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|According to one of Vaginal Davis's songs, "Size Has Nothing to Do with Performance." Don't believe it. With her linebacker build, Ms. Davis cuts an awe-inspiring figure on stage even before she opens her mouth. Then she opens it, and out flies a stream of scintillating social observations camouflaged as potty-talk the medium of choice for her wiggy discharges on race, gender, and sex. And though you might think hostility is the stock in trade of a black drag militant named for female genitalia, she is as playful as she is shocking.
Sprung from the Los Angeles punk scene of the '70s and her own perverted imagination Ms. Davis was initially known for birthing Fertile La Toya Jackson, one of Earth's first zines. She has since produced a staggering body of work: including appearances in everything from Hustler White to PBS's Tales of the City; socially blasphemous videos (It All Started in Black, Designey Living, The White to Be Angry); kick-ass rock bands (Pedro, Muriel & Esther, Black Fag, ¡Cholita!); and, in recent years, an unceasing visiting artist world tour coming soon to a campus near you.
Just don't count on Vag to arrive on time; when I called at the appointed hour, I got a machine. I finally found her at home on the third try.
VAG: I'm so sorry! I was late. It's raining again today and I couldn't ride my bike so I had to take the stupid subway, and I didn't have any change, and the dollar bill thing wasn't taking my dollars, so I missed the first train and
oh my god, it's horrendous!
JOHN: You still don't own a car?
VAG: Me? [laughing] Just the thought of me with a car seems so absurd!
JOHN: It takes a pioneer spirit to live in L.A. without one.
VAG: You know, we had the best public transportation system in the entire friggin' world. And they got rid of it, to promote cars. That's the rationale in L.A. I have a love/hate relationship with my city. And now everyone's making this whole thing about the police corruption scandal. Well, hello! Los Angeles has always been known to have one of the most corrupt police forces in the country.
JOHN: Did you see L.A. Confidential?
VAG: I love the part where the police officer thinks that it's a prostitute Lana Turner, and it's the real Lana Turner, and he calls her a whore. Of course, the real Lana Turner was a whore, too. A movie-star whore. You know, movie-star, whore, model
VAG: Courtney got it right. I think that's why people can't stand her so much, because she's so completely honest about it all.
JOHN: And because she beats them up.
VAG: If she's going to get angry, she doesn't have her bodyguards do it she'll beat the person up herself! She's not a small, tiny little girl. I've known Miss Courtney forever. She even stole some of my Princess Marcella Borghese makeup when she was stripping at Jumbo's Clown Room.
JOHN: Do you still talk to her?
VAG: The last time I saw her was two or three years ago in New York at Squeezebox. She said she wanted to do a surprise Hole show at Sucker, but it never happened.
JOHN: That would have been so perfect! Do you miss Sucker?
VAG: I do miss it. We were doing something that was pretty unique for L.A., a rock and roll club in the afternoon. We hadn't had anything like that since the old punk days. Of course there were the Theoretical Parties in the late '70s, early '80s. Those usually started around three in the afternoon. That was my inspiration, the Theoreticals. I'm just surprised that Sucker lasted for five years. There were some really unusual bands that probably wouldn't have gotten gigs at your typical L.A. rock and roll club, and that was what that I liked.
JOHN: The crowd was really sweet and sexy, like an actual party in a house, or a punky after-school TV show. Do you have any nightlife gigs now?
VAG: My main source of income right now is doing visiting artist gigs at universities and art schools within the United States, and performing my nutty lady routines around the world. But my new club, G.I.M.P., does provide me a regular setting to workshop new material.
JOHN: Even here in New York I've been hearing about the G.I.M.P. where you did a Vanessa Beecroft night. Did you wear a red bikini?
VAG: No, we did the U.S. Navy performance instead of the Guggenheim bikini show. I dressed like her, but a more attractive Vanessa. I had my Navy boys in Soviet Navy tops, but wearing tighty whitey underwear. They marched out and did formations while I read from the Marine Corps handbook. Of course, I changed things a bit and made it more sexual. The boys would chant "This is my rifle, this is my gun/My rifle's for killing, my gun is for fun," and grab at their crotches. After a bit of this a porn star named Clint Cooper came out dressed in formal Marine-wear. He stripped buck naked and showed his bootyhole. One of the Navy boys fluffed him until he was hard and he shot a wad of semen into the audience. We all could have been arrested!
JOHN: Someone told me the real Vanessa Beecroft was there.
VAG: Well, she could have been since she was at UCLA as a visiting artist that week.
JOHN: You've done some work yourself about recontexualizing the exhibition space. Didn't you recreate your old apartment in a gallery somewhere?
