“Hunny, I cannot tell you, it’s so weird being history.”
Terence Alan Smith, aka Joan Jett Blakk, is over at my apartment for lunch, and we’re discussing Ms. Blakk for President, a new play written by and starring Moonlight author Tarell Alvin McCraney, which has just finished a run at the renowned Steppenwolf Theatre in Chicago. The play tracks the vivid life of Smith’s trailblazing drag alter ego, in particular Joan Jett’s Blakk’s Chicago mayoral campaign and subsequent presidential campaign in 1992. Yes, Joan Jett Black was the first drag queen to run for president.
“The mayor of Chicago was there [at a performance],” Smith continues, referring to Chicago’s new out lesbian leader, Lori Lightfoot. “She sure the fuck is history. The first thing I said to her was thank you. I remember [Chicago’s first black mayor] Harold Washington. There’s a moment in the play when the actor playing me says, “Lick Bush in ’92.” The way they say I did it was by raising two fingers in the air by my mouth. I watched her do it—there she was, the mayor, licking Bush in ’92.”
One hopes that Ms. Blakk for President eventually makes it to Smith’s longtime hometown of San Francisco, where his popular non-televised talk show “Late Night with Joan Jett Blakk” originated. For now, he is clear that he’s made an impact. “We’re still here, and that’s the important thing,” he says. “That is really the important thing. To have these kids say, ‘Thank you for doing this.’”
48 HILLS We’ll be talking about drag, but you’re a very snappy dresser every day. When did your fascination with men’s clothing begin?
TERENCE ALAN SMITH Very early. I wanted to dress like The Temptations. Of course, my mother was like, “I don’t think so.” Then with rock ’n roll, it was rock stars. If it was worn by someone on TV who looked great, I had to have a pair.
In 1967, today was the last day of what music festival? The answer is Monterey Pop. We’re talking Otis Redding, Janis Joplin, Jimi Hendrix. Brian Jones walking around like a total mess. People were like, Oh, she better sit down. Things were never the same again.
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There’s a moment in the play where I’m asked who I fell in love with, and I say David Bowie, and a guy comes out singing “Starman,” looking just like Ziggy. It’s amazing. I cry every time I see it. After Bowie and Andy Warhol, my whole world went from zero to 100. It just did.
48H Is your love of cars connected to growing up in Detroit?
TAS Oh yeah, I went to the auto show every year. I had model toys, every magazine. Cars, cars, cars. I’ve only owned one, but even now I’ve thought I should buy a model, another toy car, and start increasing my collection.
I can name almost any American or European car from 1955 to about 1975. Those are my years. I’m big on cars with fender skirts. Citroens – anything beautiful. I wanted to design cars, but I found out there was math involved. I did win an award at Greenfield Village once, because I designed a car I called the Ponce de Leon.
48H Tell me about growing up in the Detroit area and your long friendship with [raunchy gay magazine Straight to Hell editor] Billy Miller.
TAS I grew up in Inkster, which is on the other side of Dearborn. I used to go all over town looking for gorgeous fascinating cars. Going to Cass Tech [in Detroit] really saved my life. I was getting beaten up at St. Martin de Porres. I wasn’t black enough for those kids. I had formed my ideas about what I enjoyed and much of it was rock ’n roll. When I got to Cass, seeing that I was a natural for the Performing Arts department, I felt like all doors had swung open.
I don’t remember how I met Billy. I think it may have been on the 1B Wayne bus that went straight into downtown Detroit. We struck up a friendship and hung out some. Those light blue eyes! Then I saw him again when I moved to Chicago in 1977 and we’ve been friends ever since.
48H When Joan Jett Blakk arrived, did you just run with her?
TAS Running for mayor of Chicago was perfect for me, because I’d always been political. It was a lot of fun to take politics and theater and mix them together.
48H Was it in sync with your activism in Queer Nation?
TAS It was at the same time. My “Can’t Keep a Secret Service” team would walk into the room before I did and it would work every time. We marched in the St. Patrick’s Day parade that year—the same year they told [gay] people in Boston they couldn’t do it. Senator John Cullerton gave us his spot. He was a fan of mine because I liked to stir up trouble.
The media ate it up, they thought it was great fun, they didn’t make it stupid. I’d get touchy because people would say, “What’s your platform?” and I’d think, I’m not going to say my shoes, I’m not. Even though I’m wearing them I’m not going to say it—fuck you. I tried to say things that made sense. Healthcare for everybody. Take the military budget and education budget and switch them. Hire all my friends and fire everybody there. Legalize all drugs.
48H You were truly progressive.
TAS Yes, I was a progressive candidate. People would say, “What if you did win?” and I’d say, If I won, the world would spin the other way. You don’t have to worry about that. I don’t want to be assassinated.
