Twenty years ago, Jason Gerber played the role of the Street Singer in a production of The Threepenny Opera at RPI. This summer, he performed on national primetime television as a very different character, one he crafted himself: All Beef Patty. The Columbia High School graduate made it to the top 48 contestants in this year’s season of America’s Got Talent with his colorful, larger than life drag act.
Gerber was born on Long Island, lived in New York City and New Jersey, and moved to East Greenbush with his mother at the age of 10 after his parents divorced. He attended Columbia High School, where he had a positive experience, “until I came out,” he said. “I was the crazy one that had to come out in high school. I was a rebel.”
He took male dates to both his junior and senior proms, where he said the prom photographer refused to pose them, as they posed the straight couples.
“It was rough. I had a lot of people who hated me and a lot of people who didn’t like me. I had teachers on my side and other teachers not on my side.”
Two teachers that supported him were Sandy Orr, who directed musical plays, and Doug Porter, who directed the choir and chamber singers. Gerber says the two were “very, very influential, helpful and understanding.”
He was in productions with the Guilderland Players and RPI Players, was involved with chamber singers, chorus, plays, musicals, and had an internship at the New York State Theater Institute.
“The thing with music and theater groups, is you kind of bond with each other. People were much more open and accepting,” said Gerber. “It was very helpful for me in terms of coming out.”
After high school, Gerber moved back to New York City, a place he felt suited him better. There he became friends with a drag queen from Cincinnati named Penny Tration at a gay and lesbian community center. After pushing him to do drag, Gerber finally let Penny dress him up for a night out at club.
“To go to the club as a heavy gay guy, you don’t get any attention. Being in drag at my size was cool, because it got me a lot of attention from people.”
After repeat trips to Lips, a drag restaurant, the employees there suggested Gerber come to work there. He has been working there for 10 years, and performs 3 nights a week.
Gerber doesn’t dress up as Patty when he’s not performing, and he’s never thought of himself as a woman. “I know I’m a boy. I’m not trying to fool anybody,” said Gerber.
But being Patty allows him to be more outgoing than his normal, more reserved self. When he’s wearing his costume, which makes him look a bit like an oversized Nicki Minaj, he can get away with saying things he normally couldn’t.
He thought it would be fun to try out for America’s Got Talent, and after an audition last October, he got called back for an audition with the celebrity judges in April. About a month later, he went to Las Vegas for five days of shooting, and made the top 48. After that, he was sent home, but said he had a positive experience on the show and was always treated with respect.
“I knew I had a niche. There was no other drag queen,” said Gerber. The judges were also impressed by his strong vocals, as many drag queens lip sync.
It isn’t often that Americans see a real, live drag queen on mainstream, primetime television. But Gerber doesn’t think drag will ever be—or should be—something everyone is comfortable with.
“I think it’s always going to be a little bit underground and different and weird, and that’s cool. I don’t think drag should be a Disneyland attraction, and I think it should be a little scary, and I think people should be a little afraid of it. I think it’s fun that way.”