Glamazon Rupaul is the RuPaul of the people—the Miss America RuPaul, if you will, but pre-drag RuPaul is also a sight to behold. Billed as “RuPaul’s First Art Movie,” this roughly three and a half minute short features Ru preening, mugging and smearing his face with talcum powder, all under a garbled soundtrack of Diana Ross’ “It’s My Turn.” It’s great seeing him doing something so unstructured and organic and just plain weird.
No date is given, but the video looks a lot like American Music Show-era RuPaul—so I’m guessing somewhere between ‘83 and ‘85.
Despite my ardent endorsement of RuPaul as “America’s sweetheart,” she’s been catching a lot of criticism lately, and not from a bloodthirsty religious right (who apparently know how to better pick their culture wars these days). A feature on her hit show, RuPaul’s Drag Race, called “Female or She-male,” has been cut from the air after many trans advocates found it offensive. In the segment, contestants were shown pictures of body parts and asked to guess what gender or sex of person possessed said body part. Anatomical “guessing games” have certainly historically demeaned queer people, and a lot of of folks were understandably upset, finding the game “othering.” Many trans advocates have have also argued against Ru’s use of the word “tranny,” as they maintain it’s a slur used to describe trans women and not gay men who do drag.
For the record, I’m not speculating on anybody’s body parts (which is vulgar and cruel, when done without invitation), nor am I ever calling anybody “tranny,” but I do think time will show that RuPaul is on the right side of history. On the first count, the body parts used for “Female or She-Male” were done with volunteer participants—it was not some zoological expedition intending to “expose” the “unreal” women.
On the second count, “transgender” (as opposed to “transsexual” or “transvestite”) wasn’t even a concept until the term was coined in 1979 by early trans celebrity Christine Jorgensen (interestingly, many gay men accused her of homophobia, arguing she implied that gay men were women trapped in men’s bodies). Additionally, at least until 1992, “transgender” included “transsexuals, transgenderists, and cross dressers” according to International Conference on Transgender Law and Employment Policy.
Terminology changes rapidly to accommodate developing ideas in gender theory. To expect everyone to retrofit their own identities to the latest language—language which may or may not even stick around for very long—ignores the context and history of our foremothers (or forefathers, or forebearers, or whatever).
From a purely technical standpoint, to say that “tranny” is a slur only used to describe a single type of gender nonconformity gives the bigots who use it epithetically way too much credit—they’re not differentiating between sex and gender. I’m sure RuPaul has been called “tranny” in her life (and though identities as a man, doesn’t really care too much about pronouns or identity in general). I think it’s pretty inconsistent that she now be barred from using the word, especially since Ru is so supportive of any and all gender expression.
Regardless, I find the latest social justice culture’s obsession with “pure” language to be a bit wrong-headed, not to mention politically impotent, so I thought I’d like to post a reminder of what it is that makes RuPaul so groundbreaking. Here we see a 1986 clip from the brilliant Atlanta cable access program, American Music Show, one of the longest running public access shows, ever, and a veritable treasure trove of weirdo outsider performance. Ru is seen here performing “Sex Freak,” from his very first 12 inch EP release of the same name. It’s a spoken-word techno song, and he romances the camera with an amazing resourcefulness—no band, no budget, yet all that charisma and confidence still shines through!
As RuPaul’s Drag Race enters its sixth season, hundreds of thousands of viewers are girding their loins, praying their favorite girl will be declared “America’s next drag superstar.” Yes, I am glad to live in a time when drag competitions are a televised sport, and prouder still that RuPaul has earned the mantle of America’s Sweetheart—even we NYC Lady Bunny loyalists can’t resist Ru’s gracious charisma, unflappable good humor, and glamorous demeanor. But RuPaul wasn’t always the ultimate glamazon!
Even before he had given himself much of a makeover, RuPaul was quite the event in the queer New Wave/Punk scene of Atlanta. Below you can see Wee Wee Pole featuring RuPaul and The U-Hauls making their Atlanta debut in 1983. The interviewer, James Bond, is from The American Music Show, a LOOONG running, legendary super-weird program that’s just too brilliant for anything other than cable access (ask anyone halfway cool from Atlanta about it, they will know about The American Music Show, trust me). But then, RuPaul has always held in the weird and novel in very high esteem:
While channel surfing one night, I came across a local “public access” TV show called “The American Music Show.” Obviously videotaped in someone’s living room once a week, it had a talk show/sketch comedy type format that had no format at all. Hosted by Dick Richards and James Bond and featuring a weird cast of social misfits. It was very politically irreverent, funny, sick, wrong and I loved it. In my gut I knew, I had found my tribe. I immediately wrote a letter to the show explaining how much I loved what they did and that I would love to be a part of it. Two weeks later, I got a call from Paul Burke, saying they got my letter and would love for me to be on the show after the holidays.
