The massive room, filled to the brim with gay men, exploded in cheers when W walked on stage. And surprising as it may seem, the love only increased when W strapped on an acoustic guitar. It was a curious response for the notoriously AWOL, crisis-averse, photo-op-seeking... oh, hold up, girl; this wasn't last Tuesday when the Chief of State was plucking the six-string while floodwaters overwhelmed a major metropolis area.
My bust: different W.
Hot on the heels of DJ Tony Moran's outdoor set last Sunday night, Kristine W, fabulous blond diva of nine consecutive Billboard dance hits, took the stage at 1 a.m. to bring the house down at the main event at "White Fort Lauderdale." The weeklong event is our town's entry into the country's gay circuit-party phenomenon, and Kristine W's presence wasn't the only sign that Broward had lost its "white" cherry in a big way: in the booth across from the stage was legendary DJ Manny Lehman.
I walked into the white Lycra wonderland with an impossibly tall gay man on each arm. My brother Kyle and his friend Jeff Howe were overshadowed only by the stretchy fabric towering above us on columns at least 40 feet in the air at Revolution Nightclub.
Similarly shirtless, body-fabulous hunks filled the place, gyrating as Lehman pumped out hot mixes like Mariah Carey's "We Belong Together" and Suzanne Palmer's retro "Fascinated." But when W, a six-foot-tall blond with voice enough to fill every recess of the cavernous place, took out her purple guitar to offer a serenade, she took the party to the next level.
As she went into "The Wonder of It All," she said, "This is dedicated to Gary Santis," the Miami-grown megapromoter, "'cause he loves this song."
But he wasn't the only beneficiary. The atmosphere in the man-pit mellowed as the dancers settled down from Lehman's mixes to W's heartfelt lines.
Every year, thousands of gay men across the country and around the world flock to annual, massive events called circuit parties, where big-time DJs, bellowing divas, fabulous drag queens, and, of course, hot shirtless men converge for 'round-the-clock fabulousness. Circuit parties very often have a color correlate: There's a White Party in Miami and in Palm Springs, a Black and Blue Party in Montreal, and a Black Party in New York.
And as of last week, there's White Fort Lauderdale, the city's first seven-day circuit party, held at several of the city's nightclubs, including Coliseum, Torpedo, Circuit Bar, Club Boom, Elements, and VooDoo Lounge. One year ago, when I profiled Santis ("Saint Gary," July 1), formerly of South Beach's notorious Warsaw Ballroom, he declared his intention to throw Fort Lauderdale's chip into the circuit party game: "I want to be the founder of the Fort Lauderdale White Party, on a massive scale like Miami has theirs. I can't call it 'white party' 'cause that's a trademark, but I'll definitely call it 'white event' or 'white masquerade' or 'white something'..."
Not less than a year later, Santis kept his word.
Last Friday, at the Coliseum during DJ Abel's set, Santis told me: "Every major city has a white party. I think it's time Fort Lauderdale continues its quest in not only becoming a tourist destination but also a mecca with world-class entertainment that supports the community."
Point being: This is a major development.
The main argument for success was last weekend's second-to-none DJ lineup. With DJs Abel, Tracy Young, Moran, and Lehman at the turntables, it seems likely that serious gay party compasses will point south for a good, long time.
That Santis is obsessed with symmetry is obvious from the square pecs of his dancers to the columns that lined the outdoor stage at Revolution on Sunday night. That he pays homage to the talent he pulls is evident in the video screens running throughout the night, paying tribute to the DJs and performers who brought the drama. What these qualities consistently add up to is called largess, and that's what it takes to throw a party of this magnitude.
And Lauderdale's comfortable environs help too. As local drag queen Daisy Deadpetals put it, "The cool part about Fort Lauderdale is that you do have that resort chill quality, which is also what's going on with nightlife. It's a new direction. This city has a more relaxed feel. We have more coffeehouses and people hanging out just for a drink, but we also have up-all-night stuff too. I think people will come for that."
Around 2 a.m. at the outside bar, I caught up with a recent émigré to Lauderdale, Scott Dehne, a slight but muscular 33-year-old man with brown hair and green eyes who emphasized that he's single -- very single: "I'm from Chicago, and I have never had fun at Fireball [Chicago's circuit party]. At Fireball, everyone's in a little clique. I don't think people are as standoffish here. I've met so many people tonight. I usually go home after an hour. But I've been here since 10:30 p.m."
Moran, who spun on Revolution's outdoor stage Sunday evening, said: "It's uncommon to have such a variety of important talent come into Fort Lauderdale and do their thing. A lot of DJs in the past have not thought of this as a place like that. I am very picky about where I go. Fort Lauderdale always makes me feel so welcome."
Swarmed by energetic friends in the back dressing room, Kristine W bestowed her blessing on our burg: "Tonight was surreal. The icing on the cake was that Danny Tenaglia [a huge circuit DJ] just popped in like that. Tony and Manny, they're just legends. I felt totally at home."
After talking to W, I cruised back outside, where I met a cute couple of Atlanta boys in sunglasses who hadn't planned on being in South Florida this week. "Air Tran changed our tickets from New Orleans to Miami after Southern Decadence was canceled. But Miami was dead."
Justin, 23, said that Southern Decadence is "a once-in-a-lifetime must-do event for every gay man." But Justin was one of many who had made last-minute plans when the Big Easy drowned. So how did Fort Lauderdale hold up as a substitute?
"We extended our stay another night," Justin answered. "This is a great party."
Justin wasn't the only queer who expected to be somewhere far away this night. Jeff Howe, my towering queen companion, figured he'd still be dodging bullets in Baghdad.
Until July, Jeff was closeted -- not telling and not being asked -- while he served in Iraq as a specialist attached to the U.S. Army's 3rd Infantry Division. Being a gay man in uniform had never been an issue for him. Like others motivated by the 9/11 attacks, he'd dropped everything and joined the military -- at 30. And after one trip to Iraq, he was such an asset to the Army, he was stop-lossed in 2004 just before his scheduled discharge, leading to his second tour in the war.
Like other grunts, Jeff wanted to share what was happening to him with the outside world. So he started one of several blogs maintained by soldiers. He thought he was doing the Army a service, posting mostly positive stuff about what was going on and making sure every post was approved by higher-ups to assure that nothing got out that could threaten the security of American troops.
But then, Jeff put up a photo of an American military truck that had taken a direct hit from an enemy missile. No one had been hurt, but the Army apparently freaked because it thought the image gave the wrong impression (you know, that someone in a war might, uh, actually get hurt).
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Within days, Jeff was put on a plane, flown back to the U.S., and booted out of the Army (with an honorable discharge) because, suddenly, his sexual orientation had become an issue.
Well, that sucks, but I can attest that Jeff -- now fully out of the closet and strutting around at White Fort Lauderdale -- is taking his new civilian-hood in the best possible way.
On Saturday night, when Tracy Young was spinning at Coliseum, Jeff immediately went to the ladder that leads through a hole in the roof to the DJ booth. "Some guy tried to tell my I couldn't go up there," he said. But who was going to argue with a six-foot-seven war veteran? Young remembered that Jeff had e-mailed her after a New Year's Eve party when Young had mesmerized the crowd, and that warmed Jeff's heart.
This seaside city has been a gay resort town for decades. But only in the past few years, with the emergence of the Red Ball, have local promoters thrown our chip in the circuit party game. Last week's first White Fort Lauderdale was the cream on the cake, if you will. White Fort Lauderdale: bona fide.