40 Years Before “RuPaul’s Drag Race” There Was “The Queen.” Now The Iconic Documentary Is Back

"Where is Sabrina—I will sue the bitch!"

The camera pans to a fey young man preening before the mirror as half-dressed drag queens cluck and bitch around him. But it’s not an episode of RuPaul’s Drag Race—it’s The Queen, the 1968 documentary chronicling a drag pageant at New York’s Town Hall.

The Queen

While the sound quality gives away its age, The Queen is astonishingly modern: In between rehearsing for the Miss All-America Camp Beauty Contest, the girls talk about being queens, having boyfriends and husbands, transitioning, even serving in the military. And the drama we’ve come to expect from Drag Race is right there, too. If you think Shangela was robbed, wait until you hear Crystal LaBeija go off after losing the crown.

“Crystal didn’t care about how bad she would look—she knew she was right to be upset. That was all that mattered,” says All-Stars 3 queen Aja, who went as LaBeija for “Snatch Game.” “As someone who has faced racism in the drag community as well, I know she has taught me to own myself and stick up for myself when I need to.”

At the heart of the documentary, is that 24-year-old boy: Jack, better known as drag matron Flawless Sabrina, who both produced the pageant and narrates the film.

JOIN US! MAY 10, 2018 • 8:00pm In 1967, Jack Doroshow aka FLAWLESS SABRINA produced a legendary drag pageant at The Town Hall. It was documented in the film, "The Queen," which was selected for Cannes Film Festival in 1968 and came to be regarded as a landmark of queer culture. Over the years Flawless served as mother and mentor to hundreds of artists and musicians, and countless more people. On November 18, 2017 Flawless Sabrina passed away at age 78. The Town Hall celebrates the legacy. Featuring a screening of the film, followed by musical tributes by Taylor @taylormacnyc Mac, Justin Vivian Bond, @mxviv The House of Labeija @houseoflabeija and more. https://www1.ticketmaster.com/event/0300547613605A8A #mothersabrina #jackdoroshow #taylormac #drag #flawless #hailthequeen #icon #artsandculture #townhall #townhallnyc #youngpatronscircle #nextgeneration #connect #community #nyc #newyork #history #flawlesssabrina #performance #arts

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Directed by Frank Simon, The Queen made a splash when it was first released, including a premiere at Cannes. Sabrina rubbed elbows with Warhol and the Factory superstars, and was photographed by Diane Arbus. In more recent years the film fell into obscurity but the rising fascination with drag culture has brought it back to the fore.

In fact, Aja impersonated Crystal on “Snatch Game” just this year.

RuPaul's Drag Race

Sabrina passed away on November 18 away at the age of 78. A flurry of articles after her death brought The Queen even more renewed interest, and prompted Town Hall artistic director M.A. Papper and downtown impresario Tigger! to plan a unique tribute: On May 10, A Flawless Night: Long Live the Queen comes to Town Hall, featuring a screening of the film followed by live performances by artists influenced by Sabrina.

“It was always just around,” Tigger! says of his first encounter with The Queen. “It was this video cassette that was just passed around. I already knew about Jackie Curtis and Holly Woodlawn, but this was something else entirely.”

The Queen
 

Years later, in the early 2000s, he actually met Flawless at the Cheez Whiz party at Parkside Lounge. “Not performing,” he clarifies. “She was—well, I wouldn’t say ’holding court’ because that wasn’t her style—but she was just hanging out.” A rapport developed and the two continued to see each other on the scene. Still it wasn’t for a few years that Tigger! connected the dots.

“I had already been to her apartment—which was this amazing, like, salon—when someone mentioned something about The Queen and I was like, ’Wait a minute, YOU’RE HER?!?”

He praises Sabrina, Crystal, Harlow, and the other queens in The Queen, not just for being great entertainers and foremothers to today’s queer nightlifers, but for their bravery: Homosexuality and cross-dressing were still against the law in the 1960s: Sabrina had been arrested dozens of times—she could have been arrested just for screening the film.

“The balls that it took to do those pageants back then,” Tigger! says. “It’s hard enough now, let alone then. Do it at Town Hall—and to have FILMED! That took chutzpah.”

Even as drag edges toward the mainstream, Aja says The Queen is essential viewing: “It highlights the underground-ness of drag back in the day and the difference between then and now. A lot of people don’t realize how that documentary shaped a lot of what drag is today without even trying.”

Sabrina stayed active in New York nightlife for decades, mentoring future generations of drag queens, burlesquers, musicians, and performance artists like Taylor Mac. Mac will perform at A Flawless Night, as will Justin Vivian Bond, Linda Simpson, and the House of Labeija. “All the performers represent performers Sabrina loved and supported,” he says. “We thought celebrating that would be a much better to honor her than with an evening of endless speeches.” Rather than a memorial, he adds, “We want to make the kind of show she would piss herself at.”

Long live The Queen.


A Flawless Night takes place May 10 at 8pm at Town Hall in New York.

 

Dan Avery is a writer-editor who focuses on culture, breaking news and LGBT rights. His work has appeared in Newsweek, The New York Times, Time Out New York, The Advocate and elsewhere.
@ItsDanAvery