Cover photo by Carissa Dorson (@cldorson, @funnypeopleseriousphotos)

Comedian, actor and podcaster talks about growing up in Greensboro as a queer person of color

On Feb. 21, B.C. (before COVID-19), during my morning commute while listening to one of my favorite podcasts, “Sloppy Seconds with Big Dipper and Meatball,” I was introduced to another podcaster that I would come to listen to religiously every Monday morning. To my surprise, the person being interviewed by Big Dipper and Meatball was a Greensboro native!

“I was just a plain old Greensboro kid,” said comedian, actor, writer and podcaster Mano Agapion. “I went to public school there, and I feel like, at an early age, I learned how incredibly queer I was. Certainly, at the time, it was annoying cause I remember even in kindergarten we had gender-segregated recess, and I wanted to play with the girls!”

The girls, he said, were inside playing with a water table— like a sandbox but with water.

“It was cool, but it’s also like the origin of corona,” he said in a phone interview back on March 11, before North Carolina started taking COVID-19 seriously. “I remember I wanted to play with the girls inside, and I got in trouble because they were like ‘no, boys go outside to play.’”

But Agapion said he’s no stranger to being on the outside, as he grew up in a family of Greek/Middle Eastern immigrants living in North Carolina.

“My family is very foreign— they are classic Greek foreigners, and we were just outsiders the whole time,” he said. “In elementary school, people would ask, ‘Is your mom going to the PTA?’ And me being like, ‘no, she thinks they are a cult, so she will not be coming.’”

On top of that, being openly queer in North Carolina (before the controversial Bathroom Bill illuminated the bigotry within the state) was not easy.

“I definitely grew up being an outsider for like many, many, many years, and it was annoying for such a long time until it became the best thing that happened to me,” he said of finding his sexual identity. “I am so used to being on the outside. Being a queerdo, and being excited about how unique your voice is, I think, was like a big part of why, if anyone, people like me have an easy time connecting with other outsiders, which of course, goes hand in hand with drag, and horror freaks, etc.”

In 2018, the Human Rights Campaign named Greensboro “the most LGBTQ-inclusive city in North Carolina,” but when Agapion was growing up in the early 2000s, that is not how he would describe the Gate City.

“Greensboro, to me, wasn’t as scary as Alamance, but it’s very suburban, kind of like ‘let’s not talk about it too much.’ I definitely had my weirdos in high school where we were all closet cases at the same time, but obviously, we had each other’s backs because we were obsessed with Madonna’s ‘Confessions on the Dance Floor’ at the right time.” he said of his hometown. “I was figuring shit out, but I knew I couldn’t talk about it out loud. I knew I couldn’t be defiantly queer— and even to this day, I have a boyfriend, and when he came to visit, I was like, ‘I don’t think we should hold hands in public in Greensboro. I don’t feel safe holding your hand in public.’”

Agapion said he was raised Greek Orthodox, which also posed challenges for him as a queer person.

“I definitely had to deprogram my brain like from years of Christian guilt and dealing with my queerness being a ‘sin,’” he said. “That has been a long road for me— I remember one year, I was at a Lenten retreat, which was this stupid thing where it’s Lent, so you and a bunch of young, Greek Orthodox kids talk about Jesus and not touching your body. The theme of the weekend was, ‘Jesus will come like a thief in the night’ and I was like ‘what, why?’ I slept maybe half an hour over the course of two nights because all I could think about is Jesus coming in the middle of the night. So yeah, generally, I was terrified of Christianity, and I am no longer practicing at all because I feel like being queer and Christian is like being poor and Republican— it is insane.”

Even though he was raised in a religious household, one thing Agapion didn’t have to worry about was his family being unaccepting.

“My parents have been so fucking supportive,” Agapion said. “They are both great. My father is like a fucking survivor— he fought in WWII, he’s 94— my mom is just like a giant vessel of love and drama.”

When he came out, Agapion said, “they both were just like, ‘hey there are way bigger problems in this world. We love you; it is not that serious.’ I got really lucky.”

“And my dad fought in WWII, so he knows what a real problem is,” Agapion added.

