San Francisco has changed both rapidly and radically over recent years. As it’s become more appealing both for cosmopolitan urbanites and the exploding tech sector, gentrification has blessed The City by the Bay with the most expensive one-bedroom apartment in America, even surpassing New York. Many mourn the loss of an earlier San Francisco and its formerly affordable counterculture and queer subculture, while San Francisco documentary photographer and filmmaker James Hosking manages to actually catch some of the twilight.
For his series, Beautiful by Night, Hosking documents the lives of three senior drag queens Donna Personna, Collette LeGrande and Olivia Hart, performers at aunt Charlie’s Lounge, the very last gay bar in San Francisco’s Tenderloin district. The notoriously seedy Tenderloin has managed to mostly resist gentrification on the merits of its reputation and a concerted effort by inhabitants. Still, without the surrounding culture of a former San Francisco to sustain it, the once vibrant queer scene has faded.
Hosking’s photographs are intimate and unflinching, but the mini-documentary is also an amazing portrait of three drag foremothers. Their reflections and reminiscing are complex but disarmingly at peace, and their performances and beauty rituals are (as expected) hypnotic.
Ricky Renee was—ahem, is—a cross-dressing cabaret performer. He was born in 1925 in Indiana and is still fabulous to this very day. (Here’s his website.) In 1967 Britsh Pathé did a short news item about him called “Quick Change Artist,” which is hilarious and a bit poignant in what they are and aren’t saying out loud. Basically Pathé‘s strategy with a cabaret artist as self-evidently awesome as Ricky Renee was to present him as essentially, a magician.
Ricky grew up in Florida but quickly made his way to NYC and then London and the European continent after that. Information about him isn’t the easiest to come by. It’s telling that there is an entry for him at wikipedia.de, the German Wikipedia, but none whatsoever at the English-language Wikipedia. Here’s his bio from wikipedia.de, translated into English:
At the age of 12 Ricky left Indiana and moved to Florida. At 14 he went to New York, where he worked as a dance teacher and an elevator operator and in cabarets. In addition, he studied acting with Katherine Dunham and for several years perfoemed at the “Jewel Box.” Finally, he put together his own show, for which he served as choreographer, designed and sewed all the costumes, and in which he conducted his orchestra. He then made his way to London, where his international show career began.
Ricky Renée performed with, among others, Ella Fitzgerald, Josephine Baker, and Jayne Mansfield, all of whom he imitated on the stage. He toured with his show in Paris, Vienna, Rome and along the French Riviera.
In her book Striptease: The Untold History of the Girlie Show, Rachel Shteir has a passing reference to Ricky that reads as follows: “Like female strippers, each drag artist developed his own style. Ricky Renee began in a silver bra, which, after taking it off, he held to his chest to disguise the absence of breasts. He stripped down to a silver G-string with a question mark on the front.” Yeah!
He had a part in Goodbye Gemini (a.k.a. Twinsanity), a 1970 British thriller featuring Michael Redgrave, and he also appeared in Bob Fosse’s great 1972 movie Cabaret.
I’m a little obsessed with Ricky. If you know anything about him and his act, by all means write a comment!
Lady Bunny, Misstress Formika, Sweetie, Anna Conda and Tabboo! at the Pyramid Club. (August, 1992)
Drag queen Linda Simpson has been photographing the downtown New York drag scene since the early 1980s and has the portfolio to prove it. While Linda jokes that she “still hasn’t learned to sing or lipsynch,” her charisma and wit made her the perfect emcee for countless parties, clubs, and events.
In addition to her skills as an entertainer and hostess, Linda is an accomplished playwright, and she founded queer zine, My Comrade. The self-described “revolutionary gay magazine” was conceived as a whip-smart, irreverent piece of underground publishing, and, after a ten year lapse, was revamped in 2004.
As one of the early historians of the community, Simpson has recently begun hosting retrospectives of her photography as a narrated slide show (isn’t that intimate?), called The Drag Explosion. The pictures are incredibly engaging, and not for the reasons one might assume. Of course the ladies are gregarious and dressed to the nines—the idea of a photogenic drag performer isn’t really difficult to imagine.
