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Warhol's Queens
Self-Portrait (in Drag), 1981Andy Warhol, private collection

Andy Warhol's Queens

A new book explores the world’s most glamorous drag queens through the Pope of Pop’s lens

In the late 1970s, Andy Warhol’s Factory was a glitz machine churning out creativity and starry-eyed personalities like it was art’s last hurrah. The Pope of Pop knew how to make a party, pull a crowd and drew anyone he deemed fascinating in under his cliquey silver wing. Fashion designers, movie stars, models, artists; Warhol’s muses could take any shape or form. He was driven by a fixation on identity, artifice and role-playing, a triangle perfectly placed to set off his love affair with the most glamorous and fashionable drag queens of the time.

In Warhol’s words: "As late as '67 drag queens still weren't accepted in the mainstream freak circles. They were still hanging around where they'd always hung around – on the fringes ... sticking to their own circles - outcasts with bad teeth and body odour and cheap make-up and creepy clothes. But then, just like drugs had come into the average person's life, sexual burs did, too, and people began identifying a little more with drag queens, seeing them more as 'sexual radicals' than as depressing losers... That's how in '68... people started accepting drag queens - even courting them, inviting them everywhere...”

Andy Warhol: "Just like drugs had come into the average person's life, sexual burs did, too, and people began identifying a little more with drag queens, seeing them more as 'sexual radicals' than as depressing losers..."

And so it went that Warhol began inviting the likes of Candy Darling, Jackie Curtis, Marsha P. Johnson and Wilhelmina Ross to socialise and be photographed with his Polaroid Big-Shot. For him, drag queens symbolised all that was glamorous in the world, dedicating their lives to a real-life costume drama that played physicality off against idealised beauty. Through his lens they were just as beautiful as real queens, real royals: the likes of Princess Caroline of Monaco, Farah Diba Pahlavi, and Crown Princess Sonja (Queen Sonja of Norway), all of whom he shot with that same camera later in the 1970’s and 1980’s.

Edited by Norwegian art historian Henriette Dedichen, Warhol’s Queens is a new book that draws a visual parallel between Warhol’s royal portraits and his drag polaroids, presenting a surprising mosaic that explores his artistic interpretation of the ‘queen’. Royals rarely allow themselves to be visually scrutinised, let alone at the proximity of Warhol’s intimate headshots. It’s a fact that makes all the more surprising the alignment of these royal shots with those of male faces seemingly MaxFactor-ed with a trowel.

Dedichen says the link was easy to make. “For Andy Warhol both genuine as well as fake queens slipped into the role of idealised movie-star femininity, devoting their lives to handing down a glittering and sparkling way of life and presenting it to the public for (not all too) close inspection,” she says. “Warhol admired the fame and feminine allure of royal queens just as much as he admired the courageous nerve of drag queens.”

In the late 1970’s that courage was making inroads as the homosexual and drag community began embracing their sexuality publicly. Taken in 1981, Warhol’s self-portrait Polaroids (also featured in the book) were perhaps a reclamation of his own sexual identity and a statement about sexuality in popular culture. After all, Warhol was Catholic and homosexual, a combination he struggled with for much of his life. In ‘Unseen Warhol’, longtime assistant Ronnie Cutrone recalls, “for years, the joke was that Andy called homosexuality a “problem””. His Torso and Sex Parts series (casually referred to by Warhol as Cocks, Cunts and Assholes) in the mid 1970’s were perhaps an earlier attempt to fully embrace his sexual orientation amidst a community that was just beginning to rise up from the underground.

From this once-shielded subject sprung ball culture, the LGBTQ sub-community that embraced cross-dressing as a competitive art-form worth highly sought after trophies and prizes. Vogueing and other dance forms, shading and reading became themes and tactics in the house system, a subculture that always put form before function. The AIDS situation was hitting crisis point, ball culture providing an escape to another world where men could be anything they liked – as long as they could dress. 

The aspirational side of the ball community was perhaps what Warhol most aligned with: a desire to be something else, something fabulous – in a world full of so much displacement and disaster. Warhol’s pop art brought the rich down to the poor’s level and vice versa: “All the Cokes are the same and all the Cokes are good. Liz Taylor knows it, the President knows it, the bum knows it, and you know it.” While celebrity was perhaps his greatest love, so was artifice and the ability to become something you originally weren’t.

“'Does she tuck?' the other queens would ask Jackie about Candy, and Jackie would say something oblique like 'Listen, even Garbo has to rearrange her jewels.' Candy herself referred to his penis as 'my flaw’," Warhol once said.

In the 1990 ball culture documentary Paris is Burning, New York drag queen Dorian Corey reflects on the lost dreams of drag: “I always had hopes of being a big star. But as you get older, you aim a little lower. Everybody wants to make an impression, some mark upon the world. Then you think, you've made a mark on the world if you just get through it, and a few people remember your name. Then you've left a mark. You don't have to bend the whole world. I think it's better to just enjoy it. Pay your dues, and just enjoy it. If you shoot a arrow and it goes real high, hooray for you.”

It’s a sad reflection on sequinned decades underpinned with sadness. Does it ring true for Warhol? Perhaps. After all, his life was characterised by character and the shell that makes one a star worth their “fifteen minutes of fame”. In front of the camera, you may be a royal queen, jewels and all. But once the Polaroid prints, all that’s left is instant film and a pretty face. Queens in their palaces and queens in downtown NYC: they’re all the same, “the bum knows it, and you know it”. Star quality is up to you.