By Christopher Harrity
Originally published on Advocate.com February 12 2011 5:00 AM ET
The Advocate:Is this the first photo of Kim Christy?
Kim Christy: Oh, yes. It was one of those life changing moments, or I should say “Life changing” moments — as the picture ended up in Life magazine.
Wow. How old were you here?
I was 14, I think. Ninth grade. We were all friends and had the whole drag thing in common. We had to be careful, though. Female impersonation was still against the law, and the cops would hassle us in the street. I remember taking the shirttails of my Catholic school uniform and tying them just above my waistline. I had clip-on curtain rings as earrings, and I used pencil lead to shape my blond eyebrows. I grew my hair as long as my father would let me and teased it all up just so.
We had all heard that Liz and Dick [Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton] were going to be staying at the Astor, so we got ourselves all up and took the subway from the Bronx [to Manhattan]. We hung out on the street shouting their names out. They tried to chase us away several times. Then I noticed this big black Lincoln Continental drive slowly by and I was sure it was them. So I called out to the car and camped and posed and whatnot. The window rolled down and there was a flash of light. Off went the car into the night.
How did you know the picture appeared in Life magazine?
Aunt Joan saw it and immediately called my mother. She said, “Gertie, go to the corner store and buy Life magazine — right now!”
I was already kind of wild by that age and my parents could not do much to control me. I came home from spending the night with friends one day a few months after the photo was taken and my mother had the magazine open on the kitchen table to that picture. The article was about teenage delinquents in Times Square — something like that.
“How could you let this happen?” she said. She was pretty enraged. But I was completely bowled over. I was famous! My parents were not as charmed. Neither were the nuns at Our Lady of Mount Carmel. Another scandal broke at the same time — the brothers of Holy Cross were found to be patronizing the “workers” of Times Square and not being very discreet about it. Somehow it all got linked into the same drama. Me and the priests! I have no idea who took and sold the image to Life magazine — but I sure would love to talk to them now. The irony is that I was a little wild at the time, but this image forced the issue. I was out of the house within a year or two. In a way, the image created me. I hadn’t seen the image since 1964. Oddly enough, it appeared on a Tumblr blog recently. The past never stops happening.Who is this with you in this photo?
Well, that’s me with my back to the camera. My own clothes, thank you very much. The other girl is Chrysis [Billy Schumacher, also known as International Chrysis]. She and I had met when I was about 15; she was maybe 14. I met her on Halloween night at the Tenth of Always, a bar popular with the girls. I recall that her outfit bowled me over: white go-go boots and white vinyl trench coat with boxer shorts underneath. She had the cutest little Twiggy haircut. We both pretended to be older than we were — even to each other; then we figured out we both lived in the Bronx. We both were out way later than we should have been and we both needed to figure out how to de-drag and get home. We figured it out and became friends for years. I was with her when she died in 1990. One of my dearest friends. She became quite a big deal in the New York night scene in the ’80s.OK. Things are starting to look kinky here.
Me and Chrysis again. Same day. These photos were taken by Sam Menning, the legendary porn photographer. This was about a year after we met. We had figured out many things by then. Doctors, hormones, and influential boyfriends. This guy named Lenny Burtman set this up for us. The fetish clothing was all from his huge collection. He loved the lady boys, and he and I became very close over the years. He eventually set me up in California as a film producer and director. Lenny is gone now. I miss Lenny, and I am still very close with his wife, Jennifer Jordan.
What did you think of dressing up in shoes and leather corsets and the like?
Oh, something inside went kablam! I knew that I had just been invented a little further. This began a long season for me as a dominant. I mean, I look amazing, right? 16.
Were you and Chrysis still living at home then?
Oh, no. You know, it was very crazy for a few years then. Chrysis and I had a tiny studio on Mott Street, near Broome and Houston. Nothing was going on down there then except poultry and produce. We used to laugh about it — all the grade A chicken is below Houston. I don’t think we were living together at the time of these photos. I know we were very caught up in our own glamour and fame. These photos were to appear in Female Mimics International. Flash-forward a few decades and I ended up owning the magazine and producing it myself.
Did you and Chrysis call yourselves TVs? TSs? How did you identify? Did you think of yourselves as gay?
No, no, no. There was none of that. No one thought about that. We didn't think we were different than other people — but we knew we acted different. We were class-conscious more than gender-aware. We wanted to be high-paid female impersonators on the show circuit. I loved working on the street, but I knew that the showgirls were actually getting boyfriends who paid for apartments and stuff. I wanted to be kept. I never narrowed myself to just men or women, but I knew I had a lot more power as a woman than a boy. So I made that work for me.A boyfriend?
Yes, his name was Glenn. And you can see at my feet the first of many Yorkshire terriers I have had over the years. I have two now. I met Glenn in the Village. This picture was taken outside P.J. Clarke’s, I think. Glenn was an English major somewhere. He took in clients too. He and I had a Pygmalion thing going. I had terrible diction and a deep Bronx dialect. He worked hard on me to get that out. He knew I would never get a sugar daddy with my Bronx honk.You’re not in this picture?
