Legendary drag performer Peaches Christ began as a character for Joshua Grannell’s senior thesis at Penn State’s film school. The role of Peaches Christ originally belonged to another actor, but when that fell through, Grannell stepped in to play the lead in his own film project. The rest, as they say, is history. You can find Grannell as the fabulous Peaches Christ in the heart of San Francisco, where Peaches hosts Midnight Mass—a popular midnight movie event series that she began in the summer of 1998 at Landmark Cinemas. The beloved cult movie events even tour across the country, where they draw thousands of attendees time and time again.
But before we talk about the cult filmmaker and drag icon, let’s talk a little about the person who has housed Peaches Christ as their alter ego for years: Joshua Grannell, the writer and director from Annapolis, Maryland who grew up super Catholic.
“I was a weirdo from a really young age, and didn’t really know it until I was in high school…I was always attracted to the theater, films, and movies,” Grannell said. He had been exposed to the world of performance at a young age and was inspired by John Waters and The Rocky Horror Picture Show. His parents supported his interests and enrolled him in theater and improv classes, but once high school came around, Grannell realized he needed to get out of Maryland in order to pursue his dreams of breaking into the film industry and creating art on his own terms.
That brought Grannell to Penn State, where his love for Waters and Rocky Horror naturally led to his senior thesis called Jizzmopper: A Love Story: “a silly comedy that took place in a porn store with an outrageous title.” Before meeting John Waters at a Penn State event that Grannell had organized, the film student imagined he’d end up in Los Angeles or New York after graduation. It was Waters who recommended San Francisco as a destination. Grannell’s parents disapproved when he told them his plans to move to the west coast. “You’re financially cut off. The only money we’re going to give you is a plane ticket home when you go out there and end up on the streets” was essentially the talk his parents gave him—but that’s part of why we have Peaches Christ.
Looking back on her accomplishments, Peaches Christ says she is glad her parents said that to her. It motivated her to do it—to go to San Francisco, survive, and just figure it out.
She arrived there with a one-way ticket, no job, no place to live, and no money. Now, Peaches Christ’s Midnight Mass is celebrating over twenty years of midnight screenings and performances, and it has become a safe space in the Bay Area for LGBTQ folks to gather and be their unapologetic selves. I talked to Peaches about the origins of her career, the importance of queer community, and art as resistance.
HelloGiggles (HG): You grew up in Maryland and I assume moving to San Francisco must have been a huge change for you. How did you find your community when you moved to California?
Peaches Christ (PC): I do remember feeling like I was Dorothy, and it was really amazing and mind blowing—like being a kid in the candy store. There was a brand new nightclub that was a space for drag queens, transgender folks, transvestites, their fans and admirers, people that wanted to hook up with folks that were drag queens. It was such a punk rock nightclub that at midnight, every Tuesday night, they would host a drag show and the drag show was not traditional drag–it was wild, it was rock and roll, it was punk, it was goth…It was conceptual and weird and anything kind of flew there as long as it was entertaining and fun and everyone got along.
That was certainly where I found my chosen family. I was young and I showed up there and met Heklina, who is a dear friend of mine now—it was her club and she was the hostess—and I just knew right away this is where I’m supposed to be and these are the people I’m supposed to be friends with. 22 years later, many of those same people I met back in 1996 are people I still work with, that are still creative collaborators, that have built really big and exciting things with their creativity. I really value that part of my San Francisco story because finding my tribe was the most magical thing I could’ve hoped for.
HG: Do you remember the moment you realized that you wanted to perform drag and also be a part of that community?
PC: I had dabbled in drag for the movie [Jizzmopper] and I knew I enjoyed performing in drag. I knew it was something that could help me explore performance as a hobby. I grew up idolizing performers like Cassandra Peterson, who did Elvira, and Paul Reubens, who did Pee-wee Herman. I really, really idolized those kinds of performers and I could see how drag and the creation of a drag character could be something similar to that.
Honestly, for years, it wasn’t something I thought of as a career. I had a full-time job, I was trying to get a career going as a filmmaker, so I was making little short films thinking, “Okay, someday I’m going to be a successful filmmaker,” never realizing that my real success later in life was going to be through Peaches.
