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Of Dada and Dr. Davis

Times Staff Writer

He starts the day at 6:30 a.m. in boy drag -- khakis, a black T-shirt -- standing at a bus stop on Hollywood Boulevard like a veteran commuter, a newspaper tucked neatly under his arm.

He finishes the day at 3 a.m. in flapper drag -- white drop-waist dress, an auburn bob -- standing on a tiny stage in West Hollywood, spinning jazz records, singing and spewing subversive social critique.

This latest persona, the flapper, is Bricktop. Over the years he has also been Clarence, the white supremacist militiaman; Graciela Grejalba, a 13 1/2-year-old cholita; Cicciolina, the Italian porn star turned parliamentarian; and the Rt. Rev. St. Salicia Tate, itinerant preacher woman. He is way beyond “drag queen.” He is a one-man psycho-socio-sexual revolution. As one academic who studies him has put it, this is “terrorist drag.”

Who is he? For the purposes of everyday life, for this story, he is Vaginal Creme Davis. Ms. Davis. Dr. Davis. (His friends call him Vag, but refer to him as “her.”) Performance artist, painter, writer, singer, filmmaker, poet, conversationalist.

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Who is Vaginal Davis?

“Who is Vaginal Davis?” he says. “I don’t know.”

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IN THE PAST 25 YEARS VAGINAL DAVIS HAS produced an astounding body of work that few outside the demi-monde, or academia, will ever see. He is what an artist used to be, before the ‘80s made them market stars and the ‘90s made them eternal grad students: He lives for his art. He is incapable of selling out. And he is all but unknown.

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Davis came of artistic age in the L.A. punk scene of the ‘70s. He appeared in Bruce LaBruce and Rick Castro’s “Hustler White” and has made his own socially blasphemous films, such as “The White To Be Angry,” which is studied by art students across the country. He has started rock bands such as the Afro Sisters, ¡Cholita! the Female Menudo, and Pedro, Muriel & Esther (P.M.E.). He has produced a series of ‘zines, including his most well-known, Fertile La Toyah Jackson, which chronicled scandalous celebrity gossip in a manner reminiscent of Kenneth Anger’s “Hollywood Babylon.” One of his short stories, whose title cannot be printed here, was included in “Best American Erotica 2003.” And for the past year he has performed every Friday at the Parlour in West Hollywood, where he plays Ada “Bricktop” Smith, the real-life redheaded African American vaudevillian and jazz impresario who owned eponymous nightclubs from Paris to Harlem to Mexico City.

Occasionally Davis pokes through into mainstream cultural consciousness, as when he appeared in PBS’ “Tales of the City” or as a Santa in drag on the short-lived ABC series “Gideon’s Crossing.” Or, more recently, when he opened for Margaret Cho on her “The Notorious C.H.O.” tour. Sometimes his name slips into gossip columns alongside bona fide celebrities, as when “drag queen Dr. Vaginal Davis” appeared in the New York Times and New York Daily News after he grabbed Gwyneth Paltrow at the Roxy, kissed her on the lips and squealed repeatedly, “You are a beautiful white woman!” Earlier this year several of his paintings were included in “Fade (1990-2003),” the Craft and Folk Art Museum’s survey of African American artists in Los Angeles.

But Davis is far better known among his global cult following, the sort of people who might know he’s the singer on the club hit “I Could Have Sex” by Technova and is featured on the group’s coming album “Electrosexual.”

“Vag is the most famous not-famous person in L.A.,” says Susan Matheson, a.k.a. Crepe Suzette, a friend and costume designer for films. “I think Vag is aware of popular culture before it is popular. I feel like she is the Annie Warhol of our time.”

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Jose Esteban Munoz, a professor in the department of performance studies at New York University, has studied Vaginal Davis, written papers on him and put him on the cover of his book “Disidentifications: Queers of Color and the Performance of Politics.” He considers Davis a “conceptual artist” in the Dada tradition.

“It’s all about concept,” Munoz says. “The execution is fine, but the concepts are great. She is all concept, all the time, starting with her answering machine. I could give you a history of performance art that would start with Dada and Surrealism and end with Vag. Her ‘zines are like the manifestos associated with Dada and the Surrealists.”

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DAVIS LIVES LIFE ON THE MARGINS, AND says he likes it there. Beholden to no one but himself, he rides his green 1950s Flexible Flyer with the broken pedal up and down the boulevards of Los Angeles, chasing his creative urges. Somehow he manages to eke out a living, in a way more reminiscent of Paris in the ‘20s or New York in the ‘50s than Los Angeles in the 21st century. He writes for European magazines and freelances for the L.A. Weekly. Some nights he survives on bread and cheese. Others he dines with friends at Patina at Disney Hall, savoring ahi tuna appetizers and sipping champagne. He was homeless for a year after he lost his Art Deco apartment in Koreatown, and was forced to sleep on friends’ couches or a mattress under the desk in his office near MacArthur Park. He joined the gym at the Biltmore Hotel so he could shower in style. He writes on a donated computer. Friends give him clothes, paint his apartment, give him art. (One bought him a bicycle helmet after he was hit by a car.) His costumes are salvaged from estate sales and thrift stores. And amid the poverty, the performances, the uncertainty, he creates. He can’t help it.

