This is the story of Angel Segarra, a Puerto Rican kid from the South Bronx who became Angie Xtravaganza, doyenne of the drag world made briefy famous by Jennie Livingston’s acclaimed 1990 documentary, Paris Is Burning.
Angel, neé Angie, died in New York City on April 6, 1993, at the age of 27.
She died of complications from AIDS, but she also had chronic liver trouble, probably brought on by the hormones she’d been taking since the age of 15 to soften her skin and give her breasts and hips. She’d lived for over ten years as her own creation, a ferocious maternal force who turned tricks in hotel rooms over a bar called the Cock Ring and who made chicken soup for the gaggle of friends she called her kids after they came home from a long night on the town.
The hard facts about Angel neé Angie are scarce. She believed in her ability to eradicate the past, to be renowned simply and purely for what she had made of herself. She had reason to believe it was possible. As she lay dying, RuPAul was becoming the _rst drag queen to have a record in Billboard’s Top Ten. Lypsinka had appeared in a Gap ad and was about to open at the Cherry Lane Theater, a legitimate off-off-Broadway house that seats six hundred.
Angie refused to talk about her childhood, to anyone. She’d never been a scrawny boy named Angel Segarra, one of 13 children, most of whom had different fathers. She wasn’t the son of an abusive Puerto Rican woman in the South Bronx. She hadn’t had a rotten, violent childhood haunted by Catholicism. She was and had always been triumphant, dazzling, the _ercest thing in high heels.
I started my search for the true story of Angie with Dorian Corey, 56, a legend in drag circles and one of the stars of Paris Is Burning. I arranged to see her for the _rst time at Sally’s II, the drag bar where she emceed a show a every Thursday night.
Sally’s II, just off Times Square, is a hustler bar for men who prefer their men in dresses. It’s a gaudy, threadbare joint where drag queens, not generally of a recent vintage and some downright geriatric, aggressively peddle themselves to skeevy-looking guys who look as if they have unhappy wives and a few fucked-up kids and a little patch of dying lawn somewhere in the suburbs. It’s a destination, the last stop on the train, and you’d have to be a deeply dedicated romantic to _nd any appreciable element of glamour there.
Corey’s show took place in a largish room behind the bar proper, a leftover from some other incarnation, its walls covered with faded murals of Edwardian men and women cavorting heterosexually. The room was furnished with scarred garden furniture–wobbly white plastic tables and molded plastic chairs.
Corey’s show started 45 minutes late, at almost one a.m. Although the bar up front was crowded, only four or _ve of us sat scattered among the lawn chairs, and everyone but me seemed more interested in his drink or his cigarette or some vaguely upsetting dialogue going on in his own head. Sally himself, a raging canary-yellow blond missing his front teeth, introduced Dorian, and she appeared from behind the Masonite partition that served as a dressing room.
Though you’d have to have been legally blind to think of Dorian as a beauty, she was undeniably spectacular. Six feet tall, she had on another foot and a half of silver hair. She wore more makeup than some women apply cumulatively over their entire lives. Her low-cut black bugle-beaded gown showed a few stray curly hairs nestled in her silicone décolletage.
She lip-synched a rendition of “Georgia,” walking the edges of the dance ßoor with the bulky, unswerving grace of a steamship. She was a focused if not an inspired performer, and she made glacial, unrelenting eye contact. She dared you to dislike her act.
After her opening number she picked up the microphone and shouted toward the bar, “It’s showtime back here, you girls don’t know what you’re missing.” But the girls were doing business. Dorian gamely introduced a couple of other queens, whose style was more in the classic drag mode: torchily animated, sexualized, exaggerated. Then Dorian performed her stately closing number, “Stormy Weather,” and that was that.
I followed her back behind the Masonsite partition and introduced myself. Pop music was cranked up right after Dorian’s show ended, and her rickety dressing room stood next to the deejay’s booth. The music was so loud I could feel it humming in the Masonite when I touched the doorjam.
“Ah, the writer,” she shouted. “Hello, baby.”
She grandly extended a red-nailed hand. She was already tucking into a rum and Coke.
“Thanks for agreeing to do this,” I shouted back.
“You want to talk about Angie?” she said.
“You want to talk about Angie?”
