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Palace drag queens star Friday in ‘South Beach On Heels’ at Miami Gay and Lesbian Film Festival

BY STEVE ROTHAUS
srothaus@MiamiHerald.com

Tiffany Fantasia says wearing high heels at work is easy. The hard part is finding them in women’s size 15.

“I'm able to get away with 12 wide or a 13 wide,” says Fantasia, a star drag queen at Palace South Beach, 1200 Ocean Dr., and one of eight performers featured in South Beach On Heels, a new documentary to premiere Friday at the 16th annual Miami Gay and Lesbian Film Festival.

The first time Fantasia tried on a pair of large pumps about 10 years ago, “I just instantly fell into them.”

“Back in the day when I lived on 21st Street in South Beach, me and the girls would walk from our apartment to Twist in five-inch pumps. Now I need a low heel or a platform because I hurt my ankles,” says Fantasia, a 1999 Sunset High School grad. “You try running or jumping, spinning and kicking in heels. It gets the best of you.”

South Beach On Heels director Dmitry Zhitov says Fantasia was the first Palace drag queen he met when he started the film about two years ago.

“Before approaching her, I was a little bit scared,” Zhitov says. “With makeup, heels and hair, she looked unapproachable.”

Fantasia says she was “a little apprehensive at first” before agreeing to be in the movie.

“I thought it was never going to see the light of day,” Fantasia says. “A lot of people approach us about doing photos, doing stories about us. They finish the story but we never get to see the product.”

Zhitov, who discovered drag watching RuPaul on television, told Fantasia he wanted to document more than just the performers at work.

“I wanted to get deeper into their lives, to find out more, to be friends with them,” Zhitov says.

Fantasia said yes and soon the other Palace drag queens jumped on board. “Like the snowball effect, they all wanted to be in it,” Zhitov says.

Zhitov, originally from Siberia, moved to Miami five years ago after working three years on a Carnival cruise ship. His family in Russia still doesn’t know he’s gay.

“Making this film opened a lot of topics for my family,” says Zhitov, 33. “It was easier for me to talk about gays and bisexuals and transsexuals with my mom.”

Zhitov lives with partner Jose Canto in a highrise near downtown Miami and has shared a few clips from the film with his mother.

“She loved it,” according to Zhitov, but also avoids asking him why he made the movie.

Luz Vallejo is the opposite. She attends son Eddie’s drag performances and says she’s “very proud and his No. 1 fan.”

“I feel amazing. I feel part of the fabulousness being part of his life,” says Colombian-born Vallejo. Her son is another Palace star, Miss Noel Leon.

It took a while for Vallejo to accept having a son who performs drag.

“She was afraid of the rejection I would get from the world, not that I was gay,” Leon says.

Soon after learning Leon’s profession, Vallejo told all her friends. “Before anybody calls me or anything, I want them to know this is what my son is going to do and I support him 100 percent,” she said.

Leon says she’s luckier than most to have such a “brave” mom.

“It’s all I know,” Leon says. “When I hear all these other stories about parents not accepting their kids, it really breaks my heart. Every time I see my mom in the club or with me, I feel I have to share her with all the other kids who don’t get that love or support in their families. That’s why I introduce her. So she can be their mom for just a second.”

Leon says she hasn’t seen the film but hopes it shows “the real side of our lives.”

“A lot of people think we are divas all the time or that we lead outrageous lives. It’s just work,” says Leon, who performs about 30 hours a week in drag and also works as a part-time studio make-up and hair stylist.

South Beach On Heels, which in July will be screened at the 2014 Madrid International Film Festival, also features Palace drag queens Tp Lords, Tlo Ivy, Shanaya Bright, Latrice Royale, Missy Meyakie LePaige and Vinna Rouge.

“They invited me into the dressing room. They don’t invite everyone. There are a lot of secrets about drag,” Zhitov says. “They invited me to their houses, their homes. I started meeting their families, friends, drag families. Not every queen is supported by her family, so they create their own families. Drag families. I was amazed how supportive the drag families are. Sometimes more supportive than the blood family.”

Zhitov calls drag “an art form.”

“They don’t just give us a show, they teach us a lot,” he says. “Any event, like Gay Pride or AIDS Walk, the drag queens are always there for free. They support the whole community. They show their faces, they brighten up the party and they help to raise a lot of money for good causes.”

Most of the Palace drag performers live as men in their off-stage lives, but a few are in the process of gender transition.

“It’s challenging for society to understand all of this,” Zhitov says. “That’s what I want to show with this film. The respect and acceptance.”

It’s not easy being a drag queen, says Henry Williams —Tiffany Fantasia’s real-life persona.

Williams, a clothing merchandiser by day, prefers not to immediately tell boyfriends about his night job.

“I have sex with them first, then I tell them,” Williams says. “If they meet you on a first night and you tell them you do drag, they become uncomfortable a lot of times. They start feeding the stereotype that you want to have sex like that.

“After I've had sex with them, it’s easier to tell them that it's not all about the drag. Surprisingly enough, that's what they talk about all the time. The drag starts to take over the relationship. Whether I like it or not, Tiffany is bigger than Henry will ever be.”

IF YOU GO

South Beach On Heels will be screened 9:45 p.m. Friday at Miami Beach Botanical Garden, 2000 Convention Center Dr. The screening is the Made In Miami Spotlight presentation of the 16th annual Miami Gay and Lesbian Film Festival, which closes Saturday night. Afterward, the festival will host a High Heel Party at the garden. Tickets are $15 for the film, $20 for the party and $30 for both. www.mglff.com

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