My name is The World Famous *BOB*. My actual legal name is World Famous *BOB*. My first name is World, my middle name is Famous, and my last name is *BOB*. I legally changed it about six or seven years ago. And I’m a burlesque star, a female-female impersonator, a storyteller, and an MC. I live in Brooklyn, New York, in Greenpoint, and I’ve been in New York City for sixteen years.
I grew up on a farm in California.
It was 115 acres, and it was located in the Central Coast region of California outside a small town called Paso Robles.
It was a hobby farm, so we didn’t make our living from the farm, we just grew our on fruits and vegetables and raised our own livestock. This was my mom’s idea of progress, which I actually agree with. I think it was a great way to be brought up. I have this really intense connection to nature because of that, and animals as well. I’m actually a vegetarian. I would accidentally fall in love with every animal on the farm and inevitably came to the point to where I couldn’t eat them any more.
When I was six years old I would line my stuffed animals up on my bed and play interview, and I would pretend that they were from all the teen magazines—Teen Beat, Tiger Beat—that they were interviewing me on my newfound Hollywood fame. I had a lot of daydreams of stardom as a child and of being a performer. These daydreams weren’t really encouraged—in any way.
And I sought out the company of more theatrical, like-minded individuals, as all teenagers do, and what resulted was me—I actually…I actually…
My environment was very toxic. I came from an extremely abusive household, and I realized that, at some point, my fantasy of stuffed animals and my cats being put in dresses and rolled around in strollers wasn’t going to be enough.
And at that age I was about 13 when I started searching for some type of escape from the toxic, violent atmosphere that I was living in, and when I was 13 I basically went to the library—this is so embarrassing but it’s the truth—I went to the library and I researched drugs.
And I thought, this might be a really valuable route for me to take, even though I had heard all the Nancy Reagan era warnings and the “nobody wants to be a junkie when they grow up” commercials. I found in my research that Freud used cocaine and there was all these notable cases of people of great intelligence experimenting with drugs and so I began with an insatiable desire to try every drug on the planet.
That quickly landed me in subculture atmosphere, socially, and I—it’s so gateway, right? A textbook: “I smoked pot and then I did acid,” but it’s the truth—I just went through the normal systems of drugs. You don’t just one day wake up and do heroin; it slowly leads there.
And by the time I was 15 years old, I decided to leave home. I had met my best friend—who is still my best friend—his name is Brant and he’s six foot five and I refer to him as the “six-foot-five, new wave, faggot homosexual hairdresser.” And he’s amazing. He was the king of the Goth scene. All the girls wanted to date him and all the boys wanted to be him. And when I met him it was love at first sight. He had a silver Camaro. I didn’t know how to drive. I didn’t have a car. It was perfect. So I went and I met him in San Luis Obispo at a nearby college town at this café where all the intellectuals and Goths would hang out. And so we became instant best friends.
He had some friends that lived in a nearby town called Atascadero and I went to stay with them for the weekend. I lived so far out, it was really hard to get rides from people, back and forth. And, as I mentioned before, I was really eager to leave home. So it was during the summer after my ninth grade year and I decided I was going to stay with his friends in the nearby town, and I called my mom and told her that and she said, “Well your things are on the lawn. Come get them or I’m going to turn on the sprinkler.” So Brant drove me out there and I got the things that I could, and I moved in with my friends in Atascadero.
A couple of weeks went by and we got evicted. I’m not exactly sure, but I think noise complaints was part of the issue and I was faced with the decision of going home to the house that I had come from—home in air quotes—or staying in Brant’s Camaro. He offered me the right-hand side of his Camaro! So we lived in the car together and, you know, I’m laughing, but the truth is being a 15-and-a-half year old biological girl—even though I didn’t identify as one at the time—living in a car is not easy. There are things that come up, like needing to shower, and do your make-up, and how do you do laundry? And the weather was fine—it was California so we didn’t have a hard time with that—but all those struggles set aside, it was still better to be with someone who I knew loved me. And we faced those struggles together. I decided to pack up and move to Hollywood with Brant. We made a joint decision to move down to Hollywood. And I moved down to Hollywood when I was 16 years old to become a poet. And after a short series of writings and a long series of drug use, I decided that I wanted to fulfill my lifelong dream of becoming a drag queen.
