Drag Queens and Beauty Queens with Laurie Green
In this episode of Wine, Women, and Revolution Heather interviews activist and author Laurie Greene. Laurie wrote the book "Drag Queens and Beauty Queens" which tells the often overlooked LGBTQ drag history in Atlantic City and the undeniable impact drag culture had on the Miss American pageant. She discusses how people competing in both Miss America and the drag pageant Miss'd America use it to access power structures that may otherwise be denied to them in this Cis, Hetero, White, Male, Capitalist world. Now Miss's America is struggling to reconcile its more subversive roots with the goal of capitalism to make everything consumable for the bland mass audience. Only the future will tell if they will be more successful than their beauty pageant inspiration, Miss America. Transcript Auto Generated Laurie Greene 0:00But the history of this event which you would never know from looking at any press anywhere, including the Miss America page is that "show us your shoes" started because drag queens used to be at the corner of New York Avenue and the two buildings would sit up on their balconies during the parade and lean out the windows. And tease the contestants, because they saw they weren't wearing shoes and they're wearing slippers but you couldn't see their feet they would yell "show us your shoes." Heather Warburton 0:34This is Wine Women and Revolution with your host, Heather Warburton. Hi, and welcome to Wine Women and Revolution. I'm your host Heather Warburton coming at you here on Create Your Future Productions. You can find us online at your future creator. com. Follow us on all the social medias and get us wherever you get your podcasts from. Today, I'm talking to someone that's a friend of mine. They're a fellow activist from South Jersey. And specifically what we're talking about today is they're the author of the book, Drag Queens and Beauty Queens. Welcome to the show, Laurie Green. Laurie Greene 1:08Hi, thanks for having me, Heather. Heather Warburton 1:10So you're actually joining us all the way from London today. Even though you live locally here, you're all the way in London when we're recording this Laurie Greene 1:18I've been here for two weeks, I'm actually going to get out of quarantine tomorrow. And I just found out today that they're closing down the country again. So it looks like I'm gonna be in quarantine for another week. Heather Warburton 1:30Yeah, things are definitely challenging in these times of COVID. But that's not what we're here to talk about today. We're talking about Drag Queens and Beauty Queens, which is an awesome title for a book, by the way. And I think what really compelled me was you kind of tell a lot of like the not so well known history of both the Miss America pageant, which if you're local here, you know, you know, Atlantic city's tied to Miss America, and Miss'd America, which may not even be as well known, but it's getting quite popular. And one thing that really stood out to me was when I first moved to the area, I had a friend of mine who was like, Oh, I'm going watch the shoe parade for Miss America. And I'm like, Wait, what? Like this was something I did not know about living outside the area and they were like, yeah, we go and they show us their shoes. I was like, well, why do they do that? And they had no idea why. I don't know, it's just something that happens and you actually explain the history of where that all came from. Do you want to give a little like, quick teaser about what that is, before we dive into the meat of the book. Laurie Greene 2:35Well, the parade is actually called the show us your shoes parade. It is trademarked that way by the Miss America Pageant. And what happens during that parade is that the contestants get dressed up in costumes and funny costumes that spoof or somehow over emphasize the characterizations of their state. And they decorate their shoes, which is the hallmark of this. And they have to hold one leg up ideally as they parade down the boardwalk in convertibles in these funny campy costumes with their shoes decorated. So it's it's a particularly fun event as a parade, which used to be originally the contestants in their evening gowns looking very demure with white gloves on sitting in the back of convertibles has now become this event. And it's the most popular event in the Miss America Pageant. And it continued to be so even when they move to Las Vegas for a while they continue this tradition. But the history of this event which you would never know from looking at any press anywhere, including the Miss America page, is that show us your shoes started because drag queen used to be at the corner of New York Avenue and the two buildings would sit up on their balconies during the parade or lean out their windows and tease the contestants. Because they saw they weren't wearing shoes, they're wearing slippers but you couldn't see their feet, they would yell "show us your shoes" out of these windows. And the girls were taught not to respond until they eventually did. And this is the origin of the parade. Heather Warburton 4:16Right? And I think you mentioned a little bit about that's kind of like an altering of history of how it really started. Like you'll find none of that mentioned anywhere in the official they're like, Oh yeah, it's just this family friendly event we dreamed up not that it actually as an origin out of the drag queen community. Laurie Greene 4:34You know, this is typical of writing history of marginalized people. And so we call that restorative history when we do it and what I aim to do with restorative history is to tell the voices of the community that are never heard. This isn't that it can be in addition to the history because I like to present it because it is the history. It's not the history of gay people or drag queens in Atlantic City, it's the history. It's just not told. And yeah, it has been characterized as a family friendly event. And so much of the part