Check Your Luggage is a new, highly original travel show hosted by the bear-alicious artist, performer, and self-proclaimed “social butterfly” Justin T. Russo. The show, made patently for LGBTQ+ audiences, promises to entertain, educate, and inspire future globetrotters, backpackers, and sightseers who are eager to get out of their houses after a year of lockdown. However, you won’t need your passport to join Justin for this series of adventures, nor will you need to get felt up by a TSA agent (unless, of course, that’s your particular fetish). In fact, all you’ll need is… a Metrocard! Check Your Luggage is dedicated to exploring local sites in Russo’s beloved New York City, with the goal of motivating future international travel as we slowly recover from pandemic-related restrictions. In between indulging in some authentic British fish and chips in Manhattan’s “Little Britian”, taking us back in time to when even old New York was once New Amsterdam, and perusing art books at the lush reading room/shop Albertine, Russo takes the time to interview many fascinating guests. Those guests range from such personalities as Sean Kavanagh-Dowsett and Nicky Perry, owners of the popular British restaurant Tea & Sympathy, to Gaëtan Bruel, Cultural Counselor of the French Embassy– and many, many others as well. In some of the most enlightening segments of the show’s six episodes, Russo speaks with several experts who know more than a thing or two about queer travel, including journalist/professor/mother Dawn Ennis. Russo is always diligent in asking his guests what each travel destination has to offer the queer tourist, as well as about any specific concerns that LGBTQ+ travelers should be made aware of; As Ennis pointed out, not all countries are friendly to or even safe for queer travelers.
Check Your Luggage is bolstered by Russo’s energy, charisma, and sense of humor. Even for those of us New Yorkers who think we know EVERYTHING about our unique city, the show is guaranteed to open up some new experiences and pave the way for some roads (or streets, or avenues…) less traveled. Justin T. Russo took the time to speak to Lavender After Dark’s Jed Ryan about Check Your Luggage, his own future travel plans, and… what he loves most (and least!) about New York City.
JR: Hello Justin! Thank you so much for speaking with me. Congratulations on Check Your Luggage! How has the experience been so far?
JTR: Thus far, the entirety of creating and releasing Check Your Luggage has been surreal– in the best way! This has been a passion project for all involved, and seeing it come to fruition is magical.
JR: That’s great to hear! The episodes that I watched really explored much of New York City’s less known cultural areas and lesser-known history. Are you a native New Yorker?
JTR: I am indeed a native! My family is all Italian; all four sides settled in Williamsburg between the 1890s and 1920s. I grew up just outside the City, but was always at my grandparents’ home in Maspeth, Queens– and moved back officially when I was 17.
JR: Being a New Yorker, what are some of the things you like about NYC the most? What do you like about it the least?
JTR: My favorite aspects of NYC are the energy and the people. It is truly a conglomerate of incredible humans and their stories working in unison. As for my least favorite parts, though I am very social, it is the feeling of having to keep pace. Granted, this is a self-inflicted issue, but there is a lesson to be learned in taking time for one’s self.
JR: In the first episode, you explore some aspects of British culture in New York… including Tea and Sympathy, one of my favorite restaurants. I love the menu, the tea, and the artwork… and I always leave with Marmite and British candy from the store next door! But I feel sorry for any of our bigger Bear brothers who have to use that tiny bathroom…actually a water closet! (Laughs) Is the UK in your near future to travel?
JTR: I have been fortunate enough to spend lengths of time in London in recent years for work. It has become one of my favorite cities–largely due to its connections with NYC– and I hope to go back in due course.
JR: Moving on to Episode 2: You give us some interesting tidbits of history, such as the Financial District used to be the epicenter of New Amsterdam. I love how donuts were originally called “oily cakes” and they didn’t have holes. A cake without a hole. What a dilemma! (Laughs) Are you a big history buff in real life?
JTR: I am definitely a history aficionado, and have always been attracted to knowledge of the past. However, my forte lies in Classic Hollywood and cultural history from the 1920s through the early 1950s. I can easily spend an entire afternoon discussing the life of Hedy Lamarr!
JR: Ahhh yes… Hedy Lamarr! Known as “the most beautiful woman in the world” at the time… and she invented the predecessor to wireless communications: signal hopping! Anyway… In several episodes you speak to special guests who talk about the unique considerations that gay, lesbian, bi, and trans folks should think about before traveling to foreign countries. That was very enlightening. Are there any exotic destinations you plan on going to in the future? What would be your dream destination, regardless of practicality or expense? Mine is Spain. Lots of Bears… uhm, I mean “Osos” (Laughs)
JTR: I have luckily been to Madrid for Pride several times. It was otherworldly! My dream destinations are Sweden– largely to visit Stockholm and see Greta Garbo’s home– and Japan, and South Africa.
JR: Those all sound great. In Episode 3, you explore “Little France” in NYC. What was the greatest thing you learned from that exploration?
JTR: The greatest thing I learned in this episode was how much there is for Francophiles in NYC! France and NYC have such a shared history; Being able to explore this further is a gift.
JR: As someone who is a quarter French myself, I approve! So… When you are not doing the show, how do you like to spend your spare time?
JTR: In my spare time I am absolutely a social butterfly – I love being out with friends, dancing, and being part of NYC/LGBTQ+ nightlife all over! I am also a working freelance illustrator and spend much of my time creating! You can see my work at JustinTRusso.com!
JR: Sounds wonderful! Lastly, what are the future plans for Check Your Luggage? Will we see future episodes?
JTR: Episodes on Japan and Italy were just released, and one more awaits for this season. As for the future, sit tight!
JR: Will do! Thanks again, Justin!
JTR: Thank you for speaking with me!
Check Your Luggage is available on YouTube from Parrlime Productions. You can watch all eight episodes for free here.
(Photos by Catalin Stelian.)