Maybe in some ways, that’s why it became successful; I didn’t set my sights on it becoming a business. It was just really pure in a lot of ways. It was good friends coming together and having fun and creating stuff that impressed each other. But what ended up happening was we built an audience and the audience just got bigger and bigger and bigger. We just kept performing, to the point where I had to step back and go, “Oh my god, this is a business. People are making money here. Maybe I should be making money.”
HG: How can art, and drag specifically, empower LGBTQ communities and help further social movements–especially now, when a lot of queer folks need spaces where they not only feel safe and accepted, but where they can just let loose?
PC: Together, through drag, through art, through a community, we’re affirming each other’s queerness—which of course transcends sexuality. It’s affirming otherness and queerness in a way that’s really important right now, especially because of what’s going on in the world. In doing that together, we are able to create more art, more expression, and it leads to more activism and more confidence and people being proud of themselves and standing up for what’s right. It’s weird to say that one of the positive parts of dark times like these is that art is really good and art gets really exciting.
I’m seeing young people mobilizing in really incredible ways—they have every reason in the world to believe that life is fucked and hopeless. They have been given a lot of reasons to be frustrated, whether it’s through the current political situation or the way health care is going, or college tuition, or the job market. What I’ve seen is a lot of young people who inspire me by creating cool art, making music together, putting on events.
HG: When did you realize that Peaches Christ was bigger than you? That these performances and screenings were resonating beyond the LGBTQ community?
PC: I think it was when we had just celebrated 20 years of Peaches Christ, but I remember when we were getting toward the 10-year mark. One of our problems then was that our Saturday night shows were selling out so we would add a Friday night show—and that would sell out, too. [That’s when] I realized, in a strange sense, that people were counting on me to provide something for them. It wasn’t just entertainment because I was celebrating cult movies or because I was appealing to “the other” or to [a niche community].
I took it seriously because people were counting on me to do this. They were counting on me to screen Showgirls every year and to provide free lap dances with every large popcorn. As silly as all that sounds, there were a lot of people in San Francisco who needed to laugh. They needed to escape and we provided that community for them, and we made a space for them. I swear, it was a special time back then because I remember struggling with my own acceptance of being a clown, being feminist, being gay, being silly. I would wonder, “Oh, my God. Is this what I am? Is this okay?”
Luckily, I got to this place where I was like, “I love myself. I love what I do. I love my friends. I am going to commit to this 100% and just see what happens.” That’s when it really exploded and things really took off for us. We went for it and the payoff was fantastic.
HG: With all of these fantastic drag performances, screenings, and movie tributes you’ve done, can you say your top three favorite Peaches Christ performances?
PC: Oh God. That’s the whole “selling your babies” kind of question. One of them that is a favorite would be Return to Grey Gardens that I do with Jinkx Monsoon because we play ourselves and the whole [plot] of it is what happens when two drag performers do the same Grey Gardens parody for 40 years. She and I have done it all over the place and even in other countries—I just love performing with Jinkx, I love Grey Gardens, and I love the way the show goes.
Let’s see, another favorite would be our Showgirls screening. That was always a favorite celebration, and I also really loved a show I did last year…A lot of people have asked, “When are you going to [parody] Legally Blonde?” I talked about it with the other drag queen and I said, “What if we did a show where we took a very white movie and turn it on its head?” We took Legally Blonde and wrote a show [starring Bob the Drag Queen] called Legally Black. I loved doing that show because I think that’s the power of using drag culture to say, “Fuck it. We can do whatever we want” and making it relevant to a queer audience today.
HG: What advice do you have for our queer readers who are looking for their communities?
PC: It’s important to find your people in your family and your creative collaborators and like-minded friends. Then together, empower one another to resist however you best see fit. Whether that’s through direct political activism, or through creating great art or transgressive stuff, or through drag or punk rock music—something that hasn’t yet happened. Maybe you’re creating the next big exciting movement in pop culture, who knows? I think that chosen family is more important than ever with this political divide—it feels so dark and so extreme…We’re seeing just hateful, crazy stuff, and so I think more than anything it’s [important to] find your safe space. Join forces to create a movement, because who knows what’s going to happen in the future.