Peaches Christ Superstar

By David Helton

Peaches Christ is synonymous with Halloween in San Francisco. She celebrates the spooky and the macabre in almost everything she does. From the early days of Trannyshack and Midnight Mass to her now sold out shows at the Castro Theatre, Peaches Christ has carved her own path from Maryland-boyhood-theatre-nerd to becoming one of the most iconic (and hardest working) drag queens on the planet.

“I used to think it was unique – you know, to be this young gay kid who loved horror movies.” Peaches says, “But then I became an older gay man who loved horror movies and I was like ‘Oh my God, as it turns out – a lot of gay guys like horror movies!’ So I began to think that maybe there was something universal to this.”

Inspired by Divine, Peaches Christ is admittedly influenced by John Waters. “I was turned on to John Waters and Divine in high school.” She explains, “I wasn’t exposed to drag until high school. But, because I was living in Maryland and they were shooting Hairspray there – a kid in my class got to be an extra in that movie.”

Hairspray was a dramatic departure from Waters’ earlier works, with a much broader intended audience. It was shot in 1987 and it is a romantic musical comedy film written and directed by John Waters, and starring Ricki Lake, Divine (in his final film role), Debbie Harry, Sonny Bono, & Jerry Stiller. In fact, Hairspray‍ ’s PG rating is the mildest rating a Waters film has ever received; most of his previous films were rated X by the MPAA.

“I was so jealous!” Peaches continued, “I didn’t know what it all meant at the time because I was a kid, but I remember hearing people say ‘the Mom in the movie is this fat man.’ And I was like what do they mean ‘the Mom is a fat man?’ And then I finally saw Hairspray and was introduced to Divine – everything changed for me.”

Born in Baltimore, Maryland to a conservative middle-class family, Harris Glenn Milstead, better known by his stage name Divine developed an early interest in drag while working as a women’s hairdresser. By the mid-1960s he had embraced the city’s countercultural scene and befriended Waters, who gave him the name “Divine” and the tagline of “the most beautiful woman in the world, almost.”

Described by People magazine as the “Drag Queen of the Century”, Divine has remained a cult figure, particularly within the LGBT community, and has provided the inspiration for fictional characters, artworks and songs for legions of fans.

“And that,” Peaches laughs, “was the gateway drug to finding more, earlier John Waters films at an inappropriately young age.”

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Image by Jeff kaluzny

Joshua Grannell is Peaches Christ. The two are inseparable after decades of outrageous stage shows. Yet, even without all that garish makeup and exaggerated hair, something about Joshua ignites when he talks about horror movies and science fiction. This is a passion for him. He’s a handsome, intellectual, kind man; but an intentionally ugly woman. That’s by design. In fact, what I am learning about Peaches is that it’s all by design. Nothing is accidental.

I have learned is that in spite of what it seems, Peaches Christ doesn’t need a spotlight; Peaches Christ is lit from within.

We sat down over coffee in Hayes Valley on a foggy Wednesday afternoon, and Joshua sat with his notes for his upcoming show with Bianca Del Rio. We had crossed paths in Provincetown while Peaches was performing Return to Grey Gardens with galpal and drag superstar Jinkx Monsoon a few weeks prior.

I loved the Grey Gardens show with you and Jinkx in Provincetown – well, aside from the guys sucking dick in the front row during the performance. [Laughs] Oh, that’s right! I forgot that you guys were at that show! That show became legendary. See. That’s how arousing we are. People just can’t help themselves. They see my face and the first thing they think is ‘You know, I really just need to suck a dick right now.’

The whole time I thought you were going to see them and freak the fuck out. You couldn’t see them from the stage?!  Not at all! I mean we could tell there was some commotion going on, but from the stage with the lights in our faces, we can’t make out any real detail… and in this case, thank God! [Laughs]

Speaking of sucking dick in the front row of a theatre, what did you do for Folsom? I did Grace Jones. [Laughs] Or I should say, Grace Jones did me! She turned me out for Folsom!

