Coming Up Fancy
By Jewly Hight
"Shattered Towards Me," 2021. Oil color, fragmented mirror on canvas with silver frame, 20 x 16 inches, by Mahsa Merci. Courtesy the artist
It was truly a showbiz spectacle, the way that Reba McEntire closed each night of her ’96/’97 arena tour. That was when the crowds finally got to hear “Fancy.” By her standards, it was a low-charting single, one that had stalled at number eight on Billboard’s Hot Country chart in 1991, at a moment when she was one of her genre’s biggest superstars and most reliable hit-makers. It became the undeniable fan favorite nonetheless, so stout was the conviction and so tenacious the theatricality she brought to the Southern gothic epic. The mini-movie treatment she’d given it in the music video would define the song’s visual presentation ever after.
The song itself was a survivor’s account of escaping starvation in Louisiana after her mother, abandoned by her man, scraped together money to dress her daughter up and send her out to do sex work. Its protagonist has since built quite the comfortable life for herself, that much we know from the lyrics. McEntire’s clip fleshes things out further; she plays the part of Fancy Rae Baker herself. Now a showbiz celebrity taking a cab back to the shack where she grew up, Fancy is determined to disrupt the cycle that she lived through by turning the property into a home for runaways.
By the live show’s grand finale, McEntire’s ticket-buying public had witnessed umpteen costume changes, but this was the one they’d really been waiting for: Fancy’s glamorously vampy red dress. As the band played the instantly recognizable intro of portentous electric guitar chords doused in swirling delay and layered with rhythmically muscular acoustic strumming, a figure in fur strode into the spotlight on stage, mirroring the music video that filled the Jumbotrons. Arriving at the slyly satisfied song lyric “I ain’t done bad,” the performer threw off her coat for the big reveal of the crimson, sequined gown underneath. But not all was made evident before she sank through a trapdoor in the floor; not even fans who recognized the song’s queer potential would necessarily have known that it wasn’t her they’d just watched, but instead a drag queen known as Coti Collins, engaged in a striking, production-aided kind of passing.
“They never had the camera on me,” explains David Lowman, the performer behind the Collins persona, whose disappearance through the floor appeared to ignite a streak of flames and a rapid reappearance. “Reba would be on the other side, at the end of the fire. So it looked like I traveled,” he corrects himself, “Reba traveled, in the red dress, across the stage.”
Everything moved so quickly during that pyrotechnic stunt—a magical display of transformation conceived for a song about upward mobility. Anyone who scoured the show credits would’ve found only this thoroughly ambiguous line: “David Lowman, illusionist.”
The only kind of illusion that he specialized in was female impersonation, and he’d been refining his Reba for several years by then.
Long before the broad popularity of Ru Paul’s Drag Race became a launching pad for professional queens, Lowman built a profitable and lasting career on the strength of this entry on his résumé; Coti Collins had been part of McEntire’s act, and “Fancy” was just as much her signature number as it was the seasoned country superstar’s.
Collins concluded her collaboration with McEntire, moved on to the Vegas Strip, then Lake Tahoe, before premiering her own show at an Oregon casino, and, in recent years, bouncing between numerous cities in the South and Appalachia. When she did “Fancy”—a highlight of a repertoire that includes knowing and committed interpretations of other McEntire hits and contemporary country, Broadway, pop, and soft rock numbers—folks understood that they were seeing a kind of meta-drag: a queen’s portrayal of a country diva’s version of a tale of escaping destitute, rural origins through the strategic heightening of her feminine appeal.
“I thank Reba, every time I see her,” emphasizes Lowman, Collins’s creator. “I get teary eyed, and I always thank her for allowing me to live a life that I never thought I would be able to live. My dad was a coal miner on a pipeline underground and worked very hard. And I get on stage and flip my hair and make twice as much money as he did.”
Lowman clarifies that “Fancy” isn’t his favorite number to perform. “But it definitely bought me my log cabin here,” he gestures at the homey setting shown on the videocall screen, “and it definitely bought me a new car and it bought me a condo in Raleigh. So I love it.”
If you really want to understand the resonance of “Fancy,” it helps to not only consider aesthetic qualities, but also to get into the more crass matters of class sensibilities and income level. The song has had many lives over the last half century: an entry in the modern country and pop canons and a drag standard. Made famous by two straight, cis, white women—first its author Bobbie Gentry, then McEntire—it’s been notably claimed and reframed by people of color and LGBTQIA folks who’ve found it to be a sympathetic text and a powerful mirror.
