Fashion designer, performer Brandon Hilton’s Fight for the Limelight

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 will offend me.”

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

Hilton grew up in Pacolet, a small rural town in Spartanburg County, South Carolina, about 60 miles southwest of Charlotte. He said he was 2 years old when his dad started beating and abusing him, and when he was 7, his dad shot and killed his mom’s boyfriend in front of him at a McDonald’s. He has 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 also said that he felt forced to grow up early to help his mother raise his sister.

But that trauma from the past drives him.

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

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 her husband, Hilton has spent years building her name and talents to become the multifaceted person she is today — singer, model, fashion designer, pig farmer, podcast host, drag queen, actor and soon-to-be author.

As it turned out, behind the shadows of his past lay not only the light, but for Hilton the center of attention.

Born on Myspace

Brandon Hilton likes to say that 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 the first of its kind in the mid-2000s. He logged in using a desktop computer at his grandmother’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 eccentric photos taken by his grandmother in her garage for helping him stand out.

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

“Then I thought, ‘Okay, I should probably use this and kind of make it not a career, but just a way for me to make money and get out of Pacolet, South Carolina,'” was the goal. And so I did,” Hilton said.

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

A Texas producer convinced Hilton to move to Dallas to work on his music. At that time, he was recording songs for his Myspace page through a 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 claims he was later fired for his Myspace, which he was told was “too flamboyant.”

“I think it was kind of homophobic that I got fired at 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 dance pop, but he described the work earlier in his career as more rough electronic.

“I loved that whole early Luciana, Myspace sound where everything is edgy with high-energy dance beats,” he said. “But I kind of grew out of that pretty quickly because I wanted my music to sound legitimate and I wanted my voice to be better produced.”

Brandon Hilton’s debut album Dirty on the dance floor ranked #11 on Hot Topic/Shockhound’s Most Downloaded Albums of 2010.

For his second album, NIGHTworked with Edwin McCain’s producer, Marcus Suarez, in hopes of a Grammy nomination, but the album only reached No. 63 on the iTunes Pop charts when it debuted in 2011.

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

His fourth and final album, born again, was released in January 2021 and reached #9 on the US iTunes Dance Chart. “Love Again,” released in February 2021, is his latest single, though he also recently remastered his old music from Myspace and put it on YouTube as Hilton compilation for Myspacewhich contains eight songs from 2007-’09.

Most of Hilton’s music is on his YouTube channel, though he plans to re-release his music on streaming platforms as part of a new project he’s calling his “legacy album.” Released sometime this year, it will feature over 75 tracks showcasing his music from his Myspace days to the present day, plus a few new tracks.

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

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

House of Mann

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

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

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

In 2018, he launched the fashion label 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. The clothes are available online, at various pop-up events and at Stash Pad, a vintage boutique in the Grier Heights neighborhood of southeast Charlotte.

The House of Mann held fashion shows at New York and Paris fashion weeks and featured clothing Clutches on TNT; RuPaul’s Drag Race; The Boulet brothers’ gem: Resurrection on AMC’s streaming service Shudder; and Queen of DragsGerman competition TV series judged by Heidi Klum.

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

Hilton’s latest work can be seen in the fourth season of HBO Max Damn patrolTV series based on the DC Comics superhero team of the same name for which Hilton designed the costume of drag queen superhero Mauro Lee Karrupt.

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

Being an endearing performer gives Hilton a unique perspective as a fashion designer because she understands what it takes for clothes to be functional yet stylish. He said he draws inspiration from the latest trends, as well as from his daily life and everything around him, such as his saltwater fish tank.

“I have a bunch of cool coral and fish and I like the way they look, like how the coral looks in the water when they’re waving and how the fins look and things like that — especially the sea slugs,” 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 handbook and an autobiography.

Hilton hopes the autobiography, which deals with his difficult upbringing, his grandmother’s suicide and his own mental health issues, will provide insight into who he really is.

Part of that is his pigs – no doubt a return to his rural roots. Until recently, Hilton had 11 pigs living in his home (now there are six). He said they help keep him grounded in the face of online backlash, death threats and hate mail.

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

Recently, the fact that his dad will be released from prison within a year has been on Hilton’s mind. He said he was unsure where they were.

“The last thing my dad did before he was arrested was point the gun at me and pull the trigger, but he didn’t have any bullets because he used them all on my mom’s boyfriend. That was a permanent impression in my head, all these years. I wondered, if my dad gets out, will he come and kill me?” Hilton said. He assured me that his sister had confirmed with his father that this would not be the case.

When I asked him what he would have told himself at age 7, he said, “Don’t give up on yourself.”

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

Hilton struggled to emerge from the shadow of his past. If he hadn’t, he might not be standing in the spotlight today, poised for greatness.

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