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Arts + CultureMoviesDrag legend Terence Alan Smith takes center stage in...

Drag legend Terence Alan Smith takes center stage in ‘The Beauty President’

As Joan Jett Blakk, the performer made two historic runs for president. A new short film asks what could have been.

Terence Alan Smith took the nation by hurricane when he ran against George H. W. Bush for president on the Queer Nation Party Ticket in 1992 as his brazen, defiant drag persona Joan Jett Blakk. The storm made enough waves throughout the United States that Smith ran again in 1996 against Bob Dole. Although winning wasn’t the end result in either campaign, it ultimately wasn’t the most important part of Smith’s bids. Providing a voice to the queer community at the height of the AIDS epidemic was.

“Our thing was visibility,” the trailblazer says in the new Whitney Skauge-directed documentary short, The Beauty President (screening virtually via Outfest, Mon/16-Wed/18), about Smith’s first campaign. “We were still being beaten up, we were dying from AIDS, we were being denied jobs and housing, and the more visible we made ourselves, the less that happened. The presidential campaign is one of the most worldwide visible things. Everybody talks about it. It becomes a huge issue in the media.”

Smith, who moved to San Francisco from Chicago in the ’90s, has been consistently outspoken throughout his careers as an artist performing in drag, politician representing the underdog, and political activist, lamenting the loss of his friends to the AIDS epidemic. “If we don’t say their names, they disappear,” he says on camera. “We keep their power alive by not shutting up.”

If AIDS brought the queer community to the forefront on the world, Joan Jett Blakk’s campaigns empowered that community to protest against a failing political system that largely ignored their issues. AIDS hit the Black community, drug addicts, and gay people the hardest, and the intersectionality Skauge deftly depicts in The Beauty President sheds light on a time that eerily parallels today’s pandemic.

“If I’d beaten Bill Clinton, believe me, the planet would’ve spun the other way.” Smith explains to 48 Hills in a recent interview. “It would be some sort of utopia… by now, we would have all banded together and stopped this virus that appeared. We would have listened to science instead of poo-pooing science.”

His and Skauge’s documentary short, combining archival footage from Blakk’s 1992 presidential campaign with a present-day Smith sit-down, zeroes in on Blakk’s quest to bring queer issues to the masses. Healthcare. Education. Demilitarization. And defunding a police state that still looms. The more Skauge delves into Blakk’s campaign promises, the more an alternate timeline in which Blakk won sounds like Elysium, the paradise on earth Smith fantasizes about.

On the cusp of their upcoming Outfest premiere, Skauge and Smith spoke at marathon length about their doc short, Skauge’s interest in queer intersectionality, Smith’s inspiration for the Joan Jett Blakk persona, his legendary San Francisco past, how The City has changed, running against former Mayor Willie Brown, Queer Nation, and the evolution of protesting.

48 HILLS Whitney, congratulations on crafting this amazing documentary short. Terrence, I read about the recent, critically acclaimed play about you in Chicago, Ms. Blakk for President that covers similar ground. I wish I could have seen that as well.

TERENCE: I gotta say that I don’t know how many people have been alive to see something like that. Usually when you get a play, you’ve be dead for decades, right? I was sitting there watching somebody playing me. It was really weird. And sitting next to the mayor of Chicago. And we had dinner that night, and I was kidding, like, “Ha! I did it before you.” I ran for mayor long before she was around. Her and her lover. And a whole era had changed. Everything had changed. She’s doing a pretty good job, that mayor of that weird city. Because I lived there when Jane Byrne was mayor. I lived there when it was much more of a circus when Harold Washington was mayor.

And Tina (Landau, writer) won a Tony for SpongeBob, and Tarell (Alvin McCraney, writer) had won an Oscar for Moonlight. So I’m just scratching my head. It was very strange, very surreal. I still can’t wrap my head around it. I never expected anything like that. This was 30-plus years ago when the things in the play occurred. So the last thing I expected to happen. I didn’t believe when she said, “We’re gonna write a play about you.” I’m like, “Yeah. OK. Right.” And even at Steppenwolf (Theater), I was like, “You were hoping I was dead so you didn’t have to come up here. And here I am. Haha!” It’s quite an honor. Quite an honor. Then Whitney got ahold of me, I was like, “What is going on!?”

