While still at QVC, I one day sat flipping through the entertainment trade publication Back Stage and noticed an ad that read, “Needed: drag queen extras for the upcoming movie To Wong Foo Thanks for Everything, Julie Newmar.” The movie was starring Wesley Snipes, Patrick Swayze, and John Leguizamo. It was the American answer to The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert, an independent “road picture” about the adventures of three drag queens traveling across the Australian desert in a bus. To Wong Foo would follow three drag queens driving cross-country from New York to Los Angeles, in a Cadillac convertible.
At the QVC Fashion Channel, we were in the last few months of operation. The morale was gone, and we were just going through the motions. The drag queen film project sounded like fun. To apply, you had to send in a picture of yourself in drag. I had never worked on a movie dealing with gay characters but had wanted to do something very gay. I showed the listing to our fashion stylist, Felicia, and said, “Wouldn’t it be a hoot to dress up in a wig and heels and work on this movie with Wesley Snipes?”
Felicia glanced at the ad and said, “If you’re serious, we have enough stuff here in the styling department to make you into a fierce drag queen.” Overhearing this, Trina, who was one of my favorite Fashion Channel models, chirped up and said, “I got a wig you can use!” Then somebody called the QVC makeup buyer, Josephine Birchall, and makeup arrived within a few short moments. My styling team had surrounded me, and I watched as my transformation into a woman began right before my eyes.
Felicia brought out a beautiful, black Vivienne Tam dress featured on a show dedicated to plus-sized women. The dress was low cut with an empire waist, sheer and pleated all the way around. It felt so sexy to slip on -- like butta! I could tell that to pull this off I was going to have to shave my upper chest. I next got a lesson in eyebrow plucking, eye shadow, and contour. Flori Roberts #5, a makeup designed to mask scars and used by people with vitiligo, became my best friend since it covered my very thick hair stubble. The representative who pitched the product to the Fashion Channel told me that actors used it in the video Michael Jackson: Making Michael Jackson’s ‘Thriller’.
For a rush job, I looked pretty good. Admiring myself in the mirror, my image at some angles reminded me of my mother when she was in her thirties. I put together three different looks using various wigs and dresses, all compliments of the wonderful ladies at the Fashion Channel. Josephine took my pictures, and I sent my headshots and information off to the film’s casting agency in New York. Meanwhile, we waited for the ax to drop on our jobs at The Fashion Channel.
Within a few days, I got a call asking if I could commit to at least a week’s filming in New York for To Wong Foo. It was perfect timing, because those last days at QVC were intolerable. Host Jean Allen Barlow was planning goodbye shows for each of us, and it all felt like too much. I called my good friend and former co-worker Kelly Dobbs, who had already quit, and said, “Oh God, I can’t endure this. I cannot sit through a goodbye party on-air.” Kelly, always one to make me see the entire picture, told me, “Look, Dale. You’ve accumulated vacation and sick time. Just call in sick and don’t come back, problem solved.” I decided she was right. As the week of filming for To Wong Foo drew closer, I gradually started clearing out my locker and office materials, inconspicuously so that no one would notice I was about to bail. Then I called off for the last two weeks and left for New York. One of my brother’s old college friends, Reggie Van Lee, owned a beautiful condo in Manhattan, and graciously offered to put me up.
With a few treasures I picked up from a couple of second-hand stores, I built quite a wardrobe. On my first day of work, my instructions were to meet with the other extras in Greenwich Village where a bus would pick us up and take us to Jersey City for filming. It would take about a week to film the scene we were in, which was an important one; it was the moment in the film from which the title is derived, when the three main characters discover the autographed picture of Julie Newmar in Wong Foo’s restaurant. The scene is a celebration after Wesley Snipes and Patrick Swayze’s characters have just won a drag queen pageant and a trip to Hollywood. Hundreds of their loving fans and other adoring drag queens surround them in the restaurant. When John Leguizamo’s character insists that he tag along to Los Angeles, the crowned drag queens decide to buy a car and drive across country, instead of using their airline tickets.