of the book is that are part of the emphasis of the book is that so much of the Miss America Pageant has been influenced by the gay culture of Atlantic City. And this is something that nobody knows. Heather Warburton 5:30Well, I think even just the fact that Atlantic City had this very thriving drag community. And I think people maybe know more about that there was a thriving gay community for a while. But even that maybe isn't as well known as it should be. And that's kind of sad that when I moved the area, I had no idea and even my husband who's lived in the area, his entire life, had no idea about it. Laurie Greene 5:56You know, the, it's interesting, because one of the one of the reasons we don't know about it, is that if you look at the evidence of how Atlantic City evolved, or how cities involve in general, usually see the story of like a thriving city. And then there's white flight, and people move out, and there's just sort of this natural event how a city goes into disrepair. But that's not what happened here. Even though that's how the story is told. What happened here was because this, the city is based on tourism. And there was a natural economic decline in tourism. But during that decline, when Atlantic City really went through its first phase of, you know, losing all its jobs and going into disrepair as a sort of posh resort, the gay community on New York Avenue was thriving. But instead of capitalizing on that as a tourist destination, the economic concerns of the casinos, once casinos were brought as a way to really, you know, reinvigorate tourism, the gay community had to go because they were on expensive property. So it's an interesting look at economic forces at power, and politics, because they could have made Atlantic City, Rehoboth, they could have made Atlantic City, Asbury Park, they could have done any of that, but they chose not to. Yeah, they chose to ignore what was a thriving. The only thriving part of the economy, which was New York Avenue, and the gayborhood. Heather Warburton 7:36And it's really sad that, you know, everyone that listens to the show knows that I talk about capitalism and the destructive influences of it. And we'll dive into that a little more later, because I really want to get into capitalism and the power structures of both of these pageants. But first off, you kind of gave a little bit of a history of beauty pageants in general. And it may have actually started with PT Barnum, the circus guy. Laurie Greene 8:01Well, he is the acknowledged, originator, I guess, of the modern beauty pageant. He used to do all different kinds of contests, in the context of his industry of entertainment and popular entertainment was new then nobody ever had leisure time before. So he's sort of the Father, one of the fathers of popular entertainment. But he had all different kinds of contests, dogs, pets, of other kinds, all these different things. And one of the things he had was a beauty contest. And it was really went against the Victorian standards. They thought it was obscene. And so he ended up not having live beauty pageants. But in the newspaper, he would print people's pictures and the people that read the newspapers would vote on who they thought the most beautiful woman was out of those pictures. And so he started it that way. And then eventually, it it sort of evolved into other sorts of live in person pageants. The first one was actually in, I think it was in Rehoboth and Delaware just for one year, before the first Miss America Pageant occurred in Atlantic City. So Miss America one is one of the earliest live pageants after PT Barnum's attempt at pageantry. Heather Warburton 9:19And some of the earlier parts of your book reminded me of another author that I had on the show who wrote, fearing the black body. And there's a lot of attention at the time given to what is the ideal specimen of whiteness kind of was a lot of what beauty pageants were about. And you actually mentioned, what was it rule number seven? Was that an unwritten rule or an actual rule? Can you go into that a little bit that rule Laurie Greene 9:46That rule said, you had to be unmarried, of white race to be in the pageant, and I don't remember the exact date but I think that was enforced into the 1970s. So that was a rule and in fact, PT Barnum on one of the shows that were the exhibits that he did have was an exhibit called the circassian beauties, which literally was a display of the perfect white female specimen of sexuality and beauty. And this was something that he toured with. And the way that he presented these women was very much like the Miss America Pageant and beauty pageants, present women in the swimsuit competition. So he would have them sitting there just maybe painting or doing something else demure and they wouldn't speak, there would be a voiceover, which would talk about all of their interests, and where they were from and why they were such a specimen of beauty, similar to the swimsuit competition, where the women walk out without speaking, turn around and walk back as there's a voiceover, from the pageant director, or from one of the judges talking about their qualities. There's similar valorized qualities. So this idea of whiteness was very much or ideal whiteness was very much part of early beauty pageants. And it happened to coincide with emancipation in the United States, where whites in the north were, you know, the north in general was afraid of the impact of Black people, who were free slaves, who were coming up from the south to the north, and what impact that might have on their areas. So it is not disconnected. Heather Warburton 11:30And you talk a lot about you know, and this is a perfect example of how the women competing in Miss America has to be something very easily consumable that even now when they ask them political questions, they have to answer these political questions in a way that's very palatable to everyone. Laurie Greene 11:50Yeah, they're actually instructed to