48 HILLS: Whitney, how did your love of filmmaking begin?

WHITNEY It grew out of home movies. I always had a camcorder in my hands and was always doing home movies. And that just naturally progressed into documentary. I had this really innate feeling of not wanting to forget anything. And so I have this really strong drive to preserve things and this really strong drive to have this memory bank. And then as I got older and as I developed my voice and my identity, I realized filmmaking was a tool to help progress society in a way that I wanted to see fit. I always saw documentaries as not this place where you just throw it on and you learn something, but really can you throw it on, learn something, and act. So I really wanted to try to develop that craft. I see documentary as such an amazing vehicle for change.

TERENCE Do you remember the first one you saw?

WHITNEY It was this doc about the people that dress up in character on Hollywood Boulevard. It’s called Confessions of a Superhero, and it’s about all the people that go and they’re the Hulk, or they’re Superman, and it was this whole character study on broken dreams and this part of society that was like niche but fringe. And I just was encapsulated by going into this world that I wouldn’t normally have had access to, and it was this moment of, “Oh my gosh, I can do this. I can do that.” And it just goes back to wanting to be to be a fly on the wall and capture everything.

That’s why when I saw that footage of you, Terence, and that’s why when I found articles of you, I was like, “Oh my gosh. This is a moment that could change other people’s lives.” Seeing you as a strong Black man in drag during the height of the AIDS crisis during the ’90s, to me, that was an act of radical self-love. It was an act of love for your community. And that was the moment when I was like, “Oh my gosh. How do I not know about this? And how do I make sure that everyone knows about this?” I just felt this intense responsibility to find you and to sit you down and to document this. It was getting you to recognize the impact you had made. This is still something that is very important to people, and it’s still something that affects people. From the play to the film. Your story shows how badly we still need queer heroes.

TERENCE Yeah. And there aren’t many left. That’s the thing. It’s that there’s so few of us left. But anybody can be one.

WHITNEY We have to honor each other and honor ourselves because it takes so much just to be who you are as a queer person. I wanted to give that recognition to you. It really is this moment of not only, “Wow,” but, “Thank you. Thank you for doing that. Thank you for being you. Thank you for going out into the street when no one else was doing it.” And that’s why I wanted to make the film.

48 HILLS Whitney, your previous documentary short, Everyone In Between, explains that gender isn’t synonymous with identity. What are some of the overlapping themes or messages between that film and The Beauty President?

WHITNEY Being a queer person, I feel an intense responsibility to tell queer stories. So you’re always going to see that throughout my work in terms of the communities I interact with. Something else that’s similar in those films is just the presence of queer people on film as a historical record. Documenting what it was like to be trans in Missoula, Montana at the end of the 2010s? That was a marker, a record. What was it like to be a drag queen running for president at 1992? I just have such a sensitivity to people being recognized, probably because I didn’t feel seen so long as a kid, I didn’t feel seen so long as a teenager, and I finally hit my own when I turned 21.

And when I do films, I’m really drawn to people that know who they are. Both in Everyone In Between and in The Beauty President, you have storytellers who know exactly who they are, and they are serving as a vehicle to talk about larger concepts and larger topics. Terence’s story is a story of political activism, but it’s a story of so much more than that. It’s a story of intersectionality. It’s a story of Black Lives Matter. It’s a story of healthcare. And then you have Everyone in Between, and that’s structured a bit differently but it’s still trying to talk about larger concepts through the microcosm of one prism. And it’s trying to show how much we all have inside of us.

I have a sensitivity to knowing that everyone has a story to tell. And that story is important. And so for me, as a filmmaker, it’s really just making sure that I’m doing my best to help do that, to help tell as many diverse, interesting, intersectional stories as I can. So between Everyone in Between and The Beauty President, I’m interested in the queer community, and so that’s probably going to stay in my work. But I’m also very interested in the Black community. I’m half Black, and there’s a lot of nuances in that identity.

Director Whitney Skauge

48 HILLS You’re also a street photographer. What kind of subject matter do you like to capture?

WHITNEY I love doing street portraiture. So trying to capturing the essence of the street through the characters that are on it. I love doing observational works, so going to protests and just being a fly on the wall. I did a lot of stuff when Black Lives Matter Los Angeles was reactivated last summer. So I took a lot of photos at protests, tried to do as much portraiture as I could, getting consent and all of that. I love trying to bring as much artistry to the street as possible.

