AUSTIN (KXAN) — He was hard to miss.
Walking downtown or on South Congress Avenue in his signature thong, feather boa and high heels, Albert Leslie Cochran, known to his adopted city simply as Leslie, embodied the spirit of Austin in the 1990s and early 2000s.
Now Leslie’s life is chronicled in a new documentary premiering at SXSW on Friday. “Becoming Leslie” is the product of nearly 15 years of capturing and editing video by one of the documentary producers.
“Everyone had a Leslie story and some people would say, ‘Oh, I heard he’s an attorney,’ or, ‘He used to be a professor at UT.’ And I’m thinking, ‘I don’t think so,'” Ruby Martin said. “And then I got to know him and I really felt like it was important that his story be told.”
Martin, one of the film’s producers, first met Leslie when she worked at a salon on South Congress Avenue. The homeless man with a penchant for flamboyance would come in to hang out, and Martin, who describes herself as a visual person, wanted to capture someone she saw as “visually interesting.”
He agreed to let her start shooting video in 2005, and she continued until his death in 2012. Seven years later, the final product explores Leslie’s life, his political ambitions and his impact on Austin’s culture of weird.
“Being a character like that is just who you are,” Martin said.
Leslie, who always identified as male, first came to Austin in the mid-1990s when he was in his mid-40s. Over the years he became a fixture in the city, running for mayor unsuccessfully twice, once in 2000 (he came in second with nearly 8 percent of the vote) and again in 2003 (placing 5th out of nine candidates with close to 2 percent of the vote).
His civic engagement didn’t stop there. Leslie was a vocal advocate for the rights of the city’s homeless population following several run-ins with the Austin Police Department.
“It’s important to remember that his spirit was something I think a lot of people really appreciated and kind of miss around here,” Tracy Frazier, the documentary’s director, said.
Frazier got involved in the project nine years ago when she met Martin at the salon. “When I saw that footage I just thought, ‘There’s a friendship developing here,’ and she was able to connect with him in a way that he felt very comfortable.”
Martin and Frazier wanted to get past the public persona in their film and show people the side of Leslie they didn’t see; they don’t want him to be remembered as just a caricature.
He lived a difficult life, moving from city to city until he settled in Austin. The final years of his life were marked by a violent attack that left him with a head injury and a public outpouring of support for his recovery.
“Even though I might seem to be, to some people, not doing what is proper,” Leslie told KXAN in 2009 after the attack, “there are a lot of people in Austin that would beg to differ with them.”
When he died in 2012, hundreds turned out to a vigil in his honor along the river. Then-Mayor Lee Leffingwell proclaimed every March 8 moving forward “Leslie Day” in remembrance of the day he died.
Production on the documentary paused at that point, as the filmmakers, both of whom had become close to Leslie, processed his passing.
“Becoming Leslie” premieres on the 7th anniversary of the Austin icon’s death, and both Frazier and Martin hope his eternal message shines through the screen.
“I think the first thing to do is accept what’s in front of you with no judgement,” Frazier said, “and then you can go on from there.”
“I want people to be less judgmental,” Martin added. “Behind someone that you might see as being different, there’s a story.”
After the premiere Friday at 5:30 p.m. in the Rollins Theatre at the Long Center, “Becoming Leslie” will show twice more over the next week. The Austin Film Society will screen the doc on Saturday at 6:30 p.m., and Alamo Drafthouse Ritz will show it Wednesday, March 13, at 7:15 p.m.