Review: ‘God Save the Queens’ (2022), starring Alaska Thunderfuck, Laganja Estranja, Kelly Mantle, Jordan Michael Green, Peter Facinelli, Michelle Visage and Joaquim De Almeida

June 11, 2022

by Carla Hay

Alaska Thunderfuck in “God Save the Queens”

“God Save the Queens” (2022)

Directed by Jordan Danger

Culture Representation: Taking place in California’s Los Angeles County, the comedy/drama film “God Save the Queens” features a predominantly white cast of characters (with some African Americans, Latinos and Asians) representing the working-class and middle-class, and who are connected in some way to drag queen culture.

Culture Clash: Four drag queens find themselves at the same group retreat, where they share their stories about their personal struggles and career problems. 

Culture Audience: “God Save the Queens” will appeal primarily to people who are interested in drag queen culture and stories about people who aren’t afraid to be themselves in a world that doesn’t always accept them.

Peter Facinelli and Kelly Mantle in “God Save the Queens”

“God Save the Queens” has the right blend of spicy and sweet comedy mixed with sentimental drama in this unique story about four drag queens in group therapy at a retreat. Some of the acting is uneven, but this independent film has a scrappy spirit that’s irresistible. There’s plenty of divalicious dialogue and engaging characters that should please fans of entertainment where drag queens are celebrated and not exploited. “God Save the Queens” had its world premiere at the 2022 Tribeca Film Festival in New York City.

Written and directed by Jordan Danger, “God Save the Queens” is her feature-film directorial debut, after she has spent years in the entertainment business as an actress. One of the best things about the movie is that the characters (main and supporting) are written with distinct personalities. “God Save the Queens” (which is set in California’s Los Angeles County) is not the type of movie where viewers will have a hard time remembering the characters or telling the characters apart. Almost all of the drag queens in the movie are played by real-life drag queens.

Most scripted feature films about drag queens tend to make the end goal a big performance or contest that takes place near the end of the story. “God Save the Queens” features snippets of performances, but the movie’s main focus is on what the four main drag queen characters reveal about themselves when they end up together in group therapy sessions during a retreat in California’s Topanga Canyon. The movie also doesn’t play into the drag queen movie/TV stereotype of a bunch of drag queens going on a road trip together and getting various reactions when they show up in places that aren’t used to seeing drag queens.

As an example of how musical performances are not the main focus of the movie, “God Save the Queens” shows the drag queen performers on stage in montage sequences without the movie’s soundtrack playing the music that the queens are supposed to be performing. It could be because the movie’s budget didn’t allow for well-known songs to be licensed for the film, but it feels like the right choice to have a lack of karaoke-type scenes, since the story is about more about how these drag queens deal with life off stage rather than showcasing what they do on stage. The only viewers who might be disappointed in this filmmaker choice are people who might be expecting “God Save the Queens” to be like “RuPaul’s Drag Race.”

The movie does a good job of introducing the main characters before they find themselves baring their souls in this retreat. All of them have their individual quirks that make them relatable to viewers. The four drag queens at the center of the story are:

  • GiGi (played by Jordan Michael Green), whose real name is Klein Carter, is a drag queen singer who is trying to make a name in the entertainment industry. Klein lives in a shabby, working-class house with his adoptive single mother Eloise (played by Ellen Gerstein), who is loving and completely supportive of who Klein is. Klein, who is a combination of confident and vulnerable, has a tendency to give pep talks to himself out loud when he looks in a mirror or window. One of his biggest celebrity idols is a Los Angeles-based charismatic female pop star named Harlowe (played by Kimberley Crossman), who is an immigrant from New Zealand.
  • Marmalade (played by Kelly Mantle), whose real name is Lewis, is a drag queen stand-up comedian and the oldest of the four queens. (Marmalade is in her 40s, while the other three queens are in their 30s.) While Klein worries about being a “never-was,” Lewis worries about being a “has-been.” In his cluttered home, where he lives alone, Lewis (who started doing drag at age 19) keeps mementos of when he won drag queen contests when he was in his 20s. Lewis is very feisty and doesn’t hesitate to cut people down with blistering comments if they do or say things that annoy him. Lewis shows a softer side to himself when he talks to his beloved pet parakeet LoToya.
  • Stevie Dix (played by Alaska Thunderfuck), whose real name is never mentioned in the movie, is a drag queen singer who is very sassy and who places a high value on honesty and loyalty. That’s why Stevie is still very hurt over how his longtime friendship ended with someone who was his best friend and partner in a musical duo act called Dix Royale. Stevie is trying to launch a career as a solo act, but is finding it harder than he expected.
  • Rita (played by Laganja Estranja), whose real name is also never mentioned in the movie, is a drag queen singer who was Stevie’s best friend and partner in Dix Royale. The two pals had a falling out over a man named Carlos. Rita confided in Stevie about having a crush on Carlos, but Rita believes that Stevie seduced Carlos (played by Francis Gonzalez), who makes a brief appearance later in the movie. Rita, who is extremely vain, likes to think she’s always the most beautiful drag queen in any room, but Rita is not so self-centered that she doesn’t have room in her heart to give and receive love.

