I want to give thanks to my early mentors, Wendy Grape, Dee Dee Daniels, and Lavita Allen; to my life-long friends, Charles and all the Fleury’s (Johnny, Helen, Diane, and Janice);
and to all those angels who watched over me through the years despite the misdirections that I chose.
And a very special thanks and love to Larry (Hot Chocolate) for being the nurturer that I’ve always needed; to Herman for being the brother that I never had;
and to Jack for being the anchor in my life.
And of course, thanks to all of those who ever applauded and wanted more of Rachel Wells.
Teased Hair and the Quest for Tiaras
(The Story of Rachel Wells)
by J.R. Greenwell
When you’re alone
and life is making you lonely
you can always go…downtown.
Like thousands of southern gay young men in the
early Seventies, I made my pilgrimage to
And you may find somebody kind
to help and understand you…
I didn’t know who I would meet or where I’d sleep. I was going to be a long way from home, but I wasn’t worried; I knew I would survive. My thought was that I would be a hippy, letting my short brown hair grow long and flowing, and I’d possess some kind of free spirit and live among others like me.
Someone who is just like you
and needs a gentle hand
to guide them along…
Maybe a gay hippy. Or maybe not. Fortunately for me, the hippy movement would soon be on the way out. Unfortunately for me, I had so much to learn.
Four months after my arrival and three cases of crabs later while living as a homeless free spirit, I was finally beginning to understand the basics of gay survival. Not only was I jumping from job to job, busing and waiting tables at various low-end restaurants, I would also hop from bed to bed in order to have a place to sleep. Some people were kind to me, and then there were those who just used me for the moment. It was give and take. But despite the inconveniences, life at this point was at least rent free.
One person who didn’t take from me was Richard
Kavanaugh, who owned a few houses on
Clay Millwood was the bouncer, among having other
part-time jobs, at Chuck’s Rathskellar in
Clay wanted more from me, more than just renting a room, but for some crazy reason, he drooled when he kissed me, and I found it pretty disgusting having to wipe his spit off my face every time he showed affection. He was a great guy, but after about a week after moving in, I started to reject his advances. I wasn’t too worried about him being lonely; there would be another piece of meat in the holding tank any night of the week for him to slobber on. I was happy being his roommate, though that still wasn’t enough to get in the door at Chuck’s.
Clay met Larry Bell about a month later.
Janet, Larry’s cousin, and Clay worked together in a florist shop
not far from the apartment.
She said that Larry wanted to move to
The three of us found living together to be fun. It was typical for people in the early Seventies to explore sex with strangers, friends, and roommates. Fortunately, for the three of us, none of us was compatible being in a lover situation with the others. Clay drooled when he kissed, and Larry did the “clamp thing” where when we embraced in bed, he would wrap his arms and legs around me like he was clinging to me for dear life. I remember one time after we had buddy sex, I had to pry him off of me just so I could shift and roll over to get some sleep. Though it was early in my gay life, I already knew that that I didn’t like kissing a drooler and wiping spit off my face, nor did I like to be affectionate with a clinging monkey. Apparently, Larry didn’t like the way Clay kissed either, nor did Clay get turned on with the Larry Bell squeeze. I’m sure that I didn’t fulfill any of their dreams of the perfect mate either. Though we had explored the possibilities, the three of us finally had an unspoken understanding that we just didn’t hit it off in bed. That would be a good thing.
Larry was a few months older than me. I would envy his driver’s license that proved he was an adult and able to go into any club without a hassle. Clay would turn a blind eye when I would sneak in the back door of Chuck’s, go into the bathroom and sit in a stall for about twenty minutes, and then walk into the bar like I’d been there for hours. Larry would have a drink waiting for me on the table. We’d dance and cruise the cuties while I dodged the other bouncers and the manager who would occasionally walk through looking for any possible problems or under-aged patrons. Many a time before I met Clay, I had been ambushed from behind by a different bouncer or the manager to be led out to the lobby as they clutched my ear with a thumb and forefinger. Yes, there is nothing more embarrassing than to have someone lock on to your ear and lead you out through a crowd of potential boyfriends. I had no choice but to follow, or lose my ear.
From the back of the bar, Larry and I watched the
drag shows, which I found to be strange, to say the least.
Though entertaining, I found it odd, and almost disturbing, that
a man would want to dress like a woman. I
watched Lavita Allen impersonate Barbra Streisand, and a rather large
black queen named
Clay had come to us one afternoon to say that a
show was being brought to Chuck’s from Louisville, Kentucky, and the
owner was asking if any of the employees would help house some of the
entertainers for a few
weeks. Clay was not a big
drag fan, so after some interrogation by me and Larry, he confessed that
there were some male dancers with the show who were accompanying the
entertainers on this trip, and they were supposedly really cute, though
by Clay’s standards, cute was anything with a penis.
I didn’t really care.
There would be one drag and two male dancers staying with us, and I
thought it would be kind of fascinating to meet new and different
people. It meant that Larry and I would have to share my room for a few
weeks (I had the bigger bed), the drag queen would stay in Larry’s room,
and of course, the cute dancers would somehow fit somewhere between the
sheets in Clay’s room.
Larry and I agreed, but then Clay let us know there was one more thing:
Crystal Blue was black.
Yes, a black drag in 1971was not a real popular commodity,
especially for someone like Larry who was born and raised in southern
The day finally arrived. Larry and I were waiting for the entourage to arrive at the apartment. Everything was clean and in place. Clay went to the bar to bring our three guests and their luggage back to the apartment in his Cadillac. He was so early Seventies gay. A thirty year old single man in an old lady Cadillac puzzled me. Even Larry Bell, as nelly as he was, was driving a sporty blue Mustang. But then again, I didn’t have an automobile so I was slow to vocalize any judgment out loud. I was just making observations, as was my nature.
The door opened and Larry and I stood in front of it like some poorly organized welcoming committee.
“Larry and John, this is David and this is Billy.” It was obvious by Clay’s introduction that he had a preference for Billy, who by the way had great legs showcased by his tight cut off blue jeans. Larry and I both smiled and said hello. There was a pause, and just as if the entrance were orchestrated on purpose, a tall black, very thin queen in a white tank top and red hot pants slinked to the middle of the doorway. She took off her oversized Jackie Kennedy sunglasses and said, “Hello. I’m Crystal Blue.” She had the longest legs I’d ever seen, and her face reminded me of Lesley Uggums. She, he, looked somewhat androgynous and alien like, but of course, still human. Her gentle grin was warm.
“This is Larry,” said Clay.
“Hello. Red hair. Cute, too,” she replied as she scanned Larry’s body up and down with the stem of her glasses in her mouth.
“And this is John.” She gave me the once over as well, taking in every inch of my tall and skinny frame. She studied my face.
“You do drag, don’t you?” she said.
I was totally offended. Sure, my skin was smooth, and I rarely shaved more than twice a week. More than once, people would ask me to my face if I was wearing makeup. I hated it when someone would say that I was pretty because I didn’t want to be pretty. I just wanted to be a halfway cute guy.
“No, I don’t do drag,” I quickly responded.
“You will, honey. You will,” she said, winking at me.
It didn’t take long. Two days after meeting
I watched the show from the sidelines.
Good entertainers, I thought to myself, but the star of the show
would be Crystal Blue. I
could tell by her attitude and confidence that she would be different.
It was her first time to perform on an
At the end of the show, people were in and out of the dressing room, greeting the entertainers while they were trying to gather their costumes and other belongings. I tried to stay out of the way and not be conspicuous. I was perched on a table next to the wall, sipping what was left of my only drink of the evening. Amidst all the buzz, one face approached me and said, “You sure are pretty.”
I didn’t know how to respond, but said thanks. I never thought about wanting to be pretty. This was just a way to get in the place and not get caught. I turned and looked in the mirror next to me. I looked like John with a black wig on my head.
The Cruise Quarters was located in the Virginia-Highlands neighborhood. It was, to put it bluntly, a small dive that had no one checking IDs. In fact, the younger one looked, the better. Larry and I would go there during the week when Chuck’s was either closed or slow. It was a local bar with local patrons, but more importantly, there was an atmosphere free of pretension. But there was also the occasional barroom brawl that would occur between the hustlers who also frequented the place.
After my first time in drag carrying in costumes
and makeup for
There was Rusty, who was the director, or person in
charge of the show. She did
country western music, and looked like an older lady.
When the show was over, Larry and I went backstage to talk to Rusty about performing. She told me that I would have to audition, sometime in the afternoon during the week. Of course, I worked at Super-X during the day, so that wouldn’t be possible. I was lucky to have my job, though the partying was making me miss more work than I needed to be missing. Taking off to audition would not be an option.
“I’m sorry,” Rusty said in her southern old lady voice. “That’s just the way we do things here.” I thought she was probably a very nice person, but at the time she was full of shit. I had just seen the show and if any of the performers had auditioned, there would have been no show.
“Thanks, maybe another time,” I said. “I liked the songs you did tonight.” I thought a small bit of flattery might help.
“Why, thanks, honey. Tammy and Loretta are my favorites.”
“Mine, too.” I had no idea who Tammy and Loretta were.
Just as I was about to walk out of the dressing room, Penny pulled me to the side. “She won’t be here next week, and I’ll be over the show. Come on in and you can do a number.”
“Really?” I asked.
“Yeah, really. We all have to start somewhere, and anyway, she’s such a bitch. She thinks she’s the only one in the show who’s any good. I’ve also invited some others, too.”
“Are you sure?”
She nodded and winked. “See you next week.”
Larry and I walked out of the dressing room. I couldn’t believe Larry hadn’t said a word, though he did project his “I am better than you” attitude the entire time we were there. Liquor affected Larry Bell in an odd way. Just a little would make him coy and snide. Too much would make him weepy, and then violent. There was a thin line between each level. Tonight, he had just the right amount. He seemed proud, for some reason and this was the Larry that I enjoyed being around.
“Gonna do a show next week!” he shouted under his breath grinning ear to ear.
“I know. A show,” I said. Damn, I thought to myself. I’m gonna be in a drag show.
It had been a while since I talked to my mother on
the phone. About eight
months since I’d seen her.
“Mom,” I said. Then I paused.
“Yeah, something you want to tell me?” she asked, her motherly instinct setting in when I paused.
“Mom, I’m gay.”
“Are you happy?”
“Yes, I’m happy.”
“Well, that’s all that matters.”
I’d heard horror stories about people telling their parents that they’re gay and being disowned or put into rehab thinking that some kind of rehabilitation would cure them of the being gay disease. Of course, my favorite was the pray your way out of it approach, which would only work halfway if you were a Southern Baptist. I was happy my mother was Catholic, and I couldn’t believe her mild non-opinionated response.
“I just wanted you to know,” I said, and then we chatted about my sisters. The issue wasn’t earth shattering nor was I being condemned to a life after in hell. She just wanted to know if I was happy.
The park was a cruising place for many gay guys, but for me and my small circle of friends, it was just a place to hang out. On this particular afternoon, Larry and I were there with three others, one of which was Christy. He said he did drag, but no one had ever seen him perform in a show. Apparently, his “husband,” as he referred to him, liked to see him dressed like a woman as much as possible. How could that be gay, I thought to myself. Christy stayed at home and played the role of a housewife. It was odd to me, like so many other facets of gay life. I kind of envied him for being taken care of; but then again, I did like my freedom.
We talked about the show that I was going to do,
and Christy suggested that I borrow a gown that he had sewn.
We were the same size, and even though
“Just picture what you want to look like and pick a name that fits that image,” said Christy, hands flaming all over his body, overly accentuating his point. Gosh, he was feminine.
“Just call me Ma Bell,” blurted Larry. “Get it? Larry Bell. Ma Bell.”
“Not funny. I’m the one doing the show. I’m the one that needs a name.”
We tossed all kinds of names out, but for some reason, none seemed to please me. Even though I wasn’t very religious, I always loved biblical movies, the kind that were made in the fifties. I took Christy’s advice and envisioned myself as a woman. I pictured myself with long auburn hair, kind of like Rachel from the Bible. Rachel at the well.
Someone suggested Rachel Wells, but I was leaning with Rachel Armstrong after Neal Armstrong who was the first man on the moon. I thought the name sounded really good, but Christy was quick to bring up a good point.
“Honey, every time they announce “Rachel Armstrong” every queen in the audience is going to zoom in on the little muscles in your arms. You’ll have to wear sleeves your entire drag career.”
I was only going to do one show, not make a career of it. However, Christy’s remark did make sense. My name would not be Rachel Armstrong, but I really wasn’t sold on any of the suggestions. I had a few days to come up with something.
