Get SF Weekly Newsletters

Tuesday, March 15, 2011

Cher, Flip Wilson, Milton Berle: Gateway Drugs to Drag

Posted By on Tue, Mar 15, 2011 at 7:30 AM

I know it will be hard to believe, but as I said before, I was not born wearing a skirt. That, my dear readers, was something that tranifested itself much later in life.
Maybe she's born with it. Maybe not. - MICHAEL WILLIAMS
  • Michael Williams
  • Maybe she's born with it. Maybe not.
I don't even recall being that much interested in fashion, and my childhood fascination with Barbie was only due to her fabulous 3-story townhouse. That's not gay, that's just architecture. Mr Brady was an architect, and he wasn't a gay ... hmm ... wait a minute!

So how does it start? Well, it wasn't a Halloween excuse, for sure. I will leave that one for the insecure man (gay or straight) who needs the excuse to escape what they feel are the confines of masculine behavior. Why would you crossdress if it wasn't for a costume, right?

That's probably not too far off from what I originally thought, although to be honest, I probably never thought of it at all before I moved to S.F. and met a couple of seasoned performers.

My earliest memories of drag queens was definitely limited to, vaguely, Milton Berle, and less vaguely, Flip Wilson. But I did understand, for sure, that it was something they were doing for fun and laughs, never realizing at that early age the sexual and gender implications that percolated underneath. It was the era of the Carol Burnett Show, and Sonny and Cher -- people on TV dressing in wild costumes, whether drag or not, did not have the implications that they do now.

Never thought of it? Um, okay!
  • Never thought of it? Um, okay!

Within my first year of being in the Bay Area, my boss at the time, Francisco, a somewhat effeminate gay man, invited me to his Halloween party. I suppose I really didn't know what to expect, and probably didn't even wear a costume myself. I remember coming into the apartment, and seeing him moving through the apartment in a black cocktail dress, black gloves, and a black hat, no wig, and the minimum of make-up, maybe just some lipstick. I remember thinking it was odd, but not unusual; after all, this was San Francisco, this is what every gay man must do.

As my first years in the city progressed, my stronger friendships tended to be with more colorful and flamboyant characters. They would regale me with stories of their drag adventures, some starting in theater while others entered via the pageant route. Through all their stories, the inclination to "dress" still had not set upon me. I recall, at times, my friend Billy, (Marlena Phenix) pulling his drag box from the top shelf of his closet, and showing me some of his wigs, shoes, and other accessories. He would parade around his apartment, showing off, and doing his best 'walk' and we would have the best laughs at it all. Amid all his attempts to get me to try something, I barely ever relented and my first forays into wearing a wig or heels were met with the heartiest of laughs and guffaws. I wasn't ready to accept it into my life, (you know, like you accept jesus into your life ... and he wears dresses) so I wasn't really understanding the power it could hold.

And then he turned into this! Right away! Just kidding. - BROOK DILLON
  • Brook Dillon
  • And then he turned into this! Right away! Just kidding.
Until the time came, where another good friend of mine, Tod, (who likens himself to my drag mom, although he is more an auntie) informed me that he was moving out of the city. He wanted to have one last fun night out on the town, and he and Billy implored me to do drag. (Ok, maybe not implored, but it sounds way better to be begged to do something). So by that time, i had been around a few more drag queens and figured it couldn't be all that bad, and I relented.

So the weekend before, we went shopping for my first drag, and you know, it wasn't as arduous as I thought. I'm glad I went with friends, because even though it was still san Francisco, I couldn't help but feel awkward and weird that people were watching me look at dresses and judging me as I tried them on. I wasn't secure enough in who I was to know that their opinion didn't mean shit. Trust me though, I know that now!!

My love of old movies and vintage clothing (and my slight frame), led me to the second hand stores in the Haight. I had no desire to look like a sequined clown, so I settled on a great red chiffon pleated cocktail dress and then we hoofed it over to the Piedmont Boutique to find some accessories. I remember thinking how over the top that place was, and remember the experience vividly. I bought some red satin opera gloves and then my eye was caught by the case of sparkly I could not pass that up. We looked casually, then this necklace caught my eye, it was rhinestones and faux rubies, oh how it would look so great with my low cut dress. At the time, I remember it being very expensive. Tod even tried to talk me out of it, but I wouldn't be denied, it was so bright, sparkly and glamorous. It would be perfect, and it was. (I still have that necklace, but the dress has since disappeared)

The. Moment. Of. Birth.
  • The. Moment. Of. Birth.

With help from Billy, the make-up situation was fairly easy due to a lack a facial hair. (He labeled me the 10-minute drag queen.) Tod gave my eyebrows a whirl, (Although I did redo them, as it seemed he was more fond of the Brooke Shields look than I was) and Maven was born. (Yes, in my naivite and newness, I let Tod come up with the name Maven. I didn't understand that I had the perfect last name already)

OMG totes a doorbell! This could be you! Someday. Or sort of. You're not this pretty, but you know.
  • OMG totes a doorbell! This could be you! Someday. Or sort of. You're not this pretty, but you know.

Now I am sure some may think this was "it," that seeing myself "done up" was the lightbulb moment, but it wasn't. We trotted off to the club, which I think was "Product" or "Club Martini" at 1015 Folsom, (but who really knows), and what struck me, was the better treatment I received as a drag queen then I did as my normal boy-self. Never feeling masculine or handsome enough for the gays, I always felt invisible, relegated to the side bench, hiding in the corner, sipping my cocktail. Well Honey ... those days were now over. As Tod grabbed my hand, held it high, uttered "Let's show you off" and led me across the dance floor, the parting of the gay red sea happened, and I could hear people utter, "Who is she?" DING DING DING....LIGHT BULB, DOOR BELL, WHATEVER ... the door was ajar, and I was prancing through, never looking back.
  • Dan Nicoletta

So if you're thinking of dressing up, whether you're straight or gay ... just do it already. People have been blazing these trails further then recorded history I am sure. I can almost picture early cave man, dancing around the fire, in their animal print fashion, drunk on berry juice, lipsynching the latest popular grunt. Well ... and at that time, the first tranny chaser was probably born too, but that's a grunt for another post.


  • Paul Trapani

Follow us on Twitter at @ExhibitionistSF
  • Pin It

Tags: , , , , , ,

About The Author

Steven LeMay


Subscribe to this thread:

Add a comment

Popular Stories

  1. Most Popular Stories
  2. Stories You Missed

Like us on Facebook


  • clipping at Brava Theater Sept. 11
    Sub Pop recording artists 'clipping.' brought their brand of noise-driven experimental hip hop to the closing night of 2016's San Francisco Electronic Music Fest this past Sunday. The packed Brava Theater hosted an initially seated crowd that ended the night jumping and dancing against the front of the stage. The trio performed a set focused on their recently released Sci-Fi Horror concept album, 'Splendor & Misery', then delved into their dancier and more aggressive back catalogue, and recent single 'Wriggle'. Opening performances included local experimental electronic duo 'Tujurikkuja' and computer music artist 'Madalyn Merkey.'"