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Two moments from Luxury Items. Fauxnique's exploration of what she calls "collective notions of extravagance"; a promo shot; a scene from Faux Real, about what it means to be a female drag queen. Fauxnique performing a segment about lace in Luxury Items.
True & faux
How a woman became San Francisco's most fascinating—and artistically sophisticated—drag queen.
Lauren Smiley | Photo: Toby Burditt | April 18, 2012
Jean Paul Gaultier is all goofy grin, loosened tie, and sexily mussed collar as he strides into the VIP lounge of the launch party for his fashion exhibition at the de Young Museum. Queen’s “Another One Bites the Dust” beats from the amps. A runway of bonbons and chocolate-swathed bacon strips bisects the room. The designer becomes the party’s glam Saturn to ring after ring of paparazzi, hatted society ladies, fashion bloggers, and iPhone cam–wielding gawkers who probably didn’t know Gaultier from Galliano until they Googled him an hour ago. One dapper man in the scrum holds the leash to a handsome German shepherd with a “service animal” collar, as if he suffered from high-society social anxiety.
While Gaultier holds court with one of his muses, burlesque dancer Dita Von Teese, whose ivory bosom is popping out of a medieval gown, another fabulous partyer arrives with a coterie of her own: a woman in gorgeous clownish makeup (not an oxymoron, it turns out) and a tight couture dress of gauzy layers that gradually morph from powder pink at the top to fuchsia along the bottom. Her feet are arched into silver-glitter stilettos; a red fluffy tumbleweed of hair billows from her head, atop which perches a tiara of metallic leaves. She joins a growing phalanx of equally flamboyant guests to create a spectacle that competes with the world-famous designer on the opposite side of the room.
The woman is Fauxnique, and she’s not just another Gaultier groupie angling for a photo. She’s San Francisco’s most ambitious—some have said best—drag queen, and she’s taken the iconic San Francisco art form to places you would never expect. She’s as much a provocateur of androgyny in the city’s art scene as Gaultier is in international fashion: a transgressor in a genre that’s the very definition of transgression.
What makes Fauxnique such a rebel is not just her act or her appearance; it’s her gender. Fauxnique is not “she” in the way that drag queens typically go by “she” while in a corset and heels. She’s an actual woman—the alter ego of Monique Jenkinson—and she’s married to a man. (Though she won’t say whether she’s straight. “It’s not relevant,” she insists.)
Let’s deconstruct this for a moment: a woman who performs the art of a man pretending to be an over-the-top woman. A “faux queen,” in drag vernacular. It’s somewhat akin to an African American doing blackface, reclaiming the ironic identity and bringing a boomeranging perspective to the impersonation. And Jenkinson happens to be great at it.
Since stirring controversy by winning the Miss Trannyshack Pageant in 2003, Fauxnique has not only succeeded in this man’s world, she’s pushed drag out of nightclubs and into the city’s more conventional and highbrow cultural spaces. She’s created solo performance-art shows that incorporate drag for sold-out runs at theaters, leading the way for other queens (men and women) to do the same. This year, she was chosen to be an artistic fellow at the de Young Museum; one of her projects is to create a drag-inspired performance, to premiere next fall, that will be influenced by the upcoming Rudolph Nureyev show at the de Young and by the Legion of Honor’s “Cult of Beauty” exhibition. (The de Young and the Legion of Honor are sister museums.)
Meanwhile, Jenkinson is scheduled to perform a Gaultier-inspired piece at the Friday Nights at the de Young event on April 27, which she has hinted may involve faux queens, gay sailors, burkas, and Mormon underwear—while a posse of drag queens in another area of the museum create outfits with kids at the free, public event. Drag queens as family fare: It doesn’t get much more San Francisco than that. But it wouldn’t be a true S.F. phenomenon if it didn’t raise controversial questions about gender identity. What does it mean for a woman to do drag? And when a woman becomes an anointed star in a field created by gay men, for gay men, how does that sit with the guys?
