When Atlanta Magazine devoted its 50th-anniversary issue to the city’s “most influential” leaders — including the venerable Jimmy Carter, Ted Turner and Shirley Franklin — among them was an exotic dancer named “Blondie Strange,” who is locally famous for her platinum wigs and signature gimmick: crushing empty beer cans flatter than platters between her breasts.
Assigned by the magazine to write about the woman behind this burlesque recycling program, I set out on a Saturday night to get to know her.
Born Anita Rae Strange (“yes, that’s my real name”), she still shimmies and bares all at 55 — not nearly as old as her Methuselah-like myth suggests, but more than twice the age of the average ecdysiast. Because she was one of the first African-American dancers to integrate a white establishment in the city’s sprawling strip-club scene, she is hailed as a sort of X-rated civil rights pioneer, and her poetry has established her as a pet bard of intown bohemians.
Despite an accomplished career as an exhibitionist, Blondie, like many hammy entertainers, is not nearly as revealing offstage as her art demands when she is astride a table at the Clermont Lounge, the sticky, threadbare dive on Ponce de Leon Avenue where she has performed since 1978.
Like most night owls, I already possessed a shoebox full of her flattened Budweiser empties, along with sheaves of her handwritten, tear-stained rhymes, so I was intimately familiar with her work. (Live in Atlanta long enough, and you will somehow acquire a Blondie anecdote, whether you want one or not.) Still, I was expecting her to perform on the night we met, so I could take notes. But, restless, wired and not inclined to be “bossed,” she was having none of that. She wanted to party, and she evidently craved more adulation than the hollow-eyed, happy-hour barflies at the Clermont were offering.
So we went to the Model T.
An axiom of camp holds that it takes a great lady to appreciate gay men, and gay men to appreciate a great lady in her full glory. The seasoned “bachelors” at the Model T applauded when Blondie walked in; complimentary cocktails started flowing, and she held court with bawdy abandon. She adores her many “gay husbands,” and vice versa. She bunkered down in the ladies’ room and then emerged, with pupils dilated, and removed her blouse, but not her purple brassiere, for an impromptu, high-kicking performance.
Then she whisked me up for a slow dance to “Harper Valley P.T.A.,” felt me up pretty thoroughly (“the best action I’ve had lately,” I told her), and when the song ended, dropped nimbly into an acrobatic split — the perfect capstone to an evening that still seems like a fever dream scripted by Hunter S. Thompson. It was great fun, but she remained in many ways an enigma, difficult to flesh out amid that ample flesh.
Her outsized personality and arresting aesthetics, though, lend themselves naturally to a visual medium, as the documentary “AKA Blondie” demonstrates, with a grace and sureness remarkable for a feature-length directorial debut. The biopic, directed by Jon Watts of Half Pint Productions, will premiere this weekend at the 36th annual Atlanta Film Festival as part of the Georgia on My Mind Series. It will screen at 9 p.m. Sunday at the Plaza Theatre.
“Blondie is so much a part of Atlanta, and Atlanta is indelibly part of her,” Watts says. “That’s why I want this documentary’s debut to be here, despite other offers we’ve had.”
After all, if anyone represents the nocturnal city, it’s Blondie Strange, who straddles a nexus of Atlanta’s funkier civic identifiers that chamber-of-commerce types would rather not promote in marketing campaigns: integration and the generative creativity of miscegenation; the salty scut-work of the sex industry; and unapologetic gay pride.
Watts, who in contrast has the wholesome looks and manners of a Mormon missionary, worked as a free-lance director of photography until 2007, when he established Half Pint with his wife, Brantly. He discovered Blondie in 2006 on his 25th birthday. “I don’t remember much about that night,” he concedes, “but she read me her poetry, and she stayed on my mind. I was looking for a character study and I knew she had a story to tell.”
Like the agile dancer it celebrates, the documentary is notable for its hard-earned balance, respecting the entertainer’s dignity while exploring with frankness and honesty the moral ambiguities and degradations of her neon-lit world, as well as her growing anxiety about the aging process. It features deftly edited interviews with a cavalcade of Clermont Lounge patrons, scenesters and dancers, as well as comedian Margaret Cho, who extols Blondie as a symbol of sexual empowerment for older women. Throughout the film, we enjoy glimpses of the real Anita Rae, the vulnerable, sweet-natured and eager-to-please woman who has always felt like something of a misfit when she is not preening as a self-made, bad-ass icon. Hence the title “AKA Blondie.”
There is unself-conscious nudity aplenty, along with drugs, salty language, tears and prayer. In addition to her other parlor tricks, the mercurial Blondie deploys her pendulous breasts like weapons of mass destruction, occasionally slapping unruly patrons about the face. One of them recounts haggling with her over a tip and then getting a black eye, and he seems like just the sort of smarmy frat boy who had it coming. “That gets a lot of frustration off my chest,” she puns.
The film inevitably will draw comparisons to the acclaimed “Benjamin Smoke,” the 2000 documentary about a beloved Cabbagetown drag queen, poet and singer, and “AKA Blondie” is a worthy heir to it, as well as a vital addition to the accumulating body of work about Atlanta’s grittier, less-than-genteel and undersung demimonde.
Blondie understandably hopes the movie will enhance her fame and perhaps catapult her into a better-paid category of sexpert, along the lines of Annie Sprinkle or Dolores French. Even if it doesn’t, though, she remains a star.
“I’m happy where I am,” she says, her eyes glistening. “I really am.”