“Ma Bell, huh? I kind of like it, but it sounds like a big old lady, don’t you think?” I said to Larry trying to divert the topic of conversation to something else.
“A bitchy big old lady,” he replied with a diva attitude. He lit a cigarette pretending to be Joan Crawford. Suddenly, Ma Bell was born.
The dressing room was full.
I stood there wearing Christy’s gown made of heavy drapery
material with chiffon sleeves.
It was heavy and warm, and the makeup and wig made me even more
uncomfortable. Rusty and
The door opened and in walked Dee Dee Daniels. I had seen Dee Dee only once at the Chuck’s. She was on the A list. She was a gorgeous blonde in a pink chiffon dress with lots of pink lipstick on her perfect lips. She was a cross between Marilyn Monroe and the Gabor sisters. I couldn’t believe she was here. She introduced herself to everyone, and Penny asked her if she would make the lineup and gather the records for the show.
Larry came back into the room with my drink. “Isn’t that Dee Dee Daniels?” he whispered in my ear.
“Yeah, that’s her, and she’s really nice,” I whispered back.
“What’s she doing here?”
“She’s in the show. Now don’t embarrass me.”
“I know, and thanks for the drink,” I said. I squeezed the lime wedge into the drink and stirred the gin and tonic with my fingers. Gin and tonic was my choice of drinks, a long way from my first which was a scotch and Coke.
“Are you nervous?” he asked.
“Not yet. Is it crowded yet?”
“It’s getting there.
“Ten minutes to show time!” Dee Dee hollered in a baritone voice that did not match her visual persona. “I need your music.”
“I better go. Ma Bell needs to check out the crowd,” he said as he lit his cigarette and checked himself in the mirror.
“How do I look?” I asked him.
“You look hot.” He had a gleam in his eyes. He knew better than to say anything else.
“Get out of here, pervert,” I said. “Get out now, and don’t drink too much.”
I pulled my record out of my bag, and walked over to Dee Dee. “Hi, I’m Rachel and I’m doing Bring the Boys Home by Freda Payne. She smiled and started to write my name down.
“Rachel what?” she asked.
“Just Rachel,” I responded.
“Sweetie, you can’t just have one name. It just isn’t done.”
“I’m new, and I just don’t have a last name yet, at least one that I like.” She stared at me.
“I need a last name,” she politely demanded. I could see that she was pulling seniority on me, and if I was going to go on stage, then I would have to give her a last name.
“Okay, how does “Wells” sound? Rachel Wells?”
“Rachel Wells,” she said slowly as she wrote it down. “I like it. I’ve got you on toward the end right before me, so don’t make it difficult for me to follow you if you know what I mean.”
She must have seen the look of terror on my face when she made that statement to me. I was taking her dead serious. “Sweetie, I’m just kidding. You go out and do your best. It’ll be fun. Five minutes everyone! Five minutes!”
The three queens from
“Any advice?” I asked her while waiting at the doorway.
“Yeah, you look like you have class. Never beg for dollars or pick them up off the floor. It’s not classy.”
I’ll remember that.”
It was totally the opposite of how
“You’re on,” Dee Dee informed me with her hand over the mike. “And now, please put your hands together for Rachel Wells!”
I could hear Billy’s voice above the crowd’s. He had a voice of a thirteen year old girl when he yelled, very high and shrill. The music started and I walked to the stage with my hand militantly raised, my two fingers forming a V, pantomiming the words, “Fathers are pleading, mothers are all alone…Bring the boys home.” The song had become an anti Viet Nam War anthem, and I was trying to be quite expressive with it during the performance. I hated the war and everything about it, and I fell in love with the song the moment I first heard it.
When the song was over, the crowd cheered and wanted more. I got a call back. I even made tips, though not nearly as much as Crystal. I dropped a dollar on the floor on my way back to the dressing room, and leaned over to pick it up, but remembered what Dee Dee had said. Fortunately, an audience member was right there and quickly picked it up and gave it to me. Maybe I had class and it was obvious. The audience liked me, I guess. At least that’s the feeling I got. And I didn’t get nervous; however, I wanted to know if I looked real, like a real woman. I was fine with my performance, but being the critic that I was of the others I had seen in the shows, I just wanted to know if I looked real.
After the first show, I went into the crowd, well what was left of the crowd. Most people had left, perhaps to go somewhere else because the night was still young, or maybe because the Cruise Quarters was a dirty dive that made most people feel uncomfortable after a few hours. It was, after all, loaded with under-aged, illegally drinking minors, myself included. Larry came up to me and reassured me that I looked real. I didn’t believe him or maybe I just needed to be reassured over and over, but he kept saying that I looked like a real woman. He had been drinking a lot.
There was a second show, but only a few people were
left in the audience. The
excitement was not at the same pitch as it was for the first show.
I was wearing one of
We didn’t have to hear it twice. A small band of us went running out the back door, past the parking lot and into the woods. I found myself hiding in the bushes behind a dumpster with about five or six people that I didn’t even know. Larry wasn’t with us. Hell, I thought to myself, I see Larry’s car, so he hadn’t left. Surely, he wouldn’t leave me like this, or would he? He was of age, so maybe he didn’t feel compelled to run as I did.
“Nice dress,” one of my fugitive friends said to me.
“Thanks,” I replied.
“Why you wearing a dress?” he asked.
“I was in the show tonight.” Why else would I be wearing a dress, I thought to myself.
“I think I might have seen you. Nice dress.”
A drunk or an idiot, I mumbled. How much longer would I have to wait? It already seemed like twenty or thirty minutes since we ran out of the club. My feet were hurting from wearing high heels, my scalp ached from the bobby pins that were keeping the wig secure, and if Christy’s dress gets soiled or torn, I would definitely be in trouble. Worse yet, what if the cops came around here and found us and took us to jail? My mind was beginning to race when I heard, “John? John? John, are you out here? Rachel Wells? John?”
It was Larry Bell. That’s the signal that I was waiting for. “Over here, Larry!” I yelled as I made my way past the fugitives. “It is safe to come out now, isn’t it?”
“We’re have you been? You haven’t been smoking pot with these guys have you?” he asked as I made my way toward him with the pack behind me. I sensed they trusted my leadership to follow. Drunken idiots.
“You know I don’t smoke pot. Is the raid over?”
“What raid?” he asked.
“We heard someone yell ‘Raid!’ and we ran.”
“Oh, that was just some dumb ass hollering when he was leaving. You didn’t think that was real did you?” he said with a big grin. “You fucking people thought there was a real raid, didn’t you. That’s funny.”
“It’s not funny,” I said. “We need to go home. You’re not too drunk to drive, are you?
“I’m fine,” he said, slurring his words and stumbling. “You sure are pretty.”
I could see the tears welling up in his eyes. He was already at the weepy level of being drunk. We needed to get home before he hit the next stage. He knew I could whip his ass if I wanted to, even if I was wearing a dress.
“Why are you all still standing there?” I asked the fugitives. “It’s safe to go.”
“Is he your boyfriend?” one of them asked.
“No, he’s not my boyfriend. He’s just my friend.”
On Saturday the phone rang. Crystal and the gang and I were just hanging around playing cards. I answered it.
“Hello? Yes, that’s me. Doing fine. Thanks, it was fun. Well…I don’t know. I’ll need to think about it. How much? Ten a night?”
“Who is that?”
“It’s the bar owner from the Cruise Quarters,” I said. “Can you hang on for just a minute?” I held the phone to my stomach. “He wants me to join the cast. He wants shows two nights a week. He wants to pay me ten dollars a night. Who gave him my number?”
Yes, this is
Wow, I thought out loud. That was pretty impressive. “I’m going to get paid for moving my lips…”
“And swinging your hips,” added
“I’m not really sure I’m ready for this. I mean doing the show was fun and all, but I don’t have any costumes or make up, or even music.”
“It’ll all come to you. You were a natural on stage the other night. Sure you need some work and this place will be perfect for you. It’ll give you time to get better and improve, and who knows, maybe one day you’ll be as good as me.”
“Never as good as me?” she snapped back.
Suddenly, the expression on her face became serious. It was if she and I were the only ones in the room. She got right in my face and said, “Let me tell you something that was once told to me. Never, ever sit back seat to another queen; but, always remember that there will be someone more talented and prettier than you are just around the corner waiting their turn. Never forget that.”
And I didn’t.
It didn’t take long to quit my job as a sales clerk at the Super-X. Though the manager tried to dissuade me from quitting, citing all the promotions, benefits, and career opportunities that would be mine if I stayed, the call of the wild night life was beckoning me. I already had a taste of it, though brief. It was fate, I told myself. It was fate and I must follow the call.
Of course, Clay was not happy with the events that were unfolding. Never in his wildest dreams did he ever imagine that his roommate would suddenly become a drag queen, and now a roommate without a job. Larry also became a member of the adventure team, quitting his job working with his cousin, wanting to work as a waiter (he would hope to make more money). Clay’s concern would be how we could pay our portion of the rent. Sadly for Clay, Larry and I saw that as the least of our worries.
Within three weeks of
One day, I found myself riding with him to his room in Midtown, where he showed me his rendition of You’ve Lost That Loving Feeling, a version by Dionne Warwick. It was an awkward moment to say the least for me. Watching someone pantomiming out of drag was not pretty, and this was my first time to see it. Did I look this stressed and tense when I practiced my songs? Probably. As I was the only member of his audience, I was locked into eye-to-eye contact for three minutes as he went through his motions. The volume of the music was low as to not bother anyone in the house, so I also had to listen to this throaty sound coming from his mouth over the music. It sounded like radio static. But the funny thing about the whole situation was that Herman didn’t do drag, but apparently he wanted to. Suddenly, I’m a drag mother at such a young age, I thought to myself, and I didn’t even know what I was doing, let alone give someone advice on his performance.
“Well? What do you think?” Herman asked.
“It was pretty good. I liked the way you went down on your knee.”
“I thought of it myself, even though the words say, ‘I’d get down on my knees’,” he replied proudly while blushing.
“I just think you look a little stiff, but you’re not in makeup so it’s really hard to tell. Have you done drag?” I asked.
Not only had he not done drag, I would find out later that he had never had sex with a man. Odd, wanting to perform in drag, but not quite yet an active homosexual. It seemed queer, but then again, the past month had been nothing but a Pandora’s box of oddities for me. This would just be another one to add to the list of aha moments.
Herman was renting his room from a woman who also
had a gay nephew living in the house.
I soon met Michael.
He was nineteen, short, and had the face of an angel.
He was beautiful. He
looked like a woman without makeup, though his facial stubble could
confuse the vision for someone who wasn’t quite sure.
He was from northern
One evening after partying at the Cruise Quarters,
the new gang (Larry, Herman, Michael, and me) went to David’s apartment.
David and Billy did not return to
David’s apartment was small. He called it a studio apartment, but it was really the size of a walk-in closet, especially with all of us there. We didn’t know it, but David had done backup drag, doing the doo wop thing when needed. He wanted to get rid of his things, his wigs and costumes, though they were very simple in nature and not the high end glamour kind. Coincidentally, he was Herman’s size.
We spent a couple of hours playing dress up. David applied Herman’s makeup, put him in a blonde wig and a slinky dress, and Marlo (named after That Girl, Marlo Thomas) was born. Herman was pure woman and he was totally in heaven. We played music and Marlo strutted her stuff, taking pointers on movements and facial expressions. David gave most of his things to Herman, and he gave me a frosted wig and some makeup. It was a new beginning for Herman with his new identity, but to me he would always be Herman. Don’t know why. Just Herman.
We all spent the night at David’s, most of us piled into the foldout bed, with Michael and Larry claiming the sofa. After about a half an hour of giggling and telling stupid jokes in total darkness, we fell asleep. Sometime later we were awakened by a woman in the apartment, screaming at the top her lungs. It was the shrillest sound I’d ever heard. It was terrifying. Suddenly, others were screaming, then we were all screaming. I was disoriented as I tried to find the light switch on the wall. Though it seemed an eternity, I finally found the switch and turned on the light. Michael and Larry were cuddled together with a blanket pulled up to their faces, their eyes filled with fright. David and Billy had the same look in their eyes, as well. In the middle of the room stood Herman, laughing and crying at the same time.
“I’m so sorry,” he said. “I have these spells where I get up in my sleep and sometimes I scream.”
“Goddamn it, Herman,” Michael yelled. You scared the piss out of me. You could have told us you had some fucking condition, or whatever it is.”
