S: Jimmy Paul, can you tell me a little about where you grew up?

JP: [Sings] “I was born in a trunk.” Do you know that reference?

S: I don’t, though I’m sure I should.

Swissvale, PA
JP: It’s a famous Judy Garland song from the film Star Is Born, 1954. I was born in a little town called Swissvale. It's a township outside of Pittsburgh—a little blue-collar town set up for steel workers. My mother was born in the projects nearby. She worked as a hairdresser her whole life and then as a teacher at a school for hairdressing.

S: Do you have any early memories of her doing hair?

JP: My favorite memories from my childhood are of my mother; I used to love watching her doing her own hair and make-up, just transforming—I was her biggest fan. It was a tremendous sense of joy for me, just to sit there and watch her getting ready. 

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Jimmy with his mother and father.

At one point she started to wear a lot of wigs, which was really exciting and fun. Wigs are certainly a big part of drag, but they're also a big part of my work as a hairdresser. When I dressed in drag, when I really did it, and I was doing it all the time, I always wore black wigs, always. And then after I started hairdressing I got more into wigs, buying them and having fun with them.

In the photos that Nan Goldin took that day, I'm wearing an ash-blonde wig. I remember Tabboo!, an old friend featured in other pictures in Nan’s photo book, saying that the reason I got so much attention at the parade was because of my unique hair color. It was a very ash-sixties, early-seventies kind of color that was out of fashion at the time, so it looked new. Definitely an influence of my mother, who was often blond in the sixties and seventies, and the people I would see on TV when I was a kid—people like Joey Heatherton or Nancy Sinatra or Dusty Springfield.

S: What did you want to be when you were a kid?

JP: I would change with the wind, but I knew that I wanted to be famous. I'm so different now than who I was then, and as a very young man in New York. I was much more flamboyant and desperate for attention.

The really funny byproduct of the Nan pictures was that they added some kind of edge to my reputation. People thought, “Oh, there's the guy, did you know? He's in the pictures.” But in fact, I was already a tax-paying, going to bed on time, getting to work on time good boy. I find my job as a hairdresser in the fashion business extremely taxing. So the only way I can do it is to have a really good night's sleep and nice dinner. I’ve had to force myself to be responsible. It's not the person I was as a young man and as a teenager, as this crazy young drag queen. As that person, I would never be able to do what I do now.

S: Can you tell me a little about how that crazy young drag queen came to be?

JP: I went to high school for a while in a college town called Oakland, which is right near downtown Pittsburgh. I'd get dressed up in what I thought was fashion and go down there.

And then I found the gay people, the street kids. I just thought, This is like David Bowie. This is like a movie. I was obsessed with these After School Special kind of movies—anything to do with runaways, drugs, prostitution—anything that glamorized vice. It’s what I thought everybody was singing about. All the David Bowie and Elton John records, the seventies, the glitter rock, to me, that's what they were talking about.

It opened up a whole world to me. It was the first time anyone had approached me sexually -- I thought I'd died and gone to heaven. I started to live a kind of double life and to have my first gay experiences.

My mother was divorced by this time and she had a little wild streak, which was just the greatest thing ever because she would go out at night. She would hang around with these butch lesbian friends from the beauty school where she worked, and I thought they were just it, the most glamorous thing. And they were all going out at night. So this would become my life. The night life, the idea of night life, partying, dressing up, vice.

San Francisco
After high school, I got a little loan and instead of going to college, I went to San Francisco. And that was just a five-month bender.

S: What year was that?

JP: ’82. Which was incredible because it was before anyone was paying attention to AIDS. It was all whispers like, “Oh, this guy got sick and died,” but years before safe sex or anything like that.

In San Francisco I met a million gay people, a million flamboyant people, and was trying to sort of figure out where I was in all of it. There really weren't people that dressed up in drag there. A little bit. But it seemed old-fashioned and weird: there'd be guys with like beards and glitter.

What I loved were the trans women. They were really glamorous and sexy with that kind of heightened femininity—like a model or a movie star. They were really nailing it. Because they weren’t clowns. They were chic. Of course, a lot of them were prostitutes or very bad drug addicts. Drug addicts will often have this moment of creativity and glamour; unfortunately it doesn’t last. They’d become almost translucent, they could be really beautiful; it’s a minute. But that minute, wow, it can be really something. I don’t take drugs anymore and I don’t at all think that people should. But in that moment, I found it very glamorous.

So then, I bottomed out in San Francisco. Just really hit the skids. I was homeless, I was a mess. My mom sent me a ticket, and I came home for the summer.

