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Juanita MORE!: More Than Meets the Eye

Photo by Sandy Kim

Ms. More checks her bouffant in the mirror at Gypsy Rosalie's, the Polk Street wig shop behind many of her magical hairdos. Photography by Sandy Kim

Juanita MORE! is a denizen of the limelight. For two decades, the tireless hostess has blitzed SF with high glamour, drag irreverence, and danceable beats. But the queen of the night is more than what meets the eye: an unexpectedly quiet soul from Hayward who’s kicked cancer, has a loving family, raises piles of money for charity, and is a wicked cook to boot. Here, the San Francisco royal throws back the curtain to share a rare glimpse into her private life and home. More is more.

It’s nearly midnight on Wednesday, and at QBar, a bearded young man in a tight T-shirt peers up wondrously at the DJ booth. When asked what he’s doing, he replies, “I’m just here to gaze upon Juanita More!’s bouffant realness.”

Behind the music console, in a white-cloud wig and ruby red blouse, Juanita, one of San Francisco’s enduring drag superstars, mixes house and techno beats, keeping the dance floor packed at her weekly party, Booty Call. She’s absolutely gaze-worthy.

Yes, her bouffant catches your attention, but her eyes keep you transfixed with dark-shaded lids, heavy as boudoir drapes beneath monumentally arched brows. Her luscious mouth, the upper lip painted into two precise peaks with a deep dip in between, seems forever ready for a kiss—not a Marilyn Monroe-blown kiss but a juicy, red smooch.

At her dining room table, the queen readies herself to greet her public. Photo by Sandy Kim

When her set ends, she takes her spot at the bar, coating a cocktail straw in lipstick while greeting a steady procession of admirers. She knows many of them by name and bestows upon each the same focused attention she gives to the music in the DJ booth. The interactions go in many directions: classy conversation, future schemes, bawdy jokes. She might offer a Mona Lisa smile, or she might, like a chef pulling a dish from the oven, open her metallic handbag to reveal the turquoise cotton briefs she convinced one guy to remove in the men’s room, punctuating the anecdote with a full-throated laugh.

“Legendary” is an overused adjective in the drag world, but it undoubtedly applies to Juanita, who has been honored for her community organizing by everyone from State Senator Mark Leno to the Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence, who anointed her a saint. She’s been feted as an artist and fashion icon at SFMOMA and the de Young Museum, but she has also taken to the Trannyshack stage as Snow White lip-synching a potty-mouthed rap song—“Put It In My Mouth”—to a pervy, drag-king dwarf.

Juanita and her drag king husband, Danimal Oh! Photo by Uel Renteria

This blend of highbrow and underground came to a boil in May as she “show married” nightlife dandy Danimal Oh!, host of a monthly party called OH!: The Party for Dirty Gentlemen. Their wedding at the Stud on Ninth Street was pure performance art: the wedding dress modeled on Divine’s in Female Trouble (with a curvaceously padded, anatomically correct bodysuit visible beneath the see-through white lace); the miserable mother-of-the-bride swilling Jim Beam; the bride putting a cock ring on the groom instead of a gold band. The event served in part to subvert the usual media-friendly images of gay marriage. The couple—who share what Juanita calls a “very special friendship” offstage—vowed to get married many more times, and the officiant ended with the polyamorous pronouncement, “You may now kiss anyone you want.”

Even in this raucous setting, Juanita was hard at work. While an Etta James lookalike crooned “At Last,” she stepped from the club’s tiny stage, inviting the crowd to pin money to her dress in support of the National Center for Lesbian Rights, a legal-aid group leading the federal fight for marriage equality. While poking fun at the traditions of matrimony, she raised money to ensure that marriage was available to all, and her bridal white quickly transformed into a patchwork of ones, fives and tens.

No matter how crazy it gets the night before, I put everything away when I get up. This apartment is tiny for me,” says Juanita out of drag—as 
Michael. For this article and all other media, it’s just Michael, no last name. “Holding onto a private life has allowed me to stay grounded in this city,” he says.

