She had many names: Sister Hateful Sow of the Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence Inc., Leigh Pankonin, and Pronoun among them. But there was only one Phatima Rude. She was a transgressive performance artist; a literal staple of San Francisco’s avant garde drag scene since the late 1980s. In May, Rude—who used both she and they pronouns—passed away in her sleep at the age of 55 in her Portland apartment.
Rude’s remains and her beloved dog, Mary Kate, have left the city. Though she only performed here a handful of times, Rude left a lasting mark on Portland, a fondly remembered star who kept it weird to her core.
Weep not: Rude’s survivors remind us “choose death” was her philosophy, tattooed on her body. She already staged her funeral at The Stud in 2017, where she regularly performed at Mother—a decades-spanning dance party that changed its name in 2015—and where her life was celebrated again on August 1. Vogue profiled Rude among the Bay’s most revered drag legends in 2019, at a time when she lived houseless. Admirers such as Portland art-drag savant Pepper Pepper helped Rude secure an apartment before the pandemic hit last year.
“I always loved [Phatima’s] performances because she was such a visceral and... confrontational artist, but with her own view of beauty often through the grotesque. But [there was] always a sense of what I would call love for the artistry of it, a fierce love, a very San Francisco kind of love,” Pepper told the Mercury.
The short documentary Ladies and Gentlemen: Phatima Rude (2014) framed a snapshot of Rude’s life at the time: living in a van by day, performing and chauffeuring at night, and in between sharing stories about amateur home surgery, club kids lost to the HIV/AIDS crisis, and being swept from a park by cops. It’s currently streaming for free on Vimeo.
Rude’s work abrasively pushed glamour axims, body politics, and gender identity to the furthest extremes. Rude once wore a sensory deprivation hood and let strangers adhere Velcro googly eyes and cartoon lips to her face. Another time, she let one of her drag children perform live dentistry set to experimental British music and Debussy’s “Clair de Lune.” But her signature act utilized the sideshow art of stapling dollar bills and other objects to her body. Rude didn’t invent that stunt (Portland circus/burlesque actor Burk Biggler was also infamous for that performance), but her most prominent drag children, including Kochina Rude and Boulet Brothers’ Dragula contestant Hollow Eve, proactively defend their drag mother’s legacy as one of the earliest queer artists to perfect the act.
“It’s one of those things where the art and the artist are the same no matter where they go or what they do."
Rude’s raw style drew from popular sources like Leigh Bowery, Genesis P-Orridge, and Divine. There were also less-conventional inspirations, like Midwestern mall-walkers and mental health patients Rude observed as a child, shadowing her mother’s work at the state hospital. Rude was in some ways a holdover from the 90’s-00’s shock art era, whose schtick didn’t always land with Portland’s culturally sensitive audiences (for instance, one of her stage names used a slur for people with mental disabilities). But offstage, she was preceded by a reputation for disarming kindness and altruism.
Patrick Buckmaster, a DJ and former event producer, hosted Rude for a week in 2016 in his Portland studio apartment, after booking her for his gay goth party, NecroNancy. He remembers Rude conceived that night’s number during a sketchy visit to a since-shuttered Burger King, and how Rude once brought home two strangers she met in a parking lot. Buckmaster compared Rude’s artistry to the fiercely self-actualized divas Amanda Lepore and Tiffany “New York” Pollard.
“You couldn’t put a price on the performance she put on that entire week,” Buckmaster said. “It’s one of those things where the art and the artist are the same no matter where they go or what they do. I was so enamored with that fact.”
Kochina and Eve’s sibling Ti Rayn, AKA The Antichrist, won NecroNancy’s gross-out pageant, Filthiest Person in Portland, in 2020. Rayn lived next door to Rude, and like both Pepper and Buckmaster, was taken with Rude’s unfiltered presence. Rude and Rayn were in each other’s social bubbles during quarantine. Rayn says Rude’s acceptance of her own mortality has been comforting in her grieving process.
“Phatima’s the epitome of not giving a fuck what other people think,” Rayn said. “Just do what you want to do, be loud, be you, be queer… that’s who she was and that’s who she’d want anyone to be. She didn’t care about the fame or anything, she did [drag] because she loved it. Don’t be afraid to be abrasive and put yourself out there, that’s what she was all about.”