Before I went to San Francisco I had this great boyfriend for awhile. He was older, 23, and I was 17, so it seemed like a 100 years older. He had this friend who worked at this bookstore with an amazing magazine department—magazine stores were a huge thing, there was no Internet. So I was at the magazine store and I was looking at a paper called The New York Native, which was a gay newspaper, and there was a picture of this drag queen by the piers, with the water in the background, and he looked incredible. And so I say to my friend working at the cash register, I show him the picture and I say, “I wanna go to New York and be like this,” and he said, “Jimmy, you should, you could do it. Do it!” Anyway that guy ended up becoming Pulitzer Prize winning writer Michael Chabon—

S: No way!

JP: And he wrote a character in one of his books—

S: Is this a book about Pittsburgh, the Mysteries of Pittsburgh?

JP: Yes, the main guy was my ex-boyfriend, Michael King. I'm not in that book. But I was either right after or right before that book.

S: Wow! I just read that book.

JP: And the queen from the photo [in The New York Native] ended up being John Kelly, the performance artist, who was a big part of the Pyramid scene. I always tell him when I see him he’s the reason I moved to New York.

New York City
When I first got to New York I went looking for this friend of mine who was working as a lighting person at the Pyramid Club on Avenue A. I stayed with him for awhile and I told him, “I heard they have Go Go dancers on the bar, I wanna do that.” So he introduced me. I moved to New York on my 19th birthday and I guess I was a cute kid because they said yes.

That was the first time I was in full drag; before that I’d wear full make-up or maybe a halter-top. But that was the first time I was ever in a dress and high heels. And falsies. I go-go danced on the bar and it was very, very fun. 

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Jack Pierson and Jimmy Paulette at Wigstock Union Square, 1991. Photographer unknown.

S: And had you done any performance like that before? 

JP: No. I don’t know if people know this, maybe some people know, but drag is a very big adrenaline rush. I knew it was very dangerous and that I wasn't fooling anybody—anybody could see that I was a drag queen and not a [cis] woman. In the early eighties, this was ’82, Avenue A was still very dangerous. There was a window at the Pyramid, and I would sometimes have this fantasy that someone would shoot me through the window. You know, like a homophobic person would just murder me. Again, like a movie!

Sometimes, I would walk in full drag from the Pyramid to Clinton Street—I mean it would be dangerous to do that now. But imagine 30 years ago, when it was still burnt out. Clinton St. now is like this elegant restaurant row, it’s ridiculous. Back then it was all burnt out drug dealers and gangs and it was a cop stop for heroin. And there I would be all six foot one of me—in high heels and finery and half naked.

S: Did you have any scary experiences?

JP: You actually asked me a question no one’s ever asked me! Never ever was I really hurt while I was in drag; I think the adrenaline protected me. I never had a problem. In fact, I remember the few times people would say negative things to me because it was so few and far between. It was very embraced. People liked it. And that’s the exhilarating thing about doing drag, is that everybody’s like, "Ohhhh!" It was really really exciting. And like what I was talking about, drag [at this time] was an old fashioned thing that the Pyramid Club made fashionable and new again. What we were doing felt very new.

S: Tell me more about how it differentiated itself from the past. That's really interesting.

JP: Well we weren’t trying to be like Barbara Streisand or something, we weren't impersonating stars. We were making up our own character. It was just a very natural thing for me, it wasn’t something that I had to really try to do. I got dressed up in this outfit that people [at the club] helped me put together and from that moment on I just started to do it. And my references were all fashion and music of the time. So I guess, unbeknownst to me, it looked new. 

What happened was a drag resurgence. And I was on the early end of it. I remember when RuPaul and Lady Bunny came onto the scene from Georgia—I actually met them on their first day in New York at the Pyramid. I remember Rupaul was wearing these thigh-high rubber wader boots. Anyway, Lady Bunny became a sensation and started Wigstock. I went to all of those and performed at a few of them when it was still in Thompson Square Park.

S: What was your performance like? You started off go-go dancing but did you create a persona?

JP: I was never like Lady Bunny or one of the main one-name stars. But Tabboo! and I were in a few bands that were really just a blast. We were extremely influenced by glitter rock, which of course had been completely finished for years, but we were trying to resurrect some past fantasy. Sometimes I would lip sync, maybe play tambourine and sing some. But I would go so far as to say that I'm not musical. People would say my look was “rock.” Later came a whole scene called Don Hill's, Squeezebox, which was a rock ’n’ roll drag bar that would have performances. I was definitely on the early end of all that.

