Last week, queer nightlife folks from across New York crowded into the back of a Lower East Side restaurant to remember the life of Sweetie, a drag queen whose filthy one-liners, unparalleled lip synch, and maternal nature made her a fixture around town for nearly three decades. Sweetie died on March 28, at the age of 51, after a long battle with cancer.
Standing before an enormous bouquet of white roses, family and friends offered irreverent elegies for Sweetie. They laughed at her dirty catchphrases (“Before you stick it in, please spit on it.”) and her shocking Craigslist adventures. They recalled her penchant for mentoring lost queer kids and admired her determination to take the stage even as her health declined. But as they mourned the loss of a loved one, they also seemed to mourn the era she embodied: a semi-mythical moment when queens put on big shows without the promise of big fame or big money.
When I first saw Sweetie in 2015, she was lip-synching a sad, slow ballad in a gilded and grand but crumbling playhouse on the Upper West Side. Everything about the performance and its context spoke of faded glory, from the smell of the empty theater’s threadbare velvet seats to Sweetie’s choice of music. As a young queen accustomed to a post-RuPaul drag world anchored in synth beats, sleek gay bars, strobe lights and jump splits, I should have been bored by Sweetie’s old-fashioned style. And yet she drew me in. She performed not as if she were commenting on the ballad but as if she were its originator. And she performed with intensity and focus, as if she stood before a full crowd, rather than few bachelorette partiers. I immediately understood why Sweetie seemed destined to take a place as one of drag’s greatest lionesses.
And yet Sweetie didn’t come to New York City with dreams of becoming a drag queen. Why would she? When she arrived in town at 19 in the late ’80s to pursue acting, drag was not the magnet for young people that it is now—hardly a mainstream event, it remained confined to a few gay spaces and select gay audiences. And, in her own recollection, Sweetie was a sexually “shut down” young man at the time, scared to face gayness and gay culture and very much absorbed in the theater scene, which whisked her around on national tours. So it wasn’t until Sweetie quit touring and moved in with a friend (soon to be known as the queen Faux Pas) on the Lower East Side in 1990 that she began to think seriously about the underground world of drag.
Then she “came out big time.” Bob Pontarelli, a longtime owner and operator of drag bars and venues, recalls how Sweetie’s talent—and that of her peers—made room for drag before it was queer culture’s most popular spectator sport. “I first worked with Sweetie at the very beginning of her career in the early ’90s at Crowbar in the East Village. It was mine and Stephen [Heighton]’s first bar and we were all so new to the business,” he told me. “Sweetie was so creative and just flat out funny. She was an early part of the community that launched drag as a new, viable vaudeville.”
A few days before celebrating her 25th year in drag last weekend, beloved New York queen Sherry Vine spoke with me about Sweetie’s ascent and how she paved the way for a new, more robust drag scene. “When I moved to New York, Sweetie was the hot, ruling queen. It was all about Sweetie and Faux Pas,” Vine told me. “She was by far the best lip-syncher—she took it to a whole new level, really made an art form of just channeling inspired lip syncs. And so she created a platform for a lot of other people.”
Sweetie was what Vine called an “ultimate showgirl” who took to drag not as part of a zeitgeist, but because she couldn’t help herself. She performed in sickness or in health, for a full house or an empty room, because she simply had to. From her days working the crowd at triple-X theaters in the ’90s to 2016 when (according to Pontarelli) she skipped a chemo treatment to perform at Chelsea’s Barracuda Lounge, she never missed a chance to stand in the spotlight.
When I asked Vine if she thought this kind of queen was rarer today, she paused. “Drag Race changed that a lot of things. So many queens think, ‘Oh I can do that, I can put on a wig and be cunty,’ ” Vine said. “But that’s not a showgirl. And you can tell the difference between the girls who are performing because they have to and the girls who are performing because they want attention or money or a free drink. There’s a little bit of that now, but back then it wasn’t about the money, it was about ‘Let’s put on a fierce fucking show.’”
It would be reductive to say that Sweetie represented a generation of pure artists—an age of drag for drag’s sake. By her own admission, she loved her paychecks as much as anyone else, and she adored attention. And though it’s true that drag’s arrival in the mainstream has spawned a lot of half-hearted drag-dabblers, there are still plenty of hardcore queens, queens who show up for unpaid gigs in tiny bars despite snow storms and stomach flus, because they love their art.
And yet, Sweetie’s passage has put New York’s gay scene in a nostalgic mood. Wherever I go, queer nightlife people of every stripe offer one another condolences—queens, gay bloggers, dancers, burlesque performers all seem to feel that drag has lost not only a great performer, but a living piece of a golden age when drag’s siren call issued from the tunnels beneath dirty clubs instead of the television.
Sweetie’s memorial perfectly reflected the image she projected for 30 years—a mixed bag of beauty and filth. A friend listed a few of Sweetie’s favorite talking points from her notorious late-night phone calls: “Sales at Saks; how many gross crystals to buy for a gown; which fragrances were cunt; don’t forget to wash your cunt; using fruit to make unusual salads.” Ms. Ginger recalled how Sweetie separated the dabblers from the truly dedicated when baby queens asked for drag tutorials: “Girl, don’t waste my time. What is this for—Halloween?” And Dina Marie, in an effort to illustrate how Sweetie stood out from the other girls, tried to add a single red rose to the enormous white bouquet on the dais. But it wouldn’t take. “I should have known Sweetie wouldn’t let me stick this in,” Marie said sadly. “I should have spit on it first.”