Family Portraits: J. Rudy Flesher

The Mummers aren’t the only ones in town who will be rocking feathers and gender-bending outfits to kick off 2011.

Liberty City Kings Drag and Burlesque will perform classic cabaret with a queer twist at 8 p.m. Jan. 1 at Tabu, 200 S. 12th St. And when I say twist, think tassel-twirling competition and much more. PGN spoke to J. Rudy Flesher, aka MC OMG, about how he got involved with the Liberty Kings and got a peek at what he plans to wear (at least for a while).

PGN: Are you a Philly boy? JRF: I’m a Jersey boy.

PGN: So how did you end up in Philly? JRF: I moved here a few years ago when I got a job working for the U Penn health system. Very quickly I found I was not in love with that at all. What I did enjoy was volunteering for the Philadelphia Gay and Lesbian Film Festival. I met a lot of people there over the years including Heather Coutts, who founded Liberty City [Kings]. At this year’s film fest in July, Heather asked me if I would start performing with the troupe.

PGN: And what do you do with them? JRF: I’m the regular master of ceremonies. I started when they had their calendar-release party in August. They put out an awesome calendar that they sell to raise money for the group. I’ve always been fascinated by the idea of playing with gender, so I asked Heather if she wanted me to dress up for the show since it is all about drag and burlesque. I had this great corset from Delicious Boutique that I thought would be fun to wear high-femme classic burlesque. I changed throughout the show and did all these different gender presentations, ending up in leather at the end. I had so much fun and the audience really responded well, so I became the regular MC from then on.

PGN: I’ve been involved with the film festival as well, pretty much since the first year. JRF: Yeah, I love it. I started volunteering as an usher and then, since I’m the kind of person who talks to everybody, I quickly got to know people and became a house manager.

PGN: Name three of your favorite films. JRF: There was a film, I think it was from Argentina, called “XXY.” It was about a teenager who was intersexed trying to resist the labels that everyone was trying to apply. Very well done. I also always love the documentaries. Narrative film is great, but the documentaries give you a look into other cultures, even other queer cultures that I might not be aware of. There was one film about drag-queen pageants, which was a world I was not familiar with at all, but it was fascinating to learn all about it. I also loved Michelle Pollino’s short film, “Looking For … ”

PGN: So backing up, where in Jersey are you from? JRF: South Jersey; I did most of my growing up in the Mt. Laurel area. It’s right over the bridge, so to speak, so Philly has always been the city that I came to. My mom worked at Strawbridge and Clothier for many years until they went out of business. I remember coming into the city on the PATCO and being totally amazed at being on a train on the bridge and then getting off at Eighth and Market and thinking that being able to go right into the store from the subway without having to go outside was pretty cool. [Laughs.] When people hear Philadelphia and department store, they immediately ask me about the light show and organ at Wanamaker’s. But since we were a Strawbridge’s family, we never went to Wanamaker’s and I never saw the famous holiday light show until I was in my 20s. Christmas was always breakfast with Santa in the Corinthian Room, which I guess was Strawbridge’s version of the Crystal Tea Room at Wanamaker’s and the Dicken’s Village display.

PGN: What did your dad do? JRF: He’s a special-education teacher.

PGN: Any siblings? JRF: I have a brother who’s five years younger than me. He’s a junior at the University of Maryland. I like to think we’re both pretty smart kids, but he got the math and I got the English DNA. He’s getting his degree in aerospace engineering and I did mine in women’s and gender studies. We’re different sides of the coin.

PGN: Having been a women’s studies major, I’m guessing you’re out to the family. JRF: Yes, I was the president of my gay-straight alliance in high school, so it was pretty clear.

PGN: Did you have any problems being openly gay in high school? JRF: No, I think that sexuality wasn’t a big deal in my high school. I don’t recall anyone going out of their way to harass anyone or say anything mean or cruel. There were the occasional general insensitive comments, like sayings that something was gay, but never anything directed at a particular person. Our teachers were pretty receptive as well: If I heard something I thought was problematic, I felt comfortable speaking to a teacher or administrator about it and they would then bring it up and address it in the classroom. It was a pretty accepting environment. I mean we were the first ones in our district to have a GSA though it did take a little bit of doing. We weren’t immediately granted status as a club — they first just gave us space to use, but no faculty advisor — but we soon got that changed and once we were granted status, other schools were then allowed to have similar clubs without having to go through the same process. So we paved the way for other clubs, which was a great thing.

PGN: What were you like as a kid? JRF: Um, I was a lot less social. I was a bookworm and kind of shy. I never felt comfortable with my peers so I always gravitated to people who were older than me. I still do to some extent.

