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.
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.
Helping Barbara choose outfits, Anthony began to express interest in women's fashion when he was about 15. His best friend at the time, Edwin Toy, played football at King High School. Anthony kept his more effeminate side secret.
Kurt King, a Louis Armstrong look-and-laugh-alike, knew Wanda for 22 years. "[Anthony] knew he was gay, he knew he was a drag queen, and people didn't accept it," King says. "He told me he dropped out in 11th grade."
After leaving school, Anthony went to Chicago and then Gainesville for short stints. He returned to Tampa around 1992. There, he adopted the name Sally Sasquatch and performed at several gay clubs, including Rene's, Tracks, and Pleasure Dome. Despite the fact that he dressed as a woman, Anthony's size and bearing left little doubt he was a man.
"Maybe if you were standing in Alaska somewhere and looking over there," says Divinity Everlasting, who idolized Anthony as a newcomer. "You could sandpaper it down to the max, but that height tells a whole other story."
It was almost as if drag transformed Anthony into a combination of superhero and supervillain. In 1993, he was arrested for beating and throwing bleach at a woman who owed his friend money. He pleaded no contest to the charges and was sentenced to six months of probation.
Soon, a friend told Anthony to get down to Miami, where the club kids would readily accept Wanda.
(A quick taxonomy lesson: There are pageant queens, comedy queens, and club kids. Some queens impersonate celebrities, and others gender-bend so artfully that trying to tie them to the human species — never mind a specific human — becomes akin to a postgraduate seminar in semiotics. Then there are the club kids, who exploded the post-Warholian concept of branding, becoming famous for simply being fabulous in the '90s. Drag queens were welcome among them — RuPaul had started off as one of the original club kids in New York a decade earlier — and the rule was the weirder the better.)
So Anthony relocated in 1995 and changed his name from Sasquatch to South Beach Wanda. He quickly made his way into the VIP room of the Warsaw Ballroom on Collins Avenue, one of the most notorious gay clubs to ever exist. "Only the crème de la crème got into the VIP section there, and [Wanda] was so weird and ghetto," says Power Infiniti, who began a blossoming friendship with Anthony there. "I thought, How did that bitch get up here with that attitude?"
The never-ending party soon became a routine for Anthony and his fellow club kids: finding sleep as the sun was rising, beaching in the afternoon, and trudging back to the dance floor at midnight — fashionably late, considering the tourists would get there at 10. Liquid, Twist, and Story were always a blur, but everyone ended up at Warsaw each night, dancing to house music in the large black box of a club and trading drink tickets for $6 vodka-and-oranges at the room-length bar.
The only break in the routine was when celebrities would fly down for special events, such as Arabian Nights (featuring real camels) and the White Party, when the line for entry would wind from Collins Avenue and Española Way to Lincoln Road. Although the legal capacity of Warsaw was 900, it wasn't unusual for managers to stuff up to 2,000 people into the place. "Clubs could throw a party that cost $30,000 or $40,000 back then because the owners weren't paying $60,000 in rent," says Maxwell Blandford, former general manager of Warsaw.
At first, drugs made Anthony happy and more agreeable. "I've seen him higher than a giraffe's pussy, and yes, his behavior might change a little bit, but he was actually in a better mood," Infiniti says.
But excess gave way to addiction. In 1995, officers arrested Anthony for scooping up an abandoned brown paper bag with crack inside. A charge of purchasing the drug was later dropped, and adjudication was withheld for cocaine possession.
To friends, it was obvious he was an addict. His sunken face and hair-trigger temper during those years proved it.
If he had a foil, it was Elaine Lancaster, who has been performing under that name, she says, "professionally since 1997, but ever since I could open my mother's closet door, really." Miami Beach Mayor Matti Herrera Bower declared Lancaster an official city mascot in 2010. "I get into drag to make people feel happy, like they're in Disney World," Lancaster says. "Wanda got into drag to terrorize people."
Lancaster, who these days regularly appears on The Real Housewives of Miami, remembers the time she almost had Anthony arrested. "I was leaving the InterContinental Hotel, and all I hear behind me is click, click, click, click," she says, tapping on the coffee table of her immaculate apartment. "I thought, Oh, what is she going to do now?"
What Anthony did was pull off Lancaster's blond wig and snarl, "Who do you think you are? You're not going to take everyone's jobs!"
So Lancaster called the police, who later apprehended Anthony. "I let him squirm for about five minutes before I let him go. I just wanted him to be afraid of me," she recalls. Anthony would just show up at places, with people initially throwing him five or ten bucks to play nice and giving him drink tickets to calm him. "He never made money, but he extorted people for money," Lancaster says.
Even in the ultra-permissive club-kid world, there were some baseline rules that people followed, such as don't steal champagne bottles from behind the bar, and don't get into fights with customers. But inevitably, things would turn sour. "I'm not a psychiatrist, and I can't diagnose anyone, but she was unstable," Lancaster says.
During one event at Amnesia, the fountain was being bleached. There was a performance happening that involved a mock birth and a naked guy covered in ketchup. Looking for a laugh, Anthony threw him into the fountain. "He was covered in hives," one friend remembers. "Anthony would always end the fun and leave us with complaints and potential lawsuits."
