The 12 Greatest Female Gay Icons of All Time
Who says gay men don’t love women? We worship them, as long as they’re famous, talented, and have some kind of aesthetic that reaches out to our inner diva. So let’s bring on the femme adoration and celebrate the idols most worth gay-genuflecting in front of through eternity. The 12 most fabulous gay icons of all time (female division) are…
The woman who could tear your heart out with a melody and some moist eyes, Judy appeals to the outcast in us, as we long to go over the rainbow and find acceptance and a pot of gold. Her pain surrounding “The Man That Got Away” also speaks to us, along with her love of guys with lots of eyeliner—sometimes to the point of marrying them! Judy’s vulnerability made her a quivering gay icon, as did the fact that for years, she kept on going, able to belt out one more song despite the rigors of the business that always tried to squeeze more juice out of her brilliance. Her death shortly before Stonewall links her forever to modern gay history. [Runners-up: Bette Davis and Joan Crawford—especially together! And Tallulah’s always a trip and a half. Oh, and Marilyn was really pretty.]
She’s a spunky, sassy superstar with a voice from the gods and a sense of humor so pungent it could only have come from an outcast who found herself center stage. Babs has long been the one we listen to, watch, admire, and imitate. There was that large road bump when she failed to get The Normal Heart produced, but maybe that worked out for the best since the lady doctor probably shouldn’t be the central character, lol. As she now tries to get a movie of Gypsy produced, the gays are getting weirdly excited again. [Special mention goes to the original Hello, Dolly! star, Carol Channing. Gays have always loved Carol’s saucer-eyed way of playing golddiggers and yentas. Before her parade passes by, no one should rain on it. Big kiss to Ethel Merman too—and to Liz Taylor, for her fabled career, staggering love life, and groundbreaking AIDS work.]
“Bathhouse Bette” wowed toweled men at the Continental Baths and went on to a gigantic career as a star capable of both raunchy hilarity and heartbreaking pathos. She’s gone through periods of not being our favorite due to her varying moods and utterances, but overall, the breadth of the lady’s genius keeps her in the pantheon. You’ve got to have friends, and through the sheer force of her talent, Bette is still one of mine. [Another good Bette: Joan Rivers! When she asks, “Can we talk?” the gay answer is always “Can we listen?”]
The smile, the saucer eyes, the vocal uplift...it all adds up to a diva gays love for the relentlessness of her sparkle. Add one great movie performance (Lady Sings The Blues), one fabulously campy one (Mahogany), and one legendary flop (The Wiz), and you’ve got a lady who’s definitely “the Boss”—and who still turns it out in concert after all these years. What’s more, she and the Supremes did a 1968 Funny Girl album which may be one of the most gay-friendly acts of cultural cross-pollination in history. No one rained on her Motown parade.
Gays love a pop diva with full-throttle sexuality and great moves, and Beyoncé remains the queen, cementing that when she played Diana—sorry, Deena—in Dreamgirls. But I have to give a special shout out to Kylie Minogue, who’s more cerebral than sexual, and who is a long-running gay bar favorite, whether in videos or in the flesh.
Judy’s daughter has a lot of the same pipes, vulnerability, and love of gays as mama, though she’s carved her own niche of “truly terrific, absolutely true” musical storytelling. Ring them bells for Liza. Gays cotton to her festive spirit (“Cabaret”), her undrenchable sense of hope (“Maybe This Time”), her big-town mania (“New York, New York”; “City Lights”), and her lashes.
A straight man’s fantasy as the Material Girl, she was also a gay man’s dream, seeing as she appreciated her rainbow-inclusive fan base, indulged in “voguing,” and had some closerthanthis lesbian gal pals. The anti-Judy Garland, Madonna appeals to gays because she’s not vulnerable and can’t be tackled. She’s tough, self-possessed, and radioactively in the game at all times. I’m scared a huh.
More than a Madonna mini-me, Gaga has taken advantage of the social networking skills and overall frankness of her generation to not only sing about gay rights, but to speak about them and really make a difference in the process. Her concerts are like gay pep rallies anchored by Gaga serving as a motivational speaker for LGBTs in training. For such a Little Monster, the woman is really quite adorable.
A bisexual temptress who ignited the screen (often in man’s—or gorilla’s—garb), Marlene had refreshing political leanings to go with her iconoclastic glow and bowler hat. Falling in love with Marlene again…always wanted to.
