Elements of Style: How a Gender-Bending Wrestler Changed Pop Culture

Professional wrestler Gorgeous George
Professional wrestler Gorgeous George, the self-proclaimed “beautiful” showman, was a man out of time. Few entertainers—or anyone, for that matter—can claim such an eclectic and iconic list of devotees: James Brown, Bob Dylan, Muhammad Ali, Andy Kaufman and John Waters. Each borrowed a different element from George’s transgressive persona and style, adding their own spin to it.

He stood out, to say the least. A 1948 Newsweek article noted that “both in and out of the ring he affects a … swishy manner, and effeminate fragrance.” After arriving in town for a match, the wrestler often held court with reporters in women’s beauty salons while getting his hair done, long curly locks and all. It was always good for a few column inches. With Gorgeous George’s narcissistic, over-the-top personality and fluid sexual identity, this preening wrestler was likened to “a Liberace in tights.”

As part of the wrestler’s pre-bout ritual, he dressed head to toe in a frilly woman’s nightgown, which was slowly and suggestively removed by his valet. As his manservant sprayed the ring with an oversized canister filled with perfume, George pompously bowed to the audience, mocking them. “Sissy!,” they screamed, “Who do you think you are?” The blue-collar crowd went even more berserk when he delayed the fight by very sloooooowly and meticulously folding his clothing with snobbish care. “The more they yelled,” he later recounted, “the more time I took.”

Even though audiences retaliated with projectiles and verbal taunts, Gorgeous George was also quite beloved. A Boxing Illustrated profile noted that many in the arena “jeered him with a smile and hated him with affection.” His outrageous behavior gave the audience a license to respond to him with their own bizarre displays. In the late-1940s, televised wrestling matches aired every night on prime time—making him as famous as just about any American celebrity. All the comedians of the day, from Jack Benny to Bob Hope, told Gorgeous George jokes.

During the 1940s and 1950s, his campy gender-bending act helped move the shocking and outré from the fringes of culture to the televised mainstream. “He was bizarre, I’d never seen anything like it,” John Waters said of the first time he saw the wrestler, at the age of eleven. “A man who wore women’s clothes, who had bleached hair, who made people scared but also made them laugh.” As Mr. and Mrs. Waters shouted at the television, offended by George’s abominable behavior, the future film director sat there mesmerized.

That night, John Waters decided to go into show business. He started making underground films as a teenager and, eventually, gross-out classics like Pink Flamingos, Female Trouble and Polyester. “Gorgeous George inspired me to think up bizarre characters with humor,” he told biographer John Capouya, pointing to the roles he created for his cross-dressing muse, Divine. “In my films, I’m beginning to realize, all of my characters have something to do with him, subliminally.”

James Brown was also directly influenced by “the rassler, Gorgeous George,” whom the soul music legend said “added a special flamboyance to his matches.” He inspired the singer’s wardrobe choices and other aspects of his stagecraft, including Brown’s famous cape routine. Brown also loved the wrestler’s boastful nicknames (“The Toast of the Coast,” “The Sensation of the Nation”), and developed memorable ones of his own (“The Godfather of Soul,” “The Hardest Working Man In Show Business”).
Another in the long list of improbable pop-culture trickster figures he inspired was Bob Dylan, who witnessed the wrestler’s act in Hibbing, Minnesota during the late-1950s.

“It was Gorgeous George, in all his magnificent glory,” the musician recalled in his memoir Chronicles, Volume One. “He had valets and was surrounded by women carrying roses, wore a majestic fur-lined gold cape and his long blond curls were flowing.”

Dylan was performing in the National Guard Armory, the same venue where a wrestling match was also taking place. As the beautiful man walked by with his entourage, the singer says that George winked at him and appeared to mouth the following words: “You’re making it come alive.” He could have been saying anything, but Dylan insists that this chance encounter “was all the recognition and encouragement I would need for years to come.”

When Muhammad Ali (then known as Cassius Clay) first witnessed George, he was awestruck. The wrestler walked down the aisle to the tune of “Pomp and Circumstance” while dressed in a formfitting red velvet gown covered by a lush white satin robe. With his nose held high, he regally surveyed his domain and addressed the crowd: “Peasants!” George relished the insults, screams and foot stomping.

“Oh, everybody just booed him,” Clay recalled. “I looked around and I saw everybody was mad. I was mad! I saw 15,000 people coming to see this man get beat, and his talking did it. And I said, ‘This is a gooood idea.’”

For Christmas, Kembrew McLeod is looking forward to wearing his matching father/son pentagram t-shirt/onesie set that his lovely wife Lynne made for him and Alasdair (their infant son, who is not scheduled to be sacrificed to the Lord Satan this year).

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