The Past I Heard …



By Buddy Early, May 2019 Issue.

To

celebrate Echo’s 30th birthday, this year I will be catching up with

some of Arizona’s LGBT personalities from past and present to revisit the

people, places and events that helped shape our community.

It’s pretty well-established that drag

queens are some of our community’s greatest historians and storytellers. Many

seem to have an iron-clad memory and are not shy about regaling their audiences

with stories of how things used to be.

The first time I met Pussy LeHoot (who

sometimes goes by Kevin McSweeney) was at one of her shows at the 307 Lounge in

the late 90s. The circumstances are a blur, but I can tell you that several of

us ended up at a sketchy motel along the I-17 corridor for an after-hours

party. We were, as we say, in our cups, and Pussy eventually began to throw out

names of performers and bars of which I was unfamiliar.

With the passing of the legendary Miss

Ebony in 2013, Pussy has become the de facto oral historian of all things

drag-related in Phoenix.

Pussy LeHoot as Carlotta Sales in the mid-’80s.

Soon to celebrate 40 years in show business

— in her first talent show in 1979, her Dolly Parton was runner-up to eventual good

friend Penelope Poupe’, who performed Frank-N-Furter from The Rocky Horror

Show — Pussy is the last remaining performer from the era that shaped

Phoenix drag. The other entertainers she twirled with in the early 1980s have

all either died or retired, she told me matter-of-factly.

“A lot of them were forced into retirement

because they just didn’t age well,” she said.

Somehow, through the changing drag

landscape, including trends in music and fashion, through bar closings and hard

times, through the AIDS crisis and the fight for equality, Pussy has remained a

fixture on Valley stages. She has witnessed hundreds of queens come and go,

countless feuds, stunts, wig-snatchings and run-of-the-mill dramatics.  But it was those shows in the 80s, what I’ve

often heard people describe as the hey-day of Phoenix drag, that I was most

curious about when I sat down with Pussy in early April.

“It was just so much fun,” she remembered.

“People would just go crazy for the numbers.”

The show pay was not very good, and neither

were the tips. But the queens were not in it for the money; they were

entertainers. Stage time was valued, and certainly nobody complained about

having to perform too often.

“I would have done if for free. I was just

so excited.”

“Every night was amazing because I was just

so happy to be getting into drag,” said Pussy, recalling that the style then

was very “draggy.” Gowns, feathers, dusters, bottom lashes and giant jewelry

were the norm. While over the years more and more drags queens have gotten away

with wearing street clothes on stage, Pussy still likes to feature old-school

glamour. And why not? She’s put in the work.

Humble Beginnings

At age 17 Pussy

drove down from Flagstaff to watch her first drag show. It was 1978, and the

show at Casa de Roma at 16th Street and Indian School Road starred

local favorites Joanne, Charlene Champagne, Miss Ebony and Woo Woo, as well as

traveling queen (and Donna Summer look-alike) Carmen del Rio.

“I went back to Flagstaff and I was

obsessed. I thought ‘this is what I want to do.’”

Yes, she lost that aforementioned talent

show when she returned the next summer, but determination brought her back in

1980 and she won. Shortly after, she graduated beauty school in Flagstaff and

moved to Phoenix that same day. Tish Tanner, who ran the gig at Harpo’s at 1st

Avenue and McDowell Road, and who’d become Pussy’s drag mother, rolled the dice

and put her in the show alongside regular cast members Tamara and Nikki

Alexander.

“There wasn’t really room in the budget so

Tish cut Nikki’s pay.” The two of them would split $50. That was for two

night’s work.

If you’ve come to know Pussy over the years

as a queen with flawless makeup skills you might be surprised to learn she got

her first tutorial from Tish: “The Clown Princess of the Southwest.” That meant

a layer of clown white all over the face, a layer of Max Factor Pancake, and

then Pan Stick. “You were like an inch deep,” she told me through laughter. “I

finally realized this is ridiculous!”

Pussy LeHoot.

(Plenty of other lessons she learned from

Tish stuck, however. When the name Pussy LeHoot appeared in the AZ Gay News,

Tish told her she couldn’t change her name “now that it’s in print.” If not for

that Shamoo’s ad cementing matters, which she said was her greatest moment, she

probably would’ve changed her name to something more “fish.” Mother was

definitely right, saving us from knowing Pussy as an Ashley, Teresa, Vivian or

Kimberly.)

When Harpo’s closed, the cast scattered to

places like Shamoo’s at 24th Street and Thomas Road and Sammy’s

Steakhouse at 20th Street and McDowell. Pussy ran the spotlight at

Shamoo’s until some queen got fired and she was elevated to the cast. One

particular night, when showrunner Joanne needed to stall, Pussy was handed a

microphone and the rest is herstory.

“The crowd lived,” if she does say so

herself.

Perhaps that was the night glamour met

comedy, which has been Pussy’s trademark persona now for nearly four decades.

