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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' ''.
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.
  • 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 Corr. "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 never inherited after all.

The IMDB entry is still in Rachel’s boy name.  In fact, in the cast list for The Queen, it says: “Richard Finnochio as Harlow” rather than "Harlow as Herself".   It is time it was updated.


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.

Margaret Griffin 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.