Simon Doonan on Gulf Oil Spill, Drag Queens, and 'Paris Is Burning'
Why aren’t more drag queens handling disaster relief? Simon Doonan on the late, great Dorian Corey, the sassy Harlem transvestite who would have fixed the oil spill by now.
Watching all these bumbling straight white dudes try to plug the Gulf oil spill, I cannot help thinking that the time has come to try something radical. Why not enlist the help of somebody with a totally outsider viewpoint? Why not go for the polar opposite of a turgid straight white guy? How about a fabulous black drag queen? I’m deadly serious.
This year marks the 20th anniversary of Jenny Livingston’s Harlem drag queen homage, Paris is Burning, the seminal documentary which infused our lives with Vogue-ing, fierce-ness, realness, throwing shade and triple snapping thereby introducing the world, Madonna included, to one of the freakiest, richest subcultures on Earth, the Harlem Vogue-ing Balls. This is also the movie which introduced us all to the wise-est, dead-est, cool-est black drag-queen on the planet: Dorian Corey.
What would Dorian have made of all the dumb rich white guys in suits over at BP and their flailing efforts to plug that gaping hole?
Dorian Corey is the line-backer-sized trannie who is seen applying her maquillage while reminiscing about her life and dispensing heavy philosophical drag-queen wisdom. Livingston successfully deploys the 6' 2" Dorian to unravel the mores and terminology of the codified Harlem ball culture. Dorian’s explanation of the concept of “throwing shade” is my personal fave:
"Shade is ‘I don't tell you you're ugly but I don't have to tell you you're ugly because you know you're ugly,’ and that's shade."
Not only was Dorian Corey a sage, she was also a fearless vigilante, as evidenced by the fact that – hang onto your butt-pads, because you are not going to believe this scandal fou!—she shot and killed an intruder and successfully hid his body in a plaid garment bag FOR OVER 25 YEARS!!!!
When Jenny Livingston filmed La Corey in the shabby glitz of her West 140th Street apartment, she had no idea that, a few feet away, a body with a gun-shot wound to the head was decomposing inside the closet. The partially mummified body was only discovered when, in 1993, 56-year-old Dorian sadly succumbed to AIDS.
Reluctant though I am to condone violence of any kind, it is hard, especially given the fact that the dude in question, one Bobby Worley, was a convicted rapist and robber, to supress the impulse to shout, “You go girl!” or even “Sachay, chantay!”
What gave Dorian her homicidal carte blanche? What made her so dead cool?
Scrappy Dorian’s life reads like a Lana Turner movie: She escaped rural hell and snagged a window-dressing gig in a Buffalo department store. (As a card-carrying member of the window dressing fraternity, I say, “Fierce!”) In the 1950’s she came to New York and studied art at Parsons. The lure of the sequin propelled her into show-business and a starring role in the legendary Pearl Box Review. She became an integral part of this touring troupe of tinsel’d trannies. Her specialty? Dorian had a unique talent for striking glamorous and artistic attitudes while clutching a live boa constrictor.
Time was not particularly kind to Dorian Corey. Her showbiz dreams never really got further than lip-synching at Sally’s Hideaway. ( Sally’s was tawdry-but-fun 1990’s trendy trans hang-out located right opposite the old New York Times offices.) It was in the underground world of the Harlem Vogue-ing Balls that she shone brightest. Here, Dorian Corey was no spangled has-been: she was the well-respected, dignified mother of the House of Corey, guiding and chiding her “children” as they competed to win the coveted ball trophies.
For those who have not seen Paris Is Burning, and witnessed the poised and intelligent Dorian in action, I pity you. She, like rivals Pepper LaBeija, Avis Pendavis and Angie Extravaganza, reveals herself to be a forceful, wise, beneficent beatch with real leadership skills, thereby begging the question, “How fierce and fabulous would America be if it was ruled by black drag queens?”
What would Dorian have made of all the dumb rich white guys in suits over at BP and their flailing efforts to plug that gaping hole? At the very least she would have thrown them some serious shade.
Writer, fashion commentator and window-dresser, Simon Doonan, is known for his provocative "Simon Says" column in the New York Observer. He has written four books: Confessions of a Window Dresser, Wacky Chicks, a memoir entitled Nasty and a tongue-in-cheek style guide entitled Eccentric Glamour. Nasty is to be re-released as Beautiful People . A comedy TV series entitled Beautiful People , produced by Jon Plowman, will debut on LOGO in May.