Music

Nicole's Final Act

Faced with a terminal cancer diagnosis, a local trangendered cabaret star plans her last hurrah.

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Have you ever been stood up — by a hooker?" asked Nicole, aka Nicole McRory, a local cabaret host and transgendered singing extraordinaire. "Three different times, three different hookers?" Such is the life of an amiable — if brash — transgendered entertainer, who could still work a pair of fisticuffs at age sixty. Well known for her long-running showcases at Johnny Foley's and Beckett's Irish pubs, Nicole became a fixture in Bay Area nightlife. She has a Wikipedic knowledge of pop songs, a freight-train baritone, and a shockingly foul yet sweet sense of humor. She's the star of a new YouTube documentary, Have No Fear. She's a veritable institution.

And she's now saying her good-byes. In January, Nicole was diagnosed with non-Hodgkin's B-cell mantle type lymphoma. It's a rare form of cancer, and doctors told her the treatment came with a minority recovery rate. She was given the option of radiation, chemotherapy, and severe surgery, but after seeing a friend waste away in a hospital bed, she opted to skip treatment. She now has a few months to live.

Nicole was never your typical San Francisco musician. Standing at five-feet-ten, she had a mop of curly burgundy hair and a knack for being explicit. And being a post-op transsexual lesbian to boot, she's incapable of not drawing attention. For the last seven years, Nicole forged a career of making people drop their jaws, shake their hips, open their hearts, and bite their lips. Her M.O.? Relentlessly pounding out a variety of Top 40 sing-alongs and dance tunes. Each night, she hands out a booklet of some 850 hits for on-the-spot requests. Such enthusiasm and verve helped her avoid being pigeonholed as a transgender performer. Every week, Nicole entertains college kids, business men, tourists, and a mixed bag of locals. She spent years shouldering a busy performance schedule of four nights a week.

Born in Hartford, Connecticut, Nicole began her life as Colin McRory. One of her earliest memories is being three years old, seeing her mother naked, and thinking "I want that." Even as a kid, she believed her penis was simply "wrong." She grew up a straight male, got married twice ("one hell and one heaven"), and only dated men while cross-dressing because they made her feel more like a lady.

Nicole began her forty-year-long music career performing in New York (where she spent two years studying voice at Juilliard), then in Vail, Colorado. She moved to the Bay Area in 2000, and changed her name from Colin to Nicole shortly thereafter. She got her SF break from Martin Connolly, owner of Foley's and Beckett's, after dropping off a CD and coming in for an interview. Nicole recounts wooing Connolly, while decked in full drag. Within half an hour she locked down four nights a week (split between both venues), which was essentially a consistent full-time job (a rare thing for musicians these days). Connolly, whom Nicole considers an "angelic Pierce Brosnan," couldn't resist the "good feeling" he was getting from her and ten years later he considers Nicole to be "one of the finest human beings I've ever met."

Since, Nicole has gone on to dazzle audiences with renditions of U2, Journey, Johnny Cash, and many others. Highlights of her performance include spot-on impersonations, especially a rendition of Green Day's "Basket Case" which features a motley lineup of Johnny Cash, Willie Nelson, and Bob Dylan.

In 2003, Nicole turned dream into reality by traveling to Bangkok for sexual reassignment surgery. She said she was "instantly" happy after the surgery, and has been happy ever since. "I make no fucking bones about the fact that I'm a transsexual," Nicole said, interviewed in her spacious apartment, right above the University of San Francisco. "You go see one of my shows, it's like, I ain't trying to hide it."

Hiding isn't on this woman's agenda. Her stage banter mainly focuses on sex (her axe appropriately dubbed "Pussy"), and on challenging audiences' ideas of sexuality and gender. She says she's currently single, and hasn't wanted to be with a man since the stitches came out. She tried to find a female mate after the surgery, and managed to get stood up three separate times by call girls. Nicole grimly accepted the fact that she is destined to die a "born-again" virgin.

Of course, her ill-fated amours just became grist for comedy. Perhaps that's what keeps Nicole's audiences coming back for more. There's the tickles-below-the-belt humor, and there's the allure of the unknown. "It's because they see me acting fearless," Nicole said. More recently she pushed the envelope even farther with jokes about her cancer. Naturally, she couldn't avoid upsetting a few people. One good-intentioned server worried that it might offend customers.

Earlier this July Nicole was forced to retire from the stage due to her weakened health. Not one to quickly raise a white flag, she went out in style with a four-hour nonstop performance.

Nicole has her departure fully planned out. She'll hopefully throw one last fund-raising hoorah in about five months — fittingly titled Lymphoma: The Concert. (Full disclosure: During our interview, she asked if I would play drums for the show. I couldn't turn it down.) Nicole is relatively sanguine, contemplating her final act. She already has the last song programmed: "Don't Fear the Reaper'."

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