An early scene in the movie shows that Klein is struggling to find work. He goes to interview for a home care job where he would be taking care of an elderly man. The man’s wife Esther (played by Judith Scarpone), who interviews Klein for the job, shows her prejudice when she rudely rejects Klein and tells him to immediately leave after she sees that he’s wearing nail polish. As revenge, Klein steals a small gold elephant figurine on his way out the door, and then he gives the figurine to Eloise as a gift.

Later, it’s shown that Klein’s financial woes lead him to take an offer he can’t refuse from a friend named Olive (played by Thomas Ochoa), who’s also a drag queen. Olive offers to give Klein some money and to do the marketing for an upcoming live performance by Klein’s drag persona GiGi. Things don’t go exactly as planned.

Meanwhile, Lewis/Marmalade works at a drag queen club called the Starlight Lounge, which is owned and managed by a straight guy named Simon (played by Peter Facinelli), who thinks Marmalade is the best performer at the club. Simon privately gives this compliment to Marmalade in a scene that takes place in the club’s dressing room. Other drag queens who work at the Starlight Lounge include Layla (played by Ingenue), Penny Pinch (played by Vicky Vox) and Augusta Wind (played by Jp Moraga), with Layla as Lewis/Marmalade’s closest friend.

Lewis/Marmalade also has a big admirer: a neighbor in his early 20s named Tyler (played by Denny McAuliffe), who introduces himself to Lewis one day when Lewis is about to get a car ride with Layla to go to the Starlight Lounge. Tyler, who calls himself a “drag enthusiast,” tells Lewis that he saw a torn drag outfit in Lewis’ garbage, so Tyler eagerly offers to mend the outfit and to do Tyler’s makeup. Lewis, who isn’t sure if Tyler is a stalker type, is rather standoffish and impolite in telling Tyler that he doesn’t need any help, and demanding that Tyler should only call him Lewis (not Marmalade) when Lewis is not in drag.

Stevie and Rita are now solo acts at the Plastic Pancake Palace, which is a more downscale and smaller venue, compared to the Starlight Lounge. The manager of the Plastic Pancake Palace is a butch lesbian named Charlie (played by Julie Goldman), who thinks that Stevie and Rita are better as a duo than as solo acts. Another person who feels the same way is Dix Royale’s biggest fan: a loyal customer named Nolan (played by Zack Gottsagen), who happens to have Down syndrome.

Nolan and Charlie aren’t the only ones who think that Dix Royale should get back together. Two slick executive producers of a drag queen TV talent contest called “Talent’s a Drag” show up at the Plastic Pancake Palace. Their names are Hugo (played by Joaquim de Almeida) and his son Hugo Jr. (played by Lourenço de Almeida), who tell Stevie and Rita that they want Stevie and Rita to be on the show, on the condition that Stevie and Rita perform on the show as Dix Royale.

The other condition is that Stevie and Rita need to go to therapy together at a retreat before they can be on the show. Stevie and Rita are barely on speaking terms and don’t like the idea of working together again. But the opportunity to be on this show is too good to pass up, so Rita and Stevie reluctantly agree to these conditions. Charlie warns Stevie and Rita that Hugo has a reputation for sexually harassing drag queens on the show. This reputation is something that is brought up later in the story.

It’s unclear how Klein and Lewis ended up on the retreat, but all four of the men are in the same group therapy sessions together. They talk about their lives and recent pivotal moments during multiple sessions. At first, the therapy sessions are led by a hippie couple named Guy (played by Jonathan Goldstein) and Gail (played by Rachelle Carson-Begley), who talk in a lot of New Age-type babble that isn’t very helpful.

One day, someone else (played by Luenell) is there as a substitute for Guy and Gail. (This session leader’s mystery identity is revealed at the end of the movie.) Once this sarcastic individual leads the group sessions, the four men start to open up more and have some breakthroughs. A recurring joke in these sessions is that every time Lewis starts to tell his story, he can’t finish it because the session then ends for the day.

“God Save the Queens” has some biting commentary about drag queen reality TV shows and contests that are operated by people who care mostly about causing conflicts between the drag queens and don’t really care about the drag queens as people. “God Save the Queens” director Danger has a satirical cameo as a “Talent’s a Drag” producer named Scheana, who embodies this type of showbiz callousness that’s disguised with fake smiles and pretending to be friendly with people who are exploited on reality shows.

And speaking of drag queen reality shows, “RuPaul’s Drag Race” judge/senior producer Michelle Visage has a memorable supporting role in “God Save the Queens” as a haughty talent scout named Liv, who shows up at the Starlight Lounge. Liv’s presence leads to what is probably the movie’s highlight that involves a big moment for Lewis/Marmalade. It’s one of the reasons why Mantle gives a scene-stealing performance throughout this movie.

