The Past I Heard …
By Buddy Early, May 2019 Issue.
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.
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
“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.
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
“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
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!”
(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
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
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.”
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
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
“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
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
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.
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