By Zach Shultz
It was a hot and humid day in New York City on Thursday, May 16, as approximately 90 people crammed into a room on the third floor of the LGBT Community Center, waiting anxiously for the arrival of a legend. Holly Woodlawn, the last surviving member of Andy Warhol’s trio of trans superstars (Candy Darling and Jackie Curtis passed away decades ago) and star of cult film classics – such as “Trash” (1970) and “Is There Sex After Death?” (1971) – showed up with characteristic flare. She was surrounded by an eclectic posse and decked out in a teal blazer and purple dangling earrings, giving off the air of a more fabulous version of Hillary Clinton on the campaign trail.
Howard Williams, the Center’s curator of the Second Tuesday series, introduced the cultural icon and author of “A Low Life in High Heels” by diving into a video montage showcasing the last 40 years of Holly’s fascinating acting career in independent films, followed by a screening of her 20-minute, black-and-white silent, “Broken Goddess.” After seeing this condensed glimpse of Holly’s work, I was immediately captivated by the wide range of personas she has taken on over the years, all the while managing to stay true to her quirky self. Admittedly, as part of a generation of gays coming of age in the era of drag visibility brought to you by RuPaul and Absolut Vodka, I knew little of the incredible talent that is Holly Woodlawn. Yet after the screening I wanted more and was left with a lingering question: Who is the real Holly Woodlawn?
As the night went on, I soon realized that this question is more elusive than I first thought. Holly is a character who resists simple categorizations by blurring the line between performer and everyday self. Her striking ability to mix the high and low, somberness with humor, gives her just the right amount of comic relief to mask her more melancholy side. For example, after being asked about the recent passing of fellow Warhol actor Taylor Mead, she replied tearfully, “You know, we’ve lost so many beautiful and artistic people that I don’t know what we’re going to do! But it’s funny how life just seems to regenerate itself…” After pausing, lost in thought for a moment, she went on to plug her latest launch of a lipstick, irreverently named “Cocksucker Red.”
The Puerto Rican-born, Miami-bred inspiration for the Lou Reed classic, “A Walk On The Wild Side,” at times came off disconnected and incoherent, most likely due to suffering a recent stroke which has placed her in a wheelchair. However, during her more lucid moments of the evening she shined through with incredible wit and self-awareness, performing bits of cabaret classics while recounting her run-ins with celebrities and counterculture idols from her past. Her stubborn refusal of seriousness coupled with an impeccable sense of timing was probably best exemplified when she was asked by the audience, “What is it like being trans then versus now?”—to which she replied without missing a beat, “Is that what it’s called these days?”
Given the recent string of homophobic attacks in Greenwich Village, this iconic blast from New York City’s Warhol Factory past left me asking, how far have we come as a society over the past several decades? Could it be that in many ways we might be digressing from the hyper-queer days of Holly’s New York and entering into a time of unprecedented social backlash against all things nonconformist? For the sake of my generation, I truly hope this is not the case. But at any rate, I left the event with one thing certain in my mind: Holly Woodlawn has indelibly left her mark on our culture and will continue to inspire us to keep taking a walk on the wild side.
Zach Shultz is a guest blogger for the Center and works in communications and development at AID FOR AIDS. You can follow him on Twitter @zach_shultz.