I first became aware of the 6-foot 5-inch black drag performance artist and punk legend known as Vaginal Davis, who has a PhD in life experience, when I was co-editing a gay punk fanzine called JDs in Toronto in the late 80s and she was editing one called Fertile LaToya Jackson Magazine in Los Angeles. As Al Gore had not yet invented the Internets, we wrote each other long, rambling hand-written letters detailing every aspect of our lurid lives, including sexual confessions, catty gossip, and dirty doggerel. I figured her for the most glamorous creature I had ever come across. When I finally met her in the flesh, while I was on tour with my first feature film, No Skin Off My Ass, I wasn’t disappointed — I knew then that I had found a kindred spirit. Vaginal is a true Renaissance woman, having been so far in her ginghamed life a fanzine publisher, an avant-garde filmmaker (check out her masterpiece, The White to be Angry), a club promoter, a punk singer (in bands including The Afro Sisters, Cholita the Female Menudo, PME, and Black Fag), a gifted poetess, a gossip columnist, a multi-media artist, a curator, a Hollywood film actor, and a purveyor of the most political and experimental drag that you will ever see. Her legendary LA clubs, Bricktops and Club Sucker, have drawn everyone from Madonna to the scum of the earth, and vice versa. Currently living in Berlin, where all drag queens worth their saltines eventually end up in exile, she collaborates with the experimental theatre company Cheap Club. We sat down to talk at her stylish Kleistpark apartment, whose walls are collaged with her favoured images from the popular and porn media.
Vaginal: Hey, do you want a whiskey?
Bruce: No…do you have it?
Of course I have whiskey; I know you’re an alcoholic.
Yeah, I’ll have a shot. You only have bourbon?
Oh right, I don’t usually drink straight bourbon but I’ll make an exception. (laughs) So Miss Davis, you told me your mother picked cotton in the fields of Alabama?
No, no, my mother was a sharecropper’s daughter in Louisiana. My mother’s father was a black French Creole, and my grandma, Mama Sarah, was a Choctaw Indian, so I guess that makes me a quarter.
Wow. You shouldn’t have to pay taxes then.
I know! Not that I do anyway! (laughs)
In Canada natives don’t have to pay taxes… There’s this huge thing going on in a satellite city of Toronto called Caledonia where a band of Indians have taken over this whole suburb as a Native Lands Claim.
Yeah, they are totally like terrorists. They wear Baklavas, they have rifles…
You know those things that cover your face…
I thought baklavas were an Armenian or Turkish candy. (laughs)
Balaclavas, balaclavas. They wear balaclavas and they have rifles…
You know what? I recently saw Rupert Everett here in Berlin, at this little red fetish bar in Nollendorfplatz.
Oh wow. Did he look good?
You know, Rupert actually looked pretty good. He was dressed all in leather — a leather jacket, pants… Working a leather daddy look. And it actually became him.
Was he clean-shaven? Or…
Yeah. He was clean-shaven and with a man who was older than him — he gentleman was maybe in his mid to late 50s. When Rupert bought the drinks at the bar I don’t think anyone recognized him except for being really handsome and not so prissy as he normally is. When he’s in regular clothing he comes across as very prissy, but he actually can come across as masculine, which must be hard for him.
Well, he’s an actor.
(laughs) Well, he ordered a Beck’s for the guy and he paid and they drank the beer…
What, are you working for Star magazine or something?
(laughs) Yeah! And he bought the drinks, they drank and chatted for a bit and then they separated. I guess Rupert wanted to check out what the scene was in the bar…
I like when he gets his throat cut in The Comfort of Strangers.
Oh, I’ve heard of that movie but I’ve never seen it. It wasn’t good?
It’s kind of good because it’s kind of creepy. Anyway, let’s stop talking about Rupert Everett. You were telling me about your background. How did you end up in California?
Well, you know my mother was born and raised in Louisiana and she got married, and her husband got drafted to the war — the war to end all wars — and then this weird thing happened. My first sister was born in 1939, then around 1942 there was a white man who had a crush on my mother, because she was very beautiful. My sister became sick with some rare illness or whatnot and they didn’t have the money to treat her in the big city. And this white man had an obsession with my mother and basically my grandmother pimped my mother out to this man, and she had a child with him while her husband was in the army. He was an older white man.
Oh wow, and did he pay for the treatment for your sister?
Yes. And he also kept the child; my grandmother wouldn’t let my mother keep the child. Her name is Shirley Fay, my sister that I’ve never met. And my mother had a child she never saw after giving birth. But the weird thing is that my auntie, my mother’s sister, kept in contact with the child. That child, who now is an old woman, she’s probably in her late sixties, lives in Seattle, and at one point she was a railway conductor. My mother never saw the child again but the child contacted my mother in the late sixties and called her and said, ‘I’m your daughter, Shirley Fay,’ and my mother said, ‘I don’t have a daughter.’ (laughs) So much for trying to find your birth mother! I guess it was too painful for my mother to deal with.
