May 11 2010 5:00 AM EST
November 17 2015 5:28 AM EST
At 74, Mario Montez still looks good in a dress. Performing his rendition of "Maria" in New York recently, Montez made it clear he's no regular drag queen--first off, he's a bit shy. Secondly, his act was not at a nightclub but a museum devoted to Latino culture.
The show at the El Museo del Barrio came a few days after a March symposium at Columbia University titled "Superstar! Tribute to Mario Montez"--and a few days before a similar lecture at New York University. In the 1960s and '70s, Montez was one of the most mesmerizing personalities of the city's underground film and theater scene, first coming to many people's attention as one of the stars of director Jack Smith's 1963 queer movie Flaming Creatures, a John Waters forerunner declared obscene by a New York court because of male nudity (Strom Thurmond denounced it on the Senate floor). Montez would later become Andy Warhol's first drag superstar, starring in at least a dozen of his films as well as the productions of queer theater directors like Charles Ludlam and John Vaccaro. His recent New York appearances marked his first return to American audiences in 30 years.
The homecoming proved the Puerto Rico native still possesses the ability to connect with a crowd, something the untrained actor learned by watching Westerns, musicals, and I Love Lucy episodes. "I have the instinct to tell what people don't like and do like about me," Montez said at the Columbia event. "It's natural--I'm a Cancer."
Montez, who prefers not to use his birth name, took his stage moniker from over-the-top '40s actress Maria Montez, long before Perez Hilton paid a similar homage. Montez's eye for camp helped secure his place in Warhol's circle, but he says he never took part in any of the legendary Factory parties because of his distaste for drugs. And even though Montez, a clerical worker by day, starred in racy Warhol films, he never discussed sexuality with the pop artist.
"I never asked him, 'Do you have a lover?' or 'Do you have a girlfriend?' " Montez says. "And he never asked me either. He didn't say much."
In 1977, with roles dwindling and cold weather exhausting him, Montez bolted for Orlando, Fla., where he lives now with his partner of 15 years. He receded from the public eye, but the reaction to his appearance last fall at a Berlin festival dedicated to Jack Smith encouraged Montez to plan a comeback.
"I'm so surprised there is such an interest still in my work," Montez says. "I hope to keep it going."