No, these are pictures from my archives. I have thousands documenting this whole period, the golden age of drag. This is at Daisy Dee’s. She threw yearly extravaganzas on Thanksgiving. They were a huge deal. Girls would spend weeks getting their drag together. It was all very formal and the guys would dress in suits and tuxedos. On the left, looking at the camera, is 42nd Street Josie. She was quite the little prostitute — but she could always tell you what tricks not to go with — she knew which ones were cops, psychos. Psycho cops. She’s not smiling for two reasons. One is that Carl Houston, with the blond wig sitting at the other end of the sofa, is getting all the attention. Carl was a big female impersonator — the class thing again. The other reason she is not smiling is that she had terrible teeth! Like a box of broken dominoes!Wow. Thick makeup!
That is for the stage, my dear. Tammy Novak was a respected female impersonator — high up on the food chain. A hairdresser. Also a great-looking guy. He had as many admirers in boy drag as he did in she-drag.
So he didn’t hook?
Oh, well. All of us did once in a while. There was a symbiotic relationship between the stage and the street. The street gave you a great dress rehearsal to see what worked, what didn’t, if you could pass or not. And if you actually had talent and made a success on the stage, you could command high prices.Was this at one of Daisy Dee’s balls as well?
Yeah, this is Harlowe. A beautiful trans. Eventually she went all the way and had reassignment surgery.
Did the girls still stay around after the surgery?
Oh, no. They usually rode out of Dodge as quickly as possible. It was so expensive to have the surgery that a girl usually had to have a very interested “sponsor.” Usually the guy felt guilty that you had a dick and figured if you had the change, it would fix it all. Too many times I saw that after the change the boyfriend lost interest. Seemed he was more interested in the boy parts that he thought. Oops. Too late.
Harlowe did OK, though. She had the rich boyfriend, and he set her up with her own nightclub in Philly. Called Harlowe’s, of course. It was a pretty big deal.This is Crystal LaBeija in The Queens [1967 documentary about a drag contest], right?
Yes, she made a fabulous scene in that film when she lost. She came in as third runner-up in the ’67 Nationals — a big drag contest. She stormed off the stage — but not in the wings, oh, no. She went down the stairs to the center aisle and all the way through the audience to the front of the theater, swinging her hips big-time. The announcer is all, “Will the contestant PLEASE come back to the stage!”
Were you in the film?
Oh, yes. But don’t blink. Here’s what happened. I was “hired” to be in the chorus. I wasn’t running as a contestant or anything. That wasn’t my thing. Rich boyfriends, that was my thing. Plus I liked to be in a show as long as they paid well. There was a scene in Bertha’s Costume Rental and we were all there to get fitted. I had to be a little careful because I lied and didn’t tell them I was 17. But all the girls lied. I mean, really! Then I found out we weren't being paid! We were supposed to be happy just with being in the film. Imagine.Are you in these pictures?
These are all from contact sheets of a shoot at the Club 82, down in the East Village. I think the club was going to close soon — or at least it was ending its incarnation as a drag club. I performed off and on for years, then as a stripper and a showgirl. My song was the theme music from the film A Man and a Woman. Get it?
I look at these pictures and the stage seems so small. It was big and glamorous to me then. It opened in 1951 and ran forever. All the big stars performed there: Hans Crystal, Vicki Lynne, Lynn Roberts, Kim August, and so on.
Yes, a special date with Gertie at the Persian Room at the Plaza Hotel.
The photo is dated September 27, 1969, on the back. This is after the Stonewall riots in June. Did that affect you much?
Meh. I was 19, I was being well-cared-for by an oil tycoon. I would introduce him to people as “the keeper of the flame.” They would look askance at me, and then I would smile demurely and say, “And I’m the flame.” I didn’t have to work so hard at that point. I was still performing at the Club 82 a bit.
So a lot must have changed between you and your mother between the Life magazine photo and this photo.
Yes and no. She was still very disapproving, but she was impressed by my lifestyle. I was playing the big shot then. These gypsies would come by the Club 82 and sell boosted goods. My mother has the mink stole that I bought from the gypsies for her hanging over the back of the chair. She tolerated the way I lived my life, but she feared that it would all come to a bad end. Sometimes I wish she could see how things turned out: happily married to my wife with a grown daughter and amazingly wonderful granddaughter. We are a quiet, middle-aged couple.
What did your father think?
Ahh. He was drunk in Yonkers. He saw very little of me in my female years. Once he had to get me out of jail early on. I was arrested for impersonating a woman and I still had eye makeup on. That wasn’t fun.Um, bare feet?
I left my shoes in Philly! And most of my luggage. We had been performing there the night before in a traveling show called The Male Box Revue. We had it all: statuesque beauties, drag clowns, hot guys, and me — the cute young stripper with the big surprise! We all had to show up at Kriegsmann’s studio for marquee shots. I just put on my “Barbie feet” and made the best of it. Fortunately I remembered my gloves and boa. I had my priorities. Once again, a photo created me. I got an incredible amount of work from this image. I traveled all over Europe, spent time in Berlin, Amsterdam. I met some of the most highly paid female dominants in the world and learned my craft from them. I began making my own films. And within a few years, I was to meet the woman who would eventually become my wife.
So, forgive me for asking: You’re straight now?
I am married to my wife. I am with her. Something I learned from all my years working with clients all over the world: Men and women can both be very fluid in their sexuality. Plus things like certain sexual scenarios can engage a person deeply for a time. Sometimes it’s same-sex activity. Some people stay attracted to one gender or another all their lives. I was with men — when I lived as a woman — who never would have called themselves gay, but they were not unhappy about my extra parts at all. Like I said, back then we did not name things so much. I never thought of any of the things I did as who I was. They were things I liked. Things I did.