premiered to strong reviews, and its sophomore season begins filming in May.
“You don’t see people like him on TV, which is a shame,” Everett said of Hill. “We’ve talked about it at length. I’m so happy that is changing and that Murray, who’s long deserved this opportunity, is finally getting it.”
Hill’s sexuality and gender identity are left ambiguous in both “Somebody Somewhere” and “Life & Beth,” the Schumer-helmed dark comedy on Hulu.
Asked about Hill, Schumer — who at the time was preparing to host the Oscars — simply said in an email, “Manhattan’s best kept secret no more.”
Hill’s third TV project is a guest role on the new Fox sitcom “Welcome to Flatch.”
Of all this happening seemingly at the same time, Hill said, “I’m the longest overnight success story in show business.”
'Everybody showed up for me'
The past six months haven’t been all good news for Hill. On Thanksgiving Day, which happened to coincide with Hill’s 50th birthday, he lost all of his material possessions when a fire at a neighboring building caused his Brooklyn apartment of 20 years to burn.
“It was just like the rug pulled out,” he said. “No home all of a sudden. No place to go. And then my things, you know, it’s crazy how much things make you feel comfortable and secure.”
Accustomed to using his social media platform to further the illusion of his character, Hill, for the first time, had to turn to his followers for a different reason: to ask for help. A GoFundMe campaign launched for Hill raised more than $100,000, benefitting Hill and some of his neighbors.
“Everybody showed up for me,” he said, holding back tears. “Everyone except my own biological family.”
In the end, he said, it was his chosen family who were there in his time of need.
“It goes back to that community feeling within the clubs in Boston,” he said. “This world — this queer community and world that I created, am a part of and live in — is what helped me out and literally saved me.”