Heroine Addiction

Giving Gender the Shakes, Four Performers Prove There's Life in Drag Yet

Ira Siff/Madame Vera Galupe-Borszkh:I've always been kind of drag-o-phobic. But I'd seen Charles Ludlam in Camille and I had this idea that thinking of opera in terms of drag could be radical. I deplored the bland, milquetoast opera singing at the time, where singers were striving to be ordinary folk. To me that was anathema. In all the arts-film, theater, ballet-people were making themselves available by pandering. There were no personalities anymore. I wanted to do something with the idea of these characters giving 105 percent of themselves all the time. But it really didn't occur to me that I was going to have to put on wigs and makeup until the opening night of the Gran Scena opera at the Orpheum in November 1981.

Ben Sander/Brini Maxwell: My character started when I moved into this apartment in 1995. I wanted to redo it as a 1960s movie set and I couldn't really justify that. So I decided to come up with a reason. I'd been shopping at the Salvation Army on 46th Street and found a set of mixing bowls, Pyrex, really charming, 1950s, in good condition, for $15. It occurred to me when I got them home that no one would ever see them. They're for food preparation, not display. So I thought to myself, "Why not do a TV show and everyone can see my mixing bowls?"

Roberson: At the time when we were doing these videos, there were all these TV shows on with Barbra Streisand's sister, Dolly Parton's sister, and it was tragic because they looked like and sounded like them, but they would never, ever, ever be famous. They were trying so hard and it really didn't matter. I had read Ethel Merman's biography and there was a chapter devoted to her marriage to Ernest Borgnine. It was just a blank page. I thought to myself, "What if she had a child by that marriage and wanted to forget the whole thing?" So I took the name Varla from Faster Pussycat! Kill! Kill!, the name Jean from Norma Jean Baker. And that's how Varla Jean Merman was born.

Not one-liners in a dress. From left: Vera Galupe-Borszkh (Ira Siff), Brini Maxwell (Ben Sander), Varla Jean Merman (Jeff Roberson), and Kiki (Justin Bond)
photograph by Robin Holland
Not one-liners in a dress. From left: Vera Galupe-Borszkh (Ira Siff), Brini Maxwell (Ben Sander), Varla Jean Merman (Jeff Roberson), and Kiki (Justin Bond)

Sander: The show was originally called At Home With Tigs. I'd created this character called Tigs Vanderveer. But, as the idea progressed, I realized that Tigs was too tony for the project. I needed someone more home-based. I kept thinking about the name Brini, which was a character in a Stephanie Powers series in which she played twins. The name Maxwell came from Streisand's character in What's Up, Doc?.

Bond: I never really liked calling myself a drag queen. When I was doing it in San Francisco, it was more like gender activism. I never lip-synched. I never embraced the spectacle of drag. To be called a drag queen is flattering, of course, but it's not like I get up and look in the mirror and say, "Oh, good morning, drag queen."

Siff: Everett Quinton considers himself a drag queen. It's a political decision. But Everett, the drag queen, with his artistry, has practically nothing to do with the Lucky Cheng types, who are one-liners in a dress. Jeff Roberson in drag offers a whole persona completely executed and impeccably done. He hooks into the artistic identifications of the genres he's using. It's the same with John Kelly. It's not trashing the art form and it's not, technically speaking, paying it tribute. I hate to say the D word, but it's deconstructing it. Because, let's face it, a lot of the art of our time is homage.

Sander: My philosophy of drag, I guess, has to do with representing a period from 1954 to 1974 that I think is important because it was a time when women were cloistered. This particular type of woman and her way of interacting with society and expressing herself is prefeminist. What's important about this way of expressing her in drag is that she's so completely palatable, and nonthreatening and friendly and, at the same time, has this edge because, of course, I'm really a man.

Bond: I'd done theater. I studied Shakespeare in London. But I wasn't cut out for it. I couldn't stand being around other actors. I couldn't stand trying to figure out what other people want to see, second-guessing them at auditions, thinking, "What can I do to make these people give me a job?" So when I came up with Kiki it was perfect. She's this character I created who happens to be a woman. She's a show-business casualty and a show-business survivor. She doesn't have the faculties or the ability to survive in any other way. And so this is about what showbiz has done to her life. And what she has done to show business.

Siff: Survival is Vera's métier. It's her fach. The drag of Gran Scena functions on two levels. It's musically sophisticated. It's also hilarious and touching that we endeavor, and succeed to some degree, in paying tribute to opera in this inverted way. It radicalizes what you think you know about what a man or what a woman can do. In something like To Wong Foo, there's a destructiveness because the audience says, "Oh, right, I know what a drag queen is, a pathetic creature." They think they've figured it out. With us there's another level of identification. When Keith Jurosko comes out as 105-year-old Gabriella Tonnoziti-Casseruola and sings, in a perfectly tuned voice, one of the staples that a turn-of-the-century diva would do at the end of her performance, something like "Carry Me Back to Old Virginny" or "Home Sweet Home," people in the audience have been heard weeping. Keith is a man, of course, conveying the idea of this forgotten archetype of an idealized überwoman.

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