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Twenty years ago today, a film called To Wong, Thanks for Everything! Julie Newmar premiered in theatres. I was 10 years old at the time, and wouldn’t see it until six years later, in 2001. And as soon as I did, I was instantly hooked.
This movie is about three friends on a road trip to California, where they intend to compete in the nationwide Miss Drag Queen of America beauty pageant. On the way, they form a close bond, overcome adversity, and teach a bunch of closed-minded small-town folk how to be both more accepting and a little less dull. They also learn a lot about themselves, and what it means to be a true friend and strong woman.
One of my best friends and I still quote this movie regularly, and if you haven’t seen it, I encourage you to rectify that as soon as possible. Because aside from being hilarious, Miss Vida Boheme, Miss Noxeema Jackson, and Miss Chi-Chi Rodriguez taught me these things and more about how to live my most fulfilling and unapologetic life.
1. Real friends will accept you for who you are, not in spite of it.
Too often – especially under the guise of the internet, by zealots and bigots hiding behind their keyboards – I hear things like, “You’re sinning but hey, love you anyway bro!” when it comes to LGBT people. And it disgusts me to no end.
To Wong Foo taught me that the people who truly love you will not love you even though you are X, Y, and Z. They will love you because of those things – because they’re a part of who you are. They will not use their own measuring sticks as a way to pass judgment on you. And you deserve better friends than any who would.
2. There are four steps to true queenliness.
In Noxeema’s case, she was talking about steps to becoming a drag queen. But really, these rules can apply to everyone who wants to be the most badass human and genuine version of themselves:
1. Let good thoughts be your sword and shield.
2. Ignore adversity.
3. Abide by the rules of love.
4. Larger than life is just the right size.
I’d be lying if I said I didn’t keep these steps in my mental back pocket for use at all times. Because really, is anything missing? Nope. It’s that simple. Thanks, Noxie!
3. Style > substance.
I’m a really practical person, so this one is hard for me. But in a nutshell: You only have one life. If you’re in between two things and it’s difficult to make a choice, do the thing that will make you happiest even if it doesn’t make the most sense. Follow your heart. Have fun. Life is too short to always make the most sensible decision, and sometimes the sensible decision is really effing boring.
4. When all else fails, turn to the classics.
From the film’s statuesque namesake Julie Newmar to other classic beauties like Jayne Mansfield, Esther Williams, Marilyn Monroe, Anne Baxter, Emma Peel, and more, Vida, Noxie, and Chi-Chi always have someone to turn to when they aren’t sure what their next move should be. Lesson here? If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it. Sometimes poise, beauty, and grace are right there in the history books.
5. Don’t apologize for what you want – and go after it with confidence.
At the beginning of the movie, we meet Chi-Chi when she is at her most vulnerable: She loses New York’s “Drag Queen of the Year” contest. But while Vida and Noxeema take her under their wing, they also bestow upon her the title of “Drag Princess,” because they feel she isn’t ready to be a queen just yet. But Chi-Chi is relentless, following the Rules of True Queenliness until – SPOILER – Julie Newmar herself crowns her Miss Drag Queen of America.
And I cry. Every. Damn. Time.
Also? You don’t have to be shy about going after what you want. In the words of Miss Noxeema Jackson, if you want them to know there is steak for dinner, you got to let them hear it sizzle! No one got anywhere far in life by being quiet.
6. Don’t let anyone disrespect you.
There’s a difference between someone disagreeing with you and someone straight-up disrespecting you. Know this difference – and don’t be afraid to take appropriate action. Violence isn’t usually OK, but man, sometimes words just don’t do the trick.
7. At the end of the day, giving is better than taking.
Chi-Chi reaches Step 3 to becoming a queen, “Abide by the rules of love,” when she selflessly rejects Bobby Ray in favor of encouraging him to pursue the young Bobby Lee, who has been in love with him since she knew what love was.
As easy as it would’ve been to pursue a relationship with Bobby Ray, Chi-Chi learns that giving is always better for your soul.
8. Patrick Swayze, Wesley Snipes, and John Leguizamo were/are all amazing actors who didn’t get nearly enough credit for this movie.
While To Wong Foo is a vastly underrated film, Swayze (may he rest in peace), Snipes, and Leguizamo are even more so underrated. They put their hearts and souls into this movie, and committed 100 percent to making it the masterpiece it is. They’re everything, and I tip my movie-loving hat to them, as well as to many of the supporting cast like Stockard Channing, Alice Drummond, and Robin Williams – another soul gone too soon – as Mr. John Jacob Jingleheimer Schmidt.
Thank you, To Wong Foo, for making the last 20 years (and 14 years of my own life, including my teenage years) awesome. For all the love you haven’t gotten over the years, I give you on thousand times more, and hope that you will go down as a cult classic.