A Beautiful Presidential Conversation w/ Whitney Skauge and Terence Smith

In The Beauty President, Terence Smith retells his ’92 presidential campaign as his drag queen persona Ms. Joan Black in a conversational documentary short film by Whitney Skauge. Smith didn’t realize at the time it would be such a historic moment in political art, and this film captures his surprise and delight at being a part of history. 

“I was fortunate enough to be in a couple of books,” Smith says during a Zoom interview with The Nerds of Color. “One of them is called Electoral Guerrilla Theater and there are three examples of people doing politics as performance and vice versa. And I didn’t even realize that’s what I was doing. I mean, somewhere along the way, the politics became art. And, I didn’t know I was doing that. I missed it.”

The Beauty President marks one of the several media projects to recount this moment in Smith’s life, but this film tells it through his words directly. Whitney Skauge, the director detailed the moment they found out this story in such an unlikely place and why it resonated so much to them. 

“The way I first found it was [when I was] doing some research, and came across an article that said, ‘Drag Queen Runs for President 1992,'” Skauge explains in the same Zoom call. “I kept reading and it was this really lovely article about Terence, and as documentarian I just thought to myself, ‘Oh, my gosh, this is amazing’. But as a queer person, and as a black person, I thought to myself, this is something that is really important, and something that needs to be preserved for so many reasons and for so many people. I just wanted to play a role in helping it not get lost.”

Historical moments becoming lost is something that is all too common in marginalized communities. The lack of recognition from broader society has allowed much of the past to remain unheard, but with more awareness to these communities through media and icons it gives people the courage to stand up and be themselves. Smith was aware of that very fact, even for himself. 

“The person I saw, that kind of made it possible for me to say that about myself was David Bowie,” Smith recalls. “I saw the Ziggy Stardust tour. And he was androgynous, he looked like nothing else on earth. And he used the word androgynous. Once I stepped into that, everything else that I’ve done, comes out of that little seat. Sometimes I feel more like a man when I’m in a dress, and more like a woman when I’m not. It’s not an accident that you will absorb these identities and believe you me, even when I came out in 1974. Once I stepped out, I just never looked back.”

Skauge relates these same responsibilities through their own work and how they merged all of the aspects of themselves through their work and how it related to the audiences own internal struggles. 

“I think for me, it’s all the same,” says Skauge. “So my identity as a queer black person and a documentarian is all the same thing. So anything I do with my work, it should serve my identity as a queer black person. And what I want to do is, I want to help other queer and black people realize that they’re not alone in their identity. No matter what part of the spectrum they’re on. The art and the identity are in tandem, together.”

Smith did like the fact that he could see how much the younger generation has been moving towards the progress of acceptance that would’ve been even more dangerous years ago, but he is also aware of how much work we still have to do.

“I worked in a bookstore and there was a 10-year-old who came in one day, who had asked his parents, if he could do drag on Halloween,” Smith remembers. “I was blown away. But at the same time, it’s always two steps forward, one step back, it’s always like that, and I guess it’ll always be like that, as long as there are Puritans and Christians running around, because they’re gonna push you back.”

“I think it you hit the nail on the head, two steps forward, one step back, and maybe a couple of side steps,” adds Skauge. “Speaking to the younger generation, I feel like we’ve done a lot of work to make it so you can have that 10-year old drag queen. Part of that work comes from your generation, Terrance. Part of that work comes from my generation where we really tried to move away from “that so gay” and “no homo”. — I think what’s such a pivotal moment for our generation has been social media has been the Internet, and people can connect, and you don’t have to live in New York or California anymore to engage with the queer community. There are avenues where the community can really start to come together again. And it’s not so isolated anymore. Several generations made that possible.”

These positive changes in communication have made it easier for queer people to find acceptance on a broader scale. However, the vast ability to connect to people from anywhere has also brought the acknowledgement of the immediate and present danger people face today. Smith as his drag persona Ms. Black’s political campaign was championing similar political ideals that would become part of America’s zeitgeist in 2016 and 2020. Her campaign promises were a megaphone for the dangers of the marginalized in ’92 faced and tried to bring attention to the political sphere to find ways of fixing them. Now those same economic and social struggles have reached the broader American population. Showing that not only have they not gone away but they have grown to be a bigger foundation of the infrastructure of America’s troubles.

His approach of even just entering the presidential race changed the perspective of several people who got to witness it. Ms. Black’s presidential campaign also brought to question just how much of campaigning is just looking the part. 

“I have always loved politics,” says Smith. “I’ve always thought it was a really interesting subject. Because it’s always seemed weird to me that you voted for people, and they became somehow your rulers. I thought that on a very basic level.—If you can make it look like a campaign, people will vote for you. It worked for Donald Trump, years later.”

“Yeah,” Skauge tells Smith. “At the screening the other day, people came up to you and said they would vote for you now.”

The realization that people would vote for Ms. Black even now is indicative of the inequality that has grown through out the years. It allows this short film to touch a larger audience in its ten minute run time that several current politicians take hours to accumulate. The acknowledgement of issues affecting us today and the hope to find change is completely drenched in the film as it is from the two major creatives on it. 

“I think Terence was aware of things ahead of his time, because he was experiencing it,” Skauge explains. “He was in the community that was experiencing lack of representation, lack of secure housing, of health care, and a lack of visibility. It’s always the people that are not in the majority that are experiencing these things for decades. it’s not our fault that that’s not on the platform of the straight white dude that’s running because obviously, they’re not experiencing it. —I think the reason the film resonates with people so much is because Terence has been been politically active his whole life. And as for queer people and black people, existing is a political act, day to day. It’s dangerous. Just existing puts you into this political headspace that I don’t think the average straight white American has to be in all the time. I just think that there’s something to be said, and I really do not like saying ‘identity politics’, but there is something to be said about the fact that your identity is so tied and linked to your politics. And if you don’t understand that, then you’re probably in the majority.”