I remember when Culture Club and Boy George came out, their album cover was on the back of The Face, a big influential British fashion music magazine that I worshipped. I remember being really inspired by the look, going out and buying make-up like her—“I wanna look like her, I wanna dress like her”— I thought Boy George was a girl. Until someone at the Pyramid told me Boy George was a guy. Here I am go-go dancing in drag and out comes the first drag queen pop star ever. It felt like something was happening: a drag scene emerging in New York and England, some of it rock-music inspired. It was an interesting thing, culturally.

Beauty School
At the same time, I started to go to beauty school. It was fun, it was great, but there was no such thing, at the time, as a full-time drag queen go-go dancer. Also it was really hard and exhausting and didn’t pay very much—we’d get paid like forty dollars a night. I started to meet people in the fashion business, people who did hair and make-up. There was a great make-up artist named Lesley Chilkes who told me to got beauty school. “Fuck,” I thought; I didn’t want to do the same thing as my mother. I wanted to go beyond that, but life wasn’t working. I wasn’t surviving in New York very well at all. I was really struggling. So I went to beauty school.

And around the time I got my first jobs doing hair, I started to go out with this guy John: he was nuts and gorgeous, and he didn’t like drag. I basically was not allowed to do it anymore. And I thought that was amazing. [laughs] This is love! So I just put it all away.

S: Why didn't he like it? What was that about?

JP: No one is more homophobic than a gay man. Here I was, this little gay effeminate kid, dying to move out of Pittsburgh and go to New York so I can be myself. Then I get here and it becomes about sex and how to be sexually desirable: lift weights, look like you’re a marine. It's so funny because I’m now doing the thing that my neighborhood wanted me to do but—

S: For a different audience.

JP: For a different audience and for the purpose of having sex. So to be a drag queen is a big sacrifice because there are going to be a lot of gay guys who are put off. Like John: It wasn’t his idea of masculine or sexy. I thought it all terrifically funny, like: “Oh guess what? He won’t let me do drag!” Again, like it was a movie. But really, I was afraid of him denying me love. Because I was madly in love—underline madly. It was also great timing because my hairdressing career really began to take a turn for the better.

S: What year is this?

JP: ’88. 

S: So, AIDS.

JP: People were dying left and right. ’88 was one of the worst years. 

S: Did you lose a lot of people?

JP: I lost a ton of people. The generation older than me, one up from me, was hit the hardest. Of course a lot of people from my generation died too. But it was the generations above me that were decimated. 

The first hair salon I worked at was in 1984. That was a really bad year. Maybe 70% of the people died except for the women and the straight guys. It was terrifying and of course that’s one of the reasons I stopped doing drugs. Because I knew my decision-making wasn’t going to work if I was high, so I quit and it saved my life.

S: And your hairdressing career was taking a turn?

JP: Yes, in 1988, the year I stopped getting high and the year I met John, my career started to go better. I stopped doing drag and I really focused. John and I stayed together for almost 3 years. When we broke up I was devastated. And Lady Bunny was organizing a float for Gay Pride and she asked me to be in it. It was called “Free Prostitution”—it really had nothing to do with freeing prostitution, but that was the name of the float, it was very funny. She knew I hadn’t done drag in awhile and it was the perfect thing.

Nan Goldin
At this point I’d met Nan [Goldin]. Nan is from Massachusetts as is Tabboo!, as are [my old friends] Jack Pierson and David Armstrong, and they all put her on a pedestal and made it such a huge deal to be photographed by her. She was very famous in that milieu. When I met her she said, “I heard you were a great drag queen,” and I said, “Oh, thank you, I don’t do it anymore,” and she said, “If you ever do...” in this really seductive way. She’d keep saying it anytime she’d see me, like, “If you ever do drag again tell me, I want to take a picture of that.” So when it came time for the parade, I told Nan that I was going to do it. We met at my apartment across the street from Julius [bar], not far from where we had to meet for the parade.

S: What was the parade like at that time?

JP: It was better. And bigger, and more crowded. It was wild. It was also the height of AIDS so people were protesting, there was a huge ACT UP—

S: Were you involved in any of that activism?

JP: I’d go for the scene: to look at the guys and sit there. I went to Washington D.C., and I’d go to every memorial, but I would never say I was a big activist.

S: It was more that if you were gay and alive and had a night life during this period, then your social life was political. 

JP: Yes, if you were alive you went. That's a fantastic way to put it. That's exactly what happened. My social life was, like, this is what we're doing, we're going to Washington D.C. I have to say, that march on Washington was divine. Fifty million fucking queens and RuPaul [performed], and we all knew her. And we'd look for our friends’ names on the quilt, it was just, we were kids. I don't know how else to put it. We were kids. We were in the middle of this plague; how do you navigate that?

