Thursday, 23 February 2012


When asked if she would sing Ain’t Nobody at the Montreal International Jazz Festival, Chaka replied, laughing, "Are you kidding? If I didn’t I would risk a lynching!"

Bugs' interview with Chaka Khan originally ran in Three Dollar Bill on June 28, 2007

I finally got Chaka Khan on the phone after our first two interviews were postponed. But whatever you do, do not call Chaka Khan a diva.

“It’s not what I am,” Chaka says. “I’m a nice girl. ‘Diva’ to me has a negative connotation. But if people want to call me a diva, call me what you want. Just call me.”

Chaka, born Yvette Stevens in 1953 (“My mom calls me Yvette, my sister calls me every name in the book”), got her saucy sense of humour growing up in Chicago’s tough South Side where she formed her first group, the Crystalettes, at the ripe old age of 11.

But it was during her stint as a volunteer for the Black Panthers’ Free Breakfast for Children program that she adopted the African name “Chaka.”

“I wanted to be a Black Panther because they had the ideology of not turning the other cheek,” Chaka explains. “I was a revolutionary. Until a gun came my way and I got an ulcer. I got hold of this gun and just having it tore me apart. So I threw it away in Botany Pond in Hyde Park [in Chicago] where I live. That’s when I decided the Black Panthers were not for me.”

So she teamed up with musicians Kevin Murphy and Andre Fisher to form the multiracial ’70s funk band Rufus. Stevie Wonder loved Chaka’s vocals so much he wrote their pop hit Tell Me Something Good. But Chaka would fly solo by decade’s end, charting with her anthem I’m Every Woman. But like Tina Turner during that era, she accepted whatever gig paid the bills.

“I [even] played some hotel back in Montreal for two weeks in the late ’70s. It was a landmark hotel, but I can’t remember the name or the dates. Hell, I can’t remember yesterday.”

Chaka does remember working and recording with a who’s who of the music business: Luther Vandross, Rick James, Prince (whose obscure track I Feel for You Chaka took to the top of the charts worldwide in 1984, and with whom she also toured in 2011), Steve Winwood, Joni Mitchell, Ray Charles, Herbie Hancock and Dizzy Gillespie (they recorded Night in Tunisia with Chaka, and producer Arif Mardin says Chaka hit “notes that aren’t in the book”), as well as Motown’s original house band The Funk Brothers, with whom she won her eighth Grammy in 2002 for her monumental rendition of Marvin Gaye’s classic song What’s Going On (she’s been nominated 19 times and won 10).

“I felt it was such a timely song what with these [right-wing] nuts running our government [at the time],” Chaka says. "I felt that song and playing with all those original guys had an impact.”

Chaka has sung everything (check out the incredible video below of a young Chaka singing the blues with Etta James, Gladys Knight and B.B. King). When I ask what her favourite genre of music is, she replies, “[All] music. But my favourite musicians are Miles Davis and Charlie Parker.”

Jazz legend Betty Carter has praised Chaka’s improvisational skills. And you can hear the influence of Ella Fitzgerald and Sarah Vaughan in Chaka’s approach.

“I love these women,” she says. “They’re all in my voice. I am a culmination and combination of them all. And they laid the groundwork for me as black women. I have the most amazing appreciation for them. I do get it.”

What Chaka gets most of all is her core gay fan base, whom she loves back unconditionally.

Over the years – even when it was considered career suicide to do so – Chaka performed at innumerable Gay Pride concerts, festivals and celebrations.

In return, the gay community lavished their love on Chaka. But what is it about Chaka Khan that gay men most adore – the big hair? the big voice? the big heart?

“Maybe it’s the butch in me! I dunno, I’ve been asked that question so many times. But I will say this: In a crunch, when I’ve been in need, when things weren’t going well, the gay community always bailed me out. They’re my most loyal friends and following and they have a special place in my heart.”

And heart is what Chaka’s all about.
The woman that embraced the Black Panthers almost 40 years ago to help feed starving children is still helping feed children today, with proceeds from her "Chakalates" gourmet line of chocolates benefiting the Chaka Khan Foundation, which assists battered women and children at risk.
It’s one of the reasons why Chaka’s home state of Illinois declared Oct. 19 Chaka Khan Day, and it’s why she was invited to be on Sesame Street.
That day Chaka remembers vividly.
“Kids have always loved me and I have a soft spot in my heart for them,” Chaka tells me. “I even got to sing with Elmo.”

Click here for the official Chaka Khan Foundation website

Click here for the official Chaka Khan website.

Monday, 13 February 2012


Arsenal Pulp Press is publishing its third set of Queer Film Classics in 2012, including Will Aitken's Death in Venice: A Queer Film Classic. Past titles, such as Gods and Monsters and Fire, date back to 2009. Another 12 books, including Female Trouble and Paris Is Burning, will be published by 2015.

