Monday, 15 March 2021

Interview with Connie Fleming

Monika: Today I am taking you on a fantastic journey to the world of fashion and glamour, as my guest is a Jamaican-born model and showgirl. Connie Fleming, also known as Connie Girl, started her career as a showgirl in New York City’s clubs in the ‘80s and early ‘90s. Her beauty caught the attention of the fashion industry very quickly and she has become an iconic character in modeling, makeup, and clothes design. Some of you may remember the 2012 Candy magazine cover with her photo impersonating Michelle Obama. Hello Connie! 
Connie: Hello Monika. Thanks for having me.
Monika: How are you doing in the pandemic times? Do you have a chance to work normally?
Connie: I’m doing well, and not gonna complain. In the beginning, when the Standard closed, it was a bit nerve-racking but I had a couple art projects I hadn’t time to work on, so I started with them. It then went on from there to a series of tattooed men pencil drawings, a Black Lives Matter. And Black Trans Lives Matter pieces I did for my friend James Gardner’s restaurant Gitano. So as always in my life Art brought me through the bad times.
Monika: Before we focus on your amazing career, I would like to start with a more personal question. You are one of the very few girls that managed to use a drag show career as a stepping stone for your future successes as a model and make-up artist. So for our transgender community, you are an obvious role model. Are you aware that many trans girls might consider your story as a beacon of hope?
Connie: I was very lucky to be in the East Village in the late 80s. It was the hub of art, fashion, music, and club culture. As it was then and to a certain extent now, you only had two options as a Trans person: sex work or drag shows. It was a very limited world being an LGBTQ+ person of color, the game was already stacked against you. So I had to find my way with what tools I was given; my plan was art school, and coming from a lower middle-class single parent home meant that financially I had to make it happen myself. I looked for a job and took night classes in order to better my portfolio. But life had other plans in store for me. I had to address me, my existence, who, and what I was. First finding one's tribe, I couldn’t progress without doing this.

Photo: Bobby Miller.

My tribe and hope for life were in the creative community of downtown New York, the world of Warhol, CBGB’s, and Danceteria, a world far away from a mythic place in magazines and TV but how to get there. Was there a secret password or special passageway one had to find?
Once I started working in the East Village I found mine through the looking glass and began my journey as an artist/scenester then a performer. This led to those like me that knew me and my plight. I had the opportunity to meet the incomparable International Crysis who saw and knew me even before I could voice it to myself. She helped, guided, and educated me in navigating the world as a trans woman and a creative artist.
If I’m in any way a role model and inspiration, it is due to her, the Trans / Drag artist community that gave me a safe space to grow and transition in a very hostile world, which, I hope, is never forgotten or dismissed.
Monika: You were born in Jamaica but you spent your whole childhood in Brooklyn where you settled down with your mother. In most of your interviews, you describe your school years as the most traumatic period. Did you feel lonely at that time?
Connie: Yes, but being an only child I didn’t really know any different world, I had nothing to compare it to, add to that being a latchkey kid TV and my imagination were my only friends. Ultimately people weren’t very nice to a very feminine trans child. I learned by the first grade how vicious and petty society could really be. In other words, to be alone meant safety.
Monika: Did your mother understand your feminine side?
Connie: No, it was very difficult for her to deal with, especially as an Afro-Caribbean single Mom. Homophobia/Transphobia runs very deep in the Caribbean. It wasn’t an easy road for us to travel. But we made it through and think we’re better for it.
Monika: You found your safe haven in fashion illustrations and drag performances. I read somewhere that you started doing drag by pure coincidence because of meeting with David Glamamore, a drag performer, and you were enchanted by David's colorful shows and their vibrant atmosphere. Is it true?
Connie: Well David and I met on my first job at The Antique Boutique. We’d bonded and become besties, one night after work he invited me to this bar/club called the BOY BAR. This would be a very special life-changing evening. For that night I would meet Matthew Kasten, creator of THE BOY BAR BEAUTIES, who just so happened to be meeting with a famed hairstylist and owner of BOY BAR, Paul Macgregor, to pitch the idea of doing shows at the BOY BAR.
After meeting with Paul, Matthew sat at our table, David introduced us then ran onto the dancefloor as we chatted all evening about all things beautiful. It was a true alignment of the stars that these kindred spirits had found each other.
At evening's end as we walked to the subway he told me about the ideas he had for shows and of pushing the art of drag to different places. By that time we were on the station platform, my train had arrived first. We all said our goodbyes. I wished my new friend Matthew luck on his new endeavor, as the door closed he shouted, “BUT YOU'RE BOTH GOING TO BE IN THE SHOWS!!!“ “What?” The train pulled off and I was on my way home and on the way to destiny.
Monika: Do you remember your first show? What did you wear and what did you dance and sing?
Connie: OMG!!! I think it might have been a Christmas or New Year's Show. Costume and song heaven knows, and not the Donna Summer song “Heaven Knows” LoL Something ultra disc I think. The only thing I remember was being super nervous, nauseous, and Matthew literally pushing me on stage. Not being able to see the audience because of the lights which I thought was BRILLIANT!, calmed me enough to think to myself. “Hey, maybe I could really do this”.
Monika: How did you prepare for the shows? Did anyone help you with dresses, hairstyles, and make-up?
Connie: Along with being an incredible performer, David Glamamore is a couturier of the highest order. Matthew Kasten creator, producer, writer, director, and accomplished hairstylist. Miss Shannon, an East Village punk legend, and a hair and makeup artist extraordinaire. I, the granddaughter of an incredibly talented and accomplished dressmaker, a fashion magazine hag, and an art student.
It was hard in the beginning. We were a bit rough around the edges but collectively we pushed, learned, and grew together as performers and artists. Matthew had an incredible eye and from the very beginning, the shows had a story and concept that we honed in rehearsals. Where one fell short, the other would pick up the slack. Whatever David couldn’t make, we thrifted, whatever hair was needed, Matthew and Shannon made, whatever backdrop we couldn’t get elsewhere, I painted.
We also learned from the community of artists in the scene that performed at BOY BAR from International Crysis and Lady Bunny, to Lypsinka. We learned so much watching the greats. And we had the BOY BAR BEAUTY CODE, costume, hair, and makeup were part and parcel of the theme/direction of the show. But most importantly “NO WONKY SHOES EVER!”

