Drawn From the City: Donna Persona Celebrated Queen of San Francisco
DRAWN FROM THE CITY: Illustrations and Interviews of SF’s Best, first appeared in The Bold Italic in 2015 and ran through 2016. We at broke-assstuart.com liked them so much we asked Crystal if we could put them out again as a time capsule of SF’s creative scene during the height of the most recent tech boom and demographic change.
ILLUSTRATION & INTERVIEW
BY CRYSTAL VIELULA
Gustavo started performing drag at age 60. Now their alter ego Donna Persona is a celebrated queen in San Francisco.
How did you get into doing drag?
I started all of this in 2006 when I was 60. I had never put on a dress before, I didn’t do make-up and now I’m living for it. All my life I was close to people in the theatre and in drag but I didn’t want to be on stage, I did sets and worked behind the scenes. Around 1970 I was connected to the Cockettes because I was having a love affair with a movie producer of their film Elevator Girls in Bondage. That was a fun film but at that time I didn’t want anything to do with attention; I didn’t want to be famous or celebrated I was terrified.
In 2004 I got back with the Cockettes and Rumi Missabu. They encouraged me to get involved in their theatre and performances for two years and then I did. I was terrified out of my mind to perform but I found a way to get through that fear and then I got positive attention and I got addicted to it.
I eased into it as a backup dancer for Carl Linkhart who sings his own songs. He got a gig at the Castro Street Fair, he had a tent in Sugar Valley and Carl put on his boom box and sang and I danced around. The street filled with people and they were looking at me! After the set a thousand cute Latino boys came up and they wanted to be photographed with me and they were saying we love you! That was one of the times when everything clicked for me and I was like I’ve got to have this.
Where do you perform?
I am a permanent cast member of the Hot Box Show at Aunt Charlie’s.
How did you come up with the name Donna Persona?
I don a persona, I personify womanhood in all of the varieties, the schoolmarm the vixen; sometimes I say I am every woman.
Donna Personna was the 2019 Lifetime Achievement Community Grand Marshal for SF Pride (this occurred after this interview was made)
What is your drag persona like?
I say flippant things as Donna that I would never say as Gustavo and it always lands beautifully. My fans have come to expect my attitude. My favorite thing in the world is to turn a man down. Donna persona has a Donna Party that consists of beautiful men that adore me.
How did you learn to do make-up?
At the beginning of my carrier my make-up was horrible and I just picked up clothes from a garbage bag of Carl’s from the Salvation Army. Then I had Glammamore do my make-up and I took a picture of my face so I could study it and learn to do it myself and now I wear couture.
How long have you been living in San Francisco?
This is the first time I lived in San Francisco. I had a rental house in Cupertino close to my beauty shop that I gave up. Now I am winding down, when I work I stay right in my beauty shop and then I am living in the city the rest of the week.
Do you do other types of visual art?
I am a photographer. The Cockettes got me into exhibiting my work too. Rumi Missabu had these art salons and in 2004 invited me to be in it. There were 55 artists and performances too. Now I have a work up in a show of senior artists at the LGBTQ Center on Market. I have also been involved in some film projects. One of my friends, Jay Bedwani wanted to try film making so for nine months we met and he took pictures and filmed and came up with a nine minute movie about me called My Mother. He took it around to film festivals and it won 3 first prizes! Also Out Magazine made a 27-minute movie about us (The Hot Box Girls) called Beautiful by Night that is going viral in a way. It went to Huffington Post, Dangerous Minds, Slate, and Yagg.
What else are you involved in the city?
I’m a board member for the Trans March and I’m on the Trans Day of Remembrance committee. Felicia Flames invited me to do the stage for Trans March, it was for 6000 people and I was terrified but it emboldened me. Then I got involved with organizing. I’m not trans but I like giving back to the community.
What is your favorite neighborhood?
The Mission, I like going to the dollar store and the produce store. I also love where I live in the Civic Center area, we have a fantastic farmers market and the library is great.