There's a lot of male posturing in the room tonight: wide-legged stances, unmanicured hands placed proudly over crotches, catcalls, cigarettes dangling. But it's not from the men. In west Fort Lauderdale, a town boasting rodeos and drive-through liquor stores, J's is bustling with an anomalous swirl of estrogen-fueled machismo.
The multicolored strobe lights fall quickly on the various patrons in the smoky, dimly lit bar: the weekly regulars are perched casually on barstools; the straight, curious onlookers are standing timidly in the back; older lesbian couples are playing pool; trendy college students on spring break are bumping and grinding to Nelly; and a young lesbian couple with the obligatory, slightly bored, straight-guy friend sit at a table, chain-smoking and drinking $1.50 Budweisers.
Then a voice booms from the speakers: "It's time for the best-package contest!"
The crowd howls, and a small, plump lady with a bad perm, like a Tom Jones fan feeling the sexual vibe, throws a pair of thong underwear onto the stage where the contestants are lining up. One by one, they whip it out. Now, the sight of a giant, purple strap-on dildo protruding from a woman's unzipped pants can be a bit of a mindfuck, never mind a genderfuck. But there it is, or rather, there they are. Six pieces of turgid faux-manhood -- small, pink ones jutting next to obscenely huge black ones. One particularly intrepid woman in a white tank top and khaki cargo shorts grabs a king by the dildo and simulates oral sex on her.
"Women in drag make me so hot," breathes 26-year-old Kelly Hyatt, an avid onlooker. Kelly is straight, but she is one of the many patrons here tonight who find themselves strangely attracted to the art of gender-bending. "Girls with dicks made of latex who can still go into the ladies room. We all know what's underneath. It's very intriguing," she says as she seductively fondles a dollar bill. This is just part of what the audience came for tonight. Drama Kings, Fort Lauderdale's premier drag-king show, knows how to treat its ladies like royalty.
Women performers have been dressing as the opposite sex since Marlene Dietrich infamously turned the tables as a tuxedo-clad lounge singer in 1930's Morocco, or African-American male impersonator Storme Delarverie performed in the 1960s at New York's Jewel Box Revue. But it wasn't until the 1980s that women dressing in drag was somewhat accepted by the mainstream as a way of life. Somewhat. As practiced at J's, it seems to be one part empowerment to nine parts having a good time.
"Women," 21-year-old Sara Campbell sighs after shooing away a particularly curious female friend during our interview. Campbell is a friendly blond with a mischievous grin, dressed in khakis and a polo shirt. In a few hours, she will transform herself from a conservative college student to "Scamp," a pimp-limpin', fur-coat-sportin' ladies man whose "package" is his pride and joy. He grabs it often during his rendition of Big Pun's "Still Not a Player." "I just wanted a chance to feel like my male counterparts," Campbell says of her desire to dress in drag. "I don't want to be a man. I love being a woman, but this is just tapping into another part of my personality. I can be as wild and raunchy as I want to in drag. I'm way too shy to do this otherwise." Part of Campbell's act includes throwing several pairs of large, white, cotton underwear into the crowd. The recipients of the granny panties hastily put them on over their clothes, over their heads, and continue dancing. Hey, whatever gets ya through the night.
A look around the crowd on this particular night displays a cross section of women and men, gay and straight. But obviously, the majority are gay women out to see some entertainment. What about the naysaying lesbians who feel drag kings are "selling out"? "Ignorance comes from lack of knowledge," Campbell surmises. "Some people will judge us, of course, and say we want to be men. They just see the exterior. By taking on this part, I'm stepping up to the plate. And breaking it."
As with any form of sexual shapeshifting, there's a spectrum. There are butch kings and femme kings. As hostess of the Drama Kings, Fire takes on the most feminized role. She performed as Axl Rose once, blowing up and stuffing balloon animals down her pants as a "package." But she feels most comfortable dressed in high heels and slinky dresses. Her long, curly red hair and curvaceous figure accommodate her wardrobe selection quite well. "While the kings are exploring their masculinity," the 33-year-old schoolteacher says, "I'm exploring my femininity."
