Independent “Women”: “To Wong Foo,” The Original Drag Race Across America


As the summer heat continues to climb and we pack up the land yacht for a July 4 road trip, we’re reminded of our cinematic predecessors and gay guardian angels: Miss Noxeema Jackson, Miss Vida Boheme, and Miss Chi-Chi Rodriguez. It’s been nearly 20 years since these career girls went forth and scandalized the nation and perhaps it’s time we re-examine the cinematic masterpiece: To Wong Foo, Thanks for Everything! Julie Newmar.


Masterpiece is perhaps a stretch since under all that pancake makeup is a treacly film with sickeningly sweet characters. Still, that treacly film holds up as an interesting and shockingly human adventure story starring John Leguizamo, Patrick Swayze, and Wesley Snipes as three gregarious drag queens trekking across the country and inspiring a small backwoods town to change for the better. Even (or especially) in 2013, it does not disappoint; think of a queer On the Road, but with less existential torpor.


Oh yeah, and did we mention there’s a cameo by motherfucking RuPaul as the queen of queens, Rachel Tensions (in a stunning confederate flag dress that Sharon Needles would, less successfully, attempt to pull off so many years later).

What To Wong Foo lacks in the transgressive zeal of Rocky Horror Picture Show or, well, anything by John Waters, it makes up for in charm. The three main actors, despite being straight men off camera, portray the heroic homosexuals with a tenderness that is not often, if ever, seen in Hollywood. While of course, retroactively, we can complain that Hollywood had done nothing but deprive actual drag queens of work in a cartoonish portrayal of queer people, this facile criticism overlooks the amount of warmth, sensitivity, and comedic acumen that Snipes, Leguizamo, and Swayze brought to their roles.


Noxeema Jackson summarizes both ludicrously and perhaps astutely: “When a straight man puts on a dress and gets his sexual kicks, he is a transvestite. When a man is a woman trapped in a man’s body and has a little operation he is a transsexual […] When a gay man has way too much fashion sense for one gender he is a drag queen.”


Complicated identity politics be damned, perhaps this was simply the exact kind of pithy summary a mainstream (read: straight) audience needed to understand these characters. (Of course, no drag queen is permanently in drag in real life, but let’s leave that minor detail aside.) The strategy worked: Swayze and Leguizamo were nominated for Golden Globes for their performances.


While still maintaining a light-heartedness and genuinely silly mood, the film dared explore the day to day violences and threats that queer people — and biological women! (poor Stockard Channing) — faced.  In fact, the aggression our queens face is the subtle driving force of the narrative. This makes the conclusion, in which the entire town (including straight men) proclaims that they are all drag queens, that much more outrageous and that much more rewarding.


So as we pack our bags for whatever destination we may be heading, let us remember the eternal advice of American Hero, Miss Noxeema Jackson: “Larger than life is just the right size.”


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  • Harley

    To Wong Fu came out around the same time as Priscilla, Queen of the desert. While TWF had the advantage of having 3 big name stars, Priscilla was,in my opinion, a much more entertaining movie. And more realistic. Drag queens I know personally dress for show but live their daily lives as men, more or less. Whereas TWF showed them dressed to the hilt 24 hrs a day. Still, both movies are fun to watch. My vote is for the costumes in Priscilla.

  • Christopher22

    WOW. Wanted to read your article, but those jumping, twitching images just made me nauseous.

  • Eldred

    Growing up, To Wong Foo was one my Mother’s favorite movies. I’ve always loved it since I watched it so much. It’s one of my favorites, and it came on TV twice last month. Priscilla, I hadn’t seen until I was 16 and a (closeted at the time) gay artist friend was trying to gauge my reaction to homosexuality before he came out to me. Little did either of us know, the way he would come out would be me topping him on the couch of his rented studio space. Good times.

  • Jackhoffsky

    @Harley: Too Wong Foo came out AFTER Priscilla. It was the American remake, which made many Australians pissed. Priscilla did win the Oscar for best costume design… the designer accepting in a dress made entirely of American Express cards. LOL.

  • Teleny

    Priscilla is the better flick on many levels, but “Too Wong Fu is abut more fun. But why do DraqQueens and Tranz always end up on a road trip (Trans Anerica)?

  • Vegas Tearoom

    OMG and now they are bringing the Mama Mia version of Priscilla to Vegas! (Why no Miss GIF for Coco?)

  • Miss Understood

    I was in the opening pageant scene of To Wong Foo. Though it looks short, our scene took 2 weeks to rehearse and four days to film. Patrick was very respectful and friendly to the queens, he always took time to make conversation with each one of us. He even sent us each a gift afterward, an inscribed purse mirror from Tiffany!

    Rupaul kept trying to ad lib and jazz up the stiff lines they gave her but they told her to go with the script. She tried to say “I’m so excited I could just pee!” instead of “just spit”.

    While I greatly enjoyed the experience of being on the set of a film I agree that Priscilla was a far better, smarter film. Wong Foo was too hokey and formulaic. I also hated that the queens had zero sexuality. Priscilla had the unexpected romance between the older characters which was wonderful.

  • MikeE

    @Jackhoffsky: Actually, To Wong Foo was in development before The Adventures of Priscilla. The films while superficially similar have completely different subjects. Priscilla is about a gay man/drag queen coming to terms with his own identity and his fatherhood. While To Wong Foo is a movie about women and women’s issues, using the “ladies” (drag queens) as an allegorical tool about what it means “to be a real woman”.

  • Stache1

    Thanks for the history lesson between the two movies. Great to know. I agree with the other commentators. These movies are not apples to apples similar other then about drag queens doing cross country. It’s just hard to believe that they came out 20 effing years ago. I remember seeing Priscilla at my local theater like it was yesterday. Good times.

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