WE’RE IN HIS NEW York City apartment; it’s a small studio on the fourteenth floor of a downtown building. He is in-between trips: yesterday he was on one continent and tomorrow he’s going to another. As he tells me about his garments, he gets excited. He shows me photos of himself in various guises, then opens his wardrobe and shows me one outfit after another, modelling some as he talks. The fabrics make swooshing sounds as he struts around the room. He takes obvious delight in his clothes – especially those that he has made himself – and I find myself getting excited too.
I don’t know where the fuck I am half the time. I woke up here one day thinking I was in London. I’m coming from Australia and went to Paris for literally forty-eight hours just to change clothes. So this is where my confusion is now; do I take everything I may need for my next trip, or do I get to come back home before going away again? When you’re cross-dressing, what does one take?
I take the basic things that I wear everyday when I’m not working: T-shirts, jeans, a couple of cardigans and a good few pairs of shoes. I take more shoes than I should – sometimes I travel with ten to fifteen pairs. Mostly men’s shoes, and a few women’s shoes with a heel just in case I need them for TV. I always carry a black suit: I can dress it up or down. If I’m travelling between New York and Paris, I don’t take underwear and T-shirts because I keep doubles in both places, but sometimes I get really upset and freak out that I don’t have the shoes I need for an outfit.
My on- and off-duty persona is a combination of many things; it depends on what the duty is. If I’m doing TV, it depends on what my spirit is work-wise. For the 2016 Oscars, my outfit consisted of one-two-three different designers. I had a beaded bag that said ‘Queen of Fucking Everything,’ which was given to me. I wore a jacket from 1994 that I cut short and wore over a shirt from 2007, and a tulle and ostrich feather skirt over black sequin sweatpants. I just threw it all together. The skirt and the pants were from one designer, the shoes were Marc Jacobs, the jacket was from Mr Kim, a tailor in Korea, and the shirt was from another tailor in Thailand: I had it made when I was working there. And to another more recent event in Savannah with Carolina Herrera, I wore an old Marc Jacobs jacket, and I made this diaper skirt, like a harem pant, in satin chiffon. The fabric came from the donation closet at the Savannah College of Art and Design; designers often donate to them so when I’m there I’ll just go see what they have. Whatever they’re not using, I’ll just pull a few yards from. I wore the outfit with wing tipped, lace-up and suede Marc Jacobs shoes that I’ve worn twice before. Once for my boyfriend’s sister’s wedding, and then again for a fashion week event. I also wore a Tom Ford YSL clutch, and a scarf I made out of scraps of fabric. I had my hair in cornrows, so I just brushed it out. Everyone thought I was wearing a wig, but it was all my hair. This is the look. It’s an androgynous moment in hot-ass Savannah.
Marc Jacobs has been ever so generous with me over the past ten years. I’ve known him nearly all my life, and Robert Duffy who was the ex-CEO of the company too. So whenever I needed anything, and even when I didn’t need anything, they’d send me things. They told me that I’m the only person that they know that sends things back, but I don’t want to be greedy so if I’m not going to wear something I give it back. Good clothing should never be thrown away: you can always cut it apart and make something new with it.
I taught myself how to sew because when I was much younger, I couldn’t afford to buy designer clothes. I grew up in New York City, in the Bronx. I’m number seven of ten kids so I’d get my brothers’ hand-me-down clothes. There was Ronald, Stephen, Stanley and myself. We all went to the same school, and I didn’t want kids to make fun of me so I’d create something different. I would make the pants shorter, fringe the jeans, cut holes into a peace sign, take the collars off the shirts and make them short sleeved. Once a girl called Jennifer Brown showed me how to make a men’s suit with a pattern, but apart from that I taught myself by trial and error.
When I was twenty-three, I was working at Bergdorf Goodman in the city and some girls took me to Studio 54 for the first time. I realised that they only let people in who were dressed outrageous. So I did the same: I wore a crazy outfit, and they’d let me in. I would make a skirt out of tulle and wear it over a pair of tights and cowboy boots before I graduated to heels and then a T-shirt made with a ruffle collar. I’d do something crazy with my hair, and that was this outrageousness. As it got into the late Eighties and Nineties I discovered a shoe store on 14th Street and another on 35th Street called Tall Girls that made shoes for tall women. I’d get my heels from that store. I didn’t think about whether they were used to men coming in the store; it wasn’t important. I just went to get what I needed. ‘Do you have these in a size 13? Thank you, I’ll buy them, done.’
The rest of the week, I would wear no make-up and no heels. But I still made my own clothes. I would make duster coats, almost like bathrobes. I was very heavily influenced by the Japanese: big shapes, a coat that flowed at the bottom and was belted at the waist. I would make a tank top and a pair of loose pants to go with. It’s really funny, I just looked at something that I made back in 1984 and thought, ‘Oh my god, I should redo that outfit.’ Oh yes, people looked at me then, but I never thought I was being provocative. I was just wearing a maxi coat, loose pants and a tank top. For me, provocative would have been the high heels – during the daytime that is – and being in make-up and drag.
