What is Drag in Cleveland, Ohio? Charlie Koenig

All I want is to be remembered for what I did and that I entertained people for a brief moment.

There is also so much talk of what should or should not be included in Pride. We often forget those that came before us and paved the way for us to be able to say what we feel is or is not a part of drag. We often forget our elders and what they went through to create this place we occupy now. Many of these freedoms were fiercely won by the drag community and our fellow transgender brothers and sisters. I would like to dedicate a few posts to those elders that fought so hard for us. Please join me in celebrating them.

Charlie Koenig Drag queen, activits, artist, and author.
Charlie Koenig Drag queen, activits, artist, and author.

Charlie Koenig is an Ohio drag queen. Charlie is 54 years of age and was raised in Welshfield, Ohio in Geauga County. He moved to Cleveland in 1991 and became a big part if the drag scene. His first appearance in drag was in 1985, while living in Ft. Lauderdale, Florida. Charlie is an activist and drag performer. Charlie got his starts in activism in the days of Queer Nation and ACT UP. He is a thirty year survivor of AIDS and a multi-faceted artist. Charlie has a BA in English, an MFA in Creative Writing with a focus in African American Literature, and has published three books.

I guess the first place we should start is do you go by a different persona when in drag?

I go by Candi Carter and have since I moved to Cleveland at 21. At 18, though, I was going by Vanna Vixen.

I changed my name to Candi because Melissa Ross read me to filth at Numbers my very first time there at Halloween, where I was in a contest. She read my name, and said, “Oh SHE must be one of Santa’s reindeer’s” and I was like “Oh, hell no” <lol>

Do you have what today’s queen’s, refer to as a style?

I am very old school and fishy. I sang, as well as performed. I made 95% of everything, including clothes.

So, who is Candi Carter? How would you describe her?

Candi came because it’s short and sweet. Sometimes it has nuts, and is cream filled. Carter came from Dixie Carter who I adored.  She’s fun, brazen, flirty, sassy as hell. She’s driven to be the best. She was amongst the very first, if not the first drag queen to come about being HIV positive ON stage and before I died. So much of the info only came out after they died. you know. she’s flirty, she has a sassy mouth. She’s classy yet trampy. She’s still a young gal at heart back in the day she’d say Anything!

Yes we have lost too many amazing people to this disease.

Far too many people and I kept track of names & obits from 1986 to 2002. My first boyfriend died of AIDS in 1988, my second,  my husband of 10 years, Ron Rooy died in 2002. The loss of friends to HIV/AIDS, at times, is so overwhelming. Ron was a big activist as well and created a 501 c-3 called New Hope Alternative Therapy. His idea of combining alternative medicine with doctor care and, of course, an HIV drug cocktail. That could work together. I also believe, and don’t quote me on this, but I think I was the first or among the first of drag queens to come out about my status and before dying, which seemed to be the case in 1992.

As a drag performer, most of the drag queens back in the day never discussed HIV/AIDS status on stage and nearly all the time their status was not made public until or shortly after they passed. Jasmine Baker, for example, at the old U4ia, among others, who passed between 1992- 2002. In drag, I publicly discussed my status. I was using drag shows raise money we needed to open New Hope Alternative Therapy. It is now called Centers for Integrative Medicine on Lorain Road. I felt, at the time, that my talking about my status and involvement in opening the organization, as one of its founders and first clients, was imperative to raising the money we needed to open.

That is the great part about drag is that it gives people the ability to let their inner selves shine when they hide so much. You mentioned that you drew inspiration from candy and Dixie Carter, were there other inspirations for Candi?

Oh heavens yes. Judy Garland. I used to impersonate Barbra Streisand, visually and vocally, Also, Bette Midler, Jim Bailey, Bette Davis, Patti Labelle,  and Diana Ross, You know, all the divas!

Amazing inspirations, for sure.

Yeah, my mom tells the story of my seeing Barbra on Judy’s show, the one with Ethel Merman, and I sat MESMERIZED through the whole thing. That IS my first real memory. I am a true friend of Dorothy and would watch the Wizard of Oz every year it was on, which drove my parents NUTS. I now collect Wizard of OZ stuff, and have a whole room of the stuff. EVEN met Jim Bailey, who I remember vividly being on the Carol Burnette show.