Agapion said he was bullied in every grade because it was “pretty socially acceptable to get bullied,” being a queer person of color in North Carolina.

“They would pick on my family being different, and I would say the queerness was on the top of the chart, though,” he said. “Now, I even look back, and I’m like, where were the teachers? Like, where were the adults?”

Agapion recalled an instance of being bullied while attending Page High School. He was wearing a hoodie and sitting at his desk, minding his business, when the kid behind him started filling his hoodie with trash.

“It was like a high school movie,” he said. “I, of course, put my hoodie on, and all of the trash that I didn’t know was there spilled all over me. The teacher didn’t do anything.”

But going through that built character, he said.

“Through all that bullshit and adversity, I definitely found the funniest people, and I definitely developed my sense of humor,” he said. “Those experiences teach you how to navigate situations, and I am thankful for them now because all of those experiences let me see that as the rules of life are so made up. What is straight or queer is so arbitrary, and drag is such a fun venue for that because it reinforces that we can make the rules of self-expression. So, of course, I gravitated toward that in the podcast, but I’ve gravitated toward that in my life and people who understand that it is all made up— we can make whatever choice we want to. You just have to be around other weirdos who are smart enough to get that, too.”

Agapion also attributes going to more liberal schools and finding his people in North Carolina’s “queer oasis” (as he described Chapel Hill in “Sloppy Seconds”).

“It is so gay and weird and lovely and friendly; I am sure it is even more so now,” he said. “That was a really positive experience because as you know, there is just such a beautiful liberal, weird bubble there— I was really able to come out of the closet and meet other queer people of color and just really figure out who I wanted to be with people who were on the same page as me.”

When asked how he worked around obstacles of being a queer person of color growing up in North Carolina, he said, connecting with people naturally brought him to where he is now.

“I have always connected with people just like me— on the outside,” he said. “Anyone that has a charmed life, I am just so bored by.”

While going to school at UNC, Agapion said he found his passion for improv and sketch comedy.

“I performed a lot at the now-defunct Dirty South Comedy Theatre— that is where I got my start. I also performed with TIPS, the improv group at Chapel Hill,” he said. “I came out to L.A. just wanting to do everything comedy.”

Agapion said scoring an internship at TruTV is what officially brought him to the City of Angels, but that internship isn’t what kept him there.

“I knew the road would be long because I came out for an internship at TruTV, circa 2008, which was terrible,” he joked. “Part of my job was researching disaster footage— you know, because TruTV used to be like ‘World’s Craziest Car Crashes’ and crazy reality shit. I was there when they were still making shows about cop chases and natural disasters. Now, they are a pretty cool comedy space.”

After his internship, he started taking improv classes at the University of California at Berkley.

“I was like, I know I am going to find my people here cause I had already gotten so comfortable with a lot of the comedy weirdos in college,” he said of UCB. “That was it, this was my space, and I continued to find people there. I met Nicole Byer and Betsy Sodaro— everyone I met that is in comedy now was from UCB.”

Byer is most known as the bubbly and hilarious host of the Netflix baking show, Nailed It, and Sodaro is also a hilarious comedian and actor who is known for her distinct voice and role as Dabby on Netflix’s Disjointed.

Byer and Sodaro are also Agapion’s occasional guest hosts on the HeadGum podcast, “Drag Her,” which is the only RuPaul’s Drag Race recap podcast that exists.*

*This is obviously not true (as there are literally thousands of RDR recap podcasts), but rather a long-running joke among Agapion, Byer and listeners of the pod.

Agapion is also a co-host with Sodaro on their Patreon podcast dedicated to all things trashy called, “We Love Trash,” a Too Hot To Handle recap podcast called, “Too Horny To Recap,” and a comedy/horror podcast called, “The Resurr-Erection.”

“It is fun, I really enjoy it,” he said of podcasting, “I have a blast with it. I didn’t know how easy it would be to connect with people in the world of podcasts; it’s been a really awesome experience for me.”

In addition to hosting a Drag Race recap podcast, Agapion also does drag and describes his drag persona, Basic Bitch, as a bearded/gender-fuck queen.

