WHITNEY SKAUGE & The Beauty President
This week, we chat with Whitney Skauge, director of the short documentary The Beauty President, premiering at SXSW this week. The Beauty President asks the question, “If a bad actor can be president, why not a good drag queen?” In 1992, Joan Jett Blakk made a historic bid for the White House as an openly queer write-in candidate. Today, Terence Smith, the man behind the persona, reflects back on his place in gay rights history at the height of the AIDS crisis.
By making this film, Whitney’s vision is to fill in one of the many gaps in the oral history of queer America. Though popular history has often swept the triumphs of gay heroes under the rug, documentary film helps us bring these incredible stories back into the light of day. As a black queer person, Whiney understands how imperative it is to share perspectives from underrepresented communities.
Whitney Skauge is an award-winning filmmaker dedicated to diverse storytelling and representation. Their films act as an extension of social and political activism with hopes of helping audiences understand themselves and the world around them better. Having worked at Breakwater Studios, Women In Film, Sundance Institute, and the Big Sky Documentary Film Festival, their career has demonstrated a consistent commitment to the art of independent filmmaking. They received their B.F.A. in Digital Filmmaking from the University of Montana. We loved chatting with Whitney about the perseverance needed to make the film, the process, and what they hope people will come away with after watching the film. Enjoy!
Click here to listen to our interview with Whitney Skauge on Apple Podcasts.
Episode transcription below.
WHITNEY SKAUGE & The Beauty President
Jennifer: Thank you so much for joining us today. We're really looking forward to talking with you and if you could just start by introducing yourself to our listeners and then telling us a little bit about your South by Southwest film, The Beauty President.
Whitney: Absolutely. Well, hello everyone. My name is Whitney Skauge . I am the director and editor of the short documentary film called The Beauty President, which is having its world premiere at South by Southwest this week. The film is about Terence Alan Smith, who in 1992, ran for president under his drag queen persona, Joan Jett Blakk in an effort to bring more, visibility and more knowledge to the queer issues at the time.
Jennifer: Can you tell us a little bit about the inspiration behind The Beauty President, can you tell us about finding the
Yeah, absolutely. So I work for a company called Breakwater Studios and we specialize in short form documentary. And I was actually doing research for another project and I came across Terence's story and I was just floored as a queer person and especially a queer person of color.
I felt bad that I didn't know about Terence's story. And I felt like there was a really big gap in history and that he filled that gap in history and that it was worth preserving and celebrating that story because as a queer person, you know, we really don't have a whole lot of historical figures that we can look to, we don't have a backlog of history that we can look to to see where we've come from.
And that's not to say that people don't exist and there's not people that we've already celebrated. But I think in terms of expanding the queer experience and expanding the queer canon, we need to hear these stories. So for me, I was really motivated, as a filmmaker to tell the story. And so I, I was doing some Googling and I came across America's first drag queen for presidents and that's Terence and that's Joan Jett Blakk.
And I came across a trove of archival footage, online VHS archival footage. And, you know, I was looking at this footage. I had this really strong, passionate feeling just from my own identity and perspective. And I basically went to my boss and was like, look, we have to make this into a movie. And they actually declined it, they actually turned it down for the series that I was originally researching it for. And I just couldn't stop thinking about it. And I kept watching this footage that was online and I just kept thinking about how I would go about telling the story. And so a couple of weeks later, I went back to my boss and I said, you know, I really, really think this needs to be a movie and I would really love to do it.
And I kind of gave him my pitch. And by the end of the meeting, we are off to the races.
That's so amazing. And I love, um, just. The perseverance and sticking with your idea, you know, I feel like so often it's like you get told one, no, thenwhat do you do, but just that you were like, no, I need to tell this that's, that's a really cool aspect of it. and I can't believe one of our questions was about the archival footage and how you came across that and processed it. But I can't believe that it was already processed online. Like that's, that's so wild for you to watch.
Whitney: Yes. So I should shout out a couple of people. Um, you know, there is people that were documenting this during the nineties and we found the archival online and it was just, it was just so amazing to be able to see this in real time.
And I think to your point about the persistence, it was actually seeing the footage and seeing Terence as this. You know, strong Black drag queen that had political ideals that are still relevant today. That to me was like, Oh my gosh, you've just, we've got to do something with this. Um, it, it was just this really passionate pull.
And I think as a filmmaker, you're always looking for that. You're always looking for the story that you can't get out of your head and what, um, you know, people always say to me, well, how do you know that you want to make a film and. To me, I think it's, you just can't get it out of your head. You can't stop thinking about it and you know, in your heart that you really need to tell a story.
Jennifer: Yeah. And kind of another question about the archival footage. I was just struck, um, by just how many themes I saw on the footage that were just so prevalent to today and from my own lack of education, ignorance, just not knowing that that's been there the whole time and said so explicitly like that. And that just really struck me seeing it. I'm wondering what you're hoping like people seeing that footage today might kind of come away with at the end of the film.
Whitney: I really want people to take away this understanding that queer people have always been here and queer people have always been fighting for their place in society. And even if that wasn't something that was in the mainstream media or got national attention, that's something that helped make, make a dent in history that leads the progress that we're experiencing now. And so what I really want people to take away from this is understanding that there are little dents and markers to progress. Progress doesn't happen overnight in a vacuum, progress happens because people like Terence decided to do something very courageous when society wasn't ready and that's what helps push the needle.
