Legendary Children’s initial proposal and early drafts were full of references and information that we either already knew well or were familiar enough with that we were easily able to flesh out our knowledge with a bit of research. For instance, in the chapter on Drag Race’s sketch comedy and improv challenges (entitled “Watch Out for Those Sketchy Queens, Gurl”), it was easy enough for us to start off by mentioning the groundbreaking work of Divine in the classic trash cinema films of John Waters like Mondo Trasho, Pink Flamingos, and Female Trouble. That culture-breaking work is ALL OVER Drag Race (which the show has openly admitted, not least when they centered an entire Ru-sical around Divine, with extra-special guest judge Waters himself) and it was very easy for us to examine the ways in which those films and that style of drag permeates the show and its most successful performances. We’ll be doing a deeper dive on Waters and Divine in an upcoming Legendary post, but don’t worry: we gave them their due in the book. After all, Divine’s right there on the front row of the cover, isn’t she?
Sharing that front row with her, on the left side, is a lesser-known drag queen named Doris Fish, done up in the ’80s camp drag of her own groundbreaking, generation-defining work, Vegas in Space. In fact, that’s the main reason why we weren’t as familiar with Doris, who we wound up falling in love with during the writing of the book. We’re of the RuPaul generation. You see, Divine was a crucial figure in defining drag in the mainstream for the Baby Boomers. Ru almost singlehandedly held up the drag banner for Generation X. But for the early years of the Millennial generation, one of the most memorable and notable representations of the art of drag was Doris Fish, her drag sisters from Sluts-a-Go-Go, and a menagerie of 1980s San Francisco queens who made up the eye-popping cast of Vegas in Space. Why? Because for the entire decade of the ’90s, Vegas in Space played in heavy and near-constant rotation on The USA Network’s “Up All Night,” making it the sort of cultural wallpaper of a generation, back when “flipping through the channels” was a thing people did that exposed them to images they never would have found on their own.
And if you are a Millennial or Gen-Xer or older who managed to miss it in those flipping-through-the-channels days before your phones had computers installed in them, we have the great pleasure of introducing it to you and telling you to run to Amazon Prime and watch it RIGHT NOW. You will NOT be treated to amazing performances or fantastic special effects or even a story or plot that makes much sense. You WILL sit through some of the most eye-popping drag of the late 20th Century which, much like Divine’s and Ru’s, had long-term effects on the art of drag and pushed it into bolder directions. Sasha Velour is an enormous fan and champion of the film and once you sit through it, you can definitely see how it influenced her own drag. We had a passing familiarity with Fish and with Vegas in Space, but it wasn’t until we started diving deep and digging into the roots of drag cinema and drag theater (which also led us down a Hibiscus road, among many others), that we truly came to appreciate him and his most famous creation.
The film took over seven years to complete, in a stop-and-start shoestring production that Fish, “real” name: Philip Mills, a Sydney transplant in the San Francisco drag scene, partially funded through non-drag sex work, joking “No one ever told me you couldn’t make a feature film on a prostitute’s salary.” Regardless of what you may think of sex work (although if you have any interest in the history of drag or queer culture, we suggest you get over it, since a great number of our artists and social warriors either funded their work or just survived through sex work, at a time when all queer people were seen by the mainstream as exotic fetishists at best), that’s a stunning example of one queen’s commitment to art; one artist’s unshakable belief that what he was doing was worth pursuing for years, putting his own body down as collateral. The history of queer art and politics is full of men and women who did the same. When the film finally saw its premiere in 1991, Mills was not there to celebrate it. He died of AIDS complications four months before.
It’s not high cinema and that’s entirely the point. The sketch challenges on Drag Race and the history of drag acting in general has deep roots in both underground theater and trash cinema. Like the work of John Waters and Divine, Vegas in Space is much more interested in being campy, bitchy and occasionally shocking than it is in being technically perfect (or even good), let alone artistically fulfilling. If you’ve noticed by now that we haven’t given you much information on the plot or particulars here, it’s because a) they’re kind of hard to recap, and b) you really need to experience the whole thing yourself. We won’t claim your mind will be blown, but you sure as hell will see more than your share of eye candy.
And yet, art it became, whether intended or not. After a decade on cable television, Vegas in Space has found itself in museum retrospectives and film festivals, championed as an example of high drag, high camp, and the ferocity of queer art birthed under impossible circumstances and in the face of social disapproval. It may not (yet) have the same legendary status as Pink Flamingos or the same culture-defining status as Paris is Burning, but Vegas in Space is as pure an example as you’ll ever find of the kind of queer art that gets born when drag queens insist on making it their own goddamn way, everyone else be damned. Grab a bottle of wine and settle in to watch it soon with some bitchy friends.
And of course, for much more on Doris, Divine, Hibiscus, the history of drag acting and the entire last century of queer life, by all means, feel free to pre-order our lovely little book on these and many other subjects, kittens. We would be ever so grateful and we promise you’ll get some killer stories in return.