You loved the show?  That’s an understatement. I absolutely loved it! I will say that it inspired me on every level. She was fucking phenomenal. [Sitting back in his chair] I had no idea that it would be that good. No idea.

She is 67 years old. I know! She’s amazing. She’s fearless. She’s fun. And I don’t know if that really comes across in the pictures and videos, but she really does love being on that stage and giving it to you. She has love for the audience. She would do something so diva’esque and amazing and the song would end and she would laugh and giggle. I think that mix of humility with fierceness is what moves me.

Do you think she’s in the ‘Madonna’ category? Don’t get me wrong, I love Madonna and I can’t wait to see her that show this month [Madonna’s Rebel Heart Tour] – but Grace Jones would just fierce me out and then laugh with me. She wasn’t just the diva that we wanted – she really connected with us. She was so much more than I expected.

To be her age and to still be turning it out like that – there is something to be said for her. I feel like we’re living in this era of these powerful and successful women – I mean, men have always been allowed to get old – but now we have these women who are aging and they are still so successful. I get irritated when people Madonna bash – I think, ‘God I wish I could move like that now.’ [Laughs]

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Image by José Alberto Guzmán Colón

Do you think aging drag queens will have that same kind of success? I don’t know. I hope so. I mean look at Heklina. She’s older than Methuselah and yet, somehow, she finds the strength to open that Oasis club every night. I just hope I am as successful when I am her age, I mean, if I live that long. You know.

You’ve done a few cruises and I think you and Heklina are doing this big Mother Cruise in early 2016 together, right? Are you a girl who likes to cruise? [Laughs] I actually haven’t done that many. I did one with Bearracuda last year and I had a blast. After watching how Matt at Bearracuda ran that whole thing I was like ‘Hey, Heklina and I can totally do this with some of our friends and fans.’

You guys are partnering with Matt and Bearracuda for the cruise? So everyone is on the same boat? Yes! We have our portion of the boat for Mother – they have theirs for Bearracuda. So, if you want to be with the queens, sign up with the queens – if you want to be with the bears, sign up with the bears. But at the end of the day, it’s just going to be a lot of fucking fun.

Ok. Now I want to go! We’re all the same people anyway. True! We used to all get together more. We have sort of segregated ourselves too much I think. Technology allows us to ‘check in’ without really checking in, you know? The community used to be a lot smaller. Now with social media, we are a much larger community.

I feel like we’re less social now than we were before Facebook and all that shit. We used to have to leave the house to find out what was going on, we couldn’t just look on our phones. Before our phones, you had to leave the house to get dick. You couldn’t just order dick. That would be crazy! [Laughs] People went out. People participated. It’s true, all of this social media has a side effect – and often the side effect is that we ‘feel’ like we participated in something because we saw it on Facebook. But in reality, we haven’t left the house in three weeks. [Laughs]

You’re big on social media though. I follow you. Wait, that sounds very much like the call is coming from inside the house. [Laughs] I use all the social apps for my business as well as for my social life. Oddly, I get a lot of business requests through those sources. I just got one through Instagram. I didn’t even know that there was a mailbox on Instagram?! [Laughs]

Do you think it gets confusing? Oh, it does. It’s not uniform. I mean there is not one single place that I go to communicate – I communicate from all these different places with my audiences. The problem is, like everyone else, I go online to do something and get sucked into the K-hole of looking at scandalous news and watching videos of puppies playing and shit – like I don’t have a million things I need to be doing. If I try to go online just to do business, it’s a challenge.

