Shock your friends! Surprise your enemies! Win a round of trivia! Herstory 101 is back in session!
Welcome back my fellow queens and queen enthusiasts! I hope you’re ready to read all about another figure from herstory who laid the groundwork to make the art of drag what it is today!
Before we get too ahead of ourselves, I would like to make a slight correction to my article about Julie D’ Aubigny. In my last article, I stated Julie was from the 15th century when I had intended to say she was from the 17th century. Blame it on my poor math skills, Autocorrect, or blame it on the A-A-A-A-Alcohol, but it happened. I hope you forgive me…
Oh you do? Great. Let’s move on.
Today we will be journeying back to the good ol’ U.S. of A. and discussing an actor and female impersonator from young Hollywood. He was given the title of “ambisextrous” (watch that be RuPaul’s next catch phrase), and he supplied what may be my favorite quote of all time; “I’m not gay, I just like pearls.” He was known as Julian Eltinge.
Like every good female impersonator, no one knows exactly when Julian was born. He claimed his birthdate was May 14, 1883, but a birth certificate was found in Massachusetts with his given name, William J. Dalton, stating he was born two years earlier, in 1981. Additionally, there are multiple stories as to how young William got started in female impersonation, but they all agree that he was a fabulous cakewalker (it’s a sort of dance style. Google it!), he trained in dance with Mrs. Lilla Viles Wyman, and he had adapted the stage name Julian Eltinge by his stage debut at 9 years old.
In 1900, Eltinge was invited to perform a small part in Miladi and The Musketeer, a show put on by Cadet Theatricals, a group of amateur male actors who acted in both the male and female parts of a play. Mrs. Wyman recommended him to the director of the Cadets, and Eltinge impressed the theatrical group so much with his work ethic that the show they produced the following year, Miss Simplicity, was supposedly written especially to showcase Julian’s talents, though he was not an official member.
His fame continued to grow with his talents, and in 1904 he was selected to star in a show in New York City, Mr. Wix of Wickham. While the show itself failed to impress (lasting a little over 40 performances), critics were quite taken with Eltinge’s talents, writing such remarks as, “If a man ever succeeded in lifting and almost totally obliterating the stigma which… attaches to this work, Eltinge has.” The following year, Eltinge joined the vaudeville circuit. Audiences were fascinated by his stunning costumes as well as his remarkable poise and grace. By 1910, at just 19 years of age, Julian Eltinge had reached the pinnacle of the Vaudeville circuit and made his transition into more traditional theater.
He began performing in The Fascinating Widow, a play that made its way up to Broadway’s Liberty Theater in 1911. His role in this play is argued to be his greatest success on stage. While The Fascinating Widow also had a very short run in New York, Eltinge himself still continued to grow in fame, becoming such a nationwide household name that a Broadway theater was constructed and named after him in 1912, though Eltinge never actually performed in this theater.
By this time, Eltinge had become a master at dealing with the press and promoting himself. He sold a self-titled magazine at his performances, providing beauty and fashion tips to women, and included a glimmer of the drag wit we know and love from today’s queens. “See what the Julian Eltinge Cold Creame does for a man. Imagine what it will do for a woman,” declared one of the ads for his cosmetics line. Marketing genius!
Eltinge made sure to loudly express his unhappiness at performing as a woman. He made sure to be seen boxing, smoking cigars, and anything else to separate himself from an image of effeminacy. There were also several engagements to women that were always broken off. He claimed the only reason he continued to perform as a female impersonator was for the money. Despite his adamant claims otherwise, rumors of his homosexuality still bubbled up.
1918 and 1919 saw Eltinge’s return to the Vaudeville circuit with several Hollywood silent film credits under his corset. He had become one of the highest paid Hollywood actors and even owned one of the most lavish villas in Hollywood, which he moved into with his mother.
However, in the early 1920’s, gay speakeasies cropped up in New York City, and early forms of drag began to appear alongside them. Suddenly, Eltinge’s style of female impersonation began to look old-fashioned and outdated. He began to drink heavily, and was even caught smuggling in liquor from Canada in 1923, which marked the beginning of his decline.