do that. If you go online and look at any of the thousands of books, maybe, on how to compete in pageants. The advice that's always given is, make sure when you answer questions that you don't alienate anybody. So I know I've heard one pageant director say, "We want the girls to have opinions, we just don't want them to express them openly". That's also another way, you know, they, of course, we know they should have opinions, but there's things that need to be expressed. And there's things that don't need to however, I will say this, to their credit, in terms of the skill set, you have to have to perform that kind of femininity, right in pageantry. They always ask them hot button political questions, if you actually go through the kinds of questions that they're asked. And it's almost like they're trying to get them, they need to go up and answer these questions, which we know they have strong beliefs about, and we know are dismissive. And they have to have the skill to answer them in a way where it seems like they're answering or agreeing with both sides. And that is very much a part of ideal femininity, don't offend anybody. Heather Warburton 13:05Right. So I want to shift gears now and talk about the Miss'd America pageant, which is another thing that is started off as very hyper local, to Atlantic City. Can you tell us a what is the pageant and then the little bit of that history? Laurie Greene 13:22You know, so the Miss'd America Pageant is a drag pageant that spoofs Miss America. And it was developed in Studio Six, which is was a bar that John Schultz and Gary Hill own, which was in snake alley, near New York Avenue. And it first started as a number of skits that were being performed by some of the local drag queens in order to both psychologically try to keep them upbeat, as AIDS was really becoming epidemic in the city. And people were dying. And then eventually, in the after the first few years to actually raise money to try to combat AIDS in the city. And in fact, the South Jersey AIDS Alliance, which used to be called originally South Jersey, against AIDS, which was one of the very first AIDS or AIDS research organizations age, AIDS philanthropy organizations is a better way to say it, in the United States, was funded by the proceeds that were gained through these fundraisers that were the Miss'd America Pageant. So it started out just to skits and eventually took on the format, which was identical to Miss'd America, and they started crowning people in 1993. So the pageant started in 1991. And in terms of the skits, and they started crowing people in 1993, and the pageant grew from this very local venue to eventually be contested in the Hard Rock casino or the Borgotta Casino in their giant events room. Heather Warburton 15:10It started off as something just very community oriented, like it was not originally set up to be something easily consumable. It was a little risque at times in the beginning, and it was just sort of more geared towards really uplifting and celebrating a community. But that's even kind of changed now as things have progressed. Right. Laurie Greene 15:31Absolutely. That's, that's really one of the hallmarks of the pageant. And one of the reasons that I wrote the book and found this interesting that the patent started out as a very local event with local references, and local people talking about things only locals might understand or laugh at. It was campy, it was bawdy, it was deliberately offensive. And it was packed, just packed and, and everybody came not just people from the gay community, everybody went to it. So much so that they didn't, they really didn't have enough room to have this pageant. And then it stopped for a while because Miss America left Atlantic City. And I believe they didn't feel like they had their reference anymore. And then it started up again in Boardwalk Hall when Miss America was no longer in Atlantic City. They were still in Las Vegas, they decided we'll just take over the hall and the Alliance. They decided as their Hallmark event when they were formed. And that is the alliance of LGBTQ people Business Alliance and social alliance in Atlantic City. They were going to make this their Hallmark event and continue to raise funds. And this is when everything started to shift. And very quickly, the pageant shifted to a professional production in professional venues. And with that, a lot of the campiness a lot of the offensive jokes, certainly all of the local references were diminished, or eliminated from the pageant because people outside weren't going to be able to, as you say, to be consumed this material in the same way. So that is one of the interesting things about the pageant, it gained things and it lost things in that transition. Heather Warburton 17:26And I think a lot of what you talk about in the book is how both the women competing in Miss America, and the people competing in Miss'd America, how that they use that to relate to power. How they use it to gain power that may have otherwise been denied to them in this, you know, white hetero capitalist world that we live in today. Would you like to talk a little bit about how that relates to both of the people competing. Laurie Greene 17:55Yeah, of course, I know more about the drag pageant than the Miss America Pageant. So I would beg for forgiveness, in terms of the details of talking about beauty pageants in particular. But yeah, in the context of certainly Miss America, we can see that these highly intelligent, talented women are not able to get scholarships, or don't choose to try to compete to get scholarships, and therefore get a college education and power and notoriety even for their talent through writing a paper or entering an academic competition, but through a beauty pageant through the display of their bodies on stage. So we can see that for women who don't have access to power in the same way as men do, that a beauty pageant is one way that they can access this door to power in their