When Dusty Mae first met Greg Schreiner, the owner of one of the world's largest collections of Marilyn Monroe costumes and memorabilia, she hoped that one day she's have the chance to be photographed in something of Monroe's. "I wanted the chance to bring life back into these costumes, which had predominantly been sitting in storage for the past 50 years," Mae explained in an interview. "The last person to wear most of them was Marilyn Monroe herself! She’d worn them to events and in photos that were important to her career, so the fact that I was able to pay homage to her by bringing these costumes back into the light, was beyond anything I could have hoped for."
In a new series photographed by Joseph Adivari, Mae was finally given the chance to bring her idol's iconic looks back to life once more.
Out: How do you think Marilyn Monroe has inspired drag as a whole?
Dusty Mae: Drag is something people have been doing forever, but back in the early 20th century, men didn’t have social media and all these celebrities to look up to and use as references for their “look.” All they had were silver screen goddesses: Jean Harlow, Marilyn Monroe, Greta Garbo, Marlene Dietrich, etc. and so now, even though drag has evolved and changed in so many ways since then, I still look to these stars as inspiration because in my mind, they are the epitome of glamour, and that will never change. More than that though, they were smart, savvy businesswomen who knew what they wanted and how to get there. One thing that I’ve always been disturbed by is that if you look at old photos of Marilyn Monroe at galas and parties, you’ll see that in almost every photo, she is being touched, grabbed, or groped by men, and it is absolutely awful that that was the world she lived in. This year in particular, we’ve seen massive strides in bringing to light all the abuse of power, sexism, discrimination, and manipulation that has plagued Hollywood for the past century, but in Marilyn’s era, no one talked about it, no one publicly acknowledged it, and these women were backed into a corner where they had to choose to either to fall in line, or lose everything they’d ever worked for. In a way, I think that Marilyn Monroe was Norma Jeane’s drag persona. She knew what men wanted, she knew what audiences wanted, and she was such a good actress that she convinced most of the world that she was Marilyn Monroe: goddess of the silver screen, when in fact she was Norma Jean: a timid and loving woman who just loved to act.
How has Monroe inspired your own drag?
When it comes to me in particular, I’m not trying to be Marilyn or look exactly like her. I’m not a Marilyn Monroe impersonator. That being said, I obviously adore the woman, and love using different makeup tricks and strategies when I’m drawing on my own character, which make my facial features more similar to hers. I choose to pay homage to her, not by trying to be her, but by keeping her beauty, authenticity, and charm in mind every time I get into drag.
Why do you think Marilyn Monroe is such an enduring beauty icon?
I’ve always believed that she has endured because of her authenticity and personality. Beauty can make someone famous, but it can’t make them into a cultural icon who is still celebrated over 50 years after their death. She had almost no family, and she struggled with poverty, abuse, sexism, and much more, yet she never let it stop her, and she still became Marilyn Monroe. Everyone who knew her talks about how she always came from a true place of love and generosity. If someone said, “Oh I love your sweater!” she would give it to them without a second thought. She wasn’t materialistic, even though people might assume she was. My friends and I love to imagine what Marilyn Monroe would have been like in the 70s and 80s. She had the ability to reinvent herself, which is why so many people see parts of themselves in her, or feel that they identify with her on a deeper level. I think the world really missed out on some amazing things because of her death, but it speaks to her talent as an actress, and charm as a person, the fact that she is still celebrated today, and will be remembered forever as a definitive icon of the silver screen.