His first and only sound film was ultimately his last film that he would star in. Released in 1931, Maid To Order only brought to light that Eltinge had lost his touch. His weight gain was obvious, and rumors of his alcoholism grew. While he tried to revive his career through the rest of the 1930’s, local laws prohibited men from wearing women’s clothing, and he was forced to perform in dingy nightclubs in a tuxedo, pointing to a rack in the corner, which held the dresses he used to wear.
On May 7th, 1941, just one week shy of his 60th birthday, Julian Eltinge passed away. True to his shrouded life, there is much speculation as to his actual cause of demise. Some speculated suicide, others kidney disease, while his death certificate listed a cerebral hemorrhage as the cause.
What of the theater named after Eltinge? When the Great Depression struck, it became a burlesque theater (Vaudeville’s sultry sister), and then eventually was converted to a movie theater in 1942. It was renamed The Empire Theater in 1954. In 1998, the building itself was actually picked up and moved 170 feet to the west, and was purchased by AMC to become the AMC Empire Theater on 42nd street, which still stands today. The façade of the original theater remains mostly unchanged, and the lobby of the theater is actually the Eltinge Theater’s auditorium. Visitors can still see a mural of Julian Eltinge located directly above the box office.
So why does a fallen Hollywood star, whose name has faded from our culture’s memory, matter to us today? First off, his career gives us hope that today’s modern drag queens can be just as celebrated in our culture today as his once was. With shows such as RuPaul’s Drag Race putting female impersonation back into the eye of the public, that brand of wide-spread acceptance may be near. Secondly, his career provides a cautionary tale on many levels, namely that one should never stop evolving with their craft lest they be left behind. Third, and this is a sentiment I have always tried to live by myself, his career, and life in general, tell us to always be grateful for what we have and where we come from. Too often drag performers, myself included, get caught up in the applause of a crowd and begin to take the limelight for granted. Remembering to stay grounded and grateful for all our opportunities not only provides an endearing sense of humbleness, but also prevents a sudden career decline.
That being said, Julian Eltinge won the hearts of Americans with his poise, grace, and remarkable transformation skills. His career, while a cautionary tale in many ways, should encourage drag performers and their supporters to continue to showcase the art of drag back into the minds and hearts of the world at large.
And always remember: the higher your heels and hair, the taller your pedestal will seem.
To find out more about Julian Eltinge, or to just see if I got it all right, check out my sources here:
Scarlett Bleu enjoys writing blogs and binge watching YouTube videos in her spare time. She frequently polishes her Miss Venture Inn 2013 crown, and often asks the question, “Whatever happened to Baby Scarlett?” while staring meaningfully out a window. Regardless, she has learned to love herself, and feels that is enough.
I met Scarlett Bleu at a karmic performance at Venture Inn in Venture Variety on a cold March night in 2015. She was only in town visiting for a few days and had booked this one show. After she took the leap and contacted me with this generous email message, “Unfortunately the music was still a little loud after the show Wednesday, so I didn’t quite hear what you were saying as you passed me your card, but whatever you need from me, please feel free to ask!” we had a lovely Skype interview. Shortly thereafter I asked her onboard The Queen’s Court staff and she has become your Highness of Herstory. Scarlett’s own herstory has some twists worth noting.
Jake Kerney (not his real name) was the young guy nervously crossing the street through traffic any time he might see drag queens heading toward him down the sidewalk in Philly’s Gayborhood. He developed an unnatural fear of them during his college career at Temple University, much like some people develop a fear of clowns. The idea of men decked out in layers of makeup, layers of clothes, and layers of wigs freaked him out.
That was until a fateful day with Netflix.The buzz had just begun to stir around RuPaul’s Drag Race. He watched the first episode of season 2 so he could criticize and dismiss it. However, episode one became three more episodes, became the whole season, became devouring seasons 1 & 2 in three days.Then intrigue set in. Could he transform himself into a mannequin-esque beauty the likes of Jujubee, Raven, or Pandora?
