- Category: Feature
- Published on Thursday, 26 March 2015 21:33
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Like many performers, Grace Towers began at an early age, as if intuitively aware of the ways that performance could connect, surprise and delight others. At the age of seven, he began arranging little productions in the garage of his childhood home in Southern California. He would perform during large family reunions, and though he has moved from a few wooden gadgets and maracas—supplied by his mother—to full, choreographed spectacles, the heart of Grace's art is still a sort of extended family affair in its inclusive mixture of intimacy and pageantry, confidence and vulnerability.
Of course, at that time there was no Grace—just young Anthony. I am hearing this story from him as he is putting on his face for a photo shoot. It might be convenient to say, "I am watching Anthony become Grace," but this would not be accurate. Some performers prefer to maintain a stark divide between self and the stage persona, but this is not the case with Grace. Then again, there isn;t much about Grace that is easily expected or habitual. That is, in fact, precisely why Grace exists: to challenge the habitual.
Grace came to be by a series of unexpected turns. Anthony had attended school in San Diego and stayed after graduation to dance with a company full-time. Eight years in, a knee injury sidelined him for a month.
"I really needed some kind of artistic expression to take on some of this energy that I was holding in after being bed-ridden for all that time," he explains. "Halloween was upon us, and I decided to just do drag for fun with friends. I went into a restaurant, where they asked me to come back in and audition for a drag show they did there. A week later, I was doing drag five times a week for money."
He sets his brush down and laughs aloud as he remembers this.
"I had no idea what I was doing, but I learned very quickly because it was very much a sink-or-swim situation."
Having performed as a dancer for almost a decade, the issue was not with being on stage or even make-up techniques. He had a grasp of highlighting, contouring and facial reconstruction, all useful for impersonation, but the creation of a specifically feminine role was new territory. That was five years ago, and at a glance, it might seem that he never really took to it. Beneath the exquisite and often exotic makeup on and around his eyes, he sports a full, carefully groomed beard. This synthesis of feminine and masculine aesthetics is evident of a larger philosophy that is increasingly visible in drag.
"Drag at this point in time is in such a state of flux and transformation that I don't think I can define drag in a way that is inclusive or conclusive," Grace says, "but I will say that it is tapping into the grayscale between the binary of male and female. In the past there were clear drag kings and drag queens, and everything in the middle is being tapped into now, and that leaves a lot to be discovered."
"My drag is very much about mixing elements of hypermasculinity and hyperfemininity to cause people to really question what we're being taught when it comes to gender roles. I love going into a place where I come out on stage and I see jaws drop because they are so confused about what they are seeing, and, by the end of the night, those are the faces that are tipping me in twenties. I love seeing those transformations happening right in front of me."
"I was doing a photo shoot this past week in San Francisco in a park in daylight, and I and my assistant passed by a pair of high schoolers, a straight couple, and we overheard the girl say to her boyfriend, 'Oh my god, did you see her makeup?!' and his response was, 'Oh my god, did you see his beard?!'"
"That really captured for me that idea of capturing the hyper-feminine and the hyper-masculine to make people question what they are seeing and I thought to myself, 'I'm doing something right.'"
We both have a good laugh at this anecdote, but it reminds me that the more common reaction that people have to what they don't understand is to laugh at it. Grace notes, "It's a way for them to cope."
Even more severe is the threat of violence that comes to those who cross boundaries between masculine and feminine. A social order that sets gender, sex and sexuality as binary structures inevitably creates an imbalance of power. Those who cross the line by their mere existence—that includes all LGBTQ people—force that imbalance to be confronted. In Grace's case, it's just much more explicit, and this makes for plenty of uncomfortable situations, but Grace embraces discomfort as a necessary part of being an artist.
"As an artist, I intentionally put myself in very uncomfortable situations. I moved away from San Diego because I realized I was getting very complacent —and I said to myself—'complacency is the death of an artist.' You become stagnant; you don't grow; you don't change, and change is the only constant. When you fight it to maintain that equilibrium so you can stay complacent, you aren't creating any longer. I was very much in that space mentally, emotionally, artistically."
So Grace relocated to San Francisco, where he is now based and continues to find new challenges that serve a purpose and help him grow as a person, an artist and a part of the community.
"Lately, one of the more specific things that I'm doing to challenge myself is sharing what I have. I'm in a space where I'm very comfortable with my skills and I find the more I share, the more I have, but I need it to be on my terms."
