Feature interview

David Mills on glamour, despair, and the smart art of cabaret

The Daily Beast

October 6, 2023

The award-winning comedian is back in America after 20-plus years in the U.K. His show “Glamour + Despair” reveals his determination to wittily challenge any “dominant paradigm.”

The night before we spoke, David Mills and some friends found themselves at New York City queer bar, the Eagle. “It was like the fall of Rome. That’s the sort of thing I can do once in a blue moon. It really takes it out of me,” Mills said, looking his typically suave self the next day, not visibly the worse for wear. The American comic is, seven months after moving back to the States after 23 years living in London, darting around the city, housesitting for friends.

The comedian’s excellent one-man show, Glamour + Despair (tonight, Oct. 6 and Oct. 13 at the wonderful cabaret venue, Pangea, in the East Village), is a compendium of sharp and irreverent personal observation, social commentary, and song. Dressed in his trademark immaculate suit and with the bearing and languid drawl of an old-school Hollywood matinee idol, Mills is both extremely funny and also a piercing commentator.

“The whole show is a little bit like an Edinburgh Fringe show where you have to come up with a title, then come up with a show,” he told The Daily Beast. “I just thought of a title that captured my two obsessions—and only when it came together did I realize the title made a deeper sense. I think it captures the high/low nature of the show, and I’m happy with that.”

Glamor and despair are “two sides of the same coin in a way,” Mills said, “and I feel like my life sort of ping-pongs between those two extremes—from my years in the fashion world to my experiences in film and on stage…” He looked around the room he was sitting in, “to having to move house with a hangover because I am housesitting at 55 and don’t have a permanent home. It’s a lot less despairing than some moments I have found myself in. The title also reflects our contemporary moment as well—the absurdity of the Met Gala when contrasted with the insanity of desperate refugees having to walk thousands of miles for a better life.”

Mills’ humor takes aim at both right-wing bigots and also queer culture. Inspired by the work of Tim Miller and Holly Hughes, he recalled a very ’90s strain of queer politics, “when we were fighting the religious right and ‘God hates fags’ crowd. There was a lot of anger and rage directed at that kind of bigotry which was quite literal. It felt like our enemies were very clear.

“Thirty years later, to make work about that crowd feels too obvious for me and not challenging. Instead, I wanted to interrogate our own failings. I hate to talk about left and right. I want to look at the queer community with a critical gaze from within, to be self-critical.”

Mills is particularly interested to interrogate “our inability to be comfortable as outsiders, and our constant need to join the mainstream, to be accepted, to be ‘affirmed’—a word we use a lot today. I think that is dangerous for an artist certainly. To be accepted is not the role of a queer person. We are at our best when we are outsiders looking in—when we have a unique perspective, not when we are the 7 o’clock nightly news anchor. Not when we’re the fucking Secretary of Transport. That’s not a queer calling.”

But LGBTQ people’s enemies haven’t changed. Relentless bigotry, particularly against trans people, is rampant in both British and American media and political realms. There have been over 500 anti-LGBTQ bills in Republican-led legislatures this year. Rishi Sunak, the British prime minister, and Republican candidates for president proudly advertise their anti-trans prejudice.

“I think that’s true,” Mills conceded, “but—and this is really easy for me to say, I’m not on the frontline—but I think largely the American public have signaled their support of us. Yes, the battle continues, but I have a hard time believing these people [those opposed to LGBTQ rights and equality] are ultimately going to win. I feel like these are the last gasps of a dying movement. The thing that is going to defeat us is internal, not external.”

However, Mills emphasizes, “I’m also a stand-up comic trying to make people laugh. I want to be beware of casting my work as advocacy or activism. I try and position myself, and it changes throughout the show in different guises, as undermining the dominant paradigm—whatever that dominant paradigm is.

“It could be within the queer community, or outside in the larger American perspective. I refer to it always without a regard for my own politics—just for the sake of reminding people that nuance is the answer, and that very few hard and fast positions stand up to scrutiny. They can all be undermined. We need to remember that, and have an awareness of fluidity in our politics, and the way we look at world through our genders and sexualities.”

Mills said he was inspired by the comedian Dave Allen, and performers from the 1940s and ’50s who were “so suave and effortlessly brilliant and spoke in long paragraphs, and were witty, smart, and insightful—and be uproariously funny. I try very hard to achieve that.”

Growing up in the ’70s, Mills also loved watching Paul Lynde on Hollywood Squares. “If you ever watched him, it feels like what he’s saying is happening in the moment. It could have been written before he said it, but he’s so casually funny. I’m still a great fan of Sandra Bernard, particularly Without You I’m Nothing. It was her first big moment, and it really deftly played with politics and culture and personal narrative. It’s completely seminal for me. A lot of work in the comedy world has flowed from that moment. I loved Phyllis Diller, Bob Newhart, Jack Paar, Johnny Carson. Watch them on YouTube. Their conversations and banter flows for hours. It’s so effortlessly insightful and debonair. That’s what I’m going for.”