What makes Simpson’s work so unexpected is that she catches her subjects at spontaneous poses, in impromptu snapshots, and covert candids. The project is so natural, it feels more like a family album than a historical record. You can check out more of Linda Simpson’s photography on her website.
Little Whitney and Juan. (Spring, 1989)
Donald and Liz in Pyramid Club dressing room. (April, 1991)
Billy Beyond at Wigstock. (September, 1994)
Lady Bunny at Wigstock. (September, 1988)
Ida Ho and friend at Wigstock. (September, 1994)
Ever the historian, Simpson even took a picture of RuPaul’s 1993 appearance on ‘The Arsenio Hall Show’
I ended my first Notes from the Niallist column by mentioning the collective I am a co-founder of, and performer with, called Tranarchy.
Frankly, it’s Tranarchy that has been taking up most of time, and distracting me from mining the cultural coal face for Dangerous Minds. But that’s the trade-off I guess, as Tranarchy is helping to create the diamonds people discover under all that dust.
As the name would suggest, Tranarchy is a drag-and-trans-heavy collective interested in subverting, and commenting on, normative gender roles. I know that all sounds very serious, but Tranarchy is dedicated to putting the fun first, and letting people discover the message for themselves, without having it rammed down their throats. There’s just too much hectoring in this world already, and not enough people willing to lead by example, i.e. living the life they want to live regardless of what society says. Sniff all you like at the supposed frivolity of drag queens and the “feminine” aesthetic, as historically has been the case with male-dominated, straight society, but always remember how much guts it takes to flaunt your otherness in public.
Besides the political aspect, however, there’s something almost magical going on with Tranarchy. And I mean “magical” in terms of seeing dreams and desires become a reality. We started the collective just over a year ago, and as we have grown at a surprising rate, we have managed to put on events and happenings that, just 18 months ago, we (literally) could only have dreamed of.
So far, we have hosted Manchester’s first ever vogue ball, called Vogue Brawl (now into its second year.) We’ve held a number of interactive film screenings in the style of the legendary Peaches Christ’s Midnight Mass in San Francisco (Showgirls, Zoolander, Mad Max: The Road Warrior with Empire Drive-In and Abandon Normal Devices.) We have created promo videos and photos shoots for our events that show off much of Manchester’s untapped talent, and these are beginning to get attention in the States and further beyond. Our most popular film so far is the promo for Vogue Brawl 2: Pride Is Burning, which can be basically summed up as “The Warriors in drag.”
The collective is very aware of gay and trans history and we want to celebrate that. We’ve held a few outlaw parties inspired by the original New York club kids James St James and Michael Alig, and documented them in the style of the sadly-missed pioneering NYC videographer Nelson Sullivan.
This is where it gets interesting, though. Our first outlaw party was a reclaiming of the Manchester tram system, which, as anyone who has ever used public transport will know, can get pretty hairy if you stand out in any way. Our last outlaw party was even bigger, in terms of execution and impact. It was an invasion of, and statement about, Manchester’s annual “Pride” festival of gay culture and awareness.
Every year, Manchester Pride is held in the city’s Gay Village and attracts up to 40,000 people, making it one of the flagship gay Pride festivals in the UK. However, the amount of money raised for charity as opposed to the amount of money raised for personal profit has been a major, running issue for a while, as has the fact that a festival celebrating gay visibility, and interaction with the wider, local community, is held in a walled-off compound that charges people to enter.
However, the one thing the Manchester Pride organizers don’t have control over is the large canal that runs right through the Gay Village, and along side Canal St, where much of the festivities take place. So, as a bit of a lark, Tranarchy took a barge down to the Village this year, and crashed the Pride party to perform a few numbers and make a basic point.
We have issued an official Tranarchy statement detailing some of the problems with Manchester Pride to accompany the YouTube video, and here is an extract from that:
Freeing Pride is not an attack on Pride as a party, and it is not just about the fences and the ticket prices. Its about setting Pride free from the businesses and individuals who seek profit before the well-being of our community. It’s about asking what the event is really about, who benefits from it who should pay for it, and remembering why we do it in the first place! Its about asking whats more important; extra cash for an organization reaching out to the most vulnerable among us, or getting to see Steps [90s pop band] one last time before they slip into room 101?
