To walk through Horton Plaza at lunchtime on a gorgeous day in late spring with a flamboyantly beautiful woman on your arm is a sure way to snag a lot of looks — quick, long, furtive, appreciative, critical, and the confused. This particular woman is over six feet in spiky four-inch heels, has a wild tangle of black hair and a small purple satin dress that fits her like an orange peel fits an orange. Her skin coloring shows traces of a Hawaiian and Greek heritage that heighten her exotic appeal. And she doesn’t so much walk as sway forward, a mixture of stride and hip movement, stiff back and head toss. She’s here because I invited her for lunch and to buy a golden rhinestone-covered cowboy hat to match the golden chaps she sometimes wears to work.
Those who look twice begin to focus on the woman’s feet and hands, which are large for a woman. Then they notice her Adam’s apple. In fact, everything about her is italicized, larger than life. Occasionally she smiles back — relaxed and in possession of her world — as if these people were guests at her own private party.
The woman — her name is Tootie — leans over to speak to me. “You know, honey, once you get your weenie whacked it’s over. You’re going to become normal. You’re going to be a girl. Nobody is going to fault you for liking men. But as society changes you’re going to see more people who are comfortable being drag queens, like me, because that’s really what I am. I don’t ever want to lose being a boy. I mean, it’s great to be able to stand up and pee. You can’t do that kind of stuff if you’re a girl, roadside peeing is not very easy. And it’s nice when I get home to take out my tits and put them on the dresser, you know? And not have to have them on me all night.”
In some ways this story started 40 years ago when I was a sophomore at Wayne State University in Detroit. To get from my best friend’s apartment to my apartment, I had to walk past a sleazy drag bar in a sleazy neighborhood. I was immensely shy, and the girls in minidresses would stand out on the sidewalk and taunt me. Usually it was around midnight. Of course, it was no more than crude joking and it was aimed at anyone who passed, but it seemed aimed at me alone. When I crossed the street, they shouted and waved. My very shyness and refusal to acknowledge them increased their jokes. I knew nothing of drag queens, and who knew what went on inside that dark place? At 19, I found the whole thing very scary, although what exactly I was afraid of I could never actually say.
As the years passed, I didn’t learn much more about drag queens. A few movies and a few newspaper articles — that was it. However, not long ago I was driving down Fifth Avenue, and as I passed Lips, a club featuring drag acts and where drag queens work as waitresses, I saw a beautiful young black woman teetering on top of a 14-foot stepladder screwing a lightbulb into the Lips marquee. Three other women were down on the sidewalk, looking up at her speculatively. Nice balancing job, I thought.
By the time I had gone another block I realized that hadn’t been a woman after all. Then I again told myself that I knew absolutely nothing about drag queens.
It is one of the pleasures of journalism that it allows me to satisfy my curiosity on a wide variety of subjects, and that evening I visited Lips to see if I could interview some of the — what were they called? Perhaps even “drag queen” was politically incorrect. Perhaps they were called Persons of Ambiguous Sexual Presentation. However, drag queen was what it was. For most of this, that is.
There is nothing subtle about Lips with its pink walls and oversized rhinestones stuck to golden glitter above the bar, a variety of gaudy colors, tinsel wherever it can be attached, mannequins in gaudy dresses, photographs of drag queens — outrageously lovely in big wigs and sexy dresses — a gigantic four-foot lipstick standing at the corner of the bar by the door, being at the same time both phallic and feminine. In back is a stage such as Miss America might use surrounded by a ring of tables. I first talked to Mitchell Albert, the general manager.
He told me that Lips had opened in June 1999 and employs eight or nine drag queens who work both as showgirls and waitresses. The customers are almost entirely heterosexual. The different stage shows include drag queens impersonating and lip-synching, or singing, famous numbers by famous singers — Cher, Barbra Streisand, Billie Holiday. One of the biggest attractions, however, is the birthday celebrations — where the birthday boy or girl is invited or coerced onto stage, interviewed, and teased (“Are those tits real, bitch, or have you hidden your napkin?”), given flowers, which are taken back at the end, and has his or her picture taken with the girls. It is all very campy. Mitch said they have had as many as 30 birthday celebrations a night. There is another Lips in New York City that opened four years ago and is owned by the same group of people.
Mitch had come out to San Diego from New York, where he had been working for the same company. I asked him if there was any difference between working at a straight restaurant and one where the waitresses were drag queens.
“Food is food, a restaurant is a restaurant, service is service. I try not to think about the demographics. I’m straight, so maybe I’d prefer working with straight guys, you know, guys talking about football. But these guys are great. At first I think I was too direct. I mean, most of my experience has been with 40-year-old straight waiters in New York, and so here at Lips I think I stepped on some toes, so I’d have to apologize. Here they can be very sensitive, so sometimes you have to be pretty indirect. But actually, the last place I worked, Broadway Girls in New York, the waitresses were all young Broadway hopefuls. They were 22 or so. They could be very sensitive. It was very similar to here, the same kind of sensitivity. You’d have to watch your temper.”