THE CARIBBEAN SEA
January 27, 2017
STRANGER: Matt Yee
LOCATION: Giovanni’s Table, Royal Caribbean’s Allure of the Seas, The Caribbean Sea
THEME: Dinner on the ocean with an adult cruise ship entertainer
“Reports are you’re a really nice guy,” entertainer Matt Yee told me as we sat for dinner at an Italian restaurant on a gigantic cruise ship sailing away from Haiti.
Even on a cruise packed with 5,000 men — a gay vacation organized by holiday company Atlantis — the world proved to be small. A mutual friend on board knew us both, and had recommended Matt grant my interview request. I’m glad he did.
Matt is funny, friendly, inquisitive, and has an endless supply of stories from his life as a performer. He is a fixture on gay and straight cruises performing his one-of-a-kind drag cabaret show to packed audiences and with guest appearances from Broadway stars like Idina Menzel; on land he’s a hit at gay pride parades, business conventions, private parties, concerts and more; and he’s always willing to entertain offers. Self-employed, he markets himself and is an avid user of Facebook and Twitter where he proudly promotes his site MattYee.com (he even plugs it on his voicemail).
Yet underneath the mammoth comic personality and showmanship, Matt comes across as a deeply caring, thoughtful man who just wants people to enjoy their lives.
“Let go, people! Have a laugh, stick your finger up your ass and loosen up!” said Matt in his typical direct, unvarnished language. “Then the magic can happen.”
His act is called Matt Yee’s Outrageous Adult Sing Along Diva Show, in which he dons all manner of costumes (including drag) while singing songs both original and from others, telling stories, making jokes, and generally trying to get everyone to have a good time. He can make people laugh, cry, and do ridiculous things they never would have considered. “My show is audience participation on crack,” he said.
And if people don’t like that? Matt flashed a wry smile. “Then they can get the fuck out of their seat, there’s 100 other people who want it.”
Our dinner was at Giovanni’s Table, one of several specialty restaurants on board Royal Caribbean’s Allure of the Seas, one of the biggest cruise ships in the world. The buffets and some restaurants are free, but others come with a price tag — Giovanni’s had table service, dishes that take more preparation, and a nicer setting.
It was worth springing for the extra cost, as Giovanni’s had a relaxed, quiet ambiance. From inside, it looked like a regular trattoria, with low lighting, beige walls, dark wooden fittings and large paintings of Italian landscapes. Except outside we were surrounded by the Caribbean Sea, heading back to the United States. Our cruise had stopped at Cozumel and Playa Del Carmen in Mexico and earlier that day visited Labadee in Haiti — and now we were about to tuck into Italian food.
After placing our orders, the waiter gave us a complimentary meat and cheese plate to nibble on. Neither of us tried much of it, saving room instead for the heavy dishes to come. But I did pick at the fresh, savory slices of prosciutto while Matt talked about his plan for the rest of the cruise.
Matt had the night off because the next day he’d be performing a marathon show, which would end with standing ovations and an hour-long encore. He tinkers with his act as he sees what works and what doesn’t, and has fine-tuned it so well he’s been a mainstay with Atlantis for 16 years. Several times he told me he sees the Atlantis team as almost like family, and except for the stress of traveling he has no complaints.
He first got involved with cruises more than 16 years ago to perform his drag cabaret routine on a cruise sailing around Hawaii, where Matt — the great-grandson of Chinese immigrants — was born and raised, and where he still lives with his husband. “The first night I remember I was so seasick and thought, ‘Oh my god, 29 more days of this?”
It was an American Hawaii Cruise on the MS Patriot, and a crew member told him to just “let it out” and so he did, chundering no holds barred, and after that he found his sea legs forevermore.
The show was a hit, which led to more bookings and eventually steady work with cruise lines including Royal Caribbean and Norwegian Star leaving out of Hawaii. Eventually he caught the eye of Richard Campbell, the owner of Atlantis. They struck up a friendship and ever since then Matt has been on most of the company’s cruises.