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His life, his friends like to say, is his art.

Davis himself refuses to define his work, depriving those he interacts with of all reference points. “Maybe I’m a visualist,” he says. “My medium is the indefinite nature of my own whimsy.”

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THE SUN IS JUST COMING UP OVER THE palm trees on Hollywood Boulevard. Davis is showing a reporter around his apartment. It is tiny, turquoise, with a red divan for sleeping. The single room is spare, furnished with books, paintings and a microwave. The willowy blond woman trapped inside the 6-foot-6 black man’s body is so much larger than life, the apartment so small, that it feels like entering a funhouse.

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VIRTUALLY UNRECOGNIZED IN HIS NATIVE Los Angeles, Davis has traveled -- by invitation -- to Italy, France, Switzerland and Germany to perform, and from New York to Indiana to lecture at universities. A black man raised in East L.A. and South Central, he lectures mainly to complacent, well-to-do white students, he says, and tries to “snap them out of their middle-classism.” One assignment he gives them is “art stalking.” Students can use any medium -- photography, writing, recording. They have to go to a public space and pick someone to follow. They can introduce themselves, or not. But for one day, they must immerse themselves in their subject’s world.

“By them going out, getting outside their normal realm, it will inspire them,” Davis says, “and show them that art can come from so many places.”

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TURN ON THE TAPE RECORDER. Ideas, philosophies, neologisms cascade from Davis unedited. It is so stream-of-consciousness you can practically hear the synapses snapping as his mind ricochets from history to art to outlandish celebrity gossip. Listening to him talk is like sitting in on a provocative dinner party conversation, with him playing all the guests. Marlou de Luna, who has known Davis since she was 12, refuses to see him except in the morning, when he is still groggy. Once he is fully on, he is just too much to take, she says. “Some people have a phantom leg,” says his best friend, Ron Athey, an internationally known performance artist also all but invisible in L.A. “Vag has a phantom microphone.”

Play it back:

“January 2002 was the first time I ever played Carnegie Hall. They heard I had something to do with food in my act and they were really scared because they just redid their floors, so they put this giant prophylactic on stage during my act.

“The thing I did was an excerpt of my larger performance piece, ‘Intimacy and Tomorrow (Stupidity Today),’ where I do this thing called ‘shrimping.’ I pick a boy out of the audience and I say I am a Druid Wiccan sorceress and I am going to sacrifice him to the gods of chlamydia, syphilis and gonorrhea, to appease the gods. I blindfold him, take off his shoes, put some Aunt Jemima Lite syrup between his toes, maraschino cherries and whipped cream. Then I sing this song

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“It’s not a big sloshy mess, like I’m Gallagher or someone with a sledge hammer and a watermelon, but they freaked out at Carnegie Hall. All the technicians and backstage people, the ladies who watch over the dressing rooms of the stars performing, black ladies from Harlem, they loved me. They were great, so nice, and they were telling all the gossip of black celebrities. They told the hot gossip that [X] and [Y] had an affair. I could see them having an affair, [X] and [Y], the whole thing with his wife, she left him and he came back, separated for a while. And [X] has never married [Z], they keep it loose and casual. I kinda believe it.

“These black ladies who are the dressing room mistresses, we were just cackling and hollering and we were having the best time. All the backstage people were like, ‘What’s this?’ I would come to the sound check dressed as a boy. When I was dolled up and was Ms. Davis, they all got into it then, when they saw the reaction of the audience. These were mainstream people, but they really liked me. A lot of times really mainstream gays and lesbians don’t really care for me. They want their drag queens to be mindless glamour. My whole thing has always been that I critique glamour. I critique people’s obsession with glamour, with being upscale or, you know, longing to have those kinds of things, those trappings.

“My whole thing is that I have a disdain for the wealthy, and it comes through in my work, and I think that a lot of times the gays, and the minorities as well, they are striving to be accepted and gain those things that come with success, the wealth, the fame, the trappings of that. I make fun of those things, so a lot of times it rubs people the wrong way.”

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THOSE FAMILIAR WITH HIS CAREER DESCRIBE the brilliance of Davis’ evolution as an artist. But to the average mainstreamer his art can seem slapdash. “I’m very 50 cents,” Davis likes to say. His films are grainy. His Bricktop revue is more spontaneous than polished.

In the “Fade” exhibit, some pieces took up entire rooms, but it was easy to walk right by Davis’ paintings. Three unframed strips of cardboard daubed with ethereal faces hung in a corner. In a self-generated press release on the show, Davis described himself as coming from the “Availabilist” school of art. The label beside his work mocked museum wall texts:

“Dames egaree: je veux acheter vos visages, 2001. Mixed media (glycerin, Milk of Magnesia, Lydia J. Pinkham eyeliner, Maybelline eyebrow pencil, Wet ‘N’ Wild nail polish, Wet ‘N’ Wild lipstick, eye shadow, Fashion Fair foundation, olive oil, Afro Sheen, food coloring, shoe polish) on cardboard. Dimensions variable.”

