‘Superstar in a Housedress’

By |2018-01-15T18:33:07-05:00October 31st, 2017|Uncategorized|

They were called the Warhol Superstars. An exotic clique, their job was to star in the films of Andy Warhol, to accompany him and adorn his arm in the avant-garde social circles he traveled in and to help him exude an aura of, well, fabulousness. Of this group of eccentric stars, none shone brighter than Jackie Curtis.
Born John Holder, Jr. in New York City on Feb. 19, 1947, it was at an off-Broadway matinee performance of “Once Upon a Mattress” starring Carol Burnett that young John had a revelation. He decided to change his name to Jackie Curtis and become an actor. But Jackie broke all the rules of traditional gender bending. He was not your typical female impersonator. Yes, he wore wigs. But his makeup routine was usually limited to lipstick and a little glitter around the eyes. He loved dresses – especially those by pricey designer Halston – which he’d usually shred in his own special style. Don’t get it confused though. Curtis had no real designs on being a woman, not that he was that fond of being a boy, either.
“I transformed myself into Jackie Curtis because I wasn’t getting enough attention,” he told his friend Carl Highberger in a 1973 interview. “Nobody took me seriously when I went to auditions. But when I walk in as a girl, I am immediately accepted on a creative level. And that’s true everywhere I go dressed as a girl.”
Curtis made his stage debut in Tom Eyen’s “Miss Neferititi Regrets” at the LaMama Experimental Theatre Club. The title role was played by Bette Midler, whom Curtis resented for having the better part.
In 1967, Curtis encountered Warhol walking through the streets of New York City. By then he was working on a play of his own, “Glamour, Glory and Gold,” which starred Candy Darling and a young Robert DeNiro when it opened in 1968. Warhol eventually cast Curtis in his films “Flesh” and “Women in Revolt,” and Curtis continued writing shows, such as “Heaven Grand in Amber Orbit,” “Vain Victory: the Vicissitudes of the Damned” and 1972’s “Americka Cleopatra,” in which he cast Harvey Fierstein to play his mother.
That same year, Curtis encountered a young film student from New York University. Curtis and Highberger hit it off instantly and became fast friends. Curtis was a publicity hound – he hosted several “weddings” for himself over the years, the first taking place on top of a tenement on the same day the first astronauts landed on the moon – and he never minded if Highberger trailed behind him with his video camera, a Sony PortaPack, in tow.
“I wanted to do a documentary on Jackie the moment I met Jackie,” Highberger recalled for Filmmaker Magazine.
Three decades after his chance meeting with Curtis, Highberger’s dream came true. “Superstar in a Housedress: The Life and Legend of Jackie Curtis” began traveling the film festival circuit last year. The critics have been kind to Highberger’s effort, and the film took home best documentary honors at Toronto’s Inside Out Film Festival. The film is narrated by Curtis’ old friend Lily Tomlin, who along with her partner Jane Wagner attended a rehearsal of Curtis’ play “Vain Victory” in 1971.
Sadly, Curtis isn’t alive to witness the revival of his legend. He died of a heroin overdose in 1985 at the age of 38. Warhol didn’t make the funeral, which was quite the affair. Curtis was buried dressed as boy, but friends and mourners slipped tokens into the coffin to make him feel more comfortable on his trip to the hereafter. The assortment of items included cigarettes, photographs and other remembrances of his career, a magic wand and a freshly shaken martini. Friends also sprinkled his face and body with glitter, and later did the same to his burial mound. According to one, they covered it with so much red glitter that it was visible from the freeway a half a mile away.
Warhol, who died two years later, claimed not to totally get Curtis.
“Jackie as a full-blown woman wasn’t that hard to take because he played it like a total comedy,” he once said. “It was his in-between stage that had been so creepy. He’d started taking female hormones sometime in ’68 and by that summer, when Paul [Morrissey] was filming him and Candy in ‘Flesh,’ he was in that weird part man/part woman stage, but still a long, long way from both.”
Curtis, though, knew exactly why he did what he did.
“I actually put on a woman’s dress, in one sense, to ward off evil spirits,” he said. “Straight men found me threatening as a boy because they saw something they didn’t like that scared them. When I dress as a girl they can laugh at me if they want to, but they don’t react with revulsion. They can come right up and feel completely comfortable interacting with me as this hard hat did the other day on 57th Street. That kind of thing never happened to me when I was a boy. I felt completely invisible as a boy – as if people were looking right through me, like a ghost.

About the Author:

Jason A. Michael
Jason A. Michael earned a bachelor’s degree in journalism from Wayne State University before joining Between The Lines as a contributing writer in 1999. Jason has received both the Spirit of Detroit Award (presented by the Detroit City Council) and the Media Award from the Community Pride Banquet & Awards Ceremony for his writing and activism. Jason is also an Essence magazine bestselling author having written the authorized biography "Strength Of A Woman: The Phyllis Hyman Story," which he released on his own JAM Books imprint.