Richard Finocchio was raised in South Philadelphia, and bullied at school for being too pretty. A friend of the family was a gay man who introduced young Finocchio to the gay subculture, where acceptance was found.
Finocchio started winning drag contests. The Hotel Philadelphia (now demolished) at Broad and Vine Streets was the site of the annual Miss Philadelphia contest. The contest was organized by Sabrina (Jack Doroshow). The big winner in 1967 was Finocchio using the name Harlow (in homage to Jean Harlow, the 1930s movie star). Harlow did a few times visit The Stonewall Inn when in New York, but preferred the straight uptown scene.
Crystal LaBeija, who later founded the House of LaBeija) who stages a tantrum when Harlow wins. The film includes shots of only Harlow arriving and departing, and on stage she gets longer and better-lit close-ups than the other contestants.
She went to Cannes International Film Festival with the film and was a center of attention. David Bowie, in his androgynous phase, cited her influence. A few other minor film roles followed, and, especially in Philadelphia, she became a night-life personality. Bar owner Stanley Rosenbleeth opened Harlow's in the Old City area in 1970, with Rachel as hostess. The place was an immediate sensation. A short time later, a second Harlow's was opened in Atlantic City. There were also interviews, endorsements, modeling jobs and television appearances.
Rachel Harlow completed gender correction in 1972.
The Philadelphia disco-nightclub was a place that attracted celebrities, and one person who came was John B. Kelly Jr., brother of Grace Kelly, film star and Monaco princess. In his own right Kelly was an accomplished rower, a four-time Olympian, and an Olympic medal winner. He was also a businessman and was 12 years on Philadelphia council. He separated from his first wife in 1969. In 1975 he began a well-publicized affair with Rachel. He ran to be the Democratic candidate but his mother publicly and financially supported his opponent. This combined with the publicity over his affair led to his dropping out. He claimed that he intended to marry Rachel, but a year later, after his mother threatened to disinherit him, he ended the relationship.
Rachel was having problems finding her identity. She dropped out of the night-life business and the gay subculture. She did continue to work as a model in New York, but avoided publicity.
"I was burned out. I was tired of being on all the time. I began to dread meeting new people, having to talk about my life. Even now, the only way I can talk about my life is to think of it as just a story. It's as if it all happened to somebody else, and I'm just telling about it."One night in 1979, she and a woman friend stopped for a drink in a small bistro, got into conversation with two men, and a year later Rachel and Gerard Billebault were married. On the wedding day:
“I came out of my mother's South Philadelphia house and there were 500 to 600 people waiting in the street for me to leave the house. It wasn't the neighbors, it was the neighborhood. I turned to my mother and said `Look mom, it's all the neighbors - I guess they have forgotten, too' ''.
|Rachel in 1989|
Harlow's, a restaurant, in 1988, with Mrs Billebault as the hostess.
However later both the marriage and the restaurant failed. They were divorced in 1993. Rachel has stayed out of the news since.
- Frank Simon (dir). The Queen. Hosted by Jack Doroshow (Sabrina), with Rachel Harlow Crystal Labeija, International Chrysis, Kim Christy. US 68 mins 1968.
- Arthur H. Lewis. Those Philadelphia Kellys, With a Touch of Grace. William Morrow, 1977: 175-7, 233-5, 249.
- John Carr. "Different, Yet The Same: Philadelphia's Famous Transsexual Started Life As Richard Finocchio, But Became Famous As Rachel Harlow. After Years Of Shunning Publicity, She's Back In The Spotlight. Her Restaurant Is Harlow's - And She's Still Rachel". Philly.com, April 18, 1989.
- William Grimes. "'The Queen' on the Runway Again". The New York Times, March 27, 1993. www.nytimes.com/1993/03/27/movies/the-queen-on-the-runway-again.html.
- Martin B Duberman. Stonewall. New York: Dutton, c1993. New York: Plume, 1994: 186.
