Phyllis Diller (1917-2012) was a sassy, screeching, rat-a-tat-tat comic who helped open the door for future generations of funny females such as Joan Rivers, Chelsea Handler and Ellen DeGeneres. She was a strong-willed entertainer who challenged the status quo regarding gender and sexuality. Diller had a large LGBTQ following and she remains a true Gay Icon.
She wasn’t first woman to do stand-up comedy, but she was one of the most influential. There were a few women in Burlesque and Vaudeville before her, but few could dispense one-liners with such machine-gun precision or win over an audience with such an outrageous personality. Her trademarks were a crazy unkempt wig, wrist-length gloves, cloth-covered ankle boots, and a bejeweled cigarette holder.
She was also one of the first celebrities to be open about her plastic surgery, for which she was recognized by the industry. In 1971, she told Bob Hope that she had had a face-lift because: “I got sick and tired of having the dog drag me out to the yard and bury me.”
Diller was famous for telling jokes that mocked her distinctive looks, her aversion to housekeeping, and a husband she called “Fang”. In real life she married twice; her second husband, Warde Donovan Tatum, was gay.
“I once wore a peekaboo blouse. People would peek and then they’d boo.”
She worked in 40 films, starting with Splendor In The Grass (1961), theatre, television and nightclubs. In the 1970s and 1980s she appeared as a piano soloist with many symphony orchestras across the country under the name Dame Illya Dillya. The performances were peppered with jokes, but the music was serious.
She worked on Broadway, playing the lead role in Hello, Dolly! in 1969 and 1970. She painted, too, with show in important galleries in NYC and L.A. And she wrote six bestsellers books, including Phyllis Diller’s Housekeeping Hints, The Joys Of Aging And How To Avoid Them and a memoir Like A Lampshade An a Whorehouse.
“Gay men have the most wonderful sense of humor. And they are willing to laugh. They appeal to me and I appeal to them.”