“It’s okay, Herman. You probably just had a bad dream,” I said, trying to comfort him. I sat down on the bed. Laughter was taking over the room.
“My god I thought we were dead,” Michael said, trying to get his nerves calmed down.
“I didn’t know we had so many women in here,” I laughed. “I’ve never heard screaming like that.”
“Apparently, not all of us are men,” Larry quipped. “I think we need a cigarette.”
We all lit up and filled the room with smoke. Once we had relaxed, we decided to try and sleep again, but this time, with the lights on. I watched as one by one they closed their eyes. I gently squeezed Herman’s arm as he lay next to me to let him know it was okay, that he would be fine. His secrets were revealed to us that night: his joy of putting on a dress and wig, and his secret of sleepwalking and screaming. We would all have secrets to reveal along the way, but it was knowing that we were safe to open our souls to each other that would make the experiences heartfelt. That evening was just the first of real bonding for us. And on a more humorous note, after that evening, none of us wanted to sleep in the same room with Herman, at least with the lights off.
“What about Eve?” Herman asked. “She’s already in the show, and she has her own apartment. We can’t fire her.”
Eve Starr was one of the three barefooted queens
“Well, we need Eve in the show. She only gets five a night, so that would leave us with fifty-five dollars a week,” I said as I did the math in my head.
“I think it’s a fabulous idea,” Michael jumped in, even raising his voice in the excitement. “I can finally get out of that damn house and do what I want to do without having to listen to my aunt hovering over me.”
“Yeah, we all can,” I replied, suddenly thinking about Clay and our commitment to paying rent. I’d worry about that later, and anyway, I thought, Clay could find roommates with no problem. Ansley was a great neighborhood, and anyone who was gay would love to live there.
It wasn’t long before we found an apartment on
Larry, Herman, Michael and I moved into our new home. We didn’t know it, though it didn’t take long to figure out, that the neighborhood was actually a hot bed for prostitutes and drug activities, and it wasn’t considered to be a safe area. Perhaps the metal door on our apartment should have been the first indicator. It was common to find condoms and needles outside in the hallway. None of us did drugs, and we simply dismissed our surroundings as just that, surroundings. We were oblivious to the dangers of the street, and found ourselves walking around them at all hours of the night, talking about our dreams, our worries, our hopes, a new song for the next show. We felt that if we looked confident and not scared, then the people of the night would fear us instead. This attitude permeated our daily and nightly lives. We began to fear no one. Of course, we weren’t totally naïve to believe that something horrible couldn’t or wouldn’t happen, so each of us carried a paring knife on us, and when we were in drag, the knives would be tucked into the cup of our bras. Soon, as a group, we had a reputation as people not to mess with. Funny how all of us were kind and caring people, but we’d be eaten up alive if that was the first impression that people had of us. It was a shell of survival, an armor. It was attitude.
One evening at the club, Eddie suggested that Joe,
Larry, Herman, Michael, and I go bowling the next night at the lanes
We met around eight the next night at the bowling alley, traded our shoes for bowling shoes, and began to bowl. Joe told us that Eddie was running a bit late and would join us in an hour or so, and we were to go ahead and start without him. An hour later he didn’t show up. An hour after that, still no Eddie. Joe used the pay phone to call his apartment, but no answer. We decided to keep bowling, but at a much slower pace, all the while pondering how we would pay for the bowling and the shoe rental if he didn’t show up. We had cars and thought that we could make a run for it, but we nixed that idea as too risky since there were very few people in the place and we’d be too obvious trying to exit without paying. We thought about just going to the manager and explaining our situation, but we thought he might call the police and we’d all be taken to jail for three weeks. After some deliberation, making a run for it was becoming our only option, as we were also running out of cigarettes. Joe was the only hold out. He had no intention of leaving his laced-up boots behind the counter.
“Isn’t that Jim?” I asked, noticing a tall overweight man entering the bowling alley.
“He’s fucking creepy,” quipped Michael. “He’s always hanging around looking for something or someone.”
“Maybe he’s got money,” Joe thought out loud.
“Yeah, money to fuck you in the ass, but not for bowling,” Michael said, sucking on his cigarette.
“Well, somebody might have to get laid. He’s our only option,” I said trying to take control of the situation. I walked toward him and began to bargain with him. I explained what was unfolding, that Eddie promised to be here and treat us to an evening of bowling. I asked for a loan and he gave me a twenty, enough to cover our charges, and he said not to worry about it. Jim was somebody we didn’t really know, but we saw him often. We figured he was a lonely guy in nobody’s circle. We would see him in the clubs that we frequented, always in the dark recesses trying to be inconspicuous. But somehow or another, he came to our rescue more than once in the next few months, and as we feared that he would ask us for something we couldn’t give, never once did he demand anything. He was truly a kind person, but we never could get past the fact that he was an overweight and balding gay guy in his late thirties. Gay life is tough on the elderly, we thought.
Michael was grateful that I didn’t sell his ass to Jim. He just thought that since he was the youngest he would be the prime pick of the bunch. After paying our bill and getting rid of the bowling shoes, we drove to Joe’s apartment not only to find that Eddie was not there, but that he had taken all of his things, as well. And not only did he take his own possessions, he took Joe’s, too.
“The son of a bitch stole all of my things!
He took my new goddamn towels that I just bought last week, all
my hair products and my blow dryer!
I’ll kill him, I’ll kill him, that SOB!”
Joe was obviously disturbed by what had taken place.
Eddie had set us up to keep Joe occupied while he cleaned out the
apartment and left town. It
was later determined that he had moved to
“Joe, why don’t you stay with us?” I asked, knowing that his income might make it easier for us, and anyway, we all liked him and he needed us, too. Larry openly supported my idea. His motive was to get into Joe’s boots. You see, we had a community property agreement among us: if it fits you, and you put it on first, then it’s yours for the day. And Larry knew that Joe’s boots were the perfect fit.
Joe agreed and was now a member of our family.
We soon learned that his pretentiousness only lasted until his
dark roots began to show.
Yeah, he was one of us, all right. Just a guy from
On my first night I tried to do my “pretty” stuff, and even did a duet with Dee Dee, where before the number, she put my wig into a French twist. Dee Dee was a hairdresser by day, and said the hairdo would give me a classier look as opposed to the curly shag that I felt comfortable and real wearing. The number was long, and I was bored doing it, but I felt this was a right of passage for me, to be on stage with someone so polished and popular. It would give me credibility, I thought to myself. But this night, the crowd was not thrilled with anyone. Responses to everyone’s numbers were limp-wristed, at best.
After the number, I had about three acts before I was to perform my final solo. Should I or shouldn’t I, I asked myself. And I did. I took apart the French twist, began to tease the hair as high as I could, painted stripes around my eyes, and took one of my dresses and began to cut pieces out of it. I put on the dress and looked in the mirror.
“And what, may I ask, are you doing?” asked Dee Dee in a somewhat authoritarian voice. She was in charge of the show, and was apparently taken aback with my actions.
“Just something different,” I replied.
“You look like you’re about to go into battle, like an Amazon warrior,” she said. If I could shake up Dee Dee then perhaps the audience would wake up too.
“Well, I kind of like it,” I replied. A warrior. An Amazon warrior. And I’d cut anybody who’d mess with me, I thought to myself, knowing that my knife was in my bag and not too far away in case I might need it.
I was next, and I was nervous, but I was ready. The music started and I hit the stage with the attitude of a jilted and short-changed streetwalker. Pantomiming to Janis Joplin’s Piece of My Heart, I could barely hear the music because the crowd was so loud. It was so exciting, the adrenaline flowing. And the more violent I got with the song, the more responsive the audience became. It was exhilarating, to say the least.
When the number and the two callbacks were over, I
was met at the stage door by Dee Dee.
“All right, Miss Rachel.
That was hot!” she said as she opened the dressing room door for
me. I bet
Herman and I befriended Candy, a young and tall drag who frequented the Cruise Quarters. She didn’t perform in shows nor had any desire to. She had a “husband” as I learned from Christy. It was a term fems used referring to their lovers when they would end up living together. I saw the term “husband” as meaning stuck with the same person for eternity, nothing that I was looking for, especially at the time. But even though Candy was married in her mind, she still found the need to go out in drag and pretend to be single, not for a sexual encounter with a stranger (her husband Randy would kill her, literally, and she knew it), but just to see if she could pass.
One evening Herman and I decided that it would be a real test if we could go out to a straight club to see if we could blend in as women in a place were only heterosexual people hung out. We picked up Candy at her apartment. Herman was driving his blue Maverick and the three of us were gussied up in long gowns, hair flowing, and just enough makeup to look real and not overly made up like we did for the stage. We went into some high end club that Candy frequented, sat down and ordered drinks. We were in a corner booth under dim lights, and to be honest, I was anxious and ready to flee at any moment. The place was full of middle aged men and very few women. The jacket and tie clad men kept approaching us asking me or Candy to dance. We turned them down using our softer voices. Not letting them get too close was part of the game. I could tell Herman was feeling slighted. Another man, short and round approached the booth.
“God, surely he won’t have the nerve to ask us to dance. I mean, look at him and look at us,” Candy whispered under her breath. Anticipating a request to dance she said, “No, thank you.” She rolled her eyes and looked away. He turned to me.
“Would you care to dance,” he asked me.
“No, but thanks for asking,” I said.
“I will,” Herman said before the man could even look at him. “Let’s go.”
“Why sure,” he smiled as he guided Herman to the dance floor. He wasn’t very tall, the top of his head coming to Herman’s chin, and he was polite by keeping his distance in the proper way as they slow danced to some song I never heard before. They chatted as we watched, Herman nodding his head to all that the man was saying, meanwhile Herman was trying to stay clear of the flashing lights atop the dance floor. As we sat there admiring the fact that Herman was so brazenly bold by dancing with this man who thought he was a woman, we began to notice that his falsies were beginning to slide down. It was just like Herman to forget some small detail, a detail like securing the location of one’s fake breasts so they don’t fall down to one’s waistline. Suddenly, as if he had heard us talking about the situation, Herman clutched his chest with his hands and quickly headed toward Candy and me, the round man staring back, looking perplexed.
“He saw my tits slip!” Herman said as a sense of fear came over his face. We quickly got up and left, walking as fast as we could as we expected a posse of straight men chasing after us with bats in their hands ready to beat the shit out of us. Once we got in the car and sped off, we laughed at the nerve that Herman had demonstrated by dancing with the stranger.
Holding his falsies in his hands while he drove, he said, “Can you believe I forgot to tape these on? I can’t believe I did that.”
“Marlo,” Candy interrupted, “never dance with a man who’s shorter than you. It doesn’t make you look feminine at all.”
“But he was so nice,” Herman said with a smile coming over his face. “He was so very nice.”
Two nights later after getting back, we went to Peach’s Back Door to meet with friends and play pool. Larry’s visit with the dentist went well and he was ready for a drink. I was ready to play the game. Playing pool and cruising was one of the pleasurable things we did when we were off, which was most of the time. I was legal now and with a valid ID. Having the proper credentials made going out a bit easier, though not as adventurous, but it was a good feeling not to think a bouncer was going to pull me out by the ear because I wasn’t twenty-one.
“Hey, Rachel. Where you been?” Even out of drag, people were starting to call me Rachel. I recognized Robert’s voice from behind me as I was getting ready to shoot. I turned around and there he was. We met Robert a few weeks before after one of my shows here at Peach’s and he became one of our pool hall buddies.
“Hi, Robert,” I said, giving him a friendship hug. A friendship hug is when crotches don’t touch when you hug. He was a nice fellow, and though he appeared fond of me, I didn’t feel the same way about him.
We chatted and played a few more games of pool.
He was better than most of us, but we kept the games close.
I told him that we had just gotten back from
“Wanna go?” he asked me.
“Tonight?” I answered.
I’d never been to
“Probably the day after tomorrow. Three days at the most.”
“Yeah, and we’ll stay at my parents’ house so it won’t cost you anything.”
“Nothing?” I asked.
“Not a thing. Whatta you think?”
“Well, I’ll need to pack,” I said, pondering all that I would have to do.
“And I thought we might go out late tomorrow night, so maybe you could bring one of your outfits.”
“Yeah? That could be fun, I guess. What the heck.”
We later headed to
We arrived in
I had a chance before dinner to chat with some of Robert’s relatives. They were ordinary people and very kind. We sat down for dinner, which seemed to be in his honor. It was sort of a welcome home Robert kind of event. After a short prayer, we all began to eat. It wasn’t but maybe ten minutes into the meal that Robert stood up and said that he had an announcement to make. He moved behind me, waited until he had his family’s full attention, and then said, “I wanted you to know that since I went to prison, I’ve changed.” I almost choked.