As an Andy Warhol superstar, Candy exuded the breathy sexuality and wit to sear her into the LGBT legend forever. Her work was relatively obscure yet monumental. As she explained it, “I’ve had small parts in big pictures and big parts in small pictures.” The wispy blonde died of cancer at 29 and hordes came to the funeral, among them Gloria Swanson, saluting the coffin with her gloved hand (says her chronicler, Jeremiah Newton.) A nod also goes to Edie Beale, the riveting eccentric who summed up revolutionary costuming for all time in the classic 1975 documentary Grey Gardens. She was staunch.
After the apocalypse, there will only be Cher and a “roach” someone handed her in the ‘70s. The headdressed diva, who’s had chart hits in every decade starting in Cleopatra’s time, is a real-life fantasy figure with all kinds of talents, plus a fascinating life you couldn’t make up. Her lesbian daughter is now her son, and her fans include so many LGBTs that, if you’re at a Cher concert and the people to either side of you are straight, then you’re definitely gay.
Ellen DeGeneres, Rosie O’Donnell, Jodie Foster, Rachel Maddow, Gertrude Stein
I recently wrote about how gay men and lesbians don’t seek each other’s opinions enough, but when it comes to the above icons, the gay guys notice and bow down. Let me add to that rapture. Brava, divas.
>>>MORE ON IT'S ONLY A PLAY STARRING NATHAN LANE & MATTHEW BRODERICK
BROADWAY! BITCHERY COMPASSION!
A male we can love, Terrence McNally has written gay-beloved classics like Love! Valour! Compassion! and Master Class, as well as the recent AIDS drama Mothers and Sons. And he has a touch of the farceur in him, too. McNally’s 1982 comedy It’s Only a Play is coming to Broadway in an updated version, and with a dream cast that includes Nathan Lane, Matthew Broderick, Stockard Channing, and Megan Mullally. It’s The Producers meets Grease! on the road to Will & Grace—sort of.
“The play is hilarious and says some profound things about contemporary Broadway,” declared Lane at a press event last week at Joe Allen (the theater hangout which itself is a character in the show). Having seen the original, I can assure you it was a hoot and deliciously studded with behind-the-scenes namedropping. I can only hope there are new references to McNally’s and Lane’s bumpy friendship (I guess they’ve buried the hatchet again. I wonder in whom?) and Mullally scuttling a different McNally revival four years ago when she quit, reportedly because she thought her male costar’s stage chops were woefully inadequate and the director wasn’t reacting ferociously enough to this crisis. This time, no one’s quitting, for any reason.
At the event, McNally said he and Lane “have gotten older and wiser together,” while another Play star, Oscar winner F. Murray Abraham, chirped that Nathan’s “the engine” of this production—“which is hard for me to say since I’m usually the engine.” [Laughs all around.]
At the same get-together, Stockard Channing said the play involves real teamwork, like dribbling and passing—“but no holding!” (Except maybe each other for support.) “Are you a diva?” Theater Talk’s Susan Haskins asked the Tony-winning star in a provocative conversational gambit at our table. “I’m the anti diva,” replied Channing, blithely. “Ask anyone who knows me. I do my own makeup. I have no entourage. And I do windows!”
I happen to boast a similar sense of undying humility, so I kept probing about this play, asking director Jack O’Brien about the work they’re doing on it. Said he, “A lot of names are dropped in that way that we do. If you’re in this room for dinner, even if you don’t work in the theater, five or six names will be tossed. But it’s the process that the play’s really about—what’s happened to Broadway, and how it’s changed.”
As for the surprisingly egalitarian alphabetical billing of the cast, “It’s sort of worked out OK—particularly for Murray,” O’Brien laughed. [Abraham is the first one listed because he’s “A” list.] “But you sort of expect ‘Nathan Lane and Matthew Broderick’ to be featured in a big box on top of the marquee,” I noted. “Yeah, you do,” replied O’Brien, “and we’re not doing that. We’re not feeding that.”
As for the fascinating crapshoot involved in doing a show, which is the theme of this play and one that hovers over it as they rehearse: “Nobody starts out to do a bad play on purpose. I want to say to people, ‘Stop stoning me for that fucking Strindberg, or whatever was supposed to be so wonderful!” I pointed out that the purely fictional Springtime For Hitler (last presented by Lane and Broderick, of course) must be the only time when people actually did try to create a flop—and even that backfired!
As I left, O’Brien was remarking that he always likes to have at least three posters on Joe Allen’s walls (which are covered with images from Broadway’s biggest disasters). It gives him a healthy sense of perspective. I sincerely doubt It’s Only A Play will end up on that wall, but O’Brien reminded me that glorious piles of advance sales can disappear if a show turns out to be disappointing. “Bullets Over Broadway—look at that,” he exclaimed. “Who thought that would not work?” Probably Woody Allen. Let’s hope he does windows, lol.