From the first four seasons of RuPaul’s Drag Race, RuPaul has culled 12 queens to compete in the first ever All Stars Race. There’s no question that queens like Pandora Boxx, Manila Luzon, Latrice Royale and the others have earned the All Star title through their displays of charisma, uniqueness, nerve and talent. There is no doubt that they have helped shape the future of drag and will continue to inspire generations of queens to come.
Just as these queens are destined to become legends, so too have queens of the past become legends and inspirations. As we wait for the Race to begin, join us for a look at some legendary queens who are absolutely worthy of the title of All Star.
He was born Harris Glenn Milstead but to millions he was simply Divine. Born and raised in Baltimore, Maryland, Divine is best known for his association with out filmmaker John Waters. Divine and Waters teamed to make nine films together, beginning in 1966 with Roman Candles through Hairspray in 1988. In between they made such cult classics as Pink Flamingos, Female Trouble and Polyester with legendary heartthrob Tab Hunter.
As Divine’s notoriety grew, he turned to live performance, first with the San Francisco genderf*ck troupe The Cockettes. Divine specialized in throwing “glamour fits”, with a typical “fit” including him wheeling a shopping cart filled with dead fish on stage, hurling fish at the audience while screaming epithets. Often an actor dressed as a police officer would rush the stage to “arrest” Divine, only for Divine to “strangle” him to the audience’s shock and delight. Divine re-created a glamour fit–while bouncing on a trampoline–in Female Trouble.
Appearances on the legitimate stage followed, with Divine scoring a success in the prison comedy Women Behind Bars. His performance inspired playwright Tom Eyen to create The Neon Woman to showcase his talents.
Divine recorded a number of disco singles in the 1970s and 1980s, scoring dance hits with titles like “Step By Step (Jungle Love)”, “I’m So Beautiful” and “You Think You’re a Man”. He toured America and Europe with his music, garnering a devoted following.
In his first film role not under the direction of Waters, Divine re-united with his Polyester co-star Tab Hunter for Lust in the Dust, a satirical Western pitting Divine against Lainie Kazan. Divine introduced the original song “These Lips Were Made for Kissin’” and received good reviews.
Growing more and more leery of being typecast in female roles, Divine sought out male parts including that of gay gangster Hilly Blue in the 1985 film Trouble in Mind. Divine received mixed reviews for his performance but his next film, 1988’s Hairspray, saw him win widespread critical acclaim for his dual roles as Edna Turnblad and racist television station owner Alvin Hodgepile. Tragically, just three weeks after the release of Hairspray Divine died in Los Angeles while preparing for a role on the sitcom Married… with Children. He was 42.
Although he eschewed the term “drag queen” (he preferred to be known as a “male actress”), Charles Pierce was internationally famous for his impersonations of many of the “drag pantheon” including Bette Davis, Joan Crawford, Katharine Hepburn and Carol Channing, as well as an uncanny Joan Collins that some said was more like Joan than Joan herself. Often asked why he didn’t incorporate more recent actresses into his act, Pierce would usually snort derisively and point out the dearth of modern actresses worth impersonating. He would variously cite Phoebe Cates, Jill Clayburgh, Molly Ringwald and Tori Spelling as evidence and you must admit, he had a point.
Regardless, Pierce’s stable of impersonations allowed him to build a renowned career on stage, screen and television, including appearances in everything from Love, American Style to Torch Song Trilogy. Most impressively, he appeared in both a 1978 episode of Wonder Woman and a 1987 episode of Designing Women. Who else can say they co-starred with Lynda Carter and Dixie Carter?
“God Save Us Nelly Queens” sung to the tune of “God Save the Queen” rings out at closing time, sung by the patrons of San Francisco’s Black Cat Bar. To them and to the men in jail across the street, locked up on trumped up charges and entrapment techniques, the song was not just a campy way to end a night on the town; it was a powerful affirmation of their rights and a stand against the oppression of 1950s America under which they lived.