I don’t think I remember that episode. What about it stood out for you?

It was that he dressed as Barbra and vocally did her, as well as Phyllis Diller. Then Carol talked to him after, as JIM!

When did you first find out about drag or how did you find out?

Oh boy, from Michael, my boyfriend in Florida. He had a professional stripping career when we met. He had also been a former Ms. Gay Florida, years before.

I was in the shower one morning, at 18, singing a Streisand song. My lover heard me and asked if it was the radio. I said no it was me. He asked if I could sing more and so I did. I sang “He touched me” and he asked if I thought about impersonating. I said, naïve me, impersonate what? – lol – He said a woman and I said no. He said he thought I easily could do Streisand visually and vocally.

Wow. That’s pretty impressive. To do her voice alone is a feat.

I still can and especially the high stuff, but at times. He got me my first audition at a bar. We knew the owner WELL, as they say. He didn’t tell him it was me and when I finished singing he asked me to take off my wig, so he could see me as a “boy.”

Was he shocked by it being you? And where was the bar?

He was stunned. It was a bar in Fort Lauderdale

What took you to Florida?

I moved to Florida to go to college, to Art School. In my youth I went to a Christian school and that caused issues with entrance to the Art School.

Ft Lauderdale is  a pretty big scene to start in, wasn’t it?

It was a VERY big scene.

How did you feel going on stage? And what year was it?

The year was 1987, I was very nervous. Nervous that it was my first time and very nauseous too.

Was that in front of just the owner or a full bar?

The interview, yes, was just the owner. My first performance was to a full bar and I was a wreck.

How soon after was that?

My first show was three weeks after the interview,  so I could get more costumes. My lover, Michael, made the sailor suit outfit Judy Garland wore on the Garland show. He sewed many costumes. 

What about drag drew you to do it?

I think, at first, my voice was high enough and that I could be someone else. My big impersonation, when I started, was Streisand. Being Vanna, and then Candi, I could get away with saying and doing stuff I never could as a boy

from my memoirs…

A few weeks passed and Michael walked through the front door, his arms weighed down with shopping bags and his face radiant, delirious with joy.   “Bubele, you home yet?”

“Yes.  I’m out by the pool,” I yelled.  I could hear his footsteps across the oak floor in the living room.  I was lying naked, on my belly in a chaise, in the privately enclosed pool.  Drops of sweat forming on my lower back and legs.

Woof whistling, Michael said, “Boychik, I like what I see but, don’t burn your butt.”

I turned my head up to look at him and noticed all of the bags.  “What in G-d’s name is all that?”

“Some things I bought, others that I borrowed.  Today’s the day that I get to play dress up with you. So bring your sexy tuchus into the kitchen. Actually at the breakfast bar and we’ll get started.  By the way, don’t get dressed.  That’s not a request.”  He smiled broadly, almost wickedly.

I got off the forest green linen chaise and headed toward the kitchen, my feet noticing the cool wood floor.

The counter was overflowing with Double Action Eye Make-up, Make-up Remover Cleanser, to boot. Fix Plus Spray, mohair, silver handled make-up brushes, concealers, smudge liners, a bronzer, a large round shadow, cheek contour, round angled brushes used for blending shadow, I was told later. Exfoliators, lip glosses and lipsticks, sponges, eye shadows, Max Factor foundation in matte ginger, bisque and matte rose, silk nylons, garters, Chanel No. 5 Eau de toilette, bobby pins, wig caps, tweezers, epilators, razors and waxes, magnifying mirror, a blonde wig cut into Streisand’s signature look , and the piece de resistance:  A heavy cream silk satin sailor blouse accented with burgundy silk piping. The blouse was weighted at the bottom and had a side zipper. The neck snapped at the front and the sailor collar snapped into the neckline and a detachable burgundy tie hung at the neckline. It had an accompanying dark burgundy wool-crepe full-length skirt, complete with a side slit, a rear zipper closure, and a weighted bottom hem and a pair of dark burgundy Louis Vuitton women’s shoes. It was an exact replica of the Streisand outfit on the 1963 Judy Garland Series on CBS.

