Wearing a top hat and sitting at my cartoonishly long dinner table, my wildly eccentric friend of twenty-plus years, known to friends as Auntie M, revisits the last time I tried to interview him. That was two years ago, and part of the conversation took place over text. At one point, he'd replied to my inquiry, "I'm tired of texting and I'm bored."
"Wanna know why I said I was bored and ended it?" he asks playfully. "Because you asked about the famous people who owned my beads, and that question makes their value contingent on that, like that's what's important, when the beads are what's important!"
The beads are piled high on the table in front of him — some with black and white babies, some with big floppy sea creatures, some with skulls adorned with Swarovski crystal eyes, and some with stout erect golden penises. Auntie M grandly fans his open hands over the sparkling endowment, each strand of which will be bestowed upon a reveler in St. Louis, or New Orleans, or at New York's Mermaid Parade on Coney Island, or maybe even on his favorite cashier at Whole Foods.
Respecting the Alice in Wonderland quality of his storytelling, and not wanting to risk derailing this interview, I simply allow Auntie M to begin talking, and only gently steer (or attempt to steer) the conversation now and then. Each strand has a story, including the first beads he presents, which are adorned with golden babies.
"I was in New Orleans in my French aristocrat attire — you know, with the towering pink wig — and I see the hottest entertainer," he says. "He was Mediterranean and dressed in a sailor's outfit with really tight pants, and I was in love. We talked and he was the sweetest guy, and I gave him a strand of my golden king-cake baby beads.
"The next morning I'm on the balcony and there he is oiled up and dancing on stage in nothing but a g-string and one strand of beads. My beads!" Auntie M proudly recalls. "I hadn't brought any other costumes; I'd just put on the same thing, and on day three I walked past these queens who had been partying hard, probably doing all sorts of drugs, and one noticed I was still wearing the same outfit and turned to his friend and admiringly said, 'She's been up for days!'"
Nothing pleases Auntie M more than seeing others wearing his beads like heirloom pieces, especially if it happens long after he first bestowed them. In the late '90s Auntie M set his sights on the most coveted spot in all of Soulard Mardi Gras: the balcony at Menard and Allen above Clementine's, which was the oldest gay bar in St. Louis when it closed in 2014. Only a handful of people were permitted up there, so without any connections Auntie M showed up a few days before Mardi Gras wearing one of his outrageous costumes and carrying a bucket of his first-generation beads, which he'd made from braided garland and pearls. The beads were impressive enough that owner Gary Reed agreed to allow him to grace the balcony during the festivities, where he delighted the crowd below and whipped them into a frenzy of bead lust. The next year he returned to the perch and noticed people in the crowd wearing his beads. He was deeply honored, but also slightly embarrassed because his artistry had improved so much over that year, as he'd moved beyond repurposing Christmas decorations and begun incorporating rosary beads and better wire.
In the two decades since then, Auntie M has become one of the city's most recognizable Mardi Gras personalities. He graced the 2000 Soulard Mardi Gras poster, has been featured in countless Mardi Gras photo montages and, more recently, hosted the High Heel Drag Race. But for him, it's still all about the beads.
And Auntie M's creations have become the ultimate Mardi Gras status symbol in St. Louis. They're simultaneously exclusive and populist. They represent authenticity, street cred and Mardi Gras glamour, perhaps because they cannot be bought. These are beads you have to earn.
- THEO WELLING
- Auntie M, photographed here in his Southwest Garden flat, is among Soulard Mardi Gras’ most iconic personalities.
Auntie M's real name is Matthew Traeger, and convincing him to let me use it here was an easier task than getting him to reveal his age, which even I am not sure of. "Those details are only known to me and Madonna's plastic surgeon, so let's just say I'm solidly Gen X territory," he says.
He lives in a flat overlooking the Missouri Botanical Garden with a yoga mat in the living room and a bed in the very center of the bedroom surrounded by a garden of blacklight-illuminated glow-in-the-dark flowers. Everything in between those two rooms — dining room, kitchen, hallway — is a warehouse of beads, wigs, hats, mannequin parts and sundry insane items. Unlike his age, I know about his day job, but he doesn't want me to say much about it. It doesn't have anything to do with beads.