How many children did she have all together?
Well, through her husband — she was only married once — she had my three sisters. And then she divorced him in 1959 and then she had an affair with my father. She was never married to my father. My father was a German Mexican Jew.
So you’re mixed race?
Oh my god, please don’t tell anyone, I’ll be ruined! (laughs)
So are you a…what did you call it?
An octoroon. (laughs) It’s funny because my mother met my father when she was about 47, and she fornicated with him, and he was only 21. They shared this love of jazz.
Aw, a cougar.
That’s what they call an older, sexually voracious woman, a cougar…
A cougar! I’ve never heard that term before, who came up with that? Is it an old term?
Yeah, it’s been around forever.
Really? I just learned a new phrase. Yeah, so my mother got pregnant by my father but didn’t want to get married again.
So you’re a bastard.
Yes, I am a bastard child. (laughs)
And was she in California at this point?
Oh yeah, of course, I was born in California. After the war my mother’s husband came and got my mother out of Louisiana and moved to LA, to Watts.
Could you see the Watts Towers from where you lived?
Oh yeah, well there was nothing else that big! But when my family first moved to LA they lived in a housing project that was in Watts, the Jordan Downs.
And what were the Watts Towers made out of, was it scrap metal?
They’re made out of all sorts of found objects, it’s beautiful! A guy name Simon Rodia made the Watts Towers and they’re gorrrr-geous. In the late 50s the city tried to destroy them with a wrecking ball and they broke the wrecking ball! (laughs) Shows you how well made they were. The wrecking ball couldn’t wreck it, so they decided to make it a landmark because they couldn’t get rid of it!
That’s hot, they’re indestructible. So where were you when the riots happened?
The first or the second?
The second. When were the second riots again?
The LA riots, 1992. I remember that one! (laughs)
Oh right, where were you? Were you still living on Sunset then?
Yes, I could smell the flames as they were rising up above.
The flames were coming farther and farther north towards the hills, right?
Uh-huh. And people were all scared ’cause they had vandalized the Beverly Centre. Oh my god, it was so funny, people were so scared that the Blacks and Mexicans were going to come and slit their throats, like what happened to Rupert Everett in that movie that you were talking about.
(laughs) The Comfort of Strangers.
The Comfort of Strangers… But I’ve never seen so much fear in people…
…in white people.
Yeah! You should have seen people in supermarkets stocking up on supplies. Everything was just going helter-skelter. They were smashing windows on Rodeo Drive, so people were terrified that this was it. It was really intense. But LA always lives on this precipice, where something is always about to happen. Like an earthquake, a volcano, mudslide, you know. Something coming through and devastating the whole populace.
Well, America is on the verge of a huge race riot again. I mean the segregation is worse than it’s ever been.
I remember that my friend Mommy was terrified because he was a bourgeois gay white stylist. (laughs) He was pretty scared. It’s so funny thinking of Mommy. Mommy used to rent these Puerto Rican and black hustlers, and he used to live in one of these beautiful penthouse apartments, with a doorman. I remember this one hustler that frequented him. Mommy would be there in bed with his face in the pillow, his butt in the air, and the hustler would do a backflip and land right in Mommy’s hole.
It was like ringtoss, in reverse. (laughs)
Yes! Mommy loved when he did that.
Isn’t that hot? I wish I could find a hustler that could do that for me. (laughs) But yes, America is on the verge of something very explosive. I have been predicting this for a long time.
Is that why you left America?
No no, that’s not completely why I left America. I felt all the major cities in America were becoming boutique cities, and when things only become geared to the wealthy, they become uninteresting.
Yeah, it’s happening in Berlin as well.
Yes, but I think it’s happening a bit slower with Berlin. They’ve got their history, and they were isolated…
No, it’s the Scandinavian invasion. The Scandinavians are coming in and buying up all the property. Now the city is selling apartments, whereas before you could only rent them. They’ve changed the law.
I know, don’t even get me started! The euro is 1.40 to one American dollar.
Yeah, it’s all going to crumble.
Yeah, well, I can see the writing on the wall. I was gearing to switch to Europe anyway and all the factors just came together. Doing the work with Cheap Club, they were able to facilitate it faster, thank god, because I couldn’t have stayed in LA any longer. I predicted this so long ago with my band The Afro Sisters. I would get up on stage and say, ‘There isn’t going to be a Paramount Pictures, there isn’t any MGM anymore, no Fox, they will all be no more. There’s going to be no record companies, Sony, etc., they’re all going to be gone.’ The music industry people are all so bright, so they hack the people that are downloading, and then they can’t even get the right ones. They start suing these old ladies telling them they’ve downloaded heavy metal and rap songs, when these poor old ladies don’t even know how to download a song. I don’t even know how to download a song!