I think it’s important to mention here that at the age of 15 I did not identify as female. I had never been around or experienced a happy woman, so I felt like woman wasn’t a—I didn’t feel that woman was a choice I had made, I felt that woman was this hand-me-down; it was like a tight, scratchy wool sweater that my mom had handed me and forced me to wear. I didn’t feel very empowered by the fact that I was a woman. I didn’t see it as an advantage in the world. I had a list of reasons why it was already a disadvantage in my young life, and I was surrounded by all these examples of really over-the-top, flamboyant, brave men, and it just seemed like a better option. So at the age of 15 I stopped identifying socially as a woman as well. I identified as a male, and in that genre I also identified as queer; not knowing the word at the time I identified as faggot. So I identified as a gay male. And I wanted to be a drag queen. The loving people I was surrounded with did not see how that was possible just based on the fact that regardless of how I represented myself in the real world, I was born a woman.
So, I put those dreams aside for years, and at the age of 21, I finally took a Greyhound bus up to San Francisco to become a professional drag queen; I didn’t really care what other people thought. And it’s important for me also to say that I wasn’t going to San Francisco to become a drag queen to fool people. Sometimes the comparison of Victor/Victoria is made, and I didn’t see that movie for years because I just hated this person people compared me to, and after watching the movie I understand now, but I didn’t let my hair down after the show was over. I didn’t go home and ache to be a woman. I didn’t feel like a woman at all. And I was searching for a seat at a table where I could breathe. I just wanted to feel comfortable with who I was. I didn’t want to have to explain what was between my legs. I didn’t want to have to base what my opportunities were in a performance arena—or a social arena—I didn’t want to have to base those on my gender. I felt very confused by that, and being surrounded by so many loving gay guys, I just wanted to grow up to be like them.
I moved to San Francisco and I started doing drag professionally. And I remember the first time that I passed, the first time that I walked into a room, a night club, 1015 Fulsome, San Francisco, huge gay dance party—really fun—and I was in full drag, and one of the most beautiful drag queens in the room walked up to me. She stared at my cleavage and she looked at me and she said, “Nice cleavage. How did you get it?” And I knew at that moment exactly what to say. I looked at her and I smiled and I said, “Back fat.” She looked back at me and she smiled and she said, “Genius,” and she walked away. And at that moment I wanted to scream! I wanted to jump up and down and be like, “I did it! I passed for a drag queen! Oh my god, I’m in. I’m in the club!” But I didn’t jump up and down and scream because drag queens don’t do that. Queens don’t scream. So I did what queens do: I just snapped and walked away.
To explain the answer “back fat,” chubby, voluptuous, soft around the edges, overweight queens can take their back fat and push it forward and use duct tape, or any type of tape, to create a lifelike sense of cleavage. You can later add some shadow to accentuate the sense of cleavage and then you fill stockings, hosiery, pantyhose with birdseed and sculpt lifelike looking breasts inside your bra. My breast were huge, but I would wear bras that made it look as if they were padded and I would use eye shadow on my cleavage and I would just tell people it was from back fat.
After about three-and-a-half years in San Francisco, I decided to make my debut in New York City. I had wanted to live in New York City since I was ten years old. On the farm, I saw the scene from Fame, the movie—not the remake, the original—where all the students from the performing arts high school run out into the streets in the intersection. It was the most amazing thing I had ever seen in my life. And I knew at ten that it was a film, that it had been prepared, that it wasn’t something that just occurred on a natural basis, but when I saw all those kids dancing in the street, I saw all those people on the sidewalks, and the scenes with the cabs, and they’re jumping up on the cabs and they’re singing and everyone just knew the exact moves at the same time, I thought to myself, even though that was staged, that’s probably the only city in America where that could just happen.
Ever since then I’d been obsessed with New York, and I decided to move to LA first, when I was sixteen, because it was an opportunity that was available to me. I made the conscious decision at 21 to move to San Francisco because I wanted to study drag and become a member of the drag community. And at the age of 24 I decided to move to New York City to become a transsexual.
What I mean by that is in the three years I spent passing as a drag queen in San Francisco, I also became really enamored with the transsexual community. And the community I am referring to, for myself at that moment, was the male-to-female. So all the sudden I’m thrust into this social group of all these amazing people that are choosing to be women. There’s a power in that choice. They wake up and they feel like a woman, and even though their body is in disagreement—or society is in disagreement with them—they’re going to do whatever it takes to synch up the two.
