If you’ve attended any major event in the Coachella Valley over the last few years, there’s a good chance you were dancing to music chosen by DJ Modgirl, aka Kellee McQuinn.
When we caught up with McQuinn recently, she had just wrapped up an exhausting Modernism Week schedule. “It was so fun,” she said. “But it was two to three events a day for pretty much two weeks straight.”
Aside from Modernism Week, McQuinn has DJed galas, private parties, holiday events at the Living Desert, and ribbon cuttings — we even spotted her doing her thing outside Acrisure Arena before the recent Harry Styles concert.
While there’s nothing more intimidating than a crowd full of mostly teenage girls, McQuinn had the Styles stans dancing for several hours straight and singing along to every word. Her deft selections for the setlist even included some throwback jams for the many moms chaperoning their daughters.
Moments like that one — mothers and daughters dancing and connecting over music — make the job so special, she said.
“I’ve had magical experiences,” McQuinn said, remembering a “Mad Men”-themed cocktail party on the roof of the Flannery Exchange for Modernism Week. “I’m playing all this great Rat Pack and swing music and looking out — you only see the mountain, no modern cars or anything. People started dancing, and I swear for a moment we time-traveled.”
Whether performing for a bachelorette party full of twenty-somethings or a gala crowd that skews a little older, McQuinn said she treasures the moment when she plays the right song for the right crowd.
The average person might think they have what it takes to be a DJ because they’ve put together a few Spotify playlists for friends, but what McQuinn does involves so much more.
“Maybe it would be easier if I only played one genre, but every night is different,” she said.
Event planners have asked her to play genres as wide-ranging as “Havana-themed” to Afrobeats to Studio 54. “I’ve had Frank Sinatra and Bad Bunny requested at the same event,” she said. When that happens, she said, disco is usually a safe middle ground that everyone can dance to.
There’s a technical aspect to the job, too; McQuinn had to teach herself about all the audio equipment and things like transitions. And DJ Modgirl goes even further than most DJs by coordinating her fabulous outfits to the theme, often wearing sequins and bright colors.
Though her DJ Modgirl persona keeps McQuinn booked and busy, she also juggles a day job as a children’s television producer. That career began with a company she founded in 2001 called KidTribe: a music and dance-focused program, which started small at after-school functions, summer camps, and parks and recreation departments in the Los Angeles area. The interactive program soon became an international childhood obesity prevention program.
“I worked with five million kids, 30,000 to 40,000 kids a month,” she said. McQuinn even performed at the White House throughout the Obama administration during the Easter Egg Roll, in partnership with Michelle Obama’s Let’s Move! initiative.
“Dance and music are so innate to being human,” she said. “You see it in kids who can barely stand, but they still want to bounce and dance to a beat.”
McQuinn’s live performances also took her on a tour of classrooms around the world. To further spread her message of dance, movement and fun, she started writing songs and making follow-along music videos for schools in 2005. “I was a little ahead of the game,” she said.
McQuinn entertained and educated kids with videos long before the multi-billion dollar industry of kid-centric videos took off on YouTube, with the top seven kids’ videos racking up more than 41 billion views. Those videos put her on “a trajectory,” which led to her writing a hip-hop musical for NASA and eventually children’s shows on PBS, Netflix and Amazon Prime.
Eventually, one of those TV shows came to an end around the same time that a local favorite, DJ Baz, retired. “I didn’t know what our community was going to do without him,” she said. “But I realized I could fill the void.”
DJ Modgirl came to life in September 2021 — though it feels like she’s been part of the fabric of local nightlife for much longer. McQuinn initially thought it would just be a side gig for extra money, but instead it’s taken off “like gangbusters.”
Other DJs may be more technical, but McQuinn strives to make it about the crowd experience with a full production package. “It was amazing to realize that it’s me people want, and whatever special sauce I bring to an event,” she said.
Part of that “special sauce” is likely due to her childhood. McQuinn was born in New Jersey and raised by her mother, a dance teacher and musical theater director. “When my mom was pregnant with me, she was directing ‘Guys and Dolls,’ and rumor has it that I was doing triple-time tap on rhythm in her stomach during ‘Sit Down You’re Rocking The Boat,’” she said.
After studying acting, McQuinn made the move to Los Angeles. She describes that period of her life as always being the “runner up” for the role that turned other actors into household names. “It was so limiting. I felt like I wasn’t in charge of my own destiny,” she said.
Instead of jumping ship and getting a more “practical” job, McQuinn jumped into creating KidTribe — and later, DJ Modgirl.
“With KidTribe, DJ Modgirl, it never felt like a risk,” she said. “I may not have had a plan, but I know that when I put in my hard work and passion into something, it’s going to be successful.”
Get to know Kellee below, and find her from 4 p.m. to 6 p.m. every Sunday on KGAY 106.5, where she hosts a Tea Dance. Want to get social? You can find her on Instagram here and Facebook here. Check out her website at djmodgirl.com.
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Occupation: DJ/Television Producer
First job: Babysitting was probably my first job, but my first real job for a paycheck was either selling french fry machines or being a beer cart girl on a golf course.
Neighborhood: Sunset Park
Time in the desert: Since 2017
What brought you here? My grandfather lived here, so I had been coming here since I was a kid. Then my mom moved out here in the ‘90s, and I continued visiting until I decided to move out here to help my mom with some health challenges.
What keeps you here? The people, the parties, the lifestyle.
Any family here? My mom still lives here.
Favorite time of the year: Modernism Week: I consider that a whole holiday season. I do love summer. People think I’m weird, but I especially love summer nights.
How do you beat the heat? Going in the swimming pool
Personal philosophy: Dance your way through life, and keep dancing even if you don’t like the song, or don’t like your partner. You just have to keep dancing.
What’s the biggest issue facing our community? It’s really sad to see the drug and homelessness crisis. I know it’s a national and international crisis and it’s so complicated. How do you overcome an issue that is so structural?
Favorite place to eat: Eight4Nine, Spencer’s, and John Henry. I’m an ambiance person and I’m a sucker for a patio.
Favorite place to go or thing to do: Day trip to a day spa hot spring, and cocktail parties with my friends by the pool. I have to balance my exuberance with self-care.
What would you tell people about Palm Springs that they might not already know? This is the most vibrant, welcoming community. It’s so full of life and there’s such a rich history of the Golden Era of Hollywood. There’s a certain “je ne said quoi” about Palm Springs that makes it cool.
Guilty pleasure: Shopping! Buying clothes, shoes, and music. Especially vintage shopping.
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