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Freak Show

Phat Man Dee is still Pittsburgh’s darling

Drag queens. Belly dancers. Boa constrictors. Drummers. Flamenco dancers. Jazz songs. Circus acts. What do these things have in common? They could be part of a Phat Man Dee show. Mandee has gone from circus performer to cosmic jazz chanteuse; she has performed in a multitude of venues and events both locally and nationally, becoming one of Pittsburgh’s most colorful personalities.

Growing up, Mandee always felt like an outsider, a freak, or a weirdo. She emphasizes that this is a positive thing. She identified with people that were different from the norm and was inspired by some early jazz legends that might have been considered “freaks” of their time by mainstream society. These include Billy Strayhorn, who was an openly gay African American in the ‘30s, and Bessie Smith, a bisexual African American woman in the early part of the 1900s, who toured with her own troupe.

When Mandee was about 14, her mother moved the family to Pittsburgh. In high school, she participated in school musicals, either acting or playing cello in the orchestra. However, it was the all ages nights at Zack’s Fourth Avenue and the Rocky Horror Picture Show at King’s Court in Oakland, where she began to discover a whole new world of “freaks” with whom she could relate.

GROWING UP, MANDEE ALWAYS FELT LIKE AN OUTSIDER, A FREAK, OR A WEIRDO. SHE EMPHASIZES THAT THIS IS A POSITIVE THING.

In her early days of performing in Pittsburgh, she worked with a couple of local circuses, like Bull Seal! Collective, and Circus Apocalypse. For the circus, she would play cello, recite spoken word, and perform various circus routines, like her half man/half woman act. But she always had a desire to sing, especially jazz, and decided to leave the circus to pursue this passion.

At first, she sang American jazz and French standards, before branching out in writing and performing some of her own songs; as well as songs by some local writers. Mandee is currently writing about ghosts. The imagery of her lyrics tends to be dark, and she finds it easiest to write when she’s upset about something: like the injustices in the world. She detests racism, homophobia, and sexism; as well as ignorance and treating our world as a disposable place. She has written a poem about Treyvon Martin, Jordan Miles, and Johnny Gammage and is looking to put a melody to it.

Mandee has stayed in Pittsburgh for the one thing that she found so wonderful when she moved here: diversity. She values the mix of people who live in this city, as well as the many talented artists. But the local arts and music scene is another big reason she stayed here. “The [music scene] is amazing—people don’t realize what we have here,” she says. As she talks about local artists, you sense the pride and respect she has for their work.

Although Mandee is a local performer, she does travel to other cities to work on projects. There are a number of memorable moments in her performing career. One was last summer when she had the pleasure of working with John Waters, creator of Hair Spray and all the Divine movies. This was for an episode of The Culinary Adventures of Baron Ambrosia. Ambrosia, a Pittsburgher, had his web-based show picked up by the Food Network. He asked Mandee if she wanted to do one of his episodes. She agreed, not knowing ahead of time that Waters was going to be a guest star.

In her own shows, Mandee believes that she “has found a way to artfully merge the odd, ridiculous, and bizarre.” She wants to create a podcast of a variety show that would be a “mix between Marian McPartland’s Piano Jazz and Hee Haw.” Mandee also mentioned that she would love to sing at a gay wedding. She is always on the edge of creating something new and daring. Sometimes bizarre, sometimes outrageous, Phat Man Dee is always entertaining. Talking to her, one can’t help to see how witty, sophisticated, intelligent, and caring she is, and how passionate she is for her work and art. Perhaps, she is just a freak ahead of her time.

Phat Man Dee performs regularly at NOLA in Market Square and at the Shadow Lounge. Check her website for more information. phatmandee.com.

T.C. Brown has an M.F.A. in Acting from WVU and acts occasionally around the ‘burgh. His passion, besides spending time with his husband, Victor, is genealogy. Someday, he hopes to travel to Europe to visit the towns where his ancestors lived.