Photo: Andrew Macpherson,
The Face magazine.

Monika: What was the New York drag scene in the 80s? Was it like a group of drag stars performing in well-known places like Palladium, Tunnel, Limelight, or Boy Bar Beauties and other aspiring girls doing shows in smaller clubs of the downtown area?
Connie: The scene at that time had Drag looked down upon. It was viewed as the lowest of the low, pejorative, a nuisance to some, to others a hindrance for the LGBTQ+ community being taken seriously. But this was before social media, so clubs and bars were meeting places, and the Village was a community of artists and creators. Performance art and street art grew and thrived, it needed venues for the audiences that wanted live, timely, relevant entertainment that spoke to them and not at them.
It was also the time of the plague that devastated the community, taking its toll on the young and old alike. We had to come together as a community in order to survive. There was fundraising to do, information to disseminate, and a sense of joy and hope to give to each other. The neighborhood pub/bar/club is a home away from home; it was no different for us.
The Pyramid and BOY BAR shared artists and bounced off each other elevating the art making it viable and profitable. This made the larger venues like Palladium, Tunnel, and Limelight possible. We brought an audience, a fan base, and energy, more importantly changing the view of drag being messy and unprofessional to be the art that it is and hopefully in some part pushing it to what it is today.
Monika: Was it possible to survive by doing drag only or it could be only a part-time job? 
Connie: At that time it wasn’t easy but possible. There were multiple venues open every night of the week. You could perform two to three numbers a night at multiple venues, or one to two numbers then GoGo Dance, bartend, coat check, waitress, door, DJ, whatever configuration of all the above a couple of nights a week could sustain you. Rents weren’t what they are today so with connections and a name you could eke by but a part-time or full-time gig was the best way to make your way in New York Titty!
I started transitioning in the late 80s, which made things harder. The pejorative view of Trans meant we were untrustworthy, criminal, mentally unstable, undesirable mistakes. All these lovely values were shared, believed, and enforced by society making it incredibly difficult to exist. So if you had a 9to5, job both coworkers and the public could and would object to your presence. Drag / Nightclub work gave me a safe haven financially and a safe space to get my footing in life.
Monika: Were there many transgirls among drag performers? I guess most of the performers were straight guys doing drag only at night?
Connie: Yes, there were Trans girls in the Drag scene remember we only had two options open to us. No matter how passable in the 9to5 heteronormative space, once you were clocked, there would be retribution: verbal, physical, and financial. Ultimately 'Drag' is performance art open to the expressions and experiences of the human condition. It’s been part of Theater and Stage from its beginnings, whether gay, straight, or trans. The good, the bad, and the ugly need spaces to explore life’s meaning, confront truth and untruth. It is to see all the colors of life's meanings to put on and inhabit all its wears and costumes.

Codie Ravioli, Gina Vala Vetro, Connie, and Becky, 1990.
Photo by Tina Paul.

