Elsa Touche has done it all — television spots, a published book, performances, pageants, even a column in SF Weekly. Once, she was seriously considered for the short-lived “Queer Eye for the Straight Girl.” Last year, she was voted “Best Drag Queen” for SF Weekly’s 2020 Best of S.F. issue. But like many queens I’ve met in San Francisco: She does not want to be the next big thing.
“I don’t know that I wanted fame so much. I wanted to do something fun,” says Charles Purdy — Touche’s offstage alter ego — explaining how he got into drag.
We met recently for a walk in Golden Gate Park, and Purdy recounted a familiar story. He moved around a lot growing up — calling Reno and Stillwater, Minnesota “homes” — and he was bullied so much in high school that he barely graduated.
“I stopped going to school. My grades were not great,” he says. “The first few years of my adult life, I think I had PTSD. I was kind of just catching my breath.”
Purdy has lived in San Francisco more than two decades, and he still has fun. I caught his performance one day in mid-2020 at SF Oasis before the winter lockdown: With limited seating on the roof, Elsa Touche served up a lip-synced spoken-word number by Sandra Bernhard.
“There’s a knock on the door. It’s the first day on the job and the first date with the boss, and he takes me on a tour of San Francisco I never dreamed possible,” Bernhard says in her 1988 one-woman Broadway show. “We begin on Lombard Street — the crookedest street in the world — and I never felt straighter. Down to Ghirardelli Square, he buys me a giant chocolate kiss — why not? Over at Fisherman’s Wharf, we share a Shrimp Louie, and to top the evening off, the most incredible drag show I’ve ever seen at Finocchio’s!”
Bernhard feels on-brand to me for the Elsa Touche character: funny, charismatic, elegant, and a perpetual stank face. Touche often sports a curly-haired bob wig with Lucille Ball vibes, and the day we met for photos, a polka dot dress completed the retro effect.
“I sort of think of Elsa as a 1950s or ’60s TV star who has been through some ups and downs in her career, and now she has an attitude about whatever shitty show she’s in,” Purdy says. “You know like, ‘I was on the cover of The American Magazine, but now here I am in this fucking dive bar.’”
The character originally started out as a French theme because of his love of “all things French.”
“I dated a French guy, I studied French, I speak French,” he said. But Elsa Touche apparently had a mind of her own. “I thought I was going to construct a persona, but the real Elsa was there all the while.”
Professionally, Purdy went into writing after a high school theater director said he was too gay to make it. “That’s so stupid,” Purdy says. “And it’s one person’s opinion. But it played into the belief I already had about myself that being gay was worthless.”
At first Purdy wrote some short stories, but found he enjoyed seeing work in print more than the process of creating it. That realization led him to this paper, where he penned an etiquette and advice column called “Social Grace” in the early 2000s. The project got picked up by the Wall Street Journal and Men’s Journal, and was also published as a book titled Urban Etiquette: Marvelous Manners for the Modern Metropolis.
The first run of the book sold out, and the Oxygen TV network began inviting him to regular appearances on a reality show. From afar, it’s a position in the media that I personally envy. But it wasn’t adding up for Purdy: “Social Grace” paid him $70 a week, and while the television spots earned him a per diem, he was flying himself to Los Angeles.
“Suddenly it became a part-time job. It wasn’t making me rich. I was spending more than I was making,” he says. “I said all I had to say on etiquette and manners.”
It would be years before Elsa Touche was born. Purdy played with drag during that time, showing up in “shitty Halloween drag” at Heklina’s famous “Trannyshack” show, he says. But he didn’t think he was “cool or interesting enough” to create an official character.
Then he began dating local queen Dusty Pörn, who became his drag mother and helped Touche debut her first performance at “The Monster Show” at The Edge in 2015. The pair eventually split but remained very close friends.
“I’m terribly biased, I know. She’s my drag daughter and I performed alongside her the night of her S.F. drag debut… I’d gladly be a baton twirler in the #ElsaParade,” Pörn told me in a direct message. “Witnessing her evolution has been astounding. A meteoric rise. She was clearly so ready to come to life.”
Local queen Kylie Minono also loves Touche’s humor and kindness.
“Her warmth fills any space she’s in and her wit cracks me up,” Minono says. “When I’m with her I feel loved and always have a great time.”
Nowadays, Purdy lives alone in the Mission with a cat. The Monster Show recently returned with virtual events and select in-person performances at The Edge’s parklet. Touche took over as co-hostess alongside drag queen KaiKai Bee Michaels, replacing Sugah Betes, who stepped down from the role in the summer of 2019.
But online performances have been tough on Purdy.
“My phone does not give me life,” he says, noting that the production process is much more elaborate online.
“In person, you practice, you learn, you go to the bar, and then you’re done. You have your drink, and it’s a fun night. Online though, you spend several hours filming the performance, and then more hours editing it. Video gives you do-overs, and I take advantage of those. By the time it’s done, the joy has been tapped out for me.”
Still, drag is an important part of Purdy’s life. Outside the pandemic, he says doing drag is a good reason to keep him in a bar. He said people his age aren’t in gay bars as much anymore.
“Hanging out in a gay bar in a wig makes me feel like I’m part of something important, an important history,” he says. “Drag really is keeping me young.”
Saul Sugarman is a contributing writer. Twitter @saulsugarman