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New exhibit shines spotlight on famed drag performer Mario Montez

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Mario Montez was one of Andy Warhol's superstars, but he was a celebrated artist in his own right, too.

One of the more well-known icons by Andy Warhol is an overripe, yellow banana sticker that you could peel off the debut LP of the Velvet Underground.

But how Warhol came to be identified with the fruit has its origin with a drag queen.

More than a half-century ago, when drag was both entertainment and a criminal act, the late Mario Montez was a drag performer who starred in more than a dozen of Warhol's films. 

But in his first screen-test for Warhol, Montez is situated alone in front of a camera.

"Mario opens the bag and he takes out a banana, and he eats this banana so seductively. Slowly," says artist Conrad Ventur.

Warhol himself was titillated.

"Mario's the one who brought the idea into The Factory that then became ubiquitous," says Ventur. "It's just something a little off about that performance. He's never going to let you take your eyes away."

In "Montezland," Conrad Ventur curated a new exhibit dedicated to the late drag performer. 

"Mario's biggest reference was Maria Montez, this B-movie actress from the 40s and one of the only Latina representations in Hollywood at the time," says Ventur.

Ventur says Montez was known for his high place in avant-garde theatre in New York at a time when being drag wasn't just a performance, but a criminal act. Montez was able to stay under the radar from persecution because he never let his performances interfere with his personal or professional life.

"He was a bold-faced name," says Conrad Ventur. "And then Stonewall happens, and Mario's still a very private person — he wasn't marching and doing all that stuff — but he began to use his icon to help the movement."

Montez defined himself in the drag performing world by emphasizing the "off" and "unusual."

In what's believed to be a screen test by artist Avery Willard, Montez is dressed as an elegant Victorian woman who catches the eye of a suitor off-screen and tosses him a rose.

"Mario brought a little bit of humor and coyness to his performances," says Conrad Ventur. 

But by hiding his face behind a fan at times, you can never quite tell that the person on screen is a man in drag.

Montezland is now on display at the ONE Archives Gallery and Museum in West Hollywood.

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