Androgynous A-Listers: 7 Notable Gender Benders
by Molly Mann
Celebrities are used to breaking rules, including gender rules. Because being unconventional is the norm for most famous people, many of them feel the freedom to challenge the sexual and gender categories we little people tend to take for granted. These seven A-list avant-gardists helped to make gender-bending more acceptable in the American mainstream.
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Style icon Katharine Hepburn was both a glamorous movie star and a tomboy, two qualities that had previously been regarded as mutually exclusive. Hepburn didn’t just make it fashionable to wear pants; she embodied the independence, confidence, and adventurousness that were the exclusive purview of men in her day. “I’ve just done what I’ve damn well wanted to,” she is quoted as saying, “and I’ve made enough money to support myself and I ain’t afraid of being alone.”
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In 1980, journalist Jon Savage described pop star David Bowie as “a bit of futurism, a bit of make-up, but best, lots of Gender Confusion.” Bowie’s 1972 concept album, _The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars,_ along with his persona Ziggy Stardust, showed fans that they could re-create themselves into an entirely new person, even one of another or uncertain gender. Bowie’s/Ziggy’s glam-rock look of tank tops, platform shoes, and plenty of glitter invited everyone into its ambiguity.
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The British have a longer tradition of cross-dressing than Americans do, but Executive Transvestite Eddie Izzard has helped to bring more playful attitudes about gender-bending to this side of the pond. Izzard has toured the United States as a “card-carrying transvestite,” clad in dresses, heels, and makeup (and has sold out arena dates across the country). He’s also disabused audiences of the misunderstanding that all transvestites are gay. “I’m a straight transvestite or male lesbian,” Izzard told the _Guardian_ newspaper. “It seems we are beyond the idea that I am gay and hiding it. If I had to describe how I feel in my head, I’d say I’m a complete boy plus half a girl.”
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Before Eddie Izzard, Milton Berle was the most famous cross-dressing comedian in America. “Uncle Miltie,” also known as “Mr. Television,” was a radio and television star by the early 1930s, and NBC signed him to an exclusive contract for _The Milton Berle Show_ in 1951. Part of his act was to wear women’s clothing, back when seeing a man in a dress was such an oddity that it was automatically outrageous and hilarious.
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Drag queen, actor, singer-songwriter, and television personality RuPaul burst onto the scene in the early 1990s, defining fabulous and confusing gender-specific pronouns. (In his autobiography, RuPaul explains, “You can call me he. You can call me she. You can call me Regis and Kathie Lee; I don’t care! Just as long as you call me.”) RuPaul has brought drag into the mainstream, along with such drag terms as “sickening” (a good thing), “kai kai,” and “t.”
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Marilyn Manson (born Brian Warner) has made a career out of being provocative, and curling his blood-red lips at gender norms is part of that persona. Manson often sports long hair, makeup, painted nails, and—on the cover of his album Mechanical Animals—breasts. That cover art even sparked persistent rumors that Manson had undergone a sex-change operation. The musician remains biologically a man, but he’ll be sure to keep us guessing in the years to come.
Hillary Rodham Clinton
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Pantsuit devotee Hillary Clinton made it clear when her husband, Bill Clinton, won the U.S. presidency in 1992 that she wasn’t your typical First Lady. Whereas the women of the White House before her played mostly ceremonial roles as hostesses, Clinton declared that instead of “stay[ing] home and bak[ing] cookies and ha[ving] teas,” she would “fulfill my profession which I entered before my husband was in public life.” She involved herself in policy, notably (though unsuccessfully) leading the Task Force on National Health Care Reform, and built a platform for her own political career. Widely criticized as unfeminine and unfashionable, Clinton maintained that her identity as a woman was based on intelligence rather than delicate appearance.