48 HILLS: One of the slogans for Queer Nation was, “Two, four, six, eight. How do you know your kids are straight?”

TERENCE Oh. I remember chanting that in the streets. Wow.

48 HILLS Queer Nation was the party under in both of your campaigns in ’92 and ’96. It’s known for its militant-style protests to counter increasing violence against the queer community. Terence, What were some of these protests like back in the day?

TERENCE The thing that I remember the most is the comradery. These demonstrations, in one or two of them, I remember being in the frontline, and the police were on the other side. This is Chicago. This is where the Democratic Convention was in 1968. And [the cops] came in swinging. And they were beating up everybody. But I remember a demonstration where we were all there and cops were there in front of us on horses. And they took their hats off and their badges off so that when they started kicking ass, we couldn’t identify them.

But you feel very strong at that moment. And that’s what I remember more. Is that feeling. Because after the demonstration, you would feel so united with these people that you felt like you could do anything. You felt like you can overcome anything because you were together. And I don’t remember the chants too much, but I remember that feeling very much so, out of everything. And that’s really what kept me going. Was that feeling of comradery with all these people who have been through the same thing. Who were suffering the same suffering as you.

48 HILLS Do you think we still live in a police state?

TERENCE Yes. I’d say, quickly, yes. My way of making something serious humorous, I wear a jacket and tie every day when I walk out of here. And I want to tell you that that is, among other things, a great police repellant. Because I don’t look the part. They look at me and they don’t think, “This is a criminal.” Police deal with things off first impressions.

48 HILLS Whitney, The Beauty President recently earned a much-deserved accolade.

WHITNEY Yeah. We won a Women in Film Award with this festival called Mountainfilm. So that was cool. We did AFI Docs. We did Frameline. We’re about to do Outfest. So really it’s been an incredible festival run with the film. I was telling Terrence on the phone the other day with this film, it’s not just a queer film. It’s also a Black film. And it’s not just a Black film, it’s also a queer film. And it’s not just a queer and Black film, it’s a political film. So we’re finding that a lot of audiences are responding to it well because it’s so intersectional in that way.

48 HILLS Terence, what were the influences behind the creation of the Joan Jett Blakk persona?

TERENCE Well, I came up being really interested in glamour and fashion and music coming together. And that really came to a head with David Bowie. I saw the Ziggy Stardust tour when I was a kid. I was 17. There was nothing like that in the world. I started using the word, “androgynous,” because David had used it. And I’m like, “Oh. That’s me.” And a lot of people that came out in that era, the light that came on was Bowie. And I came out before I realized that sex was around. I came out thinking, “Oh, I just get to be this androgynous creature,” and then sex reared its head. Because I had had sex education. I went to Catholic school. I had sex education. But I didn’t believe it. “I had to do what? Ew! My mom and dad?” So that was odd.

But, obviously, you learn where you are and what’s going on. And that was 1975, right? So we had disco, and there was a different attitude. We were starting to bring the world together on the dance floor. And we had the punk scene happening at the same time. So we had disco clothes. We had our punk clothes that we would wear. And all these things were coming together. And I started doing drag even back then. I was doing drag in the ’70s. And I took it all in. Thank god I had gone to a performing arts high school, so I was able to do some things even back then that people hadn’t seen before. Back then you would do these drag numbers while lip syncing to a record. I took it a little bit further and I started doing opera. I would do opera-soul. And my persona Brocca Lee was Brenda Lee’s half-sister. So I could do Patsy Cline.

Back then it was mostly older white men, and they were thrilled that I was doing something completely different. I had a lot of fun, and that led to me doing plays when I moved to Chicago. I moved to Chicago thinking I was going to have a sex change because it was the first time people had said to me, “Oh, you’re attractive.” But that’s not a good reason to change your sex. So I figured that out. But I moved to Chicago, and then AIDS happened. I’ve been through a whole lot of big things inside. And I’m still here.

Terence Alan Smith in ‘The Beauty President’

48 HILLS In The Beauty President, I love how you say, “If a bad actor can be elected president, why not a good drag queen?”

