If you are looking for the history of one of the hottest art forms around now, look no further; author, comedian and pop culture historian Frank DeCaro has written what will historically be considered the quintessential book on the art of drag with Drag; Combing Through The Big Wigs of Show Business (available now). Cracking open the book is like Dorothy walking out of her Kansas farm house into Munchkinland, getting her first view of the Land of Oz; vibrant colors fill the pages, while noted drag luminaries like Coco Peru, Sweetie, and Bianca Del Rio fill the pages.
From the earliest drag appearances on television and movies to the dolls of RuPaul’s Drag Race, we are given a master class in not just what makes this art so special today, but the path that so many took to get us where we are. I caught up with Frank exclusively for an extended chat (he spoke to us previously here: https://worldofwonder.net/comingoutsoon-drag-combing-through-the-big-wigs-of-show-business-is-one-for-the-herstory-books/)
He spoke with me about how he fell in love with the art form, why he thinks it holds up and endures, and why as members of the LGBT community, it is our responsibility to me as “even gayer than ever” right now
Michael Cook: Drag; Combing Through The Big Wigs of Show Businessis absolutely incredible. Whether you are new to the art form or a complete historian on your own, it is truly, the entire history of drag in one amazing book.
Frank De Caro: Thank you, that definitely was the goal .It was actually going to be called Dragapedia Americana when I first started the project (laughs). They actually came to me, people think that I waited my whole life to do a drag book and I guess I did, but it wasn’t my idea. About five years ago, my editor Rob Perlman told me “ I think someone should write a book on drag and I think that it should be you” and that is how it happened. I thought about it and realized “well, I guess I am Drag Hag # 1”! I hadn’t really thought of myself as that because I had not really been in the drag community, I had just been pop culture fan number one. That’s where it came from though.
MC: When do you remember falling in love with drag?
FDC: The first time that I saw drag and remember loving it, I was about four years old. I was watching the show that is still my favorite television show of all time,The Munsters. Herman Munster gets zapped by a bolt of electricity and wakes up a cocktail waitress. Basically, its just Frankenstein with sausage girls. He becomes a cocktail waitress and his wife Lily says “don’t let the customers get fresh dear”. It is like one of the first trans characters on television, I guess. I remember seeing Fred Gwynne as the Frankenstein monster in drag and thinking “this is the best thing ever”. Four or five years after that, Flip Wilson came out with one of the first variety shows hosted by an African American host. Flip would do Geraldine Jones, and that character was this feminist, attractive, sexually active, forthright, sassy hilarious drag character. America fell in love with Geraldine Jones, almost to the point that they liked her better than him! That was also a huge influence.
In the movies, it was Rocky Horror Picture Show andSome Like It Hot, and Too Wong Foo, and the drag queen Divine, I fell in love with her too; there are so many things. I have just loved so many performers who’s work clothes were those of the so called oppose sex, so I guess I just loved drag.
MC: How did drag performers in bars and nightclubs factor into your love affair with drag?
FDC: I started seeing drag performers at bars and other places and started to think “wow this is really great”. I think what I ike the most about them is that drag artists are really a throwback to an earlier time in enertainment when performers were going to make sure you had an amazing time, come hell or high water. They were going to stop at nothing to give you a good time; I think that is what drag queens do, at least the best of them. I mean you have Ivy Winters juggling knives and singing “Prisoner” from The Eyes Of Laura Mars; I mean who does that?! Straight people don’t do that, drag queens do that. Straight burlesque performers may do that, but drag queens are the true entertainers and that is why I love them. When you look at when they do a skit, it really is a Carol Burnett Show redux. It’s a throwback to burlesque and a throwback to the shows of the 70’s when Cher would come out in a Bob Macjie outfit that would slay you with their glamour, and then turn around and be hilariously funny. Drag queens are the true variety performers of our day and they are really the torch bearers for that; that is why I love them.
MC: The bookDrag; Combing Through The Big Wigs of Show Businesscontains so many different queens, it almost seems like it would be as easy as alphabetizing glitter to figure out what queens to feature and where?
FDC: I think that there is definitely an arc to the book, although it is encyclopedic. The arc sort of shows drag through time. First it was a stage medium, then it’s the movies, then it’s television, then the gays in the LGBT community like Wigstock. There is a timeline that kind of goes through the whole thing, but I tried to put in everyone that had an impact on my life. Certainly there are going to be queens that we may have missed, because you can’t get to absolutely everyone. I mean, you are going to come across another Judy Garland impersonator and say “oh my God there’s one better”! (laughs). You have to make it your own, really. Some may think that for example, there is not a big drag king contingent, and I hope that the person who writes that next book expands on drag kings. I do tip the hat to Murray Hill, who is almost like the RuPaul of drag kings, but you can’t get everyone and you do try. Anyone that ended up not included does not mean that they’re not important, sometime it just has to happen.
MC: I think it is so important that even though RuPaul’s Drag Race has exploded, knowing the history of the drag community is pertinent for the younger kids, and knowing the Mona Foot, Linda Simpson and the Miss Understood is just as important as knowing today’’s queens. How do you think we can bridge that gap between the generations?
FDC: I think we really all have to make a concerted effort and to it together. A book like Drag definitely helps, but we need something like a cruise, where the girls from Drag Race as well as Coco Peru, Jackie Beat, and Lady Bunny all attend. You need things like DragCon or Wigstock where every generation of drag is represented. At Wigstock you have an eleven year old drag kid, Desmond is Amazing, and you also have Darcelle XV, who is the Guinness World Record holder for the world’s oldest still working drag queen, and you have everything in between. I think that the right young drag queens, the smartest of the drag queens that we are going to hear about five years after they are onDrag Race, they know their history, they know the value of the history, I think they will be passing it on.