I hate Alanis Morissette, because she did this public service announcement where there’s a little girl in her bedroom and Alanis comes into her bedroom and starts stealing all her stuff — her records, her posters and everything — and then she goes, ‘Now you know what it feels like.’
Oh my god!!!
That is evil!
Well, I guess we’d better get back on track: tell us, the BUTT readership, about your famous club, Club Sucker.
Oh, Club Sucker. It’s funny because I saw in the Berliner Zitty paper an article on Miranda July, and she performed at Club Sucker.
She didn’t go over very well! (laughs) She was one of the few people that bombed at Club Sucker.
She made that movie Me and You and Everyone We Know.
Yeah, I saw it, I liked it.
I thought it was okay. It’s kind of one of those quirky independent American movies like Junebug, did you see that?
Oh, I wouldn’t want to see a movie like that. At first I was wanting to hate Miranda July’s movie, but actually it was really kinda cute!
What did she do at Sucker?
She did some spoken word rant that didn’t connect to the audience at all. She came with a point of view like, ‘I know everything and you don’t know anything.’
Was she booed?
Pretty, kinda, sorta…
She’s lucky they didn’t drag her into the alley and beat her up.
(laughs) So many bands played at Sucker. I did that club for five years. But Miranda started off expecting people to be quiet for her. She didn’t realize that you have to make them quiet with your talent and can’t just shhhush them. Whereas Phranc, the Jewish lesbian folk singer, she performed there one time, and just from the intensity of her quiet manner and the fact that she had been around for a while…
She had her punk credentials.
Right. She’s lived a life. Phranc got the audience to be quiet from playing her guitar and with her voice, so that you could hear a pin drop. She didn’t come on and say listen to me, she didn’t have to do that. And that’s the difference between someone who has texture and some of these newer kids.
The funny thing about Sucker was it was sort of a retro punk club, when punk wasn’t even over yet. It was back before it was gone.
(laughs) It was a Sunday afternoon club.
It was like going into a time warp. Because you went in in broad daylight, and when you came out, blasted out of your mind, it was like midnight.
Because of the cheap drinks.
And also it was like one of those great, dark gay bars, so sealed off from the rest of the world.
Well, it wasn’t a gay bar.
No, but it was like all those great gay bars like The Bar in New York, or The Barn in Toronto, these cruising-style bars that are totally blacked out, like it’s 24-hour midnight.
The great thing about Club Sucker was that it was an afternoon thing. And LA, being such an industry town — Sucker was a place for bands to perform and not be under the same scrutiny as if they were playing in a regular industry-type club. Sucker was a place for bands to let their hair down.
Did bands go on to become well known after they played at Sucker?
Well, look at Miranda July, she played and she’s big now. Sleater-Kinney was already well known when they played. But the sneak shows are what became famous, like when The Jesus & Mary Chain did a sneak show, when Foo Fighters did a sneak show, Weezer, you know, those shows really made Sucker… And because it was an afternoon club, I got away with murder, with all the nudity, pulling out penises of band members and blowing them on stage. The vice squad isn’t looking for those types of things to happen on a Sunday afternoon. And then there were all the people that were underage who came there, because you have to be over 21 to get into a club in the US. The only way to allow people of all ages is to sell food, at the bar, so it’s a stupid rule. We had that band The Grown-Ups play, and they were all between the ages of 13 and 16. Most of the members were girls but there was one guy, and it was the son of Mark Hamill, from Star Wars.
No! Was he cute?
Yeah, cuter than Mark Hamill ever was. His son was gorgeous, so soft spoken. He was 15. And he was the only boy. They had a chunky black girl in the band playing saxophone, isn’t that hot?
And wasn’t there a point when celebrities started coming?
From the beginning.
Like who, who are the biggest ones?
Everyone. Madonna came. She came with her Latino concubine, Carlos Leon. This is of course before she married Guy Ritchie. And the only reason Madonna came to check out the club was that the Madonnabees were playing, a Madonna cover band.
Did she like it?
Um, well she came to the bar, she ordered a cranberry juice, and her Latino lover, father of her first child, had a beer. He was at the time a personal trainer at Crunch, the big celebrity gym. So all the faggots knew him and started hovering around him and then she listened to 1.5 songs of the Madonnabees, turned up her nose, didn’t even finish her cranberry juice, got her Puerto Rican and left the club. So, she wasn’t a big fan of the Madonnabees. The biggest supporters of Club Sucker were all the dykes, the lesbians really supported me… Some more Kentucky bourbon?
You’re going to be tight, that’s what my parents would call being drunk: tight. ‘Ron’s a little tight, he was out hunting.’ ‘The boys are a little tight.’ Have you heard that before?