Gentry had already risen to prominence as a singer-songwriter and savvy showperson who brought country themes, settings, and sensibilities, along with r&b trimmings and symphonic flourishes, to pop audiences by the time she released the song in 1969. She told the entertainment magazine After Dark that she wrote it with women’s lib in mind, and by that, she meant women’s economic liberation specifically. “Fancy” has been endlessly referred to as a rags-to-riches story, but there’s a lot more to it than that. Gentry created a melodrama about how class and gender performance are intertwined; there’s no upward mobility here without a mother putting all she has into cultivating her daughter’s high-femme appeal, and the daughter throwing herself into maximizing her desirability in the eyes of men of means. It takes a phenomenal amount of ingenuity, resourcefulness, and determination for poor, rural women who’d otherwise find the trappings of femininity unavailable to them to pull that off. As scholar Nadine Hubbs explains in Rednecks, Queers, and Country Music, an essential intervention in the historical narrative, femininity is itself a middle-class construct, and one defined in deliberate contrast to working-class women.
Traditional country tropes—the saintly sacrificial mother figure; the pitiable, innocent figure of the orphan; the cautionary figure of the fallen woman; the sturdy, comforting memory of home—appear in “Fancy,” only to be pried out of their familiar, fixed positions as markers of the moral and immoral. Gentry had no interest in reinforcing such judgments; she was unfurling a tale of necessary ruthlessness and shrewd self-fashioning. A century ago, when hillbilly performers started making their first commercial recordings, their repertoires were already filled with pining for the good ol’ days and the old home place. A contemporary version, the ode to the hometown, is full of familiar faces and places and dirt roads that singers know like the backs of their hands, somewhere that has everything they need to live a meaningful and fulfilling life. Any of these templates can be repositories of potent, even pernicious, nostalgia—fantasies of clinging to the comfort and stability of life within the confines of an unchanging past and a presumedly straight, white, cisgendered, patriarchal social order.
But what if home isn’t a place of sustenance and stability? What if it’s disintegrating around you? And what if the best thing—the only thing—that dear old mother character knows to do for her eighteen-year-old is supply her with cosmetics and a dress that shows some leg, prepare her to charm male clients, and send her away?
Each time the song’s chorus comes around, Fancy recounts her mother’s all-consuming goal: “Your mama’s gonna move you uptown.” The country music industry had undertaken a similar project with the country radio format, cycling through countrypolitan aesthetics, promoting the buying power of its audience to Madison Avenue advertisers and, by the time McEntire reached her peak cultural and commercial impact in the late ’80s and early ’90s, reflecting the middle-classing and suburbanizing of whiteness nearly as much as the rest of the nation. There was a different kind of fantasizing involved in playing at rural, blue-collar pride at a safe remove from the people who were actually living those realities. And Fancy shakes it all up with her canny, confrontational use of the charged self-descriptor: “I might’ve been born just plain white trash, but Fancy was my name.” She’s insisting on the worth that she already had before and during her rise to riches, and rejecting the condescending appraisals of those she sees as “hypocrites.”
Gospel, blues, and r&b lineages certainly have their own traditions of enduring material, social, and spiritual hardship. Gentry leaned heavily on r&b flourishes in her original version of the song, with her swinging vocal cadence, lightly funky rhythm section, and call-and-response backing vocals. And in fact, aside from a cursory cover version of “Fancy” from the white country singer Lynn Anderson in 1970—who merely sounded like she was in a hurry to reproduce a recent hit—most of the first renditions recorded in the wake of Gentry’s were by Black soul and jazz performers, including Irma Thomas, Spanky Wilson, and Rosalind Madison, although Thomas’s cut would stay shelved until much later. They each had their take on the song’s defiant statement of “white trash” self-identification. Thomas, who sounded tough over her subdued backing, switched the line to “plain Black trash”; Wilson, who unspooled artful phrasing over a funky, resplendent arrangement, subbed in “plain Black girl”; Madison, in an especially hot, rollicking reading, skipped that bit all together.
LeahAnn Mitchell, an artist, engineer, and producer who works under the moniker Lafemmebear, got enthralled with the clip’s soft-focus melodrama when she was eleven. Her mind was so active that she had a difficult time sleeping, and delighted in discovering that the channel Great American Country played videos through the night. “I was this poor, Black kid watching GAC on this old-ass, broken television that I was going to make work,” she recalls.