And I think, um, you know, the fact that Terence is. Terence was talking about things that we find still relevant today. I think that just goes to show that, um, there's a lot of intersectionality with the issues that we talk about. Um, With queer issues. Housing is a queer issue. Healthcare is a queer issue.
Um, all of these things work together and, and, um, and so I think Terence he understood that and he understood that the fact that there are 2.3 million queer identifying people in the country yet we only have so few representation in government. That's an issue. That's a problem. And I think, you know, The campaign itself, it had a camp element to it. It was performative. It was meant to get under people's skin. It was meant to make people think. And, um, you know, there was criticism of the campaign that it wasn't real, that it, that it was a joke that it was just too fringe. And I think, you know, what the film tries to do is the film really tries to go back and look at it as if it was a real campaign and to look at Terence as if he was a real candidate and to give it that weight and to give it that merit because you know, once again, as someone from this community, I just felt so bad that I didn't know the story and it felt like other people needed to hear it. And so with that, you know, the film itself acts as visibility. Um, and so everything kind of, you know, it's, it's fun to kind of make connections and weave it all together that way.
Larkin: Really really beautifully said, um, kind of jumping back into the process of making the film. Uh, the interview scenes with Terence were just shot really beautifully and kind of had this dreamlike element. And we were wondering if you could just talk about that, um, like what was that process talking with your cinematographer and the decision to shoot those scenes like that?
Whitney: Yeah, absolutely. So my cinematographer is an amazing, amazing person and creative named Haley Watson. And. You know, originally I was really wanting to build Terence's stage, so we shot during COVID. And so it was going to be difficult to do typical verite where you're following someone around and you're in their house and you're in their environment.
And so, um, you know, thinking of some of the archival footage, it was like, okay, how can I try to match that with the real time footage. And, you know, we got to this dream kind of state because we wanted it to feel like we were on a stage with Terence and we were giving him a backdrop and we were elevating him and we were making it. And it's called The Beauty President, I think to a certain degree, As a filmmaker, aesthetically, I like pretty things. I like beautiful things. And you know, for me, it was trying to create a talking head that I felt like spoke to me as a creative, but also made sense for the story.
So, um, you know, in the film we have a white backdrop behind Terence. And then it kind of has some depths to it. Um, and then, you know, this kind of dreamy we used, um, Oh gosh, my DP is going to be mad at me. I don't remember. Pro-Mist we used Pro-Mist, a Pro-Mist filter to get this kind of dreamy look to it.
And I think it, um, it. It kind of adds this nice softness to the film. And I think I wanted, um, I wanted Terence to feel accessible and I wanted Terence to feel like, um, I wanted people to feel about Terence the way I felt about him. And I almost felt like he is this wise, um, you know, my wise elder that I really want to respect.
And so it's about framing him in a way where he is elevated and he feels like a hero. And that's what we try to do visually.
Jennifer: Can you speak a little bit about like reaching out to Terence and how receptive he was to the idea of this film?
Whitney: Yeah. So, um, I found Terence and he basically was like, let's go, let's do it. Uh, Terence was very, um, very collaborative in the process. Um, you know, we still chat now and. Um, he's up in San Francisco and we basically, I'm in LA. And so I, my DP drove up there and then I drove up, um, a little bit after them and we hung out for like three days. And then, uh, I went back to LA. Um, but yeah, in terms of finding Terrance, uh, it was just some internet sleuthing. And then he was really receptive to it.
Larkin: How are you feeling premiering your short film at the South by Southwest film festival virtually this week?
You know, it's an honor. I think, you know, what's really exciting for me is that South By, you know, is at the intersection of art and politics. And for me, it's a really exciting place to premiere the film because of that somatic tie-in. And I, I'm just really excited to share it with audiences and just to see what people think, you know, it's been so insular at Breakwater with, you know, we're all excited about it, but we, you know, and else has seen it. So it's just, it's kind of like ripping the band-aid off a little bit.
Jennifer: Congrats. Yeah.
Whitney: Thank you so much.
Jennifer: Um, well we end every interview with our lightning round. we call it three, two, one action. So we'll start with, uh, number three, your favorite or most influential film?
Whitney: My favorite or most influential film, I would say most recently, the thing I go back to is Moonlight by Barry Jenkins.
Larkin: Number two, dream person you want to work with?
Whitney: Ooh, as of now, I would love to work with someone like Garrett Bradley. Um, Garrett Bradley is a feature documentary filmmaker, and she's just brilliant. And I really look up to her and that would, that would be rad.
Jennifer: That'd be very cool. Um, number one, best advice you've received.
Whitney: think smarter, not harder.
Larkin: And action. Where can people follow you on social media?
Whitney: You can check me out on Instagram @whitneyskauge and I'm also on Twitter and that is @whitters19
Jennifer: awesome. Well, thanks so much for chatting with us, Whitney. It was a delight.
Whitney: Yeah. Thank you guys so much. I really appreciate it.
Jennifer: And have a fun time at South By. We really enjoyed watching your film. So we hope everyone enjoys watching it too.
Whitney: Oh, thank you so much. I so appreciate that.