Meeting Monique Jenkinson for the first time means not knowing exactly who you’re looking for. If you’ve ever seen Fauxnique—the exaggerated arched lips, the fake lashes, the face recontoured with layers of Kryolan stage makeup—it’s Jenkinson’s own attractive, angular face that’s a bit surprising. It’s as if Fauxnique had biked over to the interview disguised as a normal woman. Still, as the fortysomething artist (she won’t reveal her exact age—also “not relevant,” she says) talks at a café table inside ODC Theater in the Mission, hints of her alter ego show through. There’s the red-hot candy dye job. The eyes that widen while she makes a point. The wide carpenter’s hands that, when combined with her muscular biceps (she supplements her art by teaching yoga five days a week), make it plausible that the 5-foot-8 person in a dress at her drag show could be, or maybe once was, a man.
Yet what most women would consider a profound insult—that they look mannish—is a compliment when someone says it of Jenkinson: “I feel I’ve done my job,” she says. Where does a woman with such a viewpoint come from?
Ironically, Jenkinson’s artistic life started in ballet, the dance form with the most restrictive views of what a man and a woman should look like. Growing up taller than most of the other dancers in suburban Colorado in the 1980s, Jenkinson was handed the strong character roles—the Spanish dancer in The Nutcracker—and was told she couldn’t get any bigger. She thrived on ballet’s discipline and rules, yet in high school, she started rebelling against the bun-head mentality when she discovered David Bowie, Boy George, and the Cure. Her wardrobe took a turn toward vintage, her ideals toward the feminist. Her friends were the other nonconformists—theater geeks, punks, gays—at what she calls her “Christian conservative suburban football-cheerleader school.”
At a summer theater program at Northwestern University, Jenkinson met a boy from the East Bay who had been gay-bashed in high school for, as she puts it, “a weird haircut that they read as queer.” Now they’re married and live in the Mission. His name is Marc Kate, and he’s a techno musician. Jenkinson’s drag queen friends call him simply “Husband.”
Jenkinson ditched the toe shoes to escape to ultra-artsy Bennington College in Vermont, where she studied contemporary dance and literature. In the early ’90s, she moved to San Francisco to launch a dance career, but she was uninspired by the minimalist zeitgeist in dance at the time; the anti-spectacle philosophy left her yearning for some sequins and a bit of glitz. “I like to entertain, and I like to connect,” she says.
Jenkinson found nirvana in 1998 when a friend took her to Trannyshack, the Tuesday night drag show at the Stud in SoMa. There were two main forms of drag in San Francisco at the time: the old-guard, man-in-pads-and-a-dress trying to pass as female while lip-synching Streisand, which you can still see at venues like Marlena’s in Hayes Valley, and the raucous flip-the-bird-to-rules new school growing up at Trannyshack, a punk and heavy metal show that included wildly irreverent acts, backup dancers, performers who didn’t care if they looked half-man, and gobs of fake blood. With themes like “Cracked-Out Divas Night” and “Weapons of Ass Destruction,” it wasn’t unheard of for a performer to, say, pull an American flag out of his backside to the national anthem or, on the tamer end, munch noodles in a panda suit.
In both schools of drag, the relationship with women was, and is, complex. Some say drag is an homage to the glammed-up female entertainers of yesteryear; others think it’s a parody that perpetuates a hypersexualized view of women. Some of the raunchier numbers at Trannyshack even verge on degrading, like Snow White stripping off her dress to reveal a female nude suit and then getting humped by a rapping dwarf.
Yet complicating the picture is the fact that San Francisco’s more feisty drag circles have always been receptive to female performers, going back at least to when a woman performed in drag in the psychedelic theater troupe the Cockettes in the ’60s. A faux queen pageant ran from the mid-’90s until a few years ago. (The flyer one year read, “Are you a drag queen trapped in a female body?”) On Jenkinson’s first night at Trannyshack, she spotted Ana Matronic, a Trannyshack faux queen who would go on to fame with the band Scissor Sisters. Jenkinson also
saw equally provocative male performers like Juanita More, Glamamore, and the Steve Lady “and was inspired and floored and changed and, um, ruined,” she says with a laugh. “There was a strong and shameless sense of entertainment, connection, and play at Trannyshack that woke that part of me up.”