An avid foodie, Michael keeps his small kitchen well-stocked for home-cooked meals with friends. Photo by Sandy Kim

Far from the late-night whirlwind, Michael is a notably calm, sweetly handsome man. “Out of drag, I’m basically a shy guy,” he says. “I sometimes still feel like an outsider.” On this warm afternoon, he wears a gray short-sleeve button-up shirt and matching cotton shorts. His black hair, cut stylishly high and tight, shows flecks of silver; his dark eyes, without Juanita’s theatrical treatment, remain expressive and soulful. For more than 20 years, Michael has lived in this tidy, sun-lit two-room rental on Lower Nob Hill, where he begins each day walking his irresistible French bulldog, Jackson, through the neighborhood.

Though he makes little distinction between Michael and Juanita in terms of a core personality, there is one significant difference: Juanita is at home in the nightlife; Michael is a homebody who admits, “I don’t go out unless I’m working.” Restaurants are an exception, with standbys like Zuni Café, Slanted Door, and Boulettes Larder at the top of his list. Food is “my first love,” he says, evidenced by a cheeky foodie blog called Juanita Eats Out. He shops several times a week for ingredients for the home-cooked meals he makes for friends and the recipes he tests for occasional catering gigs, and he sings the praises of neighborhood stores City Discount for cookware and Polk Street Produce, whose curated selection always catches his discerning eye: “Sometimes there are only five avocados in the bin because the owner only puts out the ones that are ripe.”

Michael grew up in a close-knit Latino family in Hayward, their home marked by music—he recalls a large, eclectic vinyl collection—and good food. “As a little kid I was always in the kitchen, sitting on a chair next to the stove, asking for cookbooks for Christmas,” he says, citing both of his parents, now deceased, as instrumental to his—and Juanita’s—personality. “My mother was the life of the party. When the door swung open and she stood there all dressed up, everyone knew the night had begun.”

Portraits of Juanita and Glamamore, by SF artist Jim Winters, hang above Juanita's bed. Photo by Sandy Kim

His father brought out a different side. “He taught me to be blind to color, size, ethnicity, religion,” says Michael, who notes that as a result, “when I meet someone, I see the person inside.”

He remembers childhood as a time of creative freedom. “I was always putting on shows,” he says. “I always had an art project.” When at age 18 he came out to his mother, he was surprised that she was surprised: “I look back at home movies of me as this artistic little kid and I think, are you kidding me?” Hayward had several gay watering holes that Michael would pass by on his way to high school but, he says, “The drag queens I saw when I was young were very bitchy. That’s not attractive to me.”

In 1983, as the AIDS crisis escalated, he found an apartment in the Castro and was soon volunteering for hospice work. “Hospices then were just somebody’s flat,” he remembers. “I’d go there to cook breakfast, but no one was eating. Everyone was dying.”

He moved to New York City in ’87, starting his own catering company that worked events at boutiques like Yohji Yamamoto and Issey Miyake. In the East Village, he discovered Boy Bar, home to an emerging drag-performance scene that blended high fashion with comedy, sexuality, and a dash of politics. It was here that he befriended Glamamore, one of the scene’s undisputed stars.

Candi Gurl, Glamamore, Juanita MORE!, photo courtesy of Cole Church

San Francisco night crawlers know Glamamore from her titanic performances, which close every Friday show at Some Thing, the weekly drag night at the Stud. She’s the one who keeps a lit Nat Sherman balanced on a quivering lower lip as she tears off a wig or shreds a costume during her lip-synch’s emotional climax. Those really in the know recognize Glamamore as Mr. David, a skilled couturier who has been designing nightlife finery for 30 years. He’s the only designer Juanita has ever worn.

Michael returned to San Francisco in 1991 and reconnected with David when he came for a visit soon after—and then never left. (“He’ll tell you that he’s still visiting from New York,” Michael marvels. “It’s been over 20 years.”) That Halloween, Michael requested that David put him in drag. “I didn’t want to,” David says today. “I had a feeling we were unleashing something.”
“It was a leopard print caftan,” Michael recalls. “I still love a caftan.”

Indeed, the genie refused to go back in the bottle. “Within a year I was on stage lip-synching at places like Kimo’s (now Playland),” Michael remembers. In the mid-’90s, another of San Francisco’s future drag stars, Heklina, launched the then-weekly performance extravaganza Trannyshack, and Juanita was among its earliest performers, originally lip-synching to Sarah Vaughan and Dinah Washington. “I still prefer a jazz song,” she says, “though I don’t choose them today. They don’t make for powerhouse numbers. Not a lot of highs and lows.”

In her element at Booty Call Wednesdays. Photo courtesy of Juanita More!

