Standing in the flourescent-lit lobby of a funky SRO hotel on Manhattan’s West Village waterfront, an elfin lad with intelligent eyes, alabaster complexion, and a soft, throaty voice swaddles his neck against the rainy chill of the night. The wall behind him is plastered with posters of a rock-and-roll diva in a skin-tight black minidress, standing at a microphone in a smoky spotlight with legs splayed and hip cocked: Marlene Dietrich reborn as Courtney Love. It’s hard to believe they’re both John Cameron Mitchell, the 35-year-old star of Hedwig and the Angry Inch, the Off-Broadway hit show he co-wrote and performs with Stephen Trask of the kickass rock band Cheater. 

Not since Torch Song Trilogy has such an upfront gay portrayal rocketed from the depths of queer subculture to mainstream adulation. Suburban couples, European hipsters, and celebrities such as Glenn Close and Danny DeVito have all flocked to the Jane Street Theater to applaud the most surprising theater sensation of the year. Developed over a period of four years at the drag/grunge rock club Squeezebox, Hedwig swirls standup comedy, dramatic theater, and undiluted rock and roll into a unique cocktail. 

Mitchell plays “a mere slip of a girly-boy” from East Berlin whose unlikely saga includes a botched sex-change leaves her with an angry inch of indeterminate genital and marriage to a black GI who dumps her in a Kansas trailer park. There she befriends an Army brat named Tommy and grooms him into a rock-star whose newfound fame she both scorns and envies.

The show has roots in Mitchell’s autobiography. Like Tommy, he grew up the son of an Army general. Always on the move, he attended 20 different schools. His constant companions were science fiction, Marvel comics, glam-rock (his favorite LP was David Bowie’s Hunky Dory), and eventually theater. Bisexual as a teenager (“guys were great for sex, women for emotional support”), he came out in college while visiting his brother in San Francisco. “I wandered out to Polk Street, and a guy handed me an invitation to an orgy. I was terrified by the flying penis figures, but I spent the weekend with this guy, who was kind of a hippie auto mechanic from Thunder Bay who lived in a commune and drove me around on his motorcycle. It was hot,” Mitchell says, ever-so-misty at the memory.

From the very beginning, he has always been out as a gay actor. “I was tired of those actors who say ‘None of your business’ or ‘I’m not into labels’ -- the more you do that, the more it perpetuates the pejorative connotation,” says Mitchell, eating sushi with his fingers, his face faintly sparkling with leftover glitter makeup. “I wasn’t the Tom Cruise-type actor where my livelihood depended on women wanting to fuck me, so it’s never really affected me. I remember doing a big action movie and thinking, ‘I’ll have to be discreet now,’ but it requires so much energy to do that. And being an actor is being powerless anyway. There was a certain amount of, ‘You’re going to treat me badly and tell me how to live my personal life as well? Fuck you!’”

Nearly all his biggest roles have been gay characters, including his stint as a fashion designer on the short-lived Fox series Party Girl, but until Hedwig Mitchell had stayed away from drag. “I was scared of the feminine within, as most gay guys are at some point.” But he started hanging out at Squeezebox because his boyfriend at the time was in the house band alongside Stephen Trask. “The drag queens there were very inspiring. They were singing instead of lip-synching, and in rock and roll you don’t have to sing as well as Diana Ross. Mistress Formika was the hostess and she would just kick ass! She would stage-dive, I would be amazed. My favorite right now is Justin Bond. She takes drag to the extreme, playing a character named Kiki who’s a cross between Eydie Gorme and Johnny Rotten. It’s really aggressive and very moving. Having seen her, I was inspired to open up and interact with the audience more as Hedwig.”

Although New York theater audiences have admired Mitchell for years in both plays (Six Degrees of Separation) and musicals (The Secret Garden, Hello Again), Hedwig has catapulted him from actor-for-hire into the realm of actor-creators such as John Leguizamo and Eric Bogosian. He’s making a short film for HBO, the album of Hedwig will be released in February, and a movie is in the works, to be produced by Christine Vachon for New Line Cinema. After performing Hedwig for a year nonstop, Mitchell’s ready to take a break and let someone else step into her platinum wig. “This show uses up everything I’ve ever learned as an actor and a singer,” he says.

Whatever’s next, he’s got our attention.

The Advocate, January 19, 1999