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Drag Queens Don't Get Fat

01/12/2012 08:09 pm ET | Updated Feb 02, 2016

The fabulous Simon Doonan has a new book out called Gay Men Don't Get Fat, which purportedly proves that gay men -- with our fashion sense, knack for accessories, and caloric, if not colonic, wisdom -- are actually French women. Now, I normally consider Simon infallible on matters fashionable and gay. But when I was in France a while ago, I had a life-changing insight that now gives me an ever-so-slight quibble with his thesis. So in deference to Doonan, let me explain.

My insight came after I had struggled to speak French in the very gay Marais and discovered that despite all my efforts, I still had significant language problems. In my case, the biggest problem was not syntax or subjunctives or gender, as horrendous as they are. It was my "Madame" problem.

In French, a major rule of linguistic etiquette is that everyone is either "Monsieur" or "Madame" or "Mademoiselle." No one is ever, under any circumstances, no one. If the maître d' at your local bistro gives you a warm, "Bonsoir, Monsieur," and you reply, simply, "Bonsoir," omitting the "Monsieur," you might as well have said, "J'ai baisé ta mère." (Go ahead, look it up.) Bid a sad adieu to the complimentary apéritif and say hello to the rickety table next to the reeking abattoir.

In my case, I had no problem saying "Monsieur" and "Mademoiselle." My problem was "Madame," thanks to Roger, my Fire Island roommate back in the '90s. For some reason, Roger's Fire Island nickname -- due to some drug-saturated moment in some disco no one alive remembers, years before I met him -- is Madame Roget, pronounced "ma-damme row-zhay." Or, if you know him well, simply Madame.

I never found anything particularly strange about Roger's nickname, since the custom of giving feminine nicknames to gay men has a long and distinguished history. In the 1700s "sodomite inns" in England were called "Molly Houses," and it just picked up steam from there. When I first moved to New York in the '70s, gay men of a certain age used "Mary" like slackers today use "dude." Referring to other gay men as "she," "her," and "bitch" was nearly universal. No one could escape, no matter how buffed or butch. I remember admiring a particularly masculine number from across a gay bar one evening when an older friend sneered, "Her? Oh, please. Mary may look like Tarzan, but she talks like Jane." And "Mary" could be taken to almost Wagnerian -- or Warholian -- extremes. One gay writer had a friend who described his elderly father's gall bladder operation in terms like, "Yeah, Mary had a rough time in post-op, but she's finally taking solid food." That, most agreed, was going too far. My own rock 'n' roll generation thought "Mary" was pathetically dated, but we had our equivalents: "Miss Thing," for example, when you were being bitchy ("If Miss Thing thinks she's wearing that to Stephen Sprouse's fashion show..."), or "Missy" when you were slyly admiring someone's sexual or drug-taking audacity ("Missy has a lot of explaining to do about the Mudd Club last night").

So Roger was simply Madame, no questions asked. Thanks to him, "Madame" became a universal signifier that turned every mundane Cherry Grove moment into Les Liaisons dangereuses. For example, Roger unexpectedly arriving on the beach with a tray of frozen margaritas: "Oh là là, Madame is being far too kind. Whatever can she want?" Or Roger stumbling out of his bedroom at 2 in the afternoon: "Madame had, perhaps, an illuminating evening?" Or Roger trying on high heels for the drag Invasion of the Pines: "Madame is, I fear, listing a tad to the left." As the Fire Island summers passed, "Madame" ceased to be the French word for a married woman and became the code word for Cherry Grove's most carelessly shaved citizen, a trope, a "Molly House" of our own private Idaho. "Madame could perhaps profit from a razor, no?" we would whisper among ourselves, much as we loved her.

Flash forward to Paris. I'm walking out of the intimate lobby of the Hôtel Andréa Rivoli in the Marais. Tiny lobby. No escape. The kindly proprietress, who thinks she's my only friend in Paris, calls out in high French, "Bonsoir, Monsieur." And I know the drill. I know what I'm supposed to say. But I can't. I simply cannot say, "Bonsoir, Ma-damme." It's just too gay. It's like saying, "Bonsoir, you grizzled old chicken hawk." Or like saying, as Tallulah Bankhead reportedly said to Cardinal Cooke as he swung his smoking censer during some morning-after Mass, "Love your drag, darling, but your purse is on fire." So I meekly mumble, "Bonsoir," and try to slink out. The proprietress freezes just slightly, her Gallic joie de vivre tensing into je ne sais quois. I snivel off into Anglo-Saxon ignominy, years of self-taught French down the drain. When I return later that evening, there's no need to order ice from room service.

Anyway, that was my "Madame" problem. Until I got to the beautiful city of Bordeaux, the wine capital of France. There I had a revelation. Bordeaux is not Paris. It's the provinces. And in the provinces you see things more clearly. What I saw looking around at the lovely women of Bordeaux is that drag queens essentially are -- and always have been -- not faux women but faux French women.

The whole drag thing -- the winks, the nods, the fluted fans and flouncy skirts, the world-weary cigarette stains, the breathless oh-là-làs -- these are not Hollywood-movie-star mannerisms, not at root. Generations of drag queens may have thought they were imitating Bette or Joan or Judy or Cher, but dig deeper and you realize that those American divas themselves were imitating the belles dames of France. There's nothing Anglo-Saxon about any of it. French women, after all, were perfecting the art of makeup when scrub-faced American women were hauling prairie schooners out of Duluth. French women were cooking up l'amour in the afternoon when American women were pounding meatloaf in the morning. French women invented fashion, perfume, etiquette, lingerie, bustiers, douches, French poodles! If drag is about the true grit beneath the trompe-l'œil of vulnerability, the determined thrift that turns a flea market rag into a fabulous fake Dior, it goes back much further than the stage sets of Hollywood, to the far stagier sets of France, and to the women who dressed those sets with elegance and refinement, who dipped the coarse bread of reality into the chocolate of dreams. Is it mere coincidence that the greatest drag band was called The Cockettes? That Charles Ludlum's greatest drag play was Camille?

Looking around at the elegant but tough dames of Bordeaux -- each one pulling off a perfect Edith Piaf, a Mimi, even the occasional Madame de Pompadour -- I suddenly saw that drag is simply another timeless French cultural gift to the world, with perhaps two petite degrees of separation. And I knew what I had to do. Don't resist your inner "Madame," I told myself. Go with her. Pay her tribute. You're not dissing these dames when you call them "Madame"; you're acknowledging the depth of their culture, their history, their pre-modern feminism wrapped in a tough-as-nails fashion sense.

That evening, as I left my Bordeaux hotel, the kindly proprietress sang out, "Bonne soirée, Monsieur." For a second, I reflexively froze. Then I turned and admired her elaborate coiffure, her bee-stung lips and rouged cheeks, the rakish way her foulard was tossed around her neck as she daintily multitasked through a pile of bills and government forms relating to solid waste disposal, an unfiltered Gauloise coquettishly turning the air around her into a flattering fog. It was all so familiar, so... Cherry Grove. I swelled with confidence.

"Bonne soirée, Madame," I called back.

I think I may have mumbled the "bonne soirée." But the "Madame" rang out like the bells of Notre-Dame. And I felt like I finally understood my history, my people, and the seamless queens of history from Marie Antoinette to RuPaul.

All I could add was: Voilà!