By the time of the Atlanta show, Ru had already played New York CIty, but was still anxious to perform for the home crowd. The band is high-energy, dancey, and a little bit nasty (in the good way). Ru himself is (obviously) warm, bubbly, and genuinely excited—a legend in the making.
I was going to post a short notice about these two sure to be interesting evenings at NYU this week, but I thought the story told by the press release was worth presenting here in full.
Of mild interest to DM readers, my own tape-recorded recollections of the late Nelson Sullivan are part of this archive (I knew Nelson and rented a tiny room from him for about 6 months in his ramshackle house at 5 Ninth Ave. when I was 21). Robert Coddington, who valiantly cataloged this amazing collection and kept it together, is a friend of mine and someone I hold in high regard. It’s really a tribute to his scholarship and tenacity that this collection is going to be housed at NYU, where it belongs, for future scholars who want to understand what happened “downtown” during the 1980s (I can’t help but to add “...before NYU drove up the property values and forced all of the bohemians out!”). Robert, and the wonderful Dick Richards, the real hero of this story (and a man who should have a documentary made about him) have done history a big favor, they really have.
The 1980s were the plague years in NYC, make no mistake about it. A lot of us had close friends who died. But it was also a fun, decadent and deeply weird time to have been young. Sullivan’s tapes capture that time like literally nothing else could.
Long Days’ Journey Downtown—Nelson Sullivan’s Video Archive Back in NYC After 23 Years
Completing a trek across many miles and more than two decades, a remarkable trove of video tapes chronicling the golden age of New York’s 1980s club scene is back where it was created—in downtown Manhattan. In October, New York University’s Fales Library & Special Collections accepted the Nelson Sullivan Video Archive as a donation from Atlantans Dick Richards and David Goldman, and Robert Coddington of Durham, N.C.—operating collectively as the 5 Ninth Avenue Project.
On April 25, the Fales Library will host a panel discussion to mark the archive’s official entry into its collections. Coddington will talk about Sullivan’s body of work, and how he and his partners worked to preserve it. Several artists featured in the video tapes also are expected to attend and add their recollections of Sullivan and the scene he documented. The event begins at 6 p.m. on April 25 at the Fales Library, third floor, Elmer Holmes Bobst Library, 70 Washington Square South. This event is free and open to the public.
In the early 1980s, Nelson Sullivan began using then-newly available portable video technology to document the highs and lows of downtown’s world of invites, catfights, train wrecks and rising stars. The equipment was heavy and expensive, but night after night Sullivan lugged it along from SoHo to Coney Island and all points inbetween—from huge discos (like Limelight and Tunnel) to tiny dives (like the Pyramid) and private parties (where he circulated with Warhol-era superstars and freshly minted celebrities like RuPaul and Deee-Lite).
Sullivan’s video archive grew rapidly, taking up shelf after shelf in the creaky three-story townhouse he rented in the Meatpacking District (at 5 9th Ave. and Gansevoort, today site of the restaurant 5 9th). And while he accommodated friends’ requests for copies, he jealously guarded the original tapes—confident he would one day devise a way to present them to the world. Finally, in the spring of 1989, Sullivan decided to make the collection his life’s work: He quit his job at the famous Joseph Patelson Music House (just across from Carnegie Hall’s stage door) and set out to launch a public access cable program showcasing his tapes. But tragically, after completing just one episode, he died of a sudden heart attack in the early morning hours of Independence Day. Seven years after it began, Sullivan’s quest to document the downtown scene was over.
Sullivan’s one-of-a-kind archive might have been picked apart by souvenir-hunters—or worse, left on the curb—had it not been for Dick Richards. Though grief-stricken at the loss of his lifelong friend—the two grew up together in rural South Carolina—Richards acted quickly, flying to New York, securing the collection, and shipping it to the Atlanta home he shared with his domestic partner David Goldman and his business partner Ted Rubenstein (co-founder, with Richards, of Funtone USA, which released RuPaul’s first three recordings).
“The video archive Nelson had created was so extraordinary that I knew I had to do whatever I could to save it,” Richards recalls. “What Nelson was doing was entirely unique. When you watch the tapes, you’ll search in vain to find another person who’s video taping these events. With AIDS ravaging the community and changing it forever, his was basically the only personal video testimony of a scene that was rapidly disintegrating.”
Back in Atlanta, Richards publicized the tapes by showing selections on “The American Music Show,” the weekly public access cable program he co-produced with Potsy Duncan and Bud “Beebo” Lowry.