(Davis’ translation of the title: “Lost Ladies: I Want to Buy Your Faces.”)

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Sometimes his provisional performances bother people. One night on the Cho tour, Rosie O’Donnell came backstage to “berate my performance, basically,” Davis says. During his opening act, he sang on top of his own recorded vocals. “She was critiquing me, telling me that isn’t professional and show-business-like,” he recalls. Either you lip-sync to your own voice or you sing to the music track, but you don’t do a combination thereof, he says O’Donnell told him. “She is so mainstream show business that she was all flipped by my whole aesthetic,” Davis says.

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DAVIS CONSIDERS MACARTHUR PARK ONE of the last bohemian zones in an increasingly gentrified city. There are immigrants everywhere, and homeless, and crackheads. Beautiful old buildings crumble, trash covers the grass. Men hawk batteries, balloons and plastic dolls on the sidewalk. The shiny skyscrapers of downtown loom over the hill.

Davis’ office is on the eighth floor of a 1920s high-rise. The walls are covered, floor to ceiling, with erotica. Cutouts. Snapshots. Party pictures. Davis in drag. One wall is devoted to photocopied portraits of silent film star Louise Brooks. (She was rebellious, he explains. She became a star and then blew off Hollywood.) A neon pink curtain covers one window. "¡Cholita!” it reads in sequined letters -- a stage prop from the band. Maybe this is what it’s like inside Davis’ head.

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THE TRUTH ABOUT VAGINAL DAVIS is not really the point. His names, his stories, his life are mostly outrageous concoctions.

The stories start with the mythology of his birth. His mother, he says, was a poor black woman from Louisiana with a sixth-grade education and an aristocratic bearing. She was of Creole and Choctaw blood. His father was a Mexican-born Jew. His mother was 45, his father 22, when he was conceived as a ploy to help her rid herself of her first husband.

“They met at the Hollywood Palladium, at a Ray Charles concert. They crawled under a table and fornicated. Nine months later I was the rip heard ‘round the world,” Davis says.

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Born Clarence Dennis Williams, he has several much-older sisters, and was raised a Jehovah’s Witness -- which, he says, instilled a love of studying and reading and words, and taught him to feel comfortable as an outcast. But aside from the DIY (do it yourself) punk scene of the ‘70s, the most powerful influence in Davis’ life was his mother.

“My mother was really crazy,” he says. “She was doing underwear as outerwear way before Gaultier. A lot of her work is incorporated into my performances. Vaginal will wear two or three bras -- I call that the Romulus and Remus look -- or orthopedic shoes. Putting on gym socks over your shoes, that was one of her strange looks too.

“She was very Salvador Dali. She should have been an artist, my mother. I am what she should have been.”

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DAVIS SOAKS LUXURIOUSLY IN A BUBBLE bath at the home of Andrew Gould, the general manager of the Parlour. Later, a crowd of young admirers sits at the dining room table with him as he paints his face. He glues on nails, eyelashes, and tells old stories and bawdy jokes. Finally he dons his Bricktop bob, and transforms himself into the Jazz-Age madame and hostess.

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DAVIS’ FRIENDS ARE fiercely protective of him. Bibbe Hansen, daughter of Fluxus pioneer Al Hansen and mother of Beck -- and a former manager of ¡Cholita! the Female Menudo -- considers Davis a singular talent.

“Vag is the real deal,” she says. “She is a genius. How do we know that? It’s when we don’t even have a context to place someone in. She is so far ahead, we have to invent vocabulary to describe her.”

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Matheson, the costume designer, has known Davis for 10 years and made costumes for his performances. They bonded because they wear the same bra size: double D.

“I think it’s almost a problem that Vag is a visionary,” Matheson says. “Visionaries think of things, create things before people are ready to understand it. Later, people will look back and recognize she has a psychic sense of what matters.”

Fellow artist Athey says Davis’ performances are not really “drag,” but rather “a strange identity absorption”: “I really think the reason there are so many characters, beneath it all, is because fantasy is what makes her tick. No one with a real sex life would be so endlessly fascinated with sex, and erotica. For everything that hasn’t happened, there is a bigger life than you can imagine, which she projects.”

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DAVIS IS AWARE OF THE EPHEMERALITY OF his art. It is one reason, he says, he will never break through into the mainstream. He can’t be packaged, managed, scripted or sold.

“Our performances are done,” he says. “They linger for a moment in people’s consciousness and then evaporate.”

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MR. UNCERTAIN, A GIFTED piano player in a top hat, tickles the ivories, and Davis takes the stage. He bellows, kicks up his huge feet and does a wild, spastic Charleston. “One day I won’t be so ... beautiful. Then what will I do?” he sings.

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It is hard to describe what’s going on, but there is magic here. The crowd goes crazy, and Davis feeds off it. And then, so quickly, it’s all over.


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