There are always people that are unfortunately oblivious to history, and you can’t do much about that. There is always going to be someone who when Ross Matthews asks Miss Vanjie about Meryl Streep, someone is gonna say “who dat” (laughs). There are ways going to be people like that, but I do think it is important to have a sense of history and I hope we can all work together to do that. Gay people have to work together to pass their history down, there are still people who want to act like we don’t exist. We did, we do and we always will; we just have to be bigmouths about it ourselves!
MC: You and your husband writer and fellow pop culture aficionado Jim Colucci both look at pop culture with your own unique eye, and focus on one area and really dive in. Jim’s book on the Golden Girls,Golden Girls Forever: An Unauthorized Look Behind The Lanaiis amazing. What is it like to have that much knowledge about something that many take for granted?
FDC: Oh I like it! You know its funny, I have been with Jim Colucci for twenty three years. I count my blessings about how terrific he and our relationship is all the time. I am just very happy that I am with someone who knows stuff. My friends are people that know stuff. I want to be surrounded by people who have pop culture at their fingertips, that is really what is interesting to me. You want to not be friends with me?-say we don’t have a television (laughs). What am I supposed to do wit that? We’re done (laughs). I just can’t imagine not caring about that stuff; it is my life blood. When you find someone to share your life with who knows even more stuff that you do…I mean, my husband is the walking IMDB! I’ll say “Jim, who’s this” and he’ll say “you know them, they were in such and such” and he just fills in the blank; you never have to look it up. I think we try and impress our enthusiasm onto other people and also it’s just fun. It’s hard to write a book about something, even things that you love. So you may as well choose something that is a labor of love, like this drag book is for me.
MC: You have completedDrag, but The Frank DeCaro Show was absolutely classic radio on Sirius OutQ. Have you found your next chapter as a host perhaps?
FDC: You know, I don’t like to repeat myself. I’m not looking to do another daily radio show, I’m not looking to do a daily anything really (laughs). My happiest years as a writer/performer are when I am working freelance because I really like my days to be my own, and I don’t like two days in a row that look like each other. Some days you write in the morning, others you write in the afternoon, some you don’t do a blessed thing! Having to be out the door at seven am the last three years of the show when I was living in LA was very hard for me. I loved when the red light was on and I loved being on the radio, but I didn’t love the daily grind of it. I am absolutely thrilled that people remember it so fondly though, it makes me feel really good. I love that people really like that show and I got to meet so many cool people, both through the show and on the air, There were eally amazing people that I got to interview, and it was pretty damn funny (laughs)!
That said, Jim and I are planning a podcast for the fall. I don’t want to say what it is just yet, but it is the kind of pop culture thing that you were alluding to. Our love of Hollywood and celebrity and stuff like that, and do some fun interviews with people that we are tickled with. It will be the way that we got to do it with our book projects, but it in an on-air kind thing. The podcast will be hopefully happening this fall for us.
MC: So what’s next for Frank DeCaro?
FDC: We are actually pitching the book as a basis for a ten part documentary series on the history of drag, may that come to pass! There is so much amazing footage out there, I need to get it back on television. If this book was about getting that picture of Herman Munster in drag into a hard back book, wanting to do a television series based on the book is my wanting to get footage from a 1978-79 Super Bowl prime-time preview special in which Jim Bailey is dressed as A Star Is Born era Barbra Streisand in an open convertible singing “Don’t Rain On My Parade”. I need that back in primetime; that is my goal. I really hope it happens.
MC: What makes you the most proud as a performer and a writer?
FDC: I think my mother said it best when she said “I don’t know why people hate gay people. They are the smartest, best looking, most polite, most savvy people I know”. That is kind of the way that I feel. If anything, I am a gay supremacist (laughs). I love that in the face of adversity, we rise to the challenge and we do it fabulously; I think that is pretty amazing. I love much of our community and I think that we are a very formidable group. I think when you see someone like Pete Buttigieg running for President…I mean, it’s not some sort of a joke like it would have been when I was younger. He is impressive and even if he does not get the nomination, just to hear someone that eloquent, in the face of so much hate and stupidity that we are faced with every day in the political arena, is a relief. To have someone smart who speaks to many languages, it is great to possibly have the class bully not running things. I think that’s what is so hard right now, we all work so hard and the kid who had every advantage and was a real jerk is on top right now. That is why it is so disconcerting, it throws into question our whole lives. We are taught to believe that ultimately, the smartest and most big hearted person wins out. Ultimately I do think that will happen, but right now you have to remind yourself that.
It’s like you can only take the news in in small doses, because it is disheartening to deal with so much information that is awful. I think that gay people rise to the occasion; the way we did during the AIDS crisis, the way that we are during a political crisis, we are stepping it up. It is no coinceindence that RuPaul’s Drag Raceis as hot as it is right now, during this conservative political climate. The moment that Donald Trump was declared the winner in the election, I though “oh my god, I am going to have to be even gayer, this is gonna be exhausting-but I am gonna do it anyway”. I think that was the clarion call that a lot of gay people heard. We have to be even gayer than we were yesterday. If you are smart and you are loud, you have to open your mouth and step up to the plate. Put on your armor, we are going out to the front lines! I thought…could I even be gayer? I just wrote a drag book, so yes (laughs)!
Grab a copy of Drag at http:// https://www.amazon.com/Drag-Combing-Through-Wigs-Business/dp/0847862356