Calling all friends of Dorothy and her little dog too! It’s almost time for the gayest of holidays, Halloween.
In Philadelphia, that means a tradition that has lasted for over 50 years, Henri David’s annual ball. You know Henri, he’s the Mad Hatter who keeps things running smoothly as the Master of Ceremonies on Pride Day, or maybe you’ve seen him in his best bunny outfit leading Philly’s Easter festivities, or perhaps you know him from his magical jewelry store, “Halloween” on Pine Street. As for the annual Halloween gala, it’s a once-in-a-lifetime event that happens every year. Simply called “Halloween the Ball,” the gathering and celebration for the LGBTQ-plus community and allies has become an institution. One person who found community at the ball is this week’s portrait, Marcello Brening Barrera. Barrera coordinates the Facebook group for the event and has been attending the ball since he was a mere teen. In addition to his day job, Barrera can also be found hosting events as his alter ego, Mistress M.
PGN: Give me the tea on Marcello Brening Barrera.
MBB: I was born in Caracas, Venezuela, and lived there for 22 years until I moved to the states. I had a pretty privileged childhood. Good parents who loved me and gave me everything that I needed. Maybe not everything I wanted, but everything I needed. I went to a bilingual school so I learned English at the age of 7. I’m first generation Venezuelan, my mom is Colombian and my father is American. I was an only child for 14 years, so that was great until my brother arrived. [Laughing] It was great after he arrived too, but it was a big adjustment. I went to the same school for elementary, middle and high school. It was very small, my graduating class had 8 students and we all grew up together. It was a good way to grow up, no complaints.
PGN: Give me a feeling for growing up in Caracas.
MBB: It’s a very metropolitan city, a lot of hustle and bustle. As opposed to Philly with its row homes, there are a lot of condos and high rises in Caracas. It’s a very vertical city. It’s in a valley, so it’s very concentrated and surrounded by huge majestic mountains. During the day you get parrots, macaws, flying into the city and then heading back to the mountains at night. It’s beautiful. There’s a big cultural scene there — theater, music, dance, fine arts — and the restaurant scene is incredible because there’s such a mix of different ethnic influences. It’s a really happening city. At least it was when I was growing up. Unfortunately the situation right now is a little different. But from what I hear, they’re still trying to keep everything going.
PGN: Bigger or smaller than Philadelphia?
MBB: It’s about a third of the size, territory-wise, but it has a huge amount of people in a smaller space. It’s a very fast-paced city, with a rhythm kind of like New York’s.
PGN: What did or do your parents do?
MBB: My father worked for an artist. He’s an engineer by trade, but he worked for one of our top artists, Jesús Soto, and other Venezuelan artists making their large-scale sculptures. He created sculptures for Soto for over 20 years. He also worked with Carlos Cruz-Diez, who just died recently, and other top artists. Their work was displayed in museums all over, from the MoMa in New York to the Tate in London. He did the World’s Fair in Seville and he got to travel the world installing the sculptures for various artists.
PGN: So cool, my mother is an artist and I think some of her work is inspired by Soto. I remember as a very small kid going to an exhibit in New York, that looked like a Soto installation, maybe it was one of your father’s! What about your mother?
MBB: That is cool! My mom was a vice president at the Bayer company. She was in charge of advertisement in the Antilles, the Caribbean and South America.
PGN: What were you like as a kid?
MBB: Shy and quiet. I was very observant. As a little, little kid I would lock myself in my own room and play with my toys. I had no problem not being attended to. I was a very good kid — I never answered back, didn’t say bad words …
PGN: No diva moments?
MBB: No, I didn’t find my hidden diva until I moved to the states. In Venezuela I did the things I was supposed to do, graduated high school, went to university to study architecture, got a great job, everything I was supposed to do — but I was just going through the motions. My mom noticed and suggested I move to the states. I’d always wanted to come here, and once I did, I just exploded. I didn’t know anyone so I had to let myself open up to get to know people.
PGN: Is that when you came out?
MBB: No, I came out when I was 19, first to some friends, then to my mom and dad. It was perfectly fine with everyone, no problems at all. I started doing drag in Venezuela when I was 19 too, so I’ve been doing it for 21 years. When I came to the states I met people like Henri who encouraged me to take it to the next level. I hosted Kinky Quizzo for Valanni 17 years ago, and I also did some modeling in drag for the corset maker Psydde Delicious back then. In fact, it was a colleague from Valanni that gave me my drag name, Mistress M. Before that I just used my real name to introduce myself. Actually I still use that too — in or out of drag I’m still Marcello. I’m just a little more glamorous as Mistress M. I feel like a million bucks when I’m her. I’ve based her on a few women, including Evita and my grandmother, who was a stunning woman. She was the cultural ambassador for Venezuela and was always perfectly dressed and put together. I try to emulate that.
PGN: What was the scene like when you came out?
MBB: It was good. I was out to everyone. My co-workers knew I was gay, I had a boyfriend, and there were several gay bars, but there was also a “don’t ask, don’t tell” atmosphere in Venezuela in general. There wasn’t a pride parade or any kind of pride events. There was no gayborhood. Everything was a little hushed. The first pride parade was in my last year there and it was really nerve wracking because we didn’t know how the city was going to react and the person who planned the parade for some unknown reason routed us through the WORST part of the city. But the good thing is that Venezuelans are always down for a party. So people would come out, give us a look and say, “What the hell is this!” and then they’d see we were having a good time and soon they’d join in. So it turned out to be a great day! I don’t know what the situation is there now, but then I never got any real pushback or negative reactions. In fact I remember my dad saying, “You’re going to face challenges, and that’s why I’m proud that I raised you to swim against the current and to be a strong person. You’ll be fine.” And I have been. I’ve been out and proud wherever I’ve gone and no matter who I’m with. I freely talk about my partner and my life, Mistress M and the work I’ve done.
