Elyssa Maxx Goodman, GLITTER AND CONCRETE: A Cultural History of Drag in New York City

Elyssa Maxx Goodman, GLITTER AND CONCRETE: A Cultural History of Drag in New York City

Zibby speaks to journalist and drag historian Elyssa Maxx Goodman about GLITTER AND CONCRETE, an intimate, evocative history of drag in New York City with original interviews and glamorous color photos. Elyssa, inspired to write this book after the passing of the renowned drag queen Flawless Sabrina, describes her determination to preserve stories of drag artists for future generations. She and Zibby discuss the rich history of drag in NYC, its influence on American culture, and the importance of recognizing it as a significant art form. Elyssa also reflects on her childhood fascination with drag culture, her career as an author and journalist, and the news that her book has been named a Stonewall Honor Book.


Zibby Owens: Welcome, Elyssa. Very excited to talk to you today about Glitter and Concrete: A Cultural History of Drag in New York City.

Elyssa Maxx Goodman: Thank you. Thank you. I’m very glad to be here. I appreciate you having me.

Zibby: Of course. The first time we met, you had invited me to your Miss Manhattan series. I remember going down into the bottom of the bar or wherever you had it when we all were writing essays about our grandmothers or whatever. You gave me this opportunity to talk and speak and present an essay out loud, which I don’t think I’ve ever really done before, except at a summer program. Certainly not in New York City. Thank you for that, I just have to say.

Elyssa: That’s very kind. I had no idea that was your first time doing that. That’s very sweet. I’m glad you enjoyed yourself.

Zibby: Thank you for thinking of me. This was 2018, ’17, something. Anyway, Glitter and Concrete, why don’t you tell listeners, why did you decide to write a history of drag in New York City?

Elyssa: The idea came to me after the passing of the very famous New York drag queen, Flawless Sabrina. She passed away in November 2017. I started to wonder — for a drag artist, she had been covered extensively, but that’s still for a drag artist. It’s not the same attention that someone like Brad Pitt might get, certainly. I didn’t want her stories to disappear. I didn’t want anyone else’s stories to disappear. My wheels started to turn. Then I realized that a book like this hadn’t been written. The drag that comes out of New York is extremely influential. There are a lot of cities across the US with really influential drag scenes as well, but New York has always been my muse. This is the city where I live and I love. I wanted to honor its past and to give an explanation of how we arrived at the cultural moment that drag occupies now.

Zibby: What did you find that you were surprised about? How much did you know going into it versus what came of it? There’s so much. There’s so much history. Ronald Reagan. You have the wide swath of history in here. What were you expecting or hoping? What did you find? Did you just want to get it out on paper? What surprises were there? That was fifty questions, so you could just answer them the rest of the time.

Elyssa: I have a longstanding relationship with drag. Drag has been a part of my life for almost thirty years. I saw the film To Wong Foo, Thanks for Everything! Julie Newmar when I was seven years old. It’s just been a part of my life since then. My mother had a similar relationship to drag. She wasn’t seven. She was working as an interior designer when she met a person who taught her how to do her makeup. This person was a man named Frank Hill. Frank was also an Ann-Margret impersonator. I write about this in the book too. It’s very much like an apple/tree situation. It was something that I loved and was curious about, and so in the course of my life had picked up these different tales of these different kinds of places and these different people. To an extent, there was a history that I was very much aware of. Then there were things that I had no idea about that I also learned in the process that I was delighted to be able to share. Writing this book was very much a process of making myself a student of this art form, or I should say continuing to make myself a student of this art form. One of the things that was so delightful to me to learn was drag has almost a, I’d call it maybe a Forrest Gump quality to it in terms of its relationship to not just New York history and queer culture, but American history. Something I say often now is drag history is New York history, is American history. To see all these different ways that it influenced culture and allowed not just the drag that we have now to exist, but allowed queer culture to keep pushing forward and culture in general to keep pushing forward, it’s been wonderful to be able to see it and to share it.

Zibby: If you had to pick, let’s say, three things that people should know about drag history or contemporary or anything, what are the most important things that people should know?

Elyssa: First, I would say the most important thing for people to know is that drag is an art form in the same way that film or photography or literature — what’s interesting about drag is that it brings all of these art forms together. This will be the second thing. It’s an art form that’s thousands of years old. I think another important thing — actually, BenDeLaCreme talked about this on The Daily Show last year, which I thought was really wonderful. In the same way that there are different ratings for different kinds of movies, there’s a similar experience for drag as there are for books, as there are for photography or for, again, any art form. I would say the other important thing is that, given all of those things, it’s not an art form to be discounted. It has this rich history that’s worth knowing about in the same way that cinema history or literary history or any of the other genres of art that we talk about regularly are.

