First Person is a series which takes stock of the formidable, phenomenal lives and careers of pop culture’s most captivating characters, starting from the very beginning.
Here, rock’n’roll’s first trans star Jayne County looks back at her criminally underappreciated history spent pushing boundaries and acting as source material for artists like David Bowie.
My childhood was very interesting, to say the least. I was always causing some kind of drama or scandal in the neighborhood. When I was six years old, somebody called my mother and said, “Your son is down here in the middle of town pushing a baby buggy around with a doll in it.” [laughs]
I thought of myself as a little girl. I had a cousin, cousin Pat. She was a tomboy. Come Christmas, she would give me her toys, I would give her mine. I would get footballs and erector sets and things little boys would get and she would get dolls and we would swap. I would say to her, “Tell your mother you want the latest Barbie,” or “Tell your mother you want the latest doll that pees.” She’d say that’s what I want for Christmas and then she’d give it to me. [laughs]
I knew all along that something was up [with me]. When I was a little kid I asked my mother, “When I grow up can I marry a man?” She was like, “Noooo! Men can’t get married to each other! You have to marry a woman when you get old enough.” I didn’t like that very much at all.
Daily life was a constant reminder that I was not like anybody else. I didn’t really come out, I was just out anyway. I was born out.
I remember I walked for miles and miles and miles to buy the Beatles album. It was the first American release, Meet the Beatles. I walked all the way [to the record store] and back and every once in a while somebody would yell out their car, “Sissy!” or they’d yell, “Look, it’s Ringo!” because I had a little Beatles haircut and everything. Way back in the dark ages, when I was in high school, people still didn’t know what gay or queer was or anything like that. They thought a queer was some hobbled, old bald-headed fat man in a raincoat, hanging out in the schoolyard.
I started hanging out with the Screaming Queens in Atlanta—they were called Screaming Queens, they were the feminine gays—and we would wear what was called semi-drag. It would be half drag because of the laws in Atlanta about which clothes you could wear and which you couldn’t, so if you were wearing an article that belonged to a woman, you had to have at least three pieces of male clothing to let people know that you were male. It was against the law to impersonate a female and against the law for your hair to touch the tip of your ears or they would arrest you for female impersonation. We’d have to comb our hair up so it wouldn’t touch our ears, but other times we’d just let it hang down and we’d just have to run when we saw the police.
We used to joke about carrying an extra pair of shoes in our purse to run. We used to dare each other to run around the Fox Theater in high heels, but sometimes you had to kick the high heels off and leave them there in the street because bashers would jump out of their cars and try to beat you up. So we had to know how to run.
The cops were no help. The cops would pick you up and arrest you for female impersonation and take you down to the police station and hold you down on the floor and shave your head. Then they’d call your daddy to come get you and say, “We’ve got your queer boy down here.”
I was only arrested three times and let go twice because the cop was nice and cute. He might have been gay or bisexual or something. But they impounded my car and called up my work—I was training to be a nurse at Kenneth Stone hospital—and told them that a transvestite was working for them and they got me fired. That’s when I decided I’d had it with Atlanta. So I came to New York City in 1967 and then I left and came back again in ‘68 and stayed in New York. I took 25 dollars and caught a Greyhound bus to New York City.
The first time I came in ’67 because I ran out of money. I had gotten on the wrong bus headed up there and all my possessions were taken off on another bus. So I lived off the streets and slept in crash pads. The hippies had crash pads and anyone was invited if you didn’t have a place to sleep. I would go home with people, I met friends at the Stonewall Inn. People from the Stonewall would take me in and let me sleep on their couch. The Stonewall was a great hub. I fell in with the Warhol crowd and all the hippies.
Then I met my friend Leee Black Childers, the famous photographer. He hung out at the Stonewall. I first got a load of Candy Darling and Jackie Curtis, Warhol superstars, on Greenwich Avenue and Christopher Street. Leee introduced me to Jackie. Originally we went to Jackie Curtis’s wedding and her fiancé didn’t show up at the wedding so she married one of the busboys. [laughs] Leee took all the pictures and he came back to our flat on 13th Street and Avenue A and showed me all the pictures from the wedding. Ultraviolet was there, Jackie, all these other people that were in the underground scene.
