South Beach Wanda: The Life and Death of a Pariah

South Beach Wanda: The Life and Death of a Pariah
Andrew J. Nilsen

Anthony Lee had to answer the door. Of course he did. If something needed to be done and done right, it was in the 49-year-old's nature to take charge. Instead of pausing when he saw a stranger at his friend's door, the bald giant with a quick temper demanded the drug-addled interloper identify himself.

After waiting days for a confrontation, 23-year-old Deandre Tolliver had grown impatient. He flashed a gun. "Where's the money?" he asked, eyeballing a nearby laptop case and mistaking it for a sack of cocaine cash.

Anthony had no idea what money the man with short dreadlocks and weed leaf tattoo was asking about — he was just there to lend his food stamps and cooking skills to a single mother who had been inviting him over for days. Still, he wasn't about to give up his friend's computer to some motherfucker making poses. Meanwhile, 39-year-old Tiffany McKinney hid in the bathroom with her small children, terrified of the man with the gun.

South Beach Wanda was known for her Whitney Houston impersonations, her acerbic wit, and her loyalty to friends.
Photo courtesy of DJ and performer Power Infiniti
South Beach Wanda was known for her Whitney Houston impersonations, her acerbic wit, and her loyalty to friends.
Anthony Jerome Lee at age 9.
Photo courtesy of Barbara Lee
Anthony Jerome Lee at age 9.

Hours earlier, Anthony had pedaled over on his pink one-speed bicycle, making a single stop between the funeral home where he volunteered and nearby East Genesee Street in East Tampa. "You can't just push your way into someone's house like that," he yelled at Tolliver.

Anthony was best known as South Beach Wanda, a divisive, nomadic drag queen who wore balloon boobies under a turtleneck dress and obsessed over Whitney Houston. But this past May 28, he was wearing a T-shirt and shorts. Outside of a few places in Ybor City, it wasn't safe to present as a woman.

It also wasn't the first time a gun had been shoved in his face. If drag queens are notoriously confrontational, Anthony's Wanda exceeded the stereotype. After getting kicked out of almost every club on the Beach in the late '90s, he traveled the drag pageant circuit from Atlanta to New York to Chicago.

He finally settled back in Tampa four years ago and tried to re-establish a home among his drag buddies, his Baptist church, the funeral parlor where he grew up volunteering, and his Bible-thumping family.

Ultimately, he was shot five times and coincidentally died a dozen feet from where he used to sit for hours as a kid, playing marbles better than the person who invented the game, dominating with his oversize hands.

June 8, police arrested Tolliver, a petty criminal, for the murder of Anthony Lee, who they say was not the "intended victim." But the confrontation that led to the homicide was distinctly Anthony — partly motivated by an impulse to help and partly by his erratic nature.

Moreover, his banishment from clubland, his reimagined life as a churchgoing Baptist, and his untimely death tell a story that parallels the decline of drag queen culture on South Beach.

Before the Beach became a rap music video trope, it was dominated by feisty drag queens with hierarchies, cliques, and allegiances. Many, like Anthony, fell victim to the era's excesses. Some were also generous and desperate for acceptance. Almost all were just in your face.

"That [murder] was as destined in time as the moment of his birth," says Esme Russell, a thin-browed queen and self-described metaphysician who considered Anthony a friend. "I always thought Anthony would meet the wrong person and set them off."

The first time Esme Russell saw Anthony walking down a dark alleyway, she thought she was going to die.

It was the dawn of the '80s, and the two had the same idea of sneaking into Rene's, a gay bar in Ybor City, the historic neighborhood near downtown Tampa. They approached each other from opposite sides of a back alley, and Esme at first couldn't see the face of the human skyscraper coming closer.

Esme had been presenting as a woman in East Tampa since age 15 but had never felt safe being seen going into an openly gay establishment. Anthony had told his sister Barbara to stay put that night before sneaking out of their parents' house on his banana-seat bicycle.

When the two future drag queens reached each other, Anthony graciously used his intimidating stature to hoist Esme over the fence. The two parted ways after entering the club but later became colleagues, traveling the pageant circuit across Florida.

Although they couldn't have known it at the time, Esme and Anthony had walked similarly difficult paths to make it from the intolerant streets of East Tampa to the safety and acceptance of Ybor. Eventually, they would end up in very different positions. While Esme would go on to win the coveted Miss Florida F.I. Pageant and host an online radio show, Anthony became a pariah, mocked for having size 15 feet that hung over his duct-taped stilettos and vilified for being an unwelcome disruption almost everywhere he went.

"Keeping it real, [Anthony] was a bitch," says Power Infiniti, his best friend before he was gunned down that May day. "Just a bad, bad girl."

Anthony Jerome Lee grew up in the Rainbow Heights district of Tampa, in a black and white porchless house with a tire swing and eight siblings. His mother, Clara, had two sets of kids — the oldest, Eddie Jr., was 14 when Anthony was born. As a child, Anthony mostly hung out with his sister Barbara, with whom he shared a room until middle school, when the older kids moved out and freed up some space in the four-bedroom home. His dad, Eddie, was a long-distance truck driver who was around only on weekends. The Lees received free lunch at school, and Clara was a homemaker who fixed dinner each night. The three youngest kids sat at a separate card table. There, nestled between Barbara and their little brother James, Anthony ate his dinner, drank Kool-Aid, and dreamed of tight-fitting dresses.

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I've known people like Wanda and this story just breaks my heart.