Zibby: How did you become an author, historian, moderator of a speaking series? Tell me about where you came from and how you got here.

Elyssa: I’m from South Florida originally. I moved to New York in July 2010. Oh, my goodness, it’s thirteen and a half years. She celebrated her bar mitzvah last July. Writing has been a part of my life. I was in fourth grade, and I had a teacher named Mrs. Ludwig, Susan Ludwig, who I’m still in touch with. She said to my mother, “She really has skill in this area. You should encourage her.” She did. I did. Here I am. I’ve been a freelance journalist since I’m fifteen or sixteen years old. I was writing for the local newspaper in South Florida. I continued writing for them throughout college. I founded a magazine when I was at college that ran until the pandemic. It ran for over a decade. I wanted to be a magazine writer, is what I really wanted. I got to New York. I had a job. I was a social media — what did she call me? The director of social media for a media recruiting firm, which was this office above Carnegie Deli that always smelled like pastrami. I was really more of an assistant. I got laid off. I had to figure out a way to pay my rent. I was all hands on deck. I was doing social media for a long time. Then I had been a full-time writer and photographer, freelance, since 2014. That part is celebrating its tenth anniversary this year. Overall, it’s been a running theme in my life.

I specialize in arts and culture as a journalist. I started writing about drag professionally in November 2011. What was wild is that at that time, there wouldn’t have been a lot of outlets for me to do that, but this one particular website had an interesting bent where they wanted stories of all different kinds. I pitched a couple drag stories to them that they accepted, but it wouldn’t be until a few years later when I was writing about drag consistently. There were people who were reaching out to me to do that and to do all these different things. This entire time, I’d been writing about arts and culture for places like Vogue and Teeth and New York Times Style Magazine, Vanity Fair, and Elle. There’s lots of different places. I have sort of cobbled together this life. Drag was always something I wanted to be a larger part of it, to be able to write about drag with consistency. Then this idea arrived. Then I had a publisher. I had a book. Here we are. I continue to write about drag. I continue to write about arts and culture. Writing and photography are my bread and butter. I’m very happy to be able to do the things I love for a living. A thing I usually say is I didn’t want work to be my life. I want my life to be my work. I wanted to get paid to do the things that I was going to go do anyway, and I do.

Zibby: I do too. I feel like if you can figure out a way to make your hobby into your job — everyone always says that, but I’m like, no, no, it’s not really that easy. I’m just going to do this books podcast on the side. Wow, it can happen. When you’re so clear about what you love, it’s easier to translate that to other things. Would you do another book? If so, what would it be about? Are you, maybe, already writing one?

Elyssa: I would do another book. I do really like writing about queer culture because those are the stories that don’t get told. There are so many that I’m interested in unraveling from the past. Something that happened when I was working on this book, especially — it was during the pandemic. I was watching The Criterion Collection a lot at night, Criterion Channel, I should say. I watched this film, Shanghai Express, with Marlene Dietrich. She comes into this train, and she’s just black silk and marabou and cheekbones and light. I was like, how do I do this for a living? How do I watch these movies for a living? I just kept playing around with these different ideas of what that could be — writing about glamor is a little too broad — and wanting to narrow that down. I’m interested in writing about queer contributions to glamor specifically and the people who were the image architects and don’t get the credit for developing these, not just images, but visuals, stylists, photographers, interior designers that set the standard for the visual culture that we have now.

Zibby: I love that term, image architects. Did you make that up, or is that a thing?

Elyssa: I had read it somewhere else, but I like it.

Zibby: You are going to be the one to bring it into the mainstream. It’s just such a great way to describe that. It does, sometimes it takes a village. That’s amazing. You, in your acknowledgments, thank eight million people for all their help on the book. Tell me what everyone did that was helpful. Did you have a lot of people read drafts? Was it research related? To whom do you credit the success of the book?

Elyssa: The book was always for the drag artists who lived these lives. The biggest thing I wanted was to be able to honor them and the lives that they lived, the people who are here and the people who aren’t here anymore. Especially with the way that drag is talked about in our current culture, it doesn’t get the respect it deserves even now. In the lives of the people who are covered in this book, it was even less so. Wanting to make sure that people knew about them and that they were household names in their own way. The people I thank in the acknowledgments — for the book, I did, I think it was ninety-three interviews with eighty-six people or something like that. Some of those people were drag artists. Some of those people were historians. Some of those people were people who were hanging out in the scene. Some of those people were artists or involved in it somehow. I wanted to be able to put together from everyone’s recollections these visuals of this time and these experiences of what it was like to be there at this time. What did it smell like? What did it feel like? What did it look like? Things like that. That’s the large breadth of people.