The QFC series is co-edited by Concordia professors and acclaimed film scholars Thomas Waugh and Matthew Hays and was inspired by the British Film Institute's BFI Film Classics series.

"Tom and I had talked a lot about the fact that many of our students didn't seem to know much about queer film history," Hays says. "Even very recent history seemed far off and mysterious to them. The hope was that a series like this would draw attention to films that were too often mired in obscurity."

The QFC series is getting rave reviews. "The influential magazine Cineaste called the series 'a brilliant innovation' in their review, and we were just interviewed by an arts reporter from The New York Times who is doing a story on the series. So we couldn't be happier."

Hays hopes the QFC series will draw attention to overlooked films. "We turned down a very good proposal on Brokeback Mountain -- not because we don't like the film, but rather because a lot is being written about that film already. We wanted to talk about films that weren't already getting the attention they deserved."

When asked if gay-themed films are still ghettoized, Hays replies, "Less so -- but too often people's reference points are Glee or The L Word. There were a lot of breakthroughs that led us to this point. It's important to keep the long history of queer representation in mind."

Check out the entire Queer Film Classics series on the Arsenal Pulp Press website by clicking here.

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This interview originally ran in my weekly Abominable Showman column in the February 12, 2012, edition of The Charlebois Post - Canada ("All Canadian theatre... all the time"). All photos courtesy Nina Arsenault.

It’s true that the thrill of seeing Canada’s most celebrated transsexual Nina Arsenault step onstage for the first time in her graphic autobiographical one-transwoman show The Silicone Diaries in Montreal back in 2010 was pure voyeurism. 

This thrill cannot be duplicated with mere videos or photographs. Observing Nina’s body and what she has done to it is a voyeuristic sensation completely rooted in the real. And by god, with her eye-popping 36D-26-40 figure, Nina Arsenault could pose in Penthouse.

The hardest part of my transformation was when I was living as a woman but still looked masculine and people would make fun of me on the street," Nina told me before her Montreal Silicone Diaries run.

"They'd yell things out of their car. I realized there is a double standard for transsexuals, because it you're a beautiful transsexual, people will accept you more easily. If you 'pass' you will be more accepted. You may not even be noticed. But if you don't pass... That's what really hurt me - people don't see you as human."

Truth is, after 61 cosmetic surgeries over eight long years, Nina - who headlines the Vancouver Easy Cultural Centre (affectionately named "The Cultch" by its patrons) February 14-25 - doesn’t look very human.

I once asked famed NYC tranny (and photographer Dave LaChappelle's muse) Amanda Lepore what she thinks she looks like, and Lepore replied, “There is something alien about my face – there is something spacey about me. If I dressed like Lady Gaga, [my face] would get lost. But because I dress retro, vamp and classic, the [alien] qualities come out more.”

Nina Arsenault is equally frank. “I look like a cyborg,” she says.

But it wasn’t always so.

The first scene in The Silicone Diaries is set in the Golden Horseshoe Trailer Park of Beamsville, Ontario, where Arsenault lived with her parents and brother until the age of six. In this scene, young Nina (then Rodney) and the local trailer park boys gather to look at a stack of Penthouse magazines. Arsenault’s tour-de-force retelling of her life documents her path from the Golden Horseshoe Trailer Park to becoming a sex worker to pay for all of her surgeries (which so far have cost her $200,000). Today, 30 years later, it is Nina who looks like she could pose for Penthouse. 

“My parents are generally supportive, though my mom thinks I’m too sexy,” Nina admits. “She thinks I didn’t need to get my breasts done so large and my lips so big. And she thinks I wear too much make-up. She’s worried about my life being difficult but now that they've come to see my plays, they get a kick out of how audacious I am.”

The Silcone Diaries climaxes at the 90-minute mark with a drawn-out and narcissistic recreation of Nina’s infamous “Crying Game-style collision” with Pamela Anderson’s ex-hubby, rocker Tommy Lee, in Toronto’s hipster Ultra club back in 2006. 

“He was in the sectioned off VIP area and the place was packed with star fuckers, silicone-enhanced women with bad extensions,” Nina recalls. “These wanna-be Pamela Andersons were intentionally trying to capture his eye. I just happened to be there and he picked me out of the pack to come over and sit on his lap.”

Needless to say, the meeting ended quickly.

“Was he polite?” Nina asks rhetorically. “I think he’s a laidback guy who’s seen it all. I had the sense that he's an adventurous guy with a wild sense of humour and a really big heart.”

“Among other things,” I crack.

Nina laughs. “Yeah, he's really cocksure!”