Many movies about the LGBTQ community, even the comedies, have homophobic violence or other hate crimes as part of the story. People who are a little tired of seeing that narrative in LGBTQ movies will be delighted to know that there’s no violence in “God Save the Queens,” although the movie does responsibly show how homophobia is hurtful. Klein (who is African American) also talks about and experiences some racism.

“God Save the Queens” should also be commended from not trying to put an unrealisitc and glossy spin on the lives of drag queens, especially those who are considered on the margins of society and the ones who might never be seen on a mainstream show like “RuPaul’s Drag Race.” The movie depicts the financial realities of struggling entertainers, who often have to live with parents or in small dwellings. (For example, Rita lives in a small trailer.) It’s particularly true in large metropolitan areas such as Los Angeles County, where the cost of living is much higher than in other places in the United States.

“God Save the Queens” has moments where the movie’s acting, dialogue and pacing don’t flow as smoothly as they could. However, the movie has immensely charismatic cast members who make even the questionable parts of the movie watchable. You can tell that many of the cast members have lived the experiences depicted in the movie, which make their performances much more authentic than if they had been played by well-known Hollywood actors.

Estranja (whose real name is Jay Jackson) and Thunderfuck (whose real name is Justin Andrew Honard) are utterly believable as bickering queens Rita and Stevie. They have to deal with issues of jealousy and rivalry not only as friends but also as entertainment duo partners who are now working together again. The ups and downs of Stevie and Rita’s relationship will tug at viewers’ emotions, especially when it’s revealed that Rita and Stevie have been each other’s only family, because their biological families have rejected Rita and Stevie for being gay.

Green’s performance as Klein/GiGi is perfectly fine, but sometimes comes across as forced and hammy, as if he’s is playing a stereotype. Still, Klein seems to be self-aware that he’s kind of an oddball who talks out loud to himself, when he’s shown in a scene looking in his bedroom mirror and saying out loud, “And for fuck’s sake, stop with the monologues! Who are you? Carrie Bradshaw?” (Fans of “Sex and the City” will understand that joke.)

“God Save the Queens” is a cheeky title whose meaning is made clear by the end of the movie. The story happens to be about drag queens, but it speaks to larger issues that anyone can relate to about finding one’s identify, self-acceptance and a support system in good times and bad times. As pure entertainment, “God Save the Queens” has plenty of laugh-out-loud moments and some meaningful drama that should make this movie something that a lot of viewers will want to watch again.

Review: ‘P.S. Burn This Letter Please,’ starring Henry Arango, James Bidgood, Michael Alonga, Robert Bouvard, Claude Diaz, George Roth and Joseph Touchette

January 19, 2021

by Carla Hay

Henry Arango, also known as Adrian, in “P.S. Burn This Letter Please” (Photo by Alex Bohs/Discovery+)

“P.S. Burn This Letter Please”

Directed by Michael Seligman and Jennifer Tiexiera

Culture Representation: Taking place in primarily in New York City, the documentary “P.S. Burn This Letter Please” interviews a predominantly white group of people (with a few Latinos and African Americans), who are current and former drag queens or LGBTQ book authors/historians, about the New York City drag scene in the 1950s and 1960s.

Culture Clash: Dressing in drag and being a member of the LGBTQ community often had to be kept underground, since people were arrested or faced other punishment if they weren’t heterosexual.

Culture Audience: “P.S. Burn This Letter Please” will appeal primarily to people who are interested in drag queen culture or LGBTQ history from the mid-20th century.

George Roth, also known as Rita George, in “P.S. Burn This Letter Please” (Photo by Zachary Shields/Discovery+) 

Drag queens have become a very visible part of mainstream pop culture, due in large part to the Emmy-winning “RuPaul’s Drag Race” and other TV shows about drag queens. But there used to be a time in the U.S. when dressing as a drag queen in public was illegal and could put people in danger of being physically harmed. During the 1950s to 1960s, television became fixtures in American households, but the idea of a TV show about drag queens would be considered too offensive or scandalous at the time. What was going through the minds of gay/queer men who were New York City drag queens in their prime during this era?

The documentary “P.S. Burn This Letter Please” takes an insightful look at this underreported part of LGBTQ history, by including numerous interviews with the drag queens of this era, as well as authors of books that researched this culture. During this era, LGBTQ people could be legally fired from jobs, assaulted or worse, just because of their sexuality. When closeted LGBTQ people wrote love letters or other letters declaring their sexuality, it was very common for the letter writers to ask the recipients to burn the letters, out of fear that the letters could get into the wrong hands. This fear of homophobic persecution is the sobering inspiration for the documentary’s title.

Directed by Michael Seligman and Jennifer Tiexiera, “P.S. Burn This Letter Please” features a charismatic cast of current and former drag queens who were mostly in their 80s and 90s when this documentary was filmed. Some of the people who are interviewed started out as drag queens in their youth and then decided to live as transgender women. And they all have tales to tell that are fascinating as well as harrowing.