Then there’s also the historians whose shoulders that I stand on who helped me with the book, who did this great work of covering queer history before I did. There are my friends and family who were really supportive throughout these — the book took me five and a half years. They listened to me talk about it the entire time. You have to thank them. Of course, the editorial staff and my agent and the person who was originally my agent who put me in touch with the person who’s my agent now after he left the industry, people who did research for me or for the transcription or for all these different — I wanted to make sure that everyone got credit. That’s something that’s really important to me as a writer. You may have noticed that the notes section is also incredibly meticulous. I wanted to acknowledge where everything came from. If people wanted to go find these things themselves and read more about it was also something that was really important to me. I didn’t want to be kind of gatekeep-y about my sources and stuff like that because that’s not the nature of the form itself. I only want people to learn more. If the book inspires them to do that, I want them to have the resources to be able to do that.

Zibby: Did anyone in drag throw you — did you have an amazing launch party or anything? Were there any fabulous parties for this book?

Elyssa: My book party was the best party I’ve ever thrown. It has since evolved into a show that we have done again. My book party was held at a venue that’s now called Baker Falls but is the original site of the Pyramid Club. What was great about this was that I had really wanted to do my book party at a legacy drag venue. I wanted it to be at Pyramid Club because I had been once or twice when it was open, but its spirit was something that I was always very much attached to. Then it closed. I read this article about this other place that was opening up. I was like, all right, I’ll keep an eye on it. I’ll see what’s going on. It didn’t have a website for the longest time. Then they put one up on their Instagram. The first thing it said on the website was, “We’re the former home of drag in the East Village.” I was like, oh! I slid into their DMs. I was like, “Hey, this is my book. Do you want –” They very generously let me use the space. It was the first drag event at this new venue. The owner is very much a person who acknowledges and loves and respects the drag history of the space and of the East Village. There’s a portrait hanging behind the bar of a very influential Pyramid Club creative person. Just gets it.

I was the first drag show that they had in the new space. It opened maybe in July or August. It was very, very new. The structure of the launch party that I had been dreaming of was that I would hire drag artists to interpret a section of the book as a performance. Then I would read the section that they chose, and then they would perform. That’s what we did. Then we all had a conversation at the end so they could talk about their work and the role that drag history plays in their lives because history is not only about the past. It’s about what we create now. We’ve been doing that. We’ve done it now one other time at the Center for Brooklyn History as the Glitter and Concrete Show. Then I cut down the stuff about thanking my agent and standard book party stuff. We made it into a show. My producing partner, Jupiter, and I made it into a show. We’re hopefully going to be producing it at some other venues in the future.

Zibby: That is so cool. I love it. So cool. Do you have any advice for aspiring authors?

Elyssa: Yes. You have to write, I think is the biggest one. It seems pretty standard, but it’s the biggest part of being a writer of any kind. You have to read. You have to counter your own fear with your own desire. You have to do it constantly. You have to understand that you’re going to have bad days, but we all have them. Every book that you’ve ever seen, its author had a bad day where they couldn’t get out a sentence. That’s okay. It’s part of the process. You have to keep going the next day. I would say, in some ways, it’s muscle memory of training yourself to, okay, this is — you set goals for yourself. That was something that I did with this book. A thousand words a day was always the goal. Some days, I got 2,200. Some days, I got three. It’s about having the goal and then just saying, that’s great, I got it, or I’ll do better tomorrow. That’s how you keep going. A bad day isn’t a bad life and isn’t a bad book. Your stories matter.

Zibby: I love that. Bad day is not a bad life, is not a bad book. That’s good. That could go on a pillow right there. Thank you for that. Elyssa, congratulations on Glitter and Concrete. Such an accomplishment. So much research. So much time spent. Such a beautiful package to boot, so there you go. Congratulations.

Elyssa: I found out yesterday — and I am allowed to say it now.

Zibby: Oh, tell me.

Elyssa: The book has been named a Stonewall Honor Book.

Zibby: Yay!

Elyssa: There will be a sticker on it soon that says it’s a Stonewall Honor Book.

Zibby: How cool is that? Good for you. That is just so cool. That’s amazing.

Elyssa: I appreciate it. I always wanted people to know the stories. Anything that gets it out there to the people that need it is something that makes me very happy.

Zibby: Amazing. Wonderful. Advocacy and all the rest. Congratulations.

Elyssa: Thank you so much. Thank you for having me. all of your successes as well.

Zibby: Thank you. All thanks to my Miss Manhattan basement bar performance. That kicked the whole thing off.

Elyssa: We’re celebrating ten years in April. You should come back.

Zibby: Okay. Done. Thanks. Bye, Elyssa.

Elyssa: Have a good one.

Elyssa Maxx Goodman, GLITTER AND CONCRETE: A Cultural History of Drag in New York City

GLITTER AND CONCRETE: A Cultural History of Drag in New York City by Elyssa Maxx Goodman

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