Queen for a Day | Book Review | Chicago Reader

Queen for a Day 

As cross-dressing continues to be strip-mined by mass culture, the savviest drag queens are turning to print to tell their stories.

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You're born naked-- everything else is drag." This old saying has become a mantra in the last few years as commentators rush to explain the 90s drag craze. But even if this adage has been repeated too many times, it's still insightful. All clothes are "unnatural," yet we're not just naked at birth--we're also illiterate, so everything we say or write is a kind of drag too.

Creative dressing has always been a powerful method for re-creating one's persona, but drag's newfound popularity threatens to take all the fun out of it. Drag queens are entertainers who defy not only gender roles but good taste. RuPaul, daytime TV talk shows, and multiplex blockbusters like To Wong Fu, Thanks for Everything, Julie Newmar have turned the sight of drag queens into a commonplace, so their shock value is in danger of being lost for good.

At this point in the game, anyone with a television set knows that with enough work some men can look stunning and seductive in more or less the same way some women can. There are now other, more substantive points for drag to prove. Beneath one's appearance lies identity, so as drag performance continues to be strip-mined by the mainstream, the savviest drag queens are turning to print to write their autobiographies. Generations of delusional movie stars have readied the publishing world for the imaginative musings of these literary-minded queens. The illusions created in most autobiographical writing are at least as drastic as those in a drag act, and the fantasies are more difficult to detect since they don't usually draw attention to themselves.

At heart, every autobiography follows the same defiant plot line: against all odds the author led her unusual life and lived to tell the tale. Those who didn't, such as Marilyn Monroe and Edie Sedgwick, are damned to a tawdry afterlife as one-note victims sentimentalized by hack biographers. The autobiographer rarely chooses to play the victim; the same goes for drag queens. (It's no coincidence that "I Will Survive" is one of history's most lip-synched songs.) In both print and drag, the performer doesn't have to make concessions to costars or directors; it's a closed-off corner of the universe where a star can be the star.

Perhaps most Hollywood autobiographies have been written by women because as outsiders in the entertainment industry they've faced extreme situations that have demanded equally extreme survival tactics. The fantasy lives the press and public project on these women are full of glamour, allure, and other qualities you could name a magazine after. By the time the book comes out the hopeful reader expects a distillation of decades of excess. Usually written in the twilight of a career, the books feature a version of the past obscured by the haze of time, ego, and often booze. It's just as well--those of us who eagerly cling to the words of such larger-than-life figures don't want facts. We want dish, dirt, and drama. We want camp. And most of the time we get it, whether through the author's intention, the minimally credited cowriter's catty intervention, or a happy accident.

In autobiographies by movie queens and drag stars, the diva's grand style reflects an unshakable certainty in her own fabulousness. A movie star is required to stick to some semblance of accuracy because of her fame--people already know what she was doing in a certain year, whom she took to the Oscars or was married to. The drag queen has greater leeway, having lived mostly free from public scrutiny, her entire past in front of her like a blank page. In one extreme case, Margo Howard-Howard, with Abbe Michaels, wrote the memoir I Was a White Slave in Harlem, which followed her fall from a prominent birth into a sordid life as a street-walking New York junkie. Along the way she recalls being picked up by James Dean in Central Park, socking Truman Capote in the jaw, and living as the strung-out kept "woman" of drug kingpin Leroy "Nicky" Barnes. The hype on the back cover describes Howard-Howard's literary milieu as "the world that Tama Janowitz and Jay McInerney only dream about." But Howard-Howard only dreamed about it herself; a suspiciously disingenuous afterword says that Howard-Howard died "a few weeks before the release of this book" and that the publishers had been surprised to find that "much, if not most, of what is written here is fictional."

In her autobiography, Merman, Ethel Merman used an approach completely opposite to Howard-Howard's. While she may have been Howard-Howard's equal as far as lying goes, her half-truths and omissions were used to make her story less sordid and more mundane. Showbiz legend has memorialized Merman as a complicated, often ruthless figure. (The manipulative Broadway diva Helen Lawson in Jacqueline Susann's Valley of the Dolls is said to be a composite of Merman and Joan Crawford.) But as an author, Merman tried to hide her personality. She dropped in personal trivia (like her keeping a fully decorated Christmas tree in her apartment year-round), but refused to go into any detail about what was clearly an emotionally troubling life. Discussing the death of her daughter, a possible suicide, she shrugs that she should have seen that her daughter was "confused" about career choices and makes sure to let us know that the girl was not a drug addict. Each time she writes about the beginning of one of her failed marriages, she claims to have known she was making a mistake, but she never even tries to explain why she would make a serious commitment to a relationship she considered doomed or why this pattern persisted. In the biggest cop-out, she says that her brief marriage to Ernest Borgnine was so terrible that she wouldn't even tell the details to her best friend. Merman evades where Howard-Howard invents. The famous and the unknown have opposite goals--the weary star wants to shrink from the public eye (or at least says that she does) while the aspiring starlet will say anything to get noticed.

Delivered properly in a performance context, Merman's lying would draw whoops of laughter from an appreciative audience. Drag is about openly telling whoppers and being rewarded for it. Everyone knows Madonna recorded "Vogue," but the queen who moves her lips in time to it gets the applause--and the tips. Queens who incorporate monologues in their shows deliver bizarre tales of exotic lifestyles and celebrity run-ins with uncanny conviction. Merman's story should provide at least as many opportunities for humor (intentional or otherwise) as the tales of a self-invented drag "star." But readers don't need to know Merman's reputation to see how she's blatantly rearranging the past to present an unlikely image to the public. It's not all that different from putting a wig on or taping a penis up between the legs. Her deception is for a larger audience, and in a way that makes it more severe.