The interviewees include:

  • Michael Alonga (Drag name: Daphne), a former drag queen who had a lover of 18 years named Aaron who died of AIDS in 1986
  • Henry Arango (Drag name: Adrian), a Cuban immigrant whose drag name was inspired by his mother Adriana
  • James Bidgood (Drag name: Terry Howe), a drag queen and costume designer
  • Robert Bouvard (Drag name: Robbie Ross), a former Air Force member who’s originally from Wichita, Kansas
  • Claude Diaz (Drag name: Claudia), who was arrested in 1958, at age 23, for stealing Metropolitan Opera wigs valued at $3,000 at the time
  • Lennie (no last name) (Drag names: Dee Dee LaRue, Dayzee Dee), a former drag ball promoter who came to New York City from a rural Pennsylvania town, after leaving home at 18 to join the military
  • Terry Noel (Drag name: Terry), who got transsexual surgery arranged by Anna Genovese, the sister of mob boss Vito Genovese
  • George Roth (Drag name: Rita George), who was named Miss Fire lsland in 1969, and who impersonated a woman in public for the first time when he put on his mother’s orange taffeta dress and went grocery shopping
  • Joseph Touchette (Drag name: Tish), who says that the description “drag queen” was derogatory back then and the preferred description was “female impersonator”

Also interviewed are “Gay New York” author George Chauncey, “Vintage Drag” author Thomasine Bartlett and “Mother Camp” author Esther Newton. Drag historian Joe E. Jeffreys comments on the importance of finding letters written by LGBTQ people from eras when it was illegal to be a non-heterosexual: “Photographs tell us one thing. Words tell another.”

And because there was such a fear of these letters being found, they were often destroyed. Robert Corber, a professor in American institutions and values at Trinity College, has this to say in the documentary about the huge void in LGBTQ historical papers that chronicle what it was like to be queer in the U.S. during these bygone eras: “We don’t have archives of letters, archives of diaries. What we do have are archives of arrest records.”

“P.S. Burn This Letter Please” mentions one of the main inspirations for the documentary: In 2014, a box containing hundreds of letters was discovered in a Los Angeles storage unit. The letters dated back to the 1950s and were addressed to a young man named Reno Martin, who would later become known as Hollywood agent Ed Limato. When Martin left his hometown to pursue a career in radio, his closest gay/queer friends wrote the letters to stay connected to him.

The friends, many of whom became drag queens in New York City, trusted Martin with their most intimate stories. He became their confidant, and the letters they wrote to him have now become important written documents for drag queen history since most of these types of letters were destroyed out of fear.

Alonga, who was one of the friends who wrote to Martin, comments on the importance of camaraderie in the underground New York City drag queen scene: “We felt like sisters … Well, sisters that were really brothers to the public.” Arango, who has an unapologetically flamboyant personality, shows off his collection of vintage dolls in the documentary and quips later in the movie: “I could never act butch. It would give me a rash.”

Where did these drag queens hang out in New York City? The two nightclubs mentioned the most in the documentary are Club 82 and Cork Club. Club 82 had more of a heterosexual crowd, who often went there to see female impersonators. According to the documentary, Club 82 also attracted a lot of celebrities, including John F. Kennedy Jr. (before he became U.S. president), Elizabeth Taylor, Richard Burton, Natalie Wood and Warren Beatty. Club 82’s general manager Pete Petillo was married to Anna Genovese, mob boss Vito Genovese’s sister who arranged for Noel’s transsexual surgery.

Cork Club was more underground than Club 82 and catered more to a LGBTQ crowd. One of the Cork Club regulars was a Dominican drag queen named Josephine Baker (real name: Roberto Perez), who dressed like the real Josephine Baker. Drag queen Josephine was a very close friend of Diaz, who describes Josephine in the documentary as “wild,” “gorgeous” and a “kleptomaniac.”

In fact, the two were partners in crime when they were busted for stealing those Met Opera wigs. (Perez tragically died of AIDS in 1988, at the age of 53.) Diaz also mentions that he and Perez were also very close friends with a drag queen named Billie.

Although there are certainly happy memories shared in the documentary, there are also tales of heartbreak, trauma and health problems. Because drag queens are often the targets of bigotry and ridicule, it can take a toll on their self-esteem. Noel says of the way he felt during most of his life: “I didn’t feel worthy of anything.”

Many of the drag queens say that they went through struggles with finances and mental health. Some turned to prostitution to support themselves. Diaz says he was put in a psychiatric institution at age 16, and he later became a sex worker. He says that he made more money as a prostitute when he was dressed in drag.

The documentary mentions that this clique of drag queens had a “trick room,” a description they used for a rented New York City hotel room where they kept their drag queen clothes. It was a safe storage space for those who couldn’t risk keeping the clothes in their own homes, for fear of homophobic retaliation.

