By Annette Hinkle
Sag Harbor’s Robert Kohnken has a few different professional personas that keep him busy and employed. But like many people these days, his work has taken a dramatic hit in the wake of COVID-19.
As an esthetician, Mr. Kohnken’s skin care business relies on being able to work on people’s faces, which, of course is not happening right now. But also taking a dive has been Mr. Kohnken’s work in his other role — performing in drag as his alter ego, Naomi, The Crown Jewel Of The Hamptons.
In recent years, with her towering hair, impeccable makeup and form fitting dresses, the glamorous Naomi has appeared on stage in several Our Fabulous Variety Show (OFVS) productions, as well as at private parties and other events on the East End. But like Mr. Kohnken’s skin care business, since the pandemic, live performances have been shut down and Naomi’s wig has had to remain on the shelf.
“I’ve had to think quickly on my feet,” Mr. Kohnken said. “With no source of income, I wondered how I could make money. So I created a live drag show on social media called Naomi’s Nifty Neighborhood. It’s a live variety show every Wednesday at 8:30 p.m. with a link to Venmo, saying if you want to tip, it would be great. It’s been a blessing in disguise in a way, I’ve been pursuing my art.”
In fact, performing in drag was Mr. Kohnken’s job a decade ago when he was working professionally at the Pulse Nightclub in Orlando, Florida (the same club that was the target of a mass shooting in 2016, though by then Mr. Kohnken had left the area).
But with the pandemic, there also comes opportunity and this weekend, Mr. Kohnken — that is, Naomi — will be taking the stage again in Our Fabulous Drag Brunch, an event taking place on Sunday, July 26, at 11 a.m. at the Inn Spot on the Bay in Hampton Bays.
The brunch, hosted by Mr. Kohnken and Our Fabulous Variety Show founders Anita Boyer and Kasia Kilmiuk, is, to Mr. Kohnken’s knowledge, the first ever drag brunch in the Hamptons, and he hopes that it’s just the beginning of a series of similar events.
For her part, Naomi is thrilled.
“It’s been a long time since I was working in drag and that being my primary source of income,” he said. “When I made my vision board for 2020, I had no idea that Naomi would be center stage. In 2007, I started in a different form of drag and quickly found Naomi, and she’s been with me for the better part of 11 years. She’s sort of the extension and a heightened version of me — my suit of armor and my stability. She and I are very similar and close in certain ways and different in certain ways.
“We’re growing together,” he added.
Mr. Kohnken explained that the idea for this weekend’s drag brunch began when Ms. Boyer and Ms. Kilmiuk reached out to him about a month ago with the idea.
“We’d been doing virtual variety shows on Zoom, but we’ve all been starved of live entertainment and theater — all the arts, basically,” said Mr. Kohnken. “They said, ‘Would you be interested in doing a brunch?’ That wasn’t even a question for me, so we started talking and planning and producing the event. I was ready, willing and able.”
Sunday’s brunch will include a $15 cover charge which includes one select beverage — reservations must be made in advance and there is a limit of just 50 seats to provide for social distancing, he explained. Guests can also purchase whatever food or additional drink items they like from the restaurant’s menu.
Then, they are invited to sit back and enjoy Naomi’s performance. Ms. Boyer and Ms. Kilmiuk will also take part in the show, and act as emcees for the event. While Mr. Kohnken typically sings in his drag shows, for safety reasons, this show will be performed as a lip sync performance.
“I went back and forth with the idea of live singing, but churches aren’t doing live singing now, so I decided not to,” he said. “I’ll lip sync and dance and possibly record a vocal track that I can lip sync to my own voice.”
In addition to Naomi, making a special appearance at the brunch will be Aunt Barb, one of Mr. Kohnken’s newest drag personas.
“Aunt Barb is a new character this year. I’m starting to create different characters to physically broaden my arsenal,” said Mr. Kohnken who, when asked if Barb was based on a relative said, “She’s not modeled on any of my relatives in particular, but she is sort of modeled on the classic wine aunt who is always a couple glasses in at any time — you know, the confident one.”
By way of her back story. Mr. Kohnken explained that Aunt Barb comes from Reno, where she is the cruise director of the Reno Cruise Line — “There is a cruise in Reno,” he said. “It’s on a lake. She’s been stuck here in the Hamptons since quarantine and is trying to figure out things to do — that includes boxed wine.”
“So at the brunch, you might see Aunt Barb busting her way in and then Naomi coming in afterwards to clean up,” he said.
Like Aunt Barb, Mr. Kohnken is happy to be getting out of the house and back on the stage again. He’s hoping Sunday’s brunch is the start of the resurgence of live theater on the East End.
“Theater is in such an unknown place right now, and it breaks my heart,” Mr. Kohnken said. “Theater is my heart, my life, my everything. It’s sad to watch what’s going on with Broadway, with the opening getting pushed back and all those who work in the box office or the front of house. There’s that unknown.
“We have to figure out something,” he added. “The arts and live entertainment are so vital. There’s a healing aspect to them. It’s something I’m fighting tooth and nail for, and I’m not going to let that go. We need the healing.”
On the local level, Mr. Kohnken is hopeful that the drag brunch will become a regular feature of life on the East End and, as things open up, will expand in the future. In the meantime, Naomi is always happy to make an appearance — and Aunt Barb just may come along as well.
“We have all intentions of growing this,” Mr. Kohnken said. “Any other restaurants or venues that are open to drag events are welcome to reach out to me and I’m happy to work with them to do any type of event.
“My dream is to create a thriving drag scene in the Hamptons — there is none and we need one,” he added. “My doors are open to any business looking for opportunity. I have the background and the experience, I’ve worked in theater and professionally doing drag in nightclubs — so bring it on.”
Our Fabulous Drag Show is Sunday, July 26, at 11 a.m. at The Inn Spot on the Bay, 32 Lighthouse Road, Hampton Bays. A $15 cover includes one select beverage. Reservations must be made in advance at 631-507-4603 or ourfabulousvarietyshow.org. All staff and performers will abide by CDC regulations with masks and/or social distancing. To reach Robert Kohnken, Naomi, The Crown Jewel Of The Hamptons, or Aunt Barb, find them on Instagram at Ohmahlife, or look for Robert Kohnken on Facebook.