Truth! Beauty! Freedom! Love! For the embodiment of these French bohemian ideals, look no further than Jeigh Madjus.
In the spectacular stage adaptation of Baz Luhrmann’s Moulin Rouge!, the Filipino-Canadian actor plays Baby Doll, one of four featured performers—the Lady Ms—backing Parisian cancan cabaret headliner Satine at the turn of the 20th century. But hold on to your wig, soul sistas, because Baby Doll is actually a drag queen.
Making his Broadway debut in the hit jukebox musical, directed by Alex Timbers with a book by John Logan, Madjus reveals how he radiates beauty, freedom, and love just by living his truth.
Tell me about Baby Doll. I don’t want to misgender your character.
Baby Doll is a drag queen, a female impersonator. When I auditioned, Baby Doll was described as a drag queen in the breakdown, and that’s how the character is described in the script.
You’ve been with Moulin Rouge! since early readings and a 2017 lab production. Did you audition specifically for Baby Doll?
Yeah. I’d worked with Alex Timbers, our director, in Here Lies Love. A friend of mine had done the first informal readings of Moulin Rouge!, and he told me there was a drag queen part and that I had to play it. He said the character’s name is Baby Doll, which was funny because everyone on Here Lies Love called me Baby. Later, my agents told me Alex wanted to bring me in, and casting was asking if was interested, and I was like, “Of course!”
Do you have a drag background?
I’d dabbled in drag when I was on tour with La Cage aux Folles, but no, not really. That just wasn’t my gig. I had to go buy heels at TJ Maxx for my audition. It’s taken me two years for me to feel comfortable dancing in heels.
None of the dancers seem to be female impersonators in the 2001 movie. Why did the musical’s creative team make Baby Doll a drag queen?
I think it was to make the show more diverse, inclusive, and updated for now. It also gives another perspective to the stakes for the characters in the club.
When the Moulin Rouge is in danger of closing, Baby Doll is particularly upset. He clearly sees the club as a safe space. What’s his backstory?
Well, as with any LGBTQ youth, but especially back then, I imagine he had a difficult upbringing. He grew up hustling on the streets of Montmartre, and his mother was probably a prostitute. He probably worked at low-end clubs, and maybe Satine noticed him and brought him into the Moulin Rouge. Baby Doll is the newest girl, just getting a taste of this high-end lifestyle, and terrified that it might all fall apart. He can’t go back to the streets to sell himself. Even though the character is not trans, Angel in Pose really struck a chord with me—she feels she has so much to give, she wants to be a model, but she’s selling herself on the pier. That really inspired me.
Harold Zidler, the Moulin Rouge owner, is also queer. Do you think he looks out for Baby Doll?
Yeah, because he gets it. He’s like this pansexual being, and he has his boy toy, so he knows the risks and dangers of Baby Doll’s lifestyle. He knows Baby Doll could die out on the streets.
Is there documentation of female impersonators at the real Moulin Rouge in the early 1900s?
I don’t think so. But when I was doing my research about that time period, I learned about female impersonators from America who would travel to Europe to perform. All of us in the ensemble have created our characters’ backstories, and when I was making a Pinterest board of inspirations, I imagined that maybe these American female impersonators had inspired Baby Doll.
Were there any RuPaul’s Drag Race queens on your Pinterest board?
Well, as an Asian person, I love Ongina, Jujubee, Manila Luzon. But I also love Farrah Moan, because she’s young, very feminine, and has that shy but sexual vibe.
Honestly, I didn’t clock Baby Doll as a queen until she took off the wig.
[Laughs] Some people know, some people don’t. When Alaska saw the show and came backstage afterward, he was like, “Girl, you gooped me! I had no idea you were a man until you took off the wig.” I was like, “Yaaas!” When a drag queen can’t clock it, my job is done. But I was also like, “How far back were you sitting?”
If you fooled me and Alaska, you’re definitely fooling straight dudes.
I find that people react to skin more than to gender. Their eyes can’t help but go to a bare leg. We’re wearing next to nothing, basically lingerie, so it’s interesting to see men with their wives or girlfriends staring at me, not realizing—or maybe realizing and still staring at me.
Is your wig removal intended to be a reveal?
Yeah. It’s my job to be as convincing as possible so that when the wig comes off, some people are shocked. That moment where we’re taking off our costumes kind of got reduced and changed at some point, and for maybe a week, I didn’t take off my wig. But I felt it was important for the wig to come off, to reveal that I’m actually a man, so the audience understands the stakes and that extra layer of danger for the character. I really fought for that moment, so we figured out how to make it work. Luckily, I have a shaved bald head, so I can just slide the wig right off.