This became the ultimate challenge. Jake built up an arsenal of makeup, watched application tutorial videos, and set to work on the feminine face. The first time out was in his own words, awful. The idea of creating a masterpiece of pretty was consuming and this burgeoning queen would settle for nothing less than flawless exquisiteness. The determination to “get it” had solidified into marble and in a couple of months she appeared like Snow White in the mirror. The fairest of them all?
But who was she? This dolly needed a name. “It was hard to come up with an obscure headlining name,” Jake admits. Friends helped by running through lists of Greek goddess names, and other monikers. Jake particularly liked a rocker called Porcelain Black, but could not very well plagiarize the name. For a while it seemed he might take the alias Lola Stellanova. Alas, even with the tongue-tripping rhyme and star-sprayed reticence, it did not bring to mind starlet. And then there it was, Scarlett, from the modern day silver screen actress Ms. Johansson, combined with the French translation of azure, Bleu. Scarlet Bleu had face and name. A fishy queen was born.
The first opportunity to perform came when a friend who was a regular at the historic bar Venture Inn mentioned that drag queens performed there often. From then Scarlett amassed costumes and began to perform with help from Henry Britton whom she considers a drag mother and Sandy Beach who is like her drag grandmother. Henry especially has been a supportive theatrical force and Sandy has offered advice from her decades in drag starting in Atlantic City. Back when Scarlett was creating her body with repurposed office chair pads (Think the manufacturer saw that one coming?) and harkening back to her memories of high school shows like Meet Me in St. Louis and The Importance of Being Earnest for inspiration, Sandy and Henry were there to keep her afloat.
After her first performance she was asked back, became a part time server at Venture’s Sunday Brunch, and shook her groove thing right outside the bar, too . It was a natural next step then that she was crowned without ceremony (literally) Miss Venture Inn 2013, somewhat awkwardly in a scantily constructed costume from a previous number. Then there was an opportunity for time on the main stage at Outfest for Venture. Scarlett suggested an actual Miss Venture Inn pageant. She passed the crown on to Iris Spectre (Dylan Kepp) in 2014, and thanks to her creative thinking in coming up with the pageant it is now an annual event.
Scarlett began to hone her craft treating drag as an art form. She aims to entertain with a mix of smarts and comedy. She recognizes many of the reasons queens do drag: money, attention, sharing talent, and increasing confidence. Scarlett allows Jake to quiet all the voices in his head and shine a spotlight on a bit of true self through a filter of self-esteem that is not as easily accessible out of drag.
Scarlett Bleu has had her sorrows: falling off the stage during a performance at Voyeur (She did continue unhurt with a performance of Keisha’s Take it Off in which she shed multiple layers of clothes and two wigs before she was done) and a painful 30 seconds of silence during a Helen Keller performance. She has also had her triumphs. Case in point, a Mary Poppins number that dragged “A Spoonful of Sugar” into “Pour Some Sugar on Me” and back through “Umbrella” by Rihanna. The most touching moment she recalls was being assigned a spot on the Venture Inn 2013 Pride Parade float. Scarlett was given blue beads to throw. When a kid on the sidelines looked up to see Scarlett complimenting his blue wig and tossing him a strand of blue beads a connection of understanding floated through the air between them just as the beads did. The kid’s eyes lit up.
Jake is back home in Connecticut where he was raised, though he is a self-described army brat with a conservative Texan dad and the support of both parents. Scarlett Bleu is currently packed away in a rolling suitcase in a closet, but may traipse back to Philadelphia in the near future as she popped up earlier this year. She bloomed out of the dream to be a pretty, edgy, punk who wanted to stomp around in Doc Martens and has morphed into a graceful gazelle-like creature who can be as complex as 5 different eye shadow shades in one look and always simply classy.
“You’ve got to have balls to be a drag queen!” jokes Eric Torres during our Skype interview.
Technically, no. Figuratively, YES!