Leading the song each night was José Sarria. Known as “The Nightingale of Montgomery Street”, Sarria started working at the Black Cat as a cocktail waiter but soon began performing three to four shows a night, singing satirical versions of popular torch songs and classic operas. His specialty was a reworking of Bizet’s Carmen, in which Sarria as Carmen cruised Union Square, escaping the vice squad to the raucous cheers of the bar’s patrons.
But torch songs and singalongs weren’t just a matter of fun to Sarria. His own plans to become a teacher derailed by a bogus solicitation conviction, Sarria knew that only by organizing and resisting government harassment could gay people secure their fundamental freedoms. To that end, Sarria became, in 1961, the first openly gay candidate for political office in the world when he ran for the San Francisco Board of Supervisors. He shocked the political establishment by capturing close to 6,000 votes, proving that gays could be a powerful voting bloc.
Sarria co-founded three gay rights organizations in the 1960s: the League for Civil Education; the Tavern Guild; and the Society for Individual Rights. In 1964 the Tavern Guild crowned him Queen of the Beaux Arts Ball. Sarria, saying he was already a queen, piggy-backed on San Francisco legend Joshua Norton and proclaimed himself “Her Royal Majesty, Empress of San Francisco, José I, The Widow Norton”. As Empress, Sarria established the Imperial Court System, an international network of charitable organizations, over which he reigned until his abdication in 2007. Sarria now lives in New Mexico, spending much of his time cataloging his vast collection of artifacts and personal papers.
Picture it. Hollywood, 1965. You need an actor to play a psychopath with a penchant for strangling nurses. Who do you turn to?
If you’re Alfred Hitchcock you call on T.C. Jones to play Nurse Betty in the Alfred Hitchcock Presents episode “An Unlocked Window”. Nurse Betty spends much of the episode alone in an old dark house with Nurse Stella, cowering in fear of things going bump in the night, until in the final minutes it is revealed that SPOILER ALERT Nurse Betty is a man who loves to choke the life out of pretty lady nurses. Jones would play another transvestite strangler in a 1967 episode of The Wild, Wild West.
Jones didn’t set out to achieve fame as a drag performer. Originally he was a dancer, appearing in the choruses of two Broadway shows in the 1940s before moving on to a stint with the Provincetown Players. It was there that Jones first performed in drag. As he explained it, “One night…another of the players brought me some…material that was hilarious. The only catch was that it more or less required a woman to deliver it. He suggested I do an impersonation.” From there Jones joined the legendary Jewel Box Revue, where he developed a stable of characters including Katharine Hepburn, Bette Davis, Tallulah Bankhead, Edith Piaf and others.
He attracted the attention of Broadway producer Leonard Sillman, who cast Jones in the revue New Faces of 1956 under the direction of future Hollywood Squares legend Paul Lynde. Jones, as Tallulah, played the Mistress of Ceremonies for a 220 performance run. A second revue, Mask and Gown, debuted in 1957. Jones appeared on the original cast recording for Mask and Gown and also recorded T.C. Jones, Himself! which featured his impersonations of among others Davis, Hepburn, Eartha Kitt and gossip columnist Louella Parsons. Jones appeared on film in the occasional male role as well, including playing the dual roles of Mr. and Mrs. Ace in The Monkees’ film Head. He died of cancer in 1971, age 50.
So was Jones truly a drag queen or merely a female impersonator? It’s hard to say. There’s no definitive source saying he was gay. He was married to a woman, the former Connie Dickson. But they met while he was shopping for a new wig in one of the chain of beauty parlors Dickson opened after wrapping up her career as a competitive fencer, so make of that what you will.
“An angel. A flower. A bird.” So did avante garde artist Jean Cocteau describe Barbette. Born Vander Clyde in Texas, Barbette was an accomplished aerialist and tight rope walker by his mid-teens, when he joined a vaudeville act called The Alfaretta Sisters as one of the sisters. He toured the vaudeville circuit with the act and solo for several years before heading to Europe in 1923, where he became a sensation performing at such venues as the Moulin Rouge and the Folies Bergere. He dazzled audiences with spectacular aerial feats, maintaining a perfect illusion of femininity, until at the conclusion of his act he would remove his wig and strike exaggerated masculine poses to, again in the words of Cocteau, “erase the fabulous, dying-swan impression left by the act”.