48H There’s a great musical performance by you, “Drag Queen Blues,” on YouTube.
TAS We closed the gay pride parade that year . We did a kick-ass version of “Venus in Furs.” For some reason, because of stuff at [Club] Lower Links, I was doing this band, and the song came out of that. I’m not a singer, but I can sing. It was fun. I love music enough that I’d want to be in a band all of the time.
48H How did you get together with the performance group Pomo Afro Homos?
TAS They asked me. I ran into one of them. Djola [Branner] was his name. He lived in Minneapolis and I met him through the faeries in Minneapolis. When he came to [Castro bookstore] A Different Light one day, he asked me if I would be interested in filling in for him. That’s how I ended up doing it.
That was really cool. We were on TV almost every time that we performed. We did the first gay comedy special here, and we were on the Phil Donahue show at one point. I already knew Essex Hemphill. I’d met him at different performances, like at SPEW [queer zine fest]. I love that I’m still friends with people I met at SPEW 2—Don Baird, Marc Geller, Adam Block. Because Adam’s brother worked at the White House, we came that close to him taking me to a dinner.
48H Did your mayoral campaign in Chicago lead to the presidential campaign?
TAS It was a natural progression. We were about publicity, we were about getting queers out there. And we did it, goddamn it, we won that part. There are fags all over TV now. We were successful. It seems like such a long time ago.
48H What attracted you to move to San Francisco in 1993?
TAS The weather. My friend Charlie moved out here and he loved it. I didn’t want to go through winter [in Chicago] again. Friends here were saying, “C’mon out!” so I did.
There was no particular reason. The very first week I went out walking and ran into Jerome [Caja]. We were both like, “Who was that?” I was living with [zinemaker] Fluffy Boy of Homoture. He lived above Powerhouse. It was there that I met Derek [DJ Derek B]. I remember leaning out a window and seeing someone I knew and yelling “Mindy!” and now they were Matt. I moved here a week before the Folsom Street Fair.
48H Out of the frying pan and into the fire.
TAS The next thing I knew I ended up working at A Different Light and at Eichelberger’s. It was tough sometimes, because I would say no to nothing. I was super busy doing the talk show and working at A Different Light.
48H How did “Late Night with Joan Jett Blakk” come into being?
TAS When I left Chicago, I’d wanted to have a talk show.
48H Chicago was a talk show nexus.
TAS Yes—Oprah, Phil Donahue. I love the whole idea of a talk show. I’m a big fan of Dick Cavett. I just came up with the idea of a live talk show. I was talking about it one night in the Detour, and Rick Jacobsen was standing right next to me and said, “I like that!” and it was over. Of course his gallery [Kiki] was right next to Red Dora’s Bearded Lady and I did things over there.
48H But it did start at Kiki.
TAS Yes, where Yoko Ono did call one day. That was very cool. Silas [Howard] was next door at Red Dora’s, and all these incredible people. When I was asked to speak [at Red Dora’s] I read from the SCUM Manifesto. That was fun. I’ve always been pretty lucky. At the first SPEW I did the Bongwater song “Obscene and Pornographic Art,” and I would never have done it if my friend Brad hadn’t suggested it. He was right.
48H Who do you remember being on the show during the Kiki days?
TAS Well, Jerome [Caja] took a bath in there [at Kiki]. It was wonderful, it was fabulous. Because Kiki and Red Dora’s were right next to each other, it was a good atmosphere. Now I see it as one of San Francisco’s last vital moments. Though some of that energy went to Trannyshack.
48H Who were some of your favorite guests on the show, at Kiki and at Josie’s [Cabaret and Juice Joint]?
TAS Kiki & Herb did one of their first performances. With Stone Fox, I told Jorjee [Douglas, lead singer], If you jump up and down on me like that on stage, I will get hard—I am wearing a dress, please don’t do that. We had Jack Davis on. Willie Brown came on and surprised us because he knew where to show up. Tom Ammiano. Pansy Division. Kevin Killian came in and talked about his autograph collection. Imperial Teen did one of their first shows.
We had porn stars. One situation that was scary was when this porn star found out I was into feet and took off his shoes off and put them in my lap. That was a lot of fun.
Nao Bustamante. Kris Kovick—seriously, this woman came on the show and said she could piss higher than a man on a wall. I thought, Ok, can we do this, I gotta see this. Susie Bright and all these wonderful people. It was a lot of fun. People came from out of town.
We couldn’t get people like Lypsinka—wouldn’t let us in the dressing room. I also did Wigstock West with Lady Bunny, and she didn’t talk to anybody here. A snob, the whole time. So was RuPaul. RuPaul I met at A Different Light because we did a reading of Straight to Hell. What I did was, I read just the titles. I found it much funnier. I’m still that kind of fag—there’s just not enough sex anymore, people get all scared. One of my favorite Tumblr sites has these guys, they are exhibitionists. You’re like, That guy is on the bus! Wow. I love it. I’m not doing it, but I love it. I love to watch.