- April Adamson. "It's Harlow! City's Best-known Transsexual Recalls Her Rise From S. Philly To A Life Of Glitz And Glamor". Philly.com, November 16, 1998.
- Thom Nickels. Gay and Lesbian Philadelphia. Arcadia Publishing, 2002: 37, 52, 56.
- Marc Stein. City of Sisterly and Brotherly Loves: Lesbian and Gay Philadelphia, 1945-1972. Temple University Press, 2004: 81-2, 269.
- Wendy Leigh. True Grace: The Life and Death of an American Princess. New York: St Martin’s Press 307 pp 2007: 9, 219-20.
- Gail Gerber & Tom Lisanti. Trippin' with Terry Southern: What I Think I Remember. Jefferson, N.C.: McFarland & Company, 2009: 81-4.
There was a famous nightclub in San Francisco owned by another Finocchio. There is no evidence of them being relatives.
John B Kelly, Jr, died in 1985 at age 57 of a heart attack. His mother lived till 1990. So, as fate would have it, he didn't inherit after all.
The IMDB, entry for a long time, was in Rachel’s boy name. In fact, in the cast list for The Queen, it said: “Richard Finnochio as Harlow” rather than "Harlow as Herself". It now says Rachel Harlow plays Harlow (as Richard Finnochio)
Rachel made numerous tv appearance during the 1970s, especially on the nationally syndicated Mike Douglas Show (which filmed from Philadelphia). I recall seeing her on the same program next to another Italian, Gina Lollobrigida, and thinking Rachel was the better looking of the two. She also appeared several times on the Lou Gordon Show (another nationally syndicated talk show) and I recall seeing how respectfully she was treated compared to how many trans interviewees still aren't today. She had a huge impact on me and I wish her all the best.ReplyDelete
Harlow, in the early seventies, was an acquaintance who occasionally visited at my Poplar Street home with Joe Ewing, a photographer. Harlow was sweet, kind and extraordinarily beautiful. She gave me a kiss on the cheek that I can still feel to this day.ReplyDelete
Joe Ewing was my dad. If you are still active on this site, and see this, I would so love to hear from you. I remember my father took beautiful pictures of both Harlow and Gerber(sp?) but I'd love to know more. Thanks, Elaine EwingDelete
My email is firstname.lastname@example.org
I remember being at Harlow"s in Old City. She was just beautiful and so gracious.ReplyDelete
Jeannie Nelson writes:ReplyDelete
Thank you for this important blog. I underwent gender confirmation surgery in Jan 1975 at age 19. I moved from SC to Philadelphia in 1977 and I was invited to have lunch with Rachel Harlow in 1978. She was working in center city behind a makeup counter at John Wanamakers Department Store. She was very glamorous and completely passable. I was 7 years younger than her and she was kind and generous to me, even giving me her phone#. She was living a in a NJ suburb of Phila, and had just ended a relationship with a fireman. She assured me that the break up had absolutely nothing to do with her transsexuality. Also, I was financially broke, desperate, and considering working for an escort service. She advised me to clean floors before entering the sex industry and told me I would have been worth more in the sex industry if I had kept my penis. I never called her and I never saw her after that, except for occasional appearances on Phila talk shows.
I wish her peace and happiness.
Is she still alive. I took her on one night in Philadelphia I thought she was a she. She told me over the phone she was a tran. That was 46 years ago.Delete
Well this clears-up a lot of mysteries for me.I remember reading about her in the sunday entertainment section of either the Bullerin or Inquirer,only the article said she was from Scranton.Around 1970 after a prom (I attended two proms for all girls schools but not my own high school prom),I was riding in someone's car when it stopped right in front of HARLOW'S !! Right at the curb.Hey, :great parking! The building had a giant facade cut-out with the likeness of Harlow overhead.After that it was hard to find anything on Harlow even on the internet (later).I knew nothing of the Jack Kelly connection.ReplyDelete
But I wonder....in 1988 at a refrigeration company I worked for in Bridesburg a co-worker told me his wife worked at a live theater troup venue and that the owner/operator was...transgender, only we didn't use that term in those days.