Eric, a Philly transplant from New York City, and his girlfriend Lindsay Barnett, agreed to talk with me about his involvement in drag performance as a straight man. Spit take? Double take? You read that right. Eric, a special effects makeup expert who has worked on such films as, “Resident Evil III” and Tim Burton’s “Alice in Wonderland”, jumpstarted his drag life after playing in a New York City theater production of “Rocky Horror Picture Show”. He created the role of Frank N Furter for two years, which in turn created his original drag queen character, simply called Erica. And before you start your doubting I made sure to ask the hard hitting question about sexual orientation.
TQC: So Eric, When did you know you were straight?
Eric: When I saw “Batman Returns”. Michelle Pfeiffer as Catwoman gave me the first boner I ever remember having.
Sadly, his first attempt fizzled. It was not loss of interest or lack of dedication on his part, but an unwelcoming atmosphere that made his drag career go flat. The queens he was in with were not sweet on a straight man in their midst. There was an exclusive this-is-our-thing mentality that kept him from claiming the stage. This entertainment community is populated mostly with homosexual men. While this is true there are many outliers as well: faux queens, trans* queens, and at least one straight drag queen in Philly, Eric himself.
Eric sees the scene as an opportunity to express his theatrical side and employee his talents with makeup. So when he moved down from New York City to Philadelphia to help care for his brothers while his mom was ill, he realized there is a flourishing and evolving drag culture teeming within the Gayborhood.He began attending shows and testing the waters by showing up in drag. He still kept it separate from his dating life though. It was not a case of ever doubting his own sexuality or feeling uncomfortable in his own drag, if you will. In fact, he knew when the absolute right woman came along she would not mind and even be excited that he was a girl, sometimes.
That woman is 27 year old Lindsey. She is a doe-eyed ballroom dance instructor who Eric thought was super cute on OKCupid. He did worry, however, that she might wonder if he was gay, because of his choice of hobby. Luckily, they both were raised in accepting inclusive families with LGBT members. At first drag culture friends of Eric’s did not quite get Eric and Lindsey’s relationship.
“This is my girlfriend,” Eric might say.
“You mean your girl friend?” another queen might ask.
“No my girlfriend.”
“Oh, you’re straight?”
But that’s where the conversation ends. Eric’s heterosexuality has never been a sticking point of contention for him here in Philadelphia. Overall, it seems that not only do the queens of the Gayborhood appreciate all walks of life in the audience, we are all invited to share the spotlight on stage. Well, as much as drag queens are willing to share the spotlight that is.So now Lindsey and Eric attend shows together and she is his “drag husband”! There’s a turn of events for you!
When Eric becomes his drag persona though, is the most interesting thing about her that her boy-self is straight? Not by a long shot. Annie Christ, born out of Eric’s love of gothic themes, horror movies, and bands such as NIN is a dark diva with wicked sense of humor. She takes about two hours of makeup application to conjure up and will be strutting her stuff for the next few weeks on Team Bev during Drag Wars Cycle 6 at Voyeur Nightclub hosted by Mimi Imfurst. This broad can rock out to Taylor Swift just as easily as to Marilyn Manson and has some magic up her skirt you are going to want to watch for.
Settle in my fellow queens and queen enthusiasts; it’s time to learn your drag herstory! That’s right, dolls! We are going to learn all about those lovely people who laid out the groundwork and made drag what it is today.
We are going to define “drag” as, “a person of one biological sex wearing the clothing of the opposite sex for entertainment or enjoyment purposes.” We are not excluding anyone, but if we started writing about any person who has ever put on the clothes of a different sex, we would go on about every football player who ever dressed up like a cheerleader for a laugh. Ain’t nobody got time for that!
So whom in the world do we talk about? Do we start with RuPaul, who is credited for bringing drag into the mainstream spotlight? What about the drag queen who supposedly started the Stonewall Riots that ignited the LGBT Civil Rights movement? According to several online sources, the variety of drag that we have come to know and love today did not exist until the 1950’s or 60’s. Should we ignore that it was normal for men to play female roles on the Elizabethan Stage for a significant period in time, starting in 1660?
