Donnie “Dirtwoman” Corker earned the drag name he would carry to his grave in the back seat of a Richmond police car in 1976.
“He got caught one time in Monroe Park; they said he was soliciting prostitution,” said his younger sister, Debra Corker. “He told the policeman to let him out; he had to go to the bathroom. The officer told him he could wait.”
He did not wait.
“They started calling him dirty,” she said.
It’s probably one of the tamer stories left by the crude-but-proud Oregon Hill boy, who became legendary in the city’s counterculture scene over the course of several decades of drag shows, radio appearances and wrestling matches in substances ranging from mud to pork and beans.
Mr. Corker died Tuesday in the South Richmond home he shared with family members. He was 65 and had been in poor health for the past several years, suffering from a stroke and heart failure.
His family, friends and fans remember him for his high-profile stunts, which included a run for mayor and an appearance in full drag at former Gov. L. Douglas Wilder’s inauguration that got him arrested. But they also recall a sweet, thoughtful and caring side, as well as his status as an early — if imperfect — advocate for gay Richmonders.
“He expressed himself in a way that most of us would not have, but like him or not, he was out there a long time ago talking about gay people when most members of our community were closeted,” said William Harrison, president of Diversity Richmond. “The reason being, it still is legal to fire people for being gay. That’s what most people back in those days feared. That didn’t bother him. He was a trailblazer.”
Mr. Corker liked the attention, telling the Richmond Times-Dispatch in 2008 that he found it easy to embrace the Dirtwoman persona. “They gave it to me to hurt my feelings, but it didn’t. It made me world-famous,” he said.
Born in 1951 to Mae Brady, a homemaker, and James W. Corker Sr., a railroad car inspector, Mr. Corker was one of their seven children.
He rarely attended school. Instead, he would board a city bus and ride all day as it looped around Richmond. As a result, he never learned to read or write.
“He hated school,” said his older brother, Jimmy Corker. “Like all of us.”
He got into drag in the early ’70s. “Mommy and Daddy both knew,” Debra Corker said. “It started out with him doing different shows, you know, going down and mud wrestling or something like that. And then, I mean, he just started dressing and hanging out on the corners.
“Mama said, ‘Donnie, I don’t care what you do, but you don’t need to stay out on those streets late at night like that.’”
He was remembered for frequenting the intersection of Grace and Lombardy streets, at that time notorious for cross-dressing prostitutes. At various points, he also sold flowers on the sidewalk and worked as a ticket-taker at a porn theater on Grace, a toll collector and kitchen help at Mamma Zu in Oregon Hill, where he would sit outside peeling massive bowls of garlic.
Grace Street is where he encountered members of Richmond’s burgeoning punk scene, who embraced him at a time when he was otherwise fending off threats of violence and jeers from less-welcoming city residents.
“The first time I met him, he was hiding in the bushes and he went, ‘Psst, I’ll make a man out of you, boy,’” said Dean Owen, who was 17 and would later run Twisters, now Strange Matter, and booked Mr. Corker for various shows, including a wrestling match in a vat of pork and beans against Dave Brockie, the late frontman of GWAR.
“I think Donnie always won, man,” he said. “But it was rigged, to say the least.”
Mr. Corker began to break through as a cultural figure known beyond the city’s alternative and art community in 1990. He was featured in the precursor to Richmond magazine, and the long article opens with a description of him arguing with a shopkeeper who did not want him to try on a dress.
Later that year, he was arrested while waiting in line with reporters to get into Wilder’s inauguration. A local radio station had given him press credentials, but Capital Police, aware of Mr. Corker and his background, arrested him on a misdemeanor fraud charge, alleging he was impersonating a reporter.
Police justified the arrest in response to a subsequent lawsuit filed by Mr. Corker by arguing that his “reputation as an illiterate, unemployed person who engages in deviate behavior, with ties to the criminal community and who goes by the name ‘Dirt Woman’ is well-established.” Charges were ultimately dropped on appeal.
Around the same time, Mr. Corker began publishing a pinup calendar that featured his exposed, rotund visage in outfits evoking Cupid and the Statue of Liberty, among others.
He was the headliner of the annual Christmastime fundraiser called Hamaganza , where he played a raunchy Mrs. Claus. The events have raised $25,000 to $30,000 for the Central Virginia Food Bank in the past two decades.
In 2008, he ran for mayor on a relatively straightforward promise to “clean up city politics.” He did not make the ballot, but remained engaged in city politics, frequently attending City Council meetings and periodically appearing at city events.
He made frequent phone calls to area reporters and politicians, often demanding they bring him food, a plea he also frequently imposed on friends and family members.
“Bring me a big juicy hamburger and some coffee” was an often-repeated request. If he was denied, he would unleash a string of curses in his Old Richmond drawl, which lent a certain charm to even the gruffest interactions.
Richmond City Councilwoman Reva Trammell issued a statement Tuesday after his death became public. “We just talked recently, and my thoughts and prayers are with his family and friends during this difficult time as we say goodbye to one of Richmond’s most well-known personalities.”
Suffering from health issues, Mr. Corker found it increasingly difficult to move around the city in recent years, but he frequently traveled on his motorized wheelchair from his South Richmond home off Jefferson Davis Highway where he lived with his sister and a close friend, Tammy Harris.
Mr. Corker made his final appearance in drag as Dirtwoman at a benefit in May. Harris, who took care of him as his health deteriorated, said he relished the moment.
“He was still sick, but he was just so excited, enthusiastic about it,” she said.
Funeral arrangements were incomplete Tuesday.