On Lake Wobegon, the women are strong, the men are good-looking, and the children are all above average. But go up a little farther north, to the Mesabi Iron Range, and the women are loud, the men are even louder (and prone to facial hair, profanity and homophobia), and the children are repressed beyond belief.
Welcome to a hardscrabble mining community in northern Minnesota known as Hibbing—an economically depressed town of about 15,000 to 20,000 that nonetheless boasts several famous alumni. This is the story of one of those famous alumni, a man who made it really big, and in doing so, made it, well, not exactly OK, but conceivable, to be gay in a Northern mining town. Not merely gay, mind you, but exuberantly, loudly, flamingly in-your-face queer.
What? You've never heard of Larry Paciotti? Well, if you're into gay porn or drag culture, you probably know Larry as Chi Chi LaRue: "auteur" publisher of the Hard Body video magazine and director of triple-X titles like Shop Boys, Lost in Vegas, Alley Boys and the Boot Black series. But, as a member of Larry's high-school graduating class in Hibbing (1978), I remember an earlier, if not-so-different Larry. One of my first memories of Larry is of a pear-shaped kid with a pretty, feminine face and bawdy, infectious laugh, strutting through Lincoln Junior High School in pink brushed-denim, hip-hugger bellbottoms. He was a scene-stealer even then.
A UK-made documentary film showing at the Sixth Annual Gay and Lesbian Film Festival in Durham this weekend—Sex Becomes Her: The True Life Story of Chi Chi LaRue—details the transformation of my high school classmate into drag queen filmmaker Chi Chi LaRue. "Chi Chi is a slut," he says. "Larry stays home." This no-holds-barred film introduces you to them both. Larry's story has everything: betrayal, acceptance, fame and more willing men than any gay boy has a right to dream about—especially a portly, effeminate guy growing up in '70s small-town America.
Sex Becomes Her seems pretty ingenuous. We see Chi Chi at the gay video awards, at her B-day drag party (it gets raided), at a few skinny-dipping pool parties attended by young, buff males. A good portion of the film takes place on the L.A. set of The Body Shop, where Larry, still a youthful 40, with shortish streaked hair, clipped goatee and fashionable specs, barks out commands ("Jerk it! Spit on it and snap it!") as virile studs (known as "models" in the industry) do his bidding, anxious to make the scene hot for gay porn's most well-known director. Incidentally, Chi Chi was porn's first successful drag queen director (initially, the Chi Chi persona wasn't considered "butch" enough), until Larry's growing fame as a drag performer and personality made distributors realize that Chi Chi was a hot commodity, easily as famous as some of her major discoveries, such as Joey Stefano (whom Chi Chi carried a torch for until Stefano's overdose death at age 26) and Zak Spears.
And just how did Larry break into porn? By being the ultimate fan. Growing up in a virtual porn-free zone (Hibbing) with only surreptitiously procured copies of Foxy Lady and Playgirl for stroke mags (altar boy Larry would be overcome by guilt and throw them in the nearby swamp, then rescue them days later and carefully dry them out), Larry first turned to music, especially glam rock: Joan Jett and the Runaways, Cher, Elton John, KISS. It was a love affair that continues to this day—as a drag performer, Chi Chi sings as often as lip-synchs.
But the turning point was discovering pornography—straight porn—in Duluth, a 70-mile drive from Hibbing, where Larry would frequent The Strand Theater. To this day, he remains a dedicated Sharon Kane fan, and she returns the favor—she's interviewed in the documentary. During that time, Larry acquired an encyclopedic knowledge of porn: the stars, their measurements ("to the millimeter," he cracks) and directors. It was knowledge that served him well later on.
After moving to Minneapolis, Larry discovered that "drag queens get more sex than fat boys," and he started the "hag drag" group "The Weather Gals" (yeah, they covered "It's Raining Men"), which gave him an opportunity to premiere his Chi Chi character. Looking like a chubby Marc Almond and sporting a pencil-thin mustache (and no boobs), Chi Chi was a natural—a loud, brash broad who'd say anything to anybody. A budding star was born.
Moving with a Minneapolis friend to Los Angeles to "make it big," Larry was overjoyed when his knowledge of and enthusiasm for the porn industry got him hired on the spot at Catalina video. Of course, he soon tired of working and doing publicity, and begged to try his hand at directing, where he had a flair for the sex scenes. (He'll freely admit he's not a dialogue man. There's a great scene in the documentary where Larry's ad-libbing a line to a model that involves "draining the snake." It really has to be seen to be appreciated.) Soon she was hanging out at the clubs, rubbing elbows with Sandra Bernhard, and doing drag on the weekends.
The makers of Sex Becomes Her talk to Chi Chi's friends and coworkers, fellow directors, drag queen buddies, fans and hangers-on, even following her on a promotional tour to a Cleveland bathhouse where, ever the director, she auditions some "new meat." (Chi Chi is very upfront about there being no "casting couch" pressure to work on her films. At this point, she has her assistants take the audition Polaroids.) She's also very particular about safe sex, adding that it's inexcusable in these HIV times to risk the models' lives. Former Judas Priest frontman Rob Halford even stops by the studio—Chi Chi recently directed a video for his new group—and they have a chat. Let's just say you'll never listen to the song "Jawbreaker" the same way again.
The most poignant scenes come when Larry revisits Hibbing, during the winter no less ("the tundra," as he refers to it). There are memories of lutefisk (the most disgusting fish in the world; "It's like snot fish," he says). There's also a tour of his childhood home (his mother still lives in Hibbing), and of Hibbing High School, which is famous for producing Jeno Paulucci (the creator of Chun King—fake Chinese food made by an Italian, enjoyed by all ethnic persuasions except the Chinese); Vince Bugliosi (the author of Helter Skelter); Gary Puckett (crooner of pedophilic '60s anthems like "Young Girl," "This Girl is a Woman Now"—you get the drift); and Bobby Zimmerman Dylan, who wouldn't acknowledge his Hibbing origins for years, instead creating a sort of faux Okie persona and befriending the then hospitalized Woody Guthrie, before blowing the Greenwich Village folk scene on its butt. Boston Celtic Kevin McHale also attended the school (he was two grades ahead). At Larry's 15th all-class reunion, McHale acknowledged Larry and cracked, "I guess we must be the most famous people here."
He showed them all: Larry, the Italian-Norwegian kid who was built like the Big Fig Newton (upon discovering he could make people laugh, he performed as the '70s cookie-commercial character at a high-school show) was now the darling of millions. Larry, the kid who had his diary of high-school sports star crushes stolen and broadcasted to the "cool" crowd, effectively outing him in a town that, as far as we knew, had no queers. Larry has become the stuff his youthful dreams were made of.