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DeCaro’s ‘Drag’ deftly weaves past and present

Tracing the art form, from ancient Greece to Bugs Bunny to Lady Bunny

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Image courtesy of Universe Publishing.

If you were stranded on a desert island and had just one book to read—and that book was “Drag: Combing Through the Big Wigs of Show Business”—your stay could be longer than that of Gilligan, the other six castaways, and that guy from “Cast Away” put together—and you’d never lose your appetite for the candid interviews, fabulous factoids, and keen insights assembled by writer, performer, and Sirius XM Satellite Radio host Frank DeCaro, who does his thing with all the dot-connecting intensity of a dogged anthropologist.

At 144 pages worth of lovingly crafted layouts, 100 story-unto-themselves photos (some of them from the queens’ personal collections), and contributions by the likes of Lypsinka, Bianca Del Rio, Hedda Lettuce, Harvey Fierstein, and Wesley Snipes, DeCaro’s “Drag” is, as the foreword by Bruce Vilanch fittingly puts it, “a living, pulsing documentation of some of the most brilliant subculture artists in America’s cultural history.”

“I’m ‘Drag Hag #1.’ I’ve been a fan of drag since I was a kid,” DeCaro says, “and have followed the careers of many of the most important players of the 20th century, whose ‘work clothes’ were those of the opposite sex.”

Work on the project began “almost five years ago,” he says, “and I kind of shaped it in a way that was encyclopedic, but also lighthearted.”

“Encyclopedic” is right. DeCaro originally pitched his dizzyingly comprehensive tome as “Dragapedia Americana.” The name might not have stuck, but the ethos remains firmly intact.

Drag, it seems, is everywhere today—but, as DeCaro notes, it’s been here “since man first walked the Earth… in heels.”

And so it goes with “Drag,” which draws a chronologically sound (albeit not-so-straight) line from ancient Greece to Shakespeare to Kabuki theater to the vaudeville and nightclub circuits to 1970s variety shows to NYC’s gritty Pyramid Club to the works of Charles-es Busch, Ludlam, and Pierce to Bugs Bunny to Lady Bunny to Madea—and ends up in a world where a little show called “RuPaul’s Drag Race” has seen the art form embraced as it has been so many times before, but now, finally allows the men behind the makeup to exist as both person and persona.

“We cannot give enough credit to ‘RuPaul’s Drag Race’ for what it’s managed to do,” DeCaro says, “for the ‘normalization,’ if you will, of drag. It’s gotten it in front of people, yes, but it’s done it in a way that’s more profound. RuPaul has shown that drag performers can have families. They can have relationships with their parents, their siblings, lovers, bosses. They can have truthful lives, as much as anyone else can, and I think that’s the most revolutionary, or ‘RuVolutionary’ thing about ‘RuPaul’s Drag Race.’ ”

It wasn’t always that way.

“Although in many towns a man could be arrested for impersonating a woman,” the tome recalls, “most every city had at least one club that featured cross-dressers and managed to get away with it.”

Club management might have found a way around strict community standards, but the performing artists weren’t so lucky.

“There are many stories in the book,” DeCaro says, “about how dangerous it was to be a drag queen, how you had to keep your drag in a trash bag and sneak it into where you were going to play, and make sure you were dressed as a man when you left.”

As for the slow and steady progress toward mass acceptance, mass media brought drag into America’s living rooms (see Chapter 6’s ode to Milton Berle), but cross-dressing as practiced by “Uncle Miltie” (“TV’s first drag superstar… heterosexual by almost all accounts,” DeCaro notes), “was pure comedy.”

Berle was a standalone superstar in his own right, whereas some of TV’s true drag queens “were not allowed to be whole people. They had to have no sexuality,” DeCaro recalls. “They had to whip their wig off at the end, to make sure you weren’t too titillated, or faked out completely. You had to know, ‘Yes, this is a man. Cool your jets.’” But now, DeCaro proudly points out, “we can see two drag queens have an affair on television, with Miss Vanjie and Brooke-Lynn Hytes [Season 11,”RuPaul’s Drag Race”]. Nobody’s ever seen that before.”

And it’s here that DeCaro manages to pull off a particularly nimble act of public education-meets-pop-culture-appreciation, by putting the personal struggles and artistic integrity of 20th century drag performers into the wheelhouses of contemporary audiences—who can name the winner of every “Drag Race” season, but don’t necessarily know somebody like Jim Bailey, who, DeCaro notes, “was as good of a female impersonator as anyone will ever be, but he had to call himself a ‘gender illusionist’ and he ‘dated’ Lucie Arnez back in the day. He had to do the Liberace approach, where there was no truth to the offstage life. It had to be made palatable and safe. So that, to me, is a real cautionary tale.”