I get Grace to clarify those terms: It's not about protecting trade secrets, but getting others to take initiative and think for themselves.
"I get asked quite a bit to do other people's make-up or to have drag daughters, if you will, but I have put a lot of work into what I do and it's frustrating to have people ask you do to the work for them. It's frustrating because that won't actually help them, but it also shows they don't understand what it takes to do this and they may not be willing to learn."
Instead, Grace decided to start getting into face on stage, which serves the dual purpose of showing others the process and forcing him to think about it and be truly self-aware in the moment of transformation, to not treat it as habitual.
"It was a very vulnerable moment for me to think, 'Well, that illusion, the knowledge of what I do to transform will be exposed.' I do firmly believe that the more I share, the more I have, and I have to come back to that every time I get anxious. For those in the audience that want to learn more, if they see the transformation and they do the research and then come to me with questions, I'm an open book."
It's yet another strange turn of fate in Grace's story. A few years ago, people weren't clamoring for Grace's advice. Quite the contrary was true when he first decided to grow the beard.
"The growing of the beard was for me a turbulent and almost traumatic experience, because San Diego is not nurturing of that, and I felt very isolated from a community that I had really, really become a core member of, and seeing that brought about a lot of personal issues and old experiences from when I started coming out and wanting to wear heels and being told that these things were not okay. I had to process a lot in all of those times, but there were one or two people who were interested and would have this dialog with me, and that pushed me to go even further with it. The whole presentation of Grace Towers now is really about creating the space for that dialog—because somebody told you that you couldn't wear heels, that you couldn't wear make up, you couldn't have these mannerisms."
"The rejection of these things becomes a habit. Habits are so deeply ingrained that you think you are making a conscious choice, but you are not."
And that brings us to better identify just who Grace is and was for Anthony. Initially, Grace was a persona that allowed a transgression against the habitualized negative. Grace was the counter to the external forces that said No; Grace was the one who said Yes, who gave permission to take risks and defy expectations and limitations. Over time, the persona has become integrated. There is no distinct split, and the distance is not between Grace and Anthony, but between the present and the past, the development that occurred by taking on these challenges.
That said, Grace admits that there are still anxieties around performance and taking risks. He is humble and aware that there is always more to learn, always room for "unexpected outcomes."
"Artists are good at convincing themselves of things, good or bad. But when it comes to learning from the experiences they have, they always have to find the good in experiences—to not see mistakes, just unexpected outcomes."
In short, it is not just Grace's audience that is forced to face the unexpected and grow from it, but Grace himself. That said, there is an enormous amount of planning and craft behind any given performance. The spontaneous and chaotic occurs within something carefully planned and produced.
"To do what I'm doing now—and I am living a fucking dream right now—it takes a village. I have an amazing team back home: an amazing assistant, an amazing photographer, graphic designer, hair stylist, garment designer, and amazing lineup, DJs, promoters, because it's not just the drag anymore. It's a full production."
Those productions are heavily inspired by pop music spectacles, which—like so much else—comes as a surprise to some audiences.
"People expect something less pop, less mainstream from me, because my look is so not mainstream and what people associate with that culture," Grace explains.
It is in part another way of playing with expectations versus reality, but it's smart for another reason: If all of the elements of the production were fringe, it could be more easily categorized and isolated as such. By using the lingua franca of pop music, Grace places the audience into something both familiar and alien, complete in all its artistic elements.
"I love the visual artistry and production value of major concerts from performers like Lady Gaga and Beyonce, who can sing and dance and involve a whole set," Grace says emphatically. "I love performing with dancers. I love props and costume changes. I love it all."
That said, the way Grace uses dance has had to change based on his current environment...at least for now.
"San Francisco has kind of dumbed down my choreography because there aren't a lot of trained dancers in the drag scene. There are a lot of dancers in the companies, but there isn't much cross over, whereas in San Diego I was teaching and dancing full-time, so I had a pool of hundreds of dancers that were interested in doing drag performance. There was that crossover between arts and nightlife. In San Francisco the crossover is not technical, which is a little frustrating, but I am building that for myself."
"Something that San Francisco has done for me is opening me up to working with movers, rather than dancers, and it's been beautiful to understand the presentation of dance in a different way, with more of a focus on a kinesthetic response, pedestrian to pedestrian, rather than technicality and beautiful lines or just being impressed by expertise. It could be something as simple as accessing choreographed walking."
Because of his busy schedule, Grace has had to take time away from teaching as much as he used to, which means that building that stronger technical crossover is happening only gradually. He's also had to rely more on others to create garments of his own.
