'Juanita: 30 Years of MORE!' at SFAC celebrates Juanita MORE!'s (center) career in drag, philanthropy and activism. The show was curated by Marcel Pardo Ariza (right) and features custom couture designed by Juanita MORE!'s drag mother and friend, Mr. David Glamamore (left). (Nastia Voynovskaya/KQED)
There are fashion queens, sex-positive entertainers and political provocateurs, but few drag performers embody all the dimensions of the artform as seamlessly and with as much panache as Juanita MORE!.
A true San Francisco icon, she’s been practicing the art of drag for 30 years, and her impact extends far beyond her glamor. Over the past three decades, she’s raised over $1 million for queer housing and healthcare, campaigned for political causes and thrown too many parties to count. To celebrate, the San Francisco Arts Commission (SFAC) Main Gallery has a new exhibition dedicated to her life and work called Juanita: 30 Years of MORE!, on view Sept. 30-Nov. 12.
“Often we don’t see a lot of exhibitions about key figures in the queer and trans communities while they’re still alive, while they’re still doing the work,” says curator Marcel Pardo Ariza. “It’s important that we find the space to highlight folks who are gathering people together through art, though dancing, through meals together in a way that we find incredibly nurturing.”
For the exhibition, MORE! opened her treasure troves of gowns, her personal archives and her art collection, and worked with Pardo Ariza to tell a story—her autobiography, but also a story of queer San Francisco.
That story begins on Halloween 1992, when MORE!’s drag mother, Glamamore, dressed her in leopard print and sent her out on the town. That first night in drag, MORE! had such a ball that she wanted to do it again. “I ran around and partied my ass off that first year and just had fun,” she says.
She could lip sync and entertain on par with the top divas in the city, and soon, her impact grew beyond the bar and club scene. “Something clicked and I said, ‘Oh, I need to use this energy that’s coming at me and give back for something good,” MORE! says.
The AIDS epidemic had ravaged the LGBTQ+ community in the ’80s, and although treatment became available in the ’90s, the deadly crisis persisted. MORE! threw her first benefit for TARC, the Tenderloin AIDS Resource Center. And in the 30 years since, she has thrown dozens of events that raised funds for organizations such as the Q Foundation, which provides housing support for people living with HIV/AIDS; the Transgender Law Center, a trans-led legal organization; and Queer LifeSpace, an affordable mental health counseling center.
Glitzy parties—like her annual Pride celebration—are often how MORE! inspires people to give to good causes, but her activism doesn’t stop there. She can be seen rallying for political issues (recently, she spoke out against the recall of progressive District Attorney Chesa Boudin). And her personal website has basically become a one-stop shop for Bay Area residents who want to become more civically engaged. She authors her own voter guides (the 2022 midterm edition is coming soon), rounds up queer events and publishes lists of LGBTQ+ mental health resources and small businesses.
Even with MORE!’s hectic schedule of campaigning and entertaining, impeccable attention to detail—from the coif of her wig to the last rhinestone on her heel—has been a defining feature of her brand. Glamamore, known as Mr. David when not in drag, has been MORE!’s principal fashion designer for her entire career. She’s never worn anything other than custom garments made specially for her.
The sumptuous couture Mr. David created for MORE! over the past 30 years—sometimes on a tight budget, but always with Paris Fashion Week-worthy skill—makes for a mesmerizing display inside the SFAC gallery, which also features event posters, awards, portraits of MORE! and her own original (and often erotic) photography.
“What I really enjoy is we can do anything—she can wear anything, she can pull off any look,” Mr. David says at the exhibition preview, standing next to the regal, balloon-sleeved gown, cape and headdress he made for MORE! for SF Pride 2019. He’s made clothing for stars like Cher and Deee-Lite’s Lady Miss Kier, but it’s his collaboration with MORE! that’s been the most rewarding. “It’s this constant challenge. ‘We have $30, let’s make a ball gown.’ It’s not expensive things, but how do we make what we have look very extravagant? It’s enticing, our whole dynamic. I inspire her, she inspires me. We’re on this spiral together.”
That collaborative spirit extended to how MORE! approached the exhibition at SFAC. For her and curator Pardo Ariza, preserving history is part of a higher purpose to leave a legacy for the next generation of queer and trans youth, and to pay homage to the intergenerational community of artists who’ve made Juanita MORE! so original.
“I think the thing that I love the most is that I’ve never claimed to be the one who created Juanita by myself,” MORE! says. “I was the vehicle that brought it to life. But there were a lot of people collaborating to make this thing that we created as fun or crazy or pretty as possible. … I’m a big champion of artists and have collaborated with so many artists, and that’s just always brought me so much joy.”