Oh, Sister!

By David Helton | David@LiveLeft.com //// Photography by Jose A Guzman Colon www.joseaguzmancolon.com


And the Sisters are never just doing it for themselves.  They are selfless. In six short years, Project Nunway has become a staple of the fall season and one of the most talked about events on the calendar. Make no mistake; these bitches are serving you high fashion and creativity in a bold and refreshing way. We’ve seen the Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence at many charity events and we’ve seen them host everything from Bingo to Roller Skating – all in the name of charity. They have raised thousands and thousands of dollars for a lot of underfunded non-profits and they are indeed community-based and driven by the desire to do good in the world. However, you’ve never seen them like this.

I spoke with one of the founder’s of Project Nunway, Sister Zsa Zsa, at her palatial estate on Clara Alley. We screamed at one another over the jack hammers of the PG&E seismic upgrades happening just outside her front gate.

(Imagine me screaming this at her) How was Project Nunway born?! (screaming back) In 2009, Sister MJ & Sister Barbara Ganesh collaborated to design the Sisters residency at YBCA for SPI 30th anniversary exhibition which included an exhibition and a number of public programs. Among those public programs emerged Project Nunway inspired by Federico Fellini’s “Roma.”  Sister Barbara took a DVD copy of Roma to Srs. Mary Juanita & Tuna’s pad in Oakland. The three of them watched it and got excited about re-staging the dreamy Roman Catholic runway show.  Sister Mary felt strongly about Nunway being accessible and affordable to all Sisters (and not just those who have money) and thus the recycled aspect came into being and she especially advocated for “exhibition not competition.” The Sisters talked about several titles and eventually landed on Project Nunway.  Before making it official, Sister Barbar pitched the idea to the YBCA/Sisters residency organizing committee that likely included Srs. Hellen, Mary Tim, Maud, Farrah, Mary Ralph and myself.  To talk about the idea further.  I was very enthusiastic about the event and brought in my designer friends Mrs. Vera and Jack Davis. My first contribution to the first Nunway also included wearing a Mrs. Vera boba straw outfit on the Nunway.

Wait, didn’t you have this event in the Aids Memorial Grove?
We did. We actually did one in conjunction with World Aids Day. We’ve had a few at Yuerba Buena and one at Beatbox. The date is always sometime in the fall – and this time we are trying a new venue, the SOMArts Center. Apparently they’ve done a lot of runway shows there so this might be a great fit for us. We’ll have two bars and food trucks and a photo booth and red carpet. We’re going all out.

(The jackhammers finally stopped.)

You guys are also shooting a documentary at the moment. We are and they will be there shooting as well for this event. This is a documentary about the Sisters so this will certainly be a part of it.


What does the show consist of? Is this a competition? Is there a prize? How it happens is we first round up these designers who are interested in making something for one of the Sisters. We match them up. We suggest that the garment be under $100 and made from reusable/recyclable materials. We do have judges and we keep it simple. It’s not like a pageant or anything like that with all kinds of ratings. The hosts, Sister Roma & Peaches Christ, will get three finalists from the judges and we’ll bring them onstage and let the audience decide. There are prizes and stuff, I just don’t yet know what they are <laughs> But it will be something good, I promise! <laughs>


But aside from the runway show, there is also some entertainment. Right? Oh, yes! We have some performances but the highlight is the actual runway show. The designer accompanies each Sister down the runway. Honestly, it really is about these designers. They are all incredibly talented.

Where does all the money go that you raise? We donate everything to the Sisters General Fund. This money helps in writing grants for all kinds of stuff during the year.

Like what? There is Pink Saturday and Easter, of course, and those always require funds. But the Sisters do a lot in the community. I’m not sure if you remember the transgender teenager in the South Bay who was attacked recently? She was attacked on the bus – these bullies lit her skirt on fire and did all these awful things to her.  Anyway, we were contacted by this woman who makes authentic and very elaborate Victorian gowns. She wanted to make a special gown for the victim. She asked us for funding and we immediately wrote a check. So, she made this incredible gown – and she will actually be at the event this year. However, the victim won’t be able to make it because she is attending MIT and she has become a successful, full-time college student at one of the most prestigious schools. There was a happy ending to this horrible story.


How long have you been a Sister? Since 1991. I moved here in 1981. The process of becoming a sister is involved and takes about year. It’s an involved process. (which you can find out about on the TheSisters.org)

How has the organization changed over the years? When we started in 1979, Jimmy Carter was president. Jerry Brown was Governor. AIDS wouldn’t even be mentioned for another two years. So, a lot has changed and I have seen an impossible evolution of the gay community in my lifetime. It is amazing. When you ask about the Sisters, you are really asking about the evolution of the gay community as a whole. I feel like the Sisters have remained relevant somehow. The Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence began as sort of a backlash to all the Castro clones of the late ‘70s. Some of us felt like it was very uninteresting. We wanted to be edgy. We wanted to be shocking. Even then drag was boring and ‘clonelike’ – it was all very ‘gowns and crowns.’ It was all pageant and about ‘passing’ as a female. We wanted to be something altogether different. We wanted to push boundaries and also be activists. We made drag fun and shocking and crazy.
Q_CLONEIn the 60s and 70s there was an event in San Francisco called the ‘Closet Ball.’ The drag queens would find men who had never done drag and for one night they would put them in face and basically ‘initiate’ them into drag. The irony is that over the years, it was hard to find any guy in the Castro who hadn’t already done drag at some point. I mean, RuPaul is on television now?! Drag is in. Can you even believe it?!


What keeps this event relevant? It’s always interesting how we meet people who are intrigued by the event. We received a call from this woman who said that her 16yo son was an aspiring designer. She said the Sisters fascinated him and he wanted to participate. He wanted to be a part of it somehow. I met with her and her son, who was just adorable. He is going to be participating this year. Then we found out that he was recently accepted onto the spin off show for Project Runway – it’s a show called ‘Threads’ and he is a contestant on that show! So, you see that there is an audience for this sort of thing – we just have to find them and engage them.

The Sisters are just like a fucked up, twisted sorority – so they’re pretty hard to ignore! <laughs> Yes! We are not an inconspicuous bunch.


Project Nunway is a charity fashion show where designers are paired with Sisters to create a high fashion look from recycled materials.
Project Nunway 666: Heretics of Fashion, a charity fashion show on November 15, 2014 at 7pm
SOMArts Gallery Brannan Street at 9th Street

Tickets and information at The Sister.org

2 Comments on Oh, Sister!

  1. The Sisters are simply amazing! Giving, Giving, Giving, and more Giving!

  2. Thank God for the Sisters! Always giving you new reasons and fierce events to empty your pockets for a good cause.

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