In short, we were all incredibly nervous about pulling this stunt, but it turned out better than we could have hoped. Check out the old voguing queen we encountered at the end of the video, in the Piccadilly basin, which is a well-known cruising ground:
Our YouTube video channel is here, and for regular news updates, subscribe to Tranarchy on Facebook.
This 90-minute film is edited together extracts of the Divine David’s late 90s Channel 4 show The Divine David Presents, produced by World Of Wonder.
At the time this show originally aired was one of the most out-there things on TV, and you know what, it’s still pretty damn bizarre and hilarious. Thanks, of course, to the wonderful stylings of the Divine David himself, who now goes by his real name of David Hoyle and regularly performs in London and Manchester.
If any one person was responsible for kicking drag square on the backside and, erm, dragging it into the 21st Century, it was David Hoyle. You could even say his look goes beyond drag, as it’s an over-the-top parody of a form that is already a parody, and which coupled with his pissed-and-paranoid English gent persona can lead to belly laughs simply from a knowing glance or a flick of the wrist. It can be grotesque, yes, but I dare you not to laugh the laugh of wrongness.
‘Til this day David Hoyle remains criminally neglected outside of the UK, and under-rated even in his homeland (except to comedy nerds that is - Chris Morris and Charlie Brooker personally selected Hoyle for the older rock star character in Nathan Barley.) His strange comic genius is as relevant as ever, and needs more exposure - so please, PLEASE World Of Wonder, don’t yank this off YouTube!
If there’s any one artist who represents everything that was revolutionary about disco music, it was Sylvester. It doesn’t matter how many Bee Gees, Ethel Mermans, Rod Stewarts, Boney Ms et al you can throw at the genre as a reason to hate it, the fact is that if it wasn’t for disco there is no way that a linebacker-sized, black, openly gay, outrageous, gender-bending performer like him could have reached the top of the world’s charts.
Sylvester broke every taboo going. In fact he didn’t just break them: he tore them up, threw them on the floor and stamped on them with uproarious glee, all while dragging you out to dance with his irresistable energy. He didn’t have to shout about any of his social or political inclinations because he was already living them, out in the open, for everyone to see.
Sylvester didn’t make “political music” because he didn’t have to: Sylvester’s very existence was inherently political.
That to me is the rub when it comes down to “disco” versus “punk”, and all that bullshit snobbery and scorn rock fans heaped on disco. Contrast Sylvester with any one of the gangs of middle class, straight, angry-at-whatever white boys that were supposedly turning the world upside down in the name of “punk” and it becomes clear who was really pushing social boundaries.
The fact that the music was instantaneous and accessible only deepens the subversive effect. It’s unfortunate that “disco” has become an easy way to dismiss that which genuinely does not fit the rock cannon’s hardened mould, be it for reasons of race, gender or sexuality, but the music itself never died away. It reverberates still with an incredible, universal power. Sylvester was a supremely talented vocalist and performer, and I just couldn’t take seriously any music aficionado who claimed not to be moved by “(You Make Me Feel) Mighty Real” (not to mention “I Who Have Nothing,” “I Need You,” “Do You Wanna Funk,” “I Need Somebody To Love Tonight,” etc, etc.)
And besides, if I had a choice between a bunch of white punk boys or black drag queens, I know who I’d rather party with.
Unsung is a series produced by TV One profiling some of the more over-looked, yet supremely talented, names in black music from the 70s and 80s. There’s much to enjoy here if soul, funk and R&B are your thing. Other artists covered include Teddy Pendergrass, Zapp, Rose Royce, the Spinners and many more.
But for now let’s just enjoy the uplifting, touching and ultimately tragic story of the real queen of disco music:
Texan drag sensation Christeene Vale is back and she’s durtier than ever. “African Mayonnaise” is taken from her upcoming album Waste Up Knees Down - and while she may not be crawling out of a butthole a lá the video for “Bustin’ Brown”, I think there’s some sort of commentary going on here. I’m not sure exactly what but I guess it has something to do with life in modern, late-capitalist America?