The way Nina has reshaped her body reminds me of Pete Burns of the 1980s Brit-pop band Dead or Alive, who says his body is an ever-changing piece of art.

“I feel the same way,” says Nina, whose transition and (ahem) body of work is well-documented on her website for all to see. “And from my body, I spin off other arts, like photographs of my body, or this play about my body. The next phase of my work will document the signs of aging. I don’t really see myself ever stopping. I’ve always taken pictures of every stage of my life and videotaped all of my surgical procedures."

When I asked Nina if she still goes for touch-ups every now and then, she laughed heartily. 

“Well, I didn’t go for five years! I got really sick of it, [especially after] putting all those strange dicks in my mouth [to pay for it all]!” Nina laughs again. “So I took a break. People were beginning to think I was addicted to plastic surgery and I thought I looked as good as I could possibly look. But I don’t think I could let my face age naturally at this point. Because I don’t have a natural face. Once it starts dropping I won’t look like an old woman. I’ll look quite strange, I think. We always say, ‘Once you’ve had this much work done, you’re always in the game.’”

Just like Cher and Joan Rivers. “Yeah, they’re in the game,” Nina agrees. “Imagine if Joan Rivers let that face fall and those cheeks started sliding down? It wouldn’t look right.”

The Silicone Diaries is not so much about a boy becoming a girl as it is about beauty. 

Nina’s self-perceived transition from ugly duckling to plastic Barbie doll is at the heart of The Silicone Diaries – dramaturgy by Judith Rudakoff and directed by Brendan Healy (also artistic director of Toronto’s Buddies in Bad Times Theatre where Silicone Diaries debuted in 2009) – though it is evident her sensibilities are clearly informed by gay and drag culture, much like the sashaying work of Mae West.

When I saw Silicone Diaries at Montreal’s Théâtre La Chapelle, I felt the final 30 minutes (following her pivotal scene about meeting rocker Tommy Lee) were something of an anticlimax and could have been condensed. Still, the rapt audience sat on Nina’s every word and couldn’t take their eyes off that body, proving that deep down inside we are all voyeurs. For challenging audiences in this way Arsenault was honoured by the Canadian Civil Liberties Association in 2011 for Excellence in the Arts.

Arsenault is now set to capture hearts and minds in Vancouver too. 

“At some point looking beautiful became more important than looking like a woman," Nina says. “It became more important than looking natural. And I don’t think my transition will ever end because my body is always changing, always aging. Losing beauty, faded beauty – I don’t think my transition will ever be over. Maybe one day I’ll even decide to get my pussy.”
The Silicone Diaries starring Nina Arseneault, at the The Culch / Vancouver East Cultural Centre (1895 Venables Street), February 14 – 25. Box Office: 604-251-1363. Click here for more info.
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Monday, 6 February 2012


All photos from historian Trent Kelley's Hidden in the Open: A Photographic Essay of Afro American Male Couples

Houston playwright and historian Trent Kelley has collected 146 rare vintage photographs of black male couples from the past 150 years. And what a breathtaking collection it is: While most of the photos clearly depict gay couples, they all portray black men comfortable and confident with who they are.

"Historically, the Afro-American gay male and couple has largely been defined by everyone but themselves," Kelly notes in his introduction, from his Hidden in the Open: A Photographic Essay of Afro American Male Couples collection on his Flickr page. “Afro American gay men are ignored into nonexistence in parts of black culture and are basically second class citizens in gay culture. The black church which has historically played a fundamental role in protesting against civil injustices toward its parishioners has been want to deny its gay members their right to live a life free and open without prejudice. Despite public projections of a “rainbow” community living together in harmonious co-habitation, openly active and passive prejudices exist in the larger gay community against gay Afro Americans.”

Kelley’s collection of well over 140 photos would make an ideal coffee-table book, much like Montreal-born, NYC-based author and  art historian David Deitcher’s 2001 landmark book Dear Friends: American Photographs of Men Together, 1840-1918.

But like Dietcher once told me about his own book, Kelley says the men portrayed in his collection may not necessarily be gay.

Some of these images are sure to be gay and others may not,” Kelly notes. “The end result is speculative at best for want in applying a label. Not every gesture articulated between men was an indication of male to male intimacies. Assuredly, what all photographs in this book have in common are signs of Afro American male affection and love that were recorded for posterity without fear and shame. Friendships where men often wrote romantically to one another, walked arm in arm were not uncommon to the straight and gay men alike during the 19th and early 20th centuries. Depending on economic situation, many even slept together and this may have precluded or included physical intimacy between the sheets.”

A fascinating interview with Trent Kelley can be viewed beginning at the 4:30 minute mark in the video below.