Time was taken to carefully consider each of these questions. And then I remembered this is my article, and I can write about whomever I wanted! So without further ado, I would like to introduce you to an inspiration for my personal life as well as my drag persona:
Ms. Julie d’Aubigny
Yes, that’s right. I’m not even going to start with a QUEEN. I’m going to talk about a drag KING! Take THAT, patriarchy!
This lovely lady lived in France from 1670 to roughly 1707. She was not only proudly bisexual, but she often wore men’s clothing whenever the mood struck her. Oh, and she was kick-ass.
She often made money while demonstrating her fencing talents in the streets of Paris while wearing men’s clothing. According to several accounts, when a particularly intoxicated man doubted she was actually a female, she simply ripped open her shirt to prove it. Clearly, she was comfortable with her own body, and played a convincing male as well.
You may be wondering if wearing men’s clothing was the norm for Julie, especially since it was pretty difficult to wield a sword in the corsetry, hoop skirts, and elaborate powdered wigs of the day. While she did often wear men’s garments for comfort and the occasional disguise, she was no stranger to feminine garb. Most notably, she wore a nun’s habit during her short stint in a convent.
Yes, before she had even left her teenage years, our sword-slinging heroine had fallen in love with a young girl who was sent away to a convent when their relationship was discovered. So d’Aubigny joined the convent herself, until eventually the convent burned down, (conveniently) giving the two lovebirds a chance to run away together… for about three months. d’Aubigny then left the girl with her parents and took off for Paris.
Another story says that while wearing men’s clothing, she accidentally walked into a young nobleman, Comte d’Albert, who then challenged her to a duel, not realizing she was a female. She won the duel by running through his shoulder with her sword. She later visited him in the hospital and it is rumored that the two began a passionate romance. At the very least they became good friends. She was clearly very forgiving.
Other versions of this encounter say that she did not accidentally bump into d’Albert on the streets, but rather he accosted her after one of her shows, throwing vulgar insults at her that loosely translated into “I’ve listened to your chirping, now display your plumage.”
Have I forgotten to mention that Julie d’Aubigny was not only a master swordswoman, but also an opera singer? Not only was this amazing woman able to stand up for herself and hold a remarkable sense of dignity and self-worth for a woman in this time period, but she was also the 15th-century equivalent of a rock star. Picture Beyoncé getting into sword fights.
I know, right?
There was also the time that she dressed as a gentleman and snuck into a ball in the royal palace, winning the attention of a beautiful young female. When the lady’s three suitors discovered Julie and the maiden kissing, Julie was challenged to another duel, which she accepted. She fought all three of them outside of the royal palace and beat them all. Some say she even killed all three men.
Because of her celebrity status, and because she had gotten into trouble with the law before, she had to leave town until things quieted down. She was, however, pardoned by the king for breaking the anti-dueling laws of the time.
As mentioned, drag as we know it didn’t come about until about the 1950’s. So why does a bisexual, crossdressing, French opera star from the late 15th century matter to us now?
She matters because this is proof that wearing the garments of another sex is not exclusive to today’s modern times, nor is it a shameful act. Drag is a very personal mode of self-expression and artistic identity. While Julie d’Aubigny may not have had a direct influence on the art form, she serves as an example of someone who unapologetically lived her life the way she wanted, no matter who or what stood in her way. Whether she dressed for comfort during sword demonstrations, or to disguise herself to slip unrecognized into royal balls or down the street, she carried herself with the confidence every drag performer ought to embody when they present themselves to the world. It’s exactly what RuPaul always preaches, “If you can’t love yourself, how in the hell you gonna love somebody else?”
Perhaps we ought to stick to using our sharp wit rather than burning down convents, though: just a suggestion.
For more information regarding Julie d’Aubigny, or to just make sure I got it all right, check her out on http://www.rejectedprincesses.com/princesses/julie-daubigny .
When I first encountered Schlomo Steel’s WordPress blog http://schlomosteel.com/ while researching what to wear and how to behave at a drag show I was enchanted. His voice snatches your attention and his perspective makes you think beyond your comfort zone bubble. It’s a stream of consciousness organized into examples, vignettes, and anecdotes that sweep you from beginning to end and leave you scrolling to the next blog post to learn more. Learn here is the operative word, because through his blog and subsequent interview I have learned a lot about drag queens, drag culture, and the gay community.
