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Conversations with Kellee McQuinn / AKA DJ MODGIRL

Today we’d like to introduce you to Kellee McQuinn.

Kellee McQuinn

Hi Kellee, so excited to have you on the platform. So before we get into questions about your work-life, maybe you can bring our readers up to speed on your story and how you got to where you are today?
Music and dancing were my first language. My mother was a dance teacher and musical theater director and apparently, while she was rehearsing Guys & Dolls, every time she played the song Sit Down You’re Rocking the Boat, she literally had to sit down because I was doing triple time tap inside her. I grew up with a dance studio in my house (my bedroom was directly above it), and as a misunderstood and bullied artistic type, that cherished room was the one place I could go, close the doors, blast my music, and be who I truly was. Growing up in New Jersey in the 80s with the actual human beings who would later become The Real Housewives of New Jersey (not kidding), was not the most hospitable place for a sensitive soul like myself.

Flash forward to the early 2000s, and after a solid attempt at trying to make it in Hollywood, I realized that I had a deeper calling with dance and music and… children. So I created an organization called KidTribe, whose mission was to evoke self-esteem, self-expression, and a sense of belonging for kids through music and dance. What began as a local afterschool program turned into an award-winning international production company and a live tour where I’ve personally worked with millions of kids in the US, Canada, the UK, and China. I’ve written and recorded original songs and education-based content, including a hip-hop musical for NASA and two animated/live-action television shows for PBS. I also had the privilege of collaborating with Michelle Obama’s Let’s Move! Campaign and even performed at the White House from 2009-2016 as well as the Nickelodeon Worldwide Day of Play from 2008 – 2019. It was amazing. And exhausting.

While my PBS kids’ show had wrapped and I was suffering from a pretty major case of burnout, I waited for a sign from the Universe as to what I should focus on next. Somehow, I went to Palm Springs to visit my mother and never left. I fell in love with the natural beauty, the midcentury architecture, and the vibrant social community (yes, vibrant!) I have never been invited to so many fun parties with such amazing people… until Covid hit. And everything changed.

And when life resumed, I decided I was going to embark on a lifelong dream: to be a DJ.

It’s been a little over two years and I play anywhere from 20-30 gigs a month, often 2-3 a day. I have a weekly 2-hour dance mix radio show on KGAY 106.5 and several residencies at pool parties and clubs. I’ve headlined big events like Palm Springs Pride, Halloween Palm Springs, Modernism Week, Fashion Week El Paseo, and Celebrate CV, and have even received the Best DJ of the Desert Community Choice awards in 2023 and 2024! I’ve been featured in some amazing TV and editorial interviews and am so grateful for the support I’ve received. Although I call myself a “genre chameleon,” house music is my true love. I started making remixes and original tracks and have my sights on playing bigger festivals in Palm Springs and LA.

I love what I do. I love music and the way it connects people with their joy, their unbridled freedom, and with each other. To be at the helm of the party, to share that experience with the dance floor while giving it my all from behind the decks, to trust my intuition of what the crowd needs next… it’s a state of exhilaration that I don’t think I will ever tire of. My feet may hurt at the end of the night, but my heart couldn’t be happier.

I’m sure it wasn’t obstacle-free, but would you say the journey has been fairly smooth so far?
All in all, it’s been a smooth road, and I feel grateful. It could have certainly been a lot bumpier. I believe that when you’re on the right path, things naturally flow to you. That’s at least how it’s been for me. I’ve been so fortunate with how many opportunities come my way, how word of mouth has taken off, and how much support I’ve received. That’s not to say it’s not hard work. I’ve never worked so hard in my life. Often, I’m DJ’ing 9-12 hours a day, carrying heavy gear, setting up and tearing down, rushing from one gig to the other and changing outfits in the car, on my feet for hours, unable to pee (unless I play an extended 8-minute remix and race to the restroom). When my schedule is packed, I’ll wake up at 5am to create my weekly 2-hour radio mix the morning it’s due (so far, my neighbors haven’t complained!)

Because I started getting booked immediately upon becoming a DJ, I had to learn the skills, the technology, and the equipment very quickly. I was staying up all night watching online tutorials and practicing and then putting the practice to use the next day. I researched music night and day and built my catalog of songs. I overcame a lot of self-doubt and went full Nike because there was no other choice than to just do it.

I don’t think people realize how much preparation goes into each gig. Finding the tracks, knowing them by heart with all the cues pre-programmed, organizing them, creating new curated mixes for each event – especially if it’s a particular theme… it takes hours and hours of pre-production. And the pressure to perform is real. When I first started, even though I was smiling on the outside, I had panic attacks on the inside because my next choice could make or break the party. Now, I’m used to the pressure and welcome the challenge. But in the beginning, it was intense.

It did take a while to get used to the solitary nature of being a DJ. Yes, it’s a social career but I’m alone, facing the crowd. I’m not mingling. I can barely talk to anyone while I’m working because I’ll miss my cue (and I hate missing a cue!)

