The Most Important Female Artists of The 20th Century
Article written by Maya Vukovska
Gay men of all generations have gravitated to a certain type of women whom they tend to idolize. There are some common features all gay icons of the past and the present share. Of course, they are exceptionally beautiful and talented. However, lurking behind the glam there is an emotional disturbance that adds to the pathos of their lives. Alongside the tragic element, there’s also exaggerated humor - these female artists are often hysterically funny. Another common feature of these revered female artists is that they refuse to fit the mainstream culture - they have entered into media through their own, unique scenario. They are not only stars who happen. They are real gay patron saints.
Mae West (1893 - 1980)
We bet very few of the readers have heard that name, but oh my! that’s a miss! Mae West is idolized by gay men not only because she was a gorgeous blonde and a brilliant playwright, but also because she was decades ahead of her time in bringing up questions about sexuality and gender. In her shocking and scandalous play The Drag is about living a dark secret life. The protagonist, Rolly Kingsbury, is a closeted gay trapped in a loveless marriage, with a father who is a homophobic judge, and a father-in-law who is a therapist practicing gay conversion. It’s understandable why in puritanical America of the 1920s the play was considered morally offensive, but even today, America is struggling to accept some of the ideas of its author, the Avant-guard gay rights activist Mae West.
Ethel Merman (1908 - 1984)
To most gay Gen Xers and Millenials, this name probably doesn’t ring a bell. But Ethel Agnes Zimmermann, a.k.a Ethel Merman is a beloved gay icon to men of certain age and drag artists. Not particularly pretty and far from sexy, she was the most successful musical comedy performer of her generation. She was adored by producers and composers among which the Gershwin brothers, Cole Porter, Steven Sondheim, and even Igor Stravinsky. She had a long stage career and performed in cult musicals - from Girl Crazy (1930) to Hello, Dolly (1970). As a person, however, she was quite out of the ordinary - Ethel never read a book in her life, and her favorite drink was champagne on the rocks!
Joan Crawford (190…? - 1977)
It is probably the androgynous aspect of her persona that attracts gay men like moths to the flame. If you ask an average worshiper of this quintessential movie star of the 1930s and the 1940s, what they love about Crawford, the answer will be: her bitchiness, her brows… and her balls. Gay men love her because she was a fierce, strong woman. But the actress was seen as a polarizing figure by the regular moviegoers - she was either adored or deeply hated. Here are some fun facts about her: Her real age is unknown. Although she seemed formidable on-screen, the woman was only 5’ 3’’. She had four husbands and used illegal baby brokers to adopt her three kids.
Bette Davis (1908 - 1989)
The 2009 documentary Queer Icon: the Cult of Bette Davis examines the many aspects of the gay fascination with this incredible Hollywood actress who won two Academy Awards (11 nominations!) and one Amy Award (4 nominations). One of the reasons why gay men admire Davis is her mesmerizing eyes. The other reason is that she never played a damsel in distress - her heroines were strong and opinionated women, like herself. Miss D, as they’re used to call her, was, in fact, so strong-willed that she managed to make full recovery not only from a debilitating stroke, but also from the humiliating public betrayal of her own daughter - a hard blow that nearly killed her.
Barbra Streisand (1942 - )
When she walked onto the stage at the Lion, a gay bar in Greenwich Village in 1960, she wowed everyone. Word about this talented funny girl spread quickly through the New York gay community. That was the beginning of a long and successful career of an adored entertainer, who’d be surrounded by a cohort of gay men her whole life. Her boyfriend Barry Dannen, who’d later come out as gay, was the one who encouraged her to pursue a singing career. A gay friend, Terry Leong, taught her about fashion, and another gay pal, Bob Schulenberg, created her goddess-like signature look. In 1999, Streisand became an LGBTQ+ advocate when she publicly supported her gay son, Jason Gould.
Liza Minnelli (1946 - )
On March 12, 2021, the actress and singer with the powerful alto turned 75. Her mother, Judy Garland, is celebrated as the ultimate gay icon, but, being a daughter to her mom, Liza is no less of an icon herself. Her career is a gay man’s dream. Becoming a Broadway star at 19, she acquires international fame in the 1972 movie Cabaret where she plays the role of the nightclub performer Sally Bowels. Actually, her Sally is considered among the most iconic characters in both musical and cinematic history. She is never afraid to laugh at herself even when she goes through physical and personal setbacks. Oh yes, and Minelli cemented her status as a gay icon when she appeared at the gay wedding in Sex and the City 2 and sang her version of Single Ladies.