Rogue intellectual Camille Puglia talks to the New York Observer about the role of drag over the last 50 years, from the subversive artistry of Warhol and his followers to current pop culture sensation RuPaul’s Drag Race (with a special shout-out to Manila Luzon!).
NY Observer: Have you followed the evolution of drag culture over the last several decades, and what do you think of its evolution?
Camille Paglia: It was Andy Warhol’s early black-and-white short films, above all Harlot, which I saw in college shortly after it was shot in 1964, that first made me see drag as a major art form. Mario Montez as a trashy Jean Harlow seductively unpeeling and eating a banana was electrifying! Warhol’s other drag stars—Jackie Curtis, Holly Woodlawn, and Candy Darling—were major icons for me and my innermost circle in that decade. It’s one of the primary reasons I still call myself a Warholite.
Another landmark was the 1968 movie, The Queen, where a New York drag contest judged by Warhol was won by a gorgeous blonde called Rachel Harlow (Richard Finocchio from Philadelphia). David Bowie saw that film at Cannes and was heavily influenced by Harlow’s innovative soft look. Then there was a huge underground scandal in Philadelphia when Grace Kelly’s uber-athletic heterosexual brother, John B. Kelly, Jr., fell in love with Harlow and was driven out of the mayor’s race by his own vengefully Catholic mother!…
After the gender-bending 1960s, with its unisex haircuts and flamboyant Mod outfits, there was a cultural reaction: during the 1970s, newly liberated post-Stonewall gay men turned macho clone (jeans, lumberjack shirts, mustaches). The pornographic illustrator Tom of Finland (whom I revere) provided the black-leather master plan for the new s&m look. Drag queens were suddenly out—spurned as a residue of the humiliating era when gay men were automatically classified as effeminate. As I emphasized in the catalog essay that I wrote for the Victoria & Albert Museum’s giant exhibition of David Bowie’s costumes in 2013, the androgynous Bowie of his brilliant Ziggy Stardust phase was stunningly bold in defying the stereotypical masculine conventions of the current gay movement.
The drag resurgence began with the 1978 Franco-Italian movie, La Cage Aux Folles, based on a French play and set in Saint Tropez. Both the film and the 1983 Broadway musical of that name proved to be immensely popular with mainstream audiences. That crossover appeal continued with the surprise smash hits of two drag queen comedies, The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert (1994) and To Wong Foo Thanks for Everything, Julie Newmar (1995)…
Hence my amazement and delight at the gradual mainstreaming of drag, which can be traced from RuPaul’s first VH1 show in 1996 to the enormous success of RuPaul’s Drag Race, which debuted in 2009 and is still going strong. RuPaul’s strict dictates over his brood of apprentice queens are overtly teacherly—like Eve Arden in “Our Miss Brooks.”
But we must not forget how controversial drag once was. For example, after a talk at New York’s 92nd Street Y on my 1994 book tour for Vamps & Tramps, my friends, including Glenn Belverio in full drag as Glennda Orgasm, impulsively decided to go to Elaine’s, the famous Upper East Side bar and restaurant frequented by writers, actors and artists.
I had never been to Elaine’s and had no idea what to expect. As I made my way through the crowded, noisy first room with Glennda (looming over me at 6’1” even without heels), we had to squeeze by the equally tall actor Tony Roberts, known for his work with Woody Allen. Even now, 23 years later, I can still see the shockingly intense and intimidating look of hatred and contempt on Roberts’ face when he saw Glennda daring to trespass in that uptown shrine. The hypocrisy of elite bourgeois liberals! After we were all seated in the back, it became clear that service was purposefully slow and neglectful. I did not identify myself, but I vowed never to return to Elaine’s. My revenge was to give the story to Page Six at the New York Post—my usual perch for attacking the Manhattan establishment!
Regarding your question about drag’s evolution, I think it has recently trended toward courtly masque—which was the highly ornate and often allegorical style of theater that developed after Shakespeare’s generation of playwrights, who focused on plot and character. The performers of masque in England, France, and Italy were often aristocrats or even the king himself. Masque had skeletal plots but extravagant costumes and lots of music and dance, sometimes with special effects of fire or water. Ultimately, masque gave birth to classical ballet.
The contestants on RuPaul’s Drag Race are fiercely drawn characters who carry their own plots in their head. They are as competitive and militant as masters of the martial arts. It’s very interesting how the high-fashion runway (symbol of an industry condemned by mainstream feminism right through the 1990s) has not only survived but become a now-universal symbol of self-presentation and performance.
I must admit to some nostalgia for the pre-Stonewall era of drag, when there were great Hollywood stars like Marlene Dietrich, Mae West, Bette Davis, Tallulah Bankhead, and Judy Garland to impersonate. Sometimes contemporary drag seems a bit too Halloweenish—that is, random, stunt-like, and divorced from myth or psychology. But Halloween was a sacred day for me in childhood, when I startled people with my eccentric transgender costumes—Robin Hood, a Roman soldier, a matador, Napoleon, Hamlet. (It spilled over into adulthood: my new book reproduces a 1992 photo of me from People magazine where I’m flashing a switchblade knife while impersonating a street-fighter from West Side Story.)
I am very glad to see the older, more regal style of drag still flourishing in Manila Luzon, who does antic humor with her Fanny Brice crossed eyes but who also possesses genuine sensuality and mystery, a magic vibration. In her “Eternal Queen” video, where she mourned the death of her partner, Manila’s range and depth of feeling were on open display. She is the rare performer who is equally adept at comedy and tragedy.
Alright Manila! Take that prestigious shout-out and run with it!