Fans of all ages were eating up those tales, and more, when DeCaro moderated a May 26 panel at RuPaul’s DragCon LA, in which James St. James, Leslie Jordan, Drew Droege, and Coco Peru discussed drag past and present, with no small amount of attention focused on the ongoing quest for authentic portrayals.

In the audience were, DeCaro notes, “actual drag performers who’ve been doing their glorious thing for ages—Larry ‘Hot Chocolate’ Edwards, the best Tina Turner impersonator in the business, Dolores DeLuce, a cisgender woman who’d performed with The Cockettes, and the beautiful Reba Areba, Miss Best in Drag 2018.”

Alongside those who were spring chickens when The Cockettes first took to the stage, young fans in attendance, DeCaro says, “were hungry to hear about the oppression performers faced back in the day, and how they managed to overcome it. They wanted to know how we got to a place where drag is truly mainstream.”

DeCaro’s “Drag” takes you to that place, and beyond—and for as much as it spends time shining a light on trailblazers, it also lavishes attention upon contemporary voices, whose mainstream visibility has worldwide reach. In Chapter 2, for example, revealing Q&As with veteran performers Rick Skye (Liza) and Steven Brinberg (Barbra) bookend an equally insightful page from Derrick Barry (Britney).

“I think the most exciting thing about drag right now,” DeCaro says, when asked to put a fitting coda on his conversation with the Blade, “is that it’s this all-you-can-eat buffet, and every flavor is represented—whether it’s a man in his late ’80s [Darcelle XV, of Portland], who is doing his thing and looking fantastic in sequins, or a kid like Desmond Is Amazing, who’s 11 years old, and is the fiercest little kid you’ve ever met in your life, doing drag, and being invited to walk the runways of the New York collections.”

Drag these days means you can, DeCaro happily notes, be “any gender and perform as any alter ego. You can be a biologically cisgender female, and be a drag queen. Or you can be a woman dressed as a man, and be a drag king, or you can be a trans performer who’s also a drag queen on top of that. I think that the key to enjoying it now is to think of it as this giant party that we’re all invited to.”

Brittany Lynn. (Photo by Alexander John Ortiz)

Tempest DuJour. (Photo by Scott Kirby)

Varla Jean Merman. (Photo by Rex Bonomelli)

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Belinda Carlisle brings a heavenly Christmas Bash December 16th

Her work evolves beyond the demands of the pop market while never losing its hooks and whimsy. it reflects Belinda’s evolving life

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Courtesy of Belinda Carlise

HOLLYWOOD – On December 16th, 7pm, the city of West Hollywood transforms into a piece of “Heaven on Earth.” An angelic supernatural deity from the sky won’t be delivering this gift, but rather an angel from iconic pop paradise.

That night, Belinda Carlisle makes a grand entrance and gives an eager audience the presence of a queen of pop, the most recent inductee to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame along with her group, The Go-Gos.

It will be on that night that Belinda Carlisle hosts THE party event of the season with co-host, drag superstar, Trixie Mattel. One sings, one throws comedic shade, and a packed room at the Abbey will be losing their collective minds.  Not that the party itself isn’t all the reason you would need to get it on your calendar, the evening benefits a fantastic charity, The Animal People Alliance (APA), that intertwines the love for animals with the salve to human suffering.

Courtesy of Trixie Mattel

APA’s charter reads: “To provide high quality and compassionate care, of the highest standards, to neglected street animals in India and Thailand. We train and employ vulnerable people from the community, and pay living wages that help them improve their standard of living.”   The organization, by employing people who would otherwise be stateless and/or in poverty, has treated over 16000 street animals since 2014. Their programs for animals include rabies vaccinations, sterilizations and other emergency health aid.

Belinda sat down with me this week on the podcast RATED LGBT RADIO to talk about her life, her amazing career, her party and the strength she has achieved in standing up to both inner and outer demons.

She survives. She fearlessly opens herself up, and if anyone scrutinizes her past… she will lead the way.  She happily tells of being a member of the most successful all-women pop bands in history.  They sang and wrote their own songs, they played their own instruments. They did it on their terms. No men were needed or required. She candidly shares about her struggles with eating disorders and drug addiction. 

Belinda shows profound compassion for those struggling with addiction and darkness, “Addiction is a sickness…it is a disease of perception, you can’t see your effect on other people… It is a trap you feel you can’t get out of. Every addict has a heart and a humanity that is obscured by addiction. It is a horrible, horrible thing for anyone to go through. It is hard to remember that there is a heart under all that, there is something divine under all that darkness.”

Her interest focuses more on what came after she embarked on recovery  “My life is much more exciting since sobriety, even more exciting than the hey day with the Go-Gos. For anyone out there who is worried about aging, or life being over at a certain point—it’s not. Life is just the most amazing miracle and privilege.”