Bouvard remembers that when he was in the military in New Orleans, he discovered gay bars. When he dressed in drag, he often fooled the military guys, who would escort him on dates, as if he were a cisgender woman. Bouvard mentions that if the men who escorted him knew the truth, he would have been killed. Later in the documentary, Bouvard opens up about his health problems, including being HIV-positive and having an amputated leg because of a blood clot.

Although all of the current and former drag queens who are interviewed in “P.S. Burn This Letter Please” are white or Hispanic, the documentary gives a brief acknowledgement of African Americans in New York City drag culture. Phil Black, an African American drag queen, is mentioned as an influential scenester during the 1950s and 1960s, because he founded the racially integrated Phil Black Ball for drag queens. Unfortunately, Asians and Native Americans are not mentioned at all in the documentary. Viewers are left to speculate why there wasn’t enough information for these racial groups included in the film.

Harlem historian Michael Henry Adams explains in the movie that much of that erasure has to do with white men being the ones who usually get to write American history: “The best thing about history is to be able to go to the past and discover yourself. The great difficulty for we who are marginalized, be we women or black or gay, as you look at what is purported to be history, we’re invisible. We don’t exist.”

The filmmakers could have done a better job at exploring the underreported racial diversity in the New York City drag scene of the 1950s and 1960s. “P.S. Burn This Letter Please” also could have used more revelations about the era’s drag beauty contests and drag costume balls that were and still are big parts of drag culture. Roth comments on these events: “We didn’t realize we were doing it for the next generations.”

The current and former drag queens in the documentary came of age before Pride parades existed, but they say that they became enthusiastic supporters once these parades began to happen in the 1970s. (The documentary shows Arango, in very skimpy drag gear, attending the New York City Drag March during Gay Pride Weekend in 2017.) These parades were a turning point for LGBTQ people and their allies to openly express themselves in an even more public way than previously done.

Despite some flaws, “P.S. Burn This Letter Please” is best enjoyed as a compilation of anecdotes and personal stories, rather than a comprehensive historical account of New York City drag queen life in the 1950s and 1960s. “P.S. Burn This Letter Please” would make an excellent companion piece with director Peter Howard’s 2019 documentary film “The Lavender Scare,” which goes more in-depth about why letter-burning was a big part of the LGBTQ community before the gay-rights movement happened.

Discovery+ premiered “P.S. Burn This Letter Please” on January 4, 2021.

Coach has Kate Moss, Spike Lee, Yara Shahidi, Megan Thee Stallion and more in ‘Wonder for All’ holiday 2019 campaign

November 4, 2019

Kate Moss in Coach’s “Wonder for All” Holiday 2019 campaign (Photo courtesy of Coach)

The following is a press release from Coach:

Coach unveils “Wonder For All,” its campaign for the 2019 holiday season. Starring a fun, diverse cast that includes actress Yara Shahidi, model Kate Moss, rapper Megan Thee Stallion in her first-ever fashion campaign, Spike and Tonya Lee, and more friends of Coach, the campaign follows the band of revelers as they gather at an impromptu party at a New York brownstone. Capturing the magical mood of the season, it champions the belief of coming together for the holidays and the inclusive, authentic spirit of New York.

Kate Moss in Coach’s “Wonder for All” Holiday 2019 campaign (Photo by Juergen Teller for Coach)

Photographed by Juergen Teller, who debuted his first campaign for Coach this fall, the colorful, irreverent print campaign highlights the individuality of the campaign’s cast members. Set on the Upper West Side and featuring Shahidi, Moss, Megan Thee Stallion as well as model Fernanda Ly, actor Miles Heizer and an unexpected feathered friend, it sees the cast in joyful, unfiltered scenes that highlight the house’s spirit of playfulness and the authentic self-expression that defines New York City.

The campaign also introduces the house’s new Horse and Carriage collection. Seen on Kate Moss and a new version of the Kat Saddle Bag, the collection reimagines Coach’s iconic Horse and Carriage motif as a cool, colorful pattern on bags and ready-to-wear. First introduced in the 1950s, the Horse and Carriage is a symbol of Coach’s legacy of leathercraft and New York heritage, and the house’s first-ever code.

“Wonder For All” is also a series of short films written and directed by Bunny Kinney. Featuring Spike and Tonya Lee, actress Camila Morrone, winner of Season 8 of Ru Paul’s Drag Race Bob the Drag Queen, and writer, actor and producer Ben Sinclair, as well as special appearances by the Shahidi family and the Newark Boys Choir, the films celebrate the magic and spontaneous fun of being together during the most festive time of year.

Coach customers in Japan will be able to play a limited-edition Rexy holiday video game where the house’s beloved mascot snowboards through animated Coach worlds with the goal of reaching the holiday party.