British and American audiences only differ in that the former are a little more irreverent and inclined to cock a snook at those in authority, Mills says.

Pangea is a very important venue, Mills said. “It’s a really special place, and has been so important a base for fighting for downtown creativity and experimental work, especially for artists working in New York. I am so thrilled to be part of their family in that tradition, and want to promote and support them in any way I can because I really believe in what they’re doing. It’s a really different experience to what people can get anywhere else, and I would encourage any reader to become a supporter of Pangea.”

The debonair, arch joke-teller we see on stage is “a heightened version” of Mills, he said. “I hope I make it contemporary and fresh,” he said, of paying homage to all those influences growing up. “I don’t want it to be a retro act like Mad Men. I want it to feel smart, elegant, and polished. I have a hard time with comics who are so informal on stage that they feel like they haven’t made any effort. I was raised that if you go to the theater, or church, we dressed up.

“We weren’t Rockefellers. It’s just the way my parents did things. I was at a gig the other night, and a comic asked why I was dressed in the formal way I was, and I said it was how I normally dressed. I wear suits. I like a suit. If you choose them right they’re appropriate for any situation. At the Eagle most people were semi-clothed apart from this one guy in a suit and black tie. He looked fantastic.”

Mills also sings during the show, which as well as adding texture to the production breaks up the story- and joke-telling. One song, “The Snake,” by Oscar Brown is a Civil Rights-era allegory about a woman who take in a snake, cares for it, then pays the price. A final song, “Welcome to the Black Parade,” by My Chemical Romance, has been tweaked to give it a sinister vibe of our times.


“Now’s the time at 55 to be a struggling artist!”

Mills grew up largely in Mountain Top, Pennsylvania, with parents who were “very supportive” of his performing efforts, from community theater when he was a child to studying acting at university. All six children (Mills is the third-born) played musical instruments. “For me, it was my identity,” Mills recalled. “When I was young, I thought, ‘I want to be an actor, I want to be on stage.’” He smiled. “Just like any little gay kid, I guess. Again, glamor and despair. It was me watching these glamorous performers on stage and TV, combined with my internal despair about being in the closet. That glamor was my escape as a young kid, that was my original experience of those two extremes.” He laughed. “I don’t know if it could be any more clichéd, but you’ve got to give into it right?”

With so many children, the family home was “like a cartoon house—dog, cats, kids running around, activities, friends, family.” His father was a salesman, “in the utility world—underground cables and crazy stuff I didn’t understand.” His mother “sometimes a bank-teller, teacher, and a real estate agent when we moved to California. They were raising six kids, flying by the seat of their pants.

“I generally had a happy childhood. The only real drama was my own personal darkness about being gay, and growing up in a Catholic family. Ultimately my family was very accepting when I came out, but it was a tough journey. It took some time. I had my own self-loathing to contend with—more than anyone else’s loathing. It is still a part of me, it’s certainly there. It’s real. I think self-loathing is a big part of what it means to be gay, and I’m trying to learn to accept that too. It keeps me humble.”

Did he reject his Catholicism? Mills smiled. “Actually, I’m creeping back towards the benefits of it. I’m not sure the content of that, but I can see some benefits in it—the fellowship and community. The world seems increasingly chaotic and apocalyptic, so maybe it represents hope of some kind. And I love religious music and all kinds of music—from Gregorian chanting to Southern Gospel, white Hillbilly to Black Gospel.”

In such a busy household, there was much humor when he was growing up. “We really competed around the dinner table to make each other laugh, and my father was the master of ceremonies,” Mills recalled. “He encouraged us to be funny, and enjoyed watching us develop our own senses of humor. It could become a battle of styles and wits at the table. They were very strict about us all being at the table to eat together—even in later years around the Thanksgiving table with partners and friends. All of my family is witty. My siblings are really funny.” Mills laughed. “I have stolen tons of material from them over the years!”

He attended the University of California San Diego, but it was a summer sojourn to Madison, Wisconsin, where a friend’s mother rented rooms to students, that proved to be an important moment.

“I was really struggling, trying to come to terms with my sexuality,” Mills said. “I saw a flyer for a gay men’s coming out group, so I went and came back after one meeting and announced, ‘I’m gay.’” He laughed. “I hated myself for years before that. Then I go to one meeting with six guys and a facilitator, and I’m like, ‘I’ve seen the promised land.’ That was the breakthrough.”

Until relatively recently, Mills always had other conventional careers running alongside his performing pursuits.

In San Francisco in the mid-’90s he worked in charity fundraising for non-profits. He moved to New York at the outset of the dotcom boom, “and somehow got involved in that, even though I don’t know a thing about computers to this day. Then I became director of editorial, whatever that means, for big clients like Cable and Wireless. That took me to London. I probably caused two different companies to go bankrupt through my inadequacy.