“I have some features that some might call more ‘masculine,’ so it is a far journey for me to get to a ‘feminine’ illusion,” he said, “which I am thankful that language like that is starting to fade away because we are not looking at it like that anymore. I am gender expressive because it speaks to me, and also it speaks to how I present myself and what I like about drag. My drag character’s name is Basic Bitch, and I like to celebrate that anyone can do drag— even a basic bitch! You don’t have to do anything amazing. You don’t have to become fully transformed into another conception of gender to be doing drag. As RuPaul says, ‘there are 96 crayons here, let’s use them all.’”

Basic Bitch hosts a local drag competition called “UCB Drag Race,” which is open to all forms and iterations of drag.

“We have every kind of drag,” he said. “We have drag kings, queens, hyper-queens, non-binary queens doing whatever the hell they want to do.”

When asked what he thought about the claim that Drag Race is not inclusive when it comes to casting trans women on the show, he said, “I think it is stupid as hell, and I think it really needs to change; there is no excuse anymore. We all know there are amazing drag queens that identify as trans, and they are not hard to find. I would really like to see that change in the show. I think that it way overdue.”

On the subject of Drag Race, Agapion said he was excited to see Heidi N Closet, a fellow Greensboro native, slay on the show.

“I am always going to root for queens of color because, as you know, they have to work thrice as hard to get the same fan base, which is unfortunate,” Agapion said, noting the racist and problematic sect of the Drag Race fandom. “That is one of the things I loved about growing up in Greensboro. I went to schools that were incredibly diverse and inclusive. I feel like I benefited so much from being around people of color and learning stuff from each other’s cultures and communities.”

When Agapion is not hosting podcasts and when Basic Bitch isn’t hosting “UCB Drag Race,” you can catch him eating and talking about cereal Wednesday mornings on Instagram live, or on hit T.V. shows like My Crazy Ex-Girlfriend.

(Recently, I thoroughly enjoyed seeing him drunkenly re-tell the story of the famous poodle, Masterpiece, on Season 6 Episode 11 of Drunk History.)

Agapion said he is staying busy, as he just filmed a pilot with Sodaro, called Mother Mary, which also stars My Crazy Ex-Girlfriend’s, Rachel Bloom.

“It is a really exciting pilot,” he said. “It is basically the story of someone who becomes immaculately pregnant, and they don’t know what the fuck happened to them. It is sort of them coming to terms with the fact that, even though they are a human disaster, they are somehow pregnant with the second coming of Jesus.”

Agapion said the show is co-produced by Bloom, CBS, and Jax Media.

“I also got a writing job on the new reboot of Punky Brewster,” he said. “That will be on Peacock, [NBC’s] new streaming service.”

When asked what advice he has for other aspiring queer artists/comedians in Greensboro, Agapion said to “listen to your gut, be stubborn and be kind.”

“It’s so corny, but I would say, listen to your gut, because it is not wrong— it’s never been wrong,” he said. “Even when I was being bullied, there was something deep in my gut that was like but wait, ‘I’m a funny girl! I have a special vibration.’ It can get covered with bullshit, but like no matter what you offer, know that you are doing your best when you cultivate that thing that is naturally you. It is so corny, but it is so true.”

“Every success I’ve had has been out of me being me and has been out of being brave enough to share me on a bigger stage,” he continued. “Thankfully, now, the way digital and social media platforms allow you to connect with so many people, I would say, just start creating shit! Even if it is a podcast or a stupid Instagram channel where you eat cereal— just start doing shit. You will be able to connect with more people, and creating stuff will allow you to learn what kind of stuff you want to put out in the world. Get in touch with what makes you—you, and then become embolden by what you have to offer, and don’t be afraid to share it. Take classes, no matter what you want to do, take classes. That is where I met the people that I am working with— that is where I met the people that I am writing and acting and performing with. Find a community of weirdos doing the thing you like to do.”

Katie Murawski is the editor-in-chief of YES! Weekly. Her alter egos include The Grimberlyn Reaper, skater/public relations board chair for Greensboro Roller Derby, and Roy Fahrenheit, drag entertainer and self-proclaimed King of Glamp.

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