VAG: At the Milch Gallery in London in '95. The best thing about that installation was that I used to keep jars around my bed because I was too lazy to go to the bathroom and piss, so I'd keep these cranberry juice jars around and just do a tinkle right there. I had these gigantic jars representing the cranberry juice jars, and they were filled with urine and glycerine, which made the urine sparkle like it was precious.
JOHN: Did anybody buy them?
VAG: No, unfortunately. I think the gallery has them in storage somewhere. You know, back then, I didn't even have a bed. I had a futon that somebody gave me. And for the installation I had futons piled, piled, piled way on up high, like "The Princess and the Pea."
JOHN: How fitting.
VAG: Then I had all my walls covered in teen magazine photos.
JOHN: And blacktresses. And Kris Lord.
VAG: Whatever happened to him? I loved Kris Lord. My cinematographer, Lawrence Elbert, worked at a gym, and Kris Lord went to that gym. Lawrence used to tell me about how nice he was and all that. [laughs] But I don't know that porno stars are really nice. I remember going over to Karen Dior's house when she lived with Joey Stefano. It was a nice big house off Melrose. He had absolutely no furniture in his room. Clothes were strewn all over the floor and dildos! Big, industrial-strength-sized cans of lube, and dildos of every size and color. It was amazing. He was very into his butt, obviously.
JOHN: Him and everyone else. I read that book about him. It was called "Wonder Bread and Ecstasy" because those were the two things he always ate.
VAG: I've never done drugs, except for alcohol, which is actually probably one of the worst drugs. I try not to drink before going on stage, but sometimes I do. Usually I don't even like to eat before. Every time I eat a heavy meal before going on, I feel like I'm going to have to use the bathroom on stage. It could be an interesting aspect to a performance, but I want to try to stay away from that. I do have this persona I call a "scant queen." He's the troll who lives under a bridge, and he's just waiting for somebody to come and, you know, cover him in brown. He talks with a dejected voice and says, "Please, sir. You're a handsome man. I'm unattractive, and since you have to go anyway, could you possibly, could you please think it in your best interest and kind heart to maybe do it on me?" I try to make myself really small. You know, that's quite a feat. [laughs]
JOHN: You're six foot seven?
VAG: Six foot six. Don't give me an extra inch.
JOHN: You'll take a mile!
VAG: Being tall, you're always being looked at, you're always getting a lot of attention. That's one of the things that led to me performing. I just decided to give them something to look at. I was basically very shy, as most performers are. I started school right into second grade I already knew how to read. I pretty much taught myself. L.A. Unified had the MGM program mentally gifted minors. If I hadn't been put in the gifted program, I probably would have never become a performer. I wouldn't have had any interest in learning, because the Los Angeles Unified School District is so awful, and they don't really care about young minority kids learning anything. I would have just fallen through the cracks like so many others did.
JOHN: I was in MGM also. That and "magnet programs" were the only way in a California public school that your classes were going to have a decent level of funding. We had the best crafts in the whole school everyone else was cutting construction paper with those scissors that don't work, but we were doing everything on video.
VAG: Yeah, that's how I first started making movies, through the MGM program. I wish I still had those early movies because they were very similar to the ones I make now.
JOHN: Even at that age you were playing women?
VAG: Not in all of them. I did a lot where I just directed, I didn't star. Sometimes you just get sick of yourself. But I've always done drag. Without even wearing makeup, I pretty much looked like a girl. And from a young age I was wearing wigs. My mother always wore wigs, and my sisters wore falls. I grew up in an all-feminine household there were no men in that house.
JOHN: When's the first time you got on a stage?
VAG: Also in elementary school. It was "The Emperor's New Clothes." And when I was in fourth grade, I adapted the children's book, Charlotte's Web, to a live theater show. I wrote and directed it. First it was just for the other fourth graders, but the show was such a big hit they played it for the whole school, then other elementary schools started coming to see it. They profiled it on the Channel 11 News. Shortly after that, Paramount did a cartoon version of it with Debbie Reynolds as Charlotte.
JOHN: [gasps] They ripped you off.
VAG: That's what I always thought. The thing that made my adaptation really good was that I mixed live actors with puppets. I think that was one of the first times that was ever done.
JOHN: Very ambitious for a little kid. So, what did you think you'd do as a career when you grew up?
VAG: I didn't really think long-term. I knew that my life was a little unstable. We didn't exactly live well. There was very little food. You know, eating potatoes for weeks at a time, only potatoes. Little things like that. I thought, "What's wrong with this picture? I'm not supposed to be this poor!" My mother was forty-five when she had me, and she had already been married and had my sisters. My father is Mexican. Mexican-Jew. But I don't really know that much about the latin side of my family or the Jewish side of my family.
