Like any Grande Dame of the theater, no one knows her real age. It's really difficult to say when her career began. The only thing that is known is that it was queers who invented her, and it was queers who made her UCSC's most glamorous star.
She is, after a name change in 1997, the Queer Fashion Show. Started probably in 1986 by gay and lesbian students, she was only a minor event which played one show mid-week. There is some controversy over her geographic origins. Although Porter College would like to claim her, it is rumored that she got her start at Merrill or Crown College. Never knowing what a star she would become, her alumni parents forgot to take credit for the early days of her career. Her founders named her "The Alternative Fashion Show," making a strong statement for the time that this baby was subversive.
In comparison to the dance and high-tech performance-art extravaganza that she has become, her early days were modest if not paltry. There used to be no funding support, no choreography, and CDs and digital media had not even been invented. The emphasis was truly on the fashion of the day, and models in the show went to their dorm closets to scrounge up the hippest, trendiest outfits they could find to impress the crowd of 200 or so in the audience.
A major shift came in the mid-1990s, and four cultural phenomena propelled the tiny sparkler into stardom. First, the advocacy and the use of the word queer finally outed the show as gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender, intersex. The show was re-titled the "Queer Fashion Show." This was a socio-political statement that Porter College embraced: Yes! We are strange, different, freaky, and sometimes offensive to the mainstream. We embrace diversity and we're here to celebrate our sexuality. The show shifted from an emphasis on clothing and 1980s materialism, to an emphasis on nudity, sex, and the politicization of gender and stereotypes.
In the year 2000, the show's box office posted a disclaimer that no one under eighteen was to be admitted, even though models were still instructed to cover their genitalia. Part of that decision was to avoid conflict from the threat of right-wing politicos who hoped to close shows like QFS, but mostly the decision was an artistic one: directors felt they could produce a more exciting show if the content was titillating without being obvious.
Dance numbers began to make an appearance in the mid-1990s, when student director Adam Killian introduced movement and mud-covered nudes to the runway. In response to the thin models in his act, another student, Lanetta Smythe, claimed the stage for self-proclaimed fat women by stripping off her shirt (made of magazine models in collage) and baring her red-painted breasts in a statement of anger and rejection of media norms. The show's adviser, Todd Bowser-McGregor, noticed a lack of transgender representation in early shows, and pushed new limits in 1996 by introducing drag queens to the runway. Today, hundreds of dollars in feathers, wigs and mascara are spent on the show.
A second cultural event which changed the show was the advancement of technology. Video was introduced by Courtney Potter and Jessica Stefan in the mid-1990s, when they created montages starring Hollywood glamour queens juxtaposed with vignettes of models preparing for the show. The earliest of these starred Tchad Sanger in a hilarious film concerning a day in the life of a drag queen. In 2001, Todd Bowser-McGregor lip-synched as Celine Dion in a video shot on location in Paris, and subtitled in English. In other multi-media acts, students mix their own music, often downloaded from the internet or electronically produced. However, classical music is not ignored. In 2000, it was a real treat to hear mezzo-soprano Erin Balabanian sing Gounod's Ave Maria , accompanied on the grand piano by Michael Boyadjian, in a piece where Italian Renaissance paintings were brought to life by models.
A third great change to the show occurred when Porter College hired Coordinators for Residential Education (CREs). These were full-time student affairs staff who could devote work time to producing and advising student directors. New funding sources were identified and budgetary structures were defined. Student director Hallie Stoller developed a box office system of ticket sales and organized a crew of ushers to coordinate the seating of the massive audience. She established show time at 7:59 PM, partly because the number was queer, and partly because the psychological device got everyone seated prior to 8:00 PM.
As a result of tightening the administrative structure, the show now plays on two weekend nights during GLBTI Pride Week. The sold-out house is packed with over 650 people each night. The ticket price is still cheap--under $5.00, and the event raises over $2,000 per year which is in turn donated to campus programs including HIV Prevention, Rape Prevention, the GLBT Resource Center, and a new group for Transmen established in 2000.
The fourth shift in culture was the centralization of the GLBTI community at UCSC. The GLBT Resource Center added full-time professional director Deb Abbott in 1998. This move led to significant information-sharing between students at all colleges. Directors Shequina Nayfack, Meliza Ba'ales, and Becca Just created an email group to organize the wide array of participants in 1999. Student participation poured in from all of the ten UCSC colleges, bringing cultural diversity and new ideological and artistic approaches to the performance. Now, with the exception of the show's two directors and two assistant directors who must be Porter College students, anyone can participate as models, dancers, costume makers, musicians, set designers, ushers, stage crew and filmmakers.
As with any Grande Dame of the theatre, QFS is not without drama. From 1999 to 2003, adviser Ryan Jones spent his share of long nights sitting up with crying directors who have fallen under the criticism of a highly sensitive population of performers. In 2003, former director Antoinette Ayaji produced a dance piece [which was] questioned harshly by her predominantly queer cast. Antoinette, who prefers to shed all labels, was considered straight, and challenged on her artistic vision: was it queer enough? In the throes of anger, she thrashed along with her dancers across the stage, using spoken word to challenge the very notion of queer as a label applied to a group that has the perceived right to exclude those who are anything but. Yes, the day had come when queers were the power class. Ironic, but true given that the Queer Fashion Show had become the largest, and arguably most affluent, student-produced event on UCSC's campus.
The show has been criticized, mostly from within, for every aspect of content possible: Is there too much dancing and not enough fashion? Are there enough men represented in the cast? Should there be more people of different body types? Do all twenty-some acts have to fit into the theme of the show, or can we allow greater artistic license? How many modern dance pieces can we have before looking too much like women's ensemble theater? Will that set designer ever finish by opening night? Who was responsible for clean-up? What if vegans protest the use of live animals? What do we do about the guy scalping tickets out front? Does all this look too Disney? Can we get some ventilation in here? Who took my eyelash glue?
The show must go on. For every bit of blood, sweat and tears that go into the show, the payoffs are extraordinary. The cast members go away with smiles, a great sense of accomplishment, lessons learned, new friendships bonded, and ideas for next year. How wonderful it is for a group of outcasts to stand up on a stage, to bare their souls (and often their bodies), and then to hear the roaring applause of a packed house for expressing their true selves!
Year after year, it is the same. No matter how small she may have been in the 1980s or how stellar she has become after the turn of the century, the Grande Dame produces a glamorous show that is Queer in every way. There's nothing in the world quite like it!
© 2003 - Out in the Redwoods © 2004 by the Regents of the University of California. Edited by Irene Reti. Any reproduction of these interviews, including electronic reproduction, is prohibited by United States copyright law.