That wig suits you. Are you feeling your bob cut fantasy?
I love it. Initially, on my Pinterest, I wanted to have the longest hair possible—like Christina Aguilera’s hair from the “Lady Marmalade” video. But my co-star Holly James got the curly hair and says it feels like wool on her back. So I’m glad I got the bob—it keeps me cool. And I got the big pony headdress.
That headdress! Is it hard to dance in that thing?
Oh, it’s been a journey with that headdress. As soon as I saw the design for it, I was obsessed. But when I first got it, I couldn’t move, and it would take my wig off because it was so heavy. I have a chinstrap now and I’m used to it.
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Last night was magical. I performed for my first broadway audience!!! There was so much excitement and love in the #AlHirschfeld – on stage and in the house. Thank you to everyone who sent their love and encouragement. It’s been a long journey and so many people have played a part in getting me here. My gratitude is endless and I stay humble knowing how lucky I am to be given this opportunity. I’m in a constant state of perpetual awe and shock that I get to share this experience with the beautiful and boundlessly talented people of @moulinrougebway.
Your makeup is on point. Do you do your own beat?
Yeah, I do my own beat. I’m in the theater two hours before the show. I kind of learned how to do my makeup from working at Sephora between contracts.
Is it stressful keeping your body so snatched for those skimpy costumes?
Yes! We burn a lot of calories in the show, but I’ve been adding in more cardio to my workout and getting back into yoga. It’s funny, though, because when the cast did our Vogue shoot back in March, I was in complete vacation mode. I was home in Toronto, thinking I had months before I had to worry about the show in New York. Then I get a call that I’m doing Vogue in, like, 13 days. So I really hit the gym and was just drinking smoothies. Those corsets don’t have any give!
A queer character played by a queer actor is always something to celebrate. How does it feel to be part of that representation?
At this point in my career as a queer actor, as an Asian actor, representation is all I care about. For the past five years or so, the mandate of my career has been to do work so that the representation is there. It feels so important be creating a spot in a community and in an industry that doesn’t necessarily always highlight people like me, and hopefully that inspires others.
Have you gotten feedback from LGBTQ fans at the stage door or on social media?
Yes, and I love these young kids in 2019 who know who they are, being themselves, telling me, “Thank you for being fabulous!” And then to see their parents behind them at the stage door, beaming, happy for their child and for the representation? It means the world to me. It means more than this job.
Have you always been out professionally?
I am who I am, not to quote La Cage. People want to give everyone a label, but I’ve always just wanted to be truthful to who I am, and I’ve always wanted the focus to be on my work, my talent, and who I am as a human being. I want to be accepted as a gay person, but I also want my voice to speak louder than any of that.
You had a viral Glee audition video in 2010 that Perez Hilton shared as “Gays for Glee.”
That Glee audition was a gateway to my first audition in New York. I just did it as a fun thing with my cousin, knowing it wasn’t going to get any traction because I was Canadian and the show filmed in the U.S. But it was a turning point for me, because I realized that this is something I can really do. It was like, “This who I am. Now listen to my voice.”
What’s it like using that voice to open Moulin Rouge! with “Lady Marmalade,” the most iconic song from the soundtrack?
Oh, as soon as they hear that beat, that bass line, the audience goes crazy. It’s overwhelming, and it feels amazing. I always think about this time I was performing on a cruise ship, and these girls in my cast were lip-syncing to “Lady Marmalade” for a crew talent show. One of the girls dropped out, and they were like, “You have to do this, and you can sing it, but you have to do it in drag.” I didn’t even know how to do my makeup—I hadn’t worked at Sephora yet! But my first time in drag was actually singing “Lady Marmalade.”
Wow, so this is really a full circle moment.
Yeah. When I start the show, when I feel the audience’s energy, it’s like—not my life flashing before my eyes, but I do think about how crazy it is that I’m doing this for a living, and I think about how grateful I am.
So are you the Pink, the Christina, the Mya, or the Lil’ Kim?
When the Lady Ms send each other pictures of those four girls together, like from awards shows or whatever, I always say that I’m the Lil’ Kim. But within the show, I’m probably the Mya!
Moulin Rouge! is now playing at the Al Hirschfeld Theatre in New York.