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Novak — as well as the teased-wig-wearing Adora, Damian Divine, Taffy, and Marvella — idolized cult film director John Waters. Wanda mimicked Whitney Houston when she wasn't donning dresses made from tampons and covering her face with white powder meant to look like cocaine. ("It wasn't real, I don't think," explains another queen. "I don't think she had that much money.") Either way, she was a symbolic middle finger to the beautiful squares that the gender-benders wanted to freak out and was therefore welcomed among the party crowd. "It was club kids and drag queens squashed together with a tropical, colorful, Latin background," Novak says.
But drugs didn't kill the Beach, insists Novak — it was an encroaching sense of doom. There were systematic beatings of gays as well as random shootings, which led to a culture of fear. Famed fashion designer Gianni Versace's murder on Ocean Drive in 1997 was a seminal event. "When Versace got shot, it was like 9/11 on South Beach," Novak says. "People didn't feel safe after that."
Novak moved to Los Angeles in early 2011 but moved back eight months later. She says Miami Beach now feels safe again. And technology is bringing a renaissance: Today's makeup can do more, and the queens look almost airbrushed.
"It's like Hollywood special effects now," she says. "Everyone's trying to top themselves."
Perhaps the most interesting take on Wanda comes from Gio Profera and partner Josue Garcia, who are known as Juleisy y Karla. Their characters are queens who don't bother trimming beards and waxing legs, and they've become known for viral YouTube videos and recent appearances on local news.
The inspiration for their performance art comes from their native Hialeah, and the two still live a few houses from each other in their respective childhood homes. They are the hirsute, male, slightly overweight version of chongas, and the people of Hialeah go wild for them. During a recent photo shoot, little old ladies ran up to the windows of a pizzeria where the pair was working and pressed their faces against the glass. A bit later, men sipping Cuban coffee cheered as Gio stopped and posed for photos. He wore a dress emblazoned with Jessica Alba's face, which was distorted as it stretched to cover his belly.
These postmillennial drag queens are, in some ways, the 2013 version of Wanda, who was known for being low-rent. While most queens speak with a debutante's affectation, Wanda rarely acted the part of a lady, Gio explains. "She was influential in the sense that she didn't care who was watching," he says. "Lots of drag queens are insecure about image, but oh no, Miss Wanda would just get up on the bar with her feet hanging out of her shoes and just go."
It was late on December 10, 2011, and Anthony, wearing a white dress shirt and tight jeans, hopped into a cab. A blue purse hung on his shoulder. "Just drive straight," he told Yellow Cab driver Abdelali Tadlaoui as the taxi pulled away from Hamburger Mary's, the drag restaurant in Ybor City.
The driver would later report he had a weird feeling about the guy in the back seat who was giving him directions. When they arrived at the destination, the fare came to $17.10. Anthony asked for change. It was the 36-year-old Moroccan's first ride of the night, so he pulled into a Sunoco to break some larger bills. The two began to argue. Anthony pulled out a bottle of pepper spray and attacked the driver before running toward his neighborhood.
Police easily arrested Anthony: He was the only guy in East Tampa who would ride around on a bicycle with a ladies' bag on the handlebars.
Although friends say Anthony began getting his life together when he moved back to Tampa four years ago, that's only half true. Sure, he started volunteering again at Wilson Funeral Home, a family-owned parlor that smells acutely like a Pier 1 Imports and was blocks from his childhood home. And he regularly attended St. Olive Missionary Baptist Church with his godparents, who provided him a room that was more suited to a little old lady than a big old queen.
But his erratic behavior continued, which made long-term relationships difficult.
"When it came to guys, she needed very little," says Infiniti. "She would have a trick or have her fuck buddies, but when it's time to go, it's time to go, honey. That's the way she would look at it."
Adds sister Barbara: "I don't recall Anthony ever having a girlfriend."
He frequently traveled to pageants by Greyhound bus (he was afraid of flying) but would call Barbara every Wednesday with updates on his whereabouts. Their last call was right before this past Memorial Day weekend. "He told me he had to work out of town that weekend but that he'd be back Sunday," she remembers.
Anthony spent the Sunday before his death at Hamburger Mary's. He was not an employed personality at the gay-friendly restaurant on a bustling street in Ybor, but he helped out or hung around, watching the other queens make their livings while he drank cranberry-and-Crown shots chased with Bud Light.