He went through several artistic incarnations before settling on beads. The first time Auntie M attended Soulard Mardi Gras, for instance, he was adorned in recycled artificial flowers spray-painted in Day-Glo colors. At the time there was a popular nighttime Mardi Gras parade, and his group of similarly adorned marchers followed a golf cart topped with a blacklight spotlight.
He became interested in beads after buying strands, and thinking about how much more fun and interesting they could be. Also, he saw people literally risk their lives for them. "I've seen people run and grab throw beads from between the wheels of tractor trailers in the parade. I've seen them pick up beads that were on horse shit. I mean, if people are willing to debase themselves for beads, give them something worthwhile," he says.
If I had to use pop-culture references to describe Auntie M, I'd say he's part Dr. Frasier Crane and part Roger the Alien. He's almost hypnotic in his speaking style, very even and measured, although when amused he is prone to let out a hearty cackle. I've never once seen him frazzled, hurried or even distracted. Each word is thought out.
Auntie M scours the globe for beads, and when he finds something truly unique he buys in bulk — and I mean bulk. "A giant Brooklyn warehouse was being liquidated and they had all these beads from West Germany, so they'd been sitting in boxes for decades," he says. Rubbing his finger over one kitschy German bead that looked to be from the '60s, he explains how the beads have no seam, which is unusual. He spent $10,000 to acquire all they had.
The babies he uses in his beads are manufactured for use on baby shower cakes. He orders them in bulk from a bakery supplier and then drills holes through them. "Mardi Gras is so white, not just in St. Louis either, so I began with black baby beads to celebrate diversity, and then came out with the interracial baby beads — and nothing compares to the excited reaction when I give those to an interracial couple."
He patronizes bead stores in San Francisco, Seattle and Houston. The golden penises are imported from France. "The French just have that aesthetic down," he says. He has a favorite supplier in China. "When you open the bags these come in it smells like a toxic waste dump," Auntie M says of the gorgeous absinthe green Chinese beads. "The air quality is so bad in the industrial province where they're made. I set them in my hallway to air out for a few days when I get them. I'm sure my neighbors love me."
Sometimes beads do not cost money. That was the case at the 2002 Burning Man festival, which Auntie M attended wearing a kimono-style ensemble custom-made from metallic organza fabric by Marie Oberkirsch, an artist in Old North.
"There was this domed Arabian tent where you could create your own jewelry and the price was taking a photo wearing what you made," Auntie M recalls.
That leads to another memory, one from the Burning Man festival: "I had that billowy outfit on with a golden Italian-made mask and a headpiece from Bali, a golden ornate thing, and I was sitting in the actual effigy. That year it was all about gods and deities, and the base of the effigy had these alcoves you were supposed to sit and pretend like you're a deity, and a nerdy white couple came up and presented me with an offering of beautiful glass beads and a little bracelet, and in return I gave them one of my own strands, and as I'm handing it to them it busted apart and fell into a cloud of dust."
In the moment, Auntie M just laughed, thinking what an appropriate comment on impermanence it was, being at that ephemeral festival in the desert. "But they didn't seem to see it that way, and they just kind of wandered away with devastated looks on their faces."
And then there's New Orleans, a city so awash in beads they clog the sewer system. During his annual pilgrimage to march in its numerous parades, Auntie M collects the most intriguing krewe beads thrown on the streets there, takes them apart and incorporates the krewe emblems into his works.
Not every supply source is so exotic. Locally, he enjoys the fine selection at Carnival Supply and Schaefer's Hobby, and he's even slummed it at (shudder) Hobby Lobby when it's had some insane sale on disco-ball ornaments.
And then there's Bass Pro. "You go past the kettle corn and all these people getting geared up to go out and kill animals, and I'm looking for tackle boxes for my beads and fishing line to string them," he says. "As far as the fishing line, I've found that 30-pound test has enough of a resistance to give the strand some shape. It's like Bass Pro is my Michael's Annex."
Auntie M feels a great deal of camaraderie with the seasoned bead traders he encounters.
"There are die-hard Mardi Gras people who are really into trading really good beads. Oftentimes it's an older lady that looks part Kentucky Derby and part hooker and has so many beads they take on the form of a life preserver. Some will even zip-tie their favorites together to make sure they don't trade those," Auntie M explains.
"They talk to you about them — every strand has a story. Some are handmade, some you can't find anymore and sometimes they are wearing beads I made. One had this incredible strand containing a miniature rubber chicken. I had to sweeten the deal a bit to make that trade."
After obtaining the rubber-chicken beads, Auntie M engaged with a group of nondescript people with really basic signs, like "Have Fun," preparing to walk in the parade.
"Can I walk with you?" he asked them. "I'm handing out beads." They consulted with one another and agreed. Halfway through the parade he realized they were Scientologists.
- THEO WELLING
- Beads that Auntie M created for the Coney Island Mermaid Parade intertwine with ones he made for New Orleans' Boheme Parade.
Every tribe has its corner for Soulard Mardi Gras. Ninth and Barton, around D's Place, is the single & mingle tribe. The bottom of Russell near Hammerstone's is where many of the most serious drinkers gather. Auntie M posits it's because they lack the ambition to climb the hill after the parade since the drinks are right there anyway. Frat bros love 12th and Russell around McGurk's, and 12th and Allen is a more relaxed mix of Soulardians, hippies, hipsters and drag queens.
After Clementine's closed, the center of gravity for the LGBTQ community shifted one block south, from Menard and Allen to Menard and Russell. That's where Bastille, the block's other gay bar, is located, as well as Remember Me Vintage & Costume. I've been close friends with shop owner Diane Baklor since I first moved to Soulard from Oklahoma City in 1997. We became acquainted when I purchased Art Deco chrome furniture from her, which she conveniently allowed my 22-year-old broke ass to pay for in installments.
Baklor graciously offered my crew the use of her iconic second-floor turret so the bead-throwing tradition could continue. Auntie M invited a group of elaborately costumed clown entertainers to join us and I invited several colorful friends, including one who peeks at the crowd through a mock glory hole, and the Krewe of the Tawdry Turret was born. The turret has also been dubbed "the Opera Box" because of its sweeping view of the intersection, which is packed with thousands during the height of the revelry.
"It's the ideal location to continue the Clementine's tradition," Auntie M enthuses. "Such a crossroads with so many people moving around. New Orleans has Bourbon and St. Ann, and St. Louis has Menard and Russell. And being above a costume shop is perfect."
Auntie M has been in the Grand Parade many times, but preferred the intimacy when the parade used to snake through the neighborhood rather than march down Seventh Street. After twice being mobbed by the crowd, he understands why they had to move it. Still, he finds the enthusiasm lacking on the newer route. "It's like many of those watching the parade here don't know they're at a parade. They're just kind of standing there." The colorful crowds below the Opera Box are more his speed, and between stints at the turret windows, Auntie M descends to street level and mingles with the people near Bastille's drag stage on Russell.
Mid-afternoon during Soulard Mardi Gras 2017, Auntie M mingled with the crowd beneath the Opera Box. "C'mon, just flash it," a twenty-something woman said to her boyfriend while lusting after a luscious strand of Auntie M's glass and wood beads, which he was gently twirling off the end of his pink skull-capped scepter. With very little prodding the sculpted man complied, the gallery of huddled onlookers was impressed, the beads were awarded, and Auntie M moved along to find the next lively exchange.
More often than not it doesn't involve any forbidden flashings, yet still results in the awarding of beads.
"It used to be everyone would flash everything. They'd be flashing right and left. Our culture is not as debaucherous as it used to be," Auntie M says. "I think a certain amount of debauchery comes from oppression. People felt oppressed all year and then went wild when given the opportunity."
While Auntie M doesn't talk a great deal about his other life, which involves a job in the mental-health field, he does have many observations about psychology and our ever-evolving culture. In the case of Mardi Gras, he says people seemed anxious in the George W. Bush years, like they felt somewhat guilty about partying (although both men and women did flash more than today, which he thinks was in part due to fewer cameras). In the Obama years people seemed happier, but that's only increased with the new guy in the White House. "The new generation is just happy, and the women party hard, which is new," he says. "It used to be more the guys doing that. I think it's part of the women's empowerment we've seen in the face of Trump."
Auntie M is interested in the symbolism behind the party. Of his famous king-cake baby beads, which consist of one-inch plastic babies varying from creamy white to brown to jet black, separated by colorful glass or by wooden beads, Auntie M says, "In modern Western culture we see any baby symbols in this wholesome light, but like the penis beads, these were fertility symbols, symbols of spring and bounty and partying and sexuality. Mardi Gras, Bacchanalia.... these were times to cut loose from the ongoing catastrophe of life."
He also notes the environmental component to his artistry. Auntie M's hope is that he's crafting beads people will actually keep rather than discard. In that one small way, penis beads could help save the planet.
- THEO WELLING
- Auntie M's beads come from all over the world. Many are purchased, but some are acquired by barter. "I had to sweeten the deal a bit to make that trade," Auntie M says of his prized rubber chicken beads.
The Krewe of the Tawdry Turret prides itself on throwing the finest beads in Soulard. But in addition to holding court in and around the Opera Box, Auntie M is also known for being the host of the High Heel Drag Race, which originated around Clementine's but was bequeathed to Nadine Soab, owner of the Joint at 12th and Allen (formerly Nadine's).
As Auntie M explains, "Patty Poo" (also known as Soulard socialite Patrick Burke) used to throw a party during Mardi Gras in the late '80s or early '90s. It was he who organized a high-heel race, which originally went from his store to Clementine's.
The first event permitted participants to run any route between the store and Clementine's as long as they wore a wig and heels. A few rough-and-tumble contestants wore helmets over their wigs.
A tradition was born, but it was far from smooth sailing. "I remember when the race went up the hill on Allen and then back down to Clem's," recalls Auntie M. "The crowd would close in on the street to watch these guys run — many of which were just regular guys in heels. That would create a V of spectators, and the guys running back would smash into people. There was blood!"
After much trial and error over the years, the operation, which takes off at 12th and Allen, is safer and smoother now. It comprises four races. First is a relay race; anyone can participate and no heels are required, other than the one you will be carrying. The second is open to anyone in heels (minimum two-inch height, but no worries, loaners are available), and the third is racing against Tony, St. Louis' fastest high-heel racer, winner of countless high-heel races (they actually had to add more events so others had a shot). The final race is for full drag.
Nadine Soab is thrilled to have Auntie M run the show. "I think he's awesome in a totally freak-me-out kind of way, but probably the most sane guy I know," she says. "He's just such an incredible person. When we're planning everything he gives me all the time in the world — he's never in any hurry."
And of course Auntie M always has special beads commemorating the race, some with high-heel beads, and some with letter beads spelling out HIGH HEEL DRAG RACE and then the year.
- THEO WELLING
- Auntie M’s creations are the ultimate Mardi Gras status symbol.
Prime time at the Opera Box is from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m., with Auntie M making his way to the High Heel Drag Race by 1 p.m. As the sun fades, so do the cultural nuances differentiating one intersection from the next. Soulard takes on one single, rowdy flavor. The parade people, the bead traders, the drag entertainers and even Auntie M and the krewe roll out and are replaced with a tsunami of what Bastille and Grey Fox queen Jade Sinclair refers to as "the Zombie Apocalypse."
For two decades Auntie M has lived and breathed beads. I can't help but ask why. It is an answer he ponders for a day or so before replying by text.
"Making the beads is a way to stay sane and happy," Auntie M explains. "My mother would crochet all the time and it would all just pile up until she began donating it all to a shelter for children. A lot of the reason behind doing the beads is because I'm able to do something creative and give it to people right away.
"It takes it out of any kind of craft show or art gallery or anything like that. And nothing compares to the happiness you can bring to someone with a random gift. They're like, 'Oh wow. What just happened to me? I was just given this free thing at a fun event.'"
There's a social contract involved in going out in full regalia, Auntie M posits. You are signaling that you are there to engage, and to put on a show. But he sees a role for revelers as well, especially those wanting beads. "You have to be interesting and fun. We're all making an effort to entertain one another. What are you bringing to the party?"
If you're fun, interesting and engaging, you stand a chance of obtaining a fine Mardi Gras heirloom.
And if you've got your sights set on the precious Golden Penis, you better work.