The Right Kind of Attention (from Frontiers magazine)
The Multitalented, Gender Bending Kelly Is Poised
To Become A Household Name, Just Like His Baseball Legend Uncle,
- By Mikel Wadewitz
When Kelly Mantle was in the seventh grade, he played football.
His dad, a football coach, put him in the position of safety. At
first glance, this would seem an unremarkable anecdote, but looking
at the adult Mantle, it is almost unfathomable. This lanky, androgynous
man seems at first incongruous to a childhood in rural southwestern
Oklahoma. But lest you think Dad was going to make sure this all-too-familiar
male sport ritual was seen through to the end, Mantle quickly explains: "Anytime
someone would come [running] in my direction, I'd just kind of hold
my hand out and be like, 'Ahhh!' You know, like, 'Stop!' My dad's
so awesome, though, because I went to him and we were both like,
'Please. This ain't gonna happen.' "
What's even more astonishing is that Mantle comes from a long line
of athletes. Not only is his dad a football coach, but his older
brother coaches college basketball, and he is the nephew of baseball
legend Mickey Mantle, his dad's older brother, who passed away in
Father and son were in agreement that day many years ago, however,
that this athletic endeavor was never going to catch on, and the
young Kelly went back to acting and performing.
Many years later, surprisingly little has changed. Dad still coaches
football, only now in Texas, and Kelly is still performing, only
now in Los Angeles, and with a much higher profile. In addition to
successful modeling jobs, including an ad campaign for Toyota, Mantle
has seen his share of stage success in plays like Charles Busch's "Vampire
Lesbians of Sodom," as well as a recent part on TV's "NYPD
Blue." Now, however, he can add "singer/songwriter" to
his expanding list of titles, as he has proven with his debut CD, "Ever
Changing," that his talent as a musician is just as strong,
if not stronger, than his others. And Dad couldn't be prouder. "My
dad's my biggest fan," Mantle notes. "He's still calling
me and telling me he listens to the CD every day, all the way through."
One of the reasons Dad must be listening so much is that "Ever
Changing" is genuinely catchy--a mix of pop, rock and folk that
deconstructs love and relationships, all buoyed by Mantle's strong,
clear voice. It's hard to believe, when listening to the CD, that
Mantle didn't even pick up a guitar until three years ago. He had
studied piano as a child, but the acoustic guitar held a special
appeal for him, which was solidified one night in front of the TV,
from a source with whom many gay men are familiar. "I was actually
watching Stevie Nicks on 'VH1 Storytellers' and she [was talking
about] the song 'Rhiannon' and how she spent the day with this particular
fella, and she went home and she just put the music down and wrote
about that day on the piano," he explains. "And I just
thought, 'I wish I knew what it was like to be able to do that--to
go home and just put your day to music.' So that same night, I picked
up the guitar."
Mantle had only been in Los Angeles for a few months at that point.
He moved here from Chicago, where he had landed after obtaining a
bachelor of fine arts degree at the University of Oklahoma. Chicago
had been a fortuitous move for the aspiring performer: It was where
he cut his teeth on the stage in "Vampire Lesbians" and "Tony
and Tony's Wedding," the gay spin-off of the perennial hit "Tony
and Tina's Wedding." It was also where he first performed in
Many drag queens, Mantle explains, have a kind of epiphany when
they first do drag--a moment when they feel they've stumbled upon
a whole new persona in which they feel comfortable. "For me,
it was funny, because I still walked the same, talked the same. There
was not anything different!" he proclaims, laughing. "It
just proved to me that I am really a big girl, all around, no matter
what I'm wearing. It's just me with longer hair and boobs, really."
He says that drag had not played a major role in his adolescence,
though, like many young children, he had dressed up in his grandmother's
clothes for fun. He does, however, note that some of his pop-culture
influences may have held special sway, namely a certain gender-bending
'80s star. "Boy George was the mother of my androgyny," he
says with a chuckle. "He was there on MTV, and I was in Oklahoma,
and I was like, 'Oh! I get you! I get it!' "
In Chicago, Mantle had even gone the traditional route and given
himself a drag name, Brandy Warhol, but it didn't last. "I finally
just decided, 'Drop it,'" he says. "It's not a character
for me. It's just me, still--just with a different exterior."
Despite Chicago's renown for its talented, nurturing theatre community,
after a few years Mantle had had enough of the cold, and was ready
to do more film and television work. Evoking a sentiment that now
seems straight out of a classic movie, Mantle says, "I always
knew I would [move here]. When I was a little kid, I used to say,
'I'm gonna move to Hollywood and be a big star.' "
Almost immediately, too, it seemed Los Angeles was a perfect fit.
One of the first things Mantle did was pick up an issue of Back Stage
West to look for acting jobs, and saw that there were auditions being
held for, ironically enough, "Vampire Lesbians of Sodom." He
auditioned for the role of Madeleine, the female lead, and got it.
Reviews of the show brought in talent scouts, and that was how Mantle
obtained both a theatrical and a commercial agent (though he is now
represented by only one agency).
