“Dear Dad, I have some startling news: Your eldest son is gay.” That was my lead in the first draft of a Celine Dion concert review from ten years ago. The show was a schmaltzy smorgasbord of bombastic ballads, over-the-top production numbers and more costume changes than Isaac Mizrahi getting dressed to meet Jude Law . . . and I just ate it up.
It didn’t seem possible that I could be heterosexual and at the same time get goosebumps when Celine did a video duet with Barbra Streisand on “Tell Him.” My comedic writer’s voice has always been a gay male (Paul Lynde on “Hollywood Squares,” to be exact), but did it go deeper than that?
I’m not attracted to men, except for Johnny Depp who, let’s face it, is just a woman with a moustache, but that didn’t seem to matter when tears welled up during “My Heart Will Go On.” Later that night, typing away at a San Antonio motel, I was ready to emerge from the closet of denial.
The next morning, however, I chickened out and gave the delete key a workout, sending in a more standard review. (My catty comment that Celine could be dubbed “Edith Pilaf” for a French number that was as bland as rice flew in under the gaydar.) I headed home with thoughts of chicks and Budweiser and AC/DC. Never liked show tunes, I rationalized. Hated “Mommie Dearest.”
But on the drive back, I traced my affinity for gay musical icons, now commonly called divas, and wondered if maybe I had hit a suppressed nerve. I go way back with the boys, even before seeing Bette Midler in 1973, when I was a senior at the same high school Miss M had graduated from 10 years earlier. I’ve been one of those people, people who need Barbra, since the late ’60s, and, of course, there was sweet, tragic Judy Garland pandering for my love and devotion before that.
Could it be that only my ears are queer? Why was I so into Cyndi Lauper, who’ll turn local gay bars into ghost town saloons Monday night when she plays La Zona Rosa? Tina Turner is an incredible singer — of course, I applauded her. But Debbie Reynolds? Eartha Kitt, Tallulah Bankhead, Marlene Dietrich, Liza Minnelli — I’ve loved all the gals in the Oilcan Harry’s Hall of Fame.
Cher’s different, OK? Forget the Bob Mackie outfits; I was always more into what they didn’t cover, especially that bronzed tummy. I’ve been hot for that girl forever, so when I went to review Cher’s show at the Erwin Center a couple years ago, I had no idea she had such a gay following. At least 80 percent of the audience that night would’ve rather dressed Cher than undressed her.
But then I started thinking: “Of course!” Cher meets the three main criteria to be a queer icon.
No 1: She’s what many of the gay men I’ve known aspire to be: a strong woman. She’s tough, but not hardened. She’s not afraid to cry (witness the Sonny Bono funeral). Streisand is the queen here, but Pink is the current princess of the bold, vulnerable feminine type.
No. 2.: Cher uses bawdy language and makes randy analogies. If gay goldfish could name themselves, Bawdy and Randy would be leading monikers. Midler’s not a big star because of her singing voice. There are women doing Wal-Mart commercials who could bury Bette vocally. But nobody’s naughtier, nobody’s more outrageous onstage. You’ve gotta be outspoken if you want to headline over Gloria Gaynor.
No. 3: The third major component of being put on that feather-and-rhinestone-covered pedestal is that you have to be easy to impersonate in drag shows. Here’s where Dolly Parton got in. And Josephine Baker. And Grace Jones. Barbara Mandrell will never be a character in one of those “Boys Will Be Girls” revues because she doesn’t have an instantly recognizable look. Diana Ross is a gay icon. Martha Reeves isn’t. Paris Hilton: gay icon. Nicole Richie: not so much.
I see a lot of diva promise with this new soul singer from England named Joss Stone. Big voice. Fluffy mane. Pouty lips. A name that screams to have “La” put in front of it. Having just turned 17, she’s too young now for gay icon status. You have to be able to spell “chanteuse” before you can be one. But as her recent appearance on VH1’s “Divas Live” show from Las Vegas showed, La Joss is able to hold her own with Patti LaBelle, Gladys Knight and Debbie Harry.
Fiona Apple was so close to becoming a queer hero, but then she broke up with magician David Blaine and he made her career disappear. But Joss, who’ll perform Saturday night at La Zona Rosa, could end up Soundscanning some big CD sales numbers in San Francisco if she follows some or all of these steps:
Marry badly and often, at least once to a gay man who’s fooling no one.
Develop an addiction to painkillers. Make a controversial appearance on David Letterman’s show (cigar optional). Don’t marry Bobby Brown.
But most of all, spread the love, baby. Give the audience everything you’ve got and look absolutely fabulous doing so.
Did I just write “absolutely fabulous”?
This was previously published in 2004. When Joss Stone, Jude Law and CD sales were current.