No one has changed my life more than Cherry Vanilla, the punk poet superstar who helped guide David Bowie during his queer Ziggy Stardust phase. When I was 13 years old, I was a massive Bowie fan. I felt isolated in Stockton, California, and wanted to become close to the people I adored. Cherry was one of the first people I interviewed, and we have remained friends over the past 16 years. When I needed her, she was there. Now, I am there for her. She calls herself my “faerie godmother,” and I agree. She has sprinkled faerie dust in every chapter of my life. I would not be where I am now without her. She is one of my longest friends in my short life.
Cherry Vanilla's history is long and star studded. Cherry entered the art world as a performance artist in various Off-Broadway plays. Her biggest and most culturally bending theatrical venture was starring in Andy Warhol's 1971 play, Pork. Pork was based on recorded conversations and gossip about socialite life between Brigid Berlin and Warhol himself. Cherry played Amanda Pork (Brigid Berlin).
Cherry Vanilla performs at Club 82 in Manhattan by unknown, circa 1976.
Pork was fundamental to glitter rock's development and greatly impacted David Bowie's career. So much so that he later told William S. Burroughs: "I want to get [Pork] on TV. TV has eaten up everything else, and Warhol films are all that is left, which is fabulous. Pork could become the next I Love Lucy, the great American domestic comedy. It's about how people really live, not like Lucy, who never touched dishwater. It's about people living and hustling to survive. That's what Pork is all about. A smashing of the spectacle."
Bowie was not just impressed with Cherry's genuine character and stage presence. After Pork and up until 1974, she was head of Public Relations and Marketing at MainMan LTD, David Bowie's management company. Cherry's knack for PR was uncanny, and she realized that both lies and truths could stir up friendly excitement that ultimately boosts record sales.
In 1974, she published her first book, Pop Tart Compositions, and started performing her poetry as songs. Her first released song was the proto-punk "Shake Your Ashes," which appeared on the Max's Kansas City:1976 compilation album. Just like the glitter and glam elements in Pork, Cherry was once again first in the next music trend, punk. In 2010 Cherry Vanilla published her memoir Lick Me. Lick Me shows Cherry Vanilla in yet another light. It begins with her childhood and ends before she signed with RCA UK in 1977.
Postscript: This is a combo of my interviews with Cherry over the past 15 years! Ooof!
—August Bernadicou, Executive Director of The LGBTQ History Project
"Beautiful Billy" and Cherry Vanilla by unknown, circa 1960s.
“Gay history is a very interesting and colorful history. There's also a lot of sadness in it. There are many heartbreaking stories about people who committed suicide to ruin their lives and didn't live the life they wanted to live just because of all the prejudices and laws against LGBTQ people.
Even with that in mind, I felt privileged to be let into the world of homosexuality and to be intimate and open with my friends who were gay. Gay boys brought me out in a way. I was a shy girl before I met them. When I was young, I had to push myself over the edge to break through my shyness. Now I was choosing to emulate my gay boyfriends and what they were doing. I wanted the interesting and colorful, not the sad and heartbreaking. I became very overtly sexual. I pushed the envelope, and I opened doors for other people. I'm really happy about that and grateful.
I always feel like I have a penis because I can feel myself getting an erection, even though I’m a female. An erection is a rush. I always feel a rush even just walking down North Orange Grove Avenue, my favorite street in LA. I swear that when I walk down this particular block, I hear Vangelis’s China album loud and clear in my head. It’s like the canopy of elm trees is playing it, or I’m in a cathedral filled with music with the lovely Hollywood 73-degree breezes and roses dipped in dappled sunlight. I’m hard. I’m erect. I’m rushing. I'm happy if I can get in just a one-hour walk a day like that. I still can relate to how hard life can be. It’s not like I ever became a spoiled brat. I gave up sex, but I still find life to be so sexy. I hope my openness and honesty still rings true with all of the hard out there, both young and old.
I learned a lot about myself when I started performing. Early in my performance career, in the Summer of 1971, I moved to London to be in the play Pork. The play only lasted a month, and then we all left broken-hearted! Pork was based on transcriptions of telephone conversations between Brigid Polk and Warhol. Patti Hackett, the secretary at the Factory, transcribed it all. Because Andy loved Tony Ingrassia’s plays, a few of which I had done for the New York Theater Ensemble, he asked Tony to edit the transcriptions into a play. Tony Ingrassia conceived the whole play from the actual transcriptions. This man named Ira Gale came to New York and made a deal to bring the play to London. David Bowie came to several of our performances, and some of us in the cast went to see him perform in London. MainMan, his production company, hired a few of us to help break him in America and beyond.
Bowie showed me how focused and disciplined an artist could be. He helped build my confidence by proving to be the star I instinctively knew him to be from the start, the star I staked my reputation for knowing such things on. He made me feel powerful but, at the same time, vulnerable because, after all, he was a man and I a woman, and that just sort of came with the territory. He was never afraid of change or of not being quite up to speed in the premiere performance of each new persona he created. He seemed to learn more and more from every show and to use it to grow constantly. And he never looked back. He always knew the next show would be better and never seemed to harbor any regrets. He lived totally in the present and with an innate confidence about how high his star would rise in the future. And the fact that he found me desirable as both a business and a sex partner, that he was attracted to both my body and my brain—that helped me raise the standards for all of the men I would let enter my life from then on.
I took bits and pieces from his work. I wrote about sex and love in my poems and my songs. I think where the sex came in was in my delivery. You know, when you’re a rocker chick, you act sexy and tough. And when you’re a poet, you kind of act more romantic. Love is so much deeper than sex. Sex is an animal act, but love is something much higher. Of course, sex becomes something higher when it’s combined with true love. Sex is about as high as one can take it when in love. Of course, sex in love and on acid, that’s the ultimate! I’m so different, though, now that I’m older. I’m so over sex, and I don’t even want romantic love. I see romance in almost everything now, and I have such loving friends. Sex is fine for those who need it and want it, but it’s been so overused as a tool to sell products. I’m kind of bored by it now.”