“Changed in what way?” asked his father.
Robert put his hand on my shoulder and said, “I’ve changed.” There was a stare down between me and his family. I wanted to swallow the huge piece of fried chicken in my mouth, but it wouldn’t budge. They kept staring at me. Suddenly, it’s my fault that the guy is gay, right? And I had no idea that he had even been in prison.
“You’ll have to excuse me,” I said, trying to be polite, yet still trying to chew my food. I went upstairs and closed the door. I could hear raised voices and after about an hour, Robert came into the room.
“Sorry,” he said.
“Sorry my ass,” I piped back. You just got out of prison and then at a welcome home dinner, you bring me along as your pretend boyfriend to cushion the impact of the ‘Hey folks, I’m gay’ thing?”
“Well, we’re not staying here.”
We agreed it would be better to go to a motel for the evening, and we did. We checked into a small place on the outskirts of town. Robert wanted to go visit a high school buddy of his and he would return around eight or so and we’d go out. That would give me time to shower and get in drag, and then have a great time. I needed it.
I put on my makeup and wig, and I put on my Stevie Nicks outfit, a long skirt with a sweater vest, wide brimmed hat and boots. It was my winter “fish” outfit. By I was looking good and ready to go. By nine I was still standing as to not wrinkle my outfit. By ten I took my hat off and put it on the bed so I wouldn’t get hat hair. By eleven, I was laid flat on my back on the bed to take a nap, looking as if I were in a coffin, my arms crossed so that I wouldn’t roll over and smear my makeup when I fell asleep. At eight in the morning the phone rang.
“Hello? That’s me. Yeah, that’s right. This is Rachel.” There was a pause on the other end, sort of an “oh” pause when he realized that Rachel was not a female. He went on to tell me that Robert had been out drinking with his buddy and was caught speeding. He had outstanding warrants and was arrested. I was supposed to wait for him, though the caller couldn’t tell me when Robert would be released.
I hung up the phone and tried to think about my
next move. The first thing I
had to do was to get out of drag, which I did.
I didn’t have a dime to my name and the only way out of there
would be to take a bus. I
searched through Robert’s suitcase and found four rolls of quarters. I
called the bus station and found that I had enough money for a cab and a
one way ticket back to
It was a long ride back with plenty of time to think about what I had just been through. Things just fell into place, and though I didn’t necessarily believe in angels, I kept thinking that I kept pulling through these kinds of situations, feeling lucky for having something or someone watching over me. Yet, I was still aggravated. I ran into Robert the next week at Peach’s. He wanted his forty dollars back. I told him to go fuck himself, and I turned and walked away. I never saw him again.
I was running late after the show, and I wanted to make
a grand entrance, and what better way than with two redneck studs,
Sidney and Harry. Sidney and
Harry were seventeen when I met them at the Cruise Quarters.
They came into the dressing room one night wearing tight white
t-shirts and cut off blue jeans. They were well built, and quite
frankly, just plain hot. They
took a liking to me right off, and though I had a preference for the
regular boyfriends. No one could kiss on the neck and ears like Harry.
The three of us arrived at the apartment and the
place was packed. The front door was opened wide.
“You don’t talk to a woman like that!” Harry yelled.
“And we don’t allow drugs in our apartment, and she was getting ready to light up a joint, even after I told her not to,” Larry yelled back. Larry looked like one of those prissy little yipping dogs trying to take on a pit bull. He was way out of his league.
“I don’t give a shit, you don’t talk to a woman that way,” Harry shot back.
I was on my way to intervene when
I explained what had happened as they called for an
ambulance. Where was
everyone, I thought to myself.
I gave the police Sidney’s name, and they took down the details.
Still in drag, I rode with Stephen in the ambulance and stayed at
Stephen lost his spleen, but he was going to be fine. He would be staying in the hospital for a few days. I told him that he could stay at the apartment when he got out; after all, it was my crazy companion that did this to him. And anyway, one more body in the apartment wouldn’t matter.
I took a cab back to
“I heard what happened,” he said. “Are you all right?”
“Yeah, I’m okay, just tired, but okay. Where were you when all this happened?”
“You know Jason that’s been coming over here for the past few weeks?”
“Yeah, the one you’ve been interviewing to be your boyfriend?” I asked.
“Yeah, that’s right.”
“When are you just gonna have sex and get it over with?”
“Well, I was. We were outside in the parking lot and I was just to about to go down on him…I mean I was this close,” he said, holding two fingers about an inch apart, “when the police light shined on us. People started to run out of the building, so I just got out of Jason’s car and I ran, too.”
“So you thought the police were coming after you?”
“Yeah, I did. I didn’t know they were called because of the noise. What about Stephen?”
“He’s alright. Lost his spleen. He’s going to be staying with us when he gets out of the hospital. Just for a while.”
We stayed up just a little longer, having a few cigarettes and coffee and talking about the party we had, and that we would probably never have one again.
“I was only here for five minutes,” I said rolling my eyes.
“I never made it to the door,” Herman chuckled. “And I was this close, I tell you. I was this close to putting my lips on it. He won’t ever come back, will he?”
“Probably not,” I said. The sun was coming up and I was exhausted.
Within a week, we found Tommy. Well, actually, Larry found Tommy, but Tommy ended up with Herman. He was sixteen and adorable, but not too bright, which was a good thing. He was like an abandoned puppy looking for a new home. Like most of the young people we knew, he was a runaway seeking food and shelter, and of course, companionship. Tommy found the right place because there was no one among us who would be more nurturing than our Herman.
Herman had found his mate, and after their brief consummation on the living room floor, Herman would look no more for the man of his dreams. It was so simple, so easy, to fall in love with the “first” guy you have sex with. The rest of us were just thinking we might fall in love with the “next” guy we had sex with. For lucky Herman, that one goal was accomplished for him. He could scratch that one off his list of things to do.
For shock value, it was nothing for Herman and me to run around in half-drag, wearing a minimum of makeup but wearing male clothing. We tried to look somewhat androgynous at times, just for kicks, just to see how people would react. We were often chased out of Christian thrift shops because they didn’t want our kind in there. Whenever we were asked to leave, we’d go back the next day with four or five of us and swarm the store. They’d give into us eventually. The thrift stores had great bargains, especially for those of us who had little money.
Around this time we met Angelique, a six-foot,
five-inch queen we met in the park.
He was thinner than any of us and had long nails painted pink.
He approached us and said, “I have apparently lost my checkbook.
Could you loan me a dollar until I find it?”
His voice was accentuated with a fake, upper crust flair, as if
he were really from
“Rachel, you’re so beautiful,” he said smiling at me. “I love to just watch you sleep.” That was it for me, I thought to myself as I wiped the sleep from my eyes. Too creepy. Poor thing would be out the door and on his own again. We needed a plan, a harmless plan, to get him out of the apartment for good.
Early that evening, Herman, Larry, and I went out for a walk with Angelique, all the while setting him up for the scare of his life. We returned soon after, laughing and pretending to be having a great time. I went into the bathroom, and came out, my mouth wide open. “There’s a body in the bathtub,” I said, acting in shock. Though I never was a very good liar, I was pretty good at acting scared.
“A what?” asked Herman. “Rachel, you’re always joking,” he said pushing me out of the way on his way to the bathroom. Suddenly, there was that terrorizing woman scream that only Herman could muster up. Even though he was in on the plot, the scream was as real and blood curdling as any he had made during his sleep walking. Of course, Angelique had not been with us long enough to hear Herman’s hair-raising screams in the middle of the night, so he was terrified by the sound. Herman came back in the room, overacting a bit, but still convincingly scared.
“Who’s joking now?” I asked, trying my best to be a real drama queen.
“Let me see,” Larry blurted out.
“No,” I hollered back, blocking his way. “No one needs to go in there. It’s a crime scene.” I picked up a pile of clothes lying on the floor and proceeded into the bathroom to cover the imaginary dead body. If Angelique were to peek into the bathroom, at least the tub would be covered and he would think there was something morbid under the pile.
“What do we do?” Herman asked, forced tears welling up in his eyes.
“Let me think,” I said. “We have to call the police, but that won’t work either.”
“Why?” Larry asked, falling right into the improvisational skit.
“Angelique, are you in trouble with the police or anything else like that?” I asked.
“No, I don’t think so,” he responded, beginning to look a bit perplexed and nervous. “I’ve never even had a parking ticket.”
“That’s great, so this is what we’ll do. None of us can be here when the police come because we’re all wanted by the law…” I said.
Angelique interrupted my lines, “You’re all wanted by the law, like criminals?”
“Yeah, but we can’t get into it now. We’ll tell you later about our crimes. Here’s the plan.”
“You’re criminals? Even you Rachel?” he mumbled in disbelief.
“Yeah, even me. So listen up, we don’t have a lot of time. We’re going to leave and call the police anonymously from the phone booth, okay? And Angelique, when they get here you’ll tell them you live here by yourself and you came home to find a body in the bathtub. That way, they’ll file a report, take the body to the morgue, and then we can come home and live happily ever after.”
“I don’t know, Rachel,” said Angelique, sweat beginning to bead on his forehead.
“Don’t forget we took you in when you had nowhere else to go,” Larry snapped, trying to exert his authority. “The least you can do is to help us out when we need your help.” It was vintage Larry Bell.
“I guess I can do that…”
“But whatever you do, Angelique, don’t go in the bathroom. Promise me you won’t go in the bathroom.” I demanded.
“Was he stabbed?” he asked.
“Don’t even ask how bad it is, just promise you won’t go in there,” I said again, getting close to his face. God, we were acting the hell out of this.
“I promise I won’t,” he replied. He sat down on the bed with his back to the bathroom door and we left the apartment. We hid behind the bushes on the other side of the driveway and through the basement window we could see Angelique sitting on the edge of the bed, clenching his hands, turning pale with each passing minute.
“How long do you think he’ll stay?” Herman asked.
“I’d say he’s about to break,” I whispered back. We could hardly contain our laughter watching him squirm. He wanted so desperately to look in the bathroom, but the frailness of his persona wouldn’t allow that to happen. Suddenly, he got up and left the apartment. We watched as he exited the front door of the building and headed for the phone booth next to the curb.
“Holy shit,” said Larry. “Who’s he calling?”
“Probably his mother,” I said mockingly.
“And then she’ll probably call the police.”
Oh my. That would mean that…oh shit. We thought he would just
take off and never come back. We looked at each other in the shadow of
the shrubs. Maybe a prank gone too far, we all thought to ourselves.
We could see Angelique’s body language and he was pleading for
help. Suddenly, he slammed
the phone down, looked around to see if anyone was watching, and then
came out of the booth and ran like hell toward
“He’s gone,” I said. “And I bet he won’t be back.”
Just after we got into our apartment, the police
knocked on the door. Of
course, we sort of expected them.
Angelique had called his mother in Warner-Robbins and she, in
turn, called the
For about two weeks following the bathtub incident, Angelique’s mother came to the door wanting to speak to him, groceries in her arms. I told her that he wasn’t in right now, that he was out for the day. She asked me about the night she made the call to the police. I told her one of our friends was playing a joke on us, and her son just happened to be the one to walk in on it, that there was no dead body in the tub; in fact, no dead body at all. She asked me to make sure he got his groceries, and I said I would make sure that he did. The deliveries continued for a few weeks and then stopped. We sure missed his mama’s pot roast.
I could only hope that Angelique found his way to the illusive safe
haven that he so yearned for, whether it be back home in Warner-Robbins
or just down the street in Atlanta.
Wherever he ended up, I was sure he had some wild tales to tell,
especially about his criminal roommates in
When the Christmas holidays came in 1971, things
were bleak. The Cruise
Quarters had closed its doors, and we were performing once a week at
Peach’s and there was the occasional show at Chuck’s.
Money was low.
Larry was going home to
Our Christmas dinner consisted of sliced onions cooked in grease, and we made biscuits from scratch from flour we found in the cabinet. Neither one of us remembered buying the onions or the flour, but it was the only thing we had in the apartment that was edible. We had a show the next week, and the money would get us by after that, but until then, things were not looking up. Herman drew smiley faces on the raw biscuit dough just to brighten the mood. The onions tasted fairly good, but the over-cooked biscuits were like rocks. It had something to do with the flour or our recipe of just flour and water, but they tasted like thick stale crackers. It was a memorable Christmas dinner that we would have liked to have forgotten, to say the least.