It was sheer perfection. Tears in my eyes I said, “Michael, what am I going to do with you.  This had to cost a fortune. Where did you find the Streisand outfit?”

“Don’t worry about the money.  If you’re any good, which I know you are. You will make it back and so much more.  I had the outfit made especially for you.”

“My God, Michael, what are you thinking? What if I am not any good?  Then all the money is just down the toilet.”

“Stop sorgening for heaven’s sake.  I heard what I heard in the shower.  You’re going to be incredible.  Now, shush up and sit your cute bubble butt in that make up chair.”

It was one of those kinds of chairs you see at the department store, in the women’s cosmetic’s department.  Long, curved wooden legs, canvas seat and back, with wooden armrests and a footrest. All in sleek black coloring.

“Sit your cute butt in that chair.”

I did as I was told.  Michael began unscrewing caps and lids of bottles and tubes, fluffing out brushes, and then he looked real close at my face.

“You know, you’re a bit stubbly.  I’ll be right back.”  He walked off towards the bathroom and came back with a razor and shaving cream.

“O.K., handsome, lean back daddy is going to shave your face.”

It was the first time anyone had shaved my face.

He went into the kitchen, grabbed some terry-cloth hand towels, ran them under hot water, lightly wrung them out and laid them across my face. He then pressed them onto my skin.  The warmth felt so good.  Those warm cloths sat there a while before he removed them, shook the shaving cream can and pressed the button for the foam to come out, into his left hand.  With his right hand he scooped some of the foam onto his fingers, and began spreading it across my very fine whiskers.  The double edge blade slid easily across my face and he whipped the foamy, whiskery remains onto the damp towels.  Within minutes my face was spotless.  He took a dry towel and dried my face thoroughly.  It was unusual being pampered like this. But I was enjoying it.

The next step was to deep cleansed all my pores. He exfoliated them and then added a light bit of moisturizing cream into my face. This time he patted my face dry.  Michael picked up the tweezers next and proceeded to pluck and arch my eyebrows.

“Jesus, what are you doing to my eyebrows,” I whined.

“Plucking them. Literally, ripping the extra hairs out by the root.”

“No wonder it hurts like hell.”

“Oh, don’t be such a baby.  It will be over soon.  Michael then stepped over to the far side of the counter and came back with a child’s roll of glue stick.

“Uh, sweetie, what’s up with that?”

“I’m going to glue down what remains of your eyebrows.  Once the glue is dry, the foundation goes over the top of that, then powder, then I actually draw in your eyebrows slightly above your real ones; then eye shadows, mascara, and false eyelashes.

That is awesome. I can picture that so clearly. He basically gave you a complete beginners drag kit?

Yup, Michael was the best. Michael, by the way, grew up Yiddish, in Brooklyn

I was wondering what with all of the Yiddish being thrown around. So what were your thoughts on the whole process?

It was A LOT of work. But it was time being pampered by Michael. Sitting in the chair nude didn’t hurt, either.

I would say that was probably an added bonus.

Yeah lol Michael was gorgeous. We met at a gay bar I was a cocktail boy, he was the stripper.

That is a combination.

And, he pursued me. He also gave me this every thing you need to know Gay 101 class in 1886. Covering culture, history, icons, films, porn, you name it.

What prompted you to move to Cleveland?

I had been coming to Cleveland, from Geauga County, where I had grown up. I knew this is where the gays were. By December of that year, I was a victim of a hate crime that was committed by my childhood minister’s son. The attack came because the son “thought” I was gay. At the time, no one here knew. I stayed with a friend I had here and hid the whole thing from my family for a year.

That is awful, was he arrested for it?

No, I never went to the police. Never went to the hospital, either. I grew up in a very Southern Conservative Baptist family, you know the kind that spoke in tongues.

Being from the south, that is a group I am very familiar with.