Exploiting the highs and lows is what any drag queen with staying power learns by necessity—the only way to captivate a club’s noisy audience. Juanita is soundly praised as one of the best. So it’s a bit of a surprise to hear Michael make a confession: “A lot of my courage in the early days came from getting drunk before I went on stage. Performing in public is a lot of work, and it’s never been easy for me.”

It’s a bright spring afternoon, and David is making his weekly visit to Michael’s apartment to sew Juanita’s next outfit. David’s bags overflow with 99 square feet of lemon silk chiffon, the foundation of Juanita’s dress for her annual Pride Party, held this year at Tenderloin hotspot Jones. Like much in Juanita’s world, the garment is the story of a collaboration: She first described her vision to San Francisco artist Serge Gay Jr., who painted a portrait of her in the dress against a San Francisco backdrop. (Gay’s vivid, figurative art caught her attention years ago when he entered a contest to design a T-shirt for Booty Call.) Today, David works from the painting to sew the dress. (“If I can’t make it in a day,” he growls, “it drives me nuts.”)

Michael will then finish the bodice from packets of sequins, beads, and rhinestone appliqué. “The tiny details make me so happy,” says Michael. “I could lie in bed watching cooking shows and hand-bead all night.”

Booty Call Wednesdays at QBar, photo by Moreboy Isaac

All of this creativity flows into fundraising. Rickshaw Bagworks, a made-in-SF manufacturer, will screen the painting onto a limited-edition tote bag. This is the third year they’ve worked with Juanita, developing a different style of bag each year. Sales benefit the charity she has chosen as her Pride Party beneficiary—this year, it’s the LGBTQ youth organization outLoud Radio. “Juanita puts so much time and energy into her vision, stays engaged with the community and stays relevant,” says Chris Schroeder, Rickshaw’s director of sales and marketing. “We love working with her.”

“You never wanted plain clothing. It was couture out the gate,” says David. “In twenty years, there were two outfits that didn’t work. Two peach outfits.”
“I can’t wear peach,” Juanita agrees. “Though I like to work an orange.”

The memory of a particular orange gown—a dozen continuous yards of silk—sends them to the larger of the apartment’s two walk-in wardrobes, the one with Juanita’s, not Michael’s, clothes. The rediscovered gown turns out to have a construction so complex that neither of them can figure out how it was worn. As the silk unravels, the kiki-ing commences.

“I think the armhole was near the zipper, wasn’t it?”
“I see a sleeve!”
“That’s the neck.”
“I think this is the front.”
“No, this is the front.”
“Are you sure?”
“I made it!”

On May 21, Juanita tweeted this photo, saying "Organizing my titties & bras. #dragqueenproblems #42DD"

The repartee reveals a familial fluency. Glamamore is Juanita More’s drag mother, a designation typically reserved for the first person who puts one in drag, though the honorific means different things to different queens.

“Without David, I would have gone down a wayward path,” Michael says. “For the first three years, he did all the things that are considered ‘mothering’—he did my makeup, helped me do my wigs, made my outfits. David’s still a great mentor to so many kids. He’s able to be so welcoming.”

“The number is legion,” says David, when asked how many drag children Glamamore has mothered. But Juanita counts only four in two decades. “A lot of kids come up to me and say, almost flippantly, they want me to be their mother,” says Juanita. “Because of the mentorship I got from Glamamore, I can’t take it casually. It’s a big commitment and responsibility.”

In 1994, Juanita More was tired—not in the drag sense of the word but physically exhausted. “I had all these symptoms I couldn’t figure out,” she says. “One day I couldn’t get off the floor of my apartment. I called a cab—I could barely walk—and went to California Pacific Medical Center. Even then I kept thinking that, tomorrow when I wake up, I’ll feel better.”

Photo by Moreboy Isaac

The diagnosis was grim: stage four Hodgkin’s lymphoma. “We did chemo,” Michael remembers. “My doctor was very aggressive. He tried some experimental treatments, and it went away. But it came back.” Between ’94 and ’99, the cancer returned three times.

“I’ve always been an independent person. I hate to ask people for things. People had to pull me by the hand to chemo. I wanted to nurse myself,” he says, but what got him through those tough years was “great support from my family and friends,” including benefit nights at Trannyshack to offset medical bills.