lives. In the same way, gay men don't have access to the power of hetero normative masculinity. And in some cases, they don't have access to the power of even homosexual masculine masculinity, which may require them to be, you know, have beautiful bodies and be very attractive, which is very much a source of power for men in the gay community. And so drag provides them away to achieve the power of masculinity outside of these normal contexts. Whereas their feminine and he might mark them as disempowered in the heteronormative context. In the context of drag, it affords them masculine power they have they're powerful as men, we might that might surprise us because we might think they're acting as women, but they're gaining the power of men in these contexts, and even within the gay community where they may have been too skinny. Or unattractive or awkward. When they dress up in drag, they take they gain a power within the gay community which is highly revered, that they may not be able to access as men, according to the standards of homosexuality and attractiveness for men. So it is it is really interesting. Heather Warburton 20:22And there were two examples that you brought you mentioned in the book, both of which I thought were great examples. One was where I guess somebody was heckling, or hassling some people, one of the drag performers at a bar, and they like, kind of came off the stage and like, you know, got physically in somebody's face, like, yeah, I may be wearing a dress, but I'm a guy. Laurie Greene 20:45Yeah, that was a very famous drag queen from Atlantic City in the 70s. Yeah, and that, that I, you know, people say it all the time when they work in the drag industry behind the scenes. And they don't call them divas and Queens for nothing, I like to say. So both of those categories Queen and diva. These are not normal women with normal power. Queens have more power than other women do. And divas, I guess represent women who demand whatever they want, even if it's excessive, and expect to get it. So we can see the power that drag queens have in those terms, and we see that it's they don't have the power that women have, they have more power, they have the power of men. And yes, they may be wearing dresses, but they're men, that's how they access and express their power, whether they're on stage or off. Heather Warburton 21:44And I did love one example you gave you didn't go a whole lot into, you know, race, really, you know, race interactions that much. But there was one particular drag queen, you reference that flat out refused to perform somewhere, because the venue was highly racist, do you want to tell their story. Laurie Greene 22:01Yeah, um, race, of course, plays a very important role within the drag community, because it's part of our culture. So the dynamics of race and racism are the same. That was actually Honey Davenport, very famous drag queen, also, now ex RuPaul, Queen, it was at Monster Bar in New York, where she felt rightfully so that the owner had tried to pressure her to change her advertisement, because they felt that there were too many black people in it. And they wanted to appeal to a broader crowd, then they wanted some better looking dancers, I think is what the statement was. And Honey, who had been performing there for quite some time, and had a regular show, went up on stage and told everybody why she would not be performing it there anymore. And it was quite impactful in the community and led to numerous discussions about racism in the drag world, both in New York and in Philadelphia. And that's a discussion which is continuing to happen today. Micah Rasmussen 23:11I just thought it was beautiful. Using that power they created to, you know, use that platform to affect change from is really, as highly impressive thing. Laurie Greene 23:23And drag queens feel very strongly about that, you know, they feel very strongly about the fact that they have a platform that others don't, as some will say, when you're eight feet tall with your wig, your heels, and you have a microphone, people have to listen. And they they use that power for activism, some overtly, they see that as the role. And so maybe less directly, but still, they definitely see that they have a voice and power that others don't. And that drag queens have always been on the front lines, for example of LGBTQ movements, activist movements in the United States. And so they they do see that as their role. And they see that their role is part of the legacy of activism. Heather Warburton 24:12And I couldn't let you go without referencing the dichotomy you mentioned, of how kind of everyone loves drag queens now, drag queens are so you know, bachelorette parties go to drag clubs, and like everyone loves a drag queen, especially after RuPaul. You know, it's a media thing. But yet trans people who aren't drag queens are still some of the main sufferers of violence, that they are just attacked. And it's a weird dichotomy of how we love someone on a stage but hate someone in real life. Do you want to talk about that. Laurie Greene 24:45Yeah, um, without getting using any sort of academic technical terminology. What happens on the stage is interpreted differently than what happens in real life, you know, off that stage. So when someone's on that stage, all the actions that take place there are different. We can love somebody in that space of the performance, as long as they don't step off and act like that. Outside of this context of the performance, the same drag queen that is loved on stage will be beat up in an alley afterwards if they walk outside like that. And so that's true, whether we're looking at in performance theory or from perspective of anthropology, our identities change from one place to another. I think one of the things that happens is when something's on a stage, if it's curtailed in a way that it'd be that it is denuded of its danger, it's happening up there, but if it steps off, it becomes potentially subversive in a