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16 January 2015

Rachel Harlow (1948–) pageant winner, model, nightclub hostess, restaurateur

See also: Flawless Sabrina, Rachel Harlow and 'The Queen'

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.

Harlow won the Miss All-American Camp Beauty Pageant held in New York in 1967 (again organized by Sabrina). This was filmed, and released as The Queen, 1968. The contestants are shown chatting in their hotel rooms, discussing how they were not called in the draft, their boyfriends, why they would never have a sex change. Harlow throws a fit because he does not have a suitable wig (although her own hair is quite feminine enough). The other standout among the contestants is Miss Manhattan (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
Billebault was a chef and had founded a bakery. After a trip to Paris Mr & Mrs Billebault opened
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"., April 18, 1989.
  • William Grimes. "'The Queen' on the Runway Again". The New York Times, March 27, 1993.
  • 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"., 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)


Gina said...

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.

Unknown said...

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.

Valerie Bianchi said...

I remember being at Harlow"s in Old City. She was just beautiful and so gracious.

Zagria said...

Jeannie Nelson writes:

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.

Unknown said...

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.

norman paul r said...

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.
But I 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

Jeannettekmr said...

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.

Zagria said...

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.

Unknown said...

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)

Rrose said...

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.

Unknown said...

I have meet a lovely trans named Jessica who lived in South Jersey, I hope she doing well.

The Fabulous Harlow said...

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!!

Jeannettekmr said...


Jeannettekmr said...

I have to understand Trans people my granddaughters father is transgender.

oldactor said...

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.

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 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.

Ray Stewart

Randog said...

I worked at Harlows Supper Club in the Philadelphia Bourse bldg. I will never forget her grand entrance on opening night.

Jeannettekmr said...

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 KEEPING

Jerry said...

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 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.

Tony said...

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.

Laurie Greene said...

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. 609.214.6596

Jeannettekmr said...

Sadly we lost Chic chic DeVanye July 16 2020 to Renal failure GOD rest her soul.

Jeannettekmr said...

zagria. I have learned allot and just like Dolly Partons says love people for who they are. I have friend Amanda she is amazing person

Jeannettekmr said...

Thank you Zagria for all your work and dedication. You've helped me to understand. People are just people. GOD made us all different.