Updated: Oct 18
By Elizabeth Gracen:
I’m a big fan of drag.
My first glimpse of a cross-dresser was any one of the numerous Monty Python's Flying Circus sketches with the boys in drag—a real eye-opener for a little girl from Arkansas.
I’ve seen the amazing Jim Bailey perform in Atlantic City as Judy Garland and Barbara Streisand right before I left on one of the final Miss America USO tours.
And at one point in the early 80s, somewhere between my return to Arkansas after traveling the world as Miss America and my decision to move to New York City to study acting and photography a few years later, someone whispered in my ear that my father was cross-dressing and performing in “beauty pageants” at a small club in Russellville, Arkansas.
I was stunned.
How could the same surly, abusive, hard-drinking, menacing human being that had caused me so much trauma now be on stage dressed in “grandma” drag, lip-syncing to country music? I didn’t see that one coming.
I never saw dad compete in these contests, and because we were not that close, I never thought to ask what his drag name was, but I can only imagine that it was “Mary”—like his mother, my Grandma Mary. When I was invited by his employers to attend the Hudson Foods annual banquet that summer, it was less about me being a former Miss America and more about the fact that my dad, along with his friend and co-worker, would appear in a drag comedy bit as part of the evening’s entertainment.
That evening, his character’s obnoxious laugh rang out across the banquet hall as she made her way to the stage—a loud, handbag-wielding mother hen. In my father’s female persona I immediately recognized by grandmother—with just a touch of Minnie Pearl thrown in for comedic reference. The effect was equally horrific and fascinating for me, but the crowd loved it. It was homespun, good ‘ole Hee Haw humor. It was innocent, silly, and very much in line with the historic roots of men dressing as women in Arkansas in rural folk plays for fundraising events as early as 1918.
In 1989, I had the good fortune to interview three incredible young gay men, who allowed me into the local drag scene in Little Rock, Arkansas. I was invited backstage to a local Miss Gay Arkansas preliminary at the Discovery nightclub. I remember sinking back into a corner of the dressing room that night, trying to be invisible as I watched these fabulously creative creatures transform from male to female. Just a few years later, I was invited to judge the Miss Gay Arkansas pageant at Discovery. It was an incredible weekend that I will never forget.
As a former beauty queen, I’ve always wrestled with the ideas of competition between women and the unrealistic demands I made on myself to be that perfect mix of girl-next-door and the girl you want to have sex with. I took it incredibly seriously at the time and took aim for the gold—or in this case, the crown. I don’t remember feeling creative or authentic or artful, and I wish I’d figured out that Miss America could be a persona and that I never actually had to be “perfect”—that might have saved me many hours of therapy in the years to come. This world of female impersonators competing for a beauty pageant title was something quite different and quite wonderful.
Yes, there was competition, but it lived alongside creativity, humor, and unabashed joy in the creation of these female personas. The hard work, dedication, and artful attention to detail necessary to perform in drag was and is inspiring.
Now, with the recent restrictive legislation by Republican lawmakers in at least 16 states that bans drag performances—an intimidation of free speech, especially in the LGBTQIA+ community and anyone attempting to defy gender norms—my focus has once again turned to the subject of female impersonation.
In the coming weeks, Flapper Press will explore the history of drag and celebrate the individuals who perform, document, and participate in one form or another in order to feature this performance art.
To start the series, I’d like to share The Damn Deal, a documentary short film about the three talented men I interviewed in 1989. The setup was rudimentary and my first attempt at filmmaking—a Hi8 camera with panty hose pulled across the lens and glamour lighting designed by Arkansas photographer Skip Lile in a studio generously donated by Sarah Tackett and The Agency. And, of course, the open-hearted, honest words shared by Spencer May, Stan Ferguson, and Michael Thornberry. For anyone unfamiliar with the world of female impersonation, the film is an eye-opening introduction that conveys the beauty of their creations, their artistic intentions, and their lovely spirits. I hope you love them as much as I do—they are all The Damn Deal.