Later that night I went for a walk. It was chilly
and I wore a coat to keep warm.
I passed a gas station on
We also needed the money. It was the middle of January and the Cruise Quarters and Chuck’s had both closed leaving the weekly show at Peach’s our only source of income. Larry and Joe had returned from the holidays, and already Joe was on his second restaurant job of the year. Herman and I didn’t think long about working as women in a straight setting. Though a challenge, I was also a bit apprehensive about the confrontations that might occur.
“Rachel, why are you walking so fast,” Herman asked.
“You’re stopping traffic,” I replied, staying a step or two ahead of him so that people might not notice we were together. Herman and I had just taken the crossover plunge by shaving our legs on a dare with each other. Though neither of us was very hairy, the last of our physically obvious manhood was now gone and we both bore our silky smooth gams for the world to see. The problem was that our legs were also milky white, though Herman’s seemed to glow extremely bright in the late afternoon sun. Herman insisted on wearing stage makeup, but at in the afternoon, his face looked more like a clown’s face than that of a woman. “You have to wear more blush in the dim lights,” he would say, and the restaurant was poorly lit…lucky for us. Maybe no one would notice the extra red blush.
“They’re cruising us,” he said. “I bet they’ve never seen two hot babes before today.”
“They’re staring because they’ve never seen legs as white as yours,” I joked back. Herman caught up and kept pace with me, and we both swished our asses with flirtatious strides. It was nippy this time of the year, but we both insisted on mini skirts and tied up shirts with open-toed, high laced-up boots. It was sort of our trademark. And even though a touch of blue eye shadow was very popular at the time, we loaded our eyelids with as much as we could. We were two working girls with real jobs; however, I was pretty certain the men driving slowly alongside of us were thinking real girls who gave blow jobs, something I had no intent on doing. By the time we got to the restaurant, an assortment of car horns could be heard as we entered through the front door. Do women have to go through this, I asked myself. Disgusting, but flattering. I suppose I would have been more disturbed if they hadn’t noticed at all.
“I smell fish,” I said, putting my nose in the air, taking deep sniffs with my nostrils.
“Why thank you,” Herman said fluttering his eyelashes, thinking I’d just given him a compliment by referring to the term “fish” that many gay men use to describe a woman.
“Old leftover scent of fish. Fish cooked yesterday,” I popped back. We both laughed. The restaurant’s specialty was seafood, mostly fried. The place was dark, never crowded, and the tips were minimal, but we were allowed to have one meal per day free and a discount on anything else. The customers never once openly questioned who or what we were, though we did notice that when families came in to eat, it would be the fathers who gave us the long once over, followed by that puzzled look of confusion.
Herman and I had no real desire to be women; we
were just at the stage in the universe we’d created to keep going one
step further, each time daring each other, like shaving our legs, to be
bold enough to follow through with the dare.
Though the customers might quietly question our real gender, our
goal was to create a façade that wouldn’t allow it to happen. The
reality was that what we were doing was not being done in
On one slow afternoon, we were talking with the
owners about opening for breakfast after the bars closed.
There were a couple of gay night clubs in the downtown area, and
Peach’s was right down the street.
In the early Seventies, clubs stayed open till two, but had to
close at twelve on Saturday nights.
Other than go to a party or home alone, many went to a Denny’s, a
Waffle House, or the Majestic on
We tried it and it was a hit. On weekends and on the night of a show, the place was packed. Herman and I worked when we could, except on our show nights, but then we’d frequent the restaurant as customers that one night a week. Within a few weeks, it became known as “our” hangout.
As people began to recognize our small group, we found ourselves, especially me, getting lost in the new identities that we’d created. One evening at the restaurant, a transy queen named Aqua, entered through the front door and asked if I could come outside for a moment. I had seen Aqua hanging around on the streets, looking to pick up johns. Yes, Aqua was a prostitute. She was tiny with hair that was real, not a wig, and she was pale and always looked cold. She looked like a “real” girl, probably seventeen or so. Perhaps a runaway at some point. Her face was long and her smile forced. Her eyes were a bright blue, and I assumed that’s how she got her name. I followed her outside.
“Hey,” I said.
“Hey,” she said. “I’m Aqua.”
“Yes, I know. Pretty name.”
“Thanks,” she said back to me, appearing happy to get a compliment. “You wanna make some money?”
“Money as in…?” I asked.
“You know, with me. Working with me.”
“You mean…doing what you do?” I asked, trying not to demean her profession.
“Yeah, that.” She stared at me with her blue eyes as if she really needed me to come to her aid for some reason.
“I can’t…I mean I have my job here, and I have the shows…” There was an awkward pause. “But thanks.”
“Well, you know where to find me if you change your
mind,” she said as she began to walk away.
I stood there watching her head south on Peachtree.
I suddenly felt hollow inside.
If she thinks that I could be a hooker, a transy hooker, then
what did others think of me?
Of course, I’d been in situations where I accepted money for sex, but I
could never think about getting up everyday and heading for the streets
to earn a living by blowing strangers in a back alley. I actually wasn’t
even that good with sex to make an occupation out of it.
only saw Aqua a few times after our brief encounter at the restaurant,
standing against the buildings on
I was caught in a perplexing place regarding who I was at this point of my life. No one called me John. To my entire small world I was Rachel Wells, drag queen and waitress in a dress. At times, both in drag and out, I’d look in the mirror trying to figure out what I was looking at. There’s a fine line that determines what we “want” to look like, what we “think” we look like, and what we “really” look like. I kept seeing me, John, in the mirror each time I scanned my image. No matter how much makeup, eyeliner or lipstick I put on, all I saw was John. In drag I wanted to look like Raquel Welch, and I could convince myself that I did; however, no matter how hard I tried, I still saw John with a wig on. It was sort of the same thing with Herman, I suppose. Though others saw and knew him as Marlo, all I saw was Herman.
Perception is a strange thing. I was just a gay guy exploring this world of make believe, having a really good time along the way. But to others, seeing me in makeup and women’s clothing, I was probably being pegged in the same category as Aqua. That’s not who I was or where I wanted to be. I enjoyed the stage, and I really was loving the challenge of developing this character named Rachel Wells, and living the role was a way to define who this creature was all about. Though I saw my own identity slowly slipping away, I would always be aware that I could never let it completely happen. Being delusional was never an option for me, though living in a world of fantasy was also my joy. I was a living oxymoron and I didn’t even know it.
“Rachel, it’s for you,” said Herman. “The phone, it’s for you. Somebody named Wendy.”
“Who the hell is Wendy?” I said out loud to myself. “Can you help me finish wrapping the silverware while I speak to this Wendy person? Geez, what a name.”
I walked over to the phone. No one had ever called me here on the job.
“Hurry up, I’m not doing all your work,” chided Herman.
“I’m not doing all your work,” I mocked back. “Hello? Yes, this is Rachel Wells. Yeah. Really? You’re kidding.” I couldn’t believe my ears. Herman could hear the excitement in my voice and see the wide grin on my face. I was getting louder as well.
“Yes, of course. And when? Are you sure? I would love to. Are you sure this isn’t a joke? I mean, this is real? Oh my god! Thanks. Thanks so much Wendy. I’ll see you next week.” I hung up the receiver.
“You’re killing me, Rachel. What was that all about?”
“Herman, they’re putting a new show together and they wanted someone who is new and fresh to be a part of it…that’s me, new and fresh. Can you believe it?”
“Where’s the show going to be?”
“At the Sweet Gum Head!”
“The Sweet Gum Head… on
“Oh my God, Rachel. That’s like going to
Yes, like going to
I got out of the cab and walked through the double doors that were propped open. A man sweeping the entrance said hello to me.
“I’m supposed to meet Wendy here,” I said to him.
“They’re in there.” He smiled and went back to sweeping the floor mats.
The Sweet Gum Head.
I was walking into this classy club that had only been opened a
few months. A show from out
of town had been playing here for a short time, but was now gone. It was
Danny Windsor’s show with Carmen Del Rio and Micky Martin, entertainers
I’d heard of but never seen.
I wanted to see the show, but never could afford the convenience of a
I strolled past the foyer into the club, my eyes trying to adjust to the darkness inside. The stage lights were on. The bar was in the center of the club. There was balcony seating, side seating, front seating…seating everywhere. The silhouette of black metal railings surrounding the oaken dance floor was just beautiful, I thought to myself. The place was huge. It could seat a hundred, two hundred, maybe a thousand people. Well, maybe not that many. I started to count the tables. I heard voices coming from the balcony.
“Rachel?” the shadow of an approaching figure said to me.
“Hi,” I said.
“Hi, I’m Wendy.” The man had the biggest smile. It was as if his grin wrapped entirely around his head. He didn’t look like the drag type. He had a large nose, a big grin, and he, well, he looked like a man. He had a friendly and inviting face.
“How many people can be seated in this place?” I asked.
“Oh, about three hundred, maybe .”
“It’s pretty big,” I responded, still in awe.
“Well, don’t you worry your pretty little head about how many people we can get in here. We’ll pack the place. You’ll see.”
Others approached us from the darkness of the stairs. I was introduced to Tony Romano, Ted and Don. I didn’t know any of them. They were going to be the male dancers (I always found that term funny since we were all male dancers). Tony was a singer and British Sterling’s roommate. British was the reigning Miss Gay Atlanta. Apparently, Ted was hired because he was cute and looked good in a tank top. He had a great smile, as well. And Don? Well, Don was a dancer, a real dancer and quite good at it. I thought he looked like Princess Anne. He had an English look about him.
“Hi, I’m Rhonda Blake, and it’s nice to meet you.” I didn’t know Rhonda, but had only heard of him. He was a cute man. Tiny, but cute with petite facial features and a heavy day’s growth of stubble. I wondered how he covered that up.
“Hello,” I’m Rachel, I said still fixated on his thick facial hair.
“Hey! Remember me? Allen?”
“Lavita!” I said. Finally, somebody I knew.
“Yeah, Rachel and I met along time ago before he was Rachel,” Lavita said. “I tried to pick him up at a party at the Kavanaugh mansion, remember that?”
How embarrassing, I thought, to bring that up. I was at one of the Saturday night parties at Richard Kavanaugh’s home. Richard would throw parties and all of his renters (he referred to them as family) and their guests were invited. One evening, Allen had introduced himself to me and then plopped down on the floor next to my chair, put his arm on my leg and then rested his head on his arm, looking straight up at me. At this time in my life, I had space issues, and he was definitely invading my space. He fluttered his eyes at me. Lavita Allen, I thought to myself, is flirting with me. A drag queen is flirting with me. Even though he was out of drag, each time he blinked his eyes, I could see Barbra Streisand looking at me. Now if it had been the real Barbra, well…but it wasn’t. It was a fake Barbra; a good one, but nonetheless, a fake one.
“Oh, you were just pretending to pick me up,” I said.
“No, I wasn’t pretending,” he snapped back while winking at me. “Come on, let me show you the dressing room.”
Lavita and I went upstairs to see the dressing room, and he showed me where my station would be. I was going to have my own dressing area with a makeup table and mirrors, and a rack for my costumes. It was unbelievable, though I kept thinking to myself that I didn’t have anything to put on the rack. All my clothes fit nicely into my bag, and thank goodness for polyester blouses and hot pants that didn’t easily wrinkle.
We had a cast meeting and then a rehearsal. Wendy was the director of the show and laid out the roles and rules that we would be establishing. He was the one who named the show the Red White & Blue Revue. The name didn’t sound too exciting to me, but I was new and what did I know about show names? Nothing. I kept my mouth shut and listened. Wendy would be the Liza Minelli and Carol Channing of the show, as well as the emcee. Lavita would be doing comedy and the occasional Barbra Streisand act. Rhonda would be the glamour girl, and I would be the newcomer, though I wasn’t sure what that really meant. I was still trying to find my “drag identity” and couldn’t quite put myself into any one role. But one thing was clear. I wouldn’t be doing any of their acts, so there would definitely not be a conflict of interest. We would be working five nights a week, with two shows a night. And we would have rehearsals three days a week to learn production numbers. Of course, being new, I raised my hand and asked what a production number was. Humbly, I quickly learned that a production number was when there was more than one person on stage during an act.
That same day we worked on two production numbers, Aquarius from Hair by the Fifth Dimension, and Millie, Rose and Mame, a medley by Diana Ross. I had never even heard either of them, so I was learning from scratch. I would be working with pros, but they were nurturing and apparently saw my potential. But even then, I was still intimidated. After about three hours of hard work, we called it a day. It was Wednesday and the new show was to start the next Tuesday. We discussed rehearsing everyday before the opening day. I was okay with that, but I was concerned about the cab fare to and from the club. I was barely making do with one show a night and waiting tables at the Light House. I called Wendy to the side as we were wrapping up.
