Holly Woodlawn, the transgender icon, turns 69 on 26 October.
The last surviving of Andy Warhol’s three superstars – rising to fame alongside Jackie Curtis and Candy Darling in the 1970s – Holly made history as the first trans actor to be considered for an Oscar for her role in Andy Warhol’s Trash alongside Joe Dallesandro. (She did not receive the nomination.)
She has appeared in many films and also appeared on what many have considered the first reality show, An American Family, which aired in 1973 and broke ground because it featured a family coming to terms with their son’s homosexuality for the first time on television.
Holly’s birthday is an incredibly important moment, and it is my duty to pay tribute.
I’ll admit my personal bias here: Holly was always my favourite Warhol Superstar. I’ve stylized my drag character, Alexis, after her. I wrote Holly a letter when I saw her appear in a documentary I watched for a class (The Cockettes) and she wrote back, shocked and amazed that she and the New York scene of the 1970s had been the subject of class discussion in a small Pennsylvania town.
She encouraged me to stay in school and do well, telling me to ‘hit the books and make mama prou’ – words of encouragement I still turn to when being a graduate student gets me down.
Holly’s story has always been one of survival. Born in Puerto Rico, she came to Florida as a young child, and was deeply interested in American celebrity culture from early on.
She made it to New York City by the age of fifteen, in a journey which would become immortalized in Lou Reed’s controversial hit from 1972, ‘Walk on the Wild Side’:
Holly came from Miami F.L.A.
Hitchhiked her way across the USA
Plucked her eyebrows on the way
Shaved her legs and then he was a she
She said, hey babe, take a walk on the wild side.
She said, hey honey, take a walk on the wild side.
In 1970 she appeared in the Paul Morrissey-directed Andy Warhol production, Trash. George Cukor, the legendary director of such films as The Philadelphia Story and Bringing up Baby, petitioned the Academy of the Arts and Sciences to give her the Academy Award for her performance in that film, though she did not receive a nomination.
In 1972, she appeared with Jackie Curtis and Candy Darling in Andy Warhol’s Women in Revolt – a film satirizing the Women’s Liberation movement. This was the last film that Andy Warhol actually shot footage for, having turned over most of his film productions to Paul Morrissey and other directors.
Holly has worked in the cabaret scene for years and is a fantastic performer, bringing old Hollywood glamour to her performances. Holly is a post-modernist vision of a film noir nightclub star – and a national treasure that should be better known.
In addition to her cabaret career, she has continued to appear in films and TV shows, including two recent appearances on the Amazon Studios show, Transparent. She is an icon for the transgender community, and she is a testament to the strength and endurance of the community in an age where transgender people are facing so much brutality.
As I write, Holly is in hospice care. Penny Arcade, the performance artist, writer and a dear friend of Holly’s, has created a GoFundMe account to help provide for Holly’s care for the rest of her days – round-the-clock nursing, medications, housing. I hope that all of us can find a way to give a little bit back to an icon who has given us so much.
Happy Birthday, Holly Woodlawn, with love.