So I was really fascinated by these “creatures of the night,” I would call them. I lived on Polk Street and Geary on the corner in the Tenderloin. Me and my sister Sunny would sit on the fire escape and just watch the tranny hookers walk up and down the street. I’m not saying every tranny is a hooker, but those girls blew my mind. They were so amazing, and so beautiful, and so stunning, and I slowly began going to the bars where they would frequent and I started just surrounding myself with these really beautiful, over-the-top versions of women.
It crept into my mind slowly that woman was a choice I could make. I’d been flirting with the idea of having a sex change to become a man so that I could be a real drag queen at night. So I was going to go from being a woman, to being a physical man, to dressing like a woman at night. It kind of didn’t make sense to me any more. It also didn’t make sense to just accept the fact that I was a woman, because I didn’t feel like one. But here was this brand new shining option of taking this male-identified self and slowly transitioning into woman as if it were a choice, instead of a gender that was just assigned to me.
I refer to this experience as “spiritual transsexualism.” I identify as queer and I identify as a transsexual, but out of respect and homage to the transsexual community, who goes through physical alterations and the effort to physically change their bodies, I’ve created my own distinction, as not to confuse people, and that’s the distinction of being a spiritual transsexual. All of my transformation took place spiritually—not physically. I never went under the knife.
The first time I came to New York City was for the Club USA It-girl competition. It was a nightclub pageant, open to biological women only. I still identified as a man during the day and a drag queen at night, but I was one of the six grand finalists for the Miss Club USA It-girl competition. Club USA was a beautiful, 1990s nightclub spectacle. It was extraordinary, and it had a room designed by fashion god Thierry Mugler complete with patent leather corseted couches. It was beautiful!
My first time in New York City, I felt like Cinderella. I had prepared in San Francisco for weeks, putting together a new wig and some friends made me custom costumes; I was really excited. The grand prize for the contest winner was a year’s paid rent in New York City. I was so convinced that I was going to win that I had already packed my meager possessions and had them waiting in the $100-a-week hotel, called that National Hotel, that I lived in on Market Street. It was a welfare hotel with a bathroom down the hall.
I got up on the stage. I went first. I sashayed, chantéed, did my best Ru Paul impersonation, went to the end of the runway, sneezed, and I’d sandwiched glitter in between the fingers on my glove so that when I sneezed a cloud of glitter sparkled in the club light and danced over the heads of the club goers. My name was Bobarella; I was from Planet X. I was six-four in my platforms, wig, corseted, padded torpedo bra, huge crinoline to cover up my hips, gloves (I couldn’t show that my hands were female), choker to hide my Adam’s apple (which did not exist), Dermablend, which is what burn victims use, to cover up my five o’clock shadow on my face (which did not exist).
Unspookable. I walked back and the celebrity judge, Downtown Julie Brown, stands up and screams, “That’s a man! That’s a man!” My first time in New York City, I’m on the stage at Club USA, and I’m getting called out for being a man. I couldn’t believe it! They asked me and I just stayed in character. I did have a bit of a quandary. There was part of me that wanted to win so bad, but there was part of me that knew going back to San Francisco and saying, “I didn’t win because I’m a man” was a bigger prize than a year’s paid rent in New York City. I came back to San Francisco and told everyone exactly that.
I continued to do drag in San Francisco and a year later I did move to New York City. And that’s where my story picked up, at the Cock, where I accidentally mixed a martini in my cleavage, started doing burlesque, made the slow transition into making my choice as a woman. That was 16 years ago.
At that time I was doing more drag shows and performance art. But about a year after I moved here—fifteen years ago—I started doing burlesque. I started doing burlesque on accident. I actually was doing topless performance art and I put together an act where I mixed a martini in my cleavage, shaking it and pouring it without using my hands, and would retrieve olives from my panties, plunking them in my martini glass and serving it to the person in the front row. The front row that I’m speaking of was actually the first person passed the go-go stand at a notorious gay bar in the East Village called the Cock. The original Cock was situated on Avenue A and 12th Street. It is no longer there, it’s a café now, and I would not eat there! Just because all of the shenanigans I witnessed in that space!