Her significance for the LGBTQ community, impacts many of the most vulnerable.  She is the mom of a gay man, activist and writer, James Duke Mason. His birth made her examine the trajectory of fame, drugs, and rock & roll in which she was on, careening threateningly close to disaster and death.

She had settled comfortably into maternal nurturement when Duke came out to her at the age of 14. Belinda had been impressed with Duke’s ability to explain the situation to her. She found out that he had been online with PFLAG for weeks learning about how to present his news to her, information to give and educated about key talking points. 

Appreciating their real life help of a young person in need, Belinda vehemently supported PFLAG, the Trevor Project and others ever since. “I am so glad I have a gay son, I can’t even tell you,” she says.

Artistically, she also continues to thrive.  The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame finally inducted the Go-Gos this year.  It was an honor 15 years in the making.  It should have been an obvious choice to put them there.

As the first all-female group making it big, they sang, wrote every note and played every instruments. The Go-Go’s, a 2020 American/Irish/Canadian documentary film directed and produced by Alison Ellwood, cast attention on the Hall of Fame oversight, and essentially made the case for how special the group actually was.

Belinda also recently released a new single Get Together a cover of the 1967 Youngbloods hit. The Youngbloods sang it at Woodstock in 1969 to make a statement about the divisions of the Viet Nam era in America.

Belinda sings it now, her voice pure, mature and as an anthem making a plea, if not a motherly order, to reconsider the divisions we are experiencing today.  She says, “We live in this age of outrage.  This song is ‘ok people, CHILL OUT’. All this divisiveness is not going to get us anywhere. It’s timely.”

Beyond Get Together, Belinda works on more new music including singles and a new album.  She continues to produce with the top song creators of the industry including award winning song writer Diane Warren and Go-Gos dates at the end of the year.

Her work evolves beyond the demands of the pop market while never losing its hooks and whimsy. it reflects the channeling of Belinda’s evolving life.  When she lived in France, she released a French collection.

As she delved into spirituality and the culture of Thailand, she released the powerful Wilder Shores, which blended a spiritual mantra into pop hooks. “Chanting is a science, it has a super power. It is not airy fairy,” she states.

The fact is, Belinda Carlisle continues arriving and thrilling.  She does not need to prove herself to anyone.  She has defined the next thirty years of her life as philanthropy.  

“I just wing it as I go along. I learned what it is like to work from the heart. Work in a way where you don’t care about any kind of outcome. That is how I am working now. I am just having fun, and doing just what I want. I am really lucky that way,” she declares.

Her party on December 16th at the Abbey appears right on track to bear that out.

Love, humanity, care of animals and a major splash of fabulousness enveloping an enthused audience.

In other words, pure Belinda.

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Listen to the full interview:

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Rob Watson is the host of RATED LGBT RADIO, a national podcast and he’s one of the founders of the evolequals.com.

A gay dad, business man, community activist and a blogger/writer, Watson is a contributor to the Los Angeles Blade covering entertainment, film, television, and culture with occasional politics tossed in.

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Andy Grammer partners with Trans Chorus of Los Angeles

Celebrating how important it is to live your life, your authenticity, and to feel good about who you are

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Andy Grammer partnered with the Trans Chorus of Los Angeles (Screenshot via YouTube)

LOS ANGELES – In honor of Transgender Awareness Week, Andy Grammer partnered with the Trans Chorus of Los Angeles (America’s first Trans Chorus, embracing all members of the trans, non-binary and intersex communities) for a special live performance of “Damn It Feels Good To Be Me” – celebrating how important it is to live your life, your authenticity, and to feel good about who you are. What a special moment. In conjunction with the partnership a donation has been made by Andy to the TCLA.

A note from TCLA: “The Chorus really enjoyed the song and especially performing it with Andy around the piano. It was upbeat and expressed how important it is to live your life and your authenticity and to feel good about who you are. That is the thrust of our Chorus philosophy of moving from victim to victorious.”

Connect with the Trans Chorus of Los Angeles:https://transchorusla.org/

Andy Grammer – Damn It Feels Good To Be Me (featuring Trans Chorus of Los Angeles)

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Michael Kearns, the Godfather of LGBTQ+ authenticity

Michael’s work has been described as “collisions of sex and death, of eroticism and grief,” but he has truly dug to an even deeper level

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Michael Kearns by Keida Mascaro

HOLLYWOOD – The arc of LGBTQ+ history over the past 50 years has been one of constant upheaval and evolvement. From a period when it was both illegal and insane to be gay, through the achievement of being able to serve openly in the military, to marriage equality and the ability to create families to today’s fight against the tyranny against Trans people, the movement has not stopped to take a breath.

