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Fashion Designer and Performer Brandon Hilton Steps into the Limelight

Out of the shadows

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A blonde drag queen puts her hand in front of her face, creating a shadow
Brandon Hilton as Onya Mann. (Photo by Laurence Logan)

“You can ask me anything,” Brandon Hilton tells me over the phone. “Nothing is off limits and nothing’s gonna offend me.”

Hilton was reassuring me after hearing me stumble over my words, trying perhaps too delicately to ask him about his childhood. Earlier in our conversation, the 35-year-old casually mentioned that his father had killed someone in front of him when he was a kid. I wondered how the trauma had affected him.

Hilton grew up in Pacolet, a rural small town in Spartanburg County, South Carolina, about 60 miles southwest of Charlotte. He said he was 2 years old when his dad began beating and molesting him, and when he was 7, his dad shot and killed his mom’s boyfriend in front of him at a McDonald’s. He’s been in prison ever since.

Looking back, Hilton feels he didn’t have a childhood after what he experienced at such a young age. He said he also felt forced to grow up early in order to help his mom raise his sister.

But it’s this past trauma that drives him.

“That has always been my biggest motivation to kind of get out of Pacolet, South Carolina, and make something of myself so I don’t have this shadow of my dad lingering over me for the rest of my life,” Hilton said. “I don’t want that to be my legacy, so that’s motivated me to do as much as I possibly can to overshadow that.”

Brandon Hilton applies lipstick in the mirror as drag queen Onya Mann.
Brandon Hilton as Onya Mann. (Photo by Laurence Logan)

Now living in Charlotte with his husband, Hilton has spent years building up his name and talents in order to become the multifaceted person he is today — singer, model, fashion designer, pig farmer, podcast host, drag queen, actor and soon-to-be author.

As it turns out, beyond the shadows of his past not only lay the light, but for Hilton, the limelight.

Born on Myspace

Brandon Hilton likes to say he was “born on Myspace’’ because that’s where it all started.

He recalled being fresh out of high school when a friend told him about the social networking site, which was a first of its kind in the mid-2000s. He signed up using the desktop computer at his grandma’s house and added a basic profile picture, but things didn’t stay basic for long.

Hilton expanded his content as he gained more friends on the site. He credits his platinum blonde hair and the eccentric photos his grandma took of him in her garage for helping him stand out.

Once he reached a million friends on Myspace, that’s when he started getting opportunities to work with photographers and producers, he recalled.

“Then I was like, ‘Alright, I should probably utilize this and kind of make it not really a career, but just a way that I can make money and get myself out of Pacolet, South Carolina,’ was the goal. And so that’s what I did,” Hilton said.

Brandon Hilton as Only Mann
Brandon Hilton as Only Mann. (Photo by Laurence Logan)

A producer in Texas convinced Hilton to move to Dallas to work on his music. At the time, he had been recording songs for his Myspace page using the microphone on his laptop, so he was intrigued by the possibility of higher-quality production.

While in Dallas he worked at Radio Disney, doing commercials and voicing promotional segments on Disney XD, though he alleges he was later fired because of his Myspace, which he was told was “too racy.”

“I think that it was a little homophobic that I got fired from Disney because I didn’t have anything that was really crazy or anything like that,” Hilton said. “I think they just weren’t ready for me at the time.”

Today, Hilton categorizes his music as pop dance, but he described the work earlier in his career as more grungy electronic.

“I liked that whole early Luciana, Myspace sound where everything’s gritty with high-energy dance beats,” he said. “But I kind of grew out of that pretty fast because I wanted my music to sound legit and I wanted my voice to be better produced.”

Brandon Hilton’s debut album Dirty On The Dancefloor charted #11 on Hot Topic/Shockhound’s most downloaded albums of 2010.

 

For his sophomore album, NOCTURNAL, he worked with Edwin McCain’s producer Marcus Suarez in the hopes of getting nominated for a Grammy, but the album only reached #63 on iTunes Pop Charts when it debuted in 2011. 

Hilton’s music is in the 2012 movie Midnight Cabaret, in which he also stars, and his song “Glamour Zombie” was featured on Oxygen’s The Bad Girls Club. He followed that with the release of his first hard-copy album in 2013, a collection of singles and remixes called The Best of Brandon Hilton.. SO FAR!!

His fourth and latest album, Reborn, was released in January 2021 and reached #9 on the US iTunes Dance Chart. “Love Again,” released in February 2021, is his most recent single, though he also recently remastered his old Myspace music and put it on YouTube as Hilton’s Myspace Mixtape, featuring eight tracks from 2007-’09.