ABOUT COACH
Coach is a global design house of modern luxury leather goods, apparel, footwear, fragrance, eyewear and a full range of lifestyle accessories.  Founded in 1941, Coach has a longstanding reputation built on quality craftsmanship and is defined by its confident New York style.  The brand approaches design with a modern vision, reimagining luxury for today with an authenticity and innovation that is uniquely Coach.  Coach products are available in approximately 55 countries through its network of directly operated stores, travel retail shops and sales to wholesale customers and independent third party distributors, as well as through coach.com.

Coach is a Tapestry, Inc. brand.  Tapestry is publicly listed on the New York Stock Exchange under the ticker TPR.

2019 Tribeca Film Festival movie review: ‘Wig’

May 5, 2019

by Carla Hay

Nelson Sullivan in “Wig” (Photo courtesy of HBO)

“Wig”

Directed by Chris Moukarbel

World premiere at the Tribeca Film Festival in New York City on May 4, 2019.

The documentary “Wig” is a joyous and sassy love letter to Wigstock (the annual drag festival in New York City) and New York City’s drag culture. The movie comes 24 years after the 1995 documentary “Wigstock: The Movie,” which chronicled the 1994 Wigstock event. Unlike “Wigstock: The Movie,” which was essentially a concert film, “Wig” takes a deeper dive into the history of Wigstock and its underrated impact on pop culture.

Wigstock was launched in 1984 by Lady Bunny, and its first incarnation ran until 2001. The festival was revived in 2018 by Lady Bunny and Neil Patrick Harris. (Harris and his husband, David Burtka, are two of the producers of “Wig,” which had its world premiere as part of the Tribeca Film Festival’s inaugural Tribeca Celebrates Pride, an entire day of LGBTQ-themed programming. Lady Bunny performed after the film’s premiere.)

A lot has changed since Wigstock went on hiatus in 2001. RuPaul, who was one of Wigstock’s original stars, has become an entertainment mogul, as the host/showrunner of the Emmy-winning drag contest “RuPaul’s Drag Race” and the founder of RuPaul’s DragCon event, which currently has annual editions in Los Angeles and New York City. The rise of RuPaul and drag culture is a direct result of LGBTQ culture overall becoming much more visible in the 21st century, with more LGBTQ characters and reality stars on screen; the launch of LGBTQ TV networks, such as Logo and Here; and more LGBTQ celebrities living their lives openly. That visibility and growing public support for LGBTQ rights also had an impact on the U.S. Supreme Court’s 2015 decision to make marriage equality legal for same-sex couples.

In its own unique way, Wigstock has been part of this movement. It’s important to bring up this historical context because “Wig” would have been a very different movie if it had been made in the 1990s. “Wig” director Chris Moukarbel (who directed Lady Gaga’s 2017 Netflix documentary “Gaga: Five Foot Two”) skillfully rises to the challenge of presenting the history of Wigstock in a cohesive, entertaining style that a wide variety of people can relate to and enjoy.

“Wig” includes some prophetic archival footage from the early 1990s showing RuPaul having a bathroom conversation with British filmmaker Fenton Bailey, who asks RuPaul if drag queens will be popular in America. Fast forward decades later, and Bailey’s World of Wonder production company (which he co-founded in 1991 with fellow filmmaker Randy Barbato) is producing the “Drag Race” franchise, drag queen Big Freedia’s self-titled reality series and numerous other film, TV and digital projects. RuPaul is seen frequently throughout the “Wig” movie, including RuPaul’s early club days at New York City’s Pyramid Club (which was a vital part of the city’s drag scene that birthed Wigstock), to directing an impromptu home photo session with fellow drag queen Nelson Sullivan in the late ‘80s or early ‘90s, to on-stage appearances at Wigstock throughout the years.

In “Wig,” many of the drag queens comment on the mainstreaming of drag culture, compared to the early years of Wigstock. Although many of the queens appreciate that drag culture has become more accepted and has become a more viable way to make a living, some of the queens express some wistful nostalgia for the days when the community was much smaller and more tight-knit.

Drag queen Linda Simpson says that “’Drag Race’ was groundbreaking,” but the flip side is that drag culture was “more fun” when it was less mainstream. Simpson adds, “Now, drag is all about de-mystifying drag. It takes away from the insider-y feel that we had before.”

Flotilla DeBarge comments, “There are too many people right now who want to be drag queens, but they don’t know what it’s about,” adding that doing drag should be about passion, not money. “Anybody can do drag, but what kind of drag queen do you want to be?” As drag queen Naomi Smalls puts it: “RuPaul paved the way for me, but who the fuck paved the way for Ru? I love that drag is being normalized.”

For many drag queens, validation outside the drag community is the ultimate sign of success. Willam Belli, also known as drag queen Willam (a former “Drag Race” contestant who landed a cameo in the 2018 remake of “A Star Is Born”), hilariously tells a story about surprising a male intruder who had broken into Willam’s home, and the intruder backed away and called her “ma’am.” Willam laughs when remembering how the intruder acknowledged her as a woman: “I passed!”