Finding the bus in Greenwich Village was easy -- I just followed the trail of boa feathers and wig boxes. The street looked like it was getting ready for gay pride when I saw the hundreds of other extras hired for the scene. There were those like myself who arrived dressed like men, and carried their costumes in a bag. Then there were professional drag queens that arrived in various stages of makeup. Next there were “street girls,” who looked as if they had just turned a trick the night before and had not washed off their makeup. There were also real women, very overdressed for daytime, who filled out the quota for “fag hags.” Also in the mix was a small contingent of Chinese people, who were to play waiters and cooks in the restaurant.
The process of being checked in and herded together was one of the reasons I usually dreaded doing extra work, especially large “cattle” calls. That’s exactly what they were called. In general, it was usually no big deal. I went in and did the work, grabbed my check, and got the hell out as quickly as possible while expending the least amount of effort. However, I told myself, “This is the one time you get to dress up in drag in public. Feel like a glamorous Supreme -- enjoy it.” The money was good, and I was going to get a chance to see Wesley Snipes up close and in drag. For some reason, I found the idea of a whole bunch of queens in a room with Wesley “Demolition Man-Nino Brown-New Jack City” Snipes an interesting paradox. He had always played such macho, masculine roles. I read that many black male stars had gone out for the role, but that Wesley really wanted it so he could show a different side of himself as an actor.
As extras, our entire wardrobe had to be checked and approved. In that respect, (at least), we all received the star treatment, as if each one of us were to be in a special close-up. Our wigs had to go through touch-ups from the hair department, and because there were more than a hundred extras in drag, preparations took hours.
After hair and makeup, we moved into a holding area inside a college cafeteria, across the street from the restaurant where the scene was being filmed. Once in the building, production separated and assigned everyone to “union” and “non-union” floors. Union talent got preferential treatment and better food, as union rules specified. This made the real drag queens, who were non-union, turn green with envy. They weren’t prepared for the harsh realities of background work. In a world where they were used to being the center of attention, they were now in the film world where they were told to be pretty but to stay out of the true stars’ limelight.
They hired some very lovely drag queens. Many of them far outshined the three stars of the movie in that they were more beautiful and “passable” as real women. The drag queens that fit this description had no problem letting anyone within earshot know this. However, when hired as an extra, your job is to fill the background. Unless asked by the director to do something specific, you just blend in. As a rule, you never wear white, red, or anything that could draw a viewer’s eye away from the stars of the film. Also, from a cinematographer’s point of view, white blows out the iris of the camera. The real drag queens could not understand the rejection of their red sequined gowns in favor of some drab grey or black dress. And for some reason, the director hated pearls. Wardrobe asked everyone who had worn pearls to remove them, and any discarded pearls were replaced with another accessory. It was no big deal to me, but some of the other “girls” were offended.
Many of the drag queens didn’t like the ensembles put together for them by the wardrobe department, so they would quickly change back into their original outfits after the selected ones had been approved. Street girls realized how long it took to do makeup and hair, so they would get in line first, get made up, go out and turn a few tricks, then return while still on the clock. Security had a hard time with crowd control because, once in makeup, all the drag queens wanted to party. They turned up a boom box, and sudenly a scene unfolded from Paris is Burning. The cafeteria tables became catwalks, and drag queens pranced, posed, and vogued while everyone took pictures. Union actors knew that if they took pictures on the set, it could mean automatic dismissal. But there was no rule about taking pictures in the holding areas. I had a ball photographing all the colorful drag queens.
Some of the queens were clearly impersonators of female celebrities. It was amazing to watch a white guy apply brown makeup and transform himself into a Diana Ross wannabe, complete with the white gown from the “Missing You” music video. I wasn’t trying to look like anyone. Trina’s mushroom wig worked perfectly with my Vivienne Tam dress, and I had deliberately bought low heels because I knew the days would be long and I didn’t know how many hours I would be standing. Reggie loaned me a gorgeous black lace jacket to wear over my dress, and people kept telling me I looked like Oprah.