“Then, thanks to a friend, I somehow found a job in fashion PR, for which I also had not a clue. I had never done PR, and I was with a fashion designer who was so mad and crazy. I did that for years, and then marketing, PR, and branding for jewelry for about 11 years—all the while acting, performing, and being in films and a bit of TV. Then, just before the pandemic, I thought, ‘I want to put all those regular jobs aside. Now’s the time at 55 to be a struggling artist!’”

While Mills laughed at the laying out of the circumstances, he said, “It had just become quite clear that I could no longer fake it. I was really no good at any of that stuff. I had blagged my way into these jobs, and kept sort of shuffling around and convincing different companies into hiring me, always leaving just before I got found out.

“I got too old. I could no longer work the magic. Really, the only good I could do was to get on stage and perform and write, so that’s what I’m doing. It’s where and when I’m happiest. Part of me was dying inside every time had to manage people, doing assessments and evaluations of my employees.”

Mills looked askance, and laughed. “I didn’t know what they were supposed to be doing! How could I evaluate them! I was so afraid! It was not imposter syndrome. I was an imposter crime! I was unprepared and incapable for all the jobs I was in for decades. That became quite depressing, and a burden as well. It was gross every time I went into work, so I got out.”

Mills started as a performer as a monologist, then began his stand-up career at San Francisco’s legendary Josie’s Cabaret & Juice Joint. When he came to New York in the late 1990s, he didn’t “gel” with the scene at that moment, an experience “which really took the wind out of my sails.”

In London, Mills didn’t perform for eight years, then “slowly crept” back on to the stage. He won the prestigious Hackney Empire’s New Act of the Year competition in 2011, which spurred him on, and now—finally divested of the day jobs which dragged him down so much—is fully devoted to the one job of comedy he truly cherishes.

Mills has opened for Margaret Cho, and starred alongside celebrities like Meryl Streep in film and TV projects. Cho was “very kind,” he said, when she performed in the U.K. “She’s such a pro—so incredibly creative and voracious, wanting to know about London and have material relevant to what was happening in London at that time. She wasn’t giving the same show she’d just done in Topeka, Billings, or Philly. She was so smart, and I learnt from her.

“She also gave me great advice. At the time, I had a lot of punchlines. She said, ‘You don’t need so many punchlines.’ She used a baseball analogy, of slowly throwing the ball up, and then taking all the time you need to hit the ball. Watching her, you realize she does exactly that. She uses a lot of funny stuff to build something, before she hits it. Margaret has had so much experience. She has been up, down, and everywhere in between. She said to me, ‘If you’re in this for the long run, you have to spend some time in the wilderness.’ It’s so true. You never see sunlight in this business unless you spend time in the wilderness.”

Mills worked with Streep on the 2016 film Florence Foster Jenkins, recalling the cast table read in which Streep sang all the songs perfectly awfully—as the subject was famed to do. “We were pissing ourselves laughing,” Mills recalled, of the cast’s response to Streep’s bravura humor. At the end of the film Jenkins imagines how she sounds—which is marvelous—with Streep singing, gloriously note-perfect, that imagined song, which amazed and delighted the cast.

Mills himself would love to play Peter Mandelson, the Labour MP and the controversial communications maestro behind former British PM Tony Blair’s New Labour. “I think Mandelson is fascinating—a gay man at the heart of the New Labour project, known as ‘the Prince of Darkness.’ He was quite sinister, yet came from modest means.” Mills also loves Spalding Gray, and would like to work on some his famed long-form monologues.

Mills is newly single having really left a 10-year relationship. “I’m OK. The funny thing is people think you must not be on the market for intimacy, but in the last five or so years of the relationship we struggled to have intimacy, so I am absolutely available and open to possibilities, but wary because I was entangled in something that was so wrong for so long.” Still, he says, it’s easier being in New York rather than London, with the omnipresent worry that the latter would present the possibility of random, awkward meetings with his ex on the Tube or at the supermarket, or the feeling he’d have to be on his best behavior.

It is also strange, he says, being an American comic back in America in the run-up the 2024 election, recalling friends’ “mental anguish” over how every day brought a fresh new horror during Trump’s first presidency. “In the U.K. right now, the Tory Government is a flouting long-held conventions, is mean-spirited, and the economy is really bad. It’s getting very dark there, so I thought coming here would be a break. But, six months in, we’re getting closer to our election, and Trump’s poll numbers mean people are feeling the rising terror coming. It’s not pretty. If America goes ‘there’ again, and if Labour wins in the U.K., I may go back. I need to protect my mental health.”

Cabaret itself, Mills thinks, is primed for a comeback, as it offers a different experience to stand-up, and that people are turned off by the all-too-familiar content of the multiplex and Netflix, “which feels somehow terrible, it’s all superhero films.” Stand-up feels so safe now, he thinks, whereas cabaret allows for “spontaneity and danger. It’s a freer form, and a lot of room for queer artists. Think of Taylor Mac and Justin Vivian Bond. Also think of the Weimar Republic—cabaret has always been a place where people undermine the dominant paradigms.” Mills laughed, and cracked a wide, advertising tagline smile. “Baby, I’m telling you, cabaret is back!”