On Atlantis he can be as freewheeling as he likes, as it’s pretty hard to offend his mostly gay audience. On the straight cruises, he’s still in drag, but it’s a different take — he might perform dressed an angel, or some other costume. He always starts out in less dramatic clothing, because he thinks that opening in drag is too much of a shock for the audience. “They have to get to know you first,” he said, “Once they’re on your side you can bring out the big guns” like the drag and other crazy costumes.
Why not just perform on both cruises as Matt Yee in conventional clothing?
“Ultimately the purpose of costumes is to bump up the energy and bump up the interest in what you are doing. I do a number of costume changes in every show I do,” he said. “Back when I started, the purpose of doing drag was to show that ultimately what’s underneath the drag is what counts. But even now, when I do the reveal to drag, there’s a palpable awe and applause that comes with it, so I know it still works.”
He started on two tracks: Playing to gay audiences and to straight audiences. “My outfits are different on straight cruises than on Atlantis, I don’t swear — Fuck! Shit! Vagina! — but they’re not that much different these days. The straight crowds are pleasantly shocked and surprised and say they’ve never seen anything like it,” he said.
And unlike many drag queens that lip-sync to songs, Matt performs all the numbers at his show with a voice that’s warm, captivating, and unique.
Our waiter then returned, presenting us both with the same starter.
We liked the sound of the soup of the day: Italian sausage in a chicken broth with vegetables and a large piece of tortellina pasta on top. It wasn’t much to look at, the brown liquid looking more like a mop bucket that needed emptying. But the appearance contradicted the taste of the rustic broth, the slight spice of the sausage helping give the starter a gentle kick into a better league.
Matt also ordered a starter of the tonno crudo: Ahi tuna, pepperoncini, drizzled with citrus olive and served with garlic chips. I’m not a huge fan of tuna so didn’t sample any of it. Instead, I spent our time over the appetizers to ask him how he plans and updates his show.
After so many years performing, Matt has a good general plan for a distinct beginning, middle, and end of his show. But his audience members tell him that what they show up for are the impromptu moments. The night before we met, a man in a Tyrannosaurus Rex costume was in the audience. Another night, it might be a Broadway star.
“It’s like a piano bar, I pass around my tip jar for the Matt Yee Fund For The Relief Of Hemorrhoids And Everything Else You Get On A Cruise Ship,” he said with a laugh. It’s part of the show, and it works. He recalled one cruise where an old man in a wheelchair was in the front row. Every night he would exert the effort to stand, walk to the tip jar, and drop a couple hundred dollars, just for the enjoyment of hearing Matt sing.
Regulars are dotted throughout the audience, and on cruises his fans even bring him gifts like muumuus (as part of his shows, Matt often dons the loose dresses that are traditionally warn by women in Hawaii).
Matt gets a kick from interactions with his audience and fans, and also from some of the stars he meets on board. The night before, he got a picture backstage with cruise headline Jennifer Holliday. There’s also a YouTube video of him performing a duet from Les Miserables with Idina Menzel in 2012, when both were part of the on-board entertainment. On other cruises, Patti LuPone and Chita Rivera have been among his audience members.
Yet there are some sad times on the cruise, too. Matt told me about one particular moment 11 years ago. He was on a cruise ship that was about to dock at Labadee. Just before it arrived, he received a call telling him that his father had passed away back in Hawaii. Matt said it was a heartbreaking time, but that the Atlantis and Royal Caribbean family were amazing throughout. On a recent post on his Facebook fan club page, Matt explains the story in more detail and performs a touching song for his father.
“Try something new. Try an Asian!” he said with a wink. “You might discover something about yourself that might not do in your ordinary life because it’s so set. Heaven knows this world is all about change, you’ve got to be flexible.”
He’s flexible with his show — both with the impromptu moments and introducing new material. For example, on the January cruise he added samples from the Chainsmokers DJ duo and songs from the musical The Color Purple, along with other pieces that resonated with him, as he finds it fun to improvise and tinker with the act.