“Yeah -- the thick Oprah or the thin Oprah?” I would question, then burst out laughing.
Small cliques of drag queens formed the very first day. I started hanging with the other professional union actors, who considered their drag role to be just another acting job. We shared information about upcoming films and discussed union regulations. We also acted like watchdogs to make sure that all the other union actors knew their rights.
Fragile egos showed themselves on the second day of work when some non-union drag queens complained about the union extras receiving better food. Some walked out and others acted out. One morning, we arrived on location to find liquor, weed, and used condoms in the non-union holding area. Security, in response to the vile behavior, became downright rude. Some of us were left stranded in Jersey City when the film’s hired bus drivers, also fed up with the behavior of some of the non-union extras, refused to take any of us back to the Village. My union group caught a city bus back to New York and called the union. The assistant director of the film, the person responsible for making sure things ran smoothly on set, was fired. The film company was fined, and the union extras received additional pay for the inconvenience.
The week of shooting seemed to “drag” on forever, because so little time was spent in front of the camera. Most of the week, we sat around and waited. But we always started the day with four-hour hair and makeup sessions. Then one day, towards the end of the week, we heard that our scene would shoot later that night. The slow countdown to 1 a.m. began. The overtime was nice, as we had been on set since about 8 a.m. that morning. But waiting around was boring as hell. A few of us left the holding area to hang out in front of the college building, and we literally stopped traffic! That area of Jersey City was, and still is, very popular with Asian tourists, and being curious they got out of their cars and took pictures of us. I posed with homeless people, some of the tourists, and cops. One guy tried to lure me back to his apartment with the gift of a teddy bear. I was flattered, but refused his offer. We all had a blast and I had the time of my life. We were all excited, and the attention and adoration from the people on the street that day made us feel like celebrities. I’ll never forget one moment that afternoon when a gorgeous drag queen, paused in mid sentence, pulled up her skirt to adjust her “tuck.” I watched in shock as she took out her very long, soft penis, and pulled it like an elastic thong fabric between her butt cheeks before patting down her skirt. This she did as naturally as primping her hair. I had to quote Miss RuPaul and said to myself, “Girl, you better work!”
Finally, around 1 a.m., we were called to the set. All three stars were there and everyone was cutting up with laughter, except for Patrick Swayze. He seemed intensely focused on his character and did not interact with the rest of the cast. John Leguizamo was all over the place, camping it up. By that time, I learned that we had been waiting for Robin Williams and Naomi Campbell to arrive, as they were making guest appearances in the film. Soon, they both appeared.
The scene began and the cameras rolled. I was sitting at a table near the door, and Wesley, Patrick, and John came in, waving. As they strutted down the center of the restaurant, Naomi jumped up and said to Wesley, “I wish I could be as beautiful as you!” We all howled with laughter, and the scene continued.
Since Robin Williams loves to improvise, he did a different take every time the camera rolled, always giving us something new to laugh at. The director, Beeban Kidron, was pregnant, and I still don’t know how she survived the smoke-filled room. During a break, Wesley stopped by my table and thanked us for being so patient. Then he said I looked like someone he knew.
“People keep saying I look like Oprah,” I told him.
“No, not Oprah,” he insisted, staring at my face. “But it will nag me until it hits me later.”
“Would you mind if I take a picture with you when we wrap?”
“Sure, kid,” he replied. “No problem.”
We shot through most of the night, because production was packing up the next day and taking off for the Midwest to complete the film. The sun came out just as Beeban got her last shot. After we wrapped, Wesley returned to pose for a photo. He posed only in hot pants and go-go boots because his long, golden tresses had been sent back to the hair department. I thanked him, and then left the set to return to my real life.
About a year later, when the cast of To Wong Foo appeared on Oprah to promote the film, I waited for Wesley to tell Oprah about the beautiful young drag actor he’d met on set who looked just like her. He didn’t.
