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excerpt from Chapter 1: From Peabody to Pop

Fairy Godmothers

I was brought up in a real Christian household where, although my parents, I adore them and they're wonderful, the Mary Magdalene, that whole side of Christianity, she was definitely the whore and that was it -- next. It was a very Victorian household where you were taught to be a virgin until you were married. And I was always fascinated by the passion side of woman. I was ready to go dance in the field with Robert Plant when I was six. So, I didn't really fit into the idea of what is a good Christian woman, because that's so controlled and so fragmented.

And then I began working in the gay clubs where I learned that not only didn't you have to be a virgin, but you didn't have to be a virgin with any one sex. It was a complete contradiction. My dad was a kind of Billy Graham. But he also believed in being successful, no matter what the cost, as long as it didn't go against his beliefs. He wanted me to be successful and could therefore rationalize it. I guess you can justify anything if you want to. And he could justify letting me go to the clubs.

When I was fifteen, my father stopped acting as chaperone and I found myself working with women who were in their late twenties, and chatting with gay men all night, interrogating them about their sex lives. My mother understood the journey I was on, but there were huge screaming matches between me and my father over religious differences, which pained her a lot.

The gay men in the bars were my fairy godmothers. I never felt badly treated, never felt invaded. They didn't want anything from me physically. I felt safe. I was a little bit frumpy, by accident. I had to do the long dress at the piano at these places, but they taught me how to get the references right.

And the thing is, when I look back, that kind of exposure to the gay side of things changed my whole life. Because these guys helped dress me, they showed me how to buy shoes, they... when I made a fool of myself in front of boys at school or out on a date and I didn't know what to do -- because, you know, I was watching all these Bette Davis movies, but they didn't show a lot on, you know, what to do when you're sixteen.

The dykes gave me a great gift. "Draw your line, sister," they'd say to me, and I'd say, "But what if they do this?" and they'd tell me, "No way, there has to be a line." And that is very much a problem with women in relationships with men. They keep moving that fucking line.

There were a lot of gay waiters and they were trying to teach me style. And they taught me about fashion, how to put on the right lipstick. They taught me how a lady should sit and behave, how to carry a handbag, and how to walk. So I would come in, you know, a long dress and my hair up, and within a couple of years, they were getting me to look at magazines and open me up to Halston and, you know, "Think Paris, sweetie." So the gay boys really showed me the ropes.

They taught me, you know, how to flirt with boys, they taught me everything. I was shown how to dress, how to kiss a boy and how to be an independent woman. They taught me how to be confident and, most of all, to believe in myself. I was a tomboy. Shy. The only time I was confident was when I was at the piano. By being around the gays, I learned a lot about coming out of my shell. A lot of the ideas and concepts I hold today were given to me at an early age by gay people.

Gay men taught me about deportment and how not to be a slag and a slut, how to carry it with grace. It's true. I was working in the clubs when I was fourteen, fifteen, sixteen, which is when I ran into Joey McDonald and Ray, and they'd try to teach me how to not give it away for free, not to be so desperate: "Where's your dignity as a woman?" They would just say, "What is all this hanging out of the dress?" Not that I was doing it, but they would make me look and the waiters would sit next to me and say, "Watch and learn. What is she doing? What is she putting with that?"

And they'd check my beliefs. Somebody asked me, "What kind of woman do you want to be like?" And I'd say, "I'd want to be a rock god." "No, no, you really don't want to be that." Then I thought I wanted to be Sammy Jo from Dynasty and they'd say, "You don't want to be that, either." Joey saw another path for me, "Where you're not dependent on men for your power. I'm not bringing you up to be discarded."

I remember saying, "I want to conquer the world. I want to be an independent woman. I want to have my own business. I don't want to have to answer to a man. I really want to do it for myself." And I remember Joey McDonald saying to me, "Oh, but sweetie, do it with the right color lipstick on." They were instrumental in my development from maidenhood to womanhood.

When I was sixteen, I had forty-year-old congressmen coming on to me, which was interesting, and all the gay waiters teaching me how to give head with a cucumber. They would take me in the back on my break... and if I got teeth marks on it, I didn't get chocolate milk that night, or the customary ice-cream soda.

And so these guys coached me through everything. And I think all the homophobia and everything that I sensed when people would come in the clubs and treat my friends different really affected me, big time. There is a deep connection that I have to the gay community because those boys, you know, they really taught me how to be a woman.

And it's really funny because, as I got older, I just loved telling, you know, male, male men, when they would say, you know, "How did you get your sense of style?" And I said, "Well, the gay men in my life."

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