What was the question?

Leslie Cochran: A Photoshoot to Remember

I would say something like, “for those of you living under a rock…” when I reference Leslie Cochran but that’s unfair. Not everyone had been to Austin between 1996 and 2012 and not all of the people who had met the former mayoral candidate and constant drag queen(slash)urban outdoorsman. Sure, a lot of people had photos taken with him on Dirty 6th and some knew him well for years – but not everyone hired him for a half-day photo shoot. 

It would soon be the 90th Anniversary of Austin’s Paramount Theatre and a large advertising agency, GSD&M, wanted to show their support. A large agency with major national clients doesn’t have much copywriting manpower for creating an ad for a theatre program so they chose the lowest person on the totem pole (me) and an amateur photographer (my intern).

We had less than three days to concept and prepare the ad for the theatre people so we met and discussed our options. “Willie Nelson,” I told my intern, Craig. “Can we do that?” he asked. We could, he was an old agency friend and had stopped in from time-to-time. Alas, Willie was on tour in New York. We then talked about getting Will Wynn, Austin’s popular mayor but his office quickly declined, saying it would be a bad political move to support the agency and not whatever else. 

Hmmm. What were we going to do with either one of them if we were able to snag them? The plan was to have them dress in as close to period costume as possible while holding a skull on the stage under a single spotlight with the caption, “Dear Paramount. Here’s to being… for 90 years. Happy Birthday, your friends at GSD&M.” 

Clever, right? Sure, celebrating an old theatre with a Shakespeare reference had probably happened a few million times over the course of modern history but had any of them thought to refer to “to be or not to be” while holding a skull? Both things from Hamlet but from two entirely different scenes? Oh, to be young, courageous and dumb again. 

“HEY! We’ll get Leslie Cochran!” I told Craig. He laughed and agreed immediately. Leslie’s funny, first of all, we’d hung out with him a few times here and there. He’s recognizable and it would be a nice juxtaposition for the city and theatre we loved. Only… where in the hell do you find a “homeless” man when you need him? 

I knew he ate lunch at Ninfa’s almost daily while he did the crossword puzzle in whatever newspaper he found but he wasn’t there. We checked for him at another of his favorite haunts, Taco Deli off the Greenbelt. Nope. We each texted just about everyone we knew and wouldn’t you know it, no one had seen him but a lovely young lady informed us that the owner of a popular salon on South Congress would know exactly where Leslie was.

‘Why would that be?’ we wondered as we drove there. 

As Craig and I waited for the owner to finish with a client, we thumbed through a book about mullets, some tongue-in-cheek salon fun. The gentleman finished the lady off nicely and asked why we wanted to find Leslie. After explaining the plan, he called Leslie and a meeting was set for half an hour later at Bouldin Creek Coffee Shop. We thanked the man and got to the coffee shop early to get tacos. 

We did manage to find out the connection between the salon owner and Mayor Cochran. A few years prior, they made a nice little pile of money by selling magnets of Leslie with paper-doll-like changes of outfit. And now Leslie had a cellphone, which is how the salon owner got ahold of him to meet us. 

Here he came. It’s important to know that Leslie’s pronouns were he/him/his though he often wore – no, always wore the type of outfit I’m about to describe. Around the bushes and toward us came Leslie. His tiara in place, the blouse cinched and unbuttoned to reveal what looked to be C-cup-shaped breasts carved from some sort of foam. The shaved legs poured through a thong and then a leather miniskirt and stopped to sit upon five-inch heels. 

After introductions, we offered to get him anything he wanted from inside. He wanted two breakfast tacos and a nut brown ale. Solid breakfast. 

As Craig and I started the explanation, Leslie’s right hand slowly raised and a solo index finger gave us  the international sign for “hold that thought.” His left hand brushed away orange hair to reveal a bluetooth device, gold in color to match the gold Dolce & Gabbana Razr on his waistband. 

As the finger remained extended, holding us in place, his voice boomed, “You’ve got Leslie, talk to me babe.” He began a very complicated and lucid conversation with someone about real estate and train tickets. We know this because even after the finger was lowered, we sat and listened and watched for ten minutes. 

Now, free from outside distraction, we were ready to tell Leslie what we needed from him. Instead, Leslie walked us through the finer, possibly not overheard parts of the conversation he just had on the phone. He had a cell phone. He had a nicer cell phone than either of us. AND a bluetooth earpiece. This still baffled us, we were young.

Leslie had been staying in a home out in Westlake, the fancy part of town. One of many fancy parts of Austin. A nice house at that, something about the owner letting him stay there while they extracted mold – was the story we’d heard. Also, it’s important to understand that, though he stayed in friend’s homes and for years slept downtown in a sleeping bag, Leslie wasn’t homeless. Austin was his home. 

