The knock on drag is that it's the new mime, a woozy masquerade passing itself off as crisp commentary on the human condition. All is illusion, ba dum bum bump! Things are not what they seem! It was Freud who pointed out that "when you meet a human being the first distinction you make is 'Male' or 'Female' and you are accustomed to make the distinction with unhesitating certainty." But in the 100 years since Freud began toying with the binaries, all kinds of certainties have gone atilt. Blame postmodern theory, if you like, or Michel Foucault, or Jacques Lacan, or theorist Judith Butler, or Uncle Miltie, or such gender-fuck one-liners as Ru Paul. But the paradigm, you should pardon the expression, has shifted.
Not always the most reliable indicators of social change, the zeitgeist currently has something instructive to say about relaxation in our national obsession with gender. Consider the fact that a loopy matron (Dame Edna Everage) is currently packing the house on Broadway with her wicked invective while swinging a penis beneath her sequined dress; that a doomed stud is romancing small-town girls (Boys Don't Cry) in the cineplexes right now while walking around with an inconvenient vagina between his legs; that a transgendered queen in an East Village bolt-hole (Philip Seymour Hoffman in the forthcoming Flawless) can now inform the bigot downstairs that he's "more man than you'll ever be and more woman than you'll ever have" with every expectation that both bigot and audiences will see his point.
Drag, writes Holly Brubach, author of Girlfriend: Men, Women, and Drag,"relies for its impact on our stubborn conviction that the two sexes, equal or not, are in any case opposite-a model that polarizes men and women." A man is a man, says Brubach, only to the extent that he's not a woman. Increasingly, however, a man is a man to the extent that he's also a woman. See Brad Pitt proffering his naked behind in W magazine's Fight Club spread, or wearing minidresses in Rolling Stone. "Drag used to be conflated with homosexual identity," claims playwright and transgender activist Kate Bornstein. "That's shifted big time. People are more willing to understand that gender is flexible, that anatomy is not destiny. Suddenly, there's an admission of the possibility of paradox. There's an entire generation, say 10 to 30 years old, for whom the issue of a man in a dress is no big deal."
And there's a generation of male performers who don dresses in theatrical settings not to lip synch to Streisand but to ring seditious changes on the absurdities of feminine/masculine. "What's great about all this," says Flawless director Joel Schumacher, "is that they're working from an understanding that a lot of our ideas about gender originate in a big Hollywood joke. These incredible archetypes of manliness and womanliness were invented, basically, by a group of dysfunctional, somewhat aberrant, misplaced, displaced, outcast Jewish men who came to Los Angeles and started a phenomenal industry in which they decided what constituteda man, what is a woman, what is a good mother, what is a stud, what is a whore."
Gender archetypes have been getting a strenuous workout lately from a particularly gifted group of local performers. Justin Bond, for one, has been playing to sold-out houses at Fez with his weekend performances as boozed-up 66-year-old lounge singer Kiki, half of Kiki and Herb, a duo dominated by Bond's Tourette's-style rantings and a playlist that gives equal time to "Melanie's Christmas Song," the Tigerlilies, and the Wu-Tang Clan. In the Tweed Company's Fractured Classics series at Mother, Jeff Roberson's outsized Varla Jean Merman persona recently morphed from club fixture to demented character study in parts drawn from film and theatrical chestnuts (The Glass Menagerie, Suddenly Last Summer, The Bad Seed) and rendered . . . well, straight is not quite the word. In his loopy cable show, Ben Sander invokes the spirit of Brini Maxwell-a prefeminist WASP housewife in the Donna Reed mold-with eerie precision. And-indefatigable Old School warhorse-Ira Siff's Vera Galupe-Borszkh stomps valiantly to the stage next month for the latest of his annual final concert farewells. Recently the Voice spoke to these various performers about their notions of gender under construction.
Justin Bond/Kiki: I started out in San Francisco in 1990 doing this really glamorous lounge act. I wasn't so scary then. I was wearing dresses and singing rock songs and pop music and it got really well reviewed. But I started to get kind of bitter. I was walking to gigs in the rain in a borrowed thousand-dollar dress and not enough money for a cab to get my huge $25 for performing. So I figured it's got to get better than this. Then one night I got really stoned listening to the Cure and I started to put on the wrinkles and that's how Kiki came into being.