Some of the Wigstock devotees also talk about their early influences. Charlene Incarnate says that most of her gay role models were closeted dads in her church. Harris said that drag culture appeals to him as a magician. As drag queen Tabboo! says in the film, “Wigstock was revolutionary because it kickstarted the ‘Come out, come out, wherever you are.’”

Lady Bunny adds, “We were putting something special out there in New York because this was the time of AIDS.” The AIDS crisis and its impact on the LGBTQ community is given a respectful amount of acknowledgement in “Wig,” which includes some heartbreaking testimonials of people who have lost friends and loved ones to the deadly disease.

Hate crimes against drag queens and others in the LGBTQ community are also mentioned in “Wig.” Jeremy Extravagance talks about his longtime friendship with singer/drag queen Kevin Aviance, who was the survivor of a vicious beating in 2006, outside of a gay bar in Manhattan. Aviance, who is interviewed and has some of the movie’s best scenes, describes his attack as, “I never felt so much hate in my life from someone I never met.” He says of being a hate-crime survivor: “Drag is my silver lining.”

As one commentator puts it: “Drag is hyper-femininity in response to aggressive masculinity.” If that’s the case, then Wigstock is the ultimate on-stage clapback. The heart of the movie is still about the thrill and the spectacle of performing at Wigstock, with Lady Bunny as the event’s founding mother. Blondie lead singer Debbie Harry, a previous Wigstock performer, says cheekily of Lady Bunny: “The thing that annoys me about Bunny is that she flirts like crazy…and nothing happened [between us].”

If there’s any one person who’s portrayed as a chief villain in “Wig,” it’s Rudy Giuliani, who was mayor of New York City from 1993 to 2001. (He is not interviewed in the movie.) Giuliani’s crackdown of the city’s nightclubs resulted in numerous closures that directly affected gay nightlife and drag culture. It’s perhaps no coincidence that Wigstock went out of business when Giuliani was in office.

The movie culminates with a dazzling array of footage from Wigstock’s spectacular comeback in 2018, including appearances from Lady Bunny, Bianca Del Rio, Aviance, Ladies of Lips, Amanda Lepore and Harris in full costume from his Tony-winning “Hedwig and the Angry Inch” drag role. If people still don’t understand what drag culture is about, one “Wig” commentator says it best in the movie: “Drag is about putting on the outside what you feel on the inside.”

HBO will premiere “Wig” on June 18, 2019.

2019 Tribeca Film Festival movie review: ‘Trixie Mattel: Moving Parts’

April 26, 2019

by Carla Hay

Trixie Mattel in “Trixie Mattel: Moving Parts” (Photo by Nick Zeig-Owens)

“Trixie Mattel: Moving Parts”

Directed by Nick Zeig-Owens

World premiere at the Tribeca Film Festival in New York City on April 25, 2019.

Brian Michael Firkus, also known as drag queen Trixie Mattel, is best known for winning Season 3 of “RuPaul’s Drag Race All Stars,” the spin-off show to VH1’s Emmy-winning drag-queen competition series “RuPaul’s Drag Race.” This documentary examines Trixie’s rise to fame, her budding career as a singer/comedian and her personal behind-the-scenes struggles. For all of her flamboyant and sassy prancing and preening that she does on stage, the documentary reveals that off-stage, Trixie is quite grounded and humble. Even when chaos is are happening around her, she remains fairly level-headed.

It should be noted that “Trixie Mattel: Moving Parts” is produced by World of Wonder, the same production company for the “Drag Race” series. That might explain why parts of the documentary look more like a publicist-approved electronic press kit than a revealing biography. Trixie/Brian’s love life is not seen or discussed at all in the film. It’s unclear if Trixie/Brian (who is openly gay) wanted that subject matter to be off-limits in the movie, or if director Nick Zeig-Owens made that decision all on his own.

Most of the movie was filmed in the period of time after Trixie’s first stint on “RuPaul’s Drag Race,” where she came in sixth place on Season 7. Trixie then parlayed that fame into a stint co-hosting two talk shows with fellow “Drag Race” alum Katya Zamolodchikova: “UNHhhh” on World of Wonder’s YouTube channel and then later “The Trixie & Katya Show” on Viceland. As fans already know, “The Trixie & Katya Show” was canceled after Katya took a leave of absence to deal with personal issues.

The documentary brings some insight into what really went on behind the scenes. While in a dressing room getting ready for a show, Katya (whose real name is Brian Cook) openly discusses her anxiety issues and doing meth to cope with her problems. She talks about having a “psychotic break” and even loudly declares, “I should be in rehab.” Not long after that outburst, on another day, Katya has a meltdown and refuses to do the show. Shortly afterward, Katya is in rehab, and the show scrambles to do reshoots and find a replacement guest host.

