Emerald City

That time stage fright cost me the role as the widow Norton in DLB’s ‘When We Rise’

Jose Sarria receiving the Lifetime Achievement Award from the San Francisco Pride, 2005

Juanita MORE! is a denizen of the limelight. For two and a half decades, the tireless hostess has blitzed San Francisco with high glamour, drag irreverence, danceable beats, culinary delectables, literary delights and a philanthropic heart that has illuminated the entire city.

This is her second column for Queerty. 

I just love the thinking about Jose Sarria being crowned queen at the Beaux Arts Ball in 1964 and stating that he was “already a queen.” He then proclaimed himself Her Royal Majesty, Empress of San Francisco, José I, The Widow Norton thus giving birth to the Imperial Court system. Jose was ballsy – especially for his time. (Coronation 53: “Emerald City” happens on Saturday February 24th at the San Francisco Design Center Galleria.)

When Dustin Lance Black was working on the miniseries When We Rise for ABC inspired by Cleve Jones’ book of the same title they both thought that I would be perfect in the role of The Widow Norton. My fears of “acting” came up and out of me like a bad stomach flu. When I was eight years old I had a minor role in our elementary school play and I fretted for days over the few lines I had to learn. I rehearsed in the privacy of my bedroom until I couldn’t even hear myself say the words anymore. The day of the play I was internally a nervous wreck. When it was time for me to say my lines onstage absolutely nothing came out of my mouth. I stood frozen on set while my other little actor friends just stared at me. No one poked me or whispered in my ear that it was my turn. They just continued on without me. I was mortified and remember taking the long way home so that I didn’t have to rush to tell my mother that I fucked it up.

Dustin Lance Black, Juanita MORE! and Cleve Jones – Juanita MORE! Pride Party 2015

Lance did end up sending me the script with the confidence that I would get an Emmy for my performance. I did everything I could possibly do to learn those lines and promised myself that I would give it my all. I even recorded the lines so that I could listen to them on my headphones while I walked Jackson. I gave up television and cut back on Facebook. I started dieting and began all the drag rituals I save for learning a new song I want to perform. I was determined to nail this. How could I fail with Lance and Cleve rooting for me. I soon received an email from the production company saying I now needed to submit a video of me acting out a couple of the scenes. That’s when all the fears of little eight year old actor me came roaring back. How could I have been so blind to believe that Lance and Cleve were gonna just push me through this.

I consulted with Mr. David about the costume as the description of the dress specifically said “a 50’s beaded ball gown and tiara.” The accuracy of the gown was David’s priority and we did a lot of research and gathered inspiration. We found some gorgeous vintage chocolate brown silk-chiffon that was covered in pearl beads and bought 100 yards of tulle to create the skirt. David’s precision in recreating a 50’s ball gown was impeccable. His attention to detail plays such a key part to the magic of his designs. The beaded part of the gown had to be completely sewn by hand as there was no way those pearls were going under a machine. I dug deep into my closet for the biggest tiara I owned and called my wig guy Ronnie to place me into my perfectly coiffed hair.

Juanita MORE! as The Widow Norton

My photographer friend Joe Montana brings over his camera and proceeds to use all his tricks to make me feel as comfortable in front of the lens that he can. Now remember – I am in the comforts of my own apartment for this recording. So after weeks of rehearsing the moment the camera starts rolling and I freeze. My dyslexia comes out in full force as I try to read the cue cards. Even with a shot of whiskey I still manage to fuck it up it over and over, take after take. It was as though I had never even seen the words Academy Award winner Dustin Lance Black had written for me. Joe however has great editing skills so with his help the piece finally goes off to casting in Hollywood and I sat in silent fear waiting for a reply.

I imagine that many people see me as a confident social figure and probably have no clue how much I loathe public speaking. This is why you don’t see me host many events. I can listen to Sister Roma babble endlessly into a microphone about absolutely anything and be thoroughly entertained. It’s just not in me to do the same. Over the years I’ve been fortunate enough to have been acknowledged with some amazing awards. Unfortunately the anxiety for me to speak after receiving them is sometimes so overwhelming that I can’t allow myself to actually enjoy the moment.

If you’ve seen the miniseries you know how this turns out – I did not get the role. I felt bad that I had let Lance and Cleve down. I knew in my heart that role should have been mine. When the miniseries finally aired I sat in front of my T.V. anticipating The Widow Norton’s entrance. The moment she appears on screen I lip sync every word actor Michael DeLorenzo spoke out of Mama Jose’s mouth. I did know it. I knew every word of it.

Related: In a sea of Pride parties, Juanita More! knows how to bring the magic

In a few weeks San Francisco will crown a new Emperor and Empress. We have had many fabulous people represent our city and with such great passion. I’ll admit there are times when the whole thing feels a bit dated and I find it unfortunate that its history is lost on our youth. I sat down with Her Most Imperial Majesty, Both Merciful and Stern, The Virgin Empress of San Francisco, The Reigning Empress, Mercedez Munro over lunch last year to talk about her reign and the thought of taking it in a new direction. And she has. She has been gracious about all her duties and has shed new light on the crown. This year Pollo Del Mar stands alone in the race for the tiara and already is your new Empress while my friend Raymond McKenzie and my son “The Tamale Guy” Leandro Gonzales pair off for the title of Emperor. Those crowns carry a lot of history. Jose Sarria’s vision has not been lost in my eyes. He was a fighter and many of the  things he wanted for our community we are in one way or another still fighting for.

Her Most Imperial Majesty, Both Merciful and Stern, The Virgin Empress of San Francisco, The Reigning Empress Mercedez Munro and Juanita MORE! at the Lookout

There is something particularly special about tradition. I’ve been obsessed with the drama series The Crown on Netflix. Keeping the traditions of the monarchy alive for the royal family is a must. So I guess you could say the same about the Imperial Court. It really is a fantastic ceremony with all the fuss and glamour. Voting day is Saturday February 17th at three locations in San Francisco – Project Open Hand, Castro Muni Station, and Powerhouse Bar. I hope you are inspired to vote this year and keep our history alive. Please join me in voting for Leandro Gonzales for Emperor. Coronation 53: “Emerald City” happens on Saturday February 24th at the San Francisco Design Center Galleria.

I’ve been approached by many to take a chance and run for the title of Empress and I probably should have thrown my purse in this year – or at least an earring. I’m thinking about it – maybe next year.

–Juanita MORE!