Around the same time, Mantle met members of Sex With Lurch, a raucous,
pansexual local band that was looking for another drag-queen backup
singer and dancer. Mantle says that working with Sex With Lurch was
really his "leap into the music scene," and from there
his own music began to evolve.
Acting and modeling gigs were the bread and butter that allowed
Mantle the resources to record his CD with a full backing band. Performing
live on a regular basis has also helped strengthen his fan base.
Audiences are not only drawn to him because of his androgynous style,
but also because of the basic appeal of the songs, many of which
explore the nature of relationships. One song on "Ever Changing" stands
out, however, because of its more revealing lyrical content. "Satellite
Baby" directly addresses the issue of gender and how complex
a concept it is for Mantle, with the lyrics: "He's a sinewy
silhouette overshadowed by his complexities / Rambling around like
a tattered paper doll dressed in his androgyny / Is he a she or is
she a he? Why won't you let her keep his mystery?"
In conversation, it is clear Mantle is fascinated by gender, and
he says he chose early in his life to erase all definitions of it. "I
really think that we're all genderless when it comes down to it," he
explains. "Not just me personally, because I know within me
there's just as much of a girl as there is a boy, and I love being
both. And without sounding too cliché, I just don't understand
"The perfect example is when I first started going to college,
and I ran into a poster or flyer that said: 'Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual,
Transgender Organization Having a Meeting,' or whatever," he
continues. "And I didn't actually ever go to any of those meetings,
but I remember looking at the poster and laughing, because at some
point in my life I have been each one of those things! I've been
gay. I've been in a lesbian relationship with a lesbian. I've been
what I guess you could consider bisexual because I have dated straight
females. And I am a drag queen, which makes me somewhat transgendered--not
anatomically or anything. ... So it's something that's just always
fascinated me, gender does. And I felt the need to write about it."
When asked more pointedly about his "lesbian relationship," Mantle
explains: "When you get Kelly, you get Kelly the boy and Kelly
the girl. You know, it does sound so cliché, but when you
meet a person and something happens between you and that person,
and you can't really explain it--whether you fall in love or you're
just strongly attracted [to each other] ... I would only hope people
wouldn't deny that. For us, we were male and female, but it didn't
ever feel like we were a straight couple, so to speak. It definitely
felt like we were in tune with some kind of lesbian happening."
Currently, Mantle is involved with someone, but declines to say
much more. He is coy, but is also not above making fun of himself. "Relationships
are like roller coasters," he says thoughtfully, pausing to
find the right words. "So I am on a roller coaster. I am enjoying
it; I am enjoying this roller coaster. It's like [the song] 'Ever
Changing' on the CD. I'm ever changing, and it's very difficult to
be in a relationship with me. I feel for anyone who has to go through
One of the things that may make relationships difficult is the fact
that Mantle is very busy, and his ambition will simply not be contained.
He is currently shopping "Ever Changing" to labels, and
is confident it will find a home: "I feel like if you really
believe in something and you put it out there, and it's coming from
an honest place, someone's going to get it." When it does, it
will almost surely take him to a new level in his music career.Whatever
ups and downs Mantle encounters in his romantic or professional life,
he remains very close with his father and mother (whom he fondly
calls "a full-time housewife, and a very good one at that!").
He also had a relationship with his uncle, from whom he says he learned
a lot. Still, he wasn't aware of how famous Mickey was until much
later. "To me, he was always just an uncle, because I am not
a big sports fan, first of all. ... I wasn't born when he was playing
baseball, so I wasn't around when he was in his prime and so huge.
[When] he died, there were pictures of him everywhere. It was like,
'Oh, my gosh, this uncle of mine was a pretty big deal.' "
Mantle can't say for sure if Mickey would be pro-gay ("as far
as I know, he wasn't extremely political, at least publicly"),
but he knows that he would not have turned his back on his nephew. "I
think he would have been completely supportive of me as an actor
or a singer," he says. "I think that love is pretty thick
in the Mantle family, so it's going to take something really crazy
to make someone in the Mantle family not accept you or stand behind
you 100%. I've watched my parents evolve magnitudes just in knowing
me and who I am, and coming where they come from, because they're
not exposed to these kinds of things a whole lot. So, I'm sure Mickey
would have followed suit, if he hadn't already. He was supportive
up until he passed away."
It's a refreshing change from most horror stories we read about
queer kids growing up in rural America, something not lost on Mantle,
who says he was always allowed to be who he was in his small Oklahoma
town, and fortunate he never had to endure the tragic events many
others did. Still, as his star rises in California, when he visits
his mom and dad in Texas he realizes that not everyone knows yet
what to make of him and his singular style, whether he's trying to
show it off or not. "When we [went] to the mall, I forgot what
it was like to be stared at that much," he says with a smile. "I
couldn't believe it. We were just laughing. My mom was like, 'I've
never seen so many people stare at one person so much in my entire
life.' People would trip over themselves. And girl, I was wearing
a hat, sunglasses and blue jeans and tennis shoes--that's it. I was
like, 'I'm dressed down!' "