God Save The Queens

 

Deryl Northcote, aka Claudette De Versailles, is amazing. Not just because he’s great with hair, has a bawdy sense of humor, and has a vast store of knowledge about costumes, fashion, and Golden Age starlets. As if there needed to be more than that, he’s also one of Chico’s very first drag queens, founder of the Imperial Sovereign Court Of The Czaristic Dynasty (Northern California’s branch of the International Imperial Court. We’ll get into that later, but you may want to read the Wikipedia entry because it’s nuts.) (No pun intended.), Drag Mother to many, and a pioneering force for integration between the gay and straight communities.

I came into this interview with so many muddled questions about the history of drag, the perspective, the constructs of the subculture, and how queens became such a visible part of what—by all rights—could’ve been just another redneck town in the middle of nowhere. Not only did he shed a lot of light on those subjects, he also left me with lots of food for thought. And Honey, I love a buffet.

Perhaps more than anything I was left with this question: what makes a good party great? Why is it that drag queens are so awesome at turning up that volume? Is it the breaking of taboos? Is it the glamorous fantasy that’s missing from our lives? Is it because they’re experts at making everybody laugh at the things others are scared to touch? Whatever it is, I intend to put on something outrageous and find out at the Coronation Ball, happening Saturday, January 25th at the ARC Pavillion. See our event calendar for more details.

What’s the story with drag? 

I’m still looking for history, so [it would be great] if in any way this article actually makes it where people go, “I knew a queen that used to perform here in the ‘50s…” or whatever… it’s very hard to know because it’s word of mouth. The earliest queen that we know of in Northern California was black, and named “Chico Sal.” He’s slivered in the history of Chico, but not a lot is known about him. He was a guy who was considered an eccentric, who used to walk around Chico in the early days in drag. Like [in the] ‘10s! Like horse and buggy days! There’s one story about how he did a fundraiser in downtown Chico, and they had people throw balls at his mouth and he’d try to catch them in his teeth. His ability to survive being “that person” meant he had to have a damn good sense of humor.

But you could go as far back as Shakespearean times, or you could go as far back as geishas…before they were women, the term geisha meant an artist, and they actually were men who entertained, kind of along the vein of jesters. But you see it a lot throughout history. Like in Shakespearean times, women were not allowed to perform because it was looked at as a whorish occupation for a woman. “Good” women were not supposed to be vain and presenting themselves onstage.

Traditional drag [in modern times] was also kind of a counter cultural thing; in the gay community particularly it was a form of revolution—like with hippies and “the man,” and growing their hair out—you’re telling me I can’t be this, so I’m gonna be this. But generally, I look at drag as more of an art form, no different than a geisha is performing, or any other kind of entertainment in that vein. Like Vaudeville, or any of that. [Although] I think drag is probably closer, in a weird way, to geisha culture, because you do end up in a house, you do end up with a pseudo-mother figure usually. There is a weird sisterhood to it.

The rule used to be that the person who put you in drag the first time, or helps you get dressed up, becomes your “Drag Mother.” That’s still the case for some people. I think of the role of Drag Mother as much broader, because a lot of times—because of the way society is—people are forced to recreate families because their own families abandon them. They have to turn around and, through this counter-culture, rebuild the family unit again. The mother role is important in that you help them figure out things like insurance, and try to help guide them and help them along. But you learn just as much from them, you know what I mean? Because drag constantly evolves.

Now, when I started it was an accident. I never thought I’d do this, I’d never even thought about it. I was invited to a ‘50s cross dressing party when I was 16 with my best friend. We went to the Salvation Army and bought ‘50s dresses. We didn’t have wigs, I didn’t have shoes, but just nylons and a ‘50s dress with lipstick and eyeshadow.

I was the first person to hit downtown before it was gay-friendly, and definitely was not friendly to drag. The guys from Duffy’s—when Duffy’s was relatively new and had just opened—came out to the old gay bar (900 Cherry Street) and saw Cabaret Claudette. I was doing my first live show, and they liked it and invited me to do Cabaret Claudette at Duffy’s.

So, once I came downtown, I thought, “Well, it’s stupid that we all can’t party together.” Like, that’s what turned the philosophical coin for me. I thought, since I’d been in the punk rock scene and the New Wave scene—that whole period of Boy George androgyny—there’s not that big of a step between the two. It’s similar; it’s messing with our perceptions of gender identification and masculine and feminine.

How did you choose Claudette De Versailles? What’s Claudette all about? 

Oh! Well…I had started doing more and more shows, going up to Redding and traveling to Sacramento, doing shows all over, and I was meeting all these other queens. It was the ‘80s…so in that particular time period (and there’s not a lot of us left because of the AIDS crisis from that particular generation) a lot of us chose elegant and glamorous names.

I always liked the movie It Happened One Night, and I really liked Claudette Colbert. So you kind of pick a woman or a star or somebody you admire, and obviously Claudette is a name that not a lot of people Immediately jump to. [Plus] I wanted a French name. I had been in Europe when I was 16, and went to Versailles… And so I thought, “Well that’s the grandest, most glamorous place I know of.” So that’s how I became Claudette De Versailles.

