The Well-Heeled Crowd
“You go, girl.”
That was the anthem of solidarity on a recent Friday night at Hollywood’s Barnsdall Park Theatre as the high-spirited audience shouted out to the 15 pageant contestants striking poses, strutting and showing their talent.
Never mind that the 15 were men competing for this year’s Best Female Impersonator of California--men who by day may don pinstripes and white jockeys as mortgage assessment clerks, loan officers, real estate agents . . . even boxing instructors.
After dark and onstage, they’re queens--in the most positive sense of the word--adopting attitude as well as extravagant, larger-than-life names: Pebbles Campbell Starr, Alexis Principal, Veronica Passion, Jennifer St. James, Monique Moore.
“It’s illusion; it’s an art and what I love,” says Adrian Perez, a.k.a Starr, checking the drape of his handmade beaded gown in the full-length mirror backstage in the frenetic last minutes before the show begins. “It’s what I was meant to do and brings together all that I do best: the expressiveness, the eye contact with the audience, the entertaining.”
Most female impersonators hold regular jobs, and drag is the hobby, the particular spice of life. For accountant St. James, who didn’t want his real name used, drag performance is also for a cause, AIDS fund-raising, and to that end he brings his “Ham and Swish” review to the Queen Mary in Studio City, or to “Imperial Court” drag events, which move from location to location on weekly rotations. A number of the pageant’s contestants work at Tommy Tang’s, the Melrose Avenue restaurant at which waiters perform in drag on Tuesday nights.
For the uninitiated, this show is a lesson on how far drag has come. Like the larger gay movement of which most drag performers are a tiny subculture (and often maligned as politically incorrect), female impersonation has evolved, in this case, into something far hipper, more political, more multicultural and more sophisticated than mile-high hairdos and a Diana Ross soundtrack.
True, there were enough sequins, shoulder pads and hair extensions onstage this night to outfit all of West Covina, but parodying Monica Lewinsky and Bill Clinton, and Imelda Marcos is more de rigueur than Judy Garland at the Palladium.
The evening’s winner, Alexis Principal--Richard Cross by day--mined 1940s swing, MGM musicals and the famous men of black tap with a brash dance sequence to “It Don’t Mean a Thing If It Ain’t Got That Swing.” The sharply choreographed five-minute sequence, with Cross backed by two tuxedoed and top-hatted men doing rapid quasi-tap and swing, had the audience on its feet.
Cross received $1,000 and round-trip air fare to New York, which this fall will host the Best Female Impersonator of America competition. In fact, the country seems awash in an array of impersonator pageants. The Miss Gay Universe pageant will be held in San Francisco in two weeks. Cross is now eligible to compete in both pageants.
Cross, who does impersonation full time, was only one of many standout performers, whose acts now venture beyond Broadway routines, Vegas-style numbers and Motown divas into the realm of political satire. Another Alexis dives into the current White House imbroglio with a take-no-prisoners Moralica Blowinsky, who wears a navy beret and kneepads, and performs a quasi-Indian dance with a man in a Bill Clinton mask wielding an unmentionable oversized prop.
In a wicked parody of Imelda Marcos, Rene Roque did a dead-on drag of the former first lady of the Philippines, down to ‘80s-style mutton-sleeve beaded gown, slick, bubble-shaped hair and regal diamond earrings. Against the backdrop of an oversized, illuminated shoe, “French maids” in flirty uniforms filed onstage every few beats with another dozen boxes of shoes, while Rene, as Imelda, sang “Feelings” with dubious sincerity.
But the bravado of the men to act out their feminine sides or express strong political statements is in contrast to the closeted life of most female impersonators. Society’s closet is still pretty nailed shut for them, so for many of the participants, their passion is still lived out in a double -life.
Alexis, who had performed the Lewinsky parody only days earlier, whispers by phone from his real estate office to make sure the reporter won’t disclose his true identity. “About 50% of my deals come from the Middle Eastern community: Armenian, Arabic, sometimes Russian. I don’t want the client reading the paper and saying, ‘OK, this is the last time I’ll do business with that [guy].’ The Armenian community is very closed to the gay issue,” he confides. His family doesn’t know about his sexuality, let alone the female drag act. “But at 37 and not married, they may have a hunch,” he says. But he’s not talking. “My father has cancer and my mother has a health problem. They don’t need more aggravation.”