“Yes. You knew her, didn’t you?”
“What was that?”
“You knew Angie. Didn’t you?”
“Sure I did.”
The music was rattling the makeup bottles on the plywood counter. I suggested we go someplace else.
“It’s awfully late,” Dorian hollered. “Why don’t you come up to my place next Thursday?
You can interview me while I get dressed for the show.”
I told her I’d be happy to do that. When she asked me to repeat myself I simply nodded, and she wrote down an address on West 140th Street, in Harlem.
Angie’s drag career began at the age of 14, in 1980, when she was still more or less Angel Segarra. Though drag hasn’t exactly become a middle-American value, it’s come a long way since 1980, when Madonna was just another easy girl from Detroit and most gay men wore mustaches and polo shirts. Back in 1980 it was mainly just Angel and a ragged band of kids, all black or Hispanic, hanging out in the Village and going to the drag balls, where Dorian Corey was one of the reigning stars. Dorian was capable of turning up at a ball as Marie Antoinette, complete with farthingale run up on her portable sewing machine, life-sized guillotine, and a wig just slightly smaller than the fountain in front of the Plaza. She was capable of wearing three gowns, one right on top of the other, with a 30-by-40-foot feather cape, so that once she’d shed the gowns and gotten down to her sequined body stocking, two attendants could raise the cape up on poles and produce a feathered tent that sheltered half the audience.
“I just took everybody in under my dress,” Corey said.
On the drag circuit, she was fabulousness incarnate. She was one of Angel’s early role models.
Angel always snuck out of his mother’s house with his other clothes in a shopping bag. Riding the subway down from the South Bronx he’d slip a skirt up over his jeans, dab on eyeliner every time the train stopped moving. Angel’s favorite place was the piers at the end of Christopher Street. The piers are dilapidated, covered with graf_ti and old furls of chain link fence. Through holes in the planks you can see the brown water of the Hudson. Across the river, among the trees and high-rises of New Jersey, the neon Maxwell House coffee cup tips over to spill its two bright-red drops of coffee over and over and over again.
Angel spent most of his evenings there. He was one of the regulars, a wiry, sharp-witted kid–no one’s idea of good-looking–with acres of attitude and a fashion sense that could cut glass. He was just another apprentice drag queen, a Dorian Corey in the making, dancing the nights away. He picked up whatever clothing allowance he could get from johns who’d go for style and spirit, who didn’t insist on beauty.
Angel was a tough kid, without a speck of sentimentality. But he did have depths. And he had a kind of radar.
As David Gonzalez, one of Angie’s adopted children, says, “She was so for real, she could pull a fake in a minute. Someone that’s false, she could pull him out in a minute. She would never embarrass anyone, but after they left, she’d be, like, ‘She’s not for real.’ She just knew. And you knew that she knew. And if she thought you were a fake she wouldn’t have nothing to do with you.”
But if Angel liked you–if you didn’t set off his minutely-honed bullshit detectors–he was yours. Forever. Whether you treated him well or not.
If he liked you, he was your mother.
One of the people he liked was a handsome 20 year old named Hector Crespo. Hector was another of the guys who kept turning up at the piers and hanging around the balls. The youngest of 12 children, he had been on his own since he was 13.
“I started hanging out around Christopher Street when I was nine,” Hector says. “There were always _ghts in my family, always drugs, my brothers were dealing drugs, but never where my mother could see it. When she found out there was drugs in the house, she threw my brothers out. She was that strict. But she still told me she’d rather I be a drug dealer
than be gay.
“My _rst experience with a guy, I was seven. When my mother found out I was gay, she started treating me like shit. She was, like, ‘You want to be a woman, start cleaning up.’ I was treated like a slave. So I ran away. I ate out of garbage cans, slept in abandoned buildings.”
By 1980, when he was 20, Hector had tried twice to kill himself. After the second unsuccessful attempt, he decided maybe he was “here for a reason, like, God has something for me.” He quit performing in hellish drag clubs like the Collage and the Magic Touch in Queens, got a minimum-wage job at a quasi-health food store called Yogurt Delite. He started the long work of trying to survive his childhood.
On weekends he headed for the piers, to be with the people who felt most like family; to listen to their radios, trade insults, cruise the boys. He got to know Angel, casually at _rst,
just talking. Then they got to be better friends.
