The first time my daughter Maxine saw a drag queen she was three. We were driving through San Francisco and stopped at 16th and Market in the Castro A broad-shouldered, red-wigged, Pucci-patterned, platform-shod six-foot-something flounced across the road in front of our rental car, and I began rehearsing explanations in my head. But Maxine rolled down her window and screamed, “I LOVE YOU, BEAUTIFUL LADY!”
And really, what was there to add?
A block from where that interaction took place is the home of the original Drag Queen Story Hour, at the Harvey Milk Memorial Public Library/Eureka Branch, a regular event created by the LGBTQA literary non-profit RADAR Productions to bring together two audiences with a natural affinity for one another: Kids and drag queens. (Both love dress-up and exuberance and confounding boring people’s expectations.)
Now, RADAR Productions is working with the Feminist Press and the Brooklyn Public Library to bring this bedazzled event to kids on the other side of the country. “Drag Queen Story Hour breaks down our most stifling ideas about gender while lifting up play, fierceness, and femininity for all,” said Jennifer Baumgardner, the Feminist Press’s publisher.
On September 17 at the Park Slope library branch, as part of the Brooklyn Book Festival, Lil Miss Hot Mess will read from Tatterhood: Feminist Folktales from Around the World, a newly republished version of the 1978 bestseller. When I saw a picture of Lil Miss Hot Mess, I promptly thought, “That is a Jewish girl.” So I reached out to the Feminist Press for confirmation, and was promptly emailed a link to a video of Lil Miss Hot Mess performing Peter, Paul and Mary’s “Light One Candle” as a sexy gold light-up human menorah. So yes.
I met Lil Miss Hot Mess for coffee this week in Greenwich Village. She’d recently switched coasts to begin grad school at NYU. “Why read to kids?” I asked.
“Drag queens and kids are a natural fit, but also transgressive, duh,” she told me. “It’s the final frontier for drag queens! Kids don’t have the baggage of gender; they’re full of excitement around play and glamour. In San Francisco I was doing a shoot for an ice cream store and there was a little girl watching, just staring at me. I was like a princess or a superhero to her. Kids pick up on the extra bit of fantasy. We were introduced and she was so polite. [She said] ‘How do you doooo?’ as if I were the queen. She was clearly looking for the language to talk to me.”
At a conference in Berkeley for gender non-conforming kids, Lil Miss performed “It’s Not Easy Being Green” while dressed as a green crayon and showing off her drawings. “I have never felt so much like I got my audience,” she said with a smile.
And yes, Lil Miss Hot Mess is very, very Jewish. “I had a bar mitzvah—my first big sold-out performance!” she noted. “I was raised Reform and asked to go to Hebrew school; I was that kind of nerdy kid. I was active in my temple youth group in high school and went to Jewish camps. As an adult I threw myself a bat mitzvah…twice.”
Raised in the mid-Atlantic, she went to Swarthmore and began working for progressive non-profits. She was also an organizer of the #mynameis campaign to allow drag queens, survivors of domestic violence, political dissidents, and transgender people to use Facebook without revealing their birth names, for reasons of privacy and safety. “We try to build solidarity with other communities—we can all be harassed easily,” she said. “As someone who does media studies, I think we need to be discussing the way marginalized communities are affected by digital culture.”
Meanwhile, her drag personae reflect her Jewishness. “I’ve done Awkward Jewish Girl, Jewish Mother, Bette Midler,” she rattled off. “And I’m trying to corner the market on Hillary Clinton. To me drag is about upending assumptions—not just about gender but about politics and culture. That’s why I tap into Jewish tropes—it flips things on their heads. I did think about calling myself Cookie Manischewitz, but that’s too limiting.”
Lil Miss Hot Mess said that her feelings about Judaism became somewhat conflicted as she became involved in San Francisco’s Occupy movement, protesting Israel’s policies toward the Palestinians. Perhaps, I suggested, her Jewish drag characters were a way to feel more embracing toward her religion. “It’s definitely a way of reconnecting with my Jewish identity,” she allowed.
When not reading stories to tots, she’s beginning to expand her New York City performance circles. This weekend she’ll perform at Bushwig, the reincarnation of Wigstock.
“And I do bar mitzvahs,” she said. “Get in touch.”
Marjorie Ingall is a former columnist for Tablet, the author of Mamaleh Knows Best, and a frequent contributor to the New York Times Book Review.