Her grandmother encouraged her to listen for the rhythmic and harmonic complexity in the music of Earth, Wind & Fire, Fela Kuti, and Pat Metheny, and from there, Mitchell followed her own curiosity to country. She imagined herself pining through a pop ballad like Faith Hill in the “Breathe” video, swaddling herself in nothing but sheets with an obscenely high thread count, and stepping in for Lee Ann Womack in the clip for “I Hope You Dance,” a celestial fount of inspiration, flanked by ballerinas and children. McEntire’s “Fancy,” though, moved Mitchell to action.
“I was a little kid, and I can say this confidently now,” she qualifies, “but I was afraid to let anybody know before: I used to dress up in my mom’s clothes and stuff and do all these music videos.”
She was still living as a boy at the time—it would be another decade before she came out as trans, queer, and femme—and she’d hurry home from elementary school, while her mother and grandmother were still at work, and search her mother’s closet for finery. There was no red gown, so Mitchell settled for a black halter number, a fur stole, and stockings, and posed in front of the bathroom mirrors.
“The main part that I reenacted,” says Mitchell, “was this move where a lot of times in the music video, Reba stands like this.” She raises her chin, turns her face away, and gazes off. “Almost like a bust in dignified profile like, ‘I’m going to stand and you’re going to take my likeness in’ kind of thing. I always really liked that.”
Then Mitchell would arrange chairs like four-door sedan seating, substitute a boombox for a car stereo, and prop up her giant, plush Fievel, a cartoon mouse from an animated ’80s movie, in the driver’s seat to reenact the video’s opening arrival scene. “He was my driver,” she says of the mouse, “and I would tell him to pull over and hold the car, and then I would get out and reach over really slightly [to the boombox], like somebody was watching and I needed to hide it, and press play. And then the strings and the weird guitar moments and the cool harmonics would come in, and I was walking up to the house in the mirror. It was a whole thing.”
Mitchell’s childhood grasp of what was going on in the song, and how it related to things she’d seen firsthand, was nearly as elaborate as the way she played pretend. She recognized what she calls the “code-switching” function of those glamorous going-out clothes of her mom’s: “I knew what they were for when she put those on. She enjoyed them, but the world treated her differently when she dressed up like that.”
There were parallels between the mother and daughter in “Fancy,” cast off as worthless by society and left to waste away in their one-room shack, and the way that Mitchell saw her own mother and grandmother treated by the world, “because they saw them as Black and poor and not worth anybody’s time.” Mitchell’s kin took it as a challenge: “I’m going to prove you wrong.”
Told that she wasn’t “college material,” her grandmother went on to complete multiple doctorates and worked into her seventies as an English teacher and librarian. She foresaw the importance of computers early on and developed programs that trained inner-city kids to use them. Mitchell’s mom had tech ambitions of her own. She spent many years working her way up from a low-paying IT help desk job to overseeing the launch of a massive online banking platform, proving how skilled she was over and over to those who underestimated her on the basis of her race and gender. During that long climb, there were times when she and her two kids were basically homeless, making do in a car or staying with family, bouncing from Virginia Beach to Maryland, New Jersey, and St. Louis, where they were finally able to buy a house of their own.
Mitchell remembers her mom, grandmother, aunties, and their friends gathering for crab boils that were more about mutual care than crustaceans. “I would just sit there and be a fly on the wall and listen to these women’s conversations,” relates Mitchell. “The main thematic movement was them hearing each other’s struggle, but encouraging each other [on] how to move forward. That’s in ‘Fancy,’ too. I caught those connections, because I was like, ‘Oh, there’s this whole uphold each other so we could try to get to the next better thing. And there’s got to be something more.’ And ‘Fancy’ has her coming back from having found something more.”
Even after her mother ascended professionally, landing in something like middle-class stability, and then faced a cancer diagnosis, Mitchell marveled at how she continued her tireless labor: “I was like, ‘You know you could sleep sometime and rest, right?’ But that’s also the thing to ‘Fancy.’ That’s in there too, the lack of rest.”