PGN: Where did you go to college? JRF: I went to The College of New Jersey in Ewing. I attended for four years and changed my major from biology and secondary education to nursing, then I stopped going when I got a job offer at Penn. I took the job so I could get health care and then figured I’d go back to school at Penn, but it didn’t work out and I didn’t get back to school until this past January. I officially graduate tomorrow! I’ll have my bachelor’s degree in women’s and gender studies.

PGN: What made you pick that major? JRF: I’ve always been interested in the subject matter but, to be honest, I had a few degrees I could have pursued but that was the one I’d be able to achieve in two semesters. I do remember when I was a kid seeing a program on people who were transgender and was intrigued by it. It seemed like a transperson would have a whole different perspective on the world. Being able to see the world from both sides of the gender coin would seem to almost give you insider knowledge that few of us had. Then, in college, I took a course called “Women and Health: Power, Politics and Change.” That was the class that made me identify as a feminist and also as an activist. I learned that laws were still being written that oppressed women and it got me angry. I also realized how feminist issues were connected to queer issues and other things as well.

PGN: Tell me a little about your acting. JRF: The acting came out of a film I worked on after QFest 2007. I worked on Kelly Burkhardt’s “Tremble and Spark” and fell in love with working on a movie set. Then I got a small part in a film called “I Quit.” It was my first speaking role and I got the acting bug. I started taking acting classes a year and a half ago with Wendy Ward and we’re putting up a play next May. It’s a lot different than the MC work. PGN: You’re a busy person, and you also do a blog? JRF: Yes, I’ve been doing a blog for the New Civil Rights Movement, which was started by David Badash after the 2008 elections and the Prop. 8 vote. I also did an internship with PhinLi Booking, an LGBT and sex-positive booking agency last summer, so I did some writing for them as well. I write mostly about queer arts and culture and politics.

PGN: Ever play any sports as a child? JRF: No, I wasn’t super-athletic as a kid: I grew into that a bit later. In college, I played rugby. I was the team leader and treasurer and, I have to say, that was an amazing experience. In the history of the team, I was the only out queer person on the team — ever. To play with a bunch of straight guys on what is considered one of the most brutal sports and have them completely take me on my merits and what I brought to the field as opposed to who I slept with was amazing. It definitely took some adjusting, but it wasn’t long before they were all onboard to the point that if a new guy came on and made a homophobic comment, the rest of the team would immediately stop them and say, “That’s not what we do. We don’t use those terms and we don’t talk about people like that.” I run now and am planning on doing some marathons soon.

PGN: Other than your corset, what’s your favorite conversation piece? JRF: Well, you nailed it on the head with the corset. Everyone always wants to know how I got into it or if it hurts. Other than that I would say my “Nobody Knows I’m a Lesbian” T-shirt draws the most comments. I think it confuses people.

PGN: A smell that makes you stop and reflect? JRF: There’s an odd smell that’s a combination of kerosene and muskiness that reminds me of the attic over my grandparents’ garage. I used to love to get into things and to explore places like attics and basements. Especially places that had been closed up for a time with old stuff stacked in the corners. So my uncle used to take me exploring in the garage. I always had fun at my grandparents’. My maternal grandmother was an identical twin and they married two brothers and lived in the same house and raised their children together. My uncle and grandfather had a business right down on Market and Second streets — Yokum Farms. They delivered meat to all the delis. When they retired, the twins opened up a gift shop in Drexel Hill. They had that very South Philly aesthetic with everything overstuffed or covered in plastic — big rhinestones, crystals on the lamps, lots of gilt. They were on the news every Christmas as the identicals with the glitzy store.

PGN: A talent you’d like to have? JRF: Hmmn, that’s a good one. Of all things, I’d like to be better at math. It’s a world that’s currently not available to me. It’s like speaking another language and I think it opens up whole other ways of thinking. My brother is studying aerospace engineering and my cousin graduated from MIT working on artificial intelligence. Some of the time I can’t even understand what they’re saying!

PGN: Any crafty stuff? JRF: Yes, I’ve made some really fun Mardi Gras masks in the past: feathered, beaded, award-winning masks. I want to expand my repertoire and start making some costumes for the Liberty City Drag Kings. I want to make something for myself for New Year’s out of clearance items from the Christmas bins.

PGN: What’s memorable about performing with the Kings? JRF: When you’re on stage, people have difficulty separating what we do with who we are. [Laughs.] We’re more than just a strip tease, but sometimes people will be very forward with us off the stage. We have a mostly lesbian audience and they’re usually very complimentary and polite to me, but at my first performance there was a guy who came up afterward and growled, “I really like the way you fill out that jockstrap. I could see you from the back row.” I didn’t really know what to say other than, “Well, good for you, thank you so much.” People say the darndest things when you’re taking your clothes off.

To suggest a community member for “Family Portraits,” write to [email protected].