Meanwhile, Trixie/Brian admits to feeling mixed emotions about Katya’s abrupt leave of absence—anger that Katya has jeopardized Trixie’s career; guilt that the resentment he feels toward Katya is a selfish emotion; and relief that Katya is getting the help that she needs. Trixie tries to be a supportive pal, but to her surprise, Katya ends their friendship. In one scene, Trixie reads aloud a vicious email from Katya in which she calls Trixie “arrogant” and “boring” on the show, and ends the email by saying, “Do what I did, bitch. Fail.” (Fans of Trixie and Katya already know if their friendship was mended, but for those who don’t know, the answer to that question is covered in the documentary.)

After the cancellation of the talk shows with Katya, Trixie forges ahead to launch a singing career in country music, with aspirations to be a drag-queen alternative to Dolly Parton. (Trixie tours on a regular basis, and has released two albums so far: 2017’s “Two Birds” and 2018’s “One Stone.” She also did a performance at the world premiere of “Trixie Mattel: Moving Parts” at the 2019 Tribeca Film Festival.) As for Trixie’s singing talent, she’s no Dolly Parton, but she’s not terrible either. She’s fully aware that she has to do her drag act as a country singer because audiences come to see Trixie, not Brian, on stage. (Although the documentary does show Brian doing soundchecks and rehearsals while not in drag.)

The estrangement from Katya has tested Trixie’s confidence, and she wonders aloud how much fans will accept her as a comedian without being part of a duo with Katya. There are many scenes in the documentary of Trixie on tour, meeting fans, getting dolled up, showing viewers her wardrobe, and going to “Drag Race” viewing parties. The movie also features appearances by drag queens such as RuPaul, Morgan McMichaels, Bob the Drag Queen, BenDeLaCreme and Kennedy Davenport.

Trixie mentions that there were two different endings filmed for her “Drag Race All Stars” finale, presumably to avoid spoilers from leaking out to the public. In one ending, Trixie was named the winner. In the other ending, finalists Trixie and Shangela were named the winners in a tie. She found out the real outcome at the same time as everyone else who watched the finale at the viewing party

A lot of people might think that a documentary about a drag queen would have a lot of histrionics from the star of the movie. But Trixie does not fall into the stereotype of being a hysterical drama queen. In fact, even when Trixie wins “Drag Race All-Stars,” she’s happy, but she she’s not jumping up and down, and she’s not crying uncontrollably. Even when she goes through some tough times emotionally, particularly during her period of estrangement from close friend Katya, Trixie doesn’t really cry on screen.

Brian/Trixie uses humor to deflect a lot of emotional pain, and it’s clear that he/she prefers to compartmentalize and hide away the pain rather than to let it all hang out—at least not in front of these documentary cameras. Brian briefly opens up about his unhappy childhood that included an abusive, alcoholic stepfather who Brian says often beat him. According to Brian, the last time his stepfather (who is now deceased) abused him was when he pointed a gun at Brian’s head and said he was going to kill him. Fortunately, Brian has a healthy and loving relationship with his mother, who is shown in the documentary when he goes to his hometown of Milwaukee while on tour.

Even though Brian says in the documentary that he grew up thinking it was normal to feel like wanting to die, he doesn’t consider himself to be a depressed person now. He admits that many people, including Trixie’s fans, assume that Brian/Trixie has issues with anxiety and/or depression. There are a few scenes in the movie when he gets emotionally touched when fans write to him or tell him in person how much Trixie has helped them with their confidence and/or mental-health issues.

Underneath the big hair and big personality, Trixie says she’s a songwriter at heart. When she confesses her life goals, she says it in a way that is very Trixie Mattel: “I would love to write songs for other people…just sit in the woods…and jerk off.” She also explains why mainstream audiences have embraced drag queens more than ever before: “They’re there to see this delusional confidence.”

UPDATE: World of Wonder will release “Trixie Mattel: Moving Parts” on several VOD platforms (including iTunes, Amazon, Google Play and Microsoft Movies) on December 3, 2019.

2017 RuPaul’s DragCon NYC: dates, location ticket availability announced

June 7, 2017

RuPaul's DragCon NYC 2017

“RuPaul’s Drag Race” contestants (Photo courtesy of VH1)

The following is a press release from RuPaul’s DragCon:

Presented by RuPaul and World of Wonder Productions, the inaugural RuPaul’s DragCon NYC will be held at the Jacob K. Javits Convention Center on September 9-10, 2017. Tickets will go on sale Thursday, June 8, 2017, at Noon EST/9am PST at RuPaulsDragCon.com.

The two-day convention, a homecoming for RuPaul and World of Wonder Productions, will welcome fans from around the globe to the first DragCon held in the Big Apple. RuPaul’s DragCon NYC was announced after a record breaking 40,000+ fans attended the third annual DragCon held in Los Angeles earlier this year.

RuPaul’s DragCon NYC will feature vendors and exhibitors, exclusive merchandise, panel and Q&A sessions, autograph and photo opportunities with drag stars—including many from the Emmy award-winning series “RuPaul’s Drag Race”—with more to be announced! 

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