Cocteau cast him in his seminal experimental film Blood of a Poet as a dissipated comtesse looking on in disinterest as a man commits suicide in front of her, and wrote the influential essay Le Numéro Barbette in which he praised Barbette as the epitome of theatrical artifice to which all performers should aspire. It was during his run as the toast of Europe that Barbette was caught at the London Palladium in flagrante dilecto with another man, rendering him unable ever to return to England to work again.
Following his performing career Barbette choreographed aerialist routines for circuses including Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus and created the aerial ballet for Disney on Parade. He also coached Tony Curtis and Jack Lemmon on the art of gender illusion for their roles in the film Some Like It Hot. Barbette, in chronic pain for the last several years of his life, committed suicide in 1973.
It is perhaps fitting that for one so devoted to creating illusion there are so many unsettled questions that surround him. Was Barbette born in 1899 or 1904? Was he born in Round Rock or Trickham, Texas? Was his father’s name “Henry” or “Jeff”? Did his performing career end because of pneumonia, polio, a crippling fall or some combination of the three, and in what year did it happen? Sources conflict; we may never know for sure and Barbette would probably like it that way.
If you’re a fan of Victor Victoria, you owe Barbette a debt of gratitude. It is believed that his performance was the inspiration for the original 1933 German Viktor und Viktoria, later remade in 1935, 1957 and finally the Julie Andrews version in 1982.
Considered one of the greatest female impersonators of the 20th century, Julian Eltinge was a star of Broadway, vaudeville and motion pictures. Eltinge’s career began at age ten, when he appeared in a revue in Boston. He performed regionally, drawing the attention of producers, until making his Broadway debut at age 24. Eltinge also toured in vaudeville, often billed under just his last name, to help create his gender illusion. His audiences were often unaware of his actual sex until the end of his act when he would remove his wig. His illusions were so flawless that they inspired renowned wit Dorothy Parker to coin the word “ambi-sextrous” to describe him. He toured throughout the country and in England where in 1906 he gave a command performance before Edward VII.
More Broadway and touring successes followed and Eltinge’s following among women became so strong that he launched his own women’s magazine, also called Eltinge. His successes on Broadway led to the Eltinge Theater being named in his honor in 1912. Eltinge relocated to Hollywood in 1914 and appeared in over a dozen feature films over the next decade, also touring in that time with the “Julian Eltinge Players” vaudeville troupe.
Later in his career Eltinge was a beneficiary of the “Pansy Craze”, a brief surge in the popularity of “pansy performers” in the early 1930s, but the craze and the uptick in his career were short-lived. Eltinge turned to nightclubs but increasingly stringent crackdowns on cross-dressing sometimes forced him to stand on stage in male dress, performing his female characters while standing next to a display of their costumes. It was following a nightclub performance in 1941 that Eltinge fell ill with a cerebral hemorrhage, dying at his home ten days later at the age of 59.
No discussion of All Star drag queens would be complete without talking about RuPaul herself. Long a fixture of the club scenes, first in Atlanta and then New York City, RuPaul shot to national fame in 1993 with her smash hit “Supermodel (You Better Work)”.
From there it seemed that no area of show business was off-limits to the Supermodel of the World. More singles and albums (including duets with Elton John, Diana Ross and Martha Wash), her own talk show on VH1, radio gigs, national print campaigns, featured roles in major motion pictures both in and out of drag, a star turn in the film Starrbooty and, of course, four seasons and counting of RuPaul’s Drag Race.
As Ru herself once said at the drag festival Wigstock: “You know when I started out…they told me I couldn’t make it. They said, ’wasn’t no big black drag queen in the pop world and you ain’t gonna do it.’ And look at the bitch now!”
Look at the bitch now, indeed. Whichever queen snatches the All Stars crown, there’s no question that RuPaul is a true All Star.
RuPaul’s All Star Drag Race airs Monday nights on Logo beginning October 22.