While performing in dance companies, and at one point working at Stormy Leather, the woman-run fetish boutique, Jenkinson went to Trannyshack weekly for four years as “a screaming fan,” and absorbed the technique along the way. She ventured onstage herself as Glory Holesome. Being the studious “good girl” had gotten Jenkinson out of Colorado; the go-to-bed-early rigor had helped her reap success in dance. Now, that discipline would make her into a formidable drag queen.
In fact, artistic rigor soon became one of Jenkinson’s trademarks among the envelope-pushing performances at Trannyshack. She almost always pursued highbrow concepts with a focus on dance. She can patter on toe shoes while lip-synching a goth post-punk song as the black swan. Perform Björk, twitching like a geisha off her meds. Pose like an androgynous mannequin singing Rufus Wainwright while an assistant drapes her in a series of couture looks made out of fashion magazine pages. On a recent night at the Stud, the onetime lit major embodied three suicidal writers: Virginia Woolf walking with rocks in her pockets into blue fabric water, Sylvia Plath sticking her head in an oven, then Anne Sexton gassing herself.
Jenkinson always put in hours of preparation, partly because she didn’t want to act as if just being an actual woman was enough. “I felt I had to go above and beyond to prove myself as a performer.” Mr. David, a San Francisco drag icon and fashion designer who coached Jenkinson in the early years, agrees. “When you’re a woman doing it, you have to push the envelope so people understand that you’re in it with them—it’s not just ‘I can be a girl and put on lipstick,’” he says. “That won’t get you very far in the drag world.”
In 2003, Jenkinson decided to test her particular brand of drag by competing in the Trannyshack pageant at City Nights—“I’m like, wow, the opportunity to perform in front of 1,000 people!”—and seized the moment to rechristen herself Fauxnique: “I like playing with the insinuation that what I do is not real.” The number started with a mockumentary that showed her as a refugee from Fauniqueenistan trying to get a dancing gig in San Francisco. She then emerged from a cocoon lip-synching Elton John’s “Someone Saved My Life Tonight,” ending on toe shoes with 20-foot wings extending out of her back. Fauxnique took the grand prize. “The only ones who seemed to be outraged were the ones who didn’t win,” recalls Trannyshack founder Heklina.
Heklina later defended the choice on KQED’s Forum when Hedda Lettuce, a New York drag legend, asked, “Doesn’t it dilute the edge if you have a woman winning the pageant?” Heklina insisted then, as now, that drag is about performance, not identity: “In my circles, at least, there’s not the thing of ‘You’re a woman; you can’t do this!’” Mica Sigourney, a San Francisco drag queen who performs as VivvyAnne ForeverMore, says there are drag queens who aren’t happy about women doing drag—but he attributes that to either “just misogyny” or territorialism. “I think it’s straight-up ‘I’m a gay man, and this is my thing.’”
Jenkinson eventually incorporated her drag persona into her theater work. In 2007, she became a resident at Counterpulse and ODC, where she created a full-length production, called Faux Real, for which she strung together a series of drag numbers to produce an autobiographical sketch of her path to becoming a faux queen. The show had two runs at the Climate Theater and later took the stage in London, New York, and New Orleans. This month she’ll be taking it to Seattle.
Jenkinson also began performing from time to time at the de Young’s Friday Nights series, doing a mix of pieces that fell intriguingly into the space between drag and performance art. On one occasion, she performed high-heel acrobatics in one of the galleries, running wall-to-wall in 8-inch stiletto platforms, jumping on and off a foot-high stage, then teetering sideways off her shoes until she was resting on the edges of her own feet. It was a tour de force of balance and agility that reaped gasps from spectators. She ended by ditching the stilettos, climbing to the top of a 4-foot sculpture of high heels, and announcing, “One must have a platform! One must stand for something!”
In 2008, Jenkinson was cast, to mixed reviews, as Edie Sedgwick in a musical at Hollywood’s Met Theater—she wasn’t in drag, but the practice of “pretending” to be a woman certainly helped her embody the waif. “Coming from being a too tall, too big, too masculine ballet dancer to being this elfin Edie Sedgwick—what allowed me to do that was being a drag queen: to be able to suspend your disbelief.” And in 2009, she created a drag-influenced series of characters for her fourth solo show, Luxury Items, which explored the dark and guilty side of glamour (Fauxnique gets into an argument with Coco Chanel for sleeping with a Nazi in order to keep her shop open).