Oh yeah, it’s an old term.
What did you do today?
Today was nice. I was just sitting outside watching all the boys play football. They’re so intense when they’re playing football. Then I realized, oh my god, that’s the type of world that I’ll never be a part of. A masculine sports world.
I always think that when I see heterosexual people kissing on the street. I’ll never know what that’s like.
I have never been a part of a masculine realm, gay or straight. Even just hanging out with guys in bar, I’m not really comfortable because it’s not really my realm. I have no male bonding, I grew up with sisters and I put men up on pedestals. I don’t really talk to men in a real way, unless they’re like ‘girlfriends’. But then even those guys start to get on my nerves, after a while.
How did you meet your friend Fertile?
We went to junior high together, and Fertile’s family is El Salvadorean. Fertile was always being picked on by all these friends that he had been with since elementary school. He was the butt of all their jokes. I took him aside and asked him, ‘Why do you hang out with these guys? They’re assholes’ — because Fertile was fat and there was always a barrage from his friends, like, ‘You’re fat, you’re ugly, you have braces,’ and he just grinned and bore it because they were his friends. So I rescued him and we started hanging out.
What was the school?
Berendo Junior High, Middle School, but it was known as Burrito Junior High. (laughs) I rescued him from that bad treatment from those so-called friends of his and he was very creative and talented and soft spoken — you know I don’t like to hangout with people who are more talkative than I am, because I have to be the centre of attention. I gravitated to that and we became fast friends. I turned him into a drag queen icon. He always had this quality that was perfect for the stage. In drag he looks like a real woman, and people just went nuts when he became one of my Afro Sisters. He was actually my first Afro Sister.
Who was your second?
It was the girl that started Retail Slut. Urethra Franklin — she was beautiful. Everyone thought she was a drag queen because she was so tall, but she was a real girl.
Like Nicole Kidman.
Yeah. The first incarnation of The Afro Sisters was audio recordings of Fertile and I just talking. And the thing that made The Afro Sisters so unique was it was basically two ghetto urban black girls talking about punk and post-punk things, and I think that’s what was so unique: the mix of urban blackness and punk and post-punk. So the early Afro Sisters were Fertile and I on Melrose Avenue just talking shit together. We had one of those old 70s tape recorders and the two of us would put together different music soundtracks and talk over them, about boys, hairstyles, who we thought was tired. And then this guy named Peace Frog…
(laughs) Peace Frog?
Yes, he worked in Vinyl Fetish on Melrose, which was one of the few indie record stores in LA at the time. Peace Frog heard the tapes that we did and said, ‘Oh, that’s crazy, can we make a copy to play in my store?’ So he made some copies, and then people started coming into the store and asking him, ‘Who is that?’ and he’d say, ‘The Afro Sisters’. He would pass around the tapes; it was like a party tape that you gave to friends, and so we got a cult following. We never really performed before that. And that led to us do live performances. People just loved it and we were getting asked to perform and opening for bands.
Well, we opened for The Smiths. That was their first tour in the States, and on that tour Morrissey only had drag performers opening for him.
I think that was the biggest audience we had until we played at the Hollywood Palladium.
Who else did you open for?
The Happy Mondays, the first time they came to the States. But you know who opened up for us? Jane’s Addiction!
Yeah. We used to be on the same gigs as the Red Hot Chili Peppers, a lot of people that became really big. The Afro Sisters got into Interview magazine in the 80s in a special music issue that was the last issue that Andy personally supervised. They published an image of me and The Afro Sisters that influenced the modern drag scene. I remember when I was performing at the Pyramid in New York, and all the queens said that they had seen that issue and had cut my picture out, because they were so surprised that there was someone else doing similar things as them.
It was that magical period when all these scenes were coalescing in Toronto, in New York, in LA, in Atlanta, people working in similar modes, but not being aware of each other. And we didn’t become aware until much later in the late 80s.
We started corresponding in the late 80s. But we didn’t meet until much later.
Yeah, like 1991.
Those were the days of old-fashioned letter writing. A lot of friendships were forged through that, and it’s a lost art because of stupid things like e-mail and whatnot. Do you still have your correspondence?
Of course, it’s part of my art practice, I wouldn’t give that up. I think I’m one of the few people who still writes letters and sends packets, little drawings, photos.
It’s sad because I used to love writing letters.
Well, you can still write letters to me. I keep a big correspondence with people, and thank goodness because when I moved to Berlin, I needed people to send me care packages.
Who do you correspond with now?
Tons of people. A lot of them are kids I’ve met where I’ve been a visiting artist, at colleges and universities, and they’re great. It’s hard to get Neutrogena products here, so they send me them; someone sent me that Mexican blanket from LA, just for a little feel of California.
I love blankets; I love that Michael Jackson’s child is named Blanket.
(laughs) Hi, Blanket!