“Wendy, I have a small problem.”
“You don’t like the production numbers?” he said jokingly.
“No, those are great.”
I was so embarrassed.
“I can’t afford to take the cab every day to come to rehearsals.
I live on
“That’s not a problem. Either Lavita or I can pick you up every day and take you back home if you don’t have a ride. We live near Little Five Points. We’ll just have to take a different way, but it’s not that far. Now, don’t you worry your pretty little head about it.” As he reached up and gently twisted my nose, I had a feeling that I would be hearing that saying quite often.
“I don’t mean to put you out,” I said.
“It’s not a problem, so hush.”
“And one more thing.” I never found the right time during our cast meeting and rehearsal to ask about money, but I thought this was as good a time as any. “What is the pay?” I asked sheepishly.
“Oh, we’re getting paid twenty-five a night, but since you’re new, you’re working for free.” He saw the shocked look on my face. “Gotcha!” he said. “We’re all making twenty-five a night, plus tips. And that includes you. Sounds good, doesn’t it?”
“Yeah,” I replied in a daze. I was doing the math in my head. Five times twenty-five is…fuck! I’m rich! I’m fucking rich! Wait till Herman hears about this.
The first week of the show went as expected with good crowds and wonderful responses to our format. I heard that our show lacked the Vegas style glamour that Danny Windsor’s show had, but there would soon be a spontaneity with the show that would be found nowhere else. In other words, our show would be different every single night, and not even we would be able to predict the makeup of the show from one number to the next. There would always be a surprise, and that would be primarily due to Lavita and Wendy’s whimsical nature and personalities. The shows would be fun for the audience and more importantly, for us as cast members.
I was overwhelmed the first week, not only with the rigors of performing every night, but with the lack of numbers to rotate so that I wasn’t doing the same routines every evening. The audience was very mixed, but with a larger number of lesbians, a first for me to entertain. They were quite different in many ways than the male audiences, and thank goodness for that. They preferred real, whereas most of the guys were looking at the dresses and hairstyles, preferring glamour.
I was also a bit disappointed with the responses to
my acts. Almost everyone in
the audience had no idea who I was. What little fan club I had was still
in Midtown or somewhere back in the
The Friday of the second weekend after our show opened, Larry and I went to Lenox Mall. It was still more of a strip mall then, but nonetheless, I had been paid and I was looking for a new outfit for the weekend and Lenox was the place to go. We just happened to walk by a pet store when I saw the cutest puppy in the window.
“Larry, it’s so adorable,” I said touching the puppy through the window. “Let’s go inside.”
We walked around in the store, fighting the urge to take home a kitten or puppy, when I saw a boa constrictor. It hit me right then and there. A boa constrictor in my act.
“Have you lost your mind?” Larry asked as if I really had gone loony.
“It’s perfect!” I said. “There’s a song called Jungle Fever and this would be perfect with it.” Larry stared at me.
“And where you gonna keep it?”
“In the apartment. Where else?” There was a pause and Larry rolled his eyes like there would be no need to dispute my decision. He had known me long enough to know that if I had made up my mind, there was no going back.
We soon departed the store with a six foot boa constrictor all coiled up in a burlap bag. We then proceeded through the mall to find the music and then cloth for the costume, all along with the snake in the bag as if it were no big deal to go shopping with a boa. No one questioned what was in the bag that I clutched to my side. We rushed home were I spent a short time learning the song…it was mostly moans and groans, and then I ripped the material into strips to make a Raquel Welch style prehistoric costume.
Herman was petrified knowing there was a snake in the apartment. Larry was not too comfortable with the idea either. And for me, I didn’t like snakes, nor did I dislike them. I was also terrified and I peaked in the bag every now and then, making eye contact with the beady-eyed creature. Am I really going to do this, I’d ask myself. What if that fucker bites my hand? Would it hurt? Would it let go?
That night I kept my act a secret. Number one, I didn’t want to alarm anyone that there was a snake in the dressing room, not sure of the panic that it might create; and secondly, I wanted it to be a surprise. I wanted to shock.
I was backstage holding the burlap bag waiting for my music to start. I should have been trying to go over the words to the song in my head, or making sure my new costume was covering all that needed to be covered. Instead, I was standing there building up the nerve to put my hand in the bag and pull the snake out. Hell, I hadn’t even rehearsed what I’d do with the reptile once I got it out of the bag.
The music started, and without hesitation I put my hand in the bag, pulled out the snake, and proceeded to sashay my way onto the stage. The crowd went wild. The adrenaline was running through my body. I had not rehearsed this, so suddenly I found myself improvising a snake act. For some reason, I quickly put the snake’s head into my mouth thinking it might look erotic. I was about to gag from the thought of what I was doing. More applause. Then I came close to the front of the stage, held the creature by the tail, and then began slinging the poor boa as if it were a lasso. Patrons in the front row were on the floor, scared out of their wits, their heads bobbing and ducking as I made circles with what I’m sure was a dizzy and confused snake. I soon returned to the center of the back stage to hit my final pose. The number was over. The audience wanted more, so I did a short encore.
When I finally returned to the side stage to get my breath, I put the snake into its bag and tied it up. My first thought was that I had put its nasty head into my mouth and I began to spit on the floor. My second thought was I did it. I got their attention. Now they would talk about me. And they did.
I was starting to get a more favorable response to my acts, and I quickly learned that I was different from the others. Aside from being younger, I started to perform more top forty tunes like Thunder and Lightning by Chi Coltrane, and even some country. Yes, the gay girls loved country. Rose Garden and Fancy by Lynn Anderson were big hits for me.
Herman was still working at the Light House and doing spots in Midtown. On our nights off we’d dress up and go out together promoting our personas and shows. We both wanted to be in show biz, but we were taking different routes to get there. But we were a team, Herman and me, and of course, Tommy and Larry were still a part of the crew. Joe had moved out, but he also hung out with us. His dream of attending beauty school was still alive, and he finally got a job, a job working as a shampoo girl in a salon at Lord and Taylor. Herman even worked there now and then.
Herman and I read about the Miss Gay Florida
Pageant to be held in
“It’s the very first one, and we thought we’d try
it out,” I said. Herman and
I had talked about going to
“I think it’s a great idea,” Wendy said, grabbing me by the arm. “We have work to do. You need a gown, learn how to walk, pose, and turn.”
I was a bit dumbfounded by the response. Wendy had become my mentor of sorts, but it was as if he wanted to embrace the idea of being a stage mother even more. I had seen a few contests, and had even won a bottle of vodka placing fourth in a contest at Peach’s one night, and of course I saw British win Miss Gay Atlanta, but it all seemed so simple: walk out and smile when they call your name, then leave and return later with a number that will entertain the crowd. At the end of all that, the winner and runners-up are called out. Easy enough, I imagined.
Wendy had a more strategic approach.
He told me to walk out like everything was perfect except there
was not a crown on my head and that there should be.
He showed me how to walk in real high heels, though I thought
they looked a bit matronly. I wasn’t sure how to react when he gave them
to me, but I said thanks anyway. He even made me walk with a book on my
head; told me all of the top models did it.
He sewed a gown for me made of lavender printed chiffon, and let
me borrow his white evening gloves.
I felt like a debutante getting ready for the big outing.
Wendy wanted everything to be perfect. After each lesson, I’d go
home and practice with Herman as if I were his teacher, like I knew it
all. We both wanted each other to do well in the contest, but more
importantly, we just wanted to go to
A few weeks later, Herman, Larry and I headed to
“Are you sure this is the place,” Larry asked.
“Yeah,” I said. This is the address. We looked around, and we looked in. It looked like a big bingo hall, or some kind of American Legion building.
“We drove all night for this?” Herman said sarcastically.
“I’m sure it looks different at night, you know with lights and all,” I said. I tried to peek through the screened windows to see a stage or some facsimile of one. It was dark and barren inside.
“I say we get something to eat and find a motel,” Larry said as he lit a cigarette. We climbed into the car and headed out of the neighborhood.
“Registration’s at one.” I pulled out the ad with the address to reread the pageant information, just in case.
“Yeah, one,” I said.
Of course we couldn’t check into a room in the morning, but we did eat and we headed for the beach. Larry didn’t want to get into the sun because he said it would enhance his freckles. He hated his freckles. And Herman didn’t want to get into the sun because he only had one shade of makeup. I tried to convince him that with a sunburn and the amount of blush he normally wore on his face that finally, yes finally, his chest, neck and face would be the same tone of red. He called me jealous. As the two of them sat next to the car trying to hug the shade, I enjoyed the sun and sands of the beach. I loved the beach and the soothing sounds of the waves. I wanted to sleep, but I was too hyped for resting.
We made it to registration before one, then drew numbers, practiced the line up, and then we headed for a motel. We crashed until about six, got a quick bite to eat, and we were cleaned up and made up by nine. By the time we arrived at the pageant site, which was, by the way, a bingo hall on different nights, the place was packed, the lights were incredible and there was an excitement in the air.
The first event was evening gown, and I modeled just as Wendy had told me to do, with Larry on the side of the stage coaching me. We had to list him as a stage hand to get him in free and to allow him backstage to help us. After gown presentation, we had the talent segment of the program. I performed my Surrender routine, which was still my favorite number, and Herman did his baton act. Yes, Herman could twirl a baton, and he was quite good at it. This night he did a fire baton act, and as he went by the side of the stage, Larry lit both ends of his baton with his lighter. Herman was doing great until one of the ends of the baton fell off, and to prevent the place from burning up, Larry ran out on stage wearing his platform shoes and with a cigarette between his fingers, squatted down and began to blow on the burning ball. Needless to say, the show was stolen from Herman, as the crowd applauded when someone else ran out with a fire extinguisher, covering the stage floor and Larry with white dust.
When the first part of the judging was over, all the contestants were called on stage for the announcement of the six finalists. The six would do another number. For the rest of the contestants, the night was over. Mine was the last of the names to be called out as a finalist. I rushed back stage to get ready for my next number.
Finally, it was my turn to go on again and my music started. Yes, it was Jungle Fever, and I was dancing with my good friend Reba (Wendy named my snake Reba, and I really never understood the name, but it stuck). Apparently, the crowd had never seen anything like it, and by the time the number was over, the predominantly Cuban audience was pounding their chairs on the tables. I assumed it was their way of showing their approval of my act. I did it, I thought to myself. I made them notice me. At that point I didn’t really care about winning; I just wanted them to notice me...to remember me.
Trisha Marie from
It wasn’t long after the
The Club Hollywood in Daytona was really, yes really small, with a tiny stage. There were about fifteen contestants and we each had to perform twice, and that was it. I was there to have fun and winning was secondary. Some of Wendy’s advice was to make sure they know who you are when you leave, so I kept that in mind. Eve Starr was in the contest, and though it hadn’t been but about six months since we’d seen each other, we caught up on old times at the Cruise Quarters. I remember the night was long, mostly from waiting to go on and staying all put together trying not to sweat any makeup off because it was so warm. Eve finished first runner-up and I was second runner-up. The contest was over, and even though I was exhausted, I was ready to have fun.
Frank wanted to go visit his old buddy, a bar owner at another club down the street. Dave found a trick and was off somewhere not to been seen until the morning. Frank drove and I rode in the front seat clutching and adoring my very first drag trophy. We entered the bar and it was empty. That happens at closing time. The owner made me a drink and while he and Frank were laughing and catching up, I sat down in one of the booths. I placed my trophy on the table, took off my silver heels and stretched my legs and rested my bare feet on the opposite side. I sat there wearing a short (showing my panties short) black dress, sipping my drink, smoking a cigarette, brushing the hair off my shoulder, wondering, “Is this what Florida’s about?” I was tired and bored, but I had to wait for Frank. After all, he was my boss and the one who brought me here.
A young guy in his early twenties entered the bar.
He was hot. Black leather jacket, tight jeans, and wavy black hair.
“Hey, can I sit here?” he said, motioning to me to move over.
“Sure,” I said, sliding over and straitening up.
“My name’s Derrick.”
“Wanna go have some fun?”
“Yeah fun.” The back of his hand touched the side of my leg. It would be difficult to keep my penis concealed if he continued to use his hand this way. Suddenly, I wasn’t tired, nor was I bored.
