Faux Real

Jun 24, 2011 at 12am

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Photos by Molly DeCoudreaux, Video by Silencefiction

When Monique Jenkinson meets me at the Magic Theatre at Fort Mason, she still has residual green makeup on from last night’s performance. She is dressed in a trench coat tied tight around her strong frame, and her dancer’s calves poke out from beneath high-water pants. Save the green hues around her eyes and the flecks of glitter throughout her red hair, Monique looks just like another pretty woman walking through the Marina.

But she is no ordinary woman. Monique is the foremother of San Francisco’s faux queen movement, a type of drag where women perform as drag queens. She’s also the only woman to have ever won the coveted Miss Trannyshack crown, a historic event that set off a flurry of reactions from everyone from fellow drag queens to commentators on NPR, all trying to make sense of a woman, playing a man, playing a woman – and doing it really well. It was ultra meta, ultra queer, and ultra San Francisco.

I’ve been watching Monique perform at gay clubs around the city for years, and she has always captivated me. I decided to call her up to see if she’d be willing to talk about her art. She agreed, and I met her backstage at The Lily’s Revenge, an epic five-hour production at the Magic Theater, written by and starring fellow drag impresario, Taylor Mac.

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I follow Monique into her dressing room, a small shared space with curtains instead of walls. It reminds me of my community theater days, and is a far cry from the diva-like setting I’d expect for someone who has received international attention for her work, especially her acclaimed one-woman show, Faux Real.

The space is empty, except for some crinoline dresses, flower headpieces, and a large vanity strewn with fancy makeup and creams. Monique’s skin is flawless and I think about how my skin broke out after only one Halloween night when I was part of a mime troupe (I as Liza Mimelli and my girlfriend, Marilyn Mimeroe). That night is the most drag-like I’ve ever been, and I definitely felt the power that comes with a fierce outfit and makeup.

“Drag is about power,” agrees Monique. “But it’s also about vulnerability. I’m always trying to walk that line in my work.” Her winning performance at Trannyshack embodied this duality. Set to Elton John’s “Someone Saved My Life Tonight,” it was both heartbreaking and exhilarating. The six-minute performance began with her wrapped in a cocoon, struggling to break free. She danced across the stage, running into her dancers, and then fell to the floor – to emerge (en pointe!) as a butterfly with 20-foot wings.

Other performances at her winning Trannyshack night included a haunting rendition of Billy Holiday where a drag queen was branded live on stage. It’s this sort of extreme provocative artistry that has come to define the performance drag scene in San Francisco, thanks to drag leaders like Heklina, who started Trannyshack, and ladies like Peaches Christ and Juanita More.

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Though she is married to a man and is sexually straight, Monique has existed in queer space most of her life, and it’s where she feels comfortable. Monique talks about growing up in suburban Colorado and itching to get out. As a teenager, she’d run her fingers over Vogue magazines and dream about being in the world of Galliano and Pat McGrath. I never cared for couture, but I do remember feeling the same longing when staring at my Runaways and Patty Smith albums.

Monique came to San Francisco for the same reason that many gays do (myself included) – to explore her identity in a city known for its expansive queer culture. She has been here since 1992, and part of the city’s drag scene through much of that time, which makes Monique a pillar of the gay community. “No, not a pillar,” she says. “Too phallic. Maybe an arch or a keystone.” We both agree.

“I don’t claim queer. I consider myself culturally queer,” she says, while rolling a fake eyelash in the palm of her hand. Culturally queer, she explains, is about existing outside of the normal heteronormative structure. Today, it means having a husband who doesn’t flinch at being called “Mary,” spending weekends at gay clubs, and vacationing in the Russian River. As a teenager, it meant being an artsy, New-Wave kid and part of the queer group that consisted of gays, Goths, theater kids, and anyone else who didn’t follow the football/cheerleader crowd.

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To understand Monique’s form of drag, you have to understand the differences between classic drag and performance drag. Classic drag is about being the prettiest representation of a woman. It’s someone dressed as Bette Midler or Celine Dion, singing to, well, Bette Midler or Celine Dion. There are tons of classic drag in San Francisco – places like AsiaSF – that pride themselves on presenting the prettiest, most realistic female performers.

“What I do is not about the art of passing as a female, it’s about the art of drag,” she says, while covering up her eyebrows with heavy foundation. Five minutes later she draws them high on her forehead. She gives me her first drag instruction: “Eyebrows need not be twins. They just need to be sisters.” 

Performance drag is about the boundary-breaking choreography, elaborate and campy costuming, and dramatic makeup, and Monique excels at it. In addition to her stunning Trannyshack win, she’s done work like choreographing an angst-y dance to Sleater-Kinney (where she made a zine on stage and passed it out), reenacting a Texas Chainsaw Massacre scene to Portishead, and creating an amazing Spanish-themed Annie Lennox performance.

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I follow Monique into the large practice space backstage where The Lily’s Revenge actors are stretching their legs, practicing lines, and adjusting one another’s wigs. One actress asks Monique for help with her line about being “a fierce tranny.” “Try lip-synching to a song rather than just pretending to lip-synch,” she offers. She recommends a few finger snaps and more aggressive hand motions. The woman purses her lips and mouths the words to “My Heart Will Go On” – and suddenly she looks like a drag queen. “That’s it!” laughs Monique.

There’s no question that people look to Monique as a leader of the faux queen movement. There are a whole group of younger women following in her stiletto-heeled footsteps. But Monique is clear to point out that she wasn’t the first one to play this part. She was initially inspired by Ana Matronic, the lead singer of the Scissor Sisters, who was the first biological woman to grace the Trannyshack stage. And there’re also women like Elvira, Dolly Parton, and Ann Magnuson who don’t claim the term faux queen, but undoubtedly are.

Monique is putting the finishing touches on her costume, preparing for curtain call. Her makeup – layers of yellow, green, and glitter – is perfectly extravagant, just as a drag queen’s should be. Her signature daisy flower petals are placed perfectly around her eyes (an idea she got from a 1960s Vogue). Her dancer’s legs are now fully exposed beneath a fluorescent pink minidress, and the curls of her bright red wig are the last to disappear behind the curtain. Once Monique is out of sight, I walk toward the ticket booth and take my place among the line of people, eager to see the queen of drag. 

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Doityourself

Want to see Fauxnique perform? You can see her at Some Thing, the Friday night drag show at The Stud, and often at Trannyshack at the DNA Lounge. Her set performances this summer include a part in "I Want What You Want" on June 29 and 30 at The Garage and an appearance at Trannyshack on August 19 at DNA Lounge for Kate Bush vs. Bjork. She’s on Kate Bush’s side, naturally.  

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