Honestly I was brave in reaching out to Schlomo, or so I felt, because the biting, sometimes caustic tone of his blog set my brain to “He’ll never respond to me”. The highlights of playful moments, however, encouraged me. I commented on a post in which he said that anyone can bee a drag queen and when he responded I opened a dialogue that lead to an interview schedule, that was rescheduled, but finally came to fruition this past Wednesday, April 15 via Skype. A face framed by a full mane of curly floppy hair, a bushy beard and mustache, and adorned with leopard print cat-eye shaped eyeglasses appeared on my screen and it was go time.
Schlomo lives in Grand Rapids, Michigan and goes by the drag name Miss Dig. She calls herself a “Clown for the Revolution” and stands for the freedom motto Schlomo adopted at the young age of ten years old “‘why don’t people just agree to disagree and shut the fuck up already?'” while at the same time advocating having fun! Miss Dig in Schlomo’s words is your “moody teenage daughter”, who is “the most interesting woman in the room”, and despises the fashion world though she’ll probably end up in it because she is “saturated by it”.
Like many of the drag queens I have had the pleasure of interviewing, Schlomo views drag as an art form and especially enjoys the makeup aspect. Makeup application is referred to as painting in the drag world and if you have ever watched an episode of RuPaul’s Drag Race on Logo or read my previous blog posts you might already be familiar with the long application process that can take anywhere from 1-6 hours of work and artistry to achieve a precise look. For Schlomo to become Miss Dig it takes between 2-2 1/2 hours, but it is his favorite part of drag preparation and a chance to relax while creating the art of a face.
Once Miss Dig appears with her cleavage in place, Schlomo’s nipples duct taped in place (OUCH!), she is ready to lip sync in her old lady voice and jump around the stage at implausible heights in high high heels. She and Schlomo are drag queen superfans and drag culture’s number one cheerleaders.
Just like every queen has a roll of duct tape, every queen has an opinion on RuPaul and his show RuPaul’s Drag Race. Schlomo’s thoughtful angle is that while RuPaul is helping because he has done the most to shine a positive light on the drag community the fact that the show represents only the narrow definition of RuPaul and his best friend/show judge Michelle Visage hurts drag in the sense that it may not allow for inclusion of various forms of drag aside from fishy queens.
When asked about an especially memorable drag performance Schlomo told of a pinnacle performance that began with an excruciating migraine that could best be described as “shrieking full body pain”. Instead of opting out Miss Dig decided the show must go on. Schlomo says Miss Dig got on the stage to lip sync for her life. She belted out Marianne Faithful’s “Why’d Ya Do It?” and “turned how [he] felt into the performance of [a] lifetime”. He distinctly remembers being tipped some 20’s for that act, following it up by downing every last drop of Sprite in the house, and then returning to the stage to turn it out again. No one even suspected he was suffering! How’s that for WERKing through your pain?
Schlomo began doing drag at Rumors Night Club in Grand Rapids and characterizes the Michigan drag scene as one of a sisterhood rather than a cutthroat industry. He thinks this is the choice of his views, because he is not gunning for anyone’s job. He was loosely part of a drag house, but created Miss Dig independently making her “a self-made drag queen”. He has since moved from the area where he performed with this group and has not recently performed. He does have encouraging advice for drag queens starting out. “You will suck. You will fall. You will embarass yourself.You will face dangerous situations. Put on the paint. Strap on the wig. And make sure the only thing that is missing is being ashamed.” He says the only thing he takes seriously in this life is levity and humor. Drag and comedy have had a major impact on his life and he believes there might always be someone in the audience whose life could be touched by his performance. He does what he can do which is entertain and knows that entertainment is a staple of humanity that draws us together.
Drag sometimes seems like an expensive hobby in which the performers spend more money than they ever make, but Schlomo and Miss Dig leave all the queen-wanna-be’s with this impactful nugget of wisdom which can easily extend out to the masses. “Just keep swimming” , Fishies!