I did an interview that ended up on YouTube about my experiences growing up knowing I was gay and living in that environment.

It must have been very hard going back over all of that, wasn’t it?

Very, I came home from Florida, before the attack, with a bad habit that only worsened after. It was just after my 21st birthday. After the attack, I also started drinking and trying other things. That all lasted until I met Ron in 1992. I cleaned up and rarely drink now. 

Many of us self-medicate to get over the dark part of our lives. It’s good that you were able to come back from it.

It was the combination of being told that I only had six months to live, right before I met Ron. I met Ron because he took care of a mutual friend who died in 1992 of AIDS, at Ron’s apartment. And I reached out through a friend’s caseworker, at the AIDS task force, to make a panel for the quilt. We met in March, at his place

I was early and he answered the door in just shorts and no shirt. In my head I was like,  “Hello, gorgeous!” He asked if he could shower and change since he had been cleaning all morning. I said, “sure.”

When he returned he was wearing a pair of Lycra shorts that laced up the front that left my head swooning. There was a huge snowstorm that day and my sewing machine wasn’t working, so the rest is, as they say, history. I was 25 and he was 18 years older. He had been POZ for 6 years and me, one.  At the time of our meeting, I had just found out I was full blown AIDS and was told I had roughly six months to live. That was in 1991.

How has drag changed you?

I’m very introverted, normally. Most people never fully see or know the REAL me. It has allowed me to do so many things. When I was leaving Florida, all of my friends were dying from AIDS. Of all of the people I knew, I am the only one left.  After moving here, I started watching my friends die here, as well. By 2002, I had watched AIDS take 600 people I knew. Forty-seven of them were in Cleveland, just seven weeks after I had met Ron.

At the time I had met Ron, he had already been combining alternative medicine and pharmaceuticals. Reiki, yoga, diet, massage, herbs, counseling, acupuncture, reflexology, and more. That mindset and regime led to what we created, New Hope Alternative Therapy Research in Cleveland. We started it around 1992. We combined all of it as a prescription to match your needs and it was absolutely free. It was the very first of its kind in the country. Both the NIH and CDC were watching our program.

How did you raise the money to support it all?

We did it with drag. My friends and I would perform at Legends twice a week. All of the money and tips we made went into it. We did raffles, giveaways, door prizes, and etc to assist in raising money. I think our very first fundraiser was Cleveland Gay Pride Fundraiser was at the Baths. Here is an advertisement for it.

How we made money is beyond me. Where do you stick money when all you are wearing is a towel? The next year we did it again and we hosted Chi Chi LaRue. The year after brought Jackie Beat

I was one of the first, in Cleveland, to come out about my status. Not only was I raising money and helping in running it, but I was also a client. I had been both Vice President and President of the board.

When was the first time you did drag in Cleveland?

First time was in 1990, on Halloween.  It was so much fun but there was also so much death going on. I remember many looking like walking skeletons. When I came to Cleveland, I didn’t have Michael. I was doing drag all alone. I didn’t know how to do anything. At the time, there were about ten bars to perform in.

So, you had to learn it all again, on your own. Did you have a drag mother or stay solo?

Michael was my drag mother in Florida. Here I was solo, until last year when I finally got a Cleveland drag mother. At the time, I just dove right in and started performing.

What do you think of the scene, now versus then?

I love how it has evolved, to one degree. So many view drag as only RuPaul’s Drag Race and it’s not like that by any means. Many of us never hit it big.

In Florida, I would make $1000 just to show up to a show. I would also make 25% of the door, all my tips, booze, and then another $1000 when I stepped on stage. Then I would go home with Michael and the bar owner as a bonus.

Wow, $2000 for one show? That is a lot and more than I thought most performers made.

That was back then in Florida. In Cleveland I only made my tips and nothing else.

In what ways do you think RuPaul has been a disadvantage to drag?

