Longform

From Queer to Paternity

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"We weren't into that old-school drag mindset of trying to convince people we weren't men," he continues. "How boring is that? Instead, we wanted to look like insanely glamorous drag queens."

Glancing at a menacing group portrait of the old gang that dominates one wall in his living room, X smiles beatifically. "I think we succeeded."


By all accounts, the cross-dressing cronies not only dressed like queens but lived like ones, as well. Their palace? A Market Street madhouse known as "Slut Central."

"It was a drag queen's dream house," recalls Marc Huestis, a San Francisco filmmaker who worked with X, Doris Fish and Tippi on a number of productions, including Naked Brunch, an onstage soap opera set in Beat Generation-era North Beach.

"Doris would never stop redecorating, so every time you went over there, the place looked completely different." During a faux-finishing frenzy, Fish once marbleized every surface in the apartment; in the midst of the Vegas in Space shoot, she upholstered the walls with Day-Glo-colored fur. But whatever the motif du jour, one constant was a showcase in which Fish displayed her world-class collection of false eyelashes through the ages.

"It made the Liberace Museum look tame," laughs Huestis.

Too bad some TV producer didn't have the foresight to install a round-the-clock camera crew in this three-wig circus. Some network would have had the makings of a potential ratings buster that could have been called The Unreal World. Imagine Stage Door with a five o'clock shadow or How to Marry a Millionaire with size-13 stilettos -- and start tallying up those Nielsens.

When not greeting a nonstop stream of visiting queens, musicians and artists, experimenting with new looks or rehearsing for their latest stage extravaganza ("Nightclub of the Living Dead," "Nudies Go Berserk" and "All-Star Celebrity Gang Bang" are a few of the more intriguing credits on X's résumé), the Sluts spent hours curled up in front of the then-novel VCR, absorbing pop references from old movies that they'd later regurgitate for audiences in ironic contexts.

Hollywood adaptations of Tennessee Williams' hothouse dramaturgy were a particular favorite, prompting the trio to perform the rarely produced Hello From Bertha, the author's comedic one-acter about a St. Louis madam (X) who's trying to a toss a dying hooker (Tippi) out of the brothel because she needs the bed.

Another Slut Central fave was The Bad Seed; in 1987, the Sluts mounted a drag production of the hokey nurture-vs.-nature thriller with X playing the mother of a homicidal eight-year-old girl (Tippi) and Doris Fish as the busybody landlady. Although the cast played it absolutely straight, the once-shocking drama was hailed in the local press as a laugh riot.

"Whenever we did an established play, we'd always play it absolutely straight," explains X. "If the audience thought it was funny, great. But the minute we let them think that we thought it was funny, or if we started camping it up, we'd have lost them."

That said, there was little subtlety in the two projects that put X and his pals on the national pop-culture map: the in-your-face greeting cards that had originally brought X to his future wife's attention, and Vegas in Space, the gender-bending galactic epic that finally immortalized the Sluts on film.

"Posing for those cards was the best money we ever made," says X, who estimates that the trio appeared on as many as 80 cards that were distributed nationally. "They'd pay us up to $150 a shot, and sometimes we'd shoot eight different looks in one session, so it added up fast." But when the competition heated up (for sheer shock value, a grimacing drag queen couldn't hold a birthday candle to the elderly, obese nudes and near-porn some rival card companies were producing), the Sluts reluctantly bowed out of the lucrative sideline. "It was starting to get out of hand," says X. "Once, they wanted to cover me with vomit and the tagline would read" -- here he arches an eyebrow for effect -- "'Your name came up at lunch.'"

Still, the group's biggest bid for mass exposure was Vegas in Space, an ambitious low-budget campfest about a bunch of intergalactic showgirls up to their antennae in havoc at a cosmic slumber party. Shot over an 18-month period stretching over 1983 and 1984, the production was the crowning achievement of Doris Fish. In addition to playing both the male and female leads, Fish was personally responsible for creating all the wigs, costumes, makeup and sets in the film, including a miniature mock-up of the Vegas strip made entirely of junk jewelry and old cosmetic containers.

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Dewey Webb