I'm never hard on the transgendered because although I'm heterosexual and have a son and grandaughter (and step grandaughters), when I was young and pretty and had long blonde hair and bangs I could pass as a female on my natural looks, though I dated only females. A little hunchback friend used to call me "transie baby". So I guess I fall into the 'Q' portion of the lgbt. -Norman Paul R
Yes she is still alive. She also has a sister and a niece. Her brother Joe Jr died in 1995. Her mother died the following year. Rachel turned 70 on May 15 of this past year. I did the genealogy posted to my blog. Mine is just straight.genealogy Zagy blog posted minor details However Key pieces and it helped out a lot. So I am grateful for the material to work with.ReplyDelete
Rickie as all of the guys in the neighborhood would call him. And we meant no disrespect. Be it both the sign of the times and young men's ignorance called him Rickie the Queer. None of the guys we knew abused him in any way, as a matter of fact he would always stop and interact with us. His sense of humor played well with us. He would often show off his extremely narrow waist, by facing a wall raising his shirt and lowering his pants to his hips reveling which was and is today the smallest waist I've ever seen on any person. Rickie would say it was 19 inches. And we believed him. I had gone into the military in the early 60s and later Philly PD, pretty much having lost contact with those neighborhood friends. It wasn't until the late 80s when I was having dinner with my girlfriend at a local South Philly restaurant, when the waitress brought over drinks saying it was from an admirer of yours. I looked over to where the waitress had pointed and saw a beautiful blonde, wearing which looked like a long haired silver fox with along with two men. I acknowledged her and thanked her from my table. I later asked the waitress, who was a friend of mine, who the woman was. She laughed an said that was Harlow, you don't know Harlow? I said this is crazy, but even with blonde hair and make up, she looks like Rickie. She looked at me and said you didn't know that. I said no, forgive me for living under a rock. By that time Harlow and her company had long left. So if you see Harlow, tell her Tony C from 10th and Wolf said thanks for the drinks.Delete
Jeannette Rook is a genealogist, but one who does not understand trans people. On her blog she uses the word 'infamous' to identify Rachel. Infamous! Rachel never committed any crimes. People who regard the simple fact of being trans as infamy are not on our side.ReplyDelete
Does anyone remember a trans who went by the name Tiffany? I went to junior high with him when his name was Bruce Corwell? I think she was Harlows roommate in the movie the Queen 1968 (not credited)ReplyDelete
I met Tiffany at the Philadelphia College of Art and she worked with my wife at the Peasant Shop and Peasant Garb in Center City.ReplyDelete
I met a lovely trans Jessaca. She lived in so Jeresy. I hope she doing well.ReplyDelete
I have meet a lovely trans named Jessica who lived in South Jersey, I hope she doing well.ReplyDelete
Anyone know Phil Coffee and whereabouts since becoming Elizabeth in the late 60's? Also a Philadelphia native.ReplyDelete
Harlow stayed at my apartment in Atlantic City. I am not sure why, I believe Ruby Red Lips asked me to let him stay. Only for one night. I was thrilled because when I first met Harlow I thought he was a girl and he was so precious. If you saw Harlow walking down New York Ave in Atlantic City everyone thought he was a girl. He was not effeminate like some people. He was a boy trapped in a boys body. He simply was given the wrong gender and eventually he became a women..this has been acknowledged. BUT if you knew him as Richerd you would have said...impossible...cannot be a boy. He was and I am sure he remains a wonderful person. The Queen celebrates drag. This is not Rupaul Drag..these Queens worked magic with makeup.Not painted , just real girl makeup and it worked!!ReplyDelete
It's not only wrong to refer to Rachel as he, it's downright disrespectful. You should correct your post and become more enlightened about the trans community.Delete
I worked with Rachel at John Wanamakers when I was just 17 . It was the Men's cologne department and we worked as models for the Cologne ( Aramis)companies, "spraying" customers and giving out free samples. Rachael was breathtakingly gorgeous , with the most beautiful skin. Very, intelligent and funny with a wicked sense of humor. When she was on break , people wold come up to me and say" Are you really a man?" I had all kinds of sarcastic and witty answers that Rachael taught me! She was absolutely lovely and I hope she is happy and doing well. I also remember a friend of hers named Stephanie? Good times in the 70's for sure.ReplyDelete
ZAGRIA I DID REMOVE THE INFAMOUS AFTER BASICALLY YOUR SUGGESTION YOUR RIGHT SHE DID NOTHING WRONG SINCE I HAVE POSTED THE INFO MY BLOG HAS SEEN FOR HER 100,000 HITSReplyDelete
I have to understand Trans people my granddaughters father is transgender.ReplyDelete
Back in the 60's I lived on the 5th floor of a tenement building at 332 E. 54th in Manhattan. It was two doors from the famed Neighborhood Playhouse School of the Theatre where I studied for two years. I lived in that apt. for 17 years before moving to LA.ReplyDelete
For quite some time Rachel and her boyfriend lived across the hall and we became very good friends. By some weird coincidence, her boyfriend's mother had been a classmate of mine throughout my schooling in San Benito, TX. What a small world.
