MRPJ #3/Gender Performance:​ “In Praise of Drag” by John Kelly

FALL 1991


One of my earliest memories of childhood is receiving lessons in baseball, and in how to fend for myself – boxing lessons from my dad. In between, I recall dancing around in the basement to a recording of the “Italian Street Song.” My early years were informed by the constant conflict of my dual nature – my relationship to the “outer world” – sports, school, peer pressure and my “inner world” – imagination, creativity, nuance. My shyness wasn’t innate – it was acquired. Having grown up in Jersey City, my sensitivity risked annihalation, so an internal dialogue was imperative. There were outward manifestations of these inner meanderings, usually on Halloween, which became more important even than Christmas. It was an event that could be planned, designed and staged; one could be totally outrageous, inhabiting other personae, even invading the colorful and infinitely more option-laden realm of the opposite sex. These early “drag” performances fell under acceptable characterizations – old lady, gypsy. In one case, I literally merged the two natures into an artistic statement very much along the lines of Picasso’s bicycle seat “deer head” – a football, sliced in half and connected with rope, provided a unique brassiere.

Then, as now, these manifestations of drag have never been the result of a desire to change my sex – I have always thoroughly appreciated what I was born with, and have never had any desire to part with it or to augment it, in a “best of both worlds” scenario. Instead, what had initially provided a refreshing escape from a constrained, expectation-laden existence with one or two options to a “normal life” (play sports, or go to war and become a hero, get married, a job, a family…or become a monk, my choice), now became a vehicle to challenge these assumptions and to vent rage and emotion through art. Out of high school, after seriously studying ballet and modern dance for some years, two years in art school, and after making three subsequent self-portraits in the mirror (extreme inner world), I then witnessed Tanya Ransom lip-synching to Nina Hagen records at the Anvil in 1979. At that moment I saw a direct possible tie-in to much of my past experience, a format for exhibiting the inner realm in an outward fashion. This is the province of any good performing artist, but here it included the additional aspect of being a brilliant, socially annoying and even “drag challenging” drag. Dagmar was created, an enormous reservoir of rage was vented, the closets were cleaned out, and I embraced an all-encompassing format of expression, soon followed up with portrayals of “crossover” male characters like Narcissus and Saint Sebastian. Later I moved on to more butch (albeit quirky) charmers like a mohawked graffitti artist from East Berlin, Egon Schiele or a portrait of a male hustler.

These portrayals were realized through music – initially with lip-synching (Maria Callas), choreographically, on film, and ultimately, vocally – this was the next logical step. My renditions of mezzo soprano arias, negro spirituals and the music of Joni Mitchell – sung in male, female, androgynous or historical drag – functioned as “audio” drag to the visual counterpart, providing me with another way to challenge myself and my audience, allowing me to vibrate high.

I regard singing as a way of merging the inner(personal)/outer(public) natures. The constant task of the vocal artist to navigate freely between the chest register and the head register exists as an opportunity for me to balance “selves,” to reconcile the male with the female, and, as a result of the process, to balance the inner with the outer, the public with the private.

“High drag” is to me an homage to woman. I grew up with two beautiful older sisters and have always admired and observed them; they have made me feel gallant and proud. I have always presented Dagmar as a beautiful creature, if dangerous. Only with my interpretation of the Mona Lisa do I get down and bawdy, what with her blacked-out teeth, her wailing and her presentation as a pasta-sucking wench. Still, I am here dealing with the mass identification of this image as “the” masterpiece of the world – I merely reveal a whiff from behind the canvas, and ultimately arrive back to her plight as an enigmatic beauty trapped in the public’s perception of her. She is the essence of something, and it just happens to be arrived at via drag.

Drag, in its more usual perception, and drag in public spaces can turn any function into an event. The aroma of travesty is pungent, immediately discernable, it can transform a room and provide a unique “frisson.” Absurd and dangerous, it has also functioned for me as an effective potential “fuck you.” In drag, I have eaten in restaurants, taken a few “walks on the wild side,” perhaps gotten a first-hand glimpse into how women can be treated by men, and played a trick on certain people – my youth and angrogyny making for a succesful illusion. But this transformed into a desire to transcend gender and arrive at a kind of abstract reality, a vehicle for expression and a navigational option. The drag is a lure, a seduction of sorts, especially because most people who encounter it think they know it, what its lifestyle and sexual implications are, and what sort of performance it will produce. Drag rarely seems to be equated with the promise of talent, though there have always been exceptional manifestations of the drag queen. Perhaps many are put off or offended by the idea of drag – is it not an insult to womanhood, an indication of a sick morality, an opportunistic sensation?

Dagmar has always been flat-chested, more Pierrot than Tootsie. The tension results from my arriving at an essence, not through a hairy chest protruding from a plunging neckline, nor from a “come fuck me hither” parody of Monroe (now Madonna).

Dagmar promises nothing, asks participation, not just to witness but to experience. Just as there exist assumptions regarding “gender, class, race and sexuality,” there also exist assumptions regarding drag. An artist, if in touch with and in control of his or her sensibility and mechanism, can move freely from one format to another, incorporating drag as perhaps another gender, transcending the usual implications. But the audience’s participation is paramount to successfully realizing a new experience. I recently performed in concert as Dagmar Onassis at Carnegie Recital Hall – it was fun and fancy – and it was also dead serious – it was not dull. The audience was comprised mostly of fans and friends previously acquainted with my aesthetic; but there were also a number of somewhat bewildered audience members, grappling with the “What stance do I assume?” dilemma, unable (at least initially) to objectively experience this encounter. My renditions of the Bellini, Mahler and Kurt Weill were serious – they happened to be emitting from the mouth of a transvestite diva – if they had been pouring from the throat of a man in a tuxedo, the emphasis and climate would have changed. Still, I contend that the impetus and the destination are identical, the effect perhaps more fun in drag.

Drag has never been about confusion, gender or otherwise, in my experience. It has always functioned as a sublimely specific vehicle for expression, a beautiful surprise, a red scarf waved in the face of a bullish society unwilling to witness the values between the black and the white. Instead of producing the “illusion of inner depth,” I have harnessed its unique potential so as to reveal my inner depths to a surprised and unsuspecting public.

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