Then, on a 1993 trip to tape the show at Foxy’s Lounge in Chicago, Richards and Goldman met Robert Coddington, who was involved in the Windy City’s club scene and burgeoning Queercore movement. Coddington, 23, longed to learn about the wild days that had preceded his own coming of age in the gay community, and upon hearing about the archive was eager to learn of the lost landscape it revealed.
“As a young gay man at the time, I had this acute sense that I was arriving at a fabulous party—five minutes after the lights came on,” Coddington says. “I knew that AIDS was ripping apart the gay culture that had existed before. I began to ask myself What was that world and what were those people like? Upon experiencing Nelson’s tapes, I began to learn the answers to those questions.”
Beginning in 2001, Richards and Coddington worked together to organize and chronicle the collection, producing four highlight DVDs (“Mad About Manhattan,” “The Club Kids,” “Nelson Sullivan’s Fabulous Friends,” and “Legends of New York”). In 2004, Coddington edited Sullivan’s “My Life In Video” for the New Museum’s East Village USA exhibition, which also featured works by Basquiat, Kenny Scharf, Keith Haring and Nan Goldin. In 2007, Coddington presented and discussed archive highlights at Atlanta’s Eye-Drum Gallery. Richards launched a YouTube channel dedicated to the collection: To date, it has logged more than 750,000 views.
Sullivan’s videos have been shown in more than 20 solo and group shows and film festivals across Europe, Australia, South America and North America. Videographers from Switzerland and France produced short documentary films on Sullivan for Europe’s ARTE channel. Los Angeles-based World of Wonder created a film on Sullivan for Britain’s Channel 4.
But as the collection’s fame spread, its ultimate survival was far from certain. The archive of more than 600 tapes remained boxed in a back room at Richards’ and Goldman’s century-old house in Inman Park (site of the 1864 Battle of Atlanta). Without an institutional “forever home,” the three partners feared the tapes’ initial escape from the dumpster might have been only temporary.
That’s when Sullivan’s videos got a powerful champion in the form of the Fales Library. The addition of the archive brought an exciting new dimension to Fales’ Downtown Collection, which already included the papers of such influential entities as the Gay Cable Network, the Red Hot Organization, Dennis Cooper, Michaelangelo Signorile, Richard Hell and Ande Whyland.
“Nelson Sullivan was the chronicler of the demimonde downtown New York scene,” said Marvin J. Taylor, director of the Fales Library. “He was everywhere that was important at just the right time. But, he was more than that. When Nelson turned his video camera on himself as flaneur of downtown, he found his own artistic, queer, postmodern voice. We’re honored to have Nelson’s videos here at NYU.”
“Seen on the Scene”
Here are a few of the personalities of note featured in the Nelson Sullivan Video Archive. Click on the links to view selected clips.
A lecture/screening presented by Robert Coddington will take place on Wednesday April 24 at the Einstein Auditorium in NYU’s Barney Building on Stuyvesant Street. It is free and open to the public and will feature videos of Keith Haring, Rock Steady Crew, RuPaul, Leigh Bowery, Ethyl Eichelberger, Fran Lebowitz, Michael Musto, Lady Miss Kier and more…
The following evening, Thursday April 25th, at the third floor Fales Library at the Elmer Holmes Bobst Library on Washington Square South, there will be a celebration of the life and work of Nelson Sullivan with Michael Musto, Lady Miss Kier, Robert Coddington, drag historian Joe E. Jeffreys, performance artist Flloyd and photographer Paula Gately Tillman.
“Come Fly With Me” by Larry Tee and the Love Machine, is yet another of the low budgetmusic videos I co-directed with Alan Henderson in the 80s. The video for this club kid anthem featured RuPaul, Lady Bunny, Lahoma Van Zandt, “Party Monster” Michael Alig, Vanity Fair‘s George Wayne, Justine Cooper, Amy Mellon, DJ Keoki, and many more people whose names I can’t recall. The brunette with the great eyes later played Jerry Seinfeld’s girlfriend in a few episodes of Seinfeld. I think this was made in 1989.
The “Kaleidoscope” digital effects device was new on the market then and we used the crap out of it, here. This was made and mastered on analog tape. It’s not impressive now, but before you had After Effects, you had to be a maniac to attempt something like this. Larry Tee was later responsible for RuPaul’s “Supermodel” song and is an in-demand DJ and remixer who has recently worked with Lady Gaga. The infectious bassline sample is from “Reach Out in the Darkness” by Friend & Lover.
International in scope, “Ultra Fabulous, Beyond Drag: Part Deux” is a a celebration of gender identification—featuring androgynes, the transgendered, drag queens and tranimals… Going way beyond the boas, glitter and whip-smart sass, it aims to showcase a new filmic genre ?