She quickly developed a persona that included her comedy as well as numbers

from Better Midler and Dolly Parton and other country artists, aiding her in

snagging regular work in a town where there were only 10-15 relevant queens but

few spotlights to be found.

“There was a small (drag) community … but

(we) were all pretty tight.”

Tish, Joanne,

Penelope, Ebony, Cissy Goldberg, Misty McCrae, Moosala, Lady Cassondra and

Tamara — “she was the hottest thing going”— are queens Pussy has fond memories

of performing with. The crowds were great, she said, even if the tips were not.

Other bars and other queens eventually entered the scene: Bullwinkle’s and 307;

Devina and Melissa Lorence. Then in the 1990s it was Wink’s and Foster’s, Celia

Putty and Barbra Seville. Drag was becoming more sought-after, although the

magic of that hey-day would not exactly be recaptured.

Community Growing Pains

The entertainment

industry was hit hard by the AIDS epidemic of the 1980s, and the drag scene was

unquestionably no different. Many of the performers of the era smiled through

their illness and danced through their pain. Lives and careers were cut short.

The social scene in general was severely impacted, as people would routinely

show up to the bars to find out who passed the previous week.

“I was actually at Shamoo’s when I first

heard (of the disease),” said Pussy. “Before that we were doing benefits for

Muscular Dystrophy.”

Everything changed.

“The little newspaper we had was, like, 3-4

pages of obituaries every two weeks.”

Pussy marveled at how she made it through

the era safely. But if it wasn’t a deadly disease threatening the community it

was something else, either external dangers or internal strife.

“Bars didn’t have their names on the

outside and most of the entrances were in the rear,” said Pussy, pointing to

the threat of hate crimes before they were even called such. While people felt

safe inside establishments, the gay bars were not always in the safest

neighborhoods. The East McDowell Corridor was dotted with gay bars; the area

was the same then as it is now. And the 307 Lounge and Cruisin’ Central were in

or near what we now call the trendy Roosevelt Row, an area that at that time

was ground zero for drugs, prostitution and crime.

“It was a rough place,” Pussy said of 307,

but people looked out for their brothers. She told me a heartwarming story

about gay hustlers who, not being able to secure dates for the night, would

come to the bar and have a drag queen give them shelter until morning.

“Tish said she could always count on

getting her refrigerator cleaned out.”

The discord from within was often just as

troubling as outside dangers.

“The community was very segregated,” she

recalled.

There were men’s bars and women’s bars, and

more often than not those bars were not welcoming to everyone. Pussy cited

instances where she was kicked out of Incognito for being a man and escorted

out of the Bum Steer for being a drag queen. “But every bar, even if they

talked bad about drag, we’d be the first they call for a benefit, or because

they want to draw a crowd.”

So, some things have not changed.

No Slowing Down

These days Pussy

rarely strays from her home bar of Charlie’s, where she has been the

diva-in-residence for nearly two decades. While it was not in her initial plan

to be doing this all these years later, she says she has no intention of retiring.

Cutting back on traditional drag shows has allowed her to move into the

stand-up comedy arena. She’s already performed at comedy venues around Phoenix

and southern California to great receptions, giving her the courage and

motivation to pursue it further. Her June 14 set at CB Live at Desert Ridge

Marketplace will be filmed and — she hopes — will lead to her own Netflix

special.

Never accuse Pussy LeHoot of being stuck in

the past. Sure, she might still perform Linda Ronstadt and Juice Newton (“Angel

of the Morning” will forever be my request), but you don’t hang around in the

business without evolving and keeping audiences entertained. The focus on

stand-up comedy, a craft that can be brutally discouraging and where success

takes patience, is proof that she is not leaving the game any time soon.

“Either you

go on RuPaul, or you make your own,” she said. “I figured I’d have

better luck at this than going on RuPaul. I don’t have enough

tattoos.”




Financial Planning for the LGBTQ+ community

The new year has arrived. For many people, that means making resolutions and thinking of ways they can do better in the coming year and beyond. Money management and financial planning are often very popular resolutions and goals, but most financial advice tends to be aimed at heterosexual couples who want to grow their family and raise children.

But, what if your life goals are different? What if you don’t receive the same protection under the current laws as hetero couples?
What if you don’t want to have kids?

Keep reading Show less
Photo courtesy of Joe Eats World

Slane Irish Whiskey bottles

Disclaimer: My trip was provided courtesy of a press trip but all opinions about the trip and events are my own. Please note there are affiliate links and at no additional cost to you, I may earn a commission if you make a purchase.

Keep reading Show less
Photo by Tim Mossholder on Unsplash

Mental Health for LGBTQ+ Aging Adults

Queer elders have made a big impact on the world. Queer folks over the age of 65 were around during the Stonewall Movement in the 1960s and may have even campaigned to improve the rights and freedoms of LGBTQ+ people around the world.

But, as queer elders enter later life, they may need to find new ways to protect and preserve their mental health.

Keep reading Show less