I remember Rachel coming over to visit wearing tacky jeans and t-shirt....no makeup and being the most stunning female I'd ever seen. She was truly gorgeous, and I'm sure she still is. I'm 87 now, a retired actor, and of all the people I've known through the years, she stands out as one of the most delightful, interesting and dearest people I ever met.
I worked at Harlows Supper Club in the Philadelphia Bourse bldg. I will never forget her grand entrance on opening night.ReplyDelete
I have worked very heavily on the Kelly Family. Thanks to Zag's blog with with her basic name and her basic year of birth helped me out Tremendously of who her family is. So I was able to figure who she is her parents where 1st generation Italian's. She had brother who died in 1995 fo)lowing the death of his mother. She currently has a sister and a niece who lives in California. I WILL EMAIL ALL THE TO Zag's. I DONT PUBLISH LIVE PEOPLE. HOWEVER FOR ZAG'S FOR RECORD KEEPINGReplyDelete
I've known Rachel since I was a little girl in the 70's. She was an Aunt to me. Also, she is the most beautiful woman I've ever known. My mother and I miss her still.Delete
I snuck into the club on Strawberry street. It was opening night. Klieg lights lit the entrance and crisscrossed the sky . It was like a night at the Oscar's. Harlow made a late entrance down a beautiful staircase. She was dressed in white from head to toe...it was the most excitingly glamorous thing I have ever seen in my life. Years later when Harliws life calmed down ..I was walking through Strawbridges department store. And there..was Harliw spraying perfume on people...she was a shop girl. I went home so sad to see that.ReplyDelete
I used to see Harlow at the gay bar M&M in Atlantic City NJ in around 1970...i was only 19 myself and not sure who Harlow was but she was gorgeous...I was told later Harlow was in fact a male who either had or was going to have transsexual surgery. I would see her occasionally in the Philadelphia area gay bar scene. She always looked beautiful and once i went up to her and told her she was beautiful. She smiled and thanked me.ReplyDelete
I am writing a book which is centered on the drag scene in Philadelphia and Atlantic City and would love to get in touch with Rachel for an interview...any idea how to contact her? I know she shies away from interviews, but would still like to opportunity. It is about the history of transgender queens and how the discussion of gender has been transformed in and out of the drag scene. Thank you. email@example.com 609.214.6596ReplyDelete
Sadly we lost Chic chic DeVanye July 16 2020 to Renal failure GOD rest her soul.ReplyDelete
zagria. I have learned allot and just like Dolly Partons says love people for who they are. I have friend Amanda she is amazing personReplyDelete
Thank you Zagria for all your work and dedication. You've helped me to understand. People are just people. GOD made us all different.ReplyDelete
Her name was Chi Chi DeVayne, not Chic Chic. She was a sweet and talented queen.ReplyDelete
Rachel,as she was known in later years did fragrance modeling for me in John Wanamakers. She was a one and only with the best sense of humorReplyDelete
I worked at Wanamaker while Rachael was working there. I remember how beautiful she was. I was 18 years old and totally entranced by her. Working for the men's fragrance buyer, I was always involved with cosmetic products. When I watched the movie I lost my mind, OMG I know her, thank you for your contributions to a wonderful culture.ReplyDelete
I worked at Wanamaker’s - she was beautiful and elegant.ReplyDelete
Does anyone know how to connect with her?ReplyDelete
I first met her in the 80s as a high school student. She was fabulous in so many ways. She and Gerard had come down to North Carolina to open a Bakery with my family. I loved our conversations, our shared love of music, and the sharing of clothes. I hold those memories dear in my heart.