 

Most of Hilton’s music is on his YouTube channel, though he plans to rerelease his music on streaming platforms as part of a new project he’s calling his “legacy album.” Released sometime this year, it will contain over 75 tracks that chronicle his music from the Myspace days to now, plus a few new songs.

As with most musicians, Hilton said the messages behind his music have changed as he’s evolved as a person and artist — growing progressively darker and more serious, but still fun. He notes Reborn is his most personal record to date.

“I went through some heartbreak and I lost some family members that were really important to me,” Hilton said. “So the songs on that one are still like fun party songs, but they are the most personal, because I’ve touched on more personal things in my lyrics.”

The House of Mann

Learning to sew wasn’t a hobby for Brandon Hilton, but a necessity so he could wear the outfits he envisioned for tours and music videos. The skill especially came into play while performing in drag — first in Texas and then locally back in the Carolinas — eventually going by the name Onya Mann.

“I wanted to have like RuPaul’s Drag Race level costumes, and I wanted to have really nice costumes, but there’s no stores locally that sell drag queen costumes and super elaborate things, so I had to start making them,” Hilton said.

It didn’t take long before drag queens from all over the world began asking Hilton to make their costumes, too. Hilton also started dressing celebrities he had befriended over the years while in the entertainment industry.

In 2018, he launched the fashion brand The House of Mann, which has dressed major artists including Kim Petras, Dorian Electra and Allie X and has been featured in Vogue, Harper’s Bazaar and Paper Magazine. Clothes are available online, at various pop-up events and Stash Pad, a vintage boutique in southeast Charlotte’s Grier Heights neighborhood.

The House of Mann has put on shows at New York and Paris fashion weeks and has had outfits featured on Claws on TNT; RuPaul’s Drag Race; The Boulet Brothers’ Dragula: Resurrection on AMC’s Shudder streaming service; and Queen of Drags, a German drag competition TV series judged by Heidi Klum.

“If there’s a drag TV show, we probably contributed at least one or two costumes to it for sure,” Hilton said.

Hilton’s latest work can be seen on season four of HBO Max’s Doom Patrol, a TV series based on the DC Comics superhero team of the same name for which Hilton designed drag queen superhero Maura Lee Karupt’s costume.

Brandon Hilton as Only Mann. (Photo by Laurence Logan)

Being a drag performer gives Hilton a unique perspective as a fashion designer because he understands what an outfit needs in order to be functional while fashionable. He said he takes inspiration from the latest trends as well as his daily life and whatever is around him, like his saltwater fish tank.

“I have a bunch of cool corals and fish and I like the way they look, like the way coral looks in the water when it’s waving and the way fins look and stuff like that — sea slugs, specifically,” he said. “But I’ve always been obsessed with the ocean, coral and marine life, and I get a lot of inspiration from that.”

Brandon Hilton as Only Mann.
Brandon Hilton as Only Mann. (Photo by Laurence Logan)

As if all that wasn’t enough, Hilton is currently writing two books: a drag queen manual and an autobiography.

Hilton hopes the autobiography, which delves into his difficult upbringing, his grandmother’s suicide and his own mental health struggles, provides an insight into who he really is.

And part of that is his pigs — no doubt a nod back to his rural roots. Up until recently, Hilton had 11 pigs living in his home (he has six now). He said they help keep him grounded in the face of online backlash, death threats and hate mail.

“It’s nice to have my little farm with my chickens and my chihuahua and my pigs, so that kind of brings me out of this fake online world where people hate me so much,” Hilton said. “I have obviously a lot of support and people love me and follow me from all over the world, but it only takes one person telling you to like kill yourself to bring you down, you know?”

Also on Hilton’s mind lately is the fact that his dad will be getting out of prison within the next year. He said he’s hesitant about where they stand.

“The last thing that my dad did before being arrested was point a gun at me and pull the trigger, but he had no bullets because he just used them all on my mom’s boyfriend. So that’s been like, the lasting impression in my head, all these years. And I was like, if my dad gets out, is he gonna come kill me?” Hilton said. He assured me his sister confirmed with his dad that won’t be the case.

When I asked what he would tell himself at 7 years old, he said, “Don’t give up on yourself.”

“I tried to commit suicide two different times in my life and I think so many times about like, what if I had succeeded instead of, you know, fucking up little things and not dying?” he said. “The best thing I can say is just hold on. Don’t think that this is the end because the world is your oyster.”

Hilton fought to step out of the shadows of his past. If he hadn’t, maybe he wouldn’t be standing in the limelight today, poised for greatness.


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