When you started in the business, there was no social media. Your biggest concern was getting those damn carrier pigeons to come back. [Laughs] We did everything in Morse code back then. Honestly, when I started – and this will sound crazy – the Internet was in its infancy. Back in 1995 when I first started at Penn State, I remember they were trying to force us to get our grades online. They wanted us to ‘go online.’ We refused! We were all upset about it. [Laughs] We were like ‘How can they make us do this?! This is crazy!’ We had no idea that soon we would only want to be online. We wouldn’t even want to use the telephone anymore. [Laughs]

Are you ever off the grid? As a writer, it’s very attractive to unplug and go off the grid.

You have to evolve with technology. You just have to keep up. If you are an artist who depends on promoting yourself and your events, you have to use these tools. And, you know, I get good at one. I become like the master of fucking Instagram and then someone says ‘Peaches, you need to be Periscoping.’ And I am like ‘what the fuck is Periscoping?! I don’t even know what that is!?’ [Laughs] Sometimes I don’t feel like learning a new thing.

You should just hire someone to do it all. While that’s appealing, I find that if your audience is attracted to you – and they want to follow you – it’s very hard to hand that off to someone else.

There is something inauthentic about it.  Yes. People can tell the difference when it’s my voice and when it’s someone else’s voice. In my mind, I look at social media as sort of being on a virtual stage. You know? I also know that it’s important for me to be me when I am posting anything.

But at least when you are on the virtual stage, you can be in virtual drag. Which basically means at home in your sweats on the couch. [Laughs] Listen, if I’m not working, I’m not in drag. I mean, I don’t like being in drag unless the project is worth it. I wouldn’t just go hang out in drag anywhere. This shit is a lot of work. [Laughs]

Where did Peaches Christ come from? Did you always do the eye makeup in that signature Peaches way? [Laughs] Obviously Divine had an impact on me. Soon after I saw Hairspray, I went to a midnight screening of The Rocky Horror Picture Show and it completely changed my worldview.

So those two things: Divine and Frank-N-Furter? Those two things put me on a course to be obsessed with drag. I was in drag for my senior thesis film that I made – it was called Jizz Mopper and the school hated it. It was outrageous. Everyone in my film class wanted to be Martin Scorsese and I wanted to be John Waters and Wes Craven. The first time I was in drag was in front of a movie camera. Because of those inspirations, Peaches was always a bit grungy and clowny. The makeup has always been garish and bizarre with heavy high eyebrows. When Trannyshack started and I had just moved here, Peaches Christ was the character I brought to Trannyshack – but it was so sloppy and so raw.  My improv skills were being honed and I was still finding my voice.

When did Peaches become a ‘thing’? I actually remember this one time I changed my makeup and Jose [Putanesca] put me in some ‘pretty’ makeup and I went to go host the Midnight Mass Show. I looked beautiful and fierce. [Laughs] I was like ‘I look sexy and I look amazing.’ But the audience was like ‘Where’s Peaches?’ They hated it. They wanted Peaches.

That has to feel good. I moved here in 1995 and since I’ve been in San Francisco, you guys have been a part of the San Francisco drag quilt. [Laughs] Drag quilt? Gross!  That sounds like a very dirty blanket.

[Laughs] It’s kind of like the AIDS quilt, but way more fun. [Laughs] Next February will be the 20th Anniversary of Trannyshack and I think one of the beautiful things is that it was truly art for art’s sake. None of us thought it would be around for more than a year. In fact, when Trannyshack had it’s first one-year anniversary pageant and we did that show, Steve Lady won and I thought, ‘Oh, that’s that! Trannyshack is going to end now.’’ But it didn’t end. It kept going. It got bigger and better. Who thought that a midnight show on a Tuesday at the Stud would go on to be so legendary?

It was so edgy and fun. Trannyshack was quintessential San Francisco. Midnight Mass as well. None of us felt like there was an industry for any of it. There was no sense of ‘this isn’t commercial.’ But we just did what we wanted and we didn’t do it for money – clearly, we didn’t do it for the money [laughs] – we did it because it was fun and the success came from that.

