A Queer Art Canon: Reg Vermue and Madonna’s Truth or Dare

Let’s make a canon! And let’s fill it with queer art, or queer-ish art, or art that has no idea how queer it is. Queer art is often secret art: black-market, whispered-about, read-between-the-lines art. And since secret art can be hard to find, let’s shine a light on a few of our favourite things so all our friends can see them.

We’ll call it a canon, because it sounds Weighty and Important and Serious, but we also won’t be too serious about it. We won’t make The Canon, just a canon. Each month, we’ll chat with a different queer-about-town and ask them to submit something to the canon. And they’ll tell us what that book or play or movie or TV episode or sculpture or poem or dance piece or opera or photograph or painting or performance art piece or anything else means to them and why they think it deserves a spot in our illustrious canon.

This month, we talked to musician, performer, and DJ Reg Vermue (aka Regina Gently, aka Gentleman Reg) about Madonna’s 1991 documentary Truth or Dare.

What are we chatting about today?

Well, (laughs) I was thinking about maybe Truth or Dare

Ooh, nice!

Cause there’s this newer movie about the dancers from Truth or Dare that just came out, so that’s been in my head recently. Have you seen Truth or Dare?

Yeah.

The dancers play such a massive role in that movie. And I always wondered what happened to them. So, it was kind of so serendipitous that someone else was thinking the same thing and decided to make a documentary. It’s quite a depressing movie, unfortunately.

Things didn’t go well for those dancers?

Not so well! There weren’t really any big success stories. It was kind of all drug addiction, death, lawsuits, stuff like that. But, Truth or Dare, I mean, such a queer iconic film.

Oh, absolutely!

And so ahead of its time. No one was filming their lives like that in the way that we are now.

It’s interesting, too—the image of herself that Madonna allows to be put forward in that movie. Cause it’s often pretty unsympathetic.

Yeah, it’s not super flattering. She had that reputation of being difficult and being a diva. And now she’s a spiritual mother, adopting all these kids from other countries.

She’s in a different phase for sure. Do you think she’s still in touch with any of those dancers?

No. Well, the documentary—they tried to get her, because they all reunited in one scene and they tried to get her for that, but she didn’t… But after the tour, two of the dancers sued her because of their portrayal in the film. And the big iconic scene from the film where they’re playing Truth or Dare and she fellates a bottle and the two dancers kissone of those dancers didn’t want that scene in the film. I don’t know exactly what the lawsuit was about, but I guess probably feeling used. Because they were much bigger stars than probably anybody anticipated. They were so young right? These young gay boys just partying… I mean, I would probably be messed up too if I was playing amphitheatres at twenty, thinking I was a star. And then it ends and you’re like “Wait!” It would probably mess you up.

It makes me think of Paris is Burning. A lot of the people in it were like “Oh, we really weren’t compensated very much for something that obviously made a lot of money for some people, but we were the stars, we were the content.” We don’t necessarily see documentary subjects as creators. Like, the creator is the documentarian. But that’s maybe a shitty way to think about things.

There are so many scenes like when they go to a Pride celebration, they go to an AIDS vigilthere are some pretty dramatic scenes in the movie that Madonna’s not even in and it’s just all following them around.

When did you first see it?

I guess I was like ten or eleven. So, it was big!

That’s a formative age!

I was a Madonna fan, but I hadn’t seen a lot of gay content. And regardless of the actual men kissing, they’re wearing those conical bras, there’s that “Like a Virgin” number where she’s humping the bed…

She was always pushing the envelope.

I subsequently saw that movie ten, fifteen more times. I probably could recite it, which is absurd. I remember showing it to friends, playing it at parties. And people that weren’t into Madonna were like “Whoa, this movie’s kind of amazing!” And kind of absurd at the same time. It’s kind of her best period for music.

Like the most quintessential Madonna?

She’s done so many tours, but after that, she definitely got away from queer stuff. She has pseudo-documentaries of subsequent tours and you can just tell, the dancers aren’t gay anymore. There’s more B-boy stuff, and they really went away from that.

The last video I saw of a tour she was doing, she was on a tiny tricycle dressed as a clown in Australia.

Oh yeah!

I was like, “OK, this is a new way of reinventing yourself.” I guess part of the whole constant reinvention thing is that you kinda throw out a lot of things that seemed essential to your identity before.

Yeah!

She drops these previous versions of herself—and anyone associated with them.

I’ve actually heard Sandra Bernhardt talk about that specifically. Because they were very good friends, and she’s in Truth or Dare. And she was like “We’re not friends because Madonna doesn’t want to be friends.” She sort of takes what she needs and moves on. I bought the Truth or Dare DVD, and I always wondered actually why, in the era of DVD extras, they never reissued it. I mean, there must be hours of extra footage, right? But maybe it’s the same thing. She’s moved on.

That movie is a big part of her legacy. Probably the most important movie she’s made, right?

I mean, Desperately Seeking Susan and that one I feel like are the only two that haven’t been panned.

Johnnie Walker

Johnnie Walker is a writer of many plays, a hoster of many burlesques, and a maker of many jokes. Follow him on twitter @handsomejohnnie

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