Back in 2017, Todd Heim stumbled upon a Julia Child cookbook that changed the path of his career. Inside, he found a recipe for steak Diane, the saucy, panfried beefsteak that was said to have been first popularized in the 1930s. The name resonated more than the dish itself, and since then, Heim has paid homage to the kitschy entree via his alter ego: a drag queen named Steak Diane, whom he embodies for various food-focused projects — most recently, a namesake home goods collection called Chez Diane that launched in late September.
Until the pandemic, Heim had been playing around with his Diane character just for fun — mainly through ornate self-portraits posted on Instagram. There’s a photograph online in which Diane is nude save for a tower of oysters covering her crotch and long fire alarm claw nails adorning her fingers. In another, Diane wears a two-piece set with a corn pattern, holding a corn dog in one hand, and a bottle of Kewpie mayo in the other. There’s also a red gingham look evoking a restaurant’s tablecloth — belted with a fanny pack — while Diane holds a plate of spaghetti (actually a spaghetti candle from New York home goods store John Derian, one of Heim’s favorites for props). Perhaps my favorite mise-en-scene is a Passover still life, in which Diane is outfitted with a purse made from a package of sliced lox and standing next to a table covered with stacked bagels, halved red onions, and bricks of Philadelphia cream cheese.
Heim was born in the small town of Harlan in southwest Iowa, and the food obsession in his drag performances is a callback to what he calls the “camp” of growing up around Midwestern cooking. “A little crockpot with tiny hot dogs with grape jelly, cheese logs, a shrimp cocktail tree — all of that was really present in my childhood,” he says. “We’d go to these supper clubs where you’d only be served prime rib with sides; sure, there’s an element of Diane that certainly calls back to the ’50s, but it’s also the food profile that’s still alive in the Midwest today in a lot of ways.”
Designing costumes was a natural extension of Heim’s years spent honing his sewing, a skill he learned as a child from his mother, a former home ec teacher. Growing up, he would help her with quilt-making. “There definitely wasn’t a lot of drag happening in Harlan,” Heim says. Later, he moved to New York City to attend Hunter College for film studies, while also taking classes at the Fashion Institute of Technology on the side. At the time, one of his friends was a nanny for a well-known director, and through that connection, Heim became — among other jobs he juggled — an on-set tailor.
Over the past few years, Steak Diane has become something of a fashion icon herself, appearing as a model in and a collaborator for several fashion week presentations by the designer Susan Alexandra, whose accessories line also looks to the supermarket for inspiration. In February 2019, Heim made a diner waitress outfit for Alexandra’s New York Fashion Week event inside of the Lower East Side’s Baz Bagel.
But during the pandemic, Steak Diane gained a bigger following online, becoming something of a mascot of the former glory days of raucous dinner parties.
“Going to restaurants in New York is something that I fell so hard in love with and missed during the pandemic,” Heim says. “People were looking for comfort last year and I think that’s why food humor things on Instagram became so lusted after.”
Heim described himself as feeling, like many, “really aimless” at the start of the pandemic. But the enthusiastic responses online to Steak Diane enabled him, for the first time, to see her not just as a fun side project, but potentially a whole new job. More than that though, it gave Heim a sense of purpose when he needed it most.
When it became clear masks were necessary to slow the spread of COVID-19, Heim made a couple of food prints for himself and his longtime boyfriend Gabriel Fredericks Cohen. His followers wanted to know where to buy them, and soon, his project was profiled by the Cut and he found himself selling olive-, corn-, and peach-patterned fabric masks at Hart’s and Cervo’s — popular restaurants that pivoted to become general stores in 2020 — as well as on his website. Suddenly, his Instagram was no longer just a place of experimentation but a platform to sell his sewing skills.
Last month, Heim announced he would cease production of the masks to instead focus his attention on launching Chez Diane. The first collection — dubbed “Fruits de Mer” — is now available for preorder and features trompe l’oeil fabric coasters, placemats embroidered with oysters, a lobster bib, a market tote, and a silk scarf designed in collaboration with the acclaimed pastry chef Natasha Pickowicz (all profits from the scarf go to the Ali Forney Center, which supports and protects homeless LGBTQ+ youth). All items from the collection are produced in New York’s Garment District.
“I still haven’t traveled out of the country, and so this collection was my dreaming of being on the coast in a place like Marseille,” says Heim. “Long lunches outdoors, amazing, abundant cheap wine. I was dreaming about that back in the darkness of winter.”
Fruits de Mer is just the beginning of what’s to come in the world of Chez Diane; Heim plans to introduce a few one-off collaborations leading up to the holidays. Each collection to follow will have its own food-related theme. Heim hints at pastas being next on the mood board. He hopes to do dinner pop-ups with chefs, and, eventually, expand beyond e-commerce and sell the items at stores.
The pivot from Diane’s Instagram performances to performance analytics has been well-received. “It has been really helpful getting the feedback that people like interacting with Diane through getting something that is designed by her and functional,” says Heim. “Before that, some people we’re like, ‘I love this whole world and aesthetic you’ve created, but what do you actually do?’”