The Library Is Open: A Herstory of Shady Drag Queens

From Divine to Dorian Corey, Holly Woodlawn to Jane Lane, these legends defined shade for decades to come.

Pictured above: Divine.

Why are some drag queens so damn shady? Well, maybe because they’re generally gay men—and flamboyant ones at that—who suffer the brunt of oppression and might end up slithering around the rules to get noticed and survive. Or because they’re regularly called upon to throw shade in their acts, so maybe that spills into their offstage lives and they crazily forget to turn off the sass. Perhaps they are in desperate need of cash because a lot of them only get paid in tips and bar nuts. It’s possible that they’re just wack. Or, maybe, it’s simply that they’re people, and like, all people, most of them are very decent, but a few bad apples threaten to spoil the whole makeup palette.

Sherry Pie (from this season’s RuPaul’s Drag Race) is only the most recent example of this phenomenon. New York-based Joey Gugliemelli—Sherry’s legal name—was caught falsely telling various guys that he was a casting agent and getting them to do all sorts of naughty things for the camera, while pretending this could help them land a role. But it ended up losing Sherry a role. After she got called out and admitted to wrongdoing, Drag Race did the right thing by disqualifying Sherry from the finals, while also completing some careful editing.

But that’s hardly all. Here is a brief history of some of the other queens who have messed up the most egregiously.

Leee Black Childers/Redferns

Divine (A.K.A. Harris Glenn Milstead), the plus-sized Baltimore drag goddess, exuded punky glamour and wicked wit, but also a law-breaking edge in his early days. Director John Waters relates how Divine had been busted for writing bad checks and got away with it only because Divvy managed to pass a lie detector test. Now that’s acting!

Another time, Divine made the gaffe of selling furniture from the furnished Provincetown apartment he was living in just to pay some bills. The landlady put out a warrant for his arrest, so Divine promptly fled to the other coast. There was also the time he was so high that he drove a car through a P-Town storefront. I guess when Divine ate dog excrement in Pink Flamingos, it wasn’t all that outrageous.

Andy Warhol “superstar” Holly Woodlawn was a good friend of Divine’s. In fact, in 1976, they roomed together in P-Town—I wonder if they had any furniture left—and co-starred in a campy play there called Women Behind Bars, aptly enough. Five years after that, I appeared in a nutty version of The Sound of Music called The Sound of Muzak at an atmospheric East Village dive called Club 57. Woodlawn, the star of the show, was hilarious as she updated the classical musical with all sorts of drug and sex references.

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Holly Woodlawn.

But I became less enamored of Holly one night when I was in a scene where she was the only one offstage. After the scene, I went back to the dressing room to change and noticed that $100 had been taken from my pants pocket. You do the math! Years later, I learned that Holly had done jail time. In fact, when her big movie, Trash, came out in 1970, she was in the Tombs prison for having impersonated an ambassador’s wife and taken money out of the bank in her name! “Dough-Re-Mi” indeed.

Another Warhol superstar, Jackie Curtis, also got in trouble with the law, but it was somewhat more innocent. In 1971, Jackie was arrested when drunkenly bar-hopping with a gun bulging out of his front jeans pocket. But cops soon realized that it was a harmless prop gun that Jackie used for effect. He was all artifice, thankfully.

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Jackie Curits.

In 2006, New York drag star Flotilla DeBarge got busted as a result of a scuffle at an NYC nightclub. A high-heel shoe was treacherously involved. But Flo has long gotten it together and is just plain funny again.

Meanwhile, Princess Diandra is an entertaining drag queen who has paid homage to Diana Ross for many years. Last year, I wasn’t surprised when a fan who was poking Diana and trying to grab her boa during a concert at an NYC hotel turned out to be a drunken Diandra. On reading in Page Six that Diandra was carted out onto the street by security, I mistily remembered how she had thrown drinks at me and at the last Wigstock—when she was angry about having been axed after missing her cue—then hit me in the chest with her high heel just because I happened to be standing next to her. (What’s with all this high heel aggression? Maybe angry drag queens should just wear flats.)

When I wrote something about this, she called me a pot-bellied coward and claimed it had just been a love tap. Oh, right, okay. Taking the high road, Miss Ross herself Instagrammed that the concert incident “was a reach out and touch moment, totally loving.” Same here. Love you, hun. Just stay six—I mean 60—feet away!

A thoroughly toxic diva is Jane Lane, a drag queen on a rampage who, in 2010, was talking to a popular clubbie named Ronnie Brown at a hotspot, only to have Ronnie turn his back on her for lying. Jane went after him, and they tussled— Jane throwing a glass at Ronnie’s face, then biting off his ear, Mike Tyson-style. And Jane’s day job was working for AIDS Walk New York!

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Robert Durst.

Through the years, there have also been headlines like, “Summar Clearance Pleads Guilty to Blackmail”; “Tatianna Arrested in Atlanta for Disorderly Conduct”; and “South Wales Nightclub Drag Queen Kristian Churchill (A.K.A. Krystle Caress) Sentenced to Nine Years in Prison After Intentionally Running Over a Lesbian Couple.” And who can forget the mental image of Robert Durst—who seems to keep evading punishment for murder charges—hiding out as a deaf, mute woman named Dorothy Ciner? It was a disgrace to drag queens everywhere.

But maybe the best example of all was Dorian Corey, a trans woman and drag performer who was immortalized in the 1990 voguing documentary Paris Is Burning. As is now legend, a few months after Dorian died in 1993, friends found a garment bag in her apartment. When they opened it, they happened to notice the mummified but decomposing remains of a male who had been dead for 15 years! The guy turned out to be Robert Worley, who had served jail time for rape and assault. It’s quite possible that Dorian had killed him in self-defense, and unlike Hollywood legend Lana Turner and her daughter Cheryl in the 1950s, she couldn’t exactly call a movie studio and the police to smooth things over.

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Dorian Corey.

Dorian’s macabre story was the basis for an episode of Pose, while reminding us that some drag queens don’t only brandish a killer tongue.

Michael Musto is the long running, award-winning entertainment journalist and TV commentator.