Leee said they all hang out at this place called Max’s Kansas City, you have to come, I’m gonna take you there. I said, “I’m scared.” Max’s is where all the famous freaks hang out, but he took me there and I fit right in and made friends with everyone really easy. Before you know it, I was starring in Andy Warhol’s Pork.
In Pork I played [Warhol Superstar] Viva. I was called Vulva Lips. She didn’t like that very much. She called up the Factory and ranted and raved at Andy: “For all you could do to me you’ve got a man playing me!” and Andy’s just giggling his head off because he thought it was funny. Andy liked to upset people, he was a real drama queen. [Andy] had taped everybody in private conversations on the phone and he turned them over to Tony Ingrassia, who turned them into Pork. We were on stage saying real lines that people had actually said to Andy over the phone. The older Warhol crowd hated us because we were the new faces starring in Pork, an underground hit. We got called to do the summer at the Roundhouse in London and the earlier Warhol crowd felt insulted that Andy had taken their private conversations and turned them into a play [laughs] but Andy loved it.
Andy was a shy person. That’s why he loved to see other people freaking out—he loved causing trouble. When we did the party for Pork in London, Andy was at the party. It was going on good and everybody noticed that we hadn’t seen Andy for awhile, so I went looking for him and I found him in the men’s room. He was interviewing men as they peed in the urinals. Men would go up to pee and he’d come over with his mic and go, “Tell me, in what light did you see the play? How did you like it? What do you think about today’s styles?” while they’re trying to pee. [laughs] That was so funny.
Andy and I hung out together once at Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, when it was on Broadway. We were at the opening night party and Bianca [Jagger] was there. Andy tried to cause trouble between me and Bianca. I was dressed up in like three wigs. I looked like 15 Lady Bunnys and I had these huge plastic tits on with a see-through stripper’s top, and gold boots, really high heeled, that had belonged to David Bowie. Bianca was sitting at a table looking very sophisticated and Andy brought me over looking the way I was to introduce me to Bianca. Bianca looked at me and her eyeballs fell out and she got up and ran away. Without a word. Andy looked at me and said, “Oh dear…” But he knew that was gonna freak her out, he did it on purpose. I said to Andy, “I guess her momma never taught her no manners.” [laughs]
I also met John Lennon at that party. I went into the men’s room to fix my makeup and Lennon came in, and he just stood in front of me with a grin on his face without saying a word. I was powdering my nose and said, “Well, hi,” and he just smiled at me and I finished my makeup and moved out. He was making me very nervous because I was a huge Beatles fan. I didn’t know what else to do but wobble out in my David Bowie boots. The rumor about John Lennon over the years was that [he] was very taken with the trans women who worked in the club in Hamburg. I don’t know if he ever made it with them but it was rumored—I’m sure he experimented with them. You don’t go to a trans club and hang out in the dressing room with them afterwards unless something’s up.
I always had a feeling that I wanted to do music. Jackie [Curtis] had done a song called “Kissing Asses for the Man I Love,” and a song called “Since You Lost Your Legs,” and I thought it was great. I wanted to sing with the guitars and have a band. So I said I want to form a band, I want it to be outrageous. I wanted to make Alice Cooper look like a nun. It was rock’n’roll music and the two guitar players Tommy and Jimmy Wynbrandt, who went on to be the Miamis on the CBGB’s album, they were my first band.
We called ourselves Queen Elizabeth—not after the Queen of England—it’s about a queen in Atlanta called Elizabeth, and she was famous because she got a job modeling clothes at Richard’s department store, and no one knew that she was a man. She wasn’t even on hormones; she just put on women’s clothes and looked so good people thought, “Well that’s got to be a woman.” She was very famous until her boss walked in on her in the dressing room and saw Queen Elizabeth’s little secret. That was the end of her career.
