American Masters

FULL EPISODE

Joan Jett Blakk: The drag queen who ran for president

On her 35th birthday, Joan Jett Blakk, the drag persona of actor Terence Smith, ran for president in lipstick, heels and eyeshadow, continuing a long tradition of drag as political activism. Blakk had also run for mayors of Chicago and San Francisco. During these “campaigns,” Blakk advocated for policies that many politicians are still talking about today, including universal healthcare.

AIRED: August 06, 2021 | 0:06:13
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TRANSCRIPT

- Who would I like to see as president?

Why, myself of course.

- Her campaign slogan was Lick Bush in '92.

She gave speeches in heels, lipstick, and eye shadow.

Her name was Joan Jett Blakk, and she was a drag queen

who ran for President of the United States.

Just another example of how drag can be political.

Who was she?

Well, I'm about to tell you, so hold onto your pantyhose.

Hi y'all, I'm Peppermint, New York City's delightful diva,

and welcome to Masters of Drag,

where we're telling you stories of American drag pioneers.

If you really think about it,

campaigning and drag are pretty similar,

both are performative beauty pageants,

the competitors just run on different types

of platforms, honey.

Ms. Joan Jett knew this so on her 35th birthday,

the very day she became eligible to run for president,

Miss Jett Blakk announced her candidacy

at her birthday bash slash press conference.

Hello.

Now let's backtrack for a few steps

and learn a little bit more about the man behind Jett Blakk,

Terence Smith.

Terence Alan Smith was a Chicago-born gay actor

and activist who first started his drag career

under the pseudonym Terry Stewart in 1974.

An icon in the city's queer scene, Smith helped found

the Chicago chapter of Queer Nation,

an organization that advances LGBTQIA+ issues

in the public and political sphere,

but it took over 15 years for Joan Jett Blakk

to reveal herself.

Her first solo drag gig took place at a Chicago nightclub.

Smith described his drag persona as a combination

of early David Bowie, the legendary Divine

and the iconic Grace Jones.

A star was born.

Soon, Jett Blakk began appearing at a series

of other queer events, including performances to benefit

the Act Up coalition to raise awareness for HIV and AIDS.

In 1991, Jett Blakk's political career kicked up

several notches after Queer Nation asked her to run

for Mayor of Chicago against incumbent Richard Daley.

Now she didn't win but I feel like it's important to add

a little context here, especially for those critics

who say that these types of campaigns

are purely satirical or comedic.

Drag performers and trans activists have a long history

of leading the charge for positive change

for queer communities and beyond.

For example, they played a crucial role

in the Stonewall Uprising,

which turned LGBT activism into a mass movement.

And we're still fighting the good fight against local

and national policies that attempt to legislate against

our freedoms today.

As I've explained in a different episode of Masters of Drag,

there are other drag performers, such as José Sarria,

who ran for office.

They didn't do so because they believed they could win,

they ran for office to push the boundaries,

to stand up proudly, to make politicians listen

and provide visibility for the queer community.

This is what Joan Jett Blakk was aiming for

when she ran for mayor in 1991.

Her mayoral race was documented in the 1991 film

"Drag in for Votes".

Miss Jett Blakk took this energy with her

when she stood up a year later and threw her wig in the ring

for President of the United States.

- [Joan] That's right, we're gonna put a drag queen

in the White House.

In fact, it's not gonna be the White House anymore,

it's gonna be the Pink House after we get done.

- Jett Blakk made some very tongue-in-cheek

campaign promises, including firing everyone in Washington,

calling the fashion police on everybody

and painting the White House pink.

She even suggested moving it somewhere more fun,

like Palm Springs.

But she also promoted some revolutionary policies

such as universal health care, eliminating student debt,

gay rights and reproductive rights.

This was years before other more famous

democratic candidates would campaign

for the very same issues.

And of course, every promise was delivered with Jett Blakk's

hilarious off-the-cuff humor.

It was a type of performance art on a huge scale

that could not be ignored.

There was a lot of media buzz surrounding the campaign.

Someone named Bill Clinton ended up winning that year,

you may have heard of him.

But through her campaign, Jett Blakk managed to influence

the political discourse and help raise awareness on issues

important to the queer community across the country.

And even though Jett Blakk lost, she did make it all the way

to the Democratic National Convention that year.

She wasn't allowed entry in drag, so Smith entered as a man

and then changed in the bathroom,

emerging wearing an American flag mini dress.

Very patriotic.

After the campaign, Jett Blakk ventured into the world

of theater, even hosting her own late night talk show,

"Late Night with Joan Jett Blakk."

When 1996 came around Jett Blakk launched

into her second presidential bid,

this time running on her own Black Pantsuit Party ticket.

Now we all know how that election turned out,

but nevertheless, like any decent drag queen, she persisted.

Jett Blakk's last campaign would be to run

as Mayor of San Francisco in 1999 against Willie Brown,

but dropped out before Brown was re-elected.

After that, Terence Smith hung up

Jett Blakk's platform heels in the world of politics,

but the impact of her campaigns has lived on.

Joan Jett Blakk's campaigns for office

we're part guerrilla theater and part actions for visibility

railing against the disenfranchisement

of the queer community, including the lack of support

and resources for the AIDS epidemic.

Some people believe that Pete Buttigieg

was the first openly gay presidential candidate in 2020.

But before there was Mayor Pete, there was Joan Jett Blakk.

Drag herstory is longer than most of us think,

and we are only just beginning.

(upbeat music)

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