Ru-Pauls Drag Race is taking over mainstream entertainment and drag is now hotter than ever. But before Ru there were these 5 Queens that changed herstory forever:
Empress Jose I
Jose Julio Sarria served in the military during the Second World. Though officially a too short to serve (standing at just five feet) Jose was desperate to sign up following Pearl Harbour; later claiming that the army overlooked his stature after he seduced a recruiting officer.
Once home and discharged Jose started training to be a teacher; but as an out man in the 1950s this was -to be blunt- a fucking impossible profession to break into.
Still he persisted, earning tuition by waiting tables at San Franciscos Black Cat bar (described by Allen Ginsberg as the best gay club in the world-so you know it’s good) Jose caught the eye of authorities and in the mid 50’s was bought in on trumped up charges of solicitation. Now essentially unemployable, his dreams of teaching were in tatters.
But instead of heading back into the closet, Jose turned to drag. Learning the art from some of the Black Cats existing artists and rising to become The Black Cats headliner as Empress Jose l. He used his run in with the law as inspiration, performing his own take on the opera Carmen, which saw him run around the club fleeing the vice squad.
But satire wasn’t enough for Jose. Just like Jose had been, gay men in San Francisco were frequently arrested for solitician, gay clubs were shaken down for cash and drag queens arrested and accused of ‘intent to deceive’.
So Jose took action, he helped support those arrested fight their cases in court, led The Black Cats patrons to the jail to serenade those locked within and came up with badges that said ‘I’m a boy’ to stop harassment of other drag artists.
But this still wasn’t enough. Jose knew that San Francisco didn’t grant his community the dignity they did other citizens, and he couldn’t let that lie. So in 1961 he borrowed a friends suit and ran for San Franciscos governing body. The first openly gay person anywhere in the world to run for elected office.
United We Stand, Divided They’ll Catch Us One by One
Under this slogan Jose bought together San Franciscos LGBTQ community, urging them to fight for their place in society.
Jose lost. But the message was clear; San Francusicos authorities could no longer ignore the LGBTQ community. They had stood up, been counted and shown how powerful they were.
Bert Savoy was the Godfather of camp. A Queen whose act played on sexuality and a healthy dose of innuendo, he wouldn’t be too out of place in today’s drag landscape.
In the early 20th century female impersonation was part and parcel of the popular vaudeville scene. Drag acts such as Julian Eltinge wowed audience with acts that were elegant, fashionable and feminine. When drag was humorous it tended to be based around the premise of a man who had somehow been forced/ended up dressed as a woman (as you do).
But Bert Savoy was different; he walked on stage a drag queen without the need for plot or premise, performing bawdy, brash and colourful comedy routines.
Soon Berts’ uniqueness (nerve and talent) got him to Broadway. In 1918 he appeared as part of the renowned Ziegfeld Follies, performing alongside straight man Jay Brennan. Bertie honed the art of high camp on stage as a redhead (sadly unnamed) Queen, shocking Brennan with stories of her debuchery sodden life.
That other infamous innuendo lover, Mae West, drew much of her inspiration from Bertie. With her iconic ‘come up and see me sometime’ drawn directly from Bertie’s catchphrase ‘you must come over’.
Sadly before Bert could bring his groundbreaking campery to the silver screen and film the Mae West Bert Savoy team up that would have completed all our lives – he came to a dramatic end.
In the summer of 1923 Bert took a walk along Long Beach with several other Vaudeville stars. A sudden storm rolled in and as rain started to pour Bert turned to the others, hand on hip he struck a pose and said:
Well, ain’t Miss God cuttin’ up somethin’ fierce?
Upon which he was immediately struck by lightening. And that was the end of Bert Savoy
Danny La Rue
Years after Bertie Savoy was bringing a new type of drag to the Broadway stage, in England & Ireland Danny La Rue was quite literally dragging the art out of pubs and clubs and into Londons West End as well as small screens across the country.