S: So let’s get back to the parade.

JP: It was a blast. Nan wanted to come over and get ready. I did her hair and then me, Tabboo!, and Miss Demeanor, who’s in the blue wig [in the photo “Jimmy Paulette and Misty in a Taxi”], we got ready in my apartment, and we all went up together—Nan was taking pictures all the time. And I just want to say that I didn't know this was her serious photography. I was just starting to work in the fashion business, and fashion photography is very complicated with lights and assistants.

S: But she was doing an altogether different thing.

JP: Yeah, snaps. I had no idea that this was her serious work. So we're getting ready and she's snapping pictures and I'm not really paying attention. When the book first came out it was a very strange thing. I was becoming a successful hairdresser at this hair salon, nobody knew that I dressed up in drag. All of a sudden there’s this book. And people see it and they're like, “Oh my god, Jimmy's on the cover.” And I felt very strange about it, I felt alone. 

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Jimmy Paul and friend on cover of Nan Goldin photo book.

S: You didn’t know you were going to be on the book cover?

JP: Nan told me later that I was going to be on the cover but I didn’t know while she was taking pictures. I think if I had known it was her serious work, I would have been stiff as a board, it wouldn't have worked. I thought it was just, personal, for fun—I didn't know her process. When she told me that one of them was going to be on the cover of the book I was shocked. If you look at her books she shoots these beautiful queens and these incredible people, so I would have never thought that I would have been even considered.

Also, it was before the Internet and I never thought my family would see it. OK, segue ten years later, one of my relatives sees it and tells my mother. And my mother told my father, who said the cutest thing: “Jimmy, I saw those photos of you. I wish you would have called me if you were having a hard time.” He thought I was a prostitute! It was so sweet. I just thought, You are the cutest thing ever. I said, “Dad, it was Gay Pride day." And he said, “Ohhh. You were just showing off.” He got it more than the wall label from the museum! We were showing off. We were camping!

Have you seen the book?

S: The Other Side?

JP: Yeah, let me see if I can find one. [gets book with photo “Jimmy and Tabboo! In the Bathroom” on the cover] So this is my bathroom, and this is Tabboo!, and we're putting our make-up on in the mirror—it’s the morning. And as obsessive studiers of the past, we both, without saying it, thought of this very famous photo by Diane Arbus, of two drag queen performers backstage at the Club 82 [famous drag club in the East Village open from 1953 to the early 1970s], and they're both kind of looking at the stage, and they just have their make-up on and no shirts and no wigs, but full make-up. We both started camping and doing that. Of course, I look tragic in this photo, like someone just died or whatever. Then we got in the taxi. This is us in the cab on our way to the parade. [This is also the photo “Jimmy Paulette and Misty in a Taxi” featured in Hide/Seek: Difference and Desire in American Portraiture.]

S: But you also sort of look like you're sedated or something like that. Which you weren't. But the picture looks like you were, right?

JP: Yeah, hello! That's called editing. She took a million pictures, those are the ones she chose. Am I mad at her? No. Did she pick the right one? Yes. But do I look like a junkie whore? Of course I do. Did I want to look like a junkie whore? Yes! Was I a junkie whore? No. I was a tax-paying hairdresser. [laughs] Who went home and washed all that off.

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Jimmy Paulette (right) and Misty in a Taxi. Photo by Nan Goldin.

S: Right, so let’s talk about the wall label.

JP: Right, so that's what was so shocking about the wall label at this fantastic show—Hide/Seek. So I go to this fabulous show and, it's only a few years ago, and I'm loving it. And I'm excited to see my picture. And there's a caption:

Partygoers or war zone refugees? The thousand yard stares on the faces of two of Nan Goldin's favorite subjects in a photograph taken in a cab ride home on the morning after a hard night out begs the question.

JP: So first of all, I am alive. I'm very, very around. People know me. Nan is also alive. It's probably not hard to find the address and phone number of her studio on the Internet. At the time, Miss Demeanor, Scott, was alive. What’s written here is very glamorous and like a movie, maybe it's more interesting than the truth. But it's rewriting history. And that's what was so sad and shocking to me to read this. It's like, you could have asked me. But also, it's made clear in the book that these photos were taken before and after the Gay Pride Parade; it’s not after a night out. I'm a man, I would have had stubble coming through if it was after a night out. I don't expect anyone to be a drag expert or make-up expert, but my make-up is fresh. You know? It's not after a night out.