It shows that drag has to be this BIG career. It can be but never to the degree it has become. To survive you HAVE to have this huge career. Back in the day, Joey Arias, Varla Jean Merman, Jim Bailey, Lady Bunny, Charles Bush, and Lypsinka were huge stars. It shows that drag is about being more fishy and we both know that there is more to it than just that. There is scab drag, groups like the Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence, and more, to name a few. You also have the greats like Divine.  If you want to see what it was like just watch the 1960’s documentary, The Queen, with Crystal LaBeija or Wigstock. 

How do you think it has been beneficial?

It has made drag more mainstream, more accessible. It has brought it to young people,  sooner. That we now have positive drag role models for the younger queer youth. Back in the day we only had people like Flip Wilson, Jim Bailey and Milton Berle  that were doing drag in the public eye. 

I was doing research recently and found reference to the very first drag queen. His name was William Dorsey Swann. But we also had the likes of Mae West who was famous for using drag queens in her Broadway show SEX. She also got arrested in 1920 for advocating for the rights for gays to marry. She was one of our first and BIGGEST supporters. 

That is awesome. I knew that she had a penchant for gay men, but was unaware of her using drag queens.

Yes and she also used muscle boys for her performances. One of which later went on to marry Jane Mansfield.

What has being a drag queen allowed you to do that you couldn’t outside of drag?

To be more brassy, sassy, and say or do anything. To sing live, the first time. Being in drag allows me to fully become the person I wanted to be.

Do you draw upon your drag persona in your day to day life?

All the time, my best friend says “I’m a tough ole bitch.” It also allows me to embrace my “sissiness” more, as a man.

I truly feel that we are taught to only be tough and “manly.,”  well forced is a better way of saying than taught. I wish more of us could learn to embrace this “sissiness” you speak of. Especially in our own LGBTQ community.

Me too, I want to wear high heeled shoes as a man. A full face of makeup. But I also feel that there is a huge difference between what is a “man” and a “male.”

A few years back, for my birthday, I got dressed up. A great suit, tie, shoes, fedora, and a full face of makeup. I was feeling great about myself and went to Macy’s. I was walking a bit “uppity” and maybe a little femme. This guy behind me says to his friend, “Who does this faggot think HE is!!”

I wanted to say, “That’s Mr. Faggot to you, bitch!” Instead, I felt ashamed and darted away.

I feel that being a “man” is an ideal or perception of what others think it means to me male, at least in my opinion. And its hard to react to those situations since you never know what you may face. People are afraid of things that are different or don’t fit into their boxes with bright and shiny labels. That actually leads to another question. What would you hope people could learn or take away from drag and put into their own lives?

To embrace who you are, whatever that may be. If you want to be a big old sissy guy in makeup, high heel shoes, or whatever, just do it. Don’t be afraid of saying I love you often and easily. To cry when the mood strikes you. Love freely and don’t judge or discriminate. That men can be many things, not just one. All I want is to be remembered for what I did and that I entertained people for a brief moment.

Lastly, how do you feel about drag expanding to include more types of people? A larger presence for drag kings, transgender people and even bio kings and queens, cisgender doing drag?

I… LIVE for it and you can quote me on that. Transgender performers have been around since I started doing it. You see it all when you are backstage at a drag show. It is great that performers like Peppermint can have a voice on and off of “RuPauls Drag Race”. I have dragged women on stage and put them in drag. How you label yourself does not matter.

Charlie most recently performed at Shade Lounge for a Pride event. It was called 30 years of Sisterhood and Pride. Candy Carter, along with Mona Del West, performed as the guests of honor and called Mothers of Pride, as an honor to their career performing in Cleveland Clubs.

There is no denying the impact drag has had on our culture, LGBTQ or otherwise. These icons of strength, beauty, and poise are there to inspire and encourage us to be our better selves and act to support our fellow people, of all walks. They have and are our activists that keep challenging society’s thoughts on people and the conditions we face. They have been ardent supporters during the dark days of the AIDS epidemic and continue to battle stereotypes and prejudice. 

We owe a debt of thanks and respect to our drag community!

2 thoughts on “What is Drag in Cleveland, Ohio? Charlie Koenig

  1. Have you talked to the Cleveland Kings Action Pack? They’re our local kings and things, they’re really subversive and dynamic and fun.

    Like

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