Hector says, “Sometimes when I was tired, I’d sit down on a bench with Angel and she’d say, ‘Why don’t you sleep?’ And she’d make me put my head in her lap. We’d stay there like that for an hour or more, talking. It was never boring. When I said something stupid, she slapped me.”
They sat on the benches night after night: the exhausted twenty year old who’d been living on his own since he was 13 and the stern little feminine boy, not yet 15, who cradled him.
Later that summer, on a hot afternoon, Hector went to the far end of one of the piers to inhale the watery air, to get himself a shot of relative quiet. After a while, Angel sat down beside him and said, “What’s the matter? Where’s your mother?”
Hector answered, “I don’t know, I think she’s at work.”
Angel wore mascara and a red bugle-beaded skirt. “You don’t know where your mother is?” he said. “Your mother’s right next to you.”
“No, my mother’s at work,” Hector said.
“No. I’m your mother,” Angel told him.
Pushing _fteen, Angel was on her way to becoming Angie, mother of the House of Xtravaganza.
P>A year later, Hector was clipping happily along Christopher Street when he got nailed. It was a summer Saturday night, and Hector was working an out_t: short shorts, high tops, a tight black T-shirt. He could smell the river up ahead; he could feel the night’s sour promise blowing through.
He’d just crossed Hudson Street when a hand landed on his ass. A mouth hovered beside his ear and told him where it wanted to put its tongue.
It was some Jersey geek, a big one; a truck-driver type, in tight jeans and poly-blend tank top. Christopher Street was full of guys like this. They’d swoop into the Village, pick off a Hispanic or black kid, jump back into their cars and vanish back through the Holland Tunnel.
The guy had a hand like a shovel. He’d scooped up Hector’s ass and was pushing him along, narrating the twenty minutes that lay ahead. He had the money in his other hand.
He’d guessed wrong about Hector, though. Hector was just out for the evening, prettied up, looking for adventure. He told the guy to get lost. He made it clear that he wasn’t just playing hard to get.
The guy pulled his hand back and started hollering. “Fucking faggot, get away from me. You little slimeball.”
Hector hurried on, left the geek shouting insults. This sort of thing happened all the time, but it still threw a shadow on the evening. There was always a feeling of threat. If a guy like that got really crazy, if he ßagged down a cop and told him Hector‘d been soliciting, who was the cop more likely to believe? A family man from Hoboken, or a half-black, half-Puerto Rican kid in shorts the size of a pot holder?
Down at the Christopher Street piers, Hector ran into Angel, who by then had changed his name to Angie. Angie was done up for Saturday night like the Christmas tree at Rockefeller Center, in a glittery dress and what would become her signature accessories: drop earrings and seven-inch stiletto heels. As a matter of principal, Angie refused any shoe with a heel shorter than _ve inches.
“Hey, Ma,” Hector said. All her friends called her Ma, even though, at the time, she was not yet sixteen.
“Hi, honey,” she said to Hector. “How was your day?”
Angie didn’t speak in elaborate, biting wit like most of the rest of the queens. She was straightforward. She had no fear of ordinary conversations–her own hard ßash was enough.
“Fine,” Hector told her. But Angie knew something was up. She could smell unhappiness the way a chef can smell a sauce starting to curdle.
“What is it?” she asked.
“Nothing,” Hector said.
“Don’t lie to your mother. Talk.”
He talked. Angie never had to ask anybody twice. He told her about the creep and assured her it was no big deal.
“Come on,” Angie said, taking his hand.
“Where we going?” Hector asked.
“We’re gonna _nd that motherfucker.”
Hector would have been happy enough to let it pass. He didn’t want trouble; he just wanted to dance with his adopted family and dish the dirt. As Angie dragged him back toward Christopher Street he tried complimenting her on her hair and out_t, hoping to distract her; hoping that in the name of her own splendor she’d decide against risking breaking a nail or dislodging her French twist. But once she got pissed off, Angie was as soft and reasonable as a hydraulic staple gun.
She pulled Hector down Christopher Street until they spotted the guy, lounging around in front of the convenience store on the corner of Bleecker, chugging a beer and cruising for prey. He was even bigger than Hector remembered. Angie strode up to him in her seven-inch heels, her dress glittering like a school of minnows.
