Big Fish

A new biography and museum show celebrate a groundbreaking drag performer.

drag star doris fish

For centuries, drag has been a staple of entertainment, from Shakespeare’s comedies to the 1890s cross-dressing farce Charley’s Aunt. More recently, the films of John Waters and the crossover success of RuPaul’s Drag Race have brought the form into the mainstream. Yet somehow despite all of this cultural embrace, conservative politicians and activists are framing drag (and in particular, drag shows and popular storytelling hours held at many public libraries) as a moral menace.

This essay was adapted from the Alta newsletter, delivered every Thursday.

There was a time, though, when the grumbling came not from outside critics but from activists inside the house. In the 1970s heyday of gay lib, many men thought drag queens represented dated stereotypes that hobbled assimilationist progress, while some lesbian feminists considered them demeaning caricatures of womanhood.

Swimming against that censuring tide was the subject of Craig Seligman’s Who Does That Bitch Think She Is?: Doris Fish and the Rise of Drag. Fish was a cisgender man who was supportive of trans people without identifying as one and who achieved high visibility for a drag persona of dazzling visual style and vinegar wit. “For Doris, drag was always a form of theater. He never wanted to be a woman—he never even wanted to seem like a woman,” Seligman writes. “Doris practiced the art of confusion.… He was a walking celebration of the gamut of identities available to us and the rush that comes with getting to choose for yourself.”

Born Philip Mills in 1952 in Sydney, Australia, the performer who would eventually become Doris Fish drank deep from the well of hippie counterculture as soon as it arrived down under, absorbing new freedoms through sexuality, gender-bending, and sartorial splendor. By 1972, Mills was magnetizing attention as Fish, and in 1975, he moved to San Francisco, where he found the best stage for his talents.

Aside from frequent visits home to Australia, where he was a major celebrity, he remained in San Francisco until his death, in 1991, at age 38.

Seligman, who previously wrote about Susan Sontag and Pauline Kael in Sontag and Kael: Opposites Attract Me, witnessed Fish up close as a San Francisco–based journalist. (Seligman is also the spouse of sometime Fish collaborator and drag luminary Silvana Nova.) “I feared that if I didn’t write Doris’s story, it would be lost,” he told me in a recent email interview.

The ringleader of a tight-knit group who featured outré personalities like Tippi and Miss X, Fish gained national fame as an antic model in a long-running series of funny commercial greeting cards from West Graphics. Locally, he performed popular theatricals, including live serials by Sluts a-Go-Go; hosted a public access TV show called The Right Stuff; and wrote a column for the San Francisco Sentinel, a gay weekly newspaper. That column led to Mills’s becoming, as Seligman writes in Who Does That Bitch Think She Is?, “one of the city’s best-known AIDS cases,” tirelessly fundraising for healthcare and community support during the city’s long and devastating AIDS era.

Fish wasn’t just an extrovert with a flair for dress-up and self-promotion. He had skill. His work featured wildly imaginative set, costume, and makeup design, as well as a sophisticated acting talent. His personal magnum opus, Vegas in Space (1991), would combine all of these abilities and more. A sci-fi campstravaganza, Vegas was directed by Phillip R. Ford but featured so much of Fish’s vision as a writer, designer, and star that it’s billed as “a Fish/Ford Film.”

In Seligman’s recounting, Vegas’s low-to-no-budget DIY shoot was a strain for participants, its postproduction dragging on for years. Much of the film was funded by Mills’s “day job” as (in Seligman’s words) a “bringer of sexual gifts.” Generous to a fault, he approached the world’s oldest profession in a manner so client-friendly that it bordered on charity.

Sadly, Fish did not live to see Vegas completed. Dedicated to him, the film premiered at the Castro Theatre in October 1991, four months after its star’s demise. A year prior, he’d presided over his own “farewell party”/AIDS benefit, one of several such events held at that time to memorialize local celebrities while they were still alive and able to enjoy the attention. Seligman thinks Fish would have been a superstar in today’s world, where drag enjoys more-mainstream acceptance—a cultural shift Fish and his contemporaries helped bring about. As for the criticisms of drag itself, whether within the gay community of the 1970s or the right-wing political sphere of the present, his biographer tells me, “Homophobia, transphobia, racism, anti-Semitism...those ‘otherings’ will never die out completely, because they’re useful to demagogues.”

“Doris’s reaction is easy to imagine,” Seligman continues. “He would be horrified, disgusted, and, most of all, outspoken—which is essential.”

Doris Fish: Ego as Artform opens at the GLBT Historical Society Museum in San Francisco on April 21. Seligman will be appearing at the museum to discuss Who Does That Bitch Think She Is? on April 28.•

Dennis Harvey is a member of the San Francisco Bay Area Film Critics Circle and a longtime correspondent for Variety.
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