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Yahoo Entertainment is spending Veterans Day with rock veteran Gene Simmons at the El Segundo location of Rock & Brews, the restaurant chain he co-founded with his KISS bandmate Paul Stanley. He’s here to honor veterans, who are receiving free meals as thanks for their service… but you just never know where a conversation with Simmons is going to end up.
In this case, the conversation eventually leads to drag queens and to Simmons’s lost cult flick Never Too Young to Die, for which he donned drag himself as villainess Velvet Von Ragnar. But in Simmons’s own way, the discussion circles back to the important occasion we’re all celebrating this afternoon: to the idea of freedom of expression in America, something our veterans have always fought for.
Yahoo Entertainment has been rallying for a metal-themed episode of RuPaul’s Drag Race for years now, and so far, both Judas Priest’s Rob Halford and Twisted Sister’s Dee Snider are on board. Even Stanley is open to the idea. (“It would be bizarre… good and bizarre,” Stanley told Yahoo in 2021.) This dream came a little closer to being realized this year, when Drag Race Season 14 finalist Daya Betty rocked the runway in some barely trademark-infringing Ace Frehley eleganza.
So, of course we ask Simmons — who to this day still does his own Demon facepaint, because makeup artists “don't know your face, don't know your vibe, don't know your tone” — if he would ever sign up to be a Drag Race guest judge.
“Sure!” Simmons says without hesitation. "I’m a big fan of anybody who wants to stand up and say, 'I'm unique, I'm not like everybody else, and you can't judge me. Because the real question is, who the f*** are you?’ … I support LGBTXYZBTA — put all the letters in. I totally support anybody who wants to be unique.”
Simmons has certainly had a unique career, with one of his most unique and unexpected — if all but forgotten — moments being 1986’s Never Too Young to Die, a film that almost made KISS Meets the Phantom of the Park look sedate. The futuristic spy caper starred John Stamos, Prince protégé Vanity, Robert "Freddy Krueger" Englund, and even former James Bond actor George Lazenby. But the star of the show was most definitely Simmons, who sank his scenery-chewing teeth into the Rocky Horror-esque, gender-bending role of Velvet Von Ragnar — the ruler of a street gang of Mad Max-esque “little turdballs” whose evil scheme is to poison Southern California’s water supply with radioactive waste and render it undrinkable for the next 10,000 years.
The standout scene in the film, which was finally issued on DVD and Blu-ray by Shout! Factory in 2017, is Velvet’s snarling cabaret performance of “It Takes a Man Like Me to Be a Woman Like Me.” That original song was never commercially released (although some of its lyrics ended up on KISS's 1992 Revenge track "Spit"), but Gene reveals that it was a nod to real-life Hedwig & the Angry Inch inspiration “the original Wayne County, who [later] became [transgender punk star] Jayne County. We opened for them in a loft in New York City, and he literally ate something that was in the toilet bowl that was onstage with him."
Velvet's screen song was actually based on "It Takes a Man Like Me to Find a Woman Like Me," which County performed live with the band Queen Elizabeth in 1972, but Simmons cites another reference: "Wayne also had another song called ‘(If You Don't Wanna F*** Me, Baby) F** Off.' ... So, that's where that came from. And again, it can't be easy to be unique. It's easy when you blend in, because you have everybody else protecting you. When you stand out, people are going to have something to say about that.”
Simmons was actually offered a choice of two parts in Never Too Young to Die: either a Marine commander, or a role that wasn’t considered politically incorrect back in 1986, an “evil hermaphrodite.” He chose the latter, which was obviously the more fun opportunity, and he certainly appeared to be having a blast onscreen. But in turns out getting into character was a lot more arduous than getting into his KISS stage gear. “I had to Nair my chest hair off, and it was just torture. They took my eyebrows off, and it just horrific — the pain. Beauty is pain,” he says. “I showed up on the set and they said, ‘We need somebody to take all your hair off your chest.' Thank God they left it on my head.”
Simmons doesn't recall exactly how long it took for his hair to totally grow back, but says, "I do remember months of scratching my chest."
While some may have assumed that Velvet Von Ragnar’s feathered, bedazzled “It Takes a Man Like Me to Be a Woman Like Me” outfit was a tribute to Simmons's ex-girlfriend Cher, KISS superfans have speculated that it was actually inspired by the Bob Mackie-designed costume that Wonder Woman star Lynda Carter wore for her 1980 TV variety special, Encore, during which she sang KISS’s “I Was Made for Loving You” while flanked by a dance troupe of limber, high-kicking KISS clones. Simmons’s Never Too Young to Die outfit is an almost exact replica of Carter’s sheer-illusion Encore bodysuit, but Simmons claims he wasn’t aware of costume designer Fred Long’s meta-reference at the time.
“I didn't design it, but in retrospect, clearly it was inspired by Lynda's KISS thing,” Simmons chuckles.
Gene Simmons is amused to discuss this corny footnote on his résumé, but much more seriously, he’s most focused right now of what he’s doing for veterans — the men and woman who’ve helped make such freedom of expression possible.
“We're here at Rock & Brews and everybody's having a great time, but it ain't about me… it really is about the vets,” Simmons stresses. “Some of them actually give the ultimate sacrifice, leaving behind their children, their families and everything, for an idea. Even as I'm saying it, I'm aware that there are people gonna say, ‘Oh, that's so corny!’ ... But people forget there are those among us who actually risk their lives, and some give the ultimate sacrifice. I know that’s cornball talking about that here in sunny California, but it's a fact of life. I have friends who are in their twenties and thirties whose fathers are not here because they went overseas on multiple life-risking events and some didn't come back.
“So, as far as I'm concerned, every day is Veterans Day.”
Watch Simmons's Rock & Brews interview above.
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