Antony Hegarty is afraid he might have had too much tea. That pot of apricot-lemon chai has, he fears, gotten him all riled up, and now he’s railing against President Bush’s last-minute regulations (“I consider it virulence. It’s people with virulent mental illness of their male archetype. It’s the same thing that informed the conquistadors. It’s the same thing getting them to pass out smallpox blankets”) and Sean Penn’s being cast in Milk (“It’s like blackface to me … it’s a continuing Hollywood minstrel show, co-opting queer stories and perversely building up the careers of these heterosexual bastards with the plumage of effeminacies, that they can wear this plumage of effeminacies without having to really be accountable”).
He stops, and tries to take it down an octave, retreating into the almost dainty solicitousness that’s part of his social affect. Antony is physically imposing, or anyway ought to be—he’s as big as an orc—but he’s shy. “You shouldn’t have given me that tea. I’m wild on it now. Do you want to have a muffin? It’s a scone, and it’s so delicious. You really have to try it because it’s so delicious. I’m so wired. I’ve been so toxic in this interview.”
What Antony, who doesn’t seem toxic in the least, has actually met to talk to me about is his new album, The Crying Light, a lushly orchestrated evocation of an almost mythic personal loneliness—a recurring theme. His last record, I Am a Bird Now, opened with his gorgeously unsettling falsetto pleading, “Hope there’s someone / Who’ll take care of me / When I die … who’ll set my heart free … ” Thanks largely to that album, these days Antony has an almost shamanistic hold on a type of sophisticatedly bleak romantic aesthete. His relationship to his audience recalls that of Nina Simone and JT LeRoy. But his confessionalism is more curated—in some way, self-protective. He also declared on Bird that “One day I’ll grow up, I’ll be a beautiful woman,” and though he says he considers himself “living in a male-identified body but still identifying as transgendered,” neither statement is an open invitation to discuss his personal life or, for that matter, even his cat’s recent death. No amount of tea will do that trick.
His friends are very protective, though drag artist Lady Bunny—who’s known him for nearly twenty years—offers this: “People who might know all the words to his songs don’t realize what a nut he is.” The two like to chat on the phone in gibberish, and just the other day he walked up behind her at a deli and bit her on the shoulder. “That thing is a clown.”
Antony was born in 1971, and moved with his family from England to San Jose, California (“the armpit of Silicon Valley”), when he was a kid. He still has a British accent, though it comes and goes. He didn’t fit in. He tried to stay connected to the English music scene, and played in a death-metal band. This was well before the Internet’s universalization of awkward-youth passions, so if you were an androgynous teen, you felt pretty isolated. He knew about John Waters and Boy George, but “subculture was really inaccessible,” he remembers. “If nothing was in print, you weren’t gonna see it. You’d grab little glimpses of things, if you’d picked up some old Details magazine or whatever. You’d just keep scrapbooks of things you were interested in.”
Freshman year, he went to UC Santa Cruz, where he did Waters-inspired midnight musicals. “One of my teachers said, ‘The only place where people do this kind of thing is New York City. There’s nowhere else for you to go.’ ” So he moved, in 1990, looking for mentors and a sense of lineage among the drag queens and outcast visionaries of still-squalid Avenue A. He’d seen the documentary Mondo New York, about the underground cabaret scene in the eighties, and he wanted to find Joey Arias and Dean Johnson and Phoebe Legere, attracted to their punk elegance.
But there was more to it than that. “First you realize you’re gay, and then you start hanging out in gay bars, and then you realize you don’t completely identify as male, and then you realize you are something else,” says Lady Bunny, who remembers him in whiteface makeup, a wedding dress, and combat boots. “Almost all gay ads say No fats, no fems, and let’s face it, Antony and I are both.”
Antony met Martin Worman, who’d worked with the Cockettes, a group of experimental androgynous performers, and was an NYU grad student. “He really took me under his wing,” says Antony. “There were a few guys at NYU in 1991, ’92, who were interested in trying to pass the torch, I guess, for a bunch of stuff that at the time seemed like vanishing culture.” He pored over sixties transvestite magazines; he was ravenous for the information. “I think I got a reputation as this kind of obsessive historian,” he says. “I was asking questions about people that had, in my mind, died prematurely. If there hadn’t been AIDS, I would have had access to them. So I was grilling them about that. And also just attending lots of stuff.” According to Lady Bunny, one of his favorite acts was an overweight, badly made-up drag queen named “Sugga Pie KoKo.” “Her shtick is that the audience doesn’t know if she’s retarded,” she says.