If there’s a constant with the shows it’s his love of the audience. He recalled attending a Garth Brooks concert where the singer captivated the 5,000-person arena with just a guitar and no other distractions. “And he killed with that. It was audience participation, the whole audience was singing along, just like at my shows,” he said.
“My shows are co-dependent, whatever makes you happy makes me happy. It’s different from a starving artist who says, ‘Whatever makes me happy, and fuck you.’ I will play Piano Man if it makes you happy, but I do it my way — well, I wouldn’t do My Way, ugh,” he said as he chuckled about his distaste for that song.
He’d never perform the crooning hit My Way?
A pause. “If somebody’s dropping in a few hundred dollars to play a song, I’ll play it. I’m a whore. Bring cash! And visit MattYee.com!” he said.
Although much of Matt’s life takes place at sea and in other countries, he’s just as happy being at home with husband Paul, his partner of 23 years. Together they hike, they swim, and enjoy the natural beauty of their Honolulu hometown.
But Matt doesn’t slack when back on dry land. He’s got a busy schedule playing concerts, pride festivals, business conventions — where his act helps businessmen and women loosen up and laugh together as a team — and more.
Self-promotion makes sense for such a self-made man. He had no agent when he first started out, he just threw himself into trying to make it work as an entertainer. It was a gamble, and he set a deadline for making it. “When I started out, I told my husband we’ll have three years of hard knocks and that’s it.”
Thankfully for anyone who’s seen his show, he was a success. That means that he’s fulfilling a dream that he’s had ever since he was a toddler.
His great-grandfather came to Hawaii in the 1800s and the Yees stayed on the islands. Naturally musical from an early age, Matt started playing the piano around three years old.
“But I was also always somewhat analytical,” he said. So he decided to be a “nice Chinese boy” and went to Dartmouth College and then the University of Pennsylvania, where he got a law degree. He ended up doing legal work in mergers and acquisitions. “I hated it. Most lawyers are not happy, they are stuck because of money, or kids’ tuition, or they bought a big house. One day I realized that if was 50 and looked back on my life at the time, I’d fucking shoot myself.”
So he said goodbye to law, and hello to the entertainment industry.
He did some work at a production company helping make records for other people, all the while still playing piano and writing music — something he’d been doing in his spare time. Eventually he formed a band and they made some records that got played on radio and TV in Hawaii and elsewhere. But deep down he knew he wanted to perform on his own. “I thought about what I wanted to do, not what I needed to do, and that was to have a show playing songs and telling stories,” he said, and he set about devising the act he’s still performing today.
Why did he want his own show? Being in a band was like being married to four different guys, he said, whereas a solo show would let Matt have his own say.
In the early days the big challenge was selling tickets, and that’s when he and Paul set the three-year deadline to make this new life a success. Matt started to travel around the country performing at gay events, and releasing several CDs of his music.
In 2000, he performed at San Francisco Pride immediately after comedian Margaret Cho left the stage. “She got off and waved at me, and I went on in drag and said I was her aunt. I did really well at that show, it was a huge crowd and I killed it,” Matt said. From there the invites increased, with more gay pride events in major cities across the United States.
He didn’t necessarily pitch himself strictly to a gay audience, that’s just where the early work was. But once the cruise offers came in, he was open to working for anyone. “I just loved performing,” he said. “I asked the universe: Can I market myself less and perform more?”
The universe seems to be helping him out, and Matt said he loves his audiences both at sea and on land, whoever they might be. “I play the crowd, so whether they’re British, or Canadian, or from Singapore, young, old, male, female, my goal is to be present with what’s in the room and the energy in the room. If you try to make it something else, you’re going to lose.”
Matt’s strategy is clearly working. On our cruise his shows had a huge turnout and his performances in other land-based venues quickly sell out. Plus, people like him personally. He’s regularly mobbed on the ship by well-wishers. He’s also got an easy way of interacting with complete strangers, whether it was joking with the table next to us, or charming me during our dinner.
