Alluring qualities that make a gay icon

EARTHA Kitt has precisely the qualities that make a gay icon: a history of sadness, rejection and loneliness, mixed with a camp and sexually audacious stage act.

It has often been only the sadness and rejection that have made film and stage stars cult figures among homosexuals. The icons are generally all women, all of whom are heterosexual. The late Judy Garland is perhaps the biggest. There is even a gay fan club group called 'Friends of Dorothy', the name taken from the part Garland played in The Wizard of Oz.

Tim Waterstone, head of Waterstone's book shops, wrote in the Independent recently that she could be 'mawkish, cliched, extravagantly manipulative of her audience . . . so beautiful with wide, wonderful eyes and a look of haunting yearning . . . her own life showed the struggle against loneliness, depression, destroyed relationships, drug dependency . . . Judy Garland's people - often gay, typically outsiders, mostly alone - loved her as one.'

Nicholas De Jongh, author of the book Homosexuality On Stage, says: 'There are several sorts of gay icons. The women seem to be women who have suffered and put on tough, witty, passionate faces to the world. Garland is the obvious one. Bette Davis is another. Maggie Smith is probably one - a great sense of vulnerability masked by this wonderful, cool, lonely poise. The Lonely Passion of Judith Hearne, in which she starred, could be regarded as a gay film. 'Eartha Kitt has the open defiant sexuality which doesn't give a damn. That is important. Being camp is also terribly important. Its necessary elements are artifice and exaggeration. It is putting life on stilts, playing games with life.'

Tim Luscombe, founder of the London Gay Theatre Company, says that when he directed Noel Coward's Private Lives in the West End with Joan Collins and Sara Crowe, it was Sara Crowe who rapidly became a gay icon, the campness and exaggerated child-like voice of the vulnerable-looking girl in the Philadelphia cheese advertisement attracting a big homosexual following.

De Jongh adds that while the icons are generally heterosexual women, he believes the homosexual film director Derek Jarman could become one. 'His films have been very powerful in showing characters who were defiantly and happily gay, which is important to the considerable number of people who find it difficult to grow up to be gay in a world hostile to gayness. Ian McKellen on the other hand came out rather late, close to 50, and could probably not be a gay icon.'

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