She made a huge impact on me and I’ve often thought of her and wondered how she is. Does anyone know? I’d love to reconnect with her - say “Thank you” and remind her of how special she is.
My husband and I are musical duo known as “Twice As Nice”. We are originally from Philadelphia and performed at Harlow’s in the Bourse building for many years. If anyone knows how to contact her please give her our love. We miss and love her always. We now live and perform in Las Vegas and cruise ships around the world. Harlow’s was the absolute best!❤️🎹🎤🎵🎼ReplyDelete
I went to Harlow’s on Banks St in Philly almost every Friday night. I got to know her from there. She was stunningly beautiful, slender body with blonde hair. She was chic and very much a lady. I enjoyed her company at the club. I also went to her club in Atlantic City when I would visit the shore. Harlow was elegant and she was simply a perfect lady. I hope she is going wellReplyDelete
My name is Allan. My brother and I owned a parking lot at 15th and Spruce. I lived in town on Hicks St alongside the Drake Hotel, across the street from the lot. It was a gay neighborhood, although still very much underground in ‘70/‘71, but coming out. Henry David was making jewelry at Wesley Emmons then, and he made several pieces for me that I wore. I preferred silver. The Westbury bar was also across the street on 15th. My personal style then was very long shag hair, and I dressed in the English superstar trend with 4” heels and 3 platform knee high boots and shoes, and generally velvet and silk slacks in oranges, peacock blues, yellows made for me by Mario the tailor from Italy. I was recognizable in the neighborhood and I got to know many of the regulars at the Westbury. I am not gay, but I hung out with the gay crowd. Wonderful, friendly, party-type people enjoying life. I went to the DCA at times, dancing there in reckless abandon. Many Friday nights would start at Artemis on Sansom St. Rachel was just opening her club, Harlow’s on Banks St, so my night would end up there. Rachel was a lovely person, and we got to know each other based on that ‘recognizable’ quality. She was very lady-like, chic, and debonair. I liked being around her. She was refined and espoused class. Her club was a hot bed of fame and was quite the talk of the city. I recall one specific evening where she was wearing a long white silk gown, her blonde hair looking fabulous, and she was dazzling. On my visits to Atlantic City, I would also go to Harlow’s II, but I preferred Banks St. Times became somewhat hazy after that, having fallen into a heavier drug scene, as that trend led me more in that direction. I came out of that in ‘75, but the times had changed significantly by then. The scene became more hard core, and the flamboyance and effervescence of just a few years before seemed to be gone. Those wonderful early 70’s became a memory, as time marched on. I hope Rachel is well, of course I would love to see her like everyone else here, but knowing that will probably never be. Watericefan@yahoo.comReplyDelete
I originally met Rachel when she bought a fur coat from B & B Furs which I owned in the late 70’s & 80’s. She was gorgeous and a very lovely person. We become good friends and occasionally met for drinks at Philly’s all time greatest night club The Elan in the Warwick Hotel. She was witty & charming! Great memories!Delete
As a 76 year old post OP transgender woman I remember seeing The Queens and how naturally beautiful Harlow was. She did a magazine article and I dreamed of looking like her. Always wish I had met her. I hope she has found joy in her life. BeckiReplyDelete