Mitchell veered from her mom’s path by channeling her own tech obsessions into musical instruments, recording software, and microphones. Between her late teens and early twenties, which she writes off as her “hardcore Christian, pray-the-gay-away” era, she put her musicianship to use as a church worship minister. After she set that aside and moved to L.A., she went to Hamburger Mary’s, a burger joint staffed by drag queens, and saw one of them perform “Fancy.” Though Mitchell hadn’t thought of the song in years, it hit closer to home than it ever had. There she was, taking steps toward her outward femme transformation, reminded of a protagonist who’d also left behind what she knew to fashion a new self-presentation and a more livable life. Remarks Mitchell, “You have those moments where you go, ‘Oh, oh, this all makes sense.’”
David Lowman first became fascinated with drag during college in West Virginia. Before that, he lived with his Southern Baptist grandparents in a small, southern Ohio river town. He describes their household as a “sheltered” and “comfortable” one, and notes that they could afford to spring for a brand-new Trans Am for his sixteenth birthday. Two years later, though, he was ready to move on: “It was time to go. I was exploring my sexuality. I never did anything in the small town, because it was small and I didn’t want it to get back to my grandparents.”
Doors to exploration began to open when he enrolled at Marshall, a mid-sized university in the mid-sized city of Huntington. He met a student who was openly gay in his dorm and got his first invitation to a gay bar. “I was a little hesitant,” Lowman remembers, “because I was very shy. I wasn’t out. And we went out to the bar and there was a drag show, and I thought it was a woman up there singing. And he described it was not a woman. So I was kind of intrigued.”
By the mid-’80s, Lowman was performing as Coti Collins, channeling the aerobic teen-pop effervescence of Debbie Gibson and the extravagance of Broadway divas. “I felt more of a person in drag,” he says. “I felt important, I felt needed, I felt secure. I wanted to change the perception of female impersonation. I wanted to take it to a different level.”
Growing up, he’d been a Top 40 listener, a fan of the middle-of-the-road, variety show pop of Donny & Marie and Sonny & Cher. Though he’d enjoyed the grown-up storytelling of McEntire’s resigned ballad “Whoever’s in New England” when he happened to hear it on the radio, he seldom sought out country music until it was practically assigned to him. One day, he tried on a friend’s red wig on a lark and was told that he bore a striking physical resemblance to McEntire. “I was offended, because I wanted to look like Debbie Gibson,” Lowman admits. “Now think about where my career would have been, if I was just thinking Debbie Gibson.”
Gibson’s fame was already fading by the time Lowman was a rising performer in need of a new, show-stopping number for the 1994 Miss Gay National pageant, so he decided to lean into the likeness and try doing “Fancy.” That competition was the first of many times that Coti Collins would command attention in a red dress, lip-synching like she was testifying with been-there authority. She soon joined the cast of Cowboys LaCage, a club in Nashville’s touristy Lower Broadway honky-tonk corridor that featured drag. Billboards around town promoted the show, in which Collins played several different roles, Reba included. Those ads were how McEntire—who’d already discovered that she had a significant number of gay fans, thanks to their enthusiastic response to her 1990 album Rumor Has It, which featured “Fancy,” and its Barbra Streisand–inspired cover photo—first laid eyes on her doppelgänger. Lowman was given advance notice the night McEntire bought out the venue for her team, though he says he was too young and green to be as fazed by her presence as he would be now. Collins made enough of an impression to ultimately land an invitation to join McEntire’s Starting Over tour, and apply her mastery of “Fancy” to the grandiose stunt that required a double.
McEntire picked Lowman up in her private jet, and they zipped down to Mississippi for dress rehearsals. Lowman may not have played arenas before, but he’d made a study of how McEntire entertained at that scale: “I watched her do it in a concert video and I studied every move. But the most important is getting her feelings. She told a story through her face. I always like to tie my hands down and look in the mirror and tell the story, lip-synching it just by facial movements. And then you can add your hands.”
Since he’d come to “Fancy” as an interpreter, who then became a fan, he had a certain objectivity. He considered the song’s emotional impact, and how Collins could heighten it, from a slight remove, like a film actor preparing for a role.
“I definitely want to imitate Reba,” Lowman explains—he has a closet full of red ensembles made in the image of hers to back it up, including an exact replica of the two-piece pantsuit she’s adopted fairly recently. “But I do make it my own.” Midway through the song, Fancy recounts the vow she made to herself that she “was gonna be a lady someday”; Collins, in her evolving ownership of “Fancy,” is prone to play up the campy, multilayered irony of a drag queen acting out a poor woman’s aspiration to pass as a lady of higher status, looking down at herself and back up at the crowd with a bright, cunning grin.
