My grandmother loved Liberace. He was on TV a lot when I was a kid in the 70s, and every time he was on a variety show, she would sit glued to the set.
She loved his sparkling costumes, the jewelry, the furs, and of course, his ivory-tinkling (he was an extremely talented pianist). I don’t remember her talking about him so I never got to find out what it was about this rouged and sequined piano player that drew her attention.
Time passed and along came the 80s. I had a grand-daughterly deja vu with a flamboyant musician myself, so I understood where she was coming from. I immediately fell in love when I heard Culture Club’s Time (Clock of the Heart) on the radio in 1981, and for the next few years, I had Boy George’s face plastered all over my bedroom walls. There was something about him that I was hopelessly drawn to – his individuality, his creativity, and the courage to be himself. But surely, I was attracted to him, he was a man after all… but something was amiss.
My love of Boy George confused me, just like my grandmother’s attraction to Liberace – both of us had rigid cultural gender roles stuffed down our throats, and any behaviour that strayed from what was considered “normal” for men and for women at the time was suspect – illegal in fact, during my grandmother’s era – but these were entertainers and allowed to be a little “eccentric”.
Though publicly closeted, Liberace was the first gay man to have his own TV show; he starred in movies, he was raking in $50,000 a week at the Riviera in Las Vegas, and he sold millions and millions of records. Women adored him.
He wore outrageous costumes for a man at the time – hell, even for a woman at the time, and I wonder if his female fan following had to do with a mutual love of glitz and girlish glamour.
The American Fashion Foundation called Liberace the best-dressed man in show business back in the day. Liberace, known as Mr. Showmanship, modeled himself after 19th century Bavarian King Ludwig II, a suspected gay man and patron of Wagner. To me, Liberace was more like a fabulous, flamboyant papal drag queen complete with dainty gold slippers and flowing robes.
Liberace’s tremendous wealth enabled him to surround himself in homes decorated in Rococo style; he drove high-end cars and played custom-made pianos. He wore the most elaborate, heavily sequined, plumed, and embroidered costumes, encrusted with diamond buttons and pounds of Swarovski rhinestones. Even his shoes were custom-made to match his outfits.
He was a costume designer’s dream and commissioned a new wardrobe every year. In a 1982 interview, Michael Travis, Liberace’s costume designer during the late 70s and early 80s, said of Liberace, “There’s nothing he will not do. He’s very flexible.”
The article describes Liberace’s most expensive outfit ever – a $300,000, 137-pound shimmering fox fur with a 16-foot train worn over a bejeweled tuxedo valued at $50,000.
“Every time he plays to a new audience he wants to see what he can shock them with,” Travis said.
And shock he did, much to the delight of his femme-heavy fan base.
Behind the Candelabra
People don’t realize how Liberace inspired entertainers of our modern era. In the wildly-praised 2013 HBO special, Behind the Candelabra, a film based on the book by his former lover, Scott Thorson, the true and somewhat tragic story of the outrageous pianist comes to light. Rob Lowe, who plays Dr. Jack Startz, Liberace’s plastic surgeon who once gave him a face lift so tight that Liberace couldn’t fully close his eyes, says that Liberace invented bling.
“The rappers of today wouldn’t be wearing or doing anything of what they’re doing without Liberace first,” Lowe insists. For all we know, it may have been Liberace that inspired Prince’s sequined boots and ruffles.
Liberace was a true original and fantastically talented man who sadly denied his sexuality to his grave. Glitz, glamour, loneliness, and denial – the story of his life, but it is through him that my grandmother’s gaydar found its glow, and I am pleased to have inherited it.
– Leah Morrigan is the Editor of GGN and a men’s image specialist