I am your new celebrity
I am your new America
I am the piece of filthy meat
That you take home and treat to yourself
I don’t feel like there’s been a drag act this out-there (and hence exciting!) in a looong time, and I await her full length album with glee (no, not the stupid show). We’ll be doing our best to get an exclusive interview with Christeene for DM, or even better her “handler” Paul Soileau, so keep your eyes and ears peeled.
But for now, just check out the video. “African Mayonaise” is good. No, it’s better than good, it’s great - I’d say it’s Christeene’s best video yet. As she rides roughshod over some nasty synth horns and slick dubstep beats, we see some real world reactions to this, ahem, unusual character, including getting chased out of a mall by a cop on a Segway, being heckled by Christians and being assaulted by a member of the Church Of Scientology. You GO girl!
So, dear readers, this is one of the things I do when I am not busy scribbling and posting here on DM - I am part of a Joy Division tribute act called Joyce D’Vision. As the name would suggest, it’s not just any run-of-the-mill tribute act - it’s a drag queen tribute, fusing those two quintessentially Northern English traits of woe-is-me miserableism and end-of-the-pier transvestitism.
Before you ask, no, I am not Joyce D’Vision herself, but rather Noel Order, keyboard whizz extraordinaire and Bontempi aficionado. Joyce is played by the very talented Joe Spencer, and we are often joined on stage by other queens such as Sheela Blige, Kurt Dirt and Sahara Dolce. Joyce has been lucky enough to share the stage with British queer performance legends like David Hoyle (The Divine David) and Scottee Scottee (Eat Your Heart Out), but those were just warm-ups for what happened last week…
A few months ago Joe took part in a reality competition show May The Best House Win, where Joyce and friends had a cameo near the end. The program was finally broadcast last Tuesday, and seen by the comedian Harry Hill, himself a fan of Joy Division. Harry hosts a show called TV Burp, which looks over the best bits of the last week’s telly, and he invited Joyce and her friends to London to sing live on the show. Joyce performed as the final segment on the final show of the series, which was broadcast right before X Factor. Meaning that this went out on a Saturday evening, just after dinner time when everyone’s getting ready to watch the biggest show of the week. Seriously - that’s prime fucking time.
The reaction since (mostly gauged through Twitter) has been interesting - some people really get it, while others have stated that Ian Curtis would be rolling in his grave. I like to think Curtis would have seen the funny side, as would Tony Wilson I’m sure, and we have heard through the grapevine that there are even Joyce fans in the New Order camp.
Joyce D’Vision is not done out of hatred of the band or the man, but rather from love - and a simple desire to deflate the pomposity that surrounds JD and their legend, as perpetuated by magazines like NME and high street stores like Primark (currently selling an Ian Curtis t-shirt). So while the idea (and sight) of a fat, bearded man in a wig singing a boss nova version of “Love Will Tear Us Apart” is definitely going to rub some people up the wrong way, I’m pretty sure our readers here at DM can handle it:
From the Canadian sketch show SCTV, this clip has been causing some confusion among Divine fans as it’s labelled on YouTube “Divine as Peter Pan”. Thankfully original Dreamlander Mink Stole was on hand to help clear the matter up:
That’s not Divine— I think it’s actually John Candy doing a Divine parody—which is in itself a tribute.
Who knew Candy made such a good drag queen?!
BONUS! Here’s Candy, again as Divine, doing “Santa Bring My Baby Back To Me”
What the hell?! How has this sailed under my radar for so long? And more to the point, how come nobody thought of this before? Tarantino and Rodriguez, I’m looking at you…
As the title may suggest, Ticked-Off Trannies With Knives is a very low budget exploitation flick about a group of transgendered, transvestite and cisgendered ladies who suffer a brutal trans-phobic bashing one night, and decide to take matters into their own hands. Knives, revenge and sheer-black catsuits ensue. Because it takes balls to get revenge. Of course, this isn’t some kind of modern masterpiece-in-waiting, but dammit, it looks like A LOT of fun! The premise is neat, the direction looks good, and the cast is very spirited. What more do you need out of an exploitation flick? Planet of Terror blog has this to say:
I know we all need another retrosploitation movie like we need a hole in the head. But writer/director Israel Luna is genuinely gifted and he has a knack for both the comedic as well as the over the top insanity which is needed to make these types of films work. ... It’s bloody, it’s gory, it’s howlingly good fun.