When we went to London to do Pork, we had heard about David Bowie who had long hair like Lauren Bacall and wore these baggy clothes and makeup—we were fascinated by him. But Angie [Bowie] was looking for a new image for him because he was getting stalled with that image. So they came to see us at Pork and hung out in the dressing room and became friends with the cast.
I have fond memories of David Bowie. We were [signed to] the same management company. David loved my songs and so I sent him my demos. He loved them and wanted more so I sent him three sets of demos: “Man Enough to be a Woman,” “Are You a Boy or Are You a Girl,” “Queenage Baby” … He wanted to take me into the studio and produce an album, so I sent all my music and little bits and pieces started showing up on his albums. Other people wouldn’t notice. But I would notice, because they were mine. If I said something people would look at me and roll their eyes, “Oh Jayne, please,” or “Oh right, uh huh. Here goes Jayne again claiming everyone’s stealing from her.”
But he did take things from those demos and use them. I even gave him the idea to do Pin Ups, and I never got credit for that. I told him, you should do an album of British Invasion hits. What I finally realized was I was giving all my ideas away to him. When I did my Wayne at the Trucks show, I had the band at the side of the stage to the left, and David took that and used it for his Diamond Dogs show. He used the backdrops, a lot of my ideas for my stage production … but there was nothing I could do, because people laughed at me and thought I was being paranoid. I’d look at it and go, “Oh my God! B-b-b-b-b-but this is mine!” And they’d go, “Sure Jayne, have another quaalude.”
I should’ve confronted him personally, but it wouldn’t have done any good. You don’t confront David. You do then you’re gone. One of my biggest regrets is that I had a falling out with David. I wanted to make it up with him before one of us passed on and I wasn’t able to, so that hurts. I have a little bit of pain in my heart over that. But I don’t have any harsh feelings towards David at all, I love David and his memory and that was all in the past.
I was doing some gigs around town in New York City [in 1998]. I saw the posters of [John Cameron Mitchell’s] Hedwig and the Angry Inch and I looked at it and I thought it was me! I put it out of my mind for a while and then I kept hearing about it. Somebody said, “You better go see this play because it’s very similar to what you are.” I went to see Hedwig and I was freaked out because it was very similar to my life. It’s the story of a blonde transsexual who didn’t get a sex change, similar to my problem. The doctor told me if I have the full operation I could die because I have some problems going on down there, and so I never did get the full thing. So that hit home. Plus just the visual factor, it’s a blonde transexual who’s touring Europe with a rock’n’roll band and who got ripped off by the person she was working with. It’s similar to when I showed some of my demos to David [Bowie], so that rang similar to my life as well.
To this day, I don’t know … I mean John Cameron Mitchell knows me. He’s seen my performances at Squeezebox. I know John, and he has my book [Man Enough To Be A Woman: The Autobiography of Jayne County]. Someone went to his house and my book was on his coffee table, so he’s well aware of me, so I don’t really know how much intention was there for him to copy me or just to be influenced by me and the other queens at the Squeezebox. I did a show with KISS, and one of my big things was sticking my tongue out and wiggling it at people and doing all kinds of stuff like that. Gene Simmons said he got that from me, the tongue thing.
People have, my whole career, been taking from me a lot. I never made it commercial. I was too outrageous on stage and plus being an out transgender artist—there were other transgender artists around but they weren’t out. I was out from the very beginning.
I’ve been doing art my whole life. When I came to New York I was gonna become an artist but I got sidetracked with the music, but now I’ve got loads of things happening. I’m very excited, my single is selling like hot cakes all over Europe, it’s called “Leave My Pussy Alone.” I have a new single coming out soon called “Igenderty.” It’s a rallying call for trans people and people of all different genders. And I’m having another art show soon in Connecticut. It’s called “Paranoia Paradise.” So my art is doing really well and my music is doing good. I hung out with Debbie [Harry] and John [Waters] in New York and they’re doing really well. They love my stuff. Debbie bought some more art.
I’ve been around all these years I’m gonna be around many more years. My family members lived to be in their mid-nineties. Can you imagine Jayne County at 90?