TERENCE I wasn’t entirely sure you could say it. When I was doing all these video interviews, they were like, “What’s your campaign slogan?” It was actually, “Lick Bush in ’92.” And they’re like, “Can we say that?” I’m like, “It’s too late. The FCC is coming to get you now because I already said it.” But you have these deeper problems. I’ve seen it when Reagan was still running by virtue of he was a bad actor who was playing president. And so I just ran with it a little bit, and that’s that.

48 HILLS And it took him so long to even say the term AIDS. Not until ’85, finally. The year Rock Hudson died.

TERENCE Yes. And Rock Hudson didn’t come out until after he died. The same thing happened with Freddie Mercury. And by that time, by the late ’80s, countless friends died that I knew, and that’s how I got involved. I had to do something. I hadn’t gotten involved, really, up until that time. And I threw myself into it. What else are you going to do? I was just so shocked we were dropping like flies, and somebody had to do something. I remember I said I wanted to give ACT-UP control of the CDC. A lot of lives were saved by some of the AIDS trusts that came out of that, all those protests. And it didn’t become a death sentence anymore. That’s why, now, it’s so weird because we’re doing it again. We’re involved in a virus. People are dropping like flies, but we can’t really protest it.

48 HILLS Right. There are a lot of parallels between today’s pandemic and the rise of the AIDS epidemic, such as bigots coming out of the woodwork and damaging misinformation is being spread. It’s unsettling.

TERENCE Yeah. It was unsettling because they shut down the whole world. We were like, “Whoa.” We were in a science fiction movie instead of watching it. But this time around, we were supposed to be celebrating at this point, now that we were done with this. And we’re not. We’re going back into it again. We should be wearing masks everywhere we go, now, even though we’re vaccinated. It seems to be working, but it’s very scary.

48 HILLS In the film, you mention that one of the communities hit especially hard by the AIDS epidemic was the Black community, which speaks volumes about how a national crisis can shed light on this country’s backwards priorities.

TERENCE When I learned about this, I was a was a part of the gay community, not the Black community. One of the problems that gay Black youth have is that when you discover you’re gay, you pretty much have to get out of the Black community because there’s no support there. There’s no community. Right now, there’s samples of Black men killing transgenders. So you pretty much have to leave if you want to survive. But yes, AIDS was affecting people in the Black community because they couldn’t talk about it at all. At least, in the gay community, we had a place we could go.

But in the Black community, there’s no place. And that’s because of the church. That makes perfect sense to me that there’s this attitude. And there’s also this attitude that happens in the Black community where they think it’s patriarchal. No way. The Black community is totally matriarchal. And Angela Davis said it best at the Million Man March. “You realize that every single one of those men had to ask their wife or their mother if they could go.” I’m like, “Yeah, that makes sense.” So there’s still an attitude of that. Not too long ago, I’m walking down the street and people say faggot.

I had a friend of mine, who isn’t Black, talk about how offended he was that Cardi B. has that song “WAP.” And he was like, “Well, that’s disgusting.” I’m like, “Oh yeah, it’s disgusting when she talks about her private things, but guys been talking about their dicks forever.” But she comes along and everyone’s like, “That’s disgusting!” I’m like, “Give me a break. Give me a break.” I think it’s wonderful that she did that, whether it was a political move or not. So there’s still a lot of work we have to do to get people on the same side.

And I’m wondering if that time is running short because climate change is a bigger battle than that. It’s about all of us doing something to save the planet, which is pretty alarming that we have to save the planet. I remember the first Earth Day in 1970, and we were talking about overpopulation back then. And since nobody pays attention, of course, now it’s become crucial.

48 HILLS What was it like first moving to San Francisco after ’92?

TERENCE It was a thrilling time because there was this atmosphere of creativity and what we could do with it here in San Francisco. And I was accepted quite nicely here. But the best thing about it is that it doesn’t snow. If you’ve never been in the snow, you wouldn’t understand why I never get upset. Finally, I was acclimated to this weather. I was saying, “Well, your body will get used to it.” And I heard myself saying the other day that 55 degrees was cool. Nah, because when it’s 55 degrees in April in the Midwest, people wear shorts. They’re like, “Hey, Spring is coming.” We don’t need Spring here, it’s always Spring here.