way that isn't accepted. And so, we do need to remember that that just because people love drag queens, doesn't mean they are aren't homophobic. Just because people love drag queens doesn't mean they're not transphobic. It just means that they appreciate a kind of popular culture, which is what drag has become. Alexia Love one of the Queens that I interviewed, that's a local Atlantic City Queen and also a MIss'd America, former crown holder titleholder said it really well, she said, "everybody used to want to have a gay boyfriend. Now they want to have a drag queen as a friend". So this is how he described, you know, cisgender heterosexual women in this country, they used to want to have a best boyfriend that was gay. Now it's a drag queen. And again, this is it's this kind of exceptionalist thinking, right? Just because you have a friend who's gay again, doesn't mean you're not homophobic. So and it's it is difficult for us to understand that. And remember also that there's transphobia, in the gay community. And this is very much something that I tried to deal with in the book, and talk about that being the next frontier, really the next challenge for the Miss'd America Pageant in particular. But the gay community in general, this is the challenge right now. Heather Warburton 27:34Right, you actually mentioned that like someone that's in mid transition, and taking hormones isn't allowed to compete, or at least hasn't historically been allowed to compete right. Laurie Greene 27:44In the beginning of the pageant when it was local, there weren't these rules. In fact, one of the earliest winners, Miss Tunay, who's local queen is a transgender female. And she won right in the beginning, and there was no nothing. It wasn't a big deal. It wasn't an issue, then it was about being local. Everybody knew each other. These issues didn't matter. But as it moved to the national stage, it takes on national issues. And that was when it was decided that traditional drag, meaning cis males were the only ones that were going to be acceptable competitors, there had to be rules. And transgender females or for that matter, cis women that we call them bio queens, dressing up as drag queens. We're not going to be allowed in the pageant now that is, has been discussed, and is going to be a challenge for the pageant as it goes forward. I think it's ironic, and also not surprising that the kinds of challenges to be relevant that Miss America has gone through in the way that they've struggled, and one could argue failed to meet those challenges are the same sorts of struggles that Miss'd America is going through. And the question for me is, are they going to stand up and meet that challenge in a way that doesn't make them irrelevant? Heather Warburton 29:19It's a good question. Only time will tell. So I have two more questions before I let you go. One is what was your favorite thing you've learned in researching this book? Laurie Greene 29:30Wow. That is that's such a hard question. I have a favorite anthropologist. Her name is Ruth Bahar. And she says that when an anthropologist goes into a situation where we're living with people like we do, we do something called participant observation, which means in our fieldwork, we go and live with people for a long time. And we allow them to We allow ourselves to form relationships with people and really get to know them in a way that research from outside doesn't allow that it has the potential to break your heart. And I really feel like this research for me did that. And I mean that in a very positive way these are people that I know, in my life, many of them, I've never had the opportunity to do this kind of research. And I learned so much from all these people that I thought I knew about things that I didn't know. And it's hard for me to pick one thing, maybe that's it, maybe that people are fragile. People are always more interesting and more complex than you know, people's identities are malleable. And we are different things for different people at different times. And it's all authentic. And maybe that's the thing I've learned the most for doing this particular research. Heather Warburton 31:04Good answer. Very good, answer So final question. If people want to get your book and read, you know, learn more about this culture, where can they get copies of it? How can they find it? Laurie Greene 31:15Well, it's it's actually being released December 18. But it's available on all the major booksellers, including Amazon, if you go to the website for Rutgers University Press, and they actually have a great discount for people if they go for friends and family. If you go to Rutgers University press.org one word, and put in the code, RFLR19. You get 30% off as my friends and family, if you order it before the release date. And that's just US. Yeah, yeah, although I have codes for other places. But that, you know, it makes it I tried to make sure with my publisher, and they were so good about this, that they made this book, inexpensive enough that the people that I wrote it for can purchase it. So it that puts the book under $18 for anybody who wants to buy it so hoping people do and I'm hoping Most of all, my goal in writing anything as an anthropologist, isn't really my analysis. It's to allow the people who I who are my informants for their story to be heard. And my mostly, I hope I do justice to the story. Heather Warburton 32:41Thank you so much for being here today. It's been a pleasure talking to you. To my listeners, thank you so much for joining us today. Hope you enjoyed this interview. I hope you go out and buy Lori's book. It's definitely we barely scratched the surface of some of the stuff that she goes into in this book. It's it's a good read. It's not a fluff book at all. She really dives into stuff so I think you'll enjoy it if you do go out and get it. Thank you so much for listening to us today. We would not be here without you guys. The future is yours to create. Go out there and create it.