But maybe that’s advanced information, so let’s keep going:

In 1883, when John Singer Sargent famously painted Madame X's dress strap slipping down her shoulder, he suggested a nakedness that fractured Gilded Age propriety. Here, Goldin references Sargent, but by showing both of Jimmy Paulette's straps down, she creates a symbol, however you're using that, symbol of exhaustion and desperation, rather than erotic promise. She/he's come undone.

Nan had nothing to do with my straps coming down. The fact of the matter is, it was an ill-fitting bra, it wasn't elasticized, it fell down. I'm not saying I don’t give Nan any credit, I think she's a genius, but she did not have anything to do with the straps coming down. So I thought: “John Singer Sargent? What the fuck are they talking about?” But at the same time if someone sees that, that's their prerogative. But I just want to talk about my reaction to his writing. I’m not saying he’s wrong. He wrote something beautiful. I'm just saying the feelings that came up as a person in the photograph:

The photograph’s immediate sense of glamour is belied when you look closely at the rips and tears of the clothing and faces of the girls, whose eyes look like holes poked through the black snow of their mascara.

Huh? Yes, in my outfit, not both of our outfits, there are holes. I'm wearing a top made out of fishnet stockings—I cut the crotch out to make a top. And I'm big so when I put the fishnet on it ripped. 

S: But it was also part of the style.

JP: Yes! I was going for rock ’n’ roll, and trampy. Next part:

Goldin gives her subjects a weight and dignity that keeps the picture from either Weegee-like voyeurism or moralistic posturing. Instead, as part of her artistic project documenting the decade after AIDS, Goldin suggests that we are all in the front seat with her, trapped in a cab ride to nowhere.


S: What do you think about those words: "Gives her subjects a weight and a dignity." 

JP: Well, it makes me wonder: What did Nan do to give us “weight and dignity”? Like what did she do exactly?

S: And it implies that you didn’t have “dignity” before. Or it was hers to give you. And: how good of her!

It's just fascinating, because, to respond to what you said earlier, I think the truth is really interesting here. That it isn’t a “cab ride to nowhere.” 

JP: No, it's a cab ride to the Gay Pride parade!

S: It’s a very affirming morning. 

JP: The thing that I love about Nan's pictures is that we're together: In the time of AIDS, we had each other and we were a family. All of these people are still friends. It wasn't about sex, it was about togetherness—going to the Gay Pride parade, having a great time. Yes, we were emulating movies, and prostitutes, and vice, but that was a charade. And it’s fine if I'm doing the charade so well, somebody misreads. But I just think that rewriting history is a bit odd. Like it wasn't after a night out. And we weren't high. And we weren't in a taxi to nowhere. What a line: "A cab ride to nowhere;” it's fabulous, but at what price? It's not true. 

S: Don’t you think that the photo, without any of the context, is a performance of this taxi ride to nowhere? 

JP: Maybe that's what's so shocking about it, because, I never thought about what people saw. Until I read what someone, who did this beautiful thing for the gay community, this spectacular show, thought. And I just felt, somehow, betrayed. And outraged. Because I know I'm extremely accessible, and so is Nan. It’s all in the book, if you read it you would see, the reality of the photo is very pro-gay.

S: Versus this text which is sensational—it’s as if it’s for a straight audience.

JP: Yes, we were celebrating being gay. Gay Pride. And having the option to do that in one of the darkest times in gay history. It's really sad. And it really broke my heart to read it.

S: If you look at the picture with this label, it's like, yeah, you can make that story work. 

JP: Make that story work. No one's going to argue with you. I don’t blame anyone because it's easy to look and see that. I just wish someone would have gone a step further. Like, the world's going to see this, the show was in D.C. at the Smithsonian, I mean it was a really important thing. I definitely think that there's a little bit of responsibility.

S: The story they told instead was some gay noir fantasy—“Oh these poor bedraggled, demoralized”— I think the truth is worth knowing here; it has an empowering, celebratory message. No, the subjects aren’t three seconds from suicide—

JP: Yeah, or about to overdose in a doorway and no one's going to care.

S: Yeah, like tomorrow they might be dead. It's as if they're dead already. 

JP: Another time you hit the nail on the head.

S: Also, the mention of “AIDS” helps with that; it makes it seem like they have AIDS.

JP: Yes! And we're giving people AIDS. 

S: But I guess what I'm saying, and I really want to hammer it home, is that I don't think the wall-label version is more interesting.

JP: I don't either. Only because we've heard that story a million times. You know we've heard that version and thought that version. 

S: Indeed. 

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Young Jimmy Paul. Photo by Steven Meisel.

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Jimmy Paul and client. Photo by Jack Pierson.