I love the Madonna Inn. From the neon pink dining room to the bedrooms brimming with velvet and patterns and shag carpet in colors I didn’t know existed, the whole place is what would happen if John Waters and Dolly Parton had a shared fever dream and then hired a flock of drag queens to make it come true.
There’s something deeply unselfconscious about the Madonna Inn, a feeling I found myself mirroring during the entire time I was there. Part of that is because it’s incredibly hard to be up in your own head when you’re sitting in the restaurant and marveling at their ability to make everything from the furnishings to the frosting on the cakes the same, vivid pink. But, more than that, the weirdness, the garishness, is so all-encompassing that I lost the ability to worry about whether the people around me were judging me. Because not a single guest could escape the kitsch; if they weren’t eating in the pink coated café or somehow-even-pinker dining room, they were checking into suites that looked like retro jungles or caves built by the tackiest cavepeople imaginable, complete with rock walls and waterfalls. We were all invested in the absurdity together
That’s what I love most about the Madonna Inn: it perfectly embodies “kitsch,” and embodies it so thoroughly that even the most determined hipster would struggle to look “cool” within its walls. It’s tacky, garish, over the top, descriptors I use fondly. But, there was a time when I would have flinched at that description and insisted that those were the wrong words. The inn is cool, not tacky; bold, not over the top. Because once upon a time, I was obsessed with being cool, and that obsession extended to my travels. Eventually I leaned into my affinity for kitsch, and I’m glad I did; because doing so gave me the tools to understand some of my favorite parts of myself, including my queerness.
Kitsch, like its cousin camp, is tricky to nail down. Instead of igniting similar arguments to the ones the internet had during the recent camp-themed Met Gala, I’m not going to try and give a unified definition of kitsch. Instead, I want to illustrate how being in a kitsch space feels so fundamentally different than being in any other kind of space.
For a clear demonstration of that difference, let’s look at my recent trip to Southern Nevada. I stayed two places: The Flamingo, in Las Vegas, and the Little A’le’inn in Rachel. I was equally excited for both when the journey began. The Flamingo, with its neon pink signage and towering bird statues at the doors, looked like a kitschy dream come true. But it refused to lean into it — Ii tried to be tasteful and appealing to everyone, and instead ended up a boring, depressing place with grab-bag aesthetics (to be fair, it’s a casino, it’s focus is on money more than anything, but damn was it dull).
The lack of anything enjoyably kitschy during my time in Vegas left me bored but and drained from all of the stimulus there that demanded my attention but failed to deliver anything interesting. The final leg of the trip was the extraterrestrial highway (so named due to frequent UFO sightings and the fact that it passes Area 51). The highway itself exemplifies what I think of as a uniquely American form of kitsch: endless stretches of road interrupted only by over-the-top sights like towering alien statues.
Arriving at the Little A’le’inn, I stepped out of the car and into a place that’s leapt head-first into the fact that it’s the closest motel to Area 51. Glowing UFO statues? Check. Alien-themed food and beverages? Yes indeed. Famous UFO photos decorating the trailer where I stayed? You bet. It was an oasis of weird after the overwhelming image-consciousness of Vegas.
As I wandered the grounds, taking in all the little UFO images and jokes dotting the area and keeping an eye out for rattlesnakes, I tried piecing together why I felt so much calmer and at home than I had at the Flamingo. Part of it was the stillness and silence; Rachel is so small it doesn’t even have a gas station, so aside from the handful of guests and other staff and a few residents, there was nothing and no one around for miles.
Deeper down, I felt relief at not having to convey any pretense for why I was there, because in kitschy spaces the draw, the reason for stopping, is made clear. I don’t have to cultivate detached coolness in them. Instead I can own my enthusiasm for whatever the focal point of the kitsch may be, even if it’s just weird for weirdness sake, because those spaces are built for that exact purpose. In the case of the Little A’le’inn, I was there to drink “alien’s blood” cocktails, to speculate on the true nature of the UFOs in the photos on the walls, to be in a place where my alien tank-top and Jackalope hat fit in perfectly. I was there because life is short, so why the hell not sleep in the place with a giant flying saucer out front?
Years ago, I would have told anyone who asked that of course I didn’t want to stay at the Little A’le’inn (even though I desperately did). I wanted to travel, as I wanted to do all things, the “right” way, and while that way may have allowed for a stop to take photos and laugh at the kitsch, it didn’t allow for reveling in it. I wanted my travels to be normal and cool, in retrospect because I didn’t want to face the potential pushback if people (my anxiety never bothered to specify who) discovered the truth.
