Editor's Note: The Changing Face of Drag is a five-part KQED Arts series spotlighting innovative performers pushing the boundaries of drag in the Bay Area. Click to read more about the series.
On the day of the San Francisco mayoral election, Juanita MORE! couldn't meet because she had too many places to be.
In a last-minute campaign effort, she rode around the Castro in a convertible with candidate Mark Leno, her red tassel earrings and cotton candy-shaped wig blowing in the wind. ("My wig stayed on my head, too," she says.) After hearing Leno speak at Harvey Milk Plaza, she stopped by a campaign party for Rafael Mandelman—a young, gay politician who wore drag at a recent edition of MORE!'s party, Powerblouse—to congratulate him on his win for District 8 supervisor.
Drag, an art form that bucks the heteronormative status quo, has been a central part of queer resistance for decades. But MORE!, who's performed in San Francisco for nearly 30 years, is one of the only drag queens to leverage her popularity to make an impact on mainstream city politics.
In addition to campaigning for queer candidates and mobilizing the LGBTQ community to vote with her election guides, MORE! uses her platform to raise money for a variety of causes. Her party Powerblouse (where she and her drag mother, Glamamore, give newbies their first-time drag makeovers) raises money for the Q Foundation, which helps HIV- and AIDS-positive people secure affordable housing. And her wildly popular Pride celebrations, taking place at SVN West and Jones during the June 23–24 Pride weekend, benefit TRUTH (TRans yoUTH), a program from the Transgender Law Center that gives trans young people a safe space to build community and share their struggles.
MORE! specializes in an old-school, Hollywood glamour of big hair, an hourglass figure and flowing couture gowns (think Bette Davis, Celia Cruz and Diana Ross). She says that she didn't always see her drag as part of a bigger purpose. "Looking back on those early years, I was probably like every other young drag queen who gets born every day," she says. "You're just going out all the time; you're performing wherever for a dime; you're drinking all night."
But as she matured over the course of her career, so did her approach. As a beloved and experienced drag mother and grandmother who's initiated two generations of performers into the art form, she began to notice that people looked to her for guidance not just on where find the hottest parties with the cutest guys, but on many civic issues, too.
"People come to me all the time, especially in the political world, in a way of like, 'Let's sit down and talk about this. I wanna share something with you that we need to really think about and figure out and fix it before it really affects our city,'" she says.
MORE! was born in Fremont and raised in Hayward, where she remembers passing by five gay bars on the way home from high school. But she didn't become interested in drag until she was in her 20s and living in New York, immersed in its late-'80s gay club culture. When she returned to San Francisco in 1992, her good friend Glamamore, who followed her out west, dressed her in a leopard print get-up one night before she hit the town.
"When I came back, he was here," she says, sitting at the dining table of her Tenderloin studio apartment, her bulldog, Jackson, at her feet. "And I was like, 'Oh my god, I had so much fun! I want to do it again tomorrow.'"
MORE! remembers lip-syncing jazz standards at drag bars like Lily's—the predecessor to Castro piano bar Martuni's—and dozens more that have since shuttered. Nowadays, she's more likely to be found at the SoMA leather bar Powerhouse, where she hosts Powerblouse and her other monthly party, Beatpig—though her penchant for Sarah Vaughan and Etta James for her numbers has remained the same.
Glamamore and Juanita MORE!'s creative partnership runs even deeper than drag mother and daughter. Outside of drag as Mr. David, Glamamore has sewn thousands of custom couture gowns for MORE! over the past three decades. At her apartment, MORE! shows me an elegant, black evening gown speckled with splashes of gold; its sculptural neckline puffs out like a flower in bloom. Heading over to her velvet-curtained closet, she pulls out a pair of tangerine-hued, wide-leg silk pants fit for a '70s disco queen.
"In general, I've only worn Mr. David's clothes, which is really kind of incredible," she says. In 2016, the De Young Museum hosted a runway show of Mr. David's creations. Most of MORE!'s personal collection is currently in storage, as it's too big to fit in her modest studio. She has her assistant pull pieces from it for shows. "It's organized in clear bins by color, so there's 26 years of red dresses in the 'red' bin."
As one of the elder members of the House of MORE!, the family of drag performers that Glamamore founded, Juanita MORE! is a mentor figure and friend to dozens of younger queer people. Phyllis Navidad and Dulce De Leche were some of her first drag daughters, and she's a drag aunt to Nicki Jizz, a sex-positive firecracker whose parties intentionally make space for queer and trans people of color in nightlife.
That concept of an intergenerational chosen family is important to MORE!—in her art, activism and personally. In lieu of nuclear family structures, chosen families are how many in the LGBTQ community care for one another; a nurturing and support that MORE! clearly evinces.
"I really care about queer kids and queer elders," she says. "Queer kids are gonna be my voice when I can't speak anymore, and our queer elders have stories and history that needs to be supported. They need to be loved."
Juanita MORE! performs for Pride at SVN West on June 23 and Jones on June 24. Details here.