Often we cross paths with someone we never expected to meet who profoundly changes our life. Today was one of those days for me.
Recently we had been contacted by the marketing executive for writer Barbara Benjamin Marcus who developed the book Inside Out; a tapestry of photographs and interviews of drag queens from Key West, New York City, Tampa, Provincetown and Los Angeles. When I first skimmed through the book, I wasn't terribly impressed. I thought the pictures were amazing, but none of the drag queens were extremely stunning and honestly, I didn't delve into the words written between the photographs; until today.
Barbara called me for our interview and at first I was taken back by her impressive quality of storytelling and her deep love for her characters. "You have to understand these are all people on the fringe", she explained, "There is something beautiful in each of them. They feel beautiful. Getting dressed in drag is a big deal. It's expensive. And above all else, it's very personal. This book became a project of love."
She continued to tell me the story of how the idea for the book was given birth. She explained how her daughter told her to take pictures of the drag queens. After that, she found herself at a Red Ribbon fundraiser for AIDS and although admittedly shy, introduced herself to Margo, the oldest drag queen in the book, and asked to set up and appointment to take her portrait. She allowed Margo, like every queen in the book, to choose her own makeup, hair, costumes and presentation, as well as pick their own pictures to be used. She allowed each model to choose their own pictures and she either threw out the ones she didn't use or she gave them to the models. "It was important that they understood I wouldn't hurt them. Margo served as my sponsor, introducing me to some of the drag queens and showing them the photograph I had taken."
What resulted was 40 individual stories of how each person reached this stage in their life. Stories varying from a drag queen who was a Pentecostal pastor for 12 years to a man involved in the Gay Games to marriages, children and a lifetime of misunderstanding, acceptance and growth. But all of them share that feeling of beauty which Barbara caught on film. "It's not about who you can have sex with, it's about who you can love. I know what I'm looking for. That's the difference", as explained by The Lady Dante. "You're not born in a closet, you're pushed into it."
As I spoke with Barbara, her own personal story came out. When asked about her concept of beauty, she explained that at 17, she won a local beauty contest in New York City, Miss Surf Maid, and was awarded a two week trip to Europe. While traveling she was introduced to all kinds of people and realized that everyone has something beautiful in them. She also shared that she was married to actor Robert Duvall, who she endearingly referred to as Bobby, during his filming of Godfather II . She and I discussed his playing Boo Radley in To Kill A Mockingbird and how it had always been one of my favorite films and how Boo Radley was somewhat a symbol for gay men in hiding today. She explained that while married to Robert Duvall, she learned about the importance of acting as characters in all of our lives. "I've always loved that RuPaul quote. When I was working on this book, I wrote it down and posted it up in my house to remind me." The same quote is eloquently posted at the beginning of her book. "We're all born naked, everything else is drag."
As I spoke with Barbara, flipping through her book as she explained stories about the different drag queens, I learned that each of us has our own story which makes us beautiful and unique. "Vinnie on page 19 is deaf. Deaf? Can you believe that? He knew I would want to interview him so he came with his questions and answers written down. Musty Chiffon came to my house and I photographed him at the cemetery. The next day, he came to my house out of drag and my husband didn't even recognize him! And Scabby, Scabola Feces", she laughed to herself, "so colorful and creative. And oh so clever! When he performed Marry Me Bill I almost died!" Her love for each drag queen was evident in her grand storytelling of how she met each model, photographed them and was allowed to hear their story. And it reminded me of months ago when I wrote a piece about drag and a reader commented that not every drag queen wanted to win a pageant, some just liked dressing up, feeling beautiful and performing. And for that, they should be greatly appreciated. I agree.
Inside Out reminded me of a book I read years ago about twenty women on death row, each one intricately and vulnerably sharing how they had reached that place in their life; inviting the reader into their lives, pain and pleasure.
Barbara Benjamin Marcus has been kind enough to open her lens and introduce us to these 40 fine "ladies", who remind us that we are joined in the commonality of being gay but our individual stories create an amazingly, beautiful tapestry known as the gay community. On the outside, looking in, we're all alike. But on the inside, looking out, we're very, very different. Barbara has exposed that truth. We each have our own voice; sometimes singing in tune, sometimes singing to our own rhythm.
Thank you Barbara. What an awesome songstress!
Barbara's book Inside Out can be purchased at Barnes and Nobel, Amazon.com, Freg Segal and Marc Jacobs. You can also find out more about Barbara and her story at InsideOutthebook.com.