Monika: How did you get hormones in those days? How did you learn about feminizing treatments?
Connie: It was the Wild Wild West, a spaghetti western. Your horse dies in the middle of the desert, vultures over head, no water, and a bounty hunter on your heels. My oasis was the Drag/Club/Art community. A safe space where you found out the who, where, and when. You had to know the day, hour, and what nurse or doctor to see. I was also super lucky to meet International Crysis who taught me my first lesson in the finer points, who to buy from on the black market, what brands, and what to look for.
My second stroke of luck was to transition with two of my best friends and roommates at the time. What one of us found out, we’d share with each other. As a collective, we found therapists, physicians, and pharmacies. All of these avenues made it possible to cross the desert.
Monika: How about feminization operations: breast augmentation, face feminization, and others? Was it possible to find a good surgeon? If not, a non-passing trans woman did not have a chance to survive, right?
Connie: The Trans community are the test dummies AKA the lab rats for the world of plastic surgery. Our community made so much of what is possible now possible. It’s always been a daunting task you have to be super vigilant and even then it was still a roll of the dice. Back in the day word of mouth meant safety, money's worth, and the holy grail aftercare. By the mid-90s these weren’t luxuries but started to become the norm, for the scarred and for those who perished.
The account of trips to South America and Asia went out via person to person teletype with full details good and bad. Our community in itself housed a database of every surgeon in the world. The uptown ladies who lunch knew to get the lowdown from the dolls before booking any procedure. Because ultimately there are those who prey upon us all Cis/Trans/Non in the pursuit of seeing the reflection of the true self. It is very difficult and dangerous to be in the world and be seen as others but we are too special and precious to exchange our lives for others' blindness and ignorance.
I was diligent but years after my implant surgery in 2018 my textured implants tried to kill me. They’ve now found for some women these implants can cause a rare form of lymphoma. So after months of chemo and weeks of radiation two years after thankfully, I’ve come out the other side healed and healthy. Our journeys are not only special but so are our bodies they need and deserve thoughtful knowledgeable care.
We mustn’t be complacent, you are your best advocate for overall health.
Monika: After starting your work at Patricia Field’s store, you received an offer to model for Steven Meisel, one of the well-known photographers. How did you get on with cis women on the modeling catwalk?
Connie: Well, working with Steven Meisel happened before working at Pat’s store. He first saw me at the legendary Patricia Field Ball. Steven was one of the judges. A couple of months later, he asked hairstylist Jimmy Paul to “find that girl!!!”. He was shooting the new Azzedine Alaia book and wanted to photograph me for it. The 80s and 90s East Village was a hub of creativity, and I’d been asked to model for a couple of the new upcoming designers even before starting at Boy Bar.
The more known I was as a performer gave me visibility in the downtown community that pushed my career in so many ways. They believed in me and saw my potential and wanted me to succeed. This is the arts community coming together, making and pushing ourselves and each other for those who are to follow. This is what I saw and was taught.
Then Paris and Mugler came calling. In my first seasons in Paris, only the downtown crowd knew of me, my story, and my past. For the most part, everyone thought I was one of the new African girls. LoL, Yeah!!! for me, it was great, and what a gorgeous complement and company to be in. At first, I wasn’t treated any differently but with more visibility came pushback but the game is the game and you can’t hate the game.
Aside from my circumstance, ultimately in that world the slow and weak get eaten. When the trend of Drag in fashion came along I’d transitioned, I felt healthy and whole for the first time in my life, I wasn’t going to be ashamed of my past I wasn’t guilty of any crime, and wasn’t going to be baited by those who wanted to sensationalize and use their own internalized phobias to further hatred and misinformation. It’s fashion; one day you're in, the next you're out. The vitriol that came when the trend ended was expected. I had to take it as it came, with grace and bravery. There are tiny minds everywhere you go. Ultimately the fashion world is a reflection of society. And it’s women, gays, and straight mostly white men with power, enough said.

Azzedine Alaia Book. Test.
Photo by Steven Meisel.

Monika: I guess at that time you could already look up to Tracey "Africa'' Norman that appeared on the box of Clairol’s "Born Beautiful" hair color No. 512 and was outed as a transwoman in 1980 when she did a photo shoot with Essence magazine. However, her story was not a success. Her modeling career never recovered after the outing.
Connie: My experience was different in some ways, yes, but I too was dismissed. I already had a name as a performer, my past wasn’t secret, and the greatest sin, I was unashamed of it. I felt no need to hide my journey. But the more heat on the trend, the more fuel it needed to burn. The more honest I was about being Transgender the more it and I needed dismissing. It wasn’t important; the narrative of unsalable, over theatrical, dishonest, frivolity of Drag in Fashion was important. It had to be purged and made clean from this awful flirtation with such degradation.
I was Trans and said so, which made me difficult and uncooperative. This made for the perfect reasoning to silence me and use my image in whatever way was needed to help the pendulum swing back to normalcy. If only I’d known of Tracey’s story then it would have given me strength, a touchstone to reach for. But her story was only told in hushed tones secretly, dribs and drabs incomplete. I’d met her once in passing even then it was only after that I was told maybe a quarter of her story.
At that point in time, the mid-80s the downtown art and uptown Ball crowd never really mixed. How much more would I have learned, known about self as a Trans woman of color. From the very girl on the Clariol box. I remember my Mom shopped for hair color that summer when it came out, how beautiful a regal she was, and what a sense of seeing one's self the community felt. If only, what fear wouldn’t I deal with, what injury to my psyche wouldn't have been inflicted. But that was the very reason for her eradication, a clear threat that you too will be erased. Only now that our journeys are being seen, heard, and an account of the damage taken that these wounds can heal never to be inflicted again.


All the photos: courtesy of Connie Fleming.
The main photo credit: Cruz Valdez, Interview Magazine.
© 2021 - Monika Kowalska

No comments:

Post a Comment

Search This Blog