The Original “All Stars” of Drag

From the first four seasons of RuPaul’s Drag Race, RuPaul has culled 12 queens to compete in the first ever All Stars Race. There’s no question that queens like Pandora Boxx, Manila Luzon, Latrice Royale and the others have earned the All Star title through their displays of charisma, uniqueness, nerve and talent. There is no doubt that they have helped shape the future of drag and will continue to inspire generations of queens to come.

Just as these queens are destined to become legends, so too have queens of the past become legends and inspirations. As we wait for the Race to begin, join us for a look at some legendary queens who are absolutely worthy of the title of All Star.

Divine

He was born Harris Glenn Milstead but to millions he was simply Divine. Born and raised in Baltimore, Maryland, Divine is best known for his association with out filmmaker John Waters. Divine and Waters teamed to make nine films together, beginning in 1966 with Roman Candles through Hairspray in 1988. In between they made such cult classics as Pink Flamingos, Female Trouble and Polyester with legendary heartthrob Tab Hunter.

As Divine’s notoriety grew, he turned to live performance, first with the San Francisco genderf*ck troupe The Cockettes. Divine specialized in throwing “glamour fits”, with a typical “fit” including him wheeling a shopping cart filled with dead fish on stage, hurling fish at the audience while screaming epithets. Often an actor dressed as a police officer would rush the stage to “arrest” Divine, only for Divine to “strangle” him to the audience’s shock and delight. Divine re-created a glamour fit–while bouncing on a trampoline–in Female Trouble.

Appearances on the legitimate stage followed, with Divine scoring a success in the prison comedy Women Behind Bars. His performance inspired playwright Tom Eyen to create The Neon Woman to showcase his talents.

Divine recorded a number of disco singles in the 1970s and 1980s, scoring dance hits with titles like “Step By Step (Jungle Love)”, “I’m So Beautiful” and “You Think You’re a Man”. He toured America and Europe with his music, garnering a devoted following.

In his first film role not under the direction of Waters, Divine re-united with his Polyester co-star Tab Hunter for Lust in the Dust, a satirical Western pitting Divine against Lainie Kazan. Divine introduced the original song “These Lips Were Made for Kissin’” and received good reviews.

Growing more and more leery of being typecast in female roles, Divine sought out male parts including that of gay gangster Hilly Blue in the 1985 film Trouble in Mind. Divine received mixed reviews for his performance but his next film, 1988′s Hairspray, saw him win widespread critical acclaim for his dual roles as Edna Turnblad and racist television station owner Alvin Hodgepile. Tragically, just three weeks after the release of Hairspray Divine died in Los Angeles while preparing for a role on the sitcom Married… with Children. He was 42.

Charles Pierce

Although he eschewed the term “drag queen” (he preferred to be known as a “male actress”), Charles Pierce was internationally famous for his impersonations of many of the “drag pantheon” including Bette Davis, Joan Crawford, Katharine Hepburn and Carol Channing, as well as an uncanny Joan Collins that some said was more like Joan than Joan herself. Often asked why he didn’t incorporate more recent actresses into his act, Pierce would usually snort derisively and point out the dearth of modern actresses worth impersonating. He would variously cite Phoebe Cates, Jill Clayburgh, Molly Ringwald and Tori Spelling as evidence and you must admit, he had a point.

Regardless, Pierce’s stable of impersonations allowed him to build a renowned career on stage, screen and television, including appearances in everything from Love, American Style to Torch Song Trilogy. Most impressively, he appeared in both a 1978 episode of Wonder Woman and a 1987 episode of Designing Women. Who else can say they co-starred with Lynda Carter and Dixie Carter?

José Sarria

God Save Us Nelly Queens” sung to the tune of “God Save the Queen” rings out at closing time, sung by the patrons of San Francisco’s Black Cat Bar. To them and to the men in jail across the street, locked up on trumped up charges and entrapment techniques, the song was not just a campy way to end a night on the town; it was a powerful affirmation of their rights and a stand against the oppression of 1950s America under which they lived.

Leading the song each night was José Sarria. Known as “The Nightingale of Montgomery Street”, Sarria started working at the Black Cat as a cocktail waiter but soon began performing three to four shows a night, singing satirical versions of popular torch songs and classic operas. His specialty was a reworking of Bizet’s Carmen, in which Sarria as Carmen cruised Union Square, escaping the vice squad to the raucous cheers of the bar’s patrons.

But torch songs and singalongs weren’t just a matter of fun to Sarria. His own plans to become a teacher derailed by a bogus solicitation conviction, Sarria knew that only by organizing and resisting government harassment could gay people secure their fundamental freedoms. To that end, Sarria became, in 1961, the first openly gay candidate for political office in the world when he ran for the San Francisco Board of Supervisors. He shocked the political establishment by capturing close to 6,000 votes, proving that gays could be a powerful voting bloc.

Sarria co-founded three gay rights organizations in the 1960s: the League for Civil Education; the Tavern Guild; and the Society for Individual Rights. In 1964 the Tavern Guild crowned him Queen of the Beaux Arts Ball. Sarria, saying he was already a queen, piggy-backed on San Francisco legend Joshua Norton and proclaimed himself “Her Royal Majesty, Empress of San Francisco, José I, The Widow Norton”. As Empress, Sarria established the Imperial Court System, an international network of charitable organizations, over which he reigned until his abdication in 2007. Sarria now lives in New Mexico, spending much of his time cataloging his vast collection of artifacts and personal papers.

 

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