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The Women Within

It's late -- really late -- but the all-night crowd at the Copa is eagerly anticipating its weekly lesson.

More correctly, patrons of the Fort Lauderdale nightclub are awaiting the appearance of the teacher, Tiffany Arieagus. Her poise and personality drive the entertaining and instructional show Drag 101.

Even as she sits at a makeup table fluffing her hair and applying her favorite fragrance, fans slip into the dressing area for kisses and Southern charm. "She represents the quality of femininity," says a man who calls himself First Love. "She's like a best friend, sister, lover, sweetheart. And she always has something up her sleeve."

After more than twenty years in the female-illusion biz, this woman who used to be a man certainly has plenty of tricks to choose from -- wherever she's hiding them. And while Drag 101 is more of a show than a class, those who watch and listen can pick up some tips from the veteran performer. "Drag is all about unleashing the woman within," Arieagus says.

Tonight's show is a little behind schedule, but by 2:45 a.m. the glamour gal in false eyelashes, red lipstick, high heels, and Ralph Lauren scent is ready for the spotlight. And the crowd is ready for her. The dance floor, which has been throbbing with music, flashing lights, and energetic bodies all night, empties as the throng moves toward the stage.

Soon the teacher makes her entrance. Bespectacled, hair pinned back, a tailored jacket covering a slinky black outfit, Arieagus carries bags of goodies, which she hands out to the audience. After chatting with her fans, she shakes out her hair, lip-synchs, and dances. People hand her dollar bills, which she happily accepts with a "cha-ching."

Drag 101 also includes a contest for amateur female impersonators, who have the most to glean from their beloved emcee. Tonight's winner is Miss Twiggy, who appears as a proper church lady, walking with a cane and wearing a wide-brimmed hat, purse, and pearls. She lip-synchs a spirited gospel number, playfully bouncing her oversize rear.

Between the contestants' bits, Arieagus zips off stage and reappears in different costumes. An off-the-shoulder animal print. A sparkly, cleavage-revealing red gown. Her performances are the lesson, according to Breezy, Arieagus' friend and an amateur female illusionist. "You'll learn just by watching her," he says.

Arieagus says she goes with the flow for Drag 101. The lessons may be subtle or direct. Once she brought a sewing machine on stage and made a dress in seven minutes. If the audience has questions, she'll answer them. "Rule number one is that drag is our friend," she says. "We don't judge. We enjoy."

Arieagus, who grew up in Mobile, Alabama, knows from experience; She's been living as a female since high school, though she declines to publicly discuss physical "alterations." She earned a college degree in dramatic arts, and her career was inspired by a female impersonator she saw at a gay club. Over the years she's won 47 beauty titles, including Miss Florida Female Impersonator, Miss Gay Universe, and Miss Continental USA.

These days she attracts a following wherever she performs. "After all the bars [close] at two o'clock, everybody comes to the Copa to see Tiffany," claims Harry Kriss, who once worked with her at a bar in Fort Myers.

After the show Arieagus is back in the dressing area -- a corner of the nightclub's kitchen -- chatting with friends and fans. "The show is for everyone that wants to have a good time. You don't need to want to be in drag," she explains. "It's for people that want to come out and learn about another part of gay culture and enjoy."

-- Patti Roth

Drag 101 is held every Wednesday night (actually 2 a.m. on Thursday morning) at the Copa, 2800 S. Federal Hwy., Fort Lauderdale. Admission is free, but there is a fee for parking. Call 954-463-1508.

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Patti Roth

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