“Growing up as a little gay kid,” Juanita More says, “drag wasn't something I wanted to do.”
It’s an early evening in August and we’re standing at the edge of a bar in the Starlight Room at the Sir Francis Drake Hotel, where More has been hosting a happy hour. Friends of hers -- and there are so many -- intermittently interrupt us to give her a kiss hello or goodbye. The pop music is thumps loudly and we have to shout to hear each other over the din. Her makeup is bold, but immaculate, as usual.
Juanita More is a quintessential San Francisco drag queen. She’s been performing for 20 years, and is deeply entwined with the other major players in the drag scene. She’s also a pillar in the queer community; she hosts regular parties and happy hours around the city, and every year hosts a fundraising party on the Sunday of Pride weekend. Oh -- and every now and then she stars in a music video, like the New Pornographers' one below.
Right now More is prepping for her next show -- called, ahem, "Puttin' on the Titz" -- which stars More alongside seven other drag queens, and takes place at A.C.T.'s Strand Theater this Friday, Nov. 11. The show's pieces are based on music from the '30s, '40s, and '50s. With any luck, it may become a quarterly installation at the Strand, says More -- which might be comforting news to fans of Booty Call Wednesdays, a long-running weekly party that More hosted at QBar from 2008 to 2015.
Given that More (whose preferred pronouns change with her clothes) would eventually take on the persona of Juanita to become one of San Francisco’s essential drag queens, it’s funny that as a young boy, he initially thought drag queens were “really rude and obnoxious and loud.” But he ended up hanging around them, nonetheless.
As a kid in the East Bay, More saw a performance of the comic play The Neon Woman, starring drag queen Divine, that inspired him. Then, while living in New York for a few years in the late 1980s, he hung around drag queens like Glamamore — who would later become More’s drag mother, a term used in the community for an intimate mentor who introduces a young queen to the drag world and supports her as she develops her identity. Glamamore, Princess Diandra and other elders all worked at Boy Bar in NYC’s East Village, where More spent some formative years.
“I still wasn't into drag,” More says -- but he was happy to carry any of the drag queens’ bags around.
More moved back to the Bay Area and eventually began to do drag himself in the early ’90s. “When I look back now,” she says, “all those girls that were performing then, at that time, at Boy Bar -- [what they were doing] is still what I aim for; it's still what I love. It's still what I respect. Those girls performed all the time, and really loved and were passionate about what they were doing, in a different way than I think the popular drag queens are now.
“In the beginning of my early years of drag in San Francisco,” she explains, “I felt I was searching to find who Juanita was, as all young drag queens do.”
That process, which was strongly guided by several mentors, brought her to today -- when she calls drag her j-o-b. More says it takes her about three hours to get in drag for each event: that includes styling wigs, putting on makeup, and using special padding to accentuate her curves.
This part of the job isn't, she says, always fun. Sometimes she has a specific look in mind but can’t quite make it gel. She’s actually written into some of her contracts, "If I'm late it's not because I'm fucking with you. It's because my zipper broke or my wig fell apart." But even when her preparation doesn’t quite go as planned, "When I actually get to an event, I go ‘Oh, I can relax.' I feel comfortable and at home again."
This is not to say, however, that Juanita is the ultimate expression of More's personality. “As my alter ego,” she says, “I'm a shy, regular normal guy. Which is pretty normal for a drag queen.”
Because she grew up in the East Bay, she has friends from high school who she still sees, who are not involved in her drag life. Her family, also, is not involved, though they know what she does and they love it. That is her ordinary life, the one that she says “keeps me really grounded.” It’s also a source of inspiration. Doing her drag work and being out, she says, doesn’t allow her to be creative.
“Being with my family,” she says, “going away for the weekend with friends, that's when I plan things, dream about things.”
Her creativity, too, is tied into her relationship with Glamamore, her drag mother. When not in drag, Glamamore is Mr. David, a fashion designer for whom More serves as inspiration. In total, Mr. David has made Juanita around 3,000 pieces.
"That includes re-covering shoes, handbags, gloves, dresses, coats, even my undergarments," says More. "Even my padding. All of it.”
In May of last year, the de Young did a retrospective of 24 years of Mr. David’s work for More. “I could see myself continuing what I do without him,” More says, “but I don't know that I would want to. Because we created this together, you know, I really became his muse.” More says Mr. David has pushed her to perform when she didn’t want to, and she’s helped get him to sew again when he felt he couldn’t.
This supportive side of her is also reflected in her annual Pride party. Each year for the past 20, she has picked a different community nonprofit to benefit. Last year it was Queer Lifespace, which offers counseling and mental health services to the queer community. More says the party raised around $70,000 for the organization.
"Even after it happened," she says, "I'm like, did that really happen?” She started having her party on Pride weekend’s Sunday in 2003. "It felt like actual San Francisco Pride wasn’t really connecting with me or my friends [anymore]," she says, noting that it had become “so corporate.”
Aside from her party, More has also become a famously nurturing figure in the queer community. “I'm mother to a lot of kids in San Francisco,” More says. “I really have nights when I go out and boys, you know, they tell me they broke up with their boyfriend that night, or boys have told me their HIV status when they're out with me. I really hear a lot of different conversations as the night goes on.”
So it's not surprising that, throughout her more than 20 years as a drag queen, More has become a drag mother to several younger queens, including Dulce De Leche, Phyllis Navidad and Candi Gurl. She’s been particular about who she’ll mother, which, she says, has “proven to be a good thing.” Still, she knows she's filling an essential role -- ushering in the next generation of drag queens, helping them to become the most stunning, fabulous versions of their drag selves.
'Puttin’ on the Titz,' featuring More, Qween, Miss Rahni, Honey Mahogany, Voodonna Black, Glamamore, Dulce De Leche, and Fauxnique, takes place at 7pm on Friday, Nov. 11, at the Strand Theater in San Francisco. Tickets ($25–$35) and more details here.