Menu

A Look at the Lives of Three Older Drag Queens in the Last Gay Bar in San Francisco’s Tenderloin District

Donna Personna

Donna adjusts her wig before her number.

James-Hosking_10

Olivia attaches her false eyelash.

For Beautiful by Night, San Francisco-based photographer and filmmaker James Hosking chronicles life in Aunt Charlie’s Lounge, the one and only gay bar left standing in the Tenderloin, a neighborhood that decades ago, was renowned for its thriving LGBT community. In tracing the nightly routines of three of its older drag queens— Donna Personna, Collette LeGrande, and Olivia Hart, Hosking traces the rich history and uncertain future of drag in the crime-ridden area.

In recent years, the Tenderloin has seen thirty-five times the crime rate of surrounding areas, reports Behold, and its decline has come at the expense of a once-flourishing gay nightlife. Hosking was drawn to those queens who had experienced those early years of drag, those who pushed through their fears of prejudice and societal disapproval to practice what they love. Hosking was endeared to Aunt Charlie’s, which he discovered in an alternative newspaper, in part because of its imperfect performances. The club has no windows and no stage, and the queens must wind in and out of the crowd during their sets, for which they choose their own songs.

Their nights are long, beginning with makeup from 6:30 PM to around 9 PM before dressing and preparation time at the club, which continues until 10:30, when the show starts. Until 12:30 AM, the queens will lip synch their hearts out for one dollar tips while rotating around the club. They will change outfits before each number, and after the show, they might mingle with the audience before grabbing dinner and heading home at 1:30 AM.

Despite the demanding nature of their work, Hosking explains that it is profoundly therapeutic. It offers Donna a reason to confront her anxieties head on, Olivia a motivation to stay sober, and Collette a way to express herself and her femininity. More than just a means to making a living, drag is an enduring and lifelong passion. “I think they’d miss it if they stopped,” says Hosking.

Hosking’s documentary film, Beautiful by Night, was shot by Vanessa Carr with sound design by Miik Dinko.

Collette LeGrande

Collette LeGrande at home.

Olivia Hart

Olivia applies make-up.

Collette LeGrande

Collette before leaving for Aunt Charlie’s.

James-Hosking_13

Olivia greets a shopkeeper on her way to Aunt Charlie’s.

James-Hosking_3

Gustavo at his home in Cupertino, California.

Donna Personna

Gustavo holds a photo of Donna over his face.

James-Hosking_5

Gustavo transforms into Donna Personna.

James-Hosking_18

Classy, a performer, lights a cigarette backstage.

James-Hosking_9

Olivia applies make-up.

James-Hosking_12

Olivia pauses for a cigarette in her room.

James-Hosking_14

Olivia reaches Aunt Charlie’s.

Olivia Hart

Olivia checks her décolletage.

James-Hosking_19

Collette performs Ke$ha’s “Tik-Tok.”

James-Hosking_15

Donna backstage at Aunt Charlie’s between sets.

James-Hosking_17

Rahni, a performer, makes a final check before she goes on stage.

All images © James Hosking

via Behold

  • some of the best photographs I’ve seen all year.

  • Coy Meza

    this is a great article but there is more then one Gay bar in the Tenderloin. Lets not forget the Gangway please.

Subscribe to our newsletter

Get some visual inspiration into your day!