During the filming of To Wong Foo, I had learned about Stonewall, another gay flick shooting in New York City that needed drag queen extras. I sent in my best drag photos and was chosen to be in the film. The feeling on that set was very different from To Wong Foo. The low-budget production did not separate union extras from non-union extras. The main actors were not isolated in trailers, and the atmosphere was friendly and homey. The director, Nigel Finch, made all the extras feel special. Almost daily, he made it a point to thank everyone for working on his project. I felt honored when my hands were used in the opening shot and I thought, “Selecting a song on the juke box might make my hands famous!” After all, I had been a professional hand model. My hands were making their movie debut.
We worked off and on the film for several days, and there were about six of us in the core group. I met a beautiful Asian drag queen who had trained Patrick Swayze for To Wong Foo. There were also some other drag queens from the To Wong Foo set, but this time we had to be transformed into drag queens of the 60’s era. I took the wig I had worn on the previous project and teased it up, then added a pink ribbon headband. Then I slipped on a matching pink chiffon robe with pink feathers on the sleeves. Like Diana Ross on the Ed Sullivan Show, I looked very “Motown glamorous,” with big hair and flowing fabric. I wore high-heeled, black patent leather shoes and strutted like a diva.
The scene I was in takes place at the Stonewall Inn in 1969, on the night that Judy Garland died. Police raid the bar filled with drag queens, and the queens resist arrest. When the queens start to riot, the police drag them out of the bar in handcuffs. Then somebody punches a cop and all hell breaks loose. Handed a set of keys, I un-cuff the other queens while everyone starts chanting, “Free the Slaves! Free the Slaves!” While shooting the scene, Nigel turned to me and said, “That’s a great name. If you ever do professional drag, you should call yourself ‘FREEda Slave.’” Everyone on set agreed that FREEda Slave was a great stage name. In one of the film’s later scenes, the camera zooms in on me touching up my makeup before I head back out to the rebellion. The character FREEda Slave had arrived into the world on a rainy night in New York, complete with a pink gown and flawless makeup.
Even though it was wet and cold that night, you would never know it from watching the film. The work was truly a labor of love, filling us with pride. We felt that Nigel really cared about us. Sadly, I later heard that Nigel lost his struggle with HIV/AIDS during the editing of the film and never saw the final cut.
When I returned to Baltimore, I called Pat Moran, the casting director who had put me in Hairspray. I told her about my experiences on the two films, knowing she would get a big kick out of it since she was good friends with filmmaker John Waters and the late, great drag queen Divine, who appeared in a number of his projects. Pat asked me, “How about playing a drag queen being arrested on the NBC series Homicide: Life on the Street?”
That Vivienne Tam dress was getting a lot of exposure! I agreed to do the series episode, and my scene opened with a cop pulling me into the police station as I argued and resisted arrest. When the episode aired, I was very much in the foreground, but someone else’s voice was dubbed over my speaking part. I was very disappointed, because I knew that the “other” voice had earned a hefty session fee while I would only receive pay as an extra.
But everything happens for a reason. I told my friend Darryl Lemont Wharton, a staff writer on the Homicide series, about my drag experiences on Stonewall and To Wong Foo. I had met Darryl on another project, a 1991 film also called Homicide. The movie featured Joe Mantegna and William H. Macy, and was directed by David Mamet, another director who treated extras with respect and took the time to get to know them. Darryl was working on the film as a production assistant and had just finished college. By 1996, Darryl had worked his way up to being a television staff writer. He was young, bright, brash, and super talented, and had already directed his own independent film, Detention. He was looking to diversify his talents by writing and directing a one-man show. When I shared with him the stories I’d been told by drag queens on set, he seemed intrigued. He thought that the world of a drag queen would make for great theater. We explored the idea of drag being used as a mask to hide who a man truly is underneath the makeup. Darryl loved the name FREEda SLAVE. In the 90’s, everybody was a DIVA. Jenifer Lewis’ one-woman show was The Diva is Dismissed, Sheryl Lee Ralph was producing the “Divas Simply Singing” benefit concerts, and VH-1 had the popular Divas Live televised concerts. Thus, FREEda Slave: Mask of a Diva was born. We had a title for our one-man show, so all we needed next was a script.