Michael Kearns, the first recognized “out” actor on the Hollywood landscape, has been a visible presence through it all. More importantly, he has always” been visible on the gay scene. In the seventies he epitomized the free love and erotic freedom that many gay men lived. He was featured in classic gay porn movies and did a PR stint as the face of the “happy hustler.”  

“That was my introduction to a lot of people,” Michael told me when we sat down for a chat on Rated LGBT Radio. “I kind of captured the zeitgeist of the times, the freewheeling seventies. We forget that there was that period of time when sexuality was joyful and exciting and thrilling.”

In the eighties he was visible in mainstream media as a gay man playing gay men characters. In 1983, Michael was cast in a minor role on the Cheers Emmy winning episode “the Boys in the Bar.”  He was instantly recognized for his gay sexual iconic status by LGBTQ audiences, even though the population at large did not know who he was. The casting director who fought for his casting was Stephen Kolzak, who would himself become a prominent AIDS activist before he died at 37 in 1990. Stephen casted Michael to make a statement. He wanted to signal to the LGBTQ community that Cheers had our backs. “He was one of the only ones that had the guts,” Michael remembers.

“There were a lot of stereotypes in television regarding gay portrayals. I was pegged and cast in some of those roles. I did play the stereotype, but rather than a straight guy playing those roles, I brought authenticity. I was real. Straight guys playing gay would always spoof the role. They were always ‘winking’ and signaling to the camera ‘I am not really that way.’  So, the performances are by in large horrible, even with some academy award winners. The actors were constantly saying that it was not who they were—if they weren’t making that clear on the talk shows, they were doing it in the performance itself.’ Michael says.

Michael soon morphed into an HIV positive man playing HIV positive characters, while off camera becoming a visible and vocal AIDS activist. “It was a new kind of cliché. They had to always make me look horrible. The ghastlier the better. They could not have an HIV character who looked normal—as I did when I arrived at the set. Finally, I had enough and refused to do that anymore.” Michael then immersed himself in theater where he found greater character honesty and truth.

 As gay men captured their identities in the 90s as husbands and fathers, Michael was there too—becoming one of the first gay men to adopt a child.  It is that role, as a father, that Michael has said is his greatest.

Today, Michael has been a driving force behind QueerWise, a multigenerational writing collective and performance group. Through QueerWise, Michael gives poetic voice to talent that would otherwise be voiceless. Its members include published poets, writers of fiction and non-fiction, playwrights, singers, musicians, social activists, dancers, actors artists and teachers. 

This weekend, on Sunday October 17th, QueerWise launches its latest work, The Ache for Home. 

“The Ache for Home is a video presentation of heartfelt stories from formerly homeless/unhoused individuals in and around West Hollywood. It was developed through a mentorship program facilitated by QueerWise members. The production represents citizens-turned-writers who share their inspirational stories from those glamorous streets and sidewalks, ranging from soaring self-acceptance to narratives of truth-telling defeats,” states Michael. The production can be seen on QueerWise’s YouTube Channel starting 5pm October 17.

The Ache for Home features a young cis male with a passion for music and art, who finds joy “when I can put a smile on someone’s face and give back”, a retired mixed race bisexual government worker who is a voracious reader and literacy advocate, two trans males share their experiences of living on the street, and a former resident playwright who was homeless for 44 days and nights in the city. “I am thrilled at our inclusion of transmen in this work,” Michael says. “It is a poorly represented community within a poorly represented community.”

On current controversies with media and transgender targeting, particularly the Dave Chappelle issue, Michael remarks, “I am glad it is generating passion. It is bringing up conversation on the plights of black trans women who are victimized at an alarming rate, we should not say victimized… we should say murdered. I am glad we are shedding light on that.”

Michael’s work has been described as “collisions of sex and death, of eroticism and grief,” but he has truly dug to an even deeper level. The Ache for Home takes its inspiration from the Maya Angelou quote, “The ache for home lives in all of us, the safe place where we can go as we are and not be questioned.” Michael Kearns work has always encouraged us to go, and live, “as we are.” He is the amalgamation of eroticism, grief, healing, and appreciating the richness of life itself.

He is the godfather of LGBT+ authenticity. In earlier days, he may have represented sex, he may have walked us through a period of darkness and death into the arms of the creation of the new family. He has now brought us home, and when we look at him, we see a new quality.

Wisdom.

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Rob Watson is the host of RATED LGBT RADIO, a national podcast and he’s one of the founders of the evolequals.com.

A gay dad, business man, community activist and a blogger/writer, Watson is a contributor to the Los Angeles Blade covering entertainment, film, television, and culture with occasional politics tossed in.

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Listen to the show here:

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