Author: Craig Seligman
My Rating: 4 Stars
Publication Date: January 19th, 2023
Genre: LGBTQ+ Biography
Format Read: Ebook
StoryGraph Summary: There were effectively three Dorises–the quiet visual artist, the glorious drag queen, and the hunky male prostitute who supported the other two. He started performing in Sydney in 1972 as a member of Sylvia and the Synthetics, the psycho troupe that represented the first anarchic flowering of queer creative energy in the post-Stonewall era. After moving to San Francisco in the mid-’70s, he became the driving force behind years of sidesplitting drag shows that were loved as much as you can love throwaway trash–which is what everybody thought they were. No one, Doris included, perceived them as political theater, when in fact they were accomplishing satire’s deepest dream: not just to rail against society, but to change it.
In the 1970s, queer people were openly despised, drag queens scared the public, and that was the era when Doris Fish (born Philip Mills in 1952) painted and padded his way to stardom. He was a leader of the generation that prepared the world not just for drag queens on TV but for a society that is more tolerant and accepting of LGBTQ+ people. How did we get from there to here? In Who Does That Bitch Think She Is? Craig Seligman looks at Doris’s life as a way to provide some answers.
Seligman recounts this vivid era in LGBTQ+ history, giving needed insight to how drag has become the performance phenomenon we know today. Filled with interviews, letters and more, Seligman revisits the places and people Doris knew best allowing us to understand the historical markers and shifts his life encompassed and represented for the wider queer community, past and present.
An exciting new history of drag told through the life of the remarkable, flawed, and singular Doris Fish
I received a copy of this book from Netgalley in exchange for an honest review. Bookshop is an affiliate link and we may earn a small percentage of your purchase at no cost to you.
Who Does That Bitch Think She Is?: Doris Fish and the Rise of Drag chronicles the life and death of ’70s drag queen Doris Fish. Fish, an Australian gay man who later moved to San Francisco, became a niche celebrity in both countries before ultimately passing away from AIDS. Seligman is Fish’s post-mortem biographer, but he had the unique privilege of getting to interview him in person for a magazine article before his death. This, combined with the many interviews Seligman did with Fish’s surviving friends, made for a rich story filled with perspectives and life. I truly felt that I knew Fish (or at least her persona) after reading this, something which is difficult to achieve in a memoir written by someone who was not incredibly close with the subject.
It is clear throughout reading this book that Seligman greatly admires Fish, and that was the undertone of everything that was written. He did not seem to believe that Fish struggled with drugs, prostitution, poverty, or any other aspect of his life in any way. While this may be true, it did create an aura of a “larger than life” character that may have an equal amount to do with Seligman’s view of Fish as with Doris Fish himself. Taking that into account, I was fascinated by Who Does That Bitch Think She Is‘ recounting of what the drag scene was like in the ’70s. It isn’t something that I knew much about beforehand, in fact, much of my queer history knowledge starts around the time that AIDs gained noteriety.
What made this book so special was the way it presented a view of the whole community at large, and not just Doris Fish. Fish was the perfect person to center upon, because he was friends with so many interesting people that were fun to read about. Tippi, Jackie Hyde, Miss. X, Miss Abood, Jasper, and so many more made up a rich cast of characters with their own struggles and successes. If you are looking for an in-depth telling of one friend group’s life in the business of drag, this is most certainly it.
I struggle to write reviews of nonfiction work such as this because at the end of the day, if the book is well written, there’s not that much to say. Seligman did what he set out to do by sharing Doris Fish’s story with the world, preserving it forever in a medium that will not be lost to time as easily as anecdotes passed down through generations. I came to admire Fish and his friends, the way that they lived their lives so unapologetically despite what a difficult era they lived in. My knowledge of drag is minimal, limited primarily to watching drag queens at bars— I have never even watched an episode of RuPaul— but after reading this book I have a firmer grasp on how the culture of drag began.
If you have any interest in (white) queer culture or drag culture specifically, this book is most certainly worth the read.