I had a friend called Michael Stein. Michael Stein was like the black Divine. He was 300 lbs, with alopecia so no hair anywhere. He would borrow clothing from the stores, hide the price tags and then take them back after he’d worn them. I was creating the clothes at home and eventually I started going to clubs in full drag. I was looking at magazines, trying to re-create whole looks from the catwalk or from ad campaigns. When I went out on the weekends, which was usually on Fridays and Saturdays and sometimes on Sundays, we would get dressed up together because I got into the clubs for free and I would be able to bring in a friend for free. I’d come to the city from the Bronx with all my stuff, my garment bag, my make-up bag, and get ready in a friend’s dormitory and then go with them to the club. After the club I’d go back to my friend’s place, get out of drag and get a train back to the Bronx at four or five o’clock in the morning. Then I became more daring. In the wintertime I would put half of my drag clothes on under a long winter coat and carry the other part in a garment bag. I’d take the bus from Castle Avenue in the projects to the subway. I’d put make-up on on the train. I would get off the train at 125th Street and get the express train, next stop was 86th Street, then 59th Street. I would get off there, get a taxi and do a quick change in the back of the cab so I would get out in front of Studio 54, like, ‘I just arrived – in a taxi!’
Sometimes I would get harassed by a bunch of boys from under the tunnel or over the bridge, you know, ‘That’s a guy, that’s a dude!’ and I’d be like, ‘Oh fuck off’ and keep on walking. I am 6ft4 or 6ft7 in heels, and I’d walk down the street with elegance, such elegance walking down that street darling, feeling fabulous. I never got tapped, never, ever, ever, no one came at me because I was ready and I was up in their face. Or you’d get men who was attracted to it.
My sister saw me for the first time doing the catwalk in a club; I was a bride I believe. She was like, ‘Oh.’ But my brother and sisters and mother all had their own lives. To them I was just their crazy-ass brother. If they went with me, they’d get into clubs that they could never get in to otherwise, you see. I would get there and people would open up like the Red Sea. I was just going right in saying, ‘They’re with me.’ And I’d sashay on in, hang up my coat and have my ball gown on.
I was looking at magazines, at Women’s Wear Daily, at Elsa Klensch. Elsa Klensch was like The Bible. I would look at all those small pictures in the catwalk reports of the models walking the runway in their outfits and I’d try to create that silhouette. It was just insane. I started imitating the make-up. The more I got into it, the more the make-up changed, the outrageous became more pretty, more feminine, more soft. It became more drag than outrageous. I would get inspired by looking at the models in the magazines and want to do that make-up or that look like, ‘Oh my god did you see that Oscar de la Renta ball gown? Did you see that Saint Laurent look? Did you see Mounia? Did you see Katoucha? She looked fierce!’ I would imitate those looks and the make-up, using my grandmother’s sewing machine to create the looks.
Then I decided I wanted to be more like a socialite woman who goes to the Met Gala, wearing ball gowns from Oscar de la Renta, Bill Blass, Saint Laurent, Givenchy, Valentino. I wanted to have that ball gown on, I wanted to be fierce, I wanted to be fabulous. Like, ‘Girl, this is so-and-so from Park Avenue.’ I loved the luxury of it. The luxe. Those women would get out of their limousines and go up that staircase to the Met. When I finally started going to the Met, to the after party, me and my woman Glenda would go together. I’d make my gown, make her gown and we’d go. She was a real girl and I wasn’t but I made myself look like one. You could buy tickets to the party then. This was before Anna Wintour took over and decided, ‘You can’t come, you can come, but you can’t come.’ You could buy two tickets to the after-party for $125 dollars I think.
The first time I went up that staircase I thought I was one of those women. I wore an outfit by David Lee: he made me this black satin opera coat, big, huge sleeves, to the floor. There was this fitted dress underneath it, with a trumpeted bottom. He made me stand while he painted a design on it. So I stood there with my arms out, losing blood as he was painting on it. Then he applied all the stones, and made a big huge bow and matching gloves. I remember I showed up with big pink fuschia frosted lips and black and silver smoked winged eyes, my hair done in a French twist with a big bow. I showed up and I thought I was… it was all about me at that point. It was winter and the wind was blowing in my eyes, it was so cold. But feeling that wind blowing me up the steps – whoosh! – holding me up. Fantabulous honey, fantastic, just fabulous.
