Murray Hill, New York City’s ‘best kept secret,’ is ready for primetime

There are some individuals who 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 due to the limitations of the English language.

Murray Hill is such an individual. Hill, now 50, has swaggered across New York City’s cabaret stages donning his signature three-piece suits for the past 25 years. The comedic performer has long been described by others as a “drag king,” but Hill 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 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.”

Murray Hill for TODAY.
Murray Hill for TODAY.Tyler Essary / TODAY

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 US 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 different networks, Hill is finally getting his long-awaited taste of national stardom, and he doesn’t seem to be letting up anytime 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’ I 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” amid a conservative and Catholic backdrop. In pre-K, he was cast with the girls as a cornstalk in the school play, but Hill wanted to be Bingo, the farmer. He told he could n’t, because Bingo was “a boy’s role,” he persisted. I’ve got the part.

Hill as Bingo, the farmer in his pre-K play.
Hill as Bingo, the farmer in his pre-K play. Murray Hill

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 into his career.

Drag icon Lypsinka.
Drag icon Lypsinka. Murray Hill

“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 moving 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.”

Patrick McMullan Archives
Penelope Cruz, Murray Hill and Rosie Perez at Indochine on Oct. 5, 2006.Patrick McMullan via Getty Image

Hill then discovered a Meatpacking District hot spot called the Hershey Bar that 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. This 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 a total of 341 votes).

‘The longest overnight success story in show business’

Hill’s cabaret shtick — especially his residence at 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 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.”

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