- Dirtwoman performs at a past Hamaganza event. The legendary RVA cult figure will be appearing this weekend at a benefit for a new documentary about his life.
The year is 1987 and a recent arrival takes a bar stool for the first time at the Village Café, then the epicenter of Richmond’s subculture.
On the stool next to her is a large man in a polyester dress and a blond wig smiling warmly in greeting. “Don’t you worry about me, honey,” Donny Corker says to the transplant to put her at ease. “I’m nothing but an old queen!”
Everyone over a certain age has a Dirtwoman story. Corker’s antics as Richmond’s most well-known 400-pound drag queen are legendary, from the 1993 pinup calendar to running for mayor, to his years as Mrs. Claus at the annual Hamaganza. Just as noteworthy is Corker’s pre-Stonewall role-modeling: He’s been unabashedly out as gay since he was a teenager.
In the works is a documentary about Dirtwoman that began 15 years ago on the occasion of Corker’s 50th birthday with an event at Caffeine’s featuring go-go boys, drag queens and people sharing their own Dirtwoman tales. Now at 65 and with major health issues, Corker’s life story is on track to finally be completed by local video producer Jerry Williams.
“This is the culmination of my 45 years as a video producer and director,” Williams says of the passion project. “I’ve never had a story that I was willing to commit a year of my life to making, but this is it.”
A life filled with outrageousness -- there’s the one about the video with Gwar involving puffed rice standing in for pubic lice -- will be celebrated with a toast on Sunday night at Sound of Music studios, complete with music, drag queens and storytelling. Part of the proceeds will go to the film project and the rest to Corker.
Anyone with memories of Dirtwoman is encouraged to attend and either tell their story onstage to Corker -- in full drag, of course -- or share it more privately in a separate studio in the back. Already, stories have been coming in and many of them point to another side of Dirtwoman: what a nice guy Corker has always been.
“This is a warm human being beneath all the outrageousness,” Williams says of stories such as one about him giving money to a fellow shopper who couldn’t afford a pair of shoes. Another time, he pulled a woman out of the line of fire during a shooting on Grace Street. “He’s an icon of Richmond art and rock culture in the ‘70s and that needs to be celebrated.”
For those who missed Dirtwoman’s glory years, the Toast is also an opportunity to hear anecdotes from a life so colorful that even John Waters’ biggest star, Divine, was a fan. And for those curious about how the name Dirtwoman originally came about, let’s just say it involved some inappropriate behavior in the back seat of a cop car and leave it at that.
“The toast will cover the highlights of his career,” Williams promises. The night may not be long enough for them all.
Dirtwoman Toast, May 21, 7 p.m. Sound of Music Studios, 1710 Altamont Ave. $10