Leading Lady: A Memoir of a Most Unusual Boy
- By Charles Busch
- Smart Pop
- 304 pp.
- Reviewed by Gretchen Lida
- November 1, 2023
A playful, poignant look at the life of a renowned drag queen.
In an episode of her Netflix series, “Pretend It’s a City,” Fran Lebowitz explains that, for her, the point of reading is to live a life that’s nothing like your own. Lebowitz’s sentiments are pretty much my experience reading Leading Lady, which is the story of Charles Busch, the drag queen, cabaret performer, actor, and Tony Award-nominated playwright whose “Vampire Lesbians of Sodom” was one of the longest-running Off-Broadway productions ever.
Unlike Busch, I am an early riser. I only party when provoked and have just a couple tubes of mascara to my name. Nevertheless, reading about his world both in and out of drag was well worth the trip far outside my comfort zone.
There are a few places where the book gets bogged down by clichés and the minutiae of theater production, but when the narrative finds its footing again, it flies by. Written as short vignettes, the chapters flip back and forth in time and place, juxtaposing Busch’s now glamourous life as an established icon with his early days as a nobody determined to make his art.
Much to my delight, a part of the story I could connect with was the native New Yorker’s recounting of his time as a college student at Northwestern and budding performer in the Windy City. As a Chicagoan, I was thrilled to see an older version of my town on the page. That thrill came full circle when I spotted a copy of the memoir — adorned with a pride-flag sticker — in the window of Unabridged Bookstore in Northalsted (aka Boystown), Chicago’s famed gay neighborhood.
Whether it’s figure drawing or figure skating, anyone who creates art knows that the people who believe in us make all the difference, and Leading Lady boasts the patron saint of cheerleaders: Busch’s Aunt Lil. After his mother dies unexpectedly when he’s only 7, Lil steps into his young life and transforms it. From Busch’s childhood until his mid-40s, Aunt Lil was the rock amid the storm of uncertainty that is the life of an artist. She was so significant that the only woman who could fill the void left by her passing was the legendary Joan Rivers.
In fact, the book gets more and more star-studded as it progresses. Busch performs alongside Anjelica Huston in the movie “Addams Family Values,” celebrates Passover with Angela Lansbury, and interviews Liza Minnelli for PBS. Later, he hears how much Stephen Sondheim loved one of his plays — from Sondheim himself.
Like much of the country, my understanding of drag comes mostly from the latest season of “RuPaul’s Drag Race.” Yet Leading Lady complicates that mainstream view because Busch doesn’t trade in the kind of vamping and lip-syncing seen on TV. Instead, he embraces drag as a true artform, using the medium to fully transform into the characters he embodies onstage. Just as David Sedaris and Carmen Maria Machado make art with words, Charles Busch and fellow celebrated performers like Trixie Mattel make art with drag. The ethos may be different, but the impulse to create is the same.
In 2023’s America, where drag performers and members of the trans community are being demonized — and books about them pulled from shelves — reading Leading Lady is a revelation. Busch’s writing of this memoir is somehow both a transgressive act and a simple artistic choice no different than practicing a foreign accent or donning an empire-waist gown to portray a Jane Austen character.
His tale is even more fascinating given that it takes place mainly in the final third of the 20th century. The Stonewall Riots, which happened when Busch was a teenager, aren’t mentioned, but the AIDS crisis looms like a dark shadow in the background of the book’s later sections. Despite the turmoil, drag endures as an undisputable, everyday part of life. There are even moments here when queerness becomes almost banal, which is oddly exciting.
It’s also exciting to think that when Charles Busch was a child, very few books like his existed. But now, Leading Lady sits alongside countless works by other LGBTQ+ authors, adding its voice to one heck of a chorus.
Gretchen Lida is an essayist and an equestrian. Her work has appeared in the Washington Post, the Rumpus, the Los Angeles Review of Books, and many other publications. She is a contributing writer at Horse Network and the Independent and host of “HN Reads,” a podcast about horse books. She lives in Chicago.