48H Speaking of watching, what was it like to see the play?
TAS Weird. It’s weird. I never planned to do anything that would leave a mark, but it’s nice to know that I did, that we did. It’s a strange sort of fame, because it’s not famous famous. I don’t have to worry about TMZ looking for me. I didn’t make any money doing this. I did it because it’s much more fun to stir shit up. I’ve been in a few books, and that’s great. But this [play] has blown all of that away. My parents knew I had done something, but they didn’t know it was like this. It’s really interesting to have the support of my cousins: “Oh my goodness, Terry.” It’s just wonderful.
The show was great. She [director and co-writer Tina Landau] got everything right that I would want her to get right.
48H “Late Night with Joan Jett Black” was revived in conjunction with the play. How did it feel to do the talk show again?
TAS Rae Bourbon has a song called, “Back in Drag Again,” and that’s how I felt. It was like riding a bike. Of course, now I’m a woman of a certain age. I used that dowager queen joke more than once. That was me, the dowager queen. I kind of looked like Queen Mary—the one who had all the jewels. My mom said to me, “I love your wig.” I said, Ma! It was a smart look.
48H Photography is another one of your passions. When did you begin to love it?
TAS When I was really young because of Life and Look magazines, National Geographic, Boys’ Life. It’s simple, to me.
48H It has an immediacy.
TAS Yep, you can just take a picture.
48H But you take pictures that are very much your own style. They’re more abstract.
TAS I work on them. My friend Jay [McElaney] has learned how to do that too. I love working with light. I used to take pictures with an Instamatic camera and was working on this series of bare feet on chrome bumpers. It was an excuse to get boys to take their shoes off.
48H I know that you love feet, but you also have very specific tastes about shoes.
TAS And I love jewelry. People don’t realize how important it is what they wear, and what it says about them. With the whole Harlem Renaissance, they were poor as dirt but nobody looked like they did, head to toe. Nowadays, guys can’t even pull their pants up.
48H What designers do you especially love?
TAS Halston. I can’t wait to see the documentary [about him]. The whole idea of Halston. I went on a sojourn the last time I went to New York – I went to Andy’s house, Halston’s house, and Jackie’s. Just to stand in front of the doors. I like fag designers. Karl Lagerfeld—I mean, c’mon! They had to change the spelling of the word fag for her. There’s a clip where he’s going from the house he’s at back to Paris. He’s got this big drawer and opens it up and it’s full of rings. Andy Warhol really appealed to me once I found out he grew up a sickly, timid little pansy. People did not like him in the art world because he was a queen.
A strange queen at that. Warhol would wear expensive jewelry under his clothes. I’m so excited by the creativity that gay people innately have. We have it. It is our duty to dispense it. We make the world a prettier place as well as make the world a less sexually safe space. What puritans have done to the impulse of sex is ridiculous, and I like to think I’m totally free of that, but I’m not. I’m more of a prude now. But I go to Eros—steamroll, sauna, and all I have to do is sit there and someone’s gonna grab it. Then I can leave. I don’t have time for Adam4Adam.
48H In the online realm some people are really comfortable being racist.
TAS People love to tell me, “I’m not attracted to black men.” Well, neither am I dear, so we’re even. But that’s not entirely true. Still, as sure as I’m sitting here, one of the things I’ve said is, “By the time I get there, some n—— has fucked it up already.”
I’m such a voyeur. I can sit next to somebody who is having sex. At this point, I’ll watch. What I like about the faeries or Harry Hay is that it’s not that big a deal, it’s kind of wonderful that we get to do the things we do and explore. We would go to the park at night. Mosquitoes everywhere, but did that stop us? No, no, no. The cops would drive by and shine a light and there’d be 10 guys walking out of the bushes.
On hot nights, those were the nights everybody got laid. But I can’t remember the last time I ducked into an alleyway and got a blowjob from someone I was walking past. I couldn’t do the whole bushes thing because there are critters. The first time I was at Buena Vista, something ran by me. I’ll scream at the wrong time and it’ll be the wrong scream. Not the scream in the middle of the night when there’s 50 guys around you.
There was really something cool about meeting people that way though. Sometimes you wouldn’t say a word, not a word, but you’d have great sex! That atmosphere still pervades at a place like Eros. Online, not so much.
48H One last question. Through our conversations, I know you have the idea of a radio show or station called KFAG. Let’s say KFAG is going on the air. What are the first few songs you’d play?
TAS I’d start with a lofty dub song, then a Bowie song, then James Brown – and then something rare, like [Mike Clifford’s] “Close to Cathy.”