“’Scuse me,” she said. “Did you call my boy a faggot?”
The man swallowed beer, looked at her as if she was something he’d just picked from between his teeth.
“What’s it to you?” he said.
“‘What’s it to me? He’s my son, that’s what.”
“What do you want me to do?” the man said.
The guy didn’t bother to stiße a belch. After a moment, Angie told him, “Do what I say.
Don’t let the dress fool you.”
“Fuck off,” the man answered.
Then Angie, at _ve foot eight, under a hundred and _fty pounds, was on him. She could punch with the skill and precision of a professional bantamweight. The guy doubled over, spewing spittle and hot, meaty wind. His beer bottle cracked on the sidewalk.
Angie saw that the message had been received. She said to Hector, “Okay, now. Run.”
She and Hector took off. Angie was fearless but she wasn’t stupid. And she could run almost as well as she could _ght. She kept up with Hector, even in those heels.
“I warned you,” she called over her shoulder. “Don’t let the dress fool you.”
On a Wednesday night in 1993, I got home and found Dorian Corey’s voice on my answering machine.
“Mr. Cunningham,” she said imperiously. “I naturally assumed you would call before you came. I’m not feeling well. Please call at your earliest opportunity.”
I called her the following morning–drag queen morning, which to most other people is three in the afternoon.
“Dorian? It’s Michael Cunningham.”
“Oh, Mr. Cunningham.”
“I’m sorry you’re not feeling well.”
“I’m afraid I won’t be up to an interview.”
“All right. Maybe next Thursday.”
“Yes. Maybe next Thursday.”
“I’ll call _rst.”
“I hope you’re feeling better.”
Everybody needs a mother. Some of us get one who loves us enough, who does more or less the right thing. Others of us decide to become the mother we didn’t have.
P>The House of Xtravaganza, like the House of Corey and the other houses, consists of a mother and a father and a big raucous band of “children”: drag queens, butch queens (gay men who dress like men), transsexuals, a few real girls and one or two straight guys. The smattering of girls and straight guys notwithstanding, the houses are, essentially, cabals of young gay black and Hispanic men obsessed with being fashionable and fabulous.
The houses started in the late sixties. They grew out of the underground drag balls that had been going on in and around New York City since the thirties. Those balls were merely drag fashion shows staged by white men two or three times a year in gay bars, with prizes given for the most outrageous costumes. Black queens sometimes showed up but they were expected to whiten their faces and they rarely won a prize.
Says Pepper LaBeija, 45, another enduring star of the drag ball circuit, “It was our goal then to look like white women. They used to tell me, ‘You have negroid features,’ and I’d say, ‘That’s all right, I have white eyes.’ That’s how it was back then.”
In the sixties a handful of black queens _nally got fed up and started holding balls of their own in Harlem, where they quickly pushed the institution to heights undreamed of by the little gangs of white men parading around in frocks in basement taverns. In a burst of liberated zeal they rented big places like the Elks Lodge on 139th Street, and they turned up in dresses Madame Pompadour herself might have thought twice about.
Word spread around Harlem that a retinue of drag queens was putting together out_ts bigger and grander than Rose Parade ßoats, and the balls began to attract spectators, _rst by the dozens and then by the hundreds, gay and straight alike. People brought liquor with them, sandwiches, buckets of chicken. As the audiences grew, the queens gave them more and more for their money. Cleopatra on her barge, all in gold lamé, with a half dozen attendants waving white, glittering palm fronds. Faux fashion models in feathered coats lined with mylar, so that when the coat was thrown open and a two-thousand-watt incandescent lamp suddenly lit, the people in the _rst few rows were blinded for minutes afterward.
It was Vegas comes to Harlem. It was the queens’ most baroque fantasies of glamour and stardom, all run on Singer sewing machines in tiny apartments.
Gradually, as the Harlem balls became an underground sensation, the drag queens started splitting into factions.
In 1977 an imperious, elegant queen named Crystal LaBeija announced that a ball she’d helped put together was being given by the House of LaBeija, as in House of Chanel or House of Dior. It was a p.r. gimmick, something to add a little more panache and, not incidentally, to increase the luster of Crystal LaBeija.