“The people like that, especially the straight people,” Lowman observes of audiences who come to drag shows. “They think it’s funny. I like to be serious in my art. But you can’t be too serious; you can’t be freaky serious. You have to have fun with it. You have to make the audience laugh.”
Lowman’s favorite line in the song, the pivotal, proudly defiant statement of “white trash” identity, is an occasion for accentuation. In YouTube footage spanning two decades, Collins can be seen serving sass with calibrated gestures. She might make a show of tossing her hair over her shoulders. Or place one hand on her hip and use the other to raise her chin high. “At that point,” Lowman says, “I want to show a sense of pride, something that shows I’ve made it.”
“The big part of the story is she did something that wasn’t socially accepted,” he concludes, “but she got where she wanted to go. And she didn’t care what people thought. She’s talking back to everybody that questions her.”
While Lowman hasn’t given much thought to the connections between how he and Fancy each built prosperity on perfecting high-femme performance, and refusing to let classist, heteronormative, or misogynistic judgment hold them back, he places a great deal of value on McEntire’s embrace: “I’m happy that I still have a great relationship with Reba.” He once turned down an invitation to appear on Jerry Springer out of the very valid concern that the talk show’s agenda was to make a fool out of someone, whether that be him or McEntire. “I’m not going to ever do anything to disgrace Reba’s name,” Lowman says.
Publicity photo of Reba McEntire, 1995 © PictureLux/The Hollywood Archive/Alamy
Still, as McEntire herself proved with her indelible music video and countless award show performances, and Gentry before her through variety shows that she conceived, “Fancy” was very much television material. Its use in a lip-synch battle on RuPaul’s Drag Race All Stars (the McEntire version) and as fodder for Chaka Khan to sing in a friendly Cyclops costume (the Gentry version, loosely speaking) on the celebrity competition show The Masked Singer, drove home its status as a pop music standard. So did a gloomy, gender-flipping version by Orville Peck, the perpetually masked and anonymous performer who’s gained visibility on the fringes of the mainstream as an explicitly queer and aridly avant-garde country stylist, and a robust rendition with which Reyna Roberts, one of the few Black women with country record deals, serenaded a beaming McEntire herself on TikTok. By taking up “Fancy,” both performers sought to prove that they knew what came before them and could contribute something to it.
A year or two ago, TikTok was the site of another delayed discovery for McEntire and her team, although long acknowledged by her fans. They couldn’t help but notice how often her single-mom anthem “I’m a Survivor,” the theme song to her Reba sitcom, was being used by Black women on the platform to soundtrack their videos. In response, one of McEntire’s managers searched for a producer who’s a Black woman to do a remix for the box set Revived Remixed Revisited. It was Apple Radio host and longtime McEntire chronicler Hunter Kelly—a witness to the tour that featured Coti Collins, no less—who made the introduction to LeahAnn Mitchell, better known as Lafemmebear, now an independent artist and producer. “I think I deserve—as a Black person, as a Black femme, as a Black woman, Black trans woman, all of these identities—I deserve to be able to change the narrative and shape it how I want to shape it,” Mitchell reflects. “And when Reba saw that, I know she was very moved and surprised in a good way that there was this connection between these fans she didn’t even know she had.”
The Lafemmebear remix of “I’m a Survivor,” which dropped in summer of 2021, doesn’t feel as breezy as the original; Mitchell’s treatment—pensive parts from hand-played instruments laid over a firm beat with a busy bass drum pattern—suggests that there’s a toll to making it through. There are echoes of the “Fancy” narrative in this full-circle moment. That production work not only helped Mitchell buy her own house, it also altered how some of the white real estate professionals that she dealt with during the process viewed her.
“I have used this Reba thing to disarm awkward moments living in the northern Californian country,” she says. “I’m like, ‘Hey, I did a song for Reba McEntire,’ and it just can shut some racism down. Look, I’m not going to lie to you. That’s a complex thing to say out loud.”
In these exchanges, Mitchell feels compelled to whip out her bona fides to establish her humanity and her professional proximity to McEntire all at once.
In a related connection, people who approach Coti Collins after one of her performances often seem like they’re collapsing any distinction between the drag queen and McEntire herself. Maybe they feel that that’s as close as they’ll get, the best they can hope for. “Not everybody will get to come up and talk to Reba,” Lowman reminds, “but they can come and talk to me, and I’m the next best thing. Everybody has a story, and everybody usually has a Reba story, and I hear them all."