This grimy, exciting artifact from the ’60s shows how important beauty contests were to the queens who ruthlessly – and kind of sadly – mimicked their straight counterparts.
The rank sexism of beauty pageants has been an ongoing topic of discussion among feminists since the movement began in the 1960s. The sight of women prancing up and down a stage in string bikinis, professing their wish to “help old people and animals,” and generally reinforcing the idea of woman as a sort of decorative, domesticated beast existing solely as an object of amusement and pleasure for men couldn’t help but trigger a backlash.
But what about the drag beauty pageant? Affairs like the 1967 “Miss All-America Camp Beauty Pageant” documented in Frank Simon’s The Queen (1968) look more or less like their straight counterparts. The “women” fret and fume over makeup and wigs, trade beauty tips, bond as much as they can in the few days before the pageant (after which many of them won’t see each other). Still, there’s an undeniable subversive element here that’s missing in “real” beauty pageants. These women are men, and the rituals – strolling across a stage in gowns and exhibiting their talent in mournful ditties like “I’m just a woman. . . a lonely woman. . . waiting on the weary shore” – have an element of camp and ridicule that’s clearly visible through the glitz and glamor.
The Queen begins by introducing us to the overworked, but still commanding Jack, aka Sabrina, who tips us early to the fact that for many of these queens, drag is the essential part of their persona. “I go up to this queen and say, ‘What’s your name?’ The queen says, ‘Monique.’ And I say, “That’s marvelous, darling,’ but what was your name before? And the queen will look you straight in the eye and say, ‘There was no before!'”
Sabrina has her hands full, facing problems Bert Parks never dreamed of – like finding a hotel with 28 empty rooms, and one “that will let our guys in.” Once in, the queens – many of whom seem to be southern belles who’ve come to New York just for the contest – practice their numbers, test their outfits on each other, and trade gossipy stories about their lives. Of the draft, one says, “I didn’t tell them I was a homosexual, they told me!” Jerry says in his small town (pop. 500), everybody knew he was gay from age five, “and they all wanted their sons to grow up to be just like me,” she muses. One of the young queens, Richard (aka Harlow), who looks almost exactly like Edie Sedgwick, has a hissy fit and hides under the covers when she can’t secure a platinum wig. A fag hag who’s part of the entourage kindly intercedes, frantically calling friends for help: “It’s a matter of life or death!”
The Queen veers from camp to kitsch when the girls practice a noisy “It’s a Grand Old Flag” wearing fishnets and makeup but no wigs. Shot in a rough, cinema verité style common at the time, this very New York film has a griminess and an edge that skirts Diane Arbus territory. These queens seem both more desperate and more self-deluded than the ones in, say, Paris Is Burning. Significantly, the pageant itself is given short shrift – most of the time is spent with the mechanics of organizing the event, keeping the contestants in line, soothing their jangled nerves. The payoff is a bitter coda in which one of the losers, Miss Crystal, screams her displeasure in a prolonged verbal assault. When poor Harlow wins, Miss Crystal goes berserk, storming out of the hall and accosting the filmmakers and then the organizers with a scene worthy of grand opera: “I declare her [Harlow] one of the uglier people in the world. . . she better get the hell back to Philadelphia, because she’s one of the lowest! And where is Miss Sabrina? I’ll sue the bitch!”