Alum spotlight: Chris Leary (BFA ’10)

collage of photos

Chris Leary 2010 BFA in Performance 

When Chris was born, his mother had two singers—one was the classic sewing machine and the other was Chris, “I came out just belting a high G!” He created his first costume out of an old shirt that his mom was discarding, “I think I put a cape on it. She got me started in a passion for clothing,” a passion that led him to his current gig as a dresser for Saturday Night Live.

Chris behind the scenes of Hamilton with dancers Tanairi Vazquez and Kamille Upshaw

One of the many freelance jobs that Chris held in New York was makeup and hair for headshot photo sessions. One of his clients ended up as the Assistant Company Manager for Hamilton. This led to his job as a dresser for the women’s ensemble on the megahit, starting in 2015. He still drops in for occasional day work, when SNL is on break.

Even though Chris went into Theatre VCU in Performance, his sewing skills were quickly appreciated and put to use by Karl Green (former Costume Shop Supervisor). As a Freshman, Chris created one of four gold lame suits for Smokey Joe’s Café that Karl designed.

When Chris was performing in White Christmas at Virginia Rep, he befriended two of the New York actors in the show. Despite all of their warnings, Chris decided to make the move. That January, his mom drove him up and they arrived in NYC with four feet of snow!

Chris’ drag persona Tequila Mockingbird was born in Richmond in 2010. His inspiration, “I have this funny character. I know how to make my own clothes. I’ve been dancing since I was a kid. I sing. I perform. Why am I not doing this?” Chris was actually preparing a one-hour show featuring Tequila in February 2020, until COVID put an abrupt stop to it.

On SNL, Chris has many tasks, but he’s specifically assigned as dresser for Bowen Yang. They both started the same year, so “we formed a bond.” He’s proud to have worked on the body suit for Yang’s famous iceberg costume. He was also one of several people who scrambled to create the famous white suit that Maya Rudolph wore as Kamala Harris, when she and Biden announced the election results.

Chris with Maya Rudolph

Another connection led Chris to work on his first movie, West Side Story. “We were outside during the historic heat wave in 2019 for 18-20 hours a day with dancers dancing on pavement.”

Cecily Strong behind the scenes of SNL in a princess dress that Chris constructed for the show

Chris’ work ethic and style has given him opportunities to be a personal stylist. He explains, “NBC reached out to me asking if I would mind putting together some looks for Cecily (Strong) for her Emmy campaign. After that…she was doing a ton of press promoting Schmigadoon and her memoir. So, I sort of accidentally became her personal stylist.”

Jasmine Cephas-Jones (Original Peggy in Hamilton) and Chris in the wig room at intermission of her final show

Jerry Williams also got lots more great stories from Chris for his show. Actually, it was so much fun Jerry created two episodes! Click here for Part One. Click here for Part Two.

Compiled by Liz Hopper (professor emeritus) and Jerry Williams (BFA ’71) for the July 2022 Theatre Alumni newsletter