Jeff Roberson/Varla Jean Merman: In Baton Rouge when I was going to LSU, every bar was a video bar. You'd go in and everyone was staring at a TV. I had a friend who did video stuff-he'd film literally everything-and I would just put mops and things and towels on my head to be insane. We decided to do some videos, 30 minutes of me in drag drinking a glass of milk, and bring them to the bars and see if they'd play them. To our surprise they did. And people would sit there and stare at those for hours.
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.
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.
Bond: When I moved to New York I thought it was a good thing that I was Kiki, since I only had that one dress and that one wig. I was couch surfing for a year and a half. I never had any money. I couldn't buy anything new. We did get work right away, though. We did a brief period at 88s, where we weren't really going to get the audience we needed for this, and then we got a gig at the Cowgirl Hall of Fame, where we did the show for free and they gave us $100 and a piece of fish. And then word spread and we moved to Flamingo East and did that for a year, and then we opened at Fez. And now we have a really good sound system.
Roberson: Before I did this full time, I was in advertising. I was an art director at Ogilvy & Mather, and then at Foote, Cone & Belding. It turned out I could make more as Varla Jean. Plus the hours are better. With the phenomenon of drag being so big and so huge, with all that shock value and craziness, it kind of went too far for a while. Now it's settled again to the point where you can see it's basically about acting. It's not like the club thing where it's Halloween all the time. It's not about "Look at me in my crazy dress and pretty wig."
Siff: Moneywise, it don't work. Gran Scena is a not-for-profit. We're a tax-deductible charity, an arts organization. We got our status because we are a serious musical organization and we're sort of educational. Mainly we survive on touring to Europe. No one in the company is in its full-time employ. We all have other opera and theater engagements. One of my great divas, Phil Koch, whose picture graced the New York magazine rave review, temps. I teach a lot of voice lessons to support this company. We all experience a lot of heartache and disappointment doing fund-raising, but people would be devastated if we suddenly didn't come back. The laughing and screaming that excellent drag performances can give, well, for every two hours of that, we do 200 hours of schlepping. But it makes people ecstatic. And I can't tell you how much it's worth it.
Sander: The character of Brini is so much like what a certain type of woman in our society was once like and, in some places, is still like, so nonthreatening as a character, so innocent and so sweet that she fools people into being comfortable and can insinuate herself into society that way. She can represent herself in such a way that the transgender person becomes palatable to a larger number of people. They don't really see Brini coming. But ultimately her goal is to create a Martha Stewart empire, to do a line of home furnishings products and furniture and food. My Web site comes online in December and we'll give recipes and tips. It's going to ultimately be a full e-commerce site. I love the idea of people completely surrounding themselves with Brini, who has completely surrounded herself with the 1960s.
Bond: I do have things I would like, ambitions. Eventually it would be nice to tighten up the show and have sound cues and light cues and take it to a little theater Off-Broadway. Kiki could have her very own HBO special. But say Kiki became like a fucking Batman franchise, I'd still be singing with bands at Squeezebox and doing plays and having all that going. Because I really love that. And even if Kiki gets successful, I don't have to worry about staying pretty to play her because she's 66 years old. I can grow into the role.
Kiki and Herb: Do They Know It's Christmas? begins a 21-performance run at Fez on November 26; Vera Galupe-Borszkh's 14th (and Final!) Annual Farewell Recital is scheduled for December 5 and 12 at the Triad Theater; Brini Maxwell's weekly show airs on Channel 35, Fridays at 8:30 p.m. (uptown) and 9:30 p.m. (downtown); Varla Jean Merman appears regularly at clubs around town.
Get the This Week's Top Stories Newsletter
Every week we collect the latest news, music and arts stories — along with film and food reviews and the best things to do this week — so that you’ll never miss Village Voice's biggest stories.
- This Queens Couple's Satirical Fatherhood Magazine Celebrates a 'Very Particular Kind...
- Step Right Up to Learn Sideshow Tricks From Coney Island's Finest
- A New York Photographer Dresses Up Penises in Cute, Tiny Costumes