Then there’s the fun experience of relying on technology. I’ve had computers crash in the middle of a set, batteries refusing to charge, speakers blowing, power outages, mixers getting stuck on the loop function, mixers going haywire with the BPM sensor, and decks just stopping working entirely. And what’s even more fun is the occasional adventure of when people spill drinks on my equipment, try to climb up the DJ booth, and actually knock it over (This really happened with a drag queen once. It was funny / not funny. The funny part was that her dress was bunched up in her fishnets, so as she was climbing up the booth, all you saw was her butt. The not funny part was when everything came crashing down on top of her. But that was kind of funny too, now that it’s in the rearview mirror. It’s all recorded, and when I need a good laugh, I watch it.)

I also had to get over my people-pleasing tendencies. At private parties or corporate events, there are always going to be those control freaks in the crowd who rudely demand certain songs without any regard to the craft itself or to me as an artist. I really can’t believe the way some people behave. Like, even though the dance floor is packed, there’s always that one person (usually drunk) who gives me the stink eye and marches up to me yelling CAN YOU PLAY ME SOMETHING I CAN DANCE TO? Like I’m there to please that one person, who usually has THE WORST request ever. In the beginning, I used to take it personally, and it really hurt my feelings even if I didn’t let it show on the outside. But now I have a lot more confidence in who I am as a DJ and focus on the people who are having a great time, so I don’t “take on” strangers’ issues anymore if that makes sense. I also don’t say yes to gigs where it’s not a musical match. Just because I can mix all types of genres doesn’t mean I have to. I want to play positive music that makes me feel alive.

But these challenges have helped me refine and led me to who I am and where I want to be. I want to work with people who “get” me. I want to perform for audiences I connect with. I especially love playing for the LGBTQ+ community. I specialize in T-Dances, Prides, and gay clubs where great house music reigns. The energy is unparalleled and I can really live my truth loud and proud when I’m in those environments. I choose joy.

There are moments when the vibe is so happy I dance and laugh and cry and mix all at the same time. That’s what I want every time. I have to remind myself that every gig isn’t going to be the best day ever. But that’s what I aim for. That’s my north star.

Appreciate you sharing that. What else should we know about what you do?
 I think I’m best known for my positive energy, my crowd engagement, and my banging sets. And my outfits. Fashion is a huge part of my life and a huge part of my Modgirl persona… I love vintage clothes and love to dress the part and create a special look for each gig. I have an outfit for every possible occasion (my guest bedroom IS my closet and believe it or not, I’ve outgrown it.)

Because of my musical theater childhood and performing background, I do bring a showmanship quality to my sets. I’m very energetically interactive. I dance my ass off and make eye contact and start the party as I’m mixing. My production experience as a producer and director comes into play as well. I curate and put on a show; musically, visually, thematically. I don’t consider myself just a person up there playing songs and turning knobs. I’m also an entertainer creating an experience, creating memories, creating a moment that we’re all sharing together. I guess that’s one of the things I’m most proud of… the way I genuinely connect with the audience and how my love for the music and my expression of joy translates deeply to their lives.

I’ve had people come up to me with tears in their eyes, thanking me for playing the song they came out to and giving me the biggest heartfelt hug. I’ve had people tell me that I changed their lives during my sets. One man in particular, was in a wheelchair from a near-fatal car accident when he saw me at Pride. This was his first outing after being in the ICU for four months. He fistpumped like a maniac throughout my whole set. In an entire street filled with people, I kept noticing him and giving him energy. He later told me that my set changed his life and he vowed he would stand and walk and dance again. And he did. Side note, we also fell madly in love, and he rarely misses one of my gigs.

Often when I’m doing my thing, I look out at the crowd, and they’re copying my arm movements, and we start doing some impromptu choreography. Or I copy them… it’s so much fun. And lately, people have started showing up to my gigs wearing wigs that are like my hairstyle!

I’m proud of how hard I work. I’m a Capricorn with a tireless work ethic. Not delivering is not an option – it doesn’t matter how tired or sore or stressed out I am – the show MUST go on. I like how I’m always seeking to learn and grow, and improve as a DJ and as a music producer. I’m also proud of my professionalism and the genuine relationships I’ve built with clients, collaborators, and partners. Even when faced with difficulties, I use those challenges as a vehicle to develop respect and trust with each other.

I’m really proud that one day, I decided to become a DJ and I did it and it took off. I’m equally as grateful.

What makes you happy?
What makes me happy? Music. Dancing. Duh.

Music is magic. I don’t understand it. We don’t need it to live, like water or oxygen. But we need it to live. Music is probably my favorite thing about life. It utterly transcends this mortal coil.

Then there’s dancing. I don’t know how to not dance. Like I said earlier, it’s my first language. Dancing elevates my heart, my mind, my body, my soul. It does for me what words cannot. It’s where I lose myself and find myself all at the same time. It’s where I’m my most powerful and most vulnerable. Dancing is my truth. Dancing is my nature.

But then there’s the amazing position of being the person to EVOKE dancing THROUGH music. To give this gift that I treasure so deeply to others… to share it… to be intoxicated by it. THAT IS PURE JOY.

Jellybeans also make me happy. So do musicals. And shopping. Any kind of shopping. Also, rivers – I love the sound of rivers. I can just sit there and listen all day. And my friends make me happy. Laughing with my friends is the absolute best.

Contact Info:

Image Credits
David Crotty Matthew Mitchell Orlando Welsh

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