How Drag Influenced ’90s Fashion, from Mugler to Levi’s
There were many models who gave superstar turns in drag, some long before RuPaul. J. Alexander used to go out to Studio 54 in drag. He’d first take the Bx13 bus then the 6 train down from his grandmother’s Bronx apartment, then hop into a cab at 59th Street. “I wanted to look beautiful and glamorous like a couture model,” he wrote in his 2009 autobiography, Follow the Model, but he didn’t want to be a drag queen. Miss J, as he became known, booked a Jean Paul Gaultier runway show in 1984, and afterward was signed to Elite Model Management in Japan with a $20,000 contract. He was 16, and modeled in drag on runways for years before becoming a runway coach for top-tier designers and the women who, many due to his tutelage, became supermodels. Later on, he also became known as a beloved runway coach and judge on America’s Next Top Model.
Connie Fleming began transitioning in the late 1980s, and around that time walked the Runway Effect category at the House of Field’s Grand Street Ball. There, photographer Steven Meisel saw her and hired her for an Azzedine Alaïa book. She’d later appear on the runways of Thierry Mugler, Vivienne Westwood, and more in Paris and New York. “Me being on Mugler’s runway, that should have been the end of his business,” Fleming told Interview in 2020. “People thought no one would ever buy from him anymore. But his business did not go up in smoke.”
By the time the drag craze hit the runway, Fleming had already left drag behind. But she was grouped in with drag performers despite identifying as trans. “It was the look of the moment,” she said. “But like Chrysis told me and taught me, the punches are going to come hard and fast and you are going to have to be able to withstand.” She was still booked and busy, a stunning force on the runway. But as the trend for drag on the runway faded, Fleming found her demand as a model also decreased. Around 1995, she said, it was time to leave. “The pendulum had swung,” she said. “Whether being put into the drag box or being trans, it was swept up into one pile and pushed out.” Returning to New York, however, she found a new career in runway production and coaching, as a tough door person at clubs in the city, and as an artist. She continued print modeling for Mugler, Interview, Australian Vogue, Candy, and more, always legendary.
Billy Beyond, while working in management at the Pyramid Club, modeled for designer Todd Oldham in the early 1990s. He had started modeling in the late 1980s when David LaChapelle photographed him in women’s clothes for a spread in Interview. “Everybody saw it, and that was it. ‘Who’s the new model?’ And I started getting other modeling jobs in drag,” Beyond said. “Once you’re in it, you can’t take it off. Sorry. I’m sorry, you’re not allowed… And beyond that, you will always be a drag queen. Always. Whether you like it or not,” he said.
Model Billy Beyond, Todd Oldham Fall 1994 Ready to Wear Runway Show
Todd Oldham loved the precision of Billy’s look, he said, and thought he had a great walk. “When you’re doing a show or casting anything, or taking a photograph, it’s all just about what and who can deliver in these moments, how is the best way to create this. So there was never really like, ‘let’s put a man on the runway in clothing.’ That never ever, ever crossed my mind,” Oldham said. “There was just something about him, especially in that moment, sort of looking back and looking forward all at the same time. And he really just seemed to kind of capture it all for me and made what we made look so much better. Like he could really sell it, so to speak.”
Beginning in 1990, Billy appeared on eleven Todd Oldham runways, one of the hottest tickets in the fashion industry, alongside supermodels like Linda Evangelista, Cindy Crawford, Carla Bruni, Naomi Campbell, and Christy Turlington. While he was known as “the drag model,” like Fleming he was really just…a good model. That’s all he wanted to be. But not wanting to be pigeonholed and hoping to expand his creative pursuits, Beyond stopped modeling in 1997.
In the mid-1980s, Zaldy, a Filipino-American fashion designer, entered the Miss BoyBar competition at [drag artist] Perfidia’s behest and promptly won. But he relinquished his crown and didn’t get in drag again for several more years. Artist Mathu Andersen, later his partner of ten years, began photographing and putting him in makeup. Susanne Bartsch convinced Mathu, a six-foot-two white Australian, and Zaldy, a five-foot-nine Asian man, to appear at her parties as twins, an idea Zaldy finds hilarious even now. They rethought drag for themselves, skipping chest pieces, accentuating small waists and padded hips, envisioning an edgy “alien fashion drag,” Zaldy says. Nightlife also led Zaldy to meet RuPaul, who he encountered for the first time at club La Palace de Beaute in the late 1980s. Zaldy and Mathu soon became the performer’s de facto costume and makeup team (they appear in RuPaul’s 1993 “Supermodel” video doing this).
Musicians Super DJ Dmitri, Lady Miss Kier and Towa Tei of Deee-Lite and designer Zaldy attend 10th Annual Council of Fashion Designers of America Awards on February 25, 1991 at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City.
In 1995, after turns on the runways of Paris, Zaldy starred in a commercial for Levi’s. He’s a shapely figure in jeans, long dark hair, and red lips who gets into the back of a taxicab, much to the delight of the driver. Shortly after, Zaldy takes out an electric razor and begins shaving his beard. “I couldn’t grow facial hair back then… And so they had to clip my hair and glue hair to my chin so I had something to shave,” he laughed. At his destination, Zaldy gets out and walks into a cloud of smoke coming from under a New York bridge, and the words “Cut for men since 1850” appear on the screen. The commercial was promptly banned in the U.S. “I’m American. I was born in America, and you’re saying this is too much for you?” Zaldy said. “Give me a break! It’s Levi’s! Levi’s is from America.” Not long after, Zaldy reimagined his design career, which was always his first love. He has maintained a regular working relationship with RuPaul for some thirty years—he designs all the performers’ costumes—and also designed for the likes of Lady Gaga, Britney Spears, Michael Jackson, and countless others in that time.
The issue of Zaldy and Levi’s is an interesting one as it relates to the placement of drag in American culture. While there was so much discussion at the time of a drag boom in and out of New York, it was still considered fringe. Drag was by no means a respected art form, even among the gay community in New York. Zaldy remembers in the late 1980s there were still bars that didn’t allow drag queens at all. “There was a stigma to saying ‘I’m going to become a drag queen,’” he said. “It’s like ‘ugh, nothing else is going for you? You wanna focus on a career?’… It wasn’t a career choice…now it’s a career choice.”