Broadway star Carol Channing, best known for her roles in “Hello, Dolly!” and “Gentlemen Prefer Blondes,” died Tuesday at age 97. The Tony Award-winner is being remembered not just for her legendary career but also her status as a gay icon.
“She was one of the greatest musical theater icons, and you know how gays love musical theater,” gay journalist Michael Musto told NBC News. “She was the definition of gay camp in that she was over the top, but she was always in on the joke.”
Musto, who interviewed Channing on several occasions for publications like Out magazine and The Village Voice, added that the theater star “always played the gold digger or schemer who had to manipulate her way to the top,” which made her somehow more relatable.
“I think part of us identified having to work people in a way to get our just desserts — that is part of being an outcast, and we just found her cartoony and delightful,” Musto explained.
Following news of her passing, “RuPaul’s Drag Race” star Bob the Drag Queen tweeted out a photo of his Carol Channing tattoos, writing, “I miss her already.”
“I just loved her so much,” he later told NBC News. “She spoke to my soul through comedy.”
While a number of celebrities from Channing’s generation rejected their “gay icon” status during their careers, Channing seemed to embrace the label.
“The gay community is responsible for so much of my success, and I love them,” Channing reportedly said in a 2010 interview. “It’s a mutual love affair, really. They make the better audiences too, because they laugh often and loudly. Applause is obligatory, but laughter is a reward, and gay audiences reward me often.”
When asked by Michael Musto in 2013 why she thought gay men adored her so much, Channing said, “I don't know, but I am terribly grateful. I mean, gay men seem to always know who has talent before the rest of the public does, don't you think? A stamp of approval from the gay community is almost a guarantee of success. Just ask Liza Minnelli, Bette Midler, or Cher. I think they would agree.”
Even in her 90s, Channing didn’t pass up the opportunity to entertain her gay fans. In 2013, gay nightlife event producer Daniel Nardicio booked Channing, then 93, to perform at the Ice Palace in Cherry Grove, a nearly all-gay section of New York’s Fire Island.
“Carol was wacky beyond belief, calling me ‘Bossman’ the whole time, and while she played daft and kooky, she was a cunning stage animal,” Nardicio recalled. “She understood stagecraft like no one I’ve worked with.”
Channing’s work for the gay community went beyond her work on the stage. The entertainer became a tireless HIV/AIDS activist during the height of the epidemic, working with several organizations including Aid for AIDS and Broadway Cares/Equity Fights AIDS.
“Carol Channing was one of Broadway Cares/Equity Fights AIDS’ earliest and longest champions,” the organization's executive director, Tom Viola, told NBC News in a written statement. “Carol was always in our corner, one of our most beloved and best friends. Carol Channing will always have a special, cherished spot in the heart of Broadway Cares/Equity Fights AIDS. Forever.”
In a 2004 interview, Channing explained that her religious upbringing helped her see the HIV/AIDS crisis through an empathetic lens. Referring to a sick young boy she knew as a child, her father would say, “Look into his eyes and see his soul, but don’t see the disease,” Channing recalled. “So young I learned that, and I’m grateful,” Channing added, saying she refuses to give HIV and AIDS “any power.”
Channing, who is survived by her son, cartoonist Channing Carson, passed away 16 days shy of her 98th birthday.