Surviving cancer didn’t so much change Juanita’s lifestyle as accelerate it. “More than anything else, cancer seemed like a setback,” Michael recalls. “I’ve always viewed the world as mine to shape if I wanted. I was frustrated that I physically wasn’t able to keep moving forward.”

The illness, after those early experiences caring for people with AIDS, clearly informed the generosity that has since made Juanita a deeply respected figure among San Francisco nonprofits. Roberto Ordenaña, director of development at the SF LGBT Center—beneficiary of Juanita’s 2012 Pride Party, which brought in more than $30,000—praises her for “picking causes she holds dear to her heart,” and “ensuring that no one gets left behind as the LGBT community gains civil rights.”

“The organizations she benefits don’t have to lift a finger,” says Brian Wiedenmeier, a nonprofit arts administrator who has assisted Juanita with fundraising. “She’s not expecting anything in exchange. It’s pure philanthropy.”

Party guests don’t necessarily note the cause they’re supporting when they buy their tickets and tote bags. They just want access—to the diva and the electricity that surrounds her. It’s a variation of her wedding dance: Show up as the most fabulous creature in the room, and people will literally attach money to you.

“For Juanita, parties are opportunities to let people come out of their shells and be comfortable,” says artist Joseph Akel, one of a handful of young gay men dubbed by Juanita in years past as one of her MOREboys—a select entourage of handsome attendants brought under her wing and nurtured as backup performers, event assistants, buzz-creators, and extended family. “Seeing Juanita out there living life, always at the top of her game, makes you want to put your best face forward too.”

“My relationship with Juanita was initially a club relationship,” says Cole Church, who as Candi Gurl was the first of Juanita’s drag daughters. The two met when Juanita spun music at an event for Lyric, the LGBT youth-services organization, at which Cole, then age 19, was volunteering. “As our friendship deepened, we worked on projects together,” says Cole. “We’d sew or cook, or we’d bring meals over to Mr. David while he was up all night making dresses for the Miss Trannyshack Pageant. When I lost my job, Michael helped me out. He’d pay me to clean his apartment or run errands. He was invested in helping me survive and succeed in the city.”

“I didn’t originally see Cole as Candi Gurl,” says Michael. “What I saw first was a well-mannered, well-spoken, upright, grounded person. He would dress in fabulous boy costumes and wear some makeup, and it eventually turned into drag. There was something about his spirit that made me feel very protective.”

This paternal relationship, as Church calls it, came to include his own (non-drag) mother. “Michael had my mom over for dinner,” says Church. “She’s from a small town, and probably had preconceived notions of what it means to dine with a drag queen, even though [Michael] wasn’t in drag that night. He made the roast chicken with bread stuffing from the Zuni cookbook. [Mr. David] was there too. We had this sort of normal meal together.”

“She thanked me for taking Cole in and taking care of him,” says Michael. “It showed me that I was doing the right thing and that he wasn’t going down the wrong path.”

“Juanita’s the Oprah of the drag community,” says Monique Jenkinson, who as Fauxnique has performed on nightlife stages for more than a decade. “She’s thoughtful and encouraging and has a strong sense of old-time manners that seems almost radical. But if you’re being disrespectful, she will school you. I once saw her escort a drunk, reckless girl out of a club by the scruff of her neck.”

Her tough side emerges rarely, but Juanita revels in challenging what you think you know about her—telling you over a cocktail, say, how as a boy in Hayward she took boxing lessons from George Foreman: “He taught me three things: how to stand, how to shift my weight, and how to throw a punch.” This coiffed, coutured, courteous drag mother might just have a great right hook.

Back in Michael’s apartment, it’s time to get ready for Booty Call. The next night, Juanita will be cabbing to Mars Bar for Dining Out for Life, an AIDS fundraiser, where she’ll host 
while the kitchen serves up her recipe for Funky Fried Chicken with Honey Goo. Then, on a Saturday morning, she’ll rise atypically early to shoot a promo for Rickshaw Bags, debuting for the camera her newly sewn, freshly beaded lemon chiffon dress while walking Jackson on Castro Street and shopping for dinner at the Ferry Plaza farmers market.

“I don’t think too much about the future. I really don’t,” Michael says. “I’ve been running in drag as Juanita for 20 years, snatching all these pretty things and pulling them forward with me. Where’s it going? I don’t know. But it’s all getting prettier and bigger and bigger. It’s a story in progress.”

This article was the cover story for 7x7's July/August issue. Click here to subscribe.