The service was impeccable at Giovanni’s, and the entrees lived up to the expectations set by the starters. We both tried the Fiorentina filetto rustico: An aged nine ounce steak served with a roasted garlic potato puree, brocolini, and a sauce of chopped shallots, sliced white mushroom caps, thyme, chicken stock, Barolo dry red wine, cream, butter, salt and pepper and a pinch of sugar. The fist-sized steak was tender and succulent, the sauce a luxurious partner with the meat.
I also sampled the buactini alla bolognese: Long stringy pasta blended with a beef ragu, red wine, basil, San Marzano tomatoes and sprinkled generously with Parmesan cheese on top. Unlike some restaurants that drown the pasta in sauce and leave it wetter than a winter’s day in London, this dish had the correct ratio of carbohydrate to sauce. The plump, vibrant tomatoes paired perfectly with the rich, hearty ragu, making for a dish that I quickly polished off.
Meanwhile, Matt had the tagliatelle alla carbonara: long reeds of pasta served in thick, creamy carbonara sauce (eggs, cheese, pancetta and black pepper), flecked with small shards of pancetta and topped with a poached egg. Everything got top marks from both of us, and it was hard to fault anything, other than the portion sizes — too much to even entertain the idea of dessert.
During dinner, Matt remarked that when he first started doing cruises he was taken aback at some of the strange juxtapositions he’d come to learn are part of life at sea, like enjoying fine Italian dining while cut off from the world on a ship sailing by Haiti.
I wondered how he copes with such an unusual life that’s as far from a 9-to-5 job as possible. “It comes down to three things,” he said. “Recovery, reconnaissance, and rediscovery.”
Recovery is taking care of himself after a cruise, getting rest, getting a massage, taking it easy with Paul. Reconnaissance is going back to places he’s visited before, enjoying the familiar in countries where cruise ships have stopped many times. Rediscovery is remaining open to exploring new parts of those same countries, of always being open to trying new things.
Still, the traveling is tiring, he said, and he’s open to doing more land-based gigs in and around Hawaii (he had a few lined up for after the cruise). Plus it would mean more time with Paul. They met in 1994 at a Hawaii lesbian bar on its gay strip night, ending up making out in the parking lot of a nearby Sizzler. Paul proclaimed to be a vagabond roaming the world, and Matt joked that Paul was full of “chickenshit” and would end up marrying him. It was just a quip, but fast-forward to 2013 when gay marriage became legalized on Hawaii, and that’s when they wed.
The couple live in Hawaii near Matt’s family — in one of his songs, I’ll Reinvent Myself, he narrates the life of an unknown gay man who keeps traveling from city to city trying to start life anew, only to realize he’s truly content when back in his native Honolulu among his family. “In a way that song is autobiographical and a metaphor for my experiences over the years,” he said.
It’s a touching, slow song and one that always casts a hush over his audiences. “Over the years I’ve learned that people resonate with it because it says something about their experience — everyone is running as fast they can trying different jobs, different locales, different drag. Ultimately you discover that you have to be true to yourself, whatever that is,” Matt said when I asked about the song.
It’s a mentality he applies whenever he can, telling me the story about a doctor he met who had always wanted to play the piano but couldn’t get the hang of it. “I helped get him out of his doctor mode where everything had to be on the page and he couldn’t free-form anything,” Matt added. He’s also in talks with teaching “reinventing yourself” at a medical center in Hawaii.
I’ll reinvent myself in Honolulu
I’ll be with my family, as dysfunctional as we may be
But I love them and I know that they love me
I’ll reinvent myself, I’ll reinvent myself
I’ll reinvent myself and me
Matt was a lawyer, and now he’s thriving as an entertainer on land and at sea. A love of music, a skill at making it, and a natural talent for performing and engaging strangers are the gifts Matt was born with.
He used those gifts to reinvent himself, and is still doing it. “This whole entertainment thing is a moving target. You can’t sit still, you have to keep reinventing yourself,” he said.
And by the way, visit MattYee.com.