Most girls dream of being beauty queens, but me? I've always wanted to be a drag queen. Probably because my attempts at glamour always feel like something of a joke, and there's nothing I love more than a good laugh. Plus, I've always shared the queens' more-is-more aesthetic.
I'm crazy for queens. Until recently, however, a person had to drag herself to the gay bars if she wanted to be in the presence of such royalty. The opening of Lips, a drag cabaret that caters to a primarily straight crowd, changed that. First in New York, then San Diego, and now in Oakland Park, Lips offers more to chew on than questions about where I fall on the gender spectrum. They've got a full menu ranging from oysters Rockefeller to rack of lamb, served by men in dresses who entertain both tableside and center stage.
It seemed fitting that I'd take my best friend Keely to celebrate the grand opening. After all, the place was targeting breeders, and she's a new mom who deserved a night out. At first, my friend was reluctant. Her three years in New York, though ages ago, had left her jaded. A concept like this was a novelty there over a decade ago when Lucky Cheng's introduced it. But I insisted she book a babysitter and dig out her party dress. By the time we were en route, we were like teenagers anticipating a first kiss: expectant, uncertain, and, soon, transported.
To enter Lips is to enter a candy-inspired, estrogen-induced dream. Everything glitters in confectionery color. Giant crystal shoes serve as chandeliers. Sheer curtains swag the room. And mirrors, mirrors, mirrors. Naturally, if one mirrored ball is good, darling, then a dozen is twelve times better. Of course, it all just sets the stage for a cast of queens of every dimension — even a few transsexual divas — who not only entertain but also serve (while servers perform, cute boys in black shirts take care of things).
We were ushered to the pink VIP "cabana," a semi-circular, semi-private table. With a pink crystal chandelier overhead and pink velvet and mirrors on its walls, we felt like precious stones nestled in a little girl's jewelry box. We looked, more probably, like semi-precious onyx, since we'd both taken the all-black approach to elegance; she in chiffon and beads, and I in velvet and lace.
Our server introduced herself as Martina. Her long auburn hair cascaded over the shoulder of her simple red, sleeveless dress. She was twice the woman either of us could hope to be, both in stature and meta-feminine abilities. With her peepers aided by the super powers within silver glitter and blue eye shadow, she sized us up quickly. "Celebrating a special occasion?" she asked.
Lips caters to celebrations. The New York and San Diego locations have been the scene of many birthdays and bachelorette parties.
"Just all of this," I replied, with a grand sweep of my hand, giddy with delight.
In truth, if anything, this was a bittersweet occasion for me and my friend. Keely had just returned from almost a month in California, and this was a brief reunion before we'd again be parted indefinitely. Hoping to drown the bitter and buoy the sweet, we ordered frozen cosmopolitans, the house specialty that delivers a pink, powerful punch.
Soon, Keely and I were snuggled together on the same side of the booth drinking it all in. We'd dallied so long (almost an hour) before ordering that eventually our server slid into our booth's empty space; we quickly settled on the scallops served with sweet potato risotto and wilted arugula.
"We really are being served by queens," Keely said, like it was all just sinking in. "It's cool that we get to see them so close."
I guess for all her big city experiences, she hadn't gotten this up-close and personal. To show off a little, I flagged down a beautiful blond whom I recognized as a local legend, the former Miss Illusion pageant winner, Diva. She's the Lips show hostess on Saturdays, when her wicked sense of humor gets its proper showcase, but on a Friday like tonight, she was "just a floor whore."
"Last week at the VIP grand opening, the mayor was on stage drinking frozen cosmos and dancing," she told us. "I think this says something amazing for Oakland Park. It's finally something that will put Oakland Park on the map," she said, noting that the Lips T-shirts weren't emblazoned with "Fort Lauderdale" beneath the logo but rather the name of the lesser known municipality.
After a leisurely hour of drinking, cuddling, chatting, and giggling, Keely and I were interrupted by a voice announcing Cashetta, our hostess for the evening. A Bette Midler on steroids took the stage in a floor-length sequined cape that, in the stage lights, nearly blinded us. Going table to table, she introduced audience members to each other as a spotlight followed. In the booth beneath the Warhol-esque triptych of Lips' founder and queen mother Yvonne Lame (present in the flesh as her "boy self," Mark Zschiesche), a family was celebrating its matriarch's 81st birthday. Beneath a similar composition of another queen, Lady Bunny, a trio of couples was celebrating a 21st. Even more birthdays abounded, including one woman of a certain age who would neither admit her age nor grasp that she could choose any number she liked.
"Judy, you left reality in the parking lot," Cashetta prodded her. "Now: how old are you?"
But poor Judy was stymied. "I feel 17," she offered.
Moving right along, our hostess ventured over to "a table full of homos." "Been together long?" she asked one couple.
"A couple days," one replied.
"A long term gay relationship," she quipped. "Got a ring?" she asked, but before they could answer, she said, "Not anywhere we want to see, I bet!" And then she headed toward us.
"Are you lesbians?" she pried as the spotlight hit our table.
"No," Keely quickly answered, but I was as fast with, "Occasionally."
Cashetta liked my answer better: "I think all women are."
Now that we were all acquainted, the show could begin. Rebecca Glasscock started with the typical lip-synched song-and-dance routine. My jaded friend was easily impressed.
"Look at her make those curls bounce," she said, jealous her own hair was nearly straight from its weighty length. "I need a haircut like that!"
I have been to enough drag shows to know a bio-girl should never compare her persona to the hyper-reality of any queen's feminine mystique. I put things in perspective: "Her hair is polyester." But when the performer's three minutes were up, Keely had her fingers in her mouth, whistling like a redneck butch.
After another straightforward lip-synched performance, I was starting to wonder if the show would be the low point of the evening. But our own Martina quickly turned things around with a humorous impersonation. In a plaid skirt on her hips and a white top tied beneath her breasts, Martina delivered a young Britney's "Oops, I Did It Again," but with older Britney's jiggly midsection. Finally, the blond wig came off. With short dark hair, she was the most up-to-date Britney ever.
The other queens followed up with notable performances. Twat LaRouge, who as a server had merely had on a blue wig and white makeup, now had on a large full-head mask, like ancient Greek meets puppet theater; her dramatic movement equaled the scale that the mask demanded. Queen Velvet stood out, not only for topnotch camel toe, but for the athleticism of her performance, including a full split with each foot on a separate chair.
But you've never seen anything until you've seen what Cashetta (according to her the world's only drag queen magician) can do after inflating a balloon more than three feet long. Linda Lovelace could learn something — even if later Cashetta insisted that this, like drag, was just another illusion.
When the show was over, the queens came on stage for an encore, and those celebrating a special occasion were invited up as the deejay played the Miss America theme and loved ones took advantage of a photo op.
Her life recently impacted by creating another generation, Keely was overcome with emotion. She began to weep while the entertainers wrapped their robust arms around the frail 81-year old mum in this big celebration of a long life.
Even though her song was meant just to mark the end of a fun evening, Nelly Furtado broke me. As the recorded singer reminded us that "Lovers to friends, all good things come to an end," I began to weep, too. Surrounded by lovely illusions and confronted by stark realities, Keely and I were filled with nostalgia and with hope and fear for the future — and there we were, in each other's arms at Lips, celebrating the real and the right-now.