Curtis was born in New York City to John Holder, Sr. and Italian-American Jenevive Uglialoro, and later died there of a drug overdose. He spent part of his life living and performing as a man (sometimes adopting a James Dean persona) and sometimes as a woman. While living and performing in drag, she would typically wear lipstick, glitter around the eyes and in his frizzed-out red hair, and a dress, frequently ripped and torn, as were her stockings. This unique style, a combination of trash and glamour which Curtis pioneered in the late 1960s when frequenting such high profile nightclubs as Max's Kansas City, has prompted assertions that Jackie inspired the "Glitter rock" or "Glam Rock" persona of the 1970s.
"Jackie Curtis is not a drag queen. Jackie is an artist. A pioneer without a frontier", Andy Warhol said of his associate. Primarily a stage actor, Curtis debuted at the age of 17 in Tom Eyen's play Miss Neferititi Regrets. Curtis began to write his own plays immediately after this experience, often featuring famous transsexuals, such as his friend Candy Darling and, later, Holly Woodlawn, both of whom appeared in his productions which enjoyed successful runs Off-Off-Broadway and were well-reviewed in New York. Curtis' work is representative of the Theatre of the Ridiculous. As writer and lead actress some of her plays include: Glamour, Glory and Gold, which also starred Candy Darling, Melba LaRose and Robert De Niro in his first appearance on stage, playing several roles; Amerika Cleopatra which featured Harvey Fierstein; Femme Fatale, with Patti Smith, Jayne County (at that time billed as Wayne County) and Penny Arcade; and Heaven Grand In Amber Orbit with Holly Woodlawn, produced by John Vaccaro's Playhouse of the Ridiculous in 1970. These plays caught the attention of Andy Warhol and his director Paul Morrissey, who cast Jackie and Candy in Flesh (1968) and, with the addition of Holly Woodlawn, in Women in Revolt (1971); a hilarious spoof of the women's liberation movement in which all the female leads are played by transsexuals and transvestites. Warhol films directed by Morrissey were made in a completely innovative way - without a script. Morrissey gave the actors the basic idea of the scene and line suggestions and then simply let the camera roll as the actors improvised.
Apart from acting, Curtis also showed talent in poetry and singing. In 1974 Curtis and Woodlawn appeared in the successful and critically acclaimed Cabaret in the Sky at the New York Cultural Center. A CD of songs by Paul Serrato from the Curtis musicals "Lucky Wonderful" and "Vain Victory", including the love ballad "Who Are You" which Curtis sang (as a man) to Candy Darling, was released in 2004.
Curtis' poem, B-Girls, much of which is based on Curtis' observations of people who visited Curtis' grandmother's Bowery bar, Slugger Anns, led to Curtis' inclusion in the 1979 book, The Poets' Encyclopedia. It was the longest poem in the book, spanning a total of eight pages.
Curtis was also known as the "Jackie" in Lou Reed's song "Walk On The Wild Side" which was about the 'superstars' Reed knew from Andy Warhol's studio The Factory. The verse speaks of his drug addiction and fascination with James Dean: "...Jackie is just speeding away - Thought she was James Dean for a day... then I guess she had to crash, valium would have helped that bash"
Jackie Curtis made two more movies during the 1980s. Drug addiction, however, had taken control of Curtis' life, eventually leading to Curtis' death.
In 2004, a film based on Curtis' life, Superstar in a Housedress, brought Jackie Curtis back to the limelight, exposing some little known facts about the performer to the public.
Curtis' influence on a number of people, friends and associates such as Holly Woodlawn, Joe Dallesandro and Penny Arcade, and observers such as David Bowie, is noted in the film. As well, Jayne County writes of Jackie as being "...the biggest influence on me at this time." Whether her influence was in the realm of style, with her use of glitter that predated the glam rockers, or her ripped and torn dresses and stockings that predated punk, employing the use of performance both on and off stage and screen; or in the more traditional arts of playwrighting and poetry, both attest to her critique of glamour, fame and pop culture in America that she explored in several mediums. However, it was perhaps her bravery in gender transgressions, unfamiliar territory to most until recent academics such as Judith Butler began writing on the topic, that is Jackie Curtis' legacy.
- Flesh, directed by Paul Morrissey (1968)
- W.R.: Mysteries of the Organism, directed by Dusan Makavejev (1971)
- Women In Revolt, directed by Paul Morrissey (1971)
- Underground U.S.A., directed by Eric Mitchell (1980)
- Burroughs, directed by Howard Brookner (1985)
- Glamour, Glory and Gold (1967)
- Lucky Wonderful
- Amerika Cleopatra (1968)
- Heaven Grand In Amber Orbit (1970)
- Femme Fatale
- Vain Victory: Vicissitudes of the Damned (1971)
- Tyrone X (1979)
- I Died Yesterday (1983)
- Champagne (1985)
- Jackie Curtis at the Internet Movie Database
- Site for the documentary film Jackie Curtis: Superstar In A Housedress
- Article about the Jackie Curtis documentary Superstar In A Housedress
- Jackie Curtis at the Warhol Superstars Website
- Melba LaRose, star of Glamour, Glory and Gold, talks about Jackie Curtis