The new Cock is on 2nd Avenue in a bar that used to be called the Hole, so the new Cock is actually in the old Hole, which is really a remarkable statement, considering the fact that it’s true. At the original Cock, I asked Jackie Beat who is my drag mother, a drag mother being exactly that, somebody who takes you under their wig [ED: not a typo for “wing”] and helps you raise the bar of your drag, gives you emotional and professional advice and support. Jackie gave me the idea for Martini Time, my most classic burlesque number. She said, “Why don’t you mix a drink in your tits; they’re big enough.” And that launched my burlesque career.
I did the act at the first time at the Cock to 1950’s twinkling piano music and a faggot at the bar walked up to me and said, “Oh I love your burlesque!” and I looked at him and—I just want to also note that I identify as a faggot as well so I’m using that word as a loving term—he said, “I love your burlesque,” and I said, “What’s burlesque?” and he looked at me kind of snarky and he said, “Look it up!” and he walked away. And I did exactly what he said, because I’d never been led astray, at that point in my life, I’d never been led astray by the homosexual community. So I went to the Tompkins Square Park Library and I looked up burlesque with the help of the librarian (fifteen years ago I didn’t have a computer or the Internet) and as I was flipping through the pages in the books on the history of burlesque, which was a smaller archive then than now—thank god a lot of people have been archiving the movement, as well as the history—I couldn’t believe it. I was really, really dumbfounded. I couldn’t believe there were all these amazing women that had come before me that were very similar to drag queens, even though they were born women, and they had just this over-the-top hair and make-up and fans and feathers and sequins and spangles. And, later in my research, I came to realize that most of their costumers were drag queens or were gay male seamstresses that, you know, there was a point in time not too long ago where wearing mascara was illegal (you can look up Stonewall history if you want to know more about that) so they would live their fantasies through these burlesque stars and strippers, and they would costume them in the things they probably wished they could wear in public. So it wasn’t a far cry from what I was actually doing.
So I started becoming a burlesque enthusiast and that’s when I really branched out and started doing other shows. I was in this bubble of gay culture, rock and roll, downtown New York City mid-90s. I moved to New York City in 1994 and I was really submerged in that culture. I started looking for other examples of burlesque and that’s when I found Kate Valentine and Julie Atlas Muz, Dirty Martini, Scotty the Blue Bunny, Matt Mohr, Tigger!—some of the neo burlesque movement’s greatest stars. And we all were doing burlesque around the same time, I was just tucked away in the nooks and cranny in a gay bar and they were actually doing it together. So through a series of phone calls and weird events, I found them and I located them at a show called The Va Va Voom Room, which was at a location in downtown Manhattan called Fez, which is no longer open, and I started doing their show. That led to me doing many burlesque shows and that led to me actually becoming part of this plus-size dance troupe called The Glamazons. I was in the first round of The Glamazons; they are now a great singing group, but the first round was kind of a hodgepodge and my vision was actually voluptuous, full-figured, topless choreographed knife fights—very Russ Meyer burlesque—and the vision of the group changed, thus that’s why I left.
So I was performing with The Glamazons at Fez. We had our first group show, and I was approached by a photographer, and it turned out to be Amy, and she had a proposition. She would like to meet me at a café for a cup of coffee to discuss it. So I agreed to meet her, just based on the fact that I really liked her energy right away.
At this point in time, I felt as if I was being bombarded by requests from videographers and photographers that were really interested in the behind-the-scenes aspect of burlesque, which I completely understand. And I was getting a lot of requests to decompose my burlesque or to have them take pictures of the process of the preparations: of me putting on lipstick and wigs, and the creation of the process that happens before you present it on stage. And I was actually annoyed by these requests. I felt as if they should just enjoy the cake and not just ask for the recipe. The recipe wasn’t something to be just handed over lightly to anyone who had interest. I also feel like backstage and offstage is sacred space where a performer collects their material and their inspiration.
Amy had a similar idea, but when I met her for coffee her proposal was this: that we meet for three hours a week and that I not change my schedule at all and that I could set up boundaries ahead of time based on what I was comfortable with and she would completely respect those boundaries. She would just photograph for those three hours. And I didn’t need to alter my schedule or create super events either; she just wanted to really capture, in a documentation style, my life, and she wasn’t sure where the project would go but she was excited to get started.
—The World Famous *BOB*, from an audio recording of October 12, 2011
IN MEMORY OF
September 20, 1970 - April 29, 2007