I think that is a key point of success – you have to be authentic. Money is the wrong reason to do anything. There is nothing better than creating something you like and believe in — and when you share it with the world –you find out they love it too. It feels so good to share something of yourself and have it embraced by other people.

We’ve all done sell out gigs though. Have you ever done a gig that was just a huge regret? The paycheck can be nice sometimes, and you want to do it because you need that money to fund the other projects that are not making money. There was one gig when the promoter told me that I could not be ‘Peaches Christ.’ Instead, I had to play the role of Mommie Dearest. He wanted me to answer questions as if I were Mommie Dearest. Of course I walk into the room and there’s Gavin-fucking-Newsom and he’s like ‘Hey! Are you Peaches Christ?’ and I said ‘Yes I am’ without any hesitation. [Laughs] I remember thinking, ‘they can fire me now – but I can’t be someone else. I can only be me.’

You earn every penny sometimes. Yes, those gigs are painful. You absolutely earn every penny.

Do you think doing a show like Drag Race would be a sell out for you? In my mind, you’re too big for that show. Does that sound weird?  Well, we now have a situation that gives TV drag queens an immediate boost in their careers, whether or not they have paid their dues. It can be hard when you don’t have that wealth of experience to draw from. Bianca and Chad Michaels and Latrice – they have been doing drag for many years, so they are more seasoned performers.

But that doesn’t make for good TV. No, it doesn’t. So they almost have to put some fresh, new, inexperienced queens on there because it makes for good TV. But Drag Race is good for all of us; ultimately it’s good for drag performance in general. But now a TV show can make you famous overnight – whether you win or lose. Part of the beauty of drag is that we can be successful in different ways. We can all be in the same community and be very different.

I still say you’re too big for that show. I think that any queen is going to be enticed by it. I mean here we are, busting our asses night after night in these small local bars – and all we have to do is go on television for a few weeks and be ‘discovered’ overnight by hundreds of thousands of people? For me, it’s an attractive thing – however, after two decades of doing what I do, I am really proud of every fan I have. I love what we’ve built here in San Francisco – although it is not on the same size or scale of television. I do think that it’s a certain kind of fan. I built my career being niche and cult and edgy and being named after Jesus. [Laughs] So it would go against everything I’ve done to suddenly now go on TV and compete against other queens. It’s not who I am.

I also don’t think I would do very well. [Laughs] I would have a maturity and comfort level. I would do ok with that stuff. But I don’t know how to sew. I can’t paint my face any other way that the Peaches way – and I know they would read me for having my Bozo the clown makeup on every episode.

Fuck Drag Race. Get your own show. [Laughs] You know there are so many of them now that have gone on the show, I think there is this cache to being a Varla Jean and a Coco Peru. The Drag Race superfans are now starting to realize who these other veteran queens are. We’ll never be showcased on that show – and that’s ok, it serves a purpose. But I would say to the fans of that show to explore the world of drag outside of that Drag Race bubble. Look up Varla Jean. Look up Christine. Take an afternoon and watch those videos. Go see Dina Martina.

Varla Jean is actually in this issue with you. She’s in San Francisco at Oasis with Heklina this month.  She’s genius. Varla was one of the best parts of my P’town experience this year. It was kind of like summer camp for queens. [Laughs] Varla and I shared a dressing room. I’ve known Varla for years and we’ve known one another well enough to say hello. But we didn’t really KNOW each other. The first day I’m there, she gives me a ride back to my little cottage. It was literally like 92 degrees in the cottage. I was dying. But let me tell you what Varla did. Varla went BACK into town, picked up an air conditioner and brought it back to my cottage and installed it. She fucking installed an air conditioner for me? Who does that?!

Sorry. I’m imagining Varla in drag installing the air conditioner [Laughs] No, no, no. She wasn’t in drag! Can you imagine? Varla in her yellow sun dress?! But you know, that’s a drag angel. That’s a great person. And not only did we get to know one another, we connected on a very real level. I adore her.

