BY STEVE ROTHAUS, srothaus@MiamiHerald.com
Emmy-winning comedian Bruce Vilanch and Erasure singer Andy Bell may be headliners at Sunday’s Stonewall Summer Pride in Wilton Manors, but the real stars are Whitney Houston, Donna Summer and Bette Midler.
Well, not exactly. South Florida drag queens Champagne Bordeaux, Tiffany Arieagus and Electra will perform as Houston, Summer and Midler.
“It’s as close as people can get to the real thing,” says Electra (real name Jim Buff), who lives in Fort Lauderdale. “I’m more accessible than Bette Midler or Cher. A lot of the characters I do are dead. And I’m cheaper.”
There’s no shortage of well-known drag queens in South Florida. Sushi (Gary Marion), who drops from a shoe New Year’s Eve on CNN, holds court nightly at 801 Bourbon in Key West. Latrice Royale (Timothy Wilcots) of Hollywood recently competed on Logo TV’s RuPaul’s Drag Race. Elaine Lancaster (James Davis) of Miami hangs out with Lea Black and The Real Housewives of Miami.
“It opened doors for me I never knew existed,” Davis says. “I’ve met some of the most amazing people on the planet through my character Elaine Lancaster. She’s a bright light. You’re either attracted to it or repelled by it.”
Drag has been around since the beginning of entertainment. In ancient Greek theater, young males played female parts until their voices changed. Boys typically played female roles in Shakespeare’s time. Throughout the 20th century, drag was associated with Western gay culture.
“One thing that’s been very interesting is that for people of my generation and before my generation — if you can conceive of anyone that ancient — it was very freeing for gay men in the ’70s and ’80s to see a queen in drag,” says Lady Bunny (Jon Ingle), 49, who founded Wigstock, a New York City drag festival that ran from 1985 to 2005.
Drag became passé, Lady Bunny says, but RuPaul’s Drag Race has helped make it fun again. “It created a firestorm for gay youth not just to see drag, but to want to do it. It made drag relevant again.”
Lady Bunny began doing drag in 1982, when cross-dressing was “novel,” she says.
“It became the gay coming-out experience. It was the chosen form of entertainment in every gay bar,” says Lady Bunny, who performs about six times a year in South Florida, often in the South Beach gay clubs Twist and Score.
Drag figures prominently in South Florida. Lips, an Oakland Park restaurant, offers “the ultimate in drag dining” Tuesdays through Sundays. Misty Eyez performs Sundays at Bill's Filling Station in Fort Lauderdale. Mova lounge on South Beach hosts “drag bingo” Tuesday nights to benefit the Miami-Dade Gay & Lesbian Chamber of Commerce. Cuban drag queen Adora (Danilo de la Torre) DJs Latin night Thursdays at Twist. On Fridays in Miami’s Upper Eastside, Eros Lounge hosts “Born to be a Drag” starring Tiffany Fantasia (Henry Williams).
Tiffany Fantasia, born and raised in Kendall, estimates there are 40 major drag stars in the Miami-Fort Lauderdale area. “The talented ones will always find work,” she says. “I’m all about the performance. The uniqueness of how they interpret a song. Their dancing ability and comedic timing. It’s a combination of all of that.”
As many as 20 local drag performers work steady gigs. “There is a large clientele for it. Wise entertainers market themselves to get people to come to whatever venue they’re working at,” says Tiffany Fantasia, who performs Thursdays at Boom bar in Wilton Manors and three nights a week at Palace South Beach.
Palace, which boasts of being the only gay bar on Ocean Drive (slogan: “Because every queen needs a palace”) offers drag shows nightly plus a popular brunch and T-dance on Sunday afternoons.
“I like the drag shows, lunch, the beach,” said Ryan Meulener, 24, of Fort Lauderdale at a recent Sunday brunch. “It’s like a home-away-from-home. This is my getaway.”
The drag shows? “Fantastic. They’re fabulous,” he said with a thumbs-up. “The costumes, the makeup, the hair — it’s over the top.”
Electra, 53, who assisted in costume design for such Broadway shows as Dreamgirls, Starlight Express and La Cage Aux Folles in the 1980s, makes her own drag attire.
“It’s an expensive hobby if it’s just a hobby,” she says. “If you have to make it part of your livelihood, you have to be more resourceful. You have to be creative about what you wear and how you obtain it.”
A drag queen since 1977, Electra has about 30 personas, including “Bette [Midler], Judy [Garland], Liza Minnelli, Barbra Streisand, Marilyn Monroe, Lucille Ball, Bette Davis, Mae West.”
She moved to South Florida in 1991, and has headlined at clubs and hotels ever since. From 2002 to 2007, Electra and her husband, actor-singer Terry M. Cain, lived a real-life La Cage: They owned and ran Madame’s, a drag supper club in Sunny Isles. Now, she performs Thursdays at Boardwalk bar in Fort Lauderdale.
She and other drag queens will entertain Sunday at the Stonewall Summer Pride festival.
“We’ll all be there,” says Tabatha Mudra, creator of Drag It Out in Fort Lauderdale. “We’re like the school of drag.”
Drag It Out has “draguated” more than 200 South Floridians ages 13 to 65, says Mudra, who performs as both a drag king (Sweet T. Bag) and drag queen (Coucou Taboo).
Not all gays and lesbians like drag, and some criticize it for perpetuating stereotypes. But Lady Bunny points out that drag queens were the ones who fought back during a June 28, 1969, police bar raid at the Stonewall Inn in New York City, launching the modern gay-rights movement.
“Don’t ever put down the drag queens who started the gay-rights movement, because those were the people who had the balls,” she says. “They may have been in pantyhose but they were there. It was not the people who had the ‘courage’ to put on a rainbow T-shirt once a year and go back to their office jobs the next day.”
As for those who complain about media images of drag queens at gay pride parades, she says: “Get a look together honey and maybe someone would take your picture, too.”
IF YOU GO
Miami Herald gay issues reporter Steve Rothaus gives a free talk, “35 Years Since Anita Bryant,” at 3 p.m. Saturday at the Stonewall National Museum & Archives gay pride pop-up location, 2190 Wilton Dr., Wilton Manors.
Stonewall Summer Pride is from noon to 10 p.m. Sunday on Wilton Drive. The parade, with comedian Bruce Vilanch as grand marshal, begins 7 p.m. at 20th Street proceeds north to 26th Street. Afterward, Erasure singer Andy Bell will perform. All events free; stonewallsummerpride.com.