“I’d say about half the impersonators can’t be open, and it’s sad. Their professional lives really can’t accept this kind of lifestyle,” says show producer Lito Torres. “And if you saw Alex dressed up at work, you wouldn’t really be able to tell. But there is still fear of rejection of the community.”
But tonight is the night to celebrate all that is hidden at other times: the glamour, the spectacle, the finesse, the femininity, the theatricality. And a chance to re-create, and embody, a particular woman and still add a personal spin.
For these younger men, most of whom are in their late 20s and early 30s, an earlier generation’s attachment to Judy-Ethel-Barbra has been supplanted by a new take on female cool. Joel Sebastian, 33, who performs as Celia, does Toni Braxton, while 25-year-old Adrian Perez, a.k.a. Pebbles Campbell Starr, is Janet Jackson. Rene Mungia, a.k.a. Renee Russell, is Selena, down to the concert headset mike and athletic backup dancers. Jomal Kelly does Natalie Cole. Vincent Lewis is a show-stopping Patti LaBelle, of the spiky geometric-cut tower of hair and chic black slip dress and over-jacket.
Lewis, with uncanny staccato hand gestures and energetic movements, owns the stage during his set, illuminating the higher calling of female impersonation: to go beyond imitation so your own showmanship is as show-stopping as the star’s.
“It’s not how close you bring it [to the celebrity], but how entertaining you can make the person,” explains Sebastian.
The fascinating dichotomy of drag is that these men, who revel in illusion, operate with no illusions about how they may be viewed by society, or even within the gay community. They learn to deflect with humor.
“You better start the show. My beard is coming out already,” quips the master of ceremonies, Vic Dedios, better known as Victoria La Voovah. And backstage, Roque, the Imelda impersonator, jokes about the madcap stew of his Filipino roots, his white-collar job and his drag hobby. “I’m a banker during the day and a shoe shopper in the evening,” he says, flourishing his eyeliner wand.
Contestant Sandie Crisp lives as a woman, with breast implants. She has also lived with the effects of polio since childhood. Her onstage set is yet another step in the expansion of even this hip audience’s consciousness. The curtain opens, and there is a palpable silence at the sight of the diminutive performer, stooped over, body slightly contorted, wearing a low-cut beaded gown and elaborate hairdo, lip-syncing to “One Fine Day.”
What seems at first hard to watch soon becomes enthralling as she performs with unabashed energy. The audience quickly gets it: “I have as much right to be here as anybody,” she seems to be saying. And after about 10 bars, the mostly gay audience--which understands in-your-face determination to hold your head high--starts to clap to the beat. At song’s end, there is a stirring ovation recognizing the power of human dignity and survival.
Tonight’s pageant is one of the shoestring-budget variety, established three years ago by outgoing producer Torres, with the single-minded goal of benefiting the Asian Pacific AIDS Organization. The Filipino producer donated 80% of the tickets to the APAO to sell or give away as it chose, and says proceeds from the show will also go to the organization. Modestly budgeted competitions such as this rely on private donors or mom-and-pop companies, who sponsor entrants for costumes, props and travel.
In fact, there is an irresistible Mickey-and-Judy-putting-on-a-show quality to the event. The show has begun an hour late, which means that a planned clips segment from previous years has had to be scrapped. At one point, the smoke machine threatens to overwhelm a performer, causing a ripple of laughter from the audience. The waves of smoke wafting into the audience begin to evoke less a foggy night in London town than a Mel Brooks parody.
And backstage, these brash and brave young men are good-humoredly changing costumes, putting on intricate makeup and rehearsing dance routines in a shoe-box space that would try anybody’s patience. And even following the announcement of winners--and therefore losers--the atmosphere has not soured. As a veteran of drag shows jokes: “Thirty years ago, contestants Two, Three and Four would have scratched each other’s eyes out.”
One of the losing contestants, from behind the dressing room curtain, is already talking about “Battle of the Tiara,” the big competition coming up in October in Los Angeles, which benefits Aid for AIDS. “It’s a contest so hot that they don’t even put out fliers,” the anonymous voice says.
Even without seeing his face, you can see the stars of hope in his eyes.