What’s next? I just got a grant to write another movie so I am very excited about that. The SF FILM SOCIETY just gave me a residency. I have an office now, can you believe it? I will be able to work with other film makers.

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Image by José Alberto Guzmán Colón

That’s huge! But I’m a juggler. I want to do more theatre with longer runs. I like giving these shows a second life somewhere else. The person who I admire the most is John Waters. He’s a filmmaker. But he hasn’t made a movie in ten years – but he’s brilliant and relevant and he juggles a lot of different things. Right now I need to prepare Addam’s Family Values! This one is going to be insane – It was a 90s film with cross generational appeal from the TV show, so this has a lot of layers we can draw from.

This picture of you as Wednesday Addams is disturbing. [Laughs] There is something so twisted about Peaches as a child.

What were you like as a child? Probably what you would expect. I loved Halloween. I loved dressing up. I loved theatre. I was in the drama club. I was just like you would imagine any young gay boy I guess – all those flamboyant stereotypes. But also very interested in spooky stuff and Elvira.

Where do you think that comes from? I think maybe there is something psychologically substantial there about young, queer men who felt like outsiders or different and were drawn to these darker movies with this dark subject matter. There is an identifiable component to it. I don’t really understand it, but there is a connection there.

Gay men celebrate the macabre in a really interesting way. Oh, for sure. We can make things campy and fun. It’s our way of dealing with the world. I think gay men tend to be more sensitive. That’s a good thing. We don’t grow up with that sense of entitlement that a lot of straight men have. We have a level of sensitivity to the world that hopefully is a good thing for most of us. We deal with violence and gore and horror through fantasy – through film, television and music. The fact that we are attracted to dark subject matter is probably because that’s how we process it and how we deal with it in reality.

I liked to be scared as a kid. It’s fun to be scared when you’re a child. But now the things that really scare me are not the things that I loved as a kid, like ‘Texas Chainsaw Massaqure.’ It terrified me. Now I see it as more campy and fun. However, recently I watched the Hurt Locker and I was so stressed out. I can’t even deal with thinking about that kind of stuff and forcing me to watch it, that’s truly a horror movie for me.

That’s hard for us to process when we’re used to being silly and campy and Poltergeisty. [laughs] I agree! We can frame things as gay men in ways that make it digestible, but war – and real terror and heartbreak in the world – we don’t have the framework for that. We’re too sensitive.

Do you have brothers and sisters? I do! A younger sister and a younger brother. I’m the oldest and we’re all two years apart. My brother, interestingly enough, is also gay.

Your father must be thrilled. [Laughs] You know, I think in some ways it was somehow harder for my brother to come out. I was so obviously gay. But as far as boys go, my brother was more “normal’ – whatever that means – and he played Lacrosse. He fit in more than I did in that respect. I came out and it was like ‘Duh!’ but his coming out was a bit more of a shock.

Did you know about your brother before your parents did? No, actually, I didn’t. It was a shock to me as well. He came out to them first. He came out to my Mom first. A mother always knows.

We’re very different. I am obviously the outrageous, drag horror movie filmmaker and he’s in the Foreign Service. He’s a very successful American diplomat in India. But we’re both adventurous. We share that.

Honestly, I was very weird as a child. I don’t think my parents were as worried about me being gay as they were that I would turn out to be a serial killer or something. [Laughs] I’m not shitting you; they talked to my priest about it and everything. But eventually my Dad came around and he’d take the chain off the chainsaw so I could use it in the haunted houses to scare people.

And you’re still scaring people.  Yep. And sometimes I even scare myself with all that I am trying to do, but I wouldn’t have it any other way! [Laughs]


Get Tickets Now! Peaches Christ’s Addam’s Apple Family Values at the Castro Theatre on November 21st!

Peaches will also host Freaky Friday at Beatbox on October 23rd! With David Harness + Hawthorne + Mike Russell!

11x17 poster Freaky Friday

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