The owner of the house in which Leslie was currently staying, in the “Oh-Four,” was allowing him to broker its sale. Which, just didn’t compute. This person also wanted Leslie to travel to Iowa in order to inspect some horses for them. Feel free to read this section a few more times, I had to as well. 

Craig and I finished our spiel and Leslie was on board. He would meet us the following morning at 9 a.m. and arrive in his best period costume gown. He would dye and trim his hair and beard, his idea, we knew we were limited to black and white by the theatre program printer but we wanted Leslie to be comfortable and colorful.  And, of course, he would wear his best tiara.

His payment? $50, a 12-pack of Tecate and a pack of American Spirit Yellows. He agreed to sign legal documents in the morning when we brought his supplies. The agency offered no reimbursement for this stuff but did chip in 25 of the $50. That was nice of them. In a gesture to seal the deal, Leslie unscrewed one of the lenses on the binoculars around his neck and took a sip from it. He then tipped the binoculars our way and offered us, “Tequila?” Sure. We weren’t going to offend the talent. 

As Craig drove us away from the coffee shop, he asked, “What are the chances he’s here at 9 a.m.?” To which I replied, “less than 50/50.” Why? Because we ran and got his smokes and beers so we wouldn’t have to deal with it the next day. That may have not been our smartest move.

We had everything planned, calls to the theatre were made to get us in and set up the scene. A friend of ours was a prop person for film sets – she hooked us up with a human skull. We still think it was real. The camera, the lights, everything was in order. Now all there was to do was arrive back at Bouldin Creek at 8:45 the next morning and wait. 

We had our fresh, organic coffees and counted the minutes. 

At 8:55, Craig looked toward the bushes and whispered “holy f-ck.” Here was Leslie, hair and beard… perfect. A gorgeous crimson flapper dress draped over his voluptuous bosom and cinched into his fanny pack.  His shoes made sense, he even looked to have had a mani-pedi. We piled into Craig’s truck, Leslie said, “I’ll ride bitch!” and bitch he rode.

He entertained us all the way to the theatre – maybe a ten minute drive – spouting facts he was learning from a Ray Bradbury book he was reading. Well, they were told in the way you would tell someone facts but they sure didn’t sound factual. Entertaining nonetheless. 

Craig parked the trusty Ram right up front and fed the meter while Leslie and I grabbed at bags, boxes and cases in the truck’s bed. We met the Manager and she immediately informed us that we wouldn’t be able to use the stage for our shoot, the Austin Ballet were rehearsing. Which was fine, the concept would work staged on their elaborate and ornate stairwell. 

Leslie touched up his makeup, primped everything else, kindly removed his fanny pack and posed like a high-paid professional model. This was not his first time. With each “click” of the digital camera, Leslie moved slightly further into or away from the light. His chin, arm and leg placement were remarkable. I’d worked with celebrities who couldn’t move like Leslie. 

After knowing we had the shot, we took some blooper reel shots and packed up. When the last case was in the truck, yes, Leslie, the talent, even helped us pack up – he stood on the Congress Avenue sidewalk in front of the Paramount smoking and greeting his fans, graciously helping them with selfies. 

I tracked down the Manager to thank her and met Craig on the sidewalk to join Leslie in a cigarette. Craig was putting in a light case when Leslie remarked at how easy it was for Craig to get this choice spot on a Saturday. When Craig turned to inform Leslie that today was, in fact, Wednesday – Leslie’s cheerful confidence drained from his face. His eyes traveled in time. At least four days. 

He now slumped, stepped down from his heels and slid their straps into some fingers that then went over his shoulder. He was now gone, no longer there as he shuffled slowly away from us. We chased him down and told him we’d give him a ride anywhere in town. He was in disbelief, we would drive him somewhere? YES! Please come back and get in the truck. He slowly did. 

There was no fun banter on the ride home. He gave us an address and we pulled into the long, narrow driveway that revealed what people had been referring to as a “shed” when, in actuality, it was a pleasant little bungalow guesthouse. I got out to let Leslie out then climbed back in. 

Leslie walked away from the truck. Craig reminded me that there were documents the agency wanted signed. Leslie gladly signed them. And began to withdraw once again. Then his head perked up. He dropped the shoes and hurried back to my window. Craig whispered, “More money?” I rolled the window down again and Leslie spun around and shouted “Unzip me!”

He then slinked out of the gown and strutted away from the truck and through the fence gate as the gown dropped to the ground, revealing nothing but a blue, bedazzled thong. He turned back to us, put his left pinky to his mouth then smacked his own ass with his right hand. Craig was already in reverse and, at ½ mph, struggling to not actually die laughing, we flew from the scene. 

I’m not sure either one of us spoke the remainder of the day. 

From time-to-time, we were asked to tell this story in the hallways at work or a bar somewhere. The story’s always better when we tell it together and Craig certainly has signoff on this telling. The city misses Leslie and some have tried to imitate but no one can duplicate that man. 

We’ll never forget that day. Here’s looking at you.