Over the next week I talked to five different drag queens. I had assumed they might be rather similar. This turned out not to be the case.
Tootie was the first I talked to, and as I was waiting for her to show up one Sunday afternoon at Lips, Mitchell said to me, “Are you waiting for Tootie? Just to let you know, drag queens are never on time. That’s a thing about being a drag queen. If Tootie has a show at 7:00, she comes in at 7:30. She’s on drag-queen time.”
Actually, she was only five minutes late and couldn’t see the problem with drag-queen time. “Drag time is like, you know, you have a problem getting the lashes on or your wig is not looking right, or you can’t get your dress zipped up, or all of those things happen all at once. I mean — you can imagine.”
Tootie is assistant manager at Lips and headlines in the shows on Thursday, Friday, and Saturday nights, doing impersonations on Thursdays of Cher, Lena Horne, Billie Holiday, and Diana Ross. On Wednesday nights she does shows in a club in Laguna Beach. She has also done shows in L.A., has done several national commercials, and has appeared in two films and a Zippo lighter campaign where she got to ride on the back of an elephant. Her psychic tells her that she will soon do a film that will change her life. “She told me about the other two,” said Tootie, “so I’m going to have to trust her on that.”
Tootie started in drag in Honolulu at the age of 20 when she appeared in the play The Spider Woman. “Androgyny was always very interesting to me, but I never wanted to be a woman except for short spurts of time. For many drag queens it was Boy George who gave us a sense of permission, let us do what we wanted to do. At least that’s how it was for me, you know? But I don’t see why drag queens always have to be performers. I think they could be great politicians or public speakers or secretaries or business people.”
A few years after that first experience Tootie moved to San Diego and started a cigarette-girl business with drag queens called Uptown Toots, which is the origin of her name. “I needed something identifiable, so I thought, you know, Tootie went well with Uptown Toots. And it was fun. People have gotten used to hearing Natasha and Elisha and Crystal and Karesha, all of that stuff. They wanted a change, and here’s a person who came out of the woodwork, wearing big flowers in her hair and the shortest skirts possible, and right away, I think I endeared myself to a lot of people that way.”
And why hire drag queens instead of, well, regular girls?
“Girls are harder to work with than drag queens because they have periods and boyfriends. Of course, drag queens have boyfriends too, but the drag queens are usually the ones calling the shots.”
Flashy, beautiful with a great figure, wisecracking and sharp-tongued, Tootie is as hard to overlook as a black cat on a wedding cake. She could be 30 or five years older. When I asked how old she was, she raised an eyebrow. “You mean in Hollywood years?” I said sure. “Twenty-four, honey.”
On the day of our lunch, we had been crossing Fourth Avenue when a driver in a green Chevrolet swerved as he took a second look. Tootie patted my arm. “I’ve been the cause of three traffic accidents,” she said proudly. I was surprised it wasn’t more.
Although intellectually I knew Tootie was a man, it was something of which I had to keep reminding myself, because she never seemed like a man. On the other hand, when I walked with her she tended to walk ahead, like a dancer who always insists on taking the lead.
The stereotype of the drag queen, said Tootie, is that she’s vicious — the bitch who will jab her stiletto heel into your heart and grind away.
“The lady — er, the drag queen that started Lips in New York was very impressed and influenced by that TV show Dynasty. That’s partly where that stereotype came from. And maybe through life the women that we’ve also chosen to emulate have been bitches. You know, Diana Ross has a notorious reputation; Barbra Streisand has a notorious reputation. Joan Collins, Joan Crawford — all of these female icons that we have, you know, cleaved to, are all considered bitches, so maybe that’s where we get it from too. Here at Lips we don’t do a lot to dissuade that. We have shows where we reinforce that image that we’re a bunch of bitches, you know? But it’s tongue-in-cheek. It’s playing on old stereotypes of drag queens. Because, actually, the time of the vicious drag queen is over. People don’t want that. And in my own life I try to be not that. When I was a little ‘girl,’ I used to tell people that Marlo Thomas was my sister — my last name is Thomas. I used to say that because she was somebody, you know, cutesy, and affectionate. So, I’ve always liked that and wanted to be like that. You get a lot more with sugar than you do with vinegar, right?”
But even though drag queens may be getting sweeter, they don’t tend to hang out together, Tootie told me. “There’s still a lot of bitchiness between us, though we’re finding that less and less. A club like Lips in conservative San Diego puts us together and creates a place where we can come together and do what we do, without fighting for jobs, or fighting for focus, or whatever — men, whatever, you know? So, Lips has been a great catalyst to get us all bonded and stuff.”
However, in talking to drag queens over the next week I heard some rather sharp criticism about the behavior, lifestyles, performances, manner of dress of other drag queens — remarks that, if not entirely bitchy, certainly contained a lot of meow.