48 HILLS What were some of your favorite spots, venues, neighborhoods, and/or communities in the city?

TERENCE Well, I started working at a live bookstore on Castro Street, pretty much right after I got there. And I was amazed that you can stand on that corner, 18th and Castro, and in every direction you’d look there were queer people. Every direction. It blew my mind because there’s no place else in the world that was like that. And it’s still like that, even though the Castro has changed a little bit. But there’s this wonderful queer magic that comes over your whole body when you see gay people everywhere. It’s like living in a gay parade. It’s wonderful. But, of course, economics makes big difference here because it’s a very expensive city to live in. So that changed a lot of things.

And now I’m filled with a little bit of sorrow because we just had a memorial weeks ago for Phatima (Rude), one of us who recently died. So there’s a lot of sadness again. But it’s still a magical town.

48 HILLS I heard it was a beautiful memorial.

TERENCE It was very beautiful. But at the same time, they had to stop the show at one point because someone passed out. And they called paramedics and everything. And having that happen during the show was very powerful. And it turned out to be someone I knew. And he’s OK. But that moment was very real for that memorial, to suddenly have the paramedics come in because most of the people who were there are survivors. And I left after that, I’m like, “I’m going home. I’ve seen enough today.” And there was much more show to go on, but I didn’t stay for all that.

48 HILLS The term beautiful has come up a lot in your life. How do you define beauty?

TERENCE It’s not something that you put on. It’s something that’s innate, something that you have. One of the things about moving here is that if you are walking down the street, you can say hi to people, total strangers, and they’ll say hello back. To me, that’s beauty, that you can do that, where another person in the world will ignore you. It’s there. Some people don’t realize this, but it’s something inside, not something outside. Although the outside isn’t bad.

Last night, a woman had on these gorgeous pink platform boots. And I knew she was going to cross the street and come toward me in these boots. I’m like, “Don’t do that. I’ll pass out or something.” Because these boots were fabulous. There’s a huge definition. And it changes all the time. I grew up in Detroit. So to me, chrome is beauty; anything shiny. I was a magpie in a former life, a bird that’s attracted to shiny things.

48 HILLS Aside from not being able to go in drag at the Democratic National Convention, what other prejudices or roadblocks did you face on your presidential campaigns?

TERENCE Well, the main one that I really wish we had done something about is poor people can’t run for president. You have to be rich. You have to have a lot of money to supply all of this. So that would be the main one. When I was doing all these interview, people were like, “What? A drag queen is running for president in America?” I’m like, “Well, yeah. That’s the whole idea. They told us we could. So I’m going to.” And they were like, “Wow.” And Shirley Chisholm had already done it, but as representative.

My first political campaign was George McGovern. I worked on the campaign when I was 14 years old. And he got stomped on. So you still have to hope even though you can lose. And you say that about what we’ve been through since then. And now, I don’t even know if you can do it satirically anymore. I don’t know if people get it after Trump. That was four years of ridiculous. In fact, he won’t go away. That’s a very odd thing that changed the whole political landscape. This is an insane thing that has happened. And I don’t know where we’re going to go from here.

48 HILLS It’s almost like Trump being elected president killed satire.

TERENCE Yeah, that’s what I’ve been thinking. Satire is dead now.

48 HILLS What you outlined in your campaign is so reasonable—free healthcare, switching the education and military budgets, defunding and restructuring the police, truly “draining the swamp.”

TERENCE I know. And so it’s interesting that some of those things have actually happened, or the people realize that it might be a good idea to do that. I just said I’m going to fire everybody there and hire all my friends. That’s what they do.

48 HILLS And you wanted to eliminate competition. As you said, this country is founded on the notion that certain people are or can be better than one another, and it’s become synomous with capitalism, which hasn’t been working for 250 years.

TERENCE No, it has not. No, it has not. And people always refer to our forefathers, but all of them owned slaves. So I wanted to change all that. And capitalism would have to change, because I always knew that’s not working for everybody. But nothing else works either. Humans are very strange. They’ll always go for power over, not power with. And I don’t know how we change that, and it might be too late because Mother Nature has decided that this human experiment is not working.

THE BEAUTY PRESIDENT screens virtually via Los Angeles’ Outfest Mon/16 to Wed/18. More info here.

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