What Does It Take to Be a Gay Icon Today?

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The triumph of Grey’s Anatomy star Katherine Heigl at this year’s Emmy Awards — not her win so much as the stylish way in which she managed to merge old-Hollywood glamour with diva-like moxie (it takes chutzpah, after all, to blurt out an expletive when hearing one’s name called, or to correct the robotic announcer who mangled its pronunciation) — indicates we just might have a new gay icon in the making.

She is certainly one step closer to that revered status than co-star Ellen Pompeo, whom many AfterElton.com readers were recently surprised to see referenced as such in a Starpulse News Blog story about being “raised by drag queens.”

On the occasion of the premiere of the new season of Grey's Anatomy, the comparison between Heigl and Pompeo got us thinking about this even more: As Sex and the City’s Carrie Bradshaw, herself something of a gay icon, might have asked, "We had to wonder … what does a celebrity have to do today to become a true gay icon?”

Given that there’s no greater sign of attaining gay iconic status than being performed by drag queens, we went to a well-known drag performer for insight. John Epperson, who as Lypsinka channels the voices and mimics the gestures of many of the great movie glamour queens, described the particular resonance these legendary actresses have for gay men.

“Gay men feel like outsiders in our heterosexual, patriarchal society,” Lypsinka told us. “Consciously or subconsciously they are often drawn to other people who are outsiders. This applies to female stars of all stripes, who are outside the realm of everyday life due to something that makes them unusual, whether it's their beauty or their sexuality or their vulnerability — qualities that come through on the screen, large or small.”

Gay men’s recognition of a fellow outsider certainly refers to the woman who is the Momma of all gay icons — Judy Garland. It’s no coincidence that “Friend of Dorothy” has long been a code for being gay, as the phrase indicates gay men’s veneration not only of Garland, but particularly of the early role that brought her so much attention. Dorothy Gale’s journey from Kansas to Oz mirrored many gay men’s desires to escape the black-and-white limitations of small town life — where puny minds like the Ms. Gulches of the world dictated acceptable behavior — for big, colorful cities filled with quirky, gender-bending characters who would welcome them.

Gay men’s willingness to embrace and find value in the kinds of movies and characters that the rest of the public viewed as outsiders or with disgust is, of course, the essence of camp. And nothing solidified Joan Crawford’s iconic status more than the campy movie based on her daughter Christina’s acid-filled memoir, Mommie Dearest (1981), which also brought her to the attention of a younger generation of gay devotees. The movie was reviled by critics and audiences alike, winning five Razzie Awards, including Worst Picture. Yet gay fans, attending screenings with wire hangers in tow and reenacting favorite scenes, turned it into a cult camp classic.

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The campiness inevitably brushed off on Faye Dunaway as well, who attained iconic status merely for playing the part with the scenery-chewing determination and exaggerated gestures of, well, of a drag queen. It’s not the only, nor the last, time that appearing in a notoriously bad campfest earned an actress the affectionate admiration of gay fans — Showgirls’ (1995) Gina Gershon and Elizabeth Berkley come to mind as recent examples. The fact that Gershon had also played a gay role in Bound (1996), and that Berkley’s striptease gyrations were such a departure from her squeaky clean Saved by the Bell (1989) image, only contributed to their growing iconic status.

Similarly, Tori Spelling’s less-than-convincing acting in Beverly Hills 90210 and reputation as a poor little rich girl clearly out of her element won young gay fans even as critics and teen viewers insulted and rejected her. Spelling was able to build on that gay goodwill and become a contemporary icon by playing a gay-friendly part in the movie Trick (1999) and openly supporting gay causes, most recently acting as a minister in a gay wedding ceremony on her reality TV show.

Dunaway’s kabuki-like performance in Mommie Dearest also highlighted how the style and appearance of film stars of Crawford’s generation — the clown-like makeup, the broad gestures, the exaggerated shoulder pads — could so easily be mimicked. It’s why so many drag queens started doing their own versions of Joan and Bette, including Lypsinka, whose shows include one titled “Passion of the Crawford.” But it’s also why so many of these actresses became gay icons.

Think about the religious icons that adorn churches, which are often wooden planks brightly painted and decorated with jewel-like tiles akin to rhinestones and sequins. There’s something about the ornate artificiality of certain images that particularly invites worship — and imitation. When it comes to celebrity icons, gay men are not looking for figures to admire from afar, but for those distinctive, showy images — and the gestures, intonations, expressions, catchphrases, and styles that go with them — that can be appropriated.

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