Juliette Lewis on the Three Months in the Mid-90s When She Lived as Sylvia Demure

Drawing by Jeanette Hayes

It must have been 1994, and I think I was 20. Cape Fear had come out, and I’d filmed this Nora Ephron comedy with Steve Martin called Mixed Nuts that no one ended up seeing. I had to get my drama fill, so I did three scenes in this movie with Leo DiCaprio and Mark Wahlberg that I don’t remember the name of—it’s the one about a junkie named Jim, you can look it up. Anyway, because of that I found myself in New York for three months during a time when the last real mega-clubs were still in existence. I remember my first time going to Club USA—it was so intoxicating to walk into a space like that. It was so big, and there was the music, and the coed bathrooms, and the people from all walks of life. Rich people. Tall people. People from college. Superstars of the night. Of course, there were also moments later on when you go, “Wow, that got dark.”

I’d see Wahlberg and Leo around, but I’ve never been into hanging out with other showbiz people, so I’d go out with Allegra and Leslie. Allegra was a Cuban woman, who at the time I believe did some kind of sordid business, and Leslie was a dancing girl. They were my dancing queens. I remember one time I was dancing and I was really in-it-to-win-it, and this person was staring at me in a really vibey, not friendly way. So Allegra got in there and was like, “You’re giving us a bad vibe, get the fuck away!” This was the moment in my career when I was just losing my anonymity, so my friends and all the amazing drag queens were my protectors. People didn’t know my name yet, so they would be like, “Hey, do I know you?” Or, “You’re that girl.” So I would say, “My name is Sylvia, Sylvia Demure.” And the drag queens were so wonderful, because they just let me be that. They let me be Sylvia Demure, and gave me shelter from the storm in a major way. It was so sweet.