More on Ticked-Off Trannies With Knives at the official website (including DVD, screening and Netflix info)
Thanks to Dean Birkett for the tip off!
Meet Christeene Vale, one of the hottest drag artists in the US right now, and the weirdest thing to come out of Austin this week. If you think the Odd Future gang are shocking, then get a load of this chick. Sure, Tyler and Earl may feature blood and puke in their videos, but would they ever actually set a video inside somebody’s asshole? And as much as I like their beats, I don’t think they could make a dubstep track as downright nasty as “Slowly/Easy”. Still, they’re only teenagers and they’ve got a lot to learn about sex and sexuality. Maybe Christeene is the MC to teach them?
Christeene is the alter-ego of the artist Paul Soileau (who also performs as Rebecca Havemeyer) and since her debut in 2009 with the “Fix My Dick” clip, she has been making waves on both the gay and straight performance scenes. Although Soileau refuses to define Christeene or her “message”, others, like Skip The Make Up, have this to say:
[Even] though Soileau is of Cajun background, the way Chrsteene speaks/sings is clearly supposed to sound non-white. Therefore… the act is really him portraying a trans hooker of color who is massively fucked up and screwing to survive. You may now laugh.
While commenter TheWarholEffect defends her in the comments to the same post:
The patois you speak of is found in a variety of representations of impoverished ethnicities (incl those at least nominally labeled as white - but as you know in Louisianna whiteness ain’t monolithic, Cajuns being perhaps the best example) ... more productive, I think, would be to put Christeene alongside a performer such as Vaginal Creme Davis, whose brand of drag cultural critic Jose Esteban Munoz has branded “terrorist” drag.
Well, despite what you may think of her, you can’t deny that she’s pretty damn talented, with a lyrical flow that puts her beyond the realm of being a mere novelty act. Next weekend she will make her live debut as a showcase artist at the SXSW festival, where her video “Bustin’ Brown” will be shown as part of the Midnight Shorts schedule. Yes, “Bustin Brown” is the butt-set video. The director PJ Raval has this to say about itr:
In “Bustin’ Brown”, the fourth installment of the CHRISTEENE Video Collection, CHRISTEENE confronts the ever-present bastardization of anal sex from mainstream bourgeois heterosexuals by returning “da buh-hole” to its rightful owners.
Just when you thought drag was becoming safe and respectable! Christeene has been known to wear a butt-plug attached to helium balloons in her performance, and to set it free to sail up into the sky at the end of her shows. If you’re lucky, she might do that at SXSW. Now THAT"S something I would like to see on Jimmy Fallon!
Christeene - Bustin’ Brown (TOTALLY NSFW - duh)
“Fix My Dick and “Slowly/Easy” after the jump…
There’s more info on Christeene at her website: www.christeene.org
You can buy her EP Soldiers Of Pleasurehere.
Drag artiste John Epperson as his glamorous alter ego “Lypsinka” performing at The Tiffany Theatre in Los Angeles, 2001. Lypsinka! The Boxed Set was the winner of the LA Weekly’s “Best Solo Performance Award” that year. This video is a great look at a brilliant performer, really on fire here.
Here’s an interesting aside to the Paris Is Burning post from yesterday. Dorian Corey, the older drag queen featured heavily in the film, kept a mummified corpse in her apartment for an untold amount of years. Shot in the head, wrapped in fake leather and stuffed in a suitcase, it was only discovered after her death.