The collective patience eventually wore off.
A flyer about the "Wanda issue" finally circulated to club owners in March 1998 declaring him "the most undesirable element of South Beach" and oddly, a police informant. People were afraid of his drug use, but they also accused him of "snitching, physical assault and intimidation, contributing to the arrest of innocent people, and the closure of nightclubs due to framed drug busts."
"At one point, I saw him in the back of a police car, and he was like a rabid dog," says Blandford, Warsaw's general manager. "An hour later and he was back in the club. I think that's what instigated the rumor that he was undercover — he would get in trouble and nothing would happen."
Indeed, Anthony was more solicitous of friends than himself. Once he talked Esme out of a ketamine-induced terror and into a cab. Infiniti remembers being able to leave money on her nightstand without fear that Anthony would steal it. "He could be quite nasty and quite cantankerous, but the good thing is that once he loved you, he was an extremely loyal and protective friend," Infiniti says.
Despite her name, South Beach Wanda never really could make Miami home. She often either passed out on people's couches or slept at the Salvation Army. "One day she woke up in a shelter and knew she was just done," longtime friend King says. "She never had a residence since she moved out of her parents' house." Wanda went to Houston to cool off and stayed in rehab for a year and a half, he says.
By the end of the '90s, Anthony/Wanda had been forcibly removed from South Beach's clubs, one by one. An influx of GHB, an anesthetic sometimes used as a date rape drug, and ketamine, an animal tranquilizer, coincided with her exile. Some blame the common use of the drugs for the decline of big, gay nightlife on the Beach. "I would see people getting into drugs that would make them completely incoherent, and we'd need security trained on how to bring them back out of the overdose," recalls Warsaw's Blandford. "We had paramedics at the front and the back. You can't run a business if your customers are on those drugs." The Warsaw Ballroom closed in 2002 and became a Jerry's Famous Deli.
"I've seen performers shoot Ping-Pong balls out of their pussies across the room in that place, and now they want to sell corned beef in there," laments a well-known drag queen from that era, Shelley Novak.
As the moneyed class took over the Beach and orgiastic clubs like Warsaw closed, there was no place for freewheeling drag queens such as Wanda, who lived hand to mouth and bump to bump.
So Anthony returned home and made the bold decision to visit his sister Barbara's home while dressed in full drag.
"Barb, there's a lady out there," said a visiting friend after peering through the peephole. "She looks like your sister." When the door swung open, there stood Anthony, the brother who practically shared her face. "And he was gorgeous," Barbara recalls. He told her: "I just wanted to stop by and let you see me like this."
Things wouldn't get any easier for the God-fearing, family-loving drag queen.
Back in the '90s, South Beach drag queens rocked Ronald McDonald makeup and a Picasso presentation. "It was skag drag," explains Lancaster, who had lived in Alabama and Texas before coming to Miami. "It was making fun of females rather than celebrating them."
There were about 40 queens working in Miami Beach during its drag heyday in the late '90s, and being around them made Anthony/Wanda jealous. Throw a few drinks in her, and it was game over. Never wanting to be anything other than an entertainer, she'd be damned if anyone stole her spotlight.
"It was somewhat bohemian at the time and overrun with drag queens," Lancaster remembers of a time when a studio apartment in South Beach cost $450 and people couldn't walk along Collins Avenue without being blinded by the sun's reflection off a neon-colored wig. "It was the good, the bad, and the ugly — and Wanda was definitely ugly."
Although Wanda was well known on the Beach, she orbited the periphery of those who became truly fabulous, always separate from what Shelley Novak calls the "Superfriends of Drag." If the Miami Beach scene was a high school, that ambitious and fabulous group would have been its varsity cheerleading squad.
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.
That night, he was helping out with the photo and autograph lines for Coco Montrese, a personality from RuPaul's Drag Race who was visiting. He was anxious, though, and after a while began eagerly questioning Montrese. Then a fan approached. "Can't you see I'm talking to her?" he snapped at the interloper and was promptly thrown out. Of course, that was nothing new. "Tony getting kicked out of Hamburger Mary's was a complete waste of time, because the owner of the restaurant completely loved him," says Esme, who worked there as a hostess.
After a short reconciliation with the owner, Anthony walked to the gay bar Liquid, where, according to patrons, he stood under the exit sign by the bathroom, greeting every customer who came near, before eventually heading home.
He spent Tuesday at the funeral home in director Wayne Bright's messy office. Anthony texted and glanced up every once in a while to bug the soft-spoken, preternaturally soothing man. The conversation was so mundane that Bright doesn't remember a single detail.
Eshter Badger, the assistant manager, prepared to leave around 2:30 p.m. It was raining hard. Although Anthony would normally stay inside glued to his phone, he made the uncharacteristic move of accompanying Badger out the door.
"Oh my God, if your boyfriend drives by and sees another man walking you to your car," was the last thing she heard before she shut the door to her sedan. It was the last time she'd see him.