“Well, I’m waiting on Frank, and…” he got up and went over to Frank. After a brief exchange of dialogue, Frank turned to me and gave me the thumbs up sign again and motioned for me to head for the door. Apparently, I had his approval to go play.
I handed Frank my trophy and as we walked out the door, Derrick whispered to me, “When we get in the car, don’t let them know that you’re a guy.” I nodded. I can do that. Nothing I haven’t done before. He opened the back door of the big black shiny car and signaled for me to get in. He followed. The driver was a man in his forties and in the passenger seat was a young stud, probably eighteen or so. Derrick introduced me to them. Not much conversation took place as we drove off, and I only answered briefly when I had to. It was obvious that the driver was gay, and perhaps the passenger wasn’t aware of the circumstance, not only in regard to my gender, but also what was about to happen to him, you know, getting hit on by a chicken hawk. Or perhaps he was a hustler. Not sure what all the secrecy was about…gay bar, chicken hawk, two young studs, and me in a dress. Funny how were trying to just be normal people out for an evening drive.
We drove for about five minutes and pulled up to a duplex. It had just started to rain, and the wind was blowing hard. As the car drove off, Derrick and I entered the duplex and he hustled me through to a bedroom. It all happened so quickly, but I remember that we passed four guys smoking pot on the way in.
“Get comfortable,” he said. “I’ll be right back.” He shut the bedroom door and left me in the darkness. The music got louder in the next room, as did the laughter. I could see car lights through the window, casting shadows on the walls as they came and went. It seemed like an eternity as I sat on the edge of the bed waiting for Derrick to return. The door opened.
“Hey, thought you’d be comfortable by now.”
“I’m comfortable,” I said. A little miffed at this point, but comfortable. He reached back and unzipped my dress. Then he unzipped his pants, and pulled them down. Then suddenly, he grabbed my head and pushed my face into his crotch. “Suck my dick. Suck it!”
I was not amused nor did I have the patience for his disregard for my makeup and hair. I jerked back and said, “Suck your own damn dick!” And then I stood up. “Now give me a ride out of here.” There was silence. “I said I need a ride.” I paused, but all I could hear was music, laughter, and then snoring. The fucker was passed out.
I kept trying to wake him but to no avail. It took me forever to get my dress zipped back up. How do women do this every day, I thought to myself, having to zip dresses from the back? Some queen trying to get even with the female population must have come up with the original design, or perhaps back of the dress zippers were for people who had servants. God, I wish I had servants. Right now I’d settle for a ride.
I was in a real fix. I could hear the wind and rain beating against the window, and cars kept pulling up and leaving. After about a half an hour, the bedroom door opened and the guy who was in the passenger seat entered, flipping the light switch on. I felt like a kitten who’d been in the dark all night when suddenly the lights are turned on. The brightness was almost painful.
“Derrick!” he hollered. “Get up.” He appeared really pissed and annoyed. Didn’t realize he was going to get hit on, or did he not make as much as he thought he would, I thought to myself.
“He’s out cold,” I said.
“Fuck!” He was annoyed alright.
“Think you could give me a ride?” I asked.
“Fuck no.” He was angry, but what had I done to him? He turned the lights off and slammed the door shut.
There I was, still sitting on the edge of the bed, again in the dark with a passed out jerk, and with no idea how bad my makeup looked. At least my dress was zipped. I waited and waited, and with no concept of time; it felt like an hour or so. The voices and laughter began to wane and the music started to become more mellow. Apparently, the party was winding down. Rain or no rain, this was my time to exit.
I stood up and took a deep breath, then I opened the door. I walked through the hall to the living room. I headed straight to the front door. Two men were sitting opposite of each other. I could feel their eyes on me, but I just kept walking. I opened the front door and I wanted to just take off running, but I was immediately hit with wind and rain. Instinctively, I pulled myself back in and turned to the two strangers.
“Can you tell me which way to the Red Roof Inn?” I asked.
“Head north when you get to the highway,” one of them said.
“You need a ride?” the other man said, rising from his seat. I paused. I didn’t want to appear to be too impulsive.
“That would be great,” I said as I felt a sense of relief come over me. Hell, not only did I not know where I was going in this new town, I certainly didn’t want to be walking around in it during this horrible storm, especially in drag.
I followed the fellow to his yellow Volkswagen. He was cute, but I was in no mood for any more adventures, at least not on this trip. I noticed that it was almost daylight and I hugged the window on the passenger side of the car, just wanting to get to the motel. He asked me a few questions, and I answered quickly and softly. I didn’t know what he thought of me or what he even thought I was.
“I like your voice,” he said. “It’s low and raspy. Sexy.” Low and raspy, hell, I thought. I’m a man in a dress, and I looked like a cheap hooker after a long night of serving twenty johns in the red light district of a big city. And he likes my voice. We soon drove up to the Red Roof Inn, and he was creeping along. I knew what was coming. He slowed down even more, downshifting his gears.
“You need some company?” he asked, putting his hand on my leg.
“Oh, I couldn’t. I can’t. There are other people in the room.” I had my hand on the door handle ready to get out of the car, and before he came to a full stop, he pulled me around and planted a kiss on my lips. With lips still locked, and my hand on the door, our eyes met. What in heavens name was he thinking? I pushed him away and opened the door.
“Thanks for the ride…”
“Are you sure you don’t want …”
I ran to the beach front of the motel not even taking the time to let him finish his sentence, nor did I look back. I just ran.
I knocked on the door. No answer. I knocked louder. Still, no answer. Fuck, I told myself. Frank’s probably passed out cold. Surely Dave could hear me. I pulled up a chair next to the door, and I continued to just knock, hoping that one of them just might wake up from their sleep. People were already walking on the beach, starting to greet the morning. They stared. Of course they stared. The rain had stopped, but the wind was still blowing hard. Crap. Soon people will be waking up and coming out of their rooms to find me sitting here looking like this. And what if there were children? Oh my god, I could be arrested. I knocked louder. I sat there and knocked for at least an hour. Still, no answer. I wanted to go to the office, but I didn’t have any ID. Why didn’t I get a key before Frank and I went our separate ways?
“Hey, what’re you doing out here?” A voice from nowhere. I looked up. It was Dave.
“I can’t get in,” I said.
“You should have had a key.”
“Shut up and let me in.”
Once inside, I showered and hit the bed, and within just a few minutes, I was sound asleep. An hour later, Frank was waking me up.
“Hey, whore! Get your tired ass up out of bed. It’s time to hit the road!” he said in his hangover voice, trying to be funny.
I wanted to kill the fucker right then and there. He had no idea of what I had just been through. And he never knew.
Allison moved back from
Allison and I were always put into the middle of things, and at one point, Lavita and Wendy were at odds with each other for some common misunderstanding or just a collision of egos. For about two weeks we were all walking on egg shells, trying to not take sides, but Travis tipped the scales. On a packed Friday night, I was told to end the show with my snake act. Allison had been told that she would do the lead to Bassey’s This is My Life with the cast standing behind her. Ultimately, I followed my orders and I closed the show. The next night when Lavita was performing, Travis walked up to him and put a fist to his face…knocked him out for a second. Of course, Lavita, being the high queen of drama made the most of it. Travis was subdued and Lavita was helped off stage. The feud had festered, and the show was over for the evening.
The next week, Lavita and I were called into Frank’s office. He was firing Wendy and Allison, and of course, Travis would be barred from the club. Lavita had a black eye, and he played the victim role to the hilt. The two of us met in the dressing room, discussing the wonderful songs we would inherit by default. He was going to do all of Wendy’s big hits, and though I was feeling a little uncomfortable, I was also dreaming about the extra tips I’d be making from performing some of Allison’s big tunes. It was all for naught, because by the next Friday, Wendy and Lavita, long time best friends, had made up and the show was back together. Even Travis apologized and was forgiven. Things were back to where they were. Welcome to drag drama I thought.
I first remember seeing Allison when I was outside Chuck’s in the late summer of 1971 waiting to sneak in. A small entourage came out the front door and in the middle of the pack was Allison. She was so very hot wearing short-shorts and a halter top, her hair curly and blonde. She looked like a movie star. Her group of friends hurried her into the car as if they were protecting her from the adoring fans that just wanted to get a peak of the glamorous ingénue.
Of course, I met Allan out of drag at one of the weekend parties, but it wasn’t until he came to join the cast of the Red White & Blue Revue that I watched him perform for the first time. He loved doing numbers where he would wear nearly nothing, and the lesbians thought he was tantalizing, and he was.
One evening, the cast was hanging out at his apartment and Allison wanted to show me something. Being curious and with no idea about what he wanted to show me, I followed him to his bedroom. Apparently, he and some of the others felt that I wasn’t tucking properly, and by that I mean hiding my privates, and he would be the one to show me how to do it. It was awkward, like someone telling you that you have bad breath, or your deodorant isn’t quite working.
“Now, reach from behind and pull the head of your dick,” he said as I stood in front of him with my pants pulled down, “and pull it back as far as you can. Next, with your other hand push your balls up into your body.”
“I might need three hands to do this,” I said, feeling like an idiot.
“Well, I’m not touching it,” Allison quipped back, upholding the law of honored sisterhood. It was a sign of desperation when two drags had to resort to bumping pussies.
“That’s not what I mean,” I snapped back, embarrassed that he would even think that I was insinuating that I wanted him to touch my privates. I followed his orders and then said, “Now what?”
“This is a G-string. It’s like a thong. This should hold everything in place.”
“But isn’t it…”
“Used? No it’s not. I made it for you. It’s brand new,” he said. “I know you’re not in drag right now, but you need to wear it and get used to it.”
I put it on and then pulled my pants up. It was the first time I felt my cock tucked up into the crack of my ass, and feeling my nuts press tightly up front was not too comfortable either. Walking out into the living room with everyone smiling at me was one of those moments like that of a young pubescent girl who’s just put in her first tampon and everyone knows it. Nobody said a word until Lavita said, “Rachel, you got to hear this song,” and then the small party continued. I felt as if I had just gone through a rite of passage, and I would forever be indebted to Allison for teaching me how to hide my bulge.
The Sweet Gum Head was going to host its very first
pageant. The Miss Gay Southeast Pageant (every state would eventually
have a Miss Gay South or Southeast Pageant). It was an exciting time,
and I couldn’t wait to enter. Wendy had also decided to enter, as well
as Allison. Most of the
contestants were from
Humbly, I wore my lavender pageant dress with white gloves. And I performed my new hit, Space Captain by Barbra Streisand. By the end of the night, and after watching most of the acts, I knew I hadn’t won. Though Ernestine’s talent act was really no better than anyone else’s, her costumes were outstanding and she looked great. But to everyone’s approval, and not surprised, Wendy won the contest. I was announced as the first runner-up, and Allison placed third. Sorry Ernestine, not this time.
It looked odd that the three of us won, but the consensus was that the outcome was correct. For me, it was gratifying; for Allison, it was an alpha outcome. She lost to me in a contest, and after that, she never confronted me again about anything. Our relationship was on a new course. I realized at that time that drag contests were like horse races, and the winner was respected, at least until the next contest. If there was ever a way to determine who was better, it should be through a drag pageant, I told myself. And in the back of my mind I always heard Crystal Blue’s voice saying, “Just remember that there’s always somebody better than you just around the corner.”
We were excited to get a gig in
We met the rest of the gang, still at the club and sitting at the table just as we had left them. As soon as we entered the place, people approached us wanting to know who we were and where we were from. We looked like freaks and acted as such, and it was amazing how acting the way we did brought on so much attention. For the rest of the evening, we had a great time. Wendy would say later that if he and Lavita had made up and dressed the way that we had, the place would have cleared out when they walked through the door. There may have been some truth to that.
We were booked in
Once we were back in
“You’ve got to be kidding,” I said to them, staring at them like they were crazy. And they were crazy. I had just reached the point of feeling comfortable and confident in this character that I had created called Rachel Wells, and now they wanted me to play the lead role as a man in a full production.
“You’re the most logical person to play Jesus, and I’m playing Judas because I’m Jewish,” said Lavita.
“Wasn’t Jesus Jewish, too?” I asked, trying to make sense of his comment.
“Judas was evil, that’s why you’re playing him,” said Wendy to Lavita with a smirk on his face. “And Leonard is going to be directing!”
Great, I thought to myself. Leonard. Though I tried to like Wendy’s friend, I really loathed him. He was an actor whose claim to fame was a Double Mint chewing gum commercial. He was short, round, and flitted about, emoting to the point of getting on everyone’s nerves. He was an acting nightmare, full of false promises and bullshit, just waiting for the next big part to come his way. Nonetheless, I agreed to play the part, not knowing any of the music from the play, and also not aware that I would be beaten, put on a cross, killed, and the whole time nearly naked with a beard on my face. My fans would die.