“Monique is both entertaining and rigorous,” says Jessica Robinson Love, executive and artistic director of Counterpulse. “She’s a master at taking sophisticated concepts and illustrating them in an accessible way.” But that doesn’t keep her from demanding respect for an art that most people associate with camp, fake boobs, and drunken barroom audiences. Expect to be corrected if you call one of her numbers a skit: She prefers the term “performance.” Audience rowdies beware: She says she’s mildly annoyed by spectators who record her performances and post them on YouTube without permission, and in one of her solo shows, she recounted swiping the forehead of a blabbermouth who was talking over the show at the Stud.
The MC’s banter at the LGBT Center’s 10th- anniversary benefit in late March was turning into a Fauxnique lovefest. “I am the president of her fan club!” declared comedian Marga Gomez. The A-gays had turned out for the French soiree–themed night—men in power suits, women in power suits, assembly-man Tom Ammiano and state senator Mark Leno wandering about, tickets $125 a head.
Fauxnique sauntered onstage accompanied by a female duo gliding through a 1930s-era waltz. One was in a tux; the other, a ballgown. Fauxnique was wearing a curly white bob wig and the makeup of a 1930s movie chanteuse. She lip-synched the lyrics of the French song that was playing, as if reading them off the love letters in her hand, overenunciating the words in the style of an old vaudeville performer: “De temps en temps / J’ai des flèches plantées au coeur.” She yawned theatrically, held her lorgnette to the page, and tore the letters up before sashaying offstage to serious howls and applause. Gomez gushed some more: “Fauxnique: Remember that name!”
As a fellow at the de Young this year, Jenkinson will have access to the curators, libraries, and exhibitions—including the Legion of Honor’s “Cult of Beauty” and the de Young’s Rudolph Nureyev show—to create performances to be premiered at Counterpulse next fall. Renee Baldocchi, the de Young’s coordinator of public programs, explains what museumgoers will get out of the deal. “Jenkinson educates us about a culture in San Francisco that most people who come to the museum aren’t familiar with. They come away with a new take, one that’s more validating and respectful.”
Of course, Jenkinson’s enormous talent aside, Mr. David says it helps to be an articulate, well-educated woman when seeking entrée into places like the de Young. Jenkinson speaks the language of the art world—she talks about “modes” of performance and erasing “gender essentialism” and urges you to read her artistic statement on her very professional website. “She can go on the museum panel, and people aren’t going to be looking at her weird like she’s a crazy tranny,” Mr. David says. “But [once she gets in the door], she’s like, ‘I’m a drag queen, and I’m going to show you I can be as nuts as a Tenderloin queen.’ I think that’s why she’s been so successful, because she has that balance.”
Far from hoarding all the success for herself, Fauxnique has used her cachet to help others in the drag scene. There was Fauxnique near midnight on a Friday in February—reading from Edward Lear’s nonsense ballad “The Owl and the Pussycat” (“What a beautiful pussy you are!”) to kick off another queen’s number at the Stud. There was Fauxnique again—appearing as the “Deus ex Machina” at the end of fellow faux queen Trixxie Carr’s recent show at Counterpulse. Mica Sigourney, who now hosts his own drag show at the Stud each Friday night, acted as Fauxnique’s onstage assistant in the first production of Faux Real. He credits Fauxnique with helping him hone his technique for a show of his own. “Seeing her as my friend, my mentor, I’m like, ‘I can do this, too.’” In late March, Sigourney debuted a theater work as a resident artist at Counterpulse, with Fauxnique’s letter of recommendation hanging in the lobby.
Still, Jenkinson says her goal is to do more—more fellowships, more shows. She wants to travel to see the world through her work and to continue to collaborate with artists who inspire her. The day after the opening party, she finally got to talk to the designer when she was invited into the green room at the museum after he gave a talk. “I told him, ‘I’m a fellow here, and I’m making a piece inspired by your work, especially by the way you deal with difference and embracing multiple modes of beauty.’ And he’s like, ‘Zis is great! I must come back to zee zis!’” Jenkinson recalls. Gaultier also had a compliment for her DayGlo locks. “He’s like, ‘Oh, I love zis hair!’”