The people, they would just look at me, just look at me. And I would look back at the people I’d seen in the magazines. I saw this really handsome guy – I’d seen him in pictures and thought he was so sexy – and I remember seeing him leave the dinner with Diana Ross. I would show up at the museum and I was standing at the entrance of the main hall of the Met watching people coming out of the dinner and either going out of the building to another party or going to the after party. That was my catwalk. I would walk down that long, long, long corridor with the mummies, and people looked at me, thinking I was crazy. All the snobbish Upper East Side women with their designer ball gowns and their diamonds and their jewellery. Watching the celebrities come out of the dinner was fantastic to me, and we’d go dance and have a wonderful time and I’d think I was a rich white woman.
A few years later, I moved to Japan for what was meant to be two months but became almost three years. I hung around with the Elite modelling agency, they’d host parties and I’d be invited to go. I would get dressed up and go thinking I was one of the models they were booking: Iman, all these girls. My style of dressing changed: I became more fashionable. The girls were wearing jersey leggings, flat shoes or ankle boots and an Azzadine Alaïa jacket or a big overcoat to castings, and I would make my own version of that. I would get a piece of wool, cut it the shape that I wanted, put elastic into the waist to get a peplum waist and make a dolman sleeve. I made this big leather bag and wore it with a black turtleneck and a black scarf at my neck and these cheap $50 black suede pussy boots that I got from 40th Street. That was my look. I would imitate those girls. People would say, ‘You’re so androgynous,’ and I’d say, ‘Yes I know,’ with my hair out, blowing in the wind, feeling that moment.
At one point I did feel like an outsider because I wanted to be a part of that group but I couldn’t afford it. I couldn’t go to Biarritz, I couldn’t go to Gstaad, I couldn’t go to St. Barts or to the places where rich people go to have fabulous luncheons and dinners, but I could afford to buy some cheap taffeta and make a ball gown and go to the clubs where those people went, and walk into them like I owned them.
On a Saturday, sometimes even on a Thursday because the stores opened late, I would walk up and down Madison Avenue looking in the windows feeling like, ‘I wish I had on a black wool crepe dress, with high heels, a clutch, big hat and glasses and pearls.’ I would go into a store called Belloccio Uomo. It was owned by one black guy and one blonde guy, they were lovers. I would go into that store and talk to them for hours. We talked about fashion and clothes and what they were going to make me wear. They’d let me try on the clothes and say, ‘You look great in this’ and I’d be like, ‘I can’t afford it.’ But I’d try it all on, get inspired and go and try to copy the shapes.
Even today, when I can afford whatever I want, I very rarely just think, ‘Oh I like that,’ and get it. Spending thousands of dollars on something is not for me. I buy what I need, not what I want. A friend gave me some taffeta recently, and I made a plissé skirt, all by hand. I haven’t worn it yet but I know it’ll look really great over a black suit, worn with a white shirt. I’ve kept it open at the back because I’m going to add pleated tulle that comes out the back. When it’s finished I’ll wear it to a red carpet or black tie event, or maybe a fashion event. I made a sash from the scraps so I can tie the waist and make it a look. Now I want to make velvet embroidered silk grosgrain slippers in the same colour to wear with it.
I went to a charity event with my friend who’s the CEO of Kiehl’s some time ago. They travelled across the country with motorcycles to raise money for Aids. They gave people bandanas and I took all the leftover bandanas and made a kilt from them. It’s got little snaps to keep it on, and it’s pleated. It took me about four hours to make it, while I was watching ‘Le Petit Journal’ on TV. I made flowers from the bandana scraps to fasten to my shirt, and I’ll wear a bandana on my head too. I’ve already got my outfit figured out: I’m going to do a white man’s button-up shirt, low V, wear it low, pop the collar, roll up the sleeves, very casual, tuck it in and that’s it. I’ll wear white tennis shoes or a white lace-up shoe and there you have it. I’ll wear it to a little summer party. It’s been two years since I made it and I haven’t worn it because I’ve only seen my friends at winter events. I cannot wait to wear it so they can die.
A friend of mine made me a gown and I wore it to the Oscars in 2012. A man gown I call it. It was strapless, and I wore it with a man’s tuxedo shirt and a bow tie, over Marc Jacobs velvet tuxedo pants and velvet slippers. It’s funny, people keep asking, ‘Are you trans?’ Or they say, ‘Oh my god, Miss J is an inspiration to trans women all over the world!’ I keep going, ‘But I’m not actually trans,’ but they still think so.
I remember seeing a white man on TV fifteen years ago; he was wearing a skirt and arguing that men should be able to wear one, like, what’s the big deal? I was wearing skirts with full make-up and heels at the same time, but only at night, and I remember thinking, ‘You go!’ Men are still used to their suits and ties. A woman in a suit today is a power woman, but a man in a dress is a cross dresser, trans, a drag queen. Society still tells us pink is for girls, and blue for boys.
This interview was originally published in Vestoj ‘On Masculinities.’
Anja Aronowsky Cronberg is Vestoj’s Editor-in-Chief and Founder.