“Get ready,” I said when I took off for New York City for the first time. I was 20 years old, nervous, and not sure if I was talking to the city or to myself. After growing up in the Northwest and spending one so-so year of college in Los Angeles, I didn’t quite know what was waiting for me in New York—or what, exactly, I wanted to do. But I knew that whatever it was, New York seemed like the place to do it.
When I arrived in 1999, live performances were what excited me most. I didn’t have money for tickets, so I volunteered to usher at the Broadway production Cabaret starring Alan Cumming. I was ecstatic when a date took me to see Lily Tomlin’s revival of The Search for Signs of Intelligent Life in the Universe. I blagged my way into a TV taping of an Iggy Pop performance.
It wasn’t just actors and musicians that filled me with delight. Everyone seemed to be performing as something in New York: themselves. Whether it was the fur-clad woman in the diner, ordering as if she were negotiating an international treaty, or the mysterious barista at French Roast who served secrets with her espresso, people populated their own sets, starred in their own movies that spun off and careened into each other with reckless abandon.
I started doing anything I could to get my own story moving, stumbling into improv groups, go-go dancing, creating risqué performance art, interning at Paper magazine, sneaking into parties, waiting tables (terribly), writing horror stories, recording music and starting a band. If there was an idea sitting around, it was worth exploring. I only had so many years of college left and had to figure out something, anything that would keep me from eventually having to get a real job.
Miraculously, it turned out to be music and songwriting that kept me out of a 9-to-5. My band, Scissor Sisters, ended up making a bunch of songs that people in New York seemed to like when we played in bars and clubs over squelchy sound systems. We performed our hearts out and went from Marion’s steakhouse to Bowery Bar to Hammerstein Ballroom to The Theatre at Madison Square Garden, and so on.
The success we found was thrilling, but I often consider how any of those personas I was playing with might have blossomed into a career. It was the freedom that I felt at that time that made the smallest idea seem as if it could turn into something bigger.
I’d like to think it’s still possible for kids with big dreams and not much money to be able to figure out the narrative that suits them best and find a living from it. I would like to think that New York still has that pull, that it still sends out its inexplicable call. It sure keeps pulling me back in for wild experiences that I couldn’t have anywhere else. I’m here now in a Broadway show. I wish I could hug that kid taking off for New York almost 20 years ago, and tell him he made the right decision.
Shears is currently starring in Kinky Boots on Broadway. His memoir, Boys Keep Swinging, is out now.