For the next month, I worked with Leonard, and I had to admit, he pushed me to my limits. I tried to realize that out of the whole group, he was the most experienced actor, and he did know something about the trade. I listened, took his advice, and I improved my performance. It was a lot of work for just one night of the show.
And the show was a hit. With the place packed, we received a standing ovation that lasted forever. Wendy and Lavita had redone the lights and sound for the crucifixion scene to give the effects of thunder and lightning throughout the club when I said my final lines as Jesus on the cross. It was eerie.
I felt that I had reached a new plateau on my journey in this world of mine, and I had a fake beard on my face while doing it. Hearing, “We love you Rachel” while dressed as Jesus during our callbacks felt a bit odd, to say the least, but that’s how the fans knew me.
It was August and around a year since I put on that
first bit of makeup. In that
time I’d grown as a performer and as a person. Herman, Larry and I were
no longer on
It had been an interesting year. I tried acid, more than once, and I smoked pot, though I didn’t really get the same kick out of it as everyone else did. I found myself edgy and weepy. I was trying to sort out my identity, and my confusion was transitioning into my emotions. One night Herman and I got into an argument over nothing and I told him he was ugly. I could not have said anything more to have hurt him, and of course, I didn’t mean it, but I said it. For someone who looked up to me and was beginning to live in my shadows, it was devastating for him.
And soon after the incident with Herman, we closed the show one Saturday night with Allison performing This is My Life with the rest of us coming on stage. I broke into tears and ran out the side door and headed home. I was weeping uncontrollably. I got to my apartment in minutes and realized that I had no key. I sat on the step, still teary eyed. I’d get it later after everyone left the club, or I’d just wait for Herman or Larry to come home and let me in. I would be too embarrassed to walk back into the club after leaving the way I did.
“Rachel? Are you alright?” It was Ralph. He had followed me. “I saw you leave and you looked upset.”
“I’m okay, I think.” He sat next to me. Ralph was
the most beautiful guy I knew. I met him at Chuck’s before I was known
as Rachel, and we always did the eye thing with each other though we
never got it on. He had a gorgeous face with this little nose that
turned up, and a smile that melted me. It was reported that he was a
prostitute, the high-end kind, not like the ones that would hang out on
“No, you’re not. I can tell.” I looked into his eyes. He followed me over here because he cared. “Something’s bothering you. I know you well enough to say that.”
He did. He sat with me for about an hour, me in my
white halter-top evening gown, my mascara smeared eyes, sitting in the
darkness of the night with the dim street light from
I had reached another crossroads in my life, and thank goodness Ralph followed me out of the Sweet Gum Head that night. It was almost like an epiphany that he was there to just listen to me make my discovery and say it out loud; that I was a man, that I was a female impersonator, a drag queen, a whatever, but I was not a woman, nor did I need to be one. But deep down, I already knew that. But that evening, I just had to affirm that I was a gay man. A gay man who made a living performing in women’s costumes and shoes, moving my lips to songs recorded by women. I also realized that night that Ralph and I would be close from there on out, and that I would never have a chance to jump on his bones wearing a dress.
At last, the Miss Gay Atlanta Pageant was near. It was September 1972 and I felt that after an entire year of performing and getting it together, all the preparation led to this moment in time for me. It seemed like yesterday when British had won the title. I had entered the other contests during the year for fun and exposure, but to be Miss Gay Atlanta would be the icing on the cake. I really wanted it. No one in the show was entering the pageant, not even Allison. There seemed to be a consensus that I would represent the cast, and that I would probably be the one to beat, simply because the contest was going to be at the Sweet Gum Head and I had built a very good fan base, but I wasn’t taking my advantage for granted. Not at all.
This would be the third Miss Gay Atlanta Pageant. I
had heard that the first winner was named Gina, who I met once, who
never really did shows, but lived with a divorced man and his children
There were twenty-five of us. I didn’t know a majority of the contestants since shows were scarce in town. Most just wanted to get in drag and fulfill a Cinderella story, hoping to walk away that night of the pageant with a title and a tiara. After Buddy’s orientation and rigid rules of the house, we drew numbers for placement and for submitting our numbers. I drew twenty-three. I’d be close to the end, but I didn’t mind. I just didn’t want to be first.
As Buddy called out numbers, one by one, the
contestants came forward with their music. One of Buddy’s rules was that
no one could repeat a number that was performed before them.
I had a short list just in case I was toward the end.
I kept scratching off the songs that I heard announced in front
of me. I only had one left
and that was my big hit, Space
Captain by Barbra Streisand. Everyone in
“Number eighteen,” Buddy announced. Apple Love walked up.
“That’s me.” Apple was crippled by polio when he was a child and wore a brace. He was known for his pantomime talent, for not missing a beat or a breath. “Space Captain,” he said, handing over his album to Buddy. Scratch that one off the list, too. I had no fucking number for the contest. I wanted to just get up and leave, but I couldn’t. My feet were stuck to the floor.
“Number nineteen. Who’s number nineteen?” I had a few more minutes to come up with a plan.
Finally, “Number twenty-three,” he yelled, like the room had three hundred people in it.
“Hi,” I said as I walked up. “I have a small problem.”
“And what’s that?”
“Well, you see this list? I mean it’s not very long, only five songs…”
“Well, I just kept marking them off when the contestants before me gave you their numbers, and since we can’t repeat any numbers, well…I don’t have an act for talent.”
“I see,” said Buddy, twisting his lips, moving them tightly in a circle. Why was he doing that, I asked myself. “I’ll put you down for TBD.”
“TBD?” I asked.
“Yeah, to be determined. After the rehearsal we’ll talk. Okay?”
After the rehearsal and some small talk with the other contestants, I met with Buddy. He had a song for me, he said, guaranteeing me that it wins a lot of pageants. It was Maybe by the Three Degrees. He opened his bag and pulled out a book with sleeves that he kept forty-fives in. He shuffled through his collection and said, “Here, it’s easy to learn.” Easy for him to say. I only had four days to learn a song that I might have heard twice in my life.
“Thanks,” I said. I’ll take care of it.”
“Practice, and Rachel, don’t fret. You’ll do well,” and he winked at me. He wasn’t all that mean like I had heard. I think he understood my situation and was really trying to help, and he was being fair. I think he would have helped anyone who needed it, especially since it was his damn rule about repeating a number. I went right home to start learning the song. I also had a show to do that night.
By Thursday I had all my ducks in a row. Wendy had made my evening gown, a white cross-in-the-front and snap-in-the-back top, with a skirt that was really not a skirt, but long and flowing pants. My talent gown was also new, but store bought (I only had a few gowns that were purchased mostly due to the fact that I was too tall to buy off the rack). It was a red, almost floor-length dress with spaghetti straps, and it was laced up the sides. For sportswear, I chose a plush white bathrobe, and I would model it and take it off to expose a white bikini connected on each side with big silver chains. The bikini was risky, and it would only be briefly seen, but I was okay with wearing it and I figured no one else would dare to be so revealing. I even bought a new brown wig to match my hair. I liked to tease and comb my own hair into the front of the wig to give me a natural hairline, and since my hair was only shoulder length, I needed the length and volume that only a full wig could give.
But even after rehearsing the song over and over, I still couldn’t quite get the cadence. The beginning was a monologue and it was tough and rough, raspy and sassy. Hell, it was a black woman going off on her man. And all that trying to come out of my lily white mouth. It felt so unnatural. The latter part of the song came easy, but I still was uncomfortable about the first part. But I had no other alternative but to keep on working on it and just doing it when the time was ready.
The Sweet Gum Head was packed that night for the pageant. We paraded one at a time with our evening gowns, and then lined up to be judged in comparison. It went well. The sportswear was a big hit, and when I dropped the robe, I stood sideways, with my back arched, poking my ass out trying to make it look bigger. I had practiced for hours getting it just right, aligning myself perfectly so the judges would only see what I wanted them to see. A few inches off and I would have exposed my skinny ass and they might have remarked, “Why’s she wearing that bikini with a skinny, no-ass body like that?” I even covered my rear with the robe as I turned and walked off stage.
And then came talent. I had a few hours to worry myself about what I was going to do. Luckily, I would be performing late in the night when everyone had reached their alcohol limit plus some. Maybe they wouldn’t see my lips move at the wrong time. Maybe they would see double and be confused about which Rachel to look at. And maybe, just maybe, all the words to Maybe might come out of my mouth like they were supposed to. God, I already hated the song.
While the contestant in front of me was finishing up her number, I went up to Buddy, who was also one of the emcees and waiting back stage for the number to be completed, and I asked him if I could use the microphone for my talent. He agreed, but told me to be careful with it because they only had two for the two emcees. I told him that of course I would be careful. He put the mike in my hand and joined his co-emcee on stage to bring off the contestant and then introduce me.
“Please welcome contestant number twenty-three, Rachel Wells!” The crowd was loud, so very loud and the words were hard to hear.
“You know girls, it’s so hard to find a guy who really blows your mind. You know…” I walked away from the judges with the mike right at my mouth, my hand almost completely covering my mouth. I let my eyes and body do the work as I played the crowd. I was missing words left and right, and I know I was leaving lipstick and teeth marks on the microphone. Finally, I headed to the center of the stage and I reached the final part of the monologue with the words, “…and I said, I said, I said…” I really needed to do something extraordinary. Something overtook me, adrenaline or fright, or some intervention from above. Right in front of the judges I threw the mike down, shattering it to pieces, and I fell to my knees, all with perfect timing to the music, and I finished the musical part of the number like a woman scorned but who was still desperate for the man she loved. I received a standing ovation.
Later, I was announced as a top five finalist and each of us had to answer a question. My question was, “You’ve been invited to enter the real Miss Atlanta contest. Would you enter, and why or why not?” I was handed the only working microphone and apologized for breaking the other one.
“I would not enter the real Miss Atlanta contest because it is for real women, and believe it or not, I’m a man.” Stupid answer, but it was a hit. A few minutes later, with the crowd chanting my name, I was announced as the new Miss Gay Atlanta. British put the crown on my head and Allison, with tears in her eyes gave me a bouquet of flowers. I did it and it was special, but it wasn’t easy. But I did it.
British Sterling started making cameo appearances with our show, and eventually began to appear on a more regular basis after passing the Miss Gay Atlanta crown to me. The Sweet Gum Head cast continued to perform Broadway tunes and we incorporated a lot of comedy in the production numbers. We even put together a full scale version of The Wizard of Oz, where I portrayed the Tin Man, Allison was the Cowardly Lion, Don was the Scare Crow, Lavita was Dorothy, and British was Toto. Rhonda portrayed Glenda the Good Witch, and of course, Wendy had a great time being the Wicked Witch. It was so much fun, and it was twisted, as well. Lavita over-emoted the role of Dorothy, and British stole the show just trying to tag along with the main character. It was a big hit, but I hated the silver body paint that I had to wear with every performance.
“Rachel?” It was Wendy. It was odd that he would call on a Sunday evening.
“Yeah? What’s going on?” I asked. He wanted me to come to Allison’s apartment, which was in the next complex to mine. He wouldn’t tell me, and I could sense that something wasn’t right. Perhaps he and Lavita got into another argument and I had to take sides again. Maybe not, but I knew that it wasn’t a surprise party or maybe it was. I quickly walked over and knocked on the door. Our entire cast was there, except for Tony. Everyone had tears in their eyes, and Allison was hysterical. Had our show been fired? Did the bar burn down?
“Rachel, it’s British…” Wendy said, looking at me with wet red eyes. “She was murdered last night.” I was in shock.
“She was stabbed. And Klaus too. Both dead,” Wendy mumbled. Klaus was the other long time friend and roommate of Tony and British.
“And Tony? Where’s Tony?” I demanded.
“He found them this morning when he came home.”
Oh my god, I thought. Tony must be going crazy right now. I couldn’t even imagine coming home and finding Herman and Larry dead. I couldn’t even know what he was going through when he opened the door, to see what he saw. Though I was quickly trying to make sense of the severity of the situation, my thoughts still came back to Tony.
We sat for hours trying to cope, struggling to understand how and why such a thing could happen, and who could even commit such a crime. Was it robbery, was it a trick gone bad, or was it some kind of serial killer running around? Someone even mentioned the fact that maybe there was a mentally deranged killer out there trying to make a name for himself by killing a former Miss Gay Atlanta, and maybