Department of Rhetoric and Writing

The University of Texas at Austin

Keeping It Weird: Leslie as Austin’s Icon

A dog dressed up as Leslie Cochran, wearing a hot pink bra, a hot pink feather boa, and a brown curly wig

Image Credit: Austin Culture Map

H/T: Noel Radley

Austin’s Thirteenth Annual East Pet Parade, held just last Saturday, not only celebrated “family, friends, and of course our furry friends,” but also Austin resident Leslie Cochran, who passed away a month before.  The organizers encouraged owners to dress their dogs in drag in Cochran’s honor, so Chris Perez dressed her dog Leslie in traditional Leslie garb: a pink bra and a feather boa.

(NSFW after the jump.)

While dogs in drag make an interesting sight, the parade memorialized Leslie not only for his unique fashion but also his status as one of Austin’s most famous residents.  The impact of his recent illness and subsequent death stretched from gossip blogs to The New York Times, from Twitter feeds and Facebook posts to City Hall, where Austin’s Mayor Lee Leffingwell declared March 8, the day of his passing, Leslie Cochran Day.  When Mayor Leffingwell recognized Leslie in his proclamation as “an icon in the Keep Austin Weird scene for many years,” he indirectly acknowledged that Leslie was an Austin icon because Austin, like Leslie, has been known for being “weird.”  Yet his passing seemed to put this into question, as The Huffington Post asked, “Can Austin Stay Weird?”  I’d like to take the opportunity here to think through not only Leslie’s status as an Austin icon, but also how Austin’s “weirdness” is put under continual contention.

Picture of Leslie Cochran. As his backside faces the camera, he is wearing a thong and across his buttocks and bare back are written, APD Kiss This

Image Credit: Austin-American Statesman

One other reason that Leffingwell’s proclamation gives for naming March 8 Leslie Cochran Day is that “many Austin visitors and tourists over the years have an indelible image in their minds of Leslie as a reminder of their trip to our fair city.”  Leslie represented Austin in part through his own enacted visibility.  His outfits, which often involved high heels, hose, tiaras, and thongs, made him notorious in the South Congress neighborhood and through downtown Austin.  This image translated into refrigerator magnet sets in which you could dress Leslie in various costumes, including naughty and nice Santa suits.  If Leslie represented Austin, the Austin he displayed was aggressively non-normative.  While Leslie himself was friendly, his self-chosen homelessness and clothing directly opposed him to traditional suburban ideas of normal.

Leslie Cochran on Sixth Street on St. Patrick's Day, wearing a green dress and standing next to a cart with signs on it

Image Credit: Austin-American Statesman

Leslie, though, was not just a fashion plate.  While his three mayoral campaigns certainly protested against politics as usual like Screaming Lord Sutch and the Official Monster Raving Loony Party, Leslie also demonstrated an Austinite political activism.  The video for his 2000 mayoral campaign shows a man interested in smart growth, transportation, and environmental conservation.  However, Leslie also advocated for Austin’s homeless population and, later, police accountability:

One noticeable point that his supporters make is that “Leslie is here for everybody … he’s for the people.  He’s here for the homeless.”  The video’s evidence for this claim is the images of Leslie holding the baby at Barton Springs, walking around and talking to people outside Waterloo Records, near the Starbucks on Sixth and Congress, people jogging on the Town Lake Trail.  As Leslie says, the problem with government is that we’ve got “a whole lot of politicians and very few statesmen.” Leslie never became a member of the state, but his state became tied to Austin’s status as a “weird” city.

Leslie Cochran campaigning for mayor while wearing heels, a Guiness hat, and a feather boa

Image Credit: Austin-American Statesman

What, however, makes Austin “weird”?  While its weirdness has been tied up in things like Eeyore’s Birthday and Hippie Hollow, the slogan’s origins were in supporting local businesses.  It was, in Red Wassenich’s words, “a small attempt to counter Austin's descent into rampant commercialism and over-development.”  However, Austin’s weirdness has been continually challenged over the last few years.  Landmarks like the Cathedral of Junk, Emo’s, and SXSW have disappeared or been corporatized.  The city’s east side has undergone significant gentrification.  “Keep Austin Weird” was trademarked not by the slogan’s originator, but by a group who uses it to market coffee mugs and bumper stickers.  Before his death, Leslie was planning to move from Austin back to Colorado.  Austinist even declared that NPR was "so over Austin".  In short, when the Dallas Observer can write articles about Austin’s lost cool, you know the city’s cred is in trouble.

Leslie Cochran, wearing a leopard-print thong and a smile on his face

Image Credit: Keep Austin Weird

However, what might make Austin Austin is not just its lack of rain or the prevalence of breakfast tacos, but Austinites’ disdain for a changing Austin.  In other words, South By is always already uncool, because it always was better before—just like South Congress, the music scene, and everything else.  As Austin Culture Map recommends:

“To all the listmakers and smart people calling Austin the greatest, smartest, funnest, most awesomest place ever laid on the earth by God: STOP. Those of us who saw the light emanating from Austin and walked toward it back in the 70s and 80s would like to put up the gates and love our city to death before we lose yet another awesome Austin-tatious cool place like Liberty Lunch or the Armadillo.”

In short, Austin has always been a site for cultural contention between those who treasure Austin as it is and outsiders who want to take part in Austin's unique culture.  While Leslie’s death may have motivated much hand-wringing over whether or not Austin is, can be, or still is weird, I’d like to think Austin’s weirdness can never die as long as those here adopt it.  In other words: if Austin is going to the dogs, as long as they're wearing pink boas, I think Austin’s weirdness (and Leslie’s) will live on in our hearts.

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