But is being a drag king just glued-on facial hair and strap-on dildos? Or is it more about the attitude? Melissa Francis stands with her leg up on the stage, black pea coat covering her small frame, hand stroking her beard. Her smooth caramel skin, wide eyes, full lips, and wavy mop of thick, jet-black hair bear an uncanny resemblance to a certain androgynous rock star. "Yeah, I've been accused of imitating Prince," admits 29-year-old Francis, a.k.a. Dante Inferno. As one of the founders and organizers of Drama Kings, Francis has been part of the group since early 2002. "I lived in D.C. for three years, and there was a drag-king night. The organizer wouldn't let me be in it because of a conflict with an ex-girlfriend. So when I moved down here, I decided I would start my own."
Drama Kings premiered in July of 2002 to scant crowds, mainly J's regulars, but their fan base has grown significantly. Tonight, the kings are playing to a packed house of frenzied onlookers. Women and men grab the kings as they perform, stuffing dollar bills down the jockstraps that hold in their "manhood."
The group offers an "anybody's welcome" mentality, according to Francis. "We have straight women, transgender people, bisexual women. Men can be kings too. As long as you're into what we're doing and want to have a good time, you're in." Sonya, a.k.a Harlequin, 26, recalls how she got involved. "Melissa had heard I was a good dancer and asked me to partner up with her for the first show back in July," Sonya remembers. "I've been dancing since I was 11, getting moves from Soul Train. I've performed in clubs around South Florida and North Carolina. Just never as a boy." Dante's performance with partner Harlequin introduces a sexually charged element. Dante takes on the male gaze as Harlequin writhes and struts around the stage. And if you look closely enough, you can catch a glimpse of Dante rubbing his prosthetic member as Harlequin writhes in front of him. Harlequin lies down, her back arched, as Dante pours hot candle wax over her scantily clothed body. "I get an attitude when I'm in drag," Dante says with a smirk. "But I've been told I still walk like a chick."
It's also no surprise that Dante and Harlequin are playing this game with such ease. They're a couple. "Women have approached me after performances for 'private dances,'" Sonya says. "But we know it's just part of performing. It's kind of flattering."
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And then there's the phenomenon of gay men who find themselves attracted to the women in drag and don't know what to do with it. When Harlequin tapes down her breasts with Saran Wrap, throws on some Adidas track pants and an oversized T-shirt, and stuffs her short blond hair under a knit cap to perform a rendition of Eminem's "Lose Yourself," she has the whole crowd singing along. One of the more enthusiastic crooners is a flamboyant, overly amorous man flailing around in the front row.
The free flow of alcohol has helped many patrons and spectators loosen up and bring out their wild side tonight, mainly the participants in the Best Thong Contest. Things get really risque as the kings coax women in the crowd on-stage to drop trou. The obvious crowd favorite is a bosomy Latina with long curly hair and an oh-so-tiny thong. That is, until a baby-faced girl (you have to be 18 years old to get in) with short red hair trots up on-stage to expose that she is, in fact , not wearing a thong. Or any underwear, for that matter. Her prize for not wearing underwear that night -- free beer. Only in Fort Lauderdale.
After the show is over, the DJ pumps up the jams and the majority of the bar tumbles onto the dance floor. A pretty brunette in a knee-length black dress locks hips with a butch girl in a hockey jersey; the thong-throwing broad with the bad perm booty-dances with Scamp; Dante and Harlequin make out near the bar, both still in drag. Bumping and grinding send any remaining uptightness packing. "It's just a big party, after all," Sonya reflects, looking around the bar. "We're just trying to entertain people, pushing things to the extreme."
It might be a man's world, baby. But only when the Drama Kings want it to be.