JOHN: But you did pay homage to your latin roots with your band ¡Cholita!, "The Female Menudo." The ¡Cholita! tape is my favorite rock recording of all time. You really captured a major element of L.A. life, that peasanty Chicano humor. And it rocks! I can't believe it's never come out except in cassette form. Does ¡Cholita! even exist anymore?
VAG: Well, we never broke up officially. It's not unusual for ¡Cholita! to re-emerge after three or four years. So many of the ¡Cholita! girls are genetic females and have babies, and it's hard to be in a band when you have kids. But Y-107 has a "Rock en Español" program hosted by Josh Kun, who made a CD burn of the ¡Cholita! tape, and the most requested song on his program is "Vanidades." He wants us to perform live on the air. So who knows? Maybe it will happen.
JOHN: Maybe now you could cash in if people mistake you for a "Latin Explosion" parody, even though you beat la Miss Ricky to the punch by how many years?
VAG: ¡Cholita! started as an offshoot of the Afro Sisters in 1988.
JOHN: With ¡Cholita!, you performed at one of the most culturally significant events of the '90s, the release party for I Hate Brenda, probably the most famous zine ever. Weren't pro-Shannon Dougherty picketers there?
VAG: The only protesters were some friends of Ben Is Dead magazine who did it as a publicity stunt. It was genius.
JOHN: Speaking of genius, you've been crowned one by a real-life college professor, Jose Munoz, in his book Disidentifications. He calls what you do "terrorist drag," but I'd say militancy is only one part of your act. There's obviously a militant theme in your work, but I also see you calming people's anxiety about race, especially young people their feelings about their own race, and also racial difference.
VAG: I embody both the masculine and the feminine in my militancy, or my homage to militancy. The Afro Sisters once did this performance piece based on the Symbionese Liberation Army. We were going to kill, maim, stick dildoes up lily-white buttholes whatever it took to get retribution for people of color. We were giving out some real, bona fide anger in that. People thought we were being campy, but I hate camp. I'm not a camp queen. I'm insulted when people say that.
JOHN: Did the Afro Sisters play music venues or performance art spaces?
VAG: We played music venues. We opened up for the Smiths at the Hollywood Palladium!
JOHN: Wow! Were you still a capella at the time?
VAG: We were. When Alice Bag joined the Afro Sisters later, she had a boyfriend named George Woods and they had a band together called the Swing Set. The first song that I wrote with her and her then-boyfriend was "Women in Love (We're Lesbians)." I really didn't want to be in a band I thought that was kind of boring. I wanted something that was a little more experimental, but we'd run the course of where we could go a-capella-wise.
JOHN: So, how did a flock of Black Power a capella drag queens threatening anal rape go over with a crowd that had come out for pasty-faced boys from Manchester?
VAG: People were into it. We didn't go on for very long.
JOHN: [laughs] How did you first come to the punk rock scene, anyway?
VAG: I really wasn't into rock and roll at all. I liked Tin Pan Alley sorts of music. But I did have kind of a rock background because my sisters grew up in the '50s and '60s. They were first-generation rock and roll kids. I knew how to do all of the '60s dances, and a lot of early punk was retro-'50s/early '60s. I was always really into things that had a look.
JOHN: What kind of look did you have?
VAG: I never looked very punk in those days. I never would have worn safety pins or other such nonsense. I guess my boy drag look was more early '60s. My girl drag was very silent movie star Louise Brooks was my idol. I pretty much lived in drag. All the photos of me from that period were lost when my sister couldn't pay for the storage unit we had. I've lost tons of amazing photos, records and memorabilia. I only have a few things from that period.
JOHN: Did you know Darby Crash when he was in The Germs?
VAG: Not really. I remember seeing him and Pleasant Gehman shopping at Judy's in Century City. One week Pleasant and Darby Crash were disco, then the next week they were all punked out. All these people were a few years older than me. When you're eighteen you don't like to hang with fourteen-year-olds.
JOHN: Of all the outrages you've committed, you might be best known for shrimping onstage.
VAG: Well, I've always loved the male foot. I know some guys who have to shrimp just to get off and that isn't my thing at all. I use shrimping as an art tool because it interests me how people react when you refer to feet in performance or act out with feet it brings out a lot of issues with people. People always ask me if I sometimes get stinky ones. And I never have, but I tend to pick very well-groomed people when I do it onstage, and most of them are plants. But not always.
JOHN: Why do you only shrimp white men?
VAG: Large white men's feet can be seen further on stage than black feet. White feet are usually the same color on the top and bottom, which reads better visually. Especially when you're covering them in Aunt Jemima Light Syrup and putting maraschino cherries between the toes. I've also shrimped some latin feet on stage. I guess in my personal life I'm an equal-opportunity shrimper.