"My goal is in the near future is to move on from a lot of the busy work and get back to some of that. I love garment creation, and my partner is an amazingly talented garment constructor."
For fun, I ask what movie wardrobe he would take if he could have any he wanted.
"Any of the Marie Antoinette re-creations." We both burst out laughing. "I've been working on a couple of old Marie Antoinette looks, and I have found that using coffee filters for the collars looks really good."
As we are in Seattle for the interview, I note that a coffee collar would be an apt look for a night on the town. But in fact, there is in Grace's story an even more significant connection to coffee—the pivotal moment when he chose to go full force into performance:
"When I first moved to San Francisco, I had a check list of things I wanted to do. I was working at a coffee shop, which is what I had done on the side when I was dancing in San Diego. I was working in a great shop owned by two older gays who were like my dads in San Diego, so it was like a family and I loved it, but when I moved to San Francisco I realized, 'This really isn't what I came here to do.' When I finally had that conversation with myself and I said, 'Sink or swim: are you ready to do it?' I didn't really expect that it would work out so well, but I also didn't think that I would be working this hard. I mean, I have never worked harder. It's a lot of work, so I'm really grateful that I have that network behind me."
As Grace matures as a performer, the next step is turning around and creating a supportive network for others. He just recently became the creative producer for a San Francisco non-profit, Queens of the Castro. The Queens' mission is all about education. One prong is performative, as the queens stage shows in high schools to help teach the difference between gender and sexuality. The other prong, which is clearly exciting to Grace, is a scholarship program for LGBTQI students, specifically high school seniors pursuing secondary education.
"Before joining Queens of the Castro, one of my requirements was that we create an arts-specific scholarship. I will be awarding the first Grace Towers Scholarship for the Arts this year, and I'm so excited."
The yearly scholarship and awards ceremony is on April 25 this year at Mission High. They'll be bringing seven of the queens from Ru Paul's Drag Race plus a lot of local talent.
We talk a little about that show and how it is influencing the community and the national understanding of drag. Grace views it positively—is even pondering an audition—but doesn't feel like it is necessary for his career trajectory.
"It's a great way to get exposure, but it isn't the only way to go and I wish more performers understood that. The frustration behind some of the people I have met who audition and don't make it—it's so crumbling and defeating."
I note that if it seems like the end-all-be-all, it is because we are trained to seek approval from pop culture, which is duplicitous even to those it holds up. Winners and losers alike can be stigmatized and pigeonholed if they come to fame through reality TV competitions. That said, we both agree that the show is elevating the profile of drag and exposing more people to the dedication required to do it well, which is so much a part of Grace's own performances.
And when I ask with whom Grace might like to collaborate in the future, in terms of drag the answer is still, "Ru Paul. I will work with Ru Paul."
For dance, Grace lists William Forsythe as a dream collaboration. For production, he thinks of the Gay Pride Circuit.
"Maybe it's partly because I'm getting a little older, but I'm viewing the Pride Festivals differently now. They are becoming more meaningful to me and I want to be more a part of it." And that means internationally. When I ask what his dream place to perform would be, he says, "Berlin. I'm working my way towards Berlin. I am going to be there."
For now, he is collaborating on a few projects outside of nightlife. That includes a recently premiered music video with Portland-based singer-songwriter James Panther. But the one he holds nearest and dearest is his work with Queens of the Castro.
"Those are the collaborations I am really nurturing right now that are outside of nightlife, because as much reward as I get from nightlife, there is more longevity for me in the work that I do for the community. I love entertainment and it will always be a part of it in some way, but I am at a point where I am growing out of it a little as my sole focus. It's a really good place to be and it feels great to be able to give back. It has been a very natural transition into this, and it feels really, really good."
Like his performances, Grace's life at this point is full of strong plans with plenty of room open for those inevitable "unexpected outcomes."
"As my mom would say, 'If you want to make god laugh, tell him your plans." We, in turn, both laugh at this. "But that doesn't stop me from planning ahead. It's very recent—and this has me feeling all farty and tingly inside—but I'm really living a dream, and it's hard to not appreciate every moment of it. I'm sitting on a bus, riding from one gig to another; I'm flying from town to town and I'm tired as hell, but I'm living a dream."
For more info about the Queens of the Castro and their upcoming gala event, check out their website: http://queensofthecastro.com/
All photos by Kevin Kauer / Nark for Nark Magazine