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William J. Mann

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The Gays Behind Barbra (And Nearly Every Other Gay Icon)

Posted: 10/16/2012 6:05 pm

As I travel around the country for my book Hello Gorgeous: Becoming Barbra Streisand, I've been getting some surprised reactions from interviewers and readers about how many gay men helped shape Barbra's look, sound and stage presence at the beginning of her career. Isn't it ironic, they ask me, that she would then go on to become such a quintessential gay icon?

Actually, it's not ironic at all. In the early 1960s, when Streisand was just starting out, gay audiences instinctively recognized something very familiar about her, a shared sensibility. That was only logical, given that her sensibility had been nurtured by gay men, after all. And this was hardly a new phenomenon. Virtually every other significant gay icon had followed the same path. Almost to a dame -- from Mae West to Lady Gaga -- the greatest gay icons have been molded early in their careers by gay mentors and collaborators.

Now, before anyone protests that I'm making too much of a claim here, let me add that, of course, Streisand (and her fellow icons) first had to have that certain X factor, that magical star quality, as well as heaps of talent. Without any of that, even the best gay Svengalis couldn't do much. But when we go looking for the reasons why certain stars -- Streisand, West, Gaga, Judy Garland, Madonna, Marilyn Monroe -- have such appeal for gay men and inspire such devoted gay followings, I think we have to pay careful consideration to who and what influenced them in their formative years.

As I document in my book, the young Streisand was surrounded by a triumvirate of gay men who contributed enormously to how she was first presented to the world. Her boyfriend Barry Dennen (who would later come out as gay) was one of the first to recognize the gift of Barbra's voice and encourage her to pursue work as a singer. Dennen introduced Barbra to the music of all the legendary chanteuses, from Helen Kane to Mabel Mercer to Billie Holliday to Judy Garland, while helping her develop her singing style and stage banter. Barbra's pal Terry Leong taught her about fashion, creating her whimsical, thrift-shop, avant-garde clothing sense. Another pal, Bob Schulenberg, polished her look, aiming for a more "goddess-like" style and creating Barbra's signature eye makeup and early hairstyles.

So it was this heavily gay-influenced creature who walked onto the stage at the Lion, a gay bar, and wowed everybody present. Word spread quickly through New York's gay communities that this Streisand kid was special. Soon she was dazzling at other nightclubs with large lavender followings, including the Bon Soir and the Blue Angel. Among those in the audience who recognized something magical about Barbra was Arthur Laurents, one of the least disguised gay men to ever work in the theater. Laurents cast Streisand in I Can Get It for You Wholesale and refined her persona even more. This was the show that launched Barbra on her swift rise to the top.

For longtime theater aficionados, however, Streisand's gay tutelage was acknowledged as merely part of a long tradition, one with a very impressive track record. At the beginning of the 20th century, a bawdy, busty young woman by the name of Mary Jane West was inspired by the campy, cheeky female impersonator Bert Savoy and other drag-queen pals to create her own stage persona, which she called Mae West. As a young, wide-eyed innocent in Hollywood, Lucille LeSueur was lucky that her first friend at MGM was top actor William Haines, who was unapologetically gay and supremely talented at star making. It was Haines who helped turn Lucille into Joan Crawford.

Katharine Hepburn's early screen image -- tomboyish, defiant and subversive -- was molded by the gay director George Cukor. Judy Garland, right from her days as a child star, was modeled into the icon she would become by a series of gay mentors who helped her develop her singing style and stage persona. Among them were composer-producer Roger Edens, director Charles Walters and director Vincente Minnelli (whom she'd marry). Marilyn Monroe relied on gay choreographer Jack Cole not just for dance moves but also for help in how she looked, how she sounded and how she dealt with the studio and the press.

The tradition continued. Cher had Bob Mackie and others. Liza Minnelli had more gay godfathers than most, given all the gay men who surrounded her mother. Bette Midler emerged straight out of the gay baths; who would she be without Bruce Vilanch? Madonna came out of the New York gay scene of the late 1970s and early '80s and has paid tribute to the formative impact of such gay friends as Keith Haring and Martin Burgoyne. Thirty years later Lady Gaga blossomed within a similar milieu, influenced by gay club kids and musicians. Her very name is a tribute to Freddie Mercury and Queen, after their song "Radio Ga Ga." Today practically every new female celebrity makes a show of her gay collaborators and fan base, trying hard to cultivate gay iconhood. They've seen how well it's worked for Barbra, Judy and the rest.

Again, none of this takes away from the talent or star appeal of these legendary ladies. The magic has to come first from inside. If Streisand wasn't as spectacular as her early handlers -- gay and straight -- believed, then she wouldn't have become the superstar she remains. But it shouldn't be surprising to learn that gay men have played significant parts in the creation of gay icons. It used to be said that behind every great man was a woman. What seems to be more true is that behind every great gay icon is a gay man (or two or three or 20).

 
 
 
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