The concept caught on, and suddenly every ball was being given by a house. Some queens named their house after themselves, like Avis Pendavis’ House of Pendavis or Dorian Corey’s House of Corey. Others took the names of established designers like Chanel or St. Laurent.
And once those queens had declared themselves the of_cial royalty of drag society, it was only a matter of time before they began to attract followers. By the early eighties younger, less experienced drag queens were declaring themselves members of this house or that house, and competing in balls under the house name. Some went to court and had their last names legally changed, to Pendavis or Corey or Chanel or St. Laurent.
The ball circuit turned, by slow degrees, into a team effort, as much like organized sports as it was like show business. Houses came to be ruled by their biggest stars, who were known as mothers and who exhorted their members–their children–to accumulate as many prizes as possible for the greater glory of the house.
It was three weeks before Dorian Corey was feeling well enough to see me. She lived on the top ßoor of a snug, four-story, red-brick row house across the street from the City College of New York campus. It was a nice block, well maintained, not at all the residential equivalent of Sally’s II. I was relieved, for Dorian’s sake.
I rang the bell, and Dorian’s voice, which registered somewhere between the sound of an oboe and a pair of pinking shears, wafted down from the top ßoor.
“Stand out in the street, honey, and I’ll throw you the keys.”
I stepped out into the street, and a plastic change purse landed at my feet. I took the keys from the purse, let myself in to a clean, crumbling lobby that had been elegant eighty or ninety years earlier. A matronly brown _replace and mocha-colored wainscoting gave way, at shoulder level, to yellow-green paint and sputtering ßuorescent light. I walked up the four ßights. I’d brought a dozen pale pink roses.
Dorian met me at the door. If you’d have had to be legally blind to consider her beautiful in full makeup, you’d have had to be legally dead to consider her so without it, in a knee length T-shirt, with her hair wrapped up in an old nylon scarf.
But her dowager manner held. She formally invited me in, accepted the roses without comment, as if my bringing them had been assumed. Grocery boys brought groceries; reporters brought roses. She led me into the living room, introduced me to her lover Leo, and disappeared, saying she’d be back soon.
Leo was a sparse, wiry man in his thirties who bore more than a passing resemblance to Charles Manson. He wore jeans and a baggy shirt. He was watching a Knicks game on television. Dorian’s and Leo’s living room was a grotto dedicated to the goddess of junk. In the spaces between the television, the sofa, several chairs, and a double bed, only a narrow footpath remained negotiable among displays of old crockery, embroidered pillows, assorted lamps, arti_cial ßowers, and gilded trophies won by Dorian at various balls. It was a yard-sale version of Aladdin’s cave.
Leo watched the game with an acolyte’s rapture. When a commercial for Kool-Aid came on, he told me brightly that he’d bought some just the other day. He jumped up, trotted out of the room, and came back with a large can of something called Pink Swimmingo. It depicted a ßamingo in sunglasses, snorkel, and jams.
“See?” he said. “Pink Swimmingo. Not ßa-mingo. Swimmingo.”
“Uh-huh,” I said. “Well.” P>Soon after, Dorian returned and said to me, “Are you ready to be rescued?” I told her I was, and she beckoned me into her sewing room.
Dorian’s sewing room was a treasure cave of a different order, more like the real thing. Or, rather, it was a more faithful fake version of the real thing. Strands of faux pearls and rhinestones looped out of shoe boxes. Leopard prints and gold-threaded gauzes and sequined chiffons were piled everywhere, and in the middle rose a dressmaker’s dummy wearing a half-_nished contraption of rhinestones and ßesh-colored ultra suede, a hybrid of early Bob Mackie and late Road Warrior.
We spent slightly more than three minutes on the subject of Angie. Dorian said Angie had been fabulous, a great mother and a promising star. Dorian, unlike some other drag legends, was generous toward her sisters. But still, it quickly became apparent that you didn’t go to one major star for detailed information about another. So we talked about Dorian.
She was one of the “terrible _ve,” the _ve reigning house mothers of the ball world. Angie had been another, along with Pepper LaBeija, Avis Pendavis, and Paris Dupree, whose annual ball “Paris is Burning” gave Livingston the title for her _lm.
