Spotlight shines once again on the late drag artist Doris Fish

  • by Matthew S. Bajko, Assistant Editor
  • Thursday February 16, 2023
Share this Post:
Doris Fish, left, Tippi, and Miss X at Doris' wedding reception on April 19, 1981. Photo: Dan Nicoletta
Doris Fish, left, Tippi, and Miss X at Doris' wedding reception on April 19, 1981. Photo: Dan Nicoletta

A new book released this month and an upcoming museum exhibit in San Francisco are once again shining a spotlight on the late drag artist Doris Fish, who dazzled the Bay Area and was the grand dame of Sydney's Mardi Gras Parade during the 1980s. Her home country of Australia is feting Fish this month as it hosts World Pride in conjunction with its largest annual LGBTQ celebration.

"It is time, I think, time to acknowledge what a force of nature Doris was for sure. And the part she played in moving from the drag of the 1950s and 1960s and pulling drag out of where it was — not that there was anything wrong with that — but helping it to evolve," said Bradley Chandler, a close friend who performed with Fish under the stage name of Miss X. "She was a force in the evolution of drag."

Fish was the drag persona of Philip Clargo Mills, who was born on August 11, 1952. One of six siblings, he grew up in the Sydney suburb of Manly Vale. A gay man and art school student, he turned to prostitution to make money and became a member of Sylvia and the Synthetics, described as a Down Under version of the famed pioneering drag troupe the Cockettes of San Francisco.

As Craig Seligman, who befriended Mills in San Francisco, recounts in his new biography "Who Does That Bitch Think She Is? Doris Fish and the Rise of Drag," the origin story of Doris Fish's name depends on who is telling it. A friend of Mills' claimed to have given him it due to his "old-lady drag," while Mills told Seligman it was a nod to the actress Doris Day as well as a cat named Lillian Fish.

PublicAffairs, part of the Hachette Book Group, released Seligman's book this week in Australia and it goes on sale in the U.S. February 28. He drew on interviews he did for a profile about Mills that ran in the San Francisco Examiner in 1986, conducted additional interviews with Mills' family and friends, as well as researched various archives in order to reconstruct not only Mills' life story but also that of a number of his close friends and drag collaborators.

"Doris was one of the most interesting people I had ever known. If I didn't tell Doris' story, I feared no one would," Seligman told the Bay Area Reporter during a video interview from Perth, Australia in early February. "The U.S. media is centered in New York and was more so then. I felt the story of drag and AIDS from a West Coast perspective has not yet been told."

Mills ended up moving to the City-by-the-Bay in the summer of 1976, having first visited the year prior. Over the ensuing years Mills would mostly call San Francisco home, but he would make near yearly pilgrimages back to Australia in December to spend the holidays with his parents and extended family.

He would stay for weeks on end in order to also connect with friends and work on fantastical floats and costumes for Sydney's unique LGBTQ Pride parade. Mills also penned a column for the city's gay newspaper Campaign.

Adored in SF

Back in San Francisco Mills was making a name for himself via his drag alter ego and as a member of the group The Sluts a-Go-Go. He had formed it with Miss X and Tippi, born Brian Douglas Mead in Cleveland on June 6, 1952, and several other performers and collaborators. They brought their act to Sydney in late 1979 and became a smash sensation there, as Seligman details in his book.

"They all loved her," recalled Chandler. "Doris had quite the career there."

Mills was also adored in San Francisco, he added, crediting his friend for carrying the rest of them, including their fellow drag performer and friend Freda Lay, along with him.

"She was the big saucy blonde," Chandler, 71, said of Fish. "Tippi was the little petite dumb blonde. I was the brunette, the Jane Russell in the troupe, and Freda was the vacuous blonde. We made quite the quartet."

In 1981, Mills married a lesbian friend in order to obtain his American green card, per Seligman. (He doesn't name the woman, as she declined to be interviewed.)

The next year he made his debut along with Miss X as drag models on greeting cards distributed across the U.S. by the San Francisco-based West Graphics. It brought Mills a devoted following from coast to coast, as the ones depicting him as a bag lady sold especially well.

The cards, as Seligman noted, "made Doris' face if not his name familiar nationwide into the 1990s through dozens and dozens of cards and as many personalities." They also resulted in Mills being invited to appear on several East Coast television shows for interviews.

Throughout the course of his time in San Francisco, Mills would befriend and collaborate with a host of performers, entertainers, and other drag artists. They included the singer and songwriter Connie Champagne; performer Kate Bornstein; events producer and director Marc Huestis, and the late Chuck Solomon, who founded the LGBTQ-focused Theater Rhinoceros and died of AIDS complications in 1991.

Seligman first met Mills via his now husband Silvana Nova, who had starred with Fish in the hit drag soap opera "Naked Brunch." Huestis had also worked on it, and various episodes of the show ran between 1983 and 1984.

"I think Doris would be delighted, absolutely delighted," Nova, 72, said of his husband's book. "There is not one lie in it, which might be a problem."

In December 1985, Mills started hosting the Gay Cable Network show "The Right Stuff" about entertainment news. Four years later he penned a "must read" weekly column for the gay San Francisco Sentinel newspaper that covered the city's drag scene as well as his own life, that of his friends, animal rights, and the Sydney Mardi Gras parade. He gave it up in October 1990 due to his declining health from being HIV-positive, which he also wrote about.