Drag queen autobiography reached new heights this summer with the publication of Hiding My Candy, by the Lady Chablis with Theodore Bouloukos. Prior to her book's publication, Chablis had gained some national recognition, but only on the page; she appeared as a character in two chapters of John Berendt's book Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil, a true-crime chronicle that stayed on the New York Times's best-seller list for more than two years. Hiding My Candy's success has increased her renown. Usually the diva publishes her autobiography because she's famous, not the other way around. Though her act--lip-synching followed by cutting monologues--sounds fairly conventional, Chablis has broken ground by achieving notoriety without having been seen by most of her fans. Hiding My Candy tries to fill in the gaps by including pages and pages of photos, but Chablis remains a queen created mainly in words. (There is a long history of this phenomenon in zines, from Fertile LaToya Jackson in the late 80s up through this year's My Man Hit Me and It Felt Like a Kiss. But the writers behind those creations didn't receive the exposure, or the reported $100,000 advance, that Chablis did.)

Chablis promises to tell the whole truth, to "pour the T," as she puts it. There's no editorial disclaimer as with Howard-Howard's opus to contradict her, and the story doesn't conflict with the public record, as in Merman. Her rags-to-better-rags story sticks close to the fairy tales of showbiz mythology: born into a poor family in an obscure small town, she ran off to the city, discovered a life of glamour, was derailed at various times by illegal drugs and unfaithful men, and now, upon her book's publication, feels more confident and capable than ever and looks forward to a rejuvenated career. The twist--she's black, gay, and has a dick as well as a shapely, estrogen-powered bosom--further emphasizes the odds that she has overcome on her own terms. Whether her tale is archetypal or a pastiche of old cliches doesn't really matter. It's a great story and rings emotionally true, factual or not.

Chablis recalls being raised by her grandmother and aunt in tiny Quincy, Florida. Her mother sought a better life in Chicago, and her father took a bride in New York who liked to decorate their squalid apartment with flowers in empty bourbon bottles. "Hell," Chablis writes, "bitch musta thought she was the Puerto Rican Martha Stewart." The Lady, then known as Benjamin Edward Know, moved to Tallahassee at age nine to be with his mother and new stepfather, from whom he suffered years of beatings intended to drive out his girlish qualities. Knox escaped at age 14 by moving into the projects with a friend and beginning a lifelong habit of hiding her "candy"--meaning, in this case, her cock and balls.

In the next three years, Chablis, then known as Miss Pee-Wee, was regarded by most Tallahassee locals as little more than a lovable nut. Of course the book tells of exceptions. Chablis writes about two prominent local men who became regular tricks. One was a politician, the other a preacher. Some readers may have trouble believing that, but what difference does it make as long as she gets off great lines like the one about the preacher enjoying "a li'l communion just after Sunday services"?

Chablis eventually found her way to the stage, lip-synching and dancing her way into the spotlight. Moving first to the drag mecca of Atlanta ("Hell, every city should look this good after a fire!"), she was named Miss Chez Cabaret, the first of several titles she's held. Later, these awards would help bolster her self-esteem: "I wasn't wearing a crown so I could be screwed royally."

Next she moved to Savannah and conquered the town with provocative revues like the holiday extravaganza "A White Christmas--Blacks Welcome." She writes of a brief tussle with a "Miss Crystal Meth," who turned her "bionic." Addiction has seldom been so entertaining or so sugarcoated--Chablis' account of her struggle is almost as much fun as Drew Barrymore's. After the publication of Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil, Chablis' career took off. It may keep soaring in the years to come; Clint Eastwood has bought the rights to Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil, and Chablis is determined to follow in the footsteps of Joan Rivers and Ann Jillian by playing herself.

RuPaul's Lettin It All Hang Out recounts a similarly unlikely success story, but in her case the stakes are lower and the prize is bigger. As she points out, her drag outfits are just work clothes. Femininity is more integral to the daily life of the Lady Chablis, who claims to have been living as a woman since she was a teenager. And Hiding My Candy won't be as easy for some to swallow as Lettin It All Hang Out. Transsexuals have not enjoyed the same amount of acceptance as cross-dressers in recent years. (Chablis is a preop transsexual and calls herself a drag queen in the book. She writes that she's chosen to keep her male genitals because when she dies God won't let her into heaven without them.) And Chablis' unrefined approach is far more raw than RuPaul's Return to Love-inspired feel-good affirmations. Her offhand use of words like "bitch" and "fish" for women is destined to alienate some readers, as is her facetious claim that she's not black but rather a "very tan uptown white woman." This is inevitable when the author is determined not to censor herself; the truth about one's self can be ugly. RuPaul, like most celebrity autobiographers, is more concerned with beauty than truth; on the cover of her book, her features are painted and airbrushed to supermodel perfection. Hiding My Candy's cover design steals from the Showgirls poster, but it has none of that film's stylized femininity. It features the book's least flattering shot of Chablis, her nose oddly distorted, her chest looking flat and bony, her arms bulging with muscles, and her man-size hands prominently on display.

Throughout the book, the Lady Chablis announces her intention to write several sequels. If she's being as honest as she claims, she's proved the truth will do a lot more than just set you free. Of course, Chablis may be as much of a liar as Howard-Howard and Merman. After all, she is a drag queen. And so is anyone who has a life story. You're born, and the rest is drag.

Hiding My Candy by the Lady Chablis with Theodore Bouloukos, Pocket Books, $22.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): illustration by Andrew Epstein.

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