PGN: What do you do now?
MBB: I work for a company that does home furnishing design. We make very, very high-end furniture. We have showrooms in New York and Milan, but the furniture is made right here in Philly.
PGN: How did you end up in Philly?
MBB: I woke up one morning and decided to move to the states. I packed a bag and flew to Miami. I’d visited Philly before and hated it, but I had relatives here so I came up for another visit and fell in love. The city had grown and cleaned itself up and become incredible. It’s the most beautiful city ever, and it’s home for me. I bleed Philadelphia. I’m proud of my city, and I love to represent whenever I can. I was in the first drag brigade in the Mummer’s parade. I was Miss Gay Pride 2018. [I do] anything I can do to be a part of and show off this city, especially with the LGBTQ community, I’m there, no questions asked. I did drag for a City of Hope fundraiser and won first place. I participated in trying to break the Guinness World Record for most drag queens on a stage, and a lot of other charity events.
PGN: How did you meet Henri?
MBB: I lived right next to him. He told me about his parties and I started going every year. And each year it is a challenge to try to top myself. Halloween is also my mom’s birthday so I make a special effort to really get done up. Even though my mother has never seen me as Mistress M, I do it as an homage to her.
PGN: When you perform, do you sing, or are you lip synching?
MBB: Oh lip synching. You don’t want to hear me sing! Lately I’ve been doing a lot of songs with Spanish lyrics. There’s a Celia Cruz version of “I Will Survive” and a version of “Don’t Cry for me Argentina” from Madonna that’s partially in Spanish. For Pride last year I did a whole set entirely in Spanish. People really seem to enjoy it, especially folks in the Latin community. It’s nice to have something different from the typical pop song or ballad.
PGN: Do they celebrate Halloween in Venezuela like they do here?
MBB: Yes, if Venezuelans have an opportunity to party, they will take it. Even if it means absolutely nothing to them, they will go for it. I’ve been hearing that some people have even started celebrating Thanksgiving! We have Carnival, of course, and then after that Halloween, as occasions to dress up and party. I have pictures of me in costume since I was an infant.
PGN: Best costume?
MBB: As a kid my mom made all my costumes and she was very creative. I never had input into what I was going to be. I would just stand like a mannequin and she would dress me in something amazing. But the best was when I finally, after many years of trying, won “Most Beautiful Female Impersonator” at the Henri David Ball. I went all out that year, I even shaved my head so that nothing would show under the wig. I was committed.
PGN: What are some of the categories people compete in?
MBB: There are quite a few, Most Sensual Fantasy, Best Celebrity Look Alike, Most Hysterical, Most Horrifying to name a few.
PGN: It’s Halloween time. Ever have any paranormal experiences?
MBB: Not paranormal, but I think I saw a UFO once. I was camping with some friends in the Andes mountains and we were sitting around the fire at night when all of a sudden it became full daytime. It wasn’t a bright light shining down from somewhere, no, it just became full daytime, then nighttime, then daytime, it happened three times. It was freaky, but interesting.
PGN: Something that you did for fun recently?
MBB: I went canoeing with my partner. Forty-one miles down the Delaware and it was amazing. A lot of rowing … and sun … and bugs, but it was really peaceful, no sounds except the birds and river sounds. It was a three-day trip and not only was it beautiful, I loved the physicality of it — rowing, making camp and then getting on the water again the next day. [My partner] used to take the trip with his father each year. His dad passed away earlier this year, so I went with him and we did it in his honor.
PGN: Nice. How did you meet?
MBB: Online! We met the first time on a Friday the 13th, we got engaged on a Friday the 13th and we’re going to get married in Italy next March on a Friday the 13th on the exact same day that we met. We’ve seen each other every day since that first date.
PGN: That’s beautiful. Back to the ball, if you were describing it for someone who’s never been, what would you say?
MBB: It’s a display of what Philadelphia is at its best. All the most beautiful freaks come out, and everyone interacts with everyone else. A lot of friendships grow out of the ball and even out of the Facebook group as people talk about and get excited for the next ball. It’s the type of event where no one is judged no matter who you are or what you’re wearing. From completely naked (with body paint) to a full-sized costume, young, old, straight, gay, there’s a little of everything and everyone.
PGN: I’ve read that this event has been called, “The best time you can have with your clothes on,” but I understand there’s a semi-official motto.
MBB: I’ve heard, “Don’t come as you are, but as you want to be.”
PGN: What the most memorable costume you’ve seen?
MBB: One year someone came as Cruella de Vil. They had about 8-10 people with them, dressed as Dalmatians. The person dressed as Cruella was up on stilts so she was towering over them and proportion-wise it made the whole thing larger than life. Another one that stands out is a guy who was dressed as a transformer, and the whole costume, well, transformed and became a car or plane, I forget which, but it was really cool. People really go all out. They work on the costumes all year.
PGN: What’s a nice tradition from the event?
MBB: It’s always October 31st, so you always know when the ball is going to be, even if it’s a Monday. But my favorite tradition is that every year Henri greets every single person as they come in the door. So the first thing you see at the Henri David Ball is Henri David.