Figueroa said the body was “half-way” between mummified and decomposed. “When you have all this wrapping no air is getting to it” he explained. “But it is still losing liquid out of its body. So the body sort of floats in its own soup.” The skin was in very bad shape. “It was like very old fabric” Figueroa said. “If you touch it, it’s going to fall apart.” Figueroa spent several days treating the skin so he could take ten fingerprints off it.
I asked Figueroa if he thought the person who wrapped the body in imitation leather was trying to emulate the Egyptians. I thought it possible that Dorian Corey was into high camp with dead bodies as well as live ones.
“I don’t think so” he said. “People just wrap a body in whatever is available. It’s just spontaneous. You wrap it up. Then you put it in a suitcase. Then you put it in the closet. Then you just look at it periodically and wish it would go away.”
To this day nobody knows for sure who killed Bobby Worley or why. The full story, from a 1995 issue of New York magazine, can be read here. This is a bona fide legend of the drag scene, so it’s good to finally get the full low down. Or at least as much of it as possible.
Thanks to Geoff for digging this out!
Released twenty years ago this year, Paris Is Burning is one of the all-time great music documentaries. It’s not really about music though, it’s about the mid 80’s gay/drag “vogue” subculture that sprung up in New York City, and the adverse social conditions overcome by the contestants (mostly black and Hispanic transvestites and transsexuals). The music is in the background, but plays as important a role as the clothes, the make-up, the settings or the interviews.
This time, this place, and unfortunately most of these people don’t exist anymore. This upload won’t for long either, as it keeps getting yanked - so seriously, if you haven’t watched this film before, watch it now while you can. The director Jennie Livingston has never made another film that garnered as much praise and sadly, for most of the queens involved, this was as famous as they were ever gonna get. Despite being some of the most funny, articulate and charming people ever seen on film. They never had a penny to their names, which is probably why they threw the best parties in the world.
Voguing wasn’t just some hyped up fad that was hot for a New York minute (well, maybe if you are Madonna), - it has a rich, complex history and is just as big a subculture now as it was then, bigger maybe, with the dancing developed to new super-athletic extremes and the balls bolder events. Vogue dancing and vogue balls are an overlooked part of both gay and black history and culture, but more and more they getting the attention and recognition they deserve. Due in so small part to this remarkable film.
As I thought, this film wouldn’t last long on Vimeo. However, someone has thankfully uploaded it to YouTube too:
If you’re like me, your atheism has been challenged by the sheer force of certain metaphysically oriented artforms. One of those forms for me is African-American gospel music. One of the greats of that genre, the Grammy-winning Rev. Walter Hawkins, died yesterday of pancreatic cancer. Hawkins had plenty of Billboard chart success leading his Love Center Choir. Significantly, he’ll also be remembered as head of an Oakland, CA church that wholly embraced and was supported by folks like disco singer, drag queen and gay icon Sylvester.
Hawkins’ initial success came as part of his brother’s group the Edwin Hawkins Singers, which had a crossover hit with 1967’s “Oh Happy Day.” According to Joshua Gamson’s The Fabulous Sylvester, the Legend, the Music, the Seventies in San Francisco:
Hawkins was one of those who left church, but as he grew older he started looking for a way to bring together “all those young people who I knew could not survive in a traditional church setting.”
One of those was the young Sylvester James, who was a well-known child gospel singer in his LA hometown before running away and eventually moving to San Francisco. By the time he’d arrived at Hawkins’ Bible study group-turned-church the Love Center, Sylvester had already done a short stint with local psychedelic drag performance group The Cockettes and performed with the then-unknown Pointer Sisters. When he tells the anecdote about Love Center members’ jaded acceptance of a prostitute into their ranks, Gamson notes: “They took the same attitude to Sylvester. His strangeness, when it was even noticed, was beloved.” In fact, the Love Center Choir would appear on numerous mid-‘80s Sylvester tunes, including “Call Me” and his cover of Stevie Wonder’s “Living for the City.”
When Sylvester died of complications from AIDS in 1988 at age 41, his memorial service was held at the Love Center. According to J. Matthew Cobb of Prayzehymm Online, the gospel industry and the black church in general has a lot of work to do with regards to its gay membership.