Still, I was always drawn towards strange and kitschy places when traveling. I took a cursory look at my refrigerator while writing this: magnets from Roswell, “The Rattlesnake Museum,” and the “Loch Ness Research Center.” I looked down and remembered I was wearing a Winchester Mystery House shirt. Somewhere in between all those destinations, I came to terms with the fact that there was nothing to be gained by living inauthentically, whether that’s in terms of my sexual orientation or my travel preferences. Not to mention life gets much more interesting when you lean into all the weird diversity of tastes and experiences that exist rather than dismissing them. I also realized that my fondness for kitsch was somehow tied up with my queerness and, because I’m the way I am, kept poking at the connection to figure out where it came from.
I, and many other queer folks, struggle with is how visible and vocal to be. Being queer out in the world is a constant dance of deciding how much attention, intentional or not, you want to draw to yourself. Too much attention at the wrong time or place can be dangerous, even deadly. But in kitschier spaces,everyone is too busy gawking at all the hot pink and taxidermy and velvet paintings to notice if you have a gender nonconforming appearance or a jacket with many pins from the Autostraddle store.
More importantly, in many kitschy spaces strangeness or queerness no longer sticks out. Learning how to love kitsch and learning how to love my queerness both involved learning to accept the labels attached to them. When you look at the synonyms of kitsch, they include vulgar (“those kinds of relationships aren’t appropriate in children’s media”), showy (“I’m fine with gay people, but why do they have to draw attention to themselves “) and tawdry, (“ the gay ‘lifestyle’ is inherently immoral”). It’s not a perfect comparison by any means, given that no one’s passing legislation to keep people who like kitsch from accessing healthcare, but it helped me realize that many of the fears keeping me from embracing how much I loved kitschwere, on a deeper level, the fears that kept me from admitting my queerness to myself. Embracing kitschy spaces was a safe way of testing the waters to see if I could handle people’s reactions to my being non-normative in some way.
I keep thinking back on how playful and confident I felt while I was at the Madonna Inn. I was only a year or so out of college at that point, and was in the throes of figuring out exactly how I wanted to move in the world as the “adult” version of myself. For so long, I’d assumed grown-up Sam would somehow shed the parts of me that were unwieldy, that were too weird. I remember going shopping for interview clothes, choosing items for a life I did not yet lead, not quite recognizing the person looking at me from the mirror in muted colors. I grew increasingly unsure if I wanted the life I was steering her towards. Smack in the middle of that deliberation, I found myself in the bright blue and yellow-tiled bathroom of the daisy-motiffed Marguerite room at the Madonna Inn, adjusting my sequined dress and putting on make-up that rivaled the tiles in its color. The woman putting on her eyeliner in the mirror was instantly recognizable — she was the version of myself I saw in my daydreams, confident in the way she looked, in what she wanted, in the things and people she loved. I’d conjured her to the forefront of myself without a second thought, because who else but the most unafraid, unashamed version of me could star in the technicolor story the kitschy space around me was telling.
The more I traveled as an adult, the more I noticed that version of myself coming out whenever I stepped into kistchier spaces. She didn’t always look or act exactly the same way, but the confidence and enthusiasm remained consistent. Being in places that took pride in their weirdness made it feel natural to take pride in my own.
Traveling to kitschy places taught me to embrace loving things, including myself, deeply and unironically. I think that’s part of why I, and many other queer folks, find those spaces resonant. When the very idea of you loving who you do is still stigmatized by so many, I find there’s an instinct to love expansively. To love harder and more when others say you ought to love less. When you understand that there are certain people who will look down on you no matter how you express your queerness, it allows you the freedom to stop worrying about whether the people, places, and things you love are “right.” Sometimes it feels like that’s all we as queer people have left; our willingness and ability to love broadly and unironically, to build homes and families and pockets of brightness in a world that grows grimmer by the day. To remind ourselves that there are absurd and colorful and wonderful reasons to keep fighting.
Humans have the intelligence, creativity, drive to create any number of innovations and tools. On my worst days, I feel like we put all that potential and capability into finding new ways to harm each other. It’s when I stand in front of the unnecessarily elaborate music machines at House on The Rock, or the too-pink lounge of the Madonna Inn, that I remember we are also a species that can devote immense effort to harmless feats of passion and absurdity. We erect halves of Cadillacs in the desert and encourage passersby to spray paint them. We build museums dedicated to creatures that help us believe in a world that still holds wondrous secrets instead of terrible ones. We look at a dull room and instead of bowing to the belief that safe and muted is the proper state of the world say “well, this could do with some lime green paint and a waterfall.”
It’s a similar feeling that washes over me when I’m at Pride or other explicitly queer spaces. How wonderful to be in a place bursting with the full diversity of human expression. How lovely to be part of a community that embraces the strange, the colorful, the sincere. Queer spaces serve as reminders of how odd and varied our experiences are as humans, and that the strangeness, the difference, is something to celebrate. I feel at home in those spaces in a way I don’t anywhere else. And I’ve learned that, if I’m missing them or can’t seem to locate them, there’s often a shag carpeted, velvet-lined trail of kitsch to help me find my way.🗺️
Edited by rachel.