The next month then-mayor Art Agnos declared November 3, 1990 as Doris Fish Day in San Francisco. It coincided with a send off party that doubled as a tribute benefit Mills' friends threw for him at the Victoria Theater in the city's Mission district. It was called "Who Does That Bitch Think She Is?" lending Seligman the title of his book decades later.

"I didn't really realize how beloved we really were until decades later when people would start to talk to me about our shows and say, 'I never missed a performance,'" said Chandler. "She is truly immortal and she sort of dragged us along with her."

Mills died due to AIDS complications on June 22, 1991, at the age of 38, and his friends buried his ashes by a Monterey Pine tree in the city's arboretum in Golden Gate Park. The Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence posthumously sainted him.

By then Seligman and Nova, who both worked for magazines, had moved to New York City. Before becoming a book author, Seligman was an editor at the New Yorker and Food and Wine magazine, and also was a book critic for Bloomberg News.

Silvana Nova, left, and author Craig Seligman dressed for the "Vegas in Space" 25th anniversary screening in San Francisco in 2016. Photo: Courtesy Craig Seligman  

Snapshot of author's life
As much as his latest book is a memoir about Fish, it is also a snapshot of Seligman's life in San Francisco during the height of the AIDS epidemic.

"Doris was emblematic of his times, both as a person whose drag style evolved and a person who brought drag from the fringes to the center, especially during the era of AIDS," said Seligman, 69, who was born in Louisiana and attended Stanford. "He is also someone who is emblematic of his era, from Stonewall when you still couldn't tell someone you were gay without fear of violence to a time of the community uniting politically and learning to fight for itself."

Over the decades since, Mills' notoriety as Doris Fish has dimmed outside of drag circles and devotees of his now cult classic drag sci-fi camp movie "Vegas in Space." Mills and his friends had spent years working on the film, which had its premiere at the Castro Theatre on October 11, 1991 — fittingly on what is celebrated as National Coming Out Day. It became a film festival darling the following year after first being screened at the Sundance Film Festival in January.

"If you had gone to any number of drag shows in the early 1990s right after her death, any of the queens would have known who she was," said Ms. Bob Davis, the founder and director of the Louise Lawrence Transgender Archive, which is reopening to the public March 31. "Drag is such a visual thing, and he always looked great, the same with Tippi. Doris's skill with makeup was just jaw-dropping."

Davis fell in love with Tippi, and the two moved in together following Mills' death, though Tippi would soon die due to AIDS.

"I tell people Tippi's death was hastened by grief for Doris," said Davis in a phone interview with the B.A.R.

She also worked on "Vegas in Space," designing the sound for the film. As for her relationship with Mills, Davis said they never became close friends.

"I think Doris always viewed me as an interloper. I never became close to her," recalled Davis. "I wasn't exactly gay, which may have made a difference; I don't know. Back then I was defined as a transvestite."

Interviewed by Seligman for his book, Davis years later would approach the GLBT Historical Society about mounting a special exhibit about Doris Fish. Plans to mount it were in the works then the COVID pandemic hit, forcing the archival nonprofit to close its GLBT Historical Society Museum in San Francisco's LGBTQ Castro district.

Titled "Ego As Artform: the Art and Artifacts of Doris Fish," taken from one of her performances, it is now expected to open sometime in April and run through July. Davis pulled from her own archive's holdings as well as from the historical society's archival materials about Fish to create it.

"Doris, to put her in context, was the reigning drag queen of the 1980s in San Francisco," said Davis. "But this was the era of the 'Castro clone.' Everyone was working on being so masculine, so drag was like swimming upstream."

The timing of the exhibit coming so soon after the release of Seligman's book and the various events honoring Fish in Sydney is purely coincidental, said Davis.

"I felt Doris deserved to be seen," said Davis. "I had the same feeling that this is someone who we should be remembering in the community. Her memory has slipped away."

Chandler and his wife, Alison, who both identify as gay but are in a monogamous marriage, had met in San Francisco and wed in 1994. They now live in Phoenix and have three adult children, the youngest twins that currently reside with them; their oldest transitioned and now lives with his partner in Seattle.

The couple will be in Sydney for the World Pride festivities, including the opening concert February 24 with headliner Australian pop sensation Kylie Minogue. The next day Chandler will ride in the parade in a pink convertible Cadillac with others from the 'Vegas' film, including Nova.

"I have a pink dress to go with the car," he said.

Sunday, February 26, Chandler will head to the State Library of New South Wales for a conversation with Seligman and a screening of "Hi Spots in a Low Dive: The Home Movies of Doris Fish," presented by their friend and director, Phillip R. Ford, who was also a member of The Sluts a-Go-Go.

He directed "Vegas in Space," which will also be screened in Sydney on February 28. Ford, Miss X, Nova, and the film's musical director Timmy Spence are set to take part in the special event.

Going backwards
Seeing the growing backlash to drag events in America from Republican lawmakers and conservative groups across the country, Mills would be horrified, Chandler told the B.A.R.

"It is going backwards in time. Instead of evolving and creating a new and wonderful freedom in the world, it is trying to put braces on everyone's brains and keep them from being creative, from expressing who they are," said Chandler, who no longer performs in drag but will reprise his Miss X persona in Sydney. "It is really tragic, the turn it has taken. But it is not surprising, that is how life is: a roller coaster or pendulum that swings back and forth. It doesn't mean we can stop fighting."

Help keep the Bay Area Reporter going in these tough times. To support local, independent, LGBTQ journalism, consider becoming a BAR member.