Besides volunteering, Anthony had been attending family barbecues, letting his niece Erica try on his wigs, and offering avuncular wisdom. "Make sure you do good in school and do something with your life — and don't go chasing after little boys," recalls Erica, a bubbly community college student with long, dark hair and a Cheshire Cat grin. She took his advice and graduated from Chandler High School in May 2013.
Together they had come up with a plan for her graduation ceremony: Anthony would do her eye makeup in green and yellow, to match her cap and gown. Erica got the call from her dad during a rehearsal that Anthony had been murdered. Unable to believe it, she rushed to her computer and pulled up the Sobe Wanda fan page, where Anthony had listed his occupation as "bitch." Commenters confirmed that her uncle was dead.
So Erica did her own makeup for the ceremony, painting her eyes a dark, smoky red. "To this day I can't believe it," she says months later. "I have his picture on my wall right next to his makeup and his wigs."
One night in October 2012, Deandre Tolliver returned to his aunt's house and began throwing furniture. By the time Clara Parsons, who was 69 years old, rushed into the living room, her nephew was on the floor next to the coffee table. He was clearly high out of his mind.
Thinking the boy she called Dre was passed out cold, Parsons tried to move the coffee table back into place. Suddenly, her nephew was up and pummeling her. She covered her face and screamed for him to stop.
And just like that, he was gone.
Tolliver was a troubled kid from a troubled family. He started out breaking curfews and slinging pot but ended up involved in a drug-fueled meltdown that led to violent — and murderous — behavior.
Before he wound up in the Hillsborough County Jail awaiting trial for the slaying of Anthony Lee, he had racked up a double-digit rap sheet including charges of domestic violence, aggravated assault with a deadly weapon, battery, burglary, grand theft, violation of probation, resisting an officer, and possession of cocaine, prescription drugs, and marijuana. For all of those crimes, he spent only about a year in state and county jails.
But last October was a particularly rough month for the man who also went by the nickname Smooth. Just a week before the incident with his aunt, he had beaten up his girlfriend, Karlesha Brown, as she attempted to load their infant son into a car seat, says the woman's neighbor, Linda Smith. A few days later, Tolliver was arrested for trying to steal five sewing machines worth $500 each from a Baptist church, according to an arrest report from the Lakeland Police Department.
By January, he was hanging out with Akeem Townsend, who had federal warrants out for conspiracy to distribute cocaine. In March, officers noticed Tolliver couldn't stop shaking during a routine traffic stop and pulled three grams of coke from his pants pockets.
This past May 28, Tolliver said he needed to go to Tampa to pick up items from Tiffany McKinney's house. McKinney herself was a notorious criminal with a lengthy rap sheet, including murder that sent her to jail for more than two years. In 2011, the Tampa Bay Times called McKinney's brother Sedrick a symbol of Florida's turnstile criminal justice system.
A friend agreed to drive Tolliver from Lakeland to Tampa, according to the arrest record. Along the way, they picked up a 24-year-old friend named Bernard Hamilton. The three men staked out the house because McKinney owed them money, several of Anthony's friends claim. McKinney knew she was being watched, so she began texting and calling Anthony to say she was sick and needed help cooking dinner for her children.
So Anthony left the funeral home and pedaled the short distance to East Genesee Street, finally stopping at a yellow and green house with a gabled roof.
After a few minutes inside, he confronted Tolliver at the door. Angry words were exchanged, and the ex-con pushed his way into the house. Tolliver fired five shots in rapid sequence. Because it's an ongoing investigation, police won't say much else about what occurred that night.
Still, Anthony's friends say he probably tried to block Tolliver and said something along the lines of, "Well, you're going to have to shoot me then," and that the smaller man probably panicked. "I can see it in my head as if I'm standing there," says one friend with tears in her eyes. "He died an honorable death protecting those kids."
McKinney couldn't be reached for comment. Multiple trips to the home yielded no response, and landlord Merence Wingfield says she moved out soon after the shooting without giving notice.
"She and another guy robbed [Anthony]," insists Hamburger Mary's owner, Kurt King. "She wouldn't leave the house for days."
Iris Holton, who writes for the black community newspaper the Florida Sentinel Bulletin, says the neighborhood has also been talking about McKinney's involvement in Anthony's death.
But for all the plotting and scheming Anthony's friends accuse her of, there's also the possibility that the murder was just another random occurrence in the life of a freewheeling drag queen and that McKinney couldn't have seen it coming.
"She had to be hospitalized after the shooting," Holton says of McKinney. "She was in shock."
One person who wasn't in shock is Elaine Lancaster, the Miami queen who rode out the drag recession to become the TV-friendly face of a South Florida scene that would be wholly unrecognizable to the club kids of the '90s. "I'm surprised it didn't happen sooner," she remembers thinking when she heard the news.
A month after Anthony's death, the topic of Wanda came up at the Ybor City gay bar Liquid. At first, people delivered a glowing hagiography of the recently deceased, but after 45 minutes, the conversation took an existential turn.
"What was behind Wanda? What support system did she have?" Michael Capozzi lamented from behind his third whiskey-and-Coke. "For those people to come in and shoot her — that shows everyone in that neighborhood is nothing to them. You go into a gay bar and you're worth something. Why didn't she live among her peers, where she was comfortable and safe?"
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