“I used to have a lot of children, but time passes on. Those children who used to come by and talk, they’re now the mothers of their own houses. I’m an over-the-hill legend, you know? Leo in there is really the only child I’ve got left. He was my lover for the _rst four or _ve years, then he was my friend the next twenty minutes, and now he’s my son.”
From the other room, I could hear Leo happily cheering on the Knicks.
A house can be composed of a hundred or more children, or as few as one. There are now at least thirty of_cial houses in New York City, and their membership requirements vary. In some houses, you have to win a prize at a ball to be considered for membership. In others, all you have to do is ask the house mother, who will probably say yes.
Members of the House of Xtravaganza are a little vague about their own prerequisites. “We know right away if you’re an Xtravaganza or not,” says Danny Xtravaganza, thirty-four, who replaced Angie as house mother after she died. Adds Mina Xtravaganza, eighteen, a straight female member and aspiring model, “The only real requirement is that you be fab.”
About being fab: You should dress wonderfully, in a style that’s both unique to you and right on the razor’s edge of fashion. You should have a mystique, a snap, a sparkle. You should click, immediately, with the other members of the house.
And you must–you absolutely must–look like you can put out some serious competition at the balls. The Xtravaganzas carry on Angie’s two overriding _xations: fashion and perfect performance. The balls are the family business, and the Xtravaganzas are as serious about apparel and presentation as the De Beers family is about diamonds.
Over the past decade, the balls have moved steadily downtown from Harlem. Today most of them are held in Village clubs or in midtown community centers. They’ve evolved from costume parties into enormous multi-categoried competitions that can go on as long as twelve hours. Contestants compete in a numbing array of categories, from best body (with butch and femme subcategories) to realness (most convincingly female, most convincingly butch, etcetera), military (most convincingly lethal), high fashion foot and eye wear, and etcetera.
There can be dozens of categories in a single evening: best wig, best butch queen walking in drag for the _rst time, best dressed for a night at the Clinton White House. There are even special categories for very short drag queens (midget model’s effect), and those who weigh over 180 pounds.
The balls have become intricate, searingly competitive affairs, though they no longer attract the body of spectators who used to show up in Harlem. Now almost everyone who comes is there to compete, and has paid 20 bucks at the door. Some of the trophies are 12 feet tall. The grand-prize winner can take home a thousand dollars or more.
Dorian had amassed over 50 grand prizes. I asked her whether she had a favorite out_t and she paused with a look of mingled pride and regret, like a mother being asked if she doesn’t really have a favorite among her children.
“Well, this was quite a while ago,” she said. “I made a rhinestone gown, then I had a headpiece with rhinestones all over it. I had a backpiece maybe about nine feet, covered with white feathers. Then I made two smaller ones about 7 feet high, diamonds, and covered them with feathers and had little hand grips. So now I’m getting to be about 20 feet wide and 15 feet high.
“I’d rented a fog machine. They turned it on and the whole stage _lled with fog, and I folded those two sidepieces in front of me and I came out and as I got to center stage I opened them and it made the fog part. And everybody gasped. I wanted to run down and see me too. It was the only time I’d ever walked a ball that I had no doubt I’d won.”
The competition gets ferocious. As in organized sports, the tension that accumulates around all that desire, preparation, and rivalry sometimes explodes. People really want those trophies–accumulating trophies is the only way to become a star like Dorian. They really want the grand-prize money too. As Roger Milan, father of the House of Milan, puts it, “Some people have medical bills, some people have rent to pay, and they go to the balls telling themselves, ‘I must win.’”
Pepper LaBeija says of a 1991 ball held at the Marc Ballroom on Union Square West, “One of the children pulled out a knife and cut one of the judges because he didn’t give her a ten. Everybody went crazy, there was a stampede. I ran out in the street in my gown, with my hair in a bun, and it was pouring. The gown got heavy, it got waterlogged, but you had to run. If you didn’t, you’d get trampled.
“I’m in the street, one shoe on, one shoe off, and I ran into the subway station.”
Even if you don’t get hurt at one of these affairs, you can end up sitting in a subway train with your hair askew and your gown soaked, minus one of your pumps. It’s a hard world, like every other world.