What does it mean to be a Drag Queen? 

Drag to me is open ended. Like there’s drag kings, who are women performing the more masculine roles…but I think drag can mean the guys going up to the Crazy Horse who aren’t real cowboys wearing cowboy outfits. That to me is their drag. A lot of things are drag. But drag is particularly associated as cross-gender dressing.

People get it confused a lot with trans-sexuality. Sometimes people get confused because it’s such a taboo subject; they lump us all into this one category…or they think we’re all out to get laid or are dressed like that to trick men. But to me it’s a costume. I’ve always done theatre, so it’s no different for me than playing Malvolio in Twelfth Night. You put on the makeup, put on the costume, get in character, do the show. But the difference is a drag character tends to move in and out of the stage world.

In drag, unlike theatre, we more often than not don’t take the costume off; we stay in it for the rest of the evening, and that breaks the fourth wall. People get to enjoy it onstage, but then they actually want to be with you when the show is over because they’re fascinated with it. It’s like an aura, it’s some kind of thing that they’re attracted to, like a moth to a flame.

I’ve never been to a party or a bar or anywhere where there’s a drag queen present and you didn’t know it was going to be fun. Like, just the presence of a drag queen in a room of 200 people changes the dynamic of that party for some reason.

Drag particularly flourished in what’s called cabaret theatres. The way I define cabaret is different from my study of cabaret. In the old days like in Germany or France, the working class couldn’t afford to go to the operas or the plays or the theatre, all that big stuff. But cabaret brought the theatre into the bars, into the coffee shops. Cabaret to me is working class theatre. It brings theatre to the people.

And so that’s obviously where queens have thrived—doing clubs and little bars, like the Maltese’s shows, like Duffy’s, all these little bars around here…biker bars…we’ve pretty much performed everywhere in this town. Except, we’ve never made it into college town…Yet. I look at that as a personal goal: that one day somebody will be brave enough to book us. I think that the college community, even though it’s still new to them, would actually have a helluva good time with the right drag show. Once they get over their fear of it. I mean, there’s nothing really that scary about it, it’s just a queen in a dress. Or a woman in slacks. Sometimes I think [that fear is] because of society and the way men are raised—to become a drag queen he’s giving up his male birthright to power, and taking on the role of the submissive woman is an insult to manly men.

We make people question their traditional values, things they were taught generation after generation. And those things are starting to change, but still, some people at certain points have said to me, “Oh, doing drag is an insult to women, because you’re mocking women.” And I’m like, I don’t think we’re mocking women at all. We’re certainly effeminate, but I’d generally say we’re more fantasy than reality. No woman would walk around on a Wednesday night in a cocktail dress with a five foot train.

Do you feel like it’s changed you at all? Like in just your regular life? 

It’s completely changed everything about my life. Because, you know, at a very very young age I was taking on the role of mother when some of the people I was dealing with were older than me. By the time I was 25, I’d already created the Court of Chico, I’d made up the title of Czarina, I’d brought this international system here. At 26 I’d become the Dowager Empress of the court here.

It’s been expensive, it’s been heartbreaking. It’s very hard because people tend to put you into a role, and they tend to take the humanity out of it for you. They can force you to become that character. They can have expectations that are higher on you than other people. Your faults are magnified.

This other character I kind of think of as my wife, because she gets a lot of attention and she costs a lot. I have to go without in order to make her happen. And it is great to be wanted for a lot of the shows, but sometimes the drag thing had affected me in the fact that people sometimes never get to know me because they see me only as that.

It can create a barrier, but for as many barriers as it creates it opens so many doors and [makes for] such tighter friendships. There is such a tight bond between me and my friends, no matter what their walk is. We’ve become closer over the years because they know what I’m doing, and they know I’m doing what I do to liquidate barriers, not create more… When I’m doing a show or if I’m dressed up for an event that’s going on, I’m not dressing up for my pleasure; I’m dressing up because I want the crowd to have a good time. I’m there to facilitate it. I’m there to entertain them. So that helps a lot.

Is it dangerous? Yes. Have I been attacked? Yes. Have I almost been beat up many times? Yes, lots of times.

The most powerful tool I think a drag queen has is a good sense of humor and a sharpness of wit. That sharpness of wit can be misinterpreted as bitchiness; you’ll see it even among the queens where you’ll get this snappy like “Giiiirl!” all that kind of stuff, but those are defense mechanisms. Usually if somebody is being really nasty to you, if you can, find the humor in it and make them laugh with you, and you can diffuse the situation. But there are times when that doesn’t work. There are times when they’re out to hurt you. I’ve had to be escorted physically out of bars because some guy, for some reason, was offended by me and wanted to kill me.

 

So there is a very dark side to it, and that’s why I believe in avoiding those confrontations as much as possible. But I also think that I have the right to be whoever I am wherever I want to go. If there’s a place where you know there is a deep, steeped hatred, don’t go over there in drag and pick a fight.