The first drag artist to perform for the royal family, La Rue bought drag into mainstream British entertainment. Known for appearing on stage in high glamour before turning to the audience and letting out a gruff ‘wotcha mates’, he mixed glitz and comedy with winning charisma.
He elevated drag from something that was seen as a seedy music hall throwback to something everyone could enjoy. When Prince Philip (who else…) asked La Rue if he really dressed as a woman for money, La Rue shot back that getting paid was the fashion now.
A canny business man La Re had built an empire around himself before the end of the 1960s. With a string of smash hit West End shows, was a regular on TV and ran his own club in London where he infamously fought off a punter who got a bit to handsy with Barbara Windsor, saying ‘don’t let the wig fool ya’ before punching the scoundrel out.
-side note for my American readers: Barbara Windsor is a British national treasure, though I can’t really put my finger on why, so your just going to have trust me on this one’
As well as serving as inspiration for the likes of Boy George and Lily Savage, La Rue was also one of the first out figures in the U.K. entertainment industry. Living with his partner of 40 years Jack Hanson – an ex marine turned La Rues manager – for decades before Hansons death.
La Rue then had several short affairs before his ‘companion’ Wayne King died of AIDS, an issue La Rue spoke out about; raising countless funds for aids charities and earning an OBE from the Queen (a huge fan, even if Prince Philip didn’t quite get it)
‘Cross-dresser walks along a street. Bends down, picks up freshly laid dog turd. Eats it.’
And enter Divine
Having experienced years of bullying Divine (born Harris Glenn Milstead) finally found a home with John Waters and his band of filmmaking misfits.
With the aim of shocking the love generation Divine and Waters teamed up to make some of the provocative and rebellious films of the 1960s, 70s and 80s, with works like Hairspray and Pink Flamingoes still standing up as must see classics (for reals though, if you haven’t seen a Divine film stop what your doing right now and go better yourself)
An outcast even with the gay community, Harris channeled everything he experienced into Divine. Having grown up wanting to be a film star like Elizabeth Taylor, Harris flipped the Hollywood dream onto its head, creating the antsiphis of the beauty that graced film and drag stage alike and birthing something extreme, fun and troubling all at the same time.
With comedic timing and slapstick skills for days Divine quickly became an icon on film. She broke every drag rule. Wearing figure hugging clothes at 300 pounds? Check. Wielding a chainsaw at punters? Check. Bending the rules of feminine make up? Check check check (her trademark eyebrows can still be seen in every drag club)
Divine created the cutting edge and made it clear that for a Queen to break the mainstream she needed to be her own firebrand.
Mother Flawless Sabrina
Born in south Philadelphia in 1940, Jack Doroshow would be arrested over 100 times for cross dressing and go onto become Andy Warhols’ muse, a film star and a pioneer for LGBTQ rights under the moniker of Mother Flaweless Sabrina, or simply, The Queen.
In 1958 – before Drag was legal – Sabrina started a drag beauty pageant, The Nationals (I will add here that Sabrina was 19. thats right. 19. Please take a moment to remember what you were doing at 19…I’m guessing it wasn’t anything this badass.
Sabrina set up The National Academy, a traveling drag pageant offering many newbie queens (including Divine) a chance to step on stage for the first time. There were 46 shows across America each year between 1958-1969, with Sabrina managing a staff of over 100 to pull off such a huge undertaking (making Sabrina quite possibly the largest LGBTQ employer of the 60s)
The impact that the National Academy had cannot be understated, whilst drag had performance spaces, these were the first performances for Queens by Queens. Sabrina ensured that where possible proceeds from shows were donated into local LGBTQ communities. In 1968 the More than all of this though, Sabrina provided an environment for people to find their place within their community
“Kermit says it’s not easy being green. Well, being a queen is flawless.”
So those are just 5 of the Queens that changed herstory forever. The question now is, which Queen will be the next game changer?
Gentlemen, start your engines