There will always be people who don’t like us. There will always be people who don’t care, they’re not into it, they don’t understand it, nor do they want to. And you know what? I respect those people. They don’t have to like what we like. They don’t have to like what we do. Not everyone has to be a fan of drag. There’s some drag that I’m not really a fan of.

Everybody has a right to their own taste. Like I always say about human sexuality, if you ask someone “What’s your favorite color?” and the person says what their favorite color is, and then you ask them “Why is that your favorite?” they could never describe why. You just are attracted to that color. It’s just a personal response to something.

Tell me about the Court system and how they choose the Emperor and Empress. 

The Court is a 501(c)(3) non-profit. It’s run legitimately with an elected board of directors. So the board of directors and all the people that have been Emperors and Empresses in the past have a review board where they review the people that are prospectives to become Emperor and Empress. We just had that, and we’ve announced our candidate for this year, Bijou L’Amour. She’s the only one. There were other candidates that didn’t pass because they have to prove that they know the history and traditions of the group, they know how the bylaws and constitution work, and they know how to throw a party, because that’s the job. They are elected by the community; anyone can vote, you just need an ID. It’s all legitimate and votes are legitimately counted. The current person is running unopposed, but that doesn’t mean they get elected automatically. They could be no-voted. But I think the current candidate is quite innovative, and hopefully the new Empress will do quite well.

What are the responsibilities of the Empress? 

Responsibilities of the Empress are to preside over their area, be a public figure, to not take themselves too seriously— although there is a seriousness to it because they’re responsible for raising as much charity money as they can. That’s actually the signature that they leave. Anyone can join the Court; straight, gay, whatever your story is, the Court welcomes everybody. There’s twelve meetings a year, and you have to do twelve parties a year. When I did it with my friend Art, sometimes I had more than one event a month. So your weekends are gone. You’re travelling all over the country and Canada, going to everybody else’s coronations representing your area. I look at the Emperor and Empress as our mascots; they must represent the best and the brightest of what our area has to offer.

When the Coronation Ball happens, it’s actually the ball of the monarch stepping down. The night you’re crowned is at the end of the last year’s celebration, where they’re celebrating their reign. We do a ceremony where we pass flowers over the grave of the Empress from Sacramento who helped set this part of California “free” (otherwise we would still be under them). So we take flowers to the cemetery in Oroville and when the flowers are passed over the grave, the old monarchs going out pass the flowers to the new monarchs coming in, and then at that second is actually when the new person’s reign begins. We’re saying goodbye to Emperor Patty and Empress Deseré, who are Regent Emperor and Empress.

Is the Ball open to the public? What’s it like? 

The Ball is open to the public.

Coronation Ball is…well, if you’ve ever seen My Fair Lady, or if you’re into all that pageantry in England with William and Kate…It’s fancy dress. Fancy fancy. We call it “crowns and gowns.” It’s all tuxedos and people from everywhere wearing their finest…four foot crowns, three foot trains, scepters, it’s very regal. There’s performances. The Friday night show is the out of town show; everybody who comes into town from everywhere gets to perform. Saturday night are the performers who are the creme de la creme, who the Emperor and Empress hand pick. The Friday night show is a little less expensive. Saturday night is very formal: it’s $40 to get in, there’s a full bar, and the entertainers; it’s all about protocol and grandeur…And I will be performing, as the founder of the group.

The founder of the whole system, who created it to begin with (who was the first openly gay man to run for public office in the U.S.) José Sarria, passed away this year at ninety-something, and so this year there’ll be a lot of tributes. He started pre-Stonewall Riots. The Court system goes back before even the gay civil rights movement as we know it. Different people have different opinions, but I believe it’s the second oldest gay organization in the world that’s still running. But José came to Chico many times. I actually once took José with me to a Brutillicus Maximus show. There was José in his little teeny crown and his widow’s weeds… He was called the Widow Norton after Emperor Norton of San Francisco, who was an eccentric [in the 1800s] who thought he was Emperor of the World and everyone treated him like he was. So when José created the Court system and created the Queens and the Empresses and all that he declared himself the Widow Norton.

…Now, I do have more shows coming up this year: there’s the New Wave Prom at the Chico Women’s Club on January 31st, and I will be returning with my historic event, Beans For Queens, on Cinco de Mayo. The theme will be “Frijoles para la Reinas: South of my Border, North of my Garter.” Other than that, they can catch the new regular drag show Dragopolis at the beautiful Maltese Taproom, happening on the 3rd Saturday of the month starting on March 15th at 10pm—hosted by Miss Claudette, all entertainers welcome. Contact me through Ultra Beautician for more info.

 

And can I just say that I love my community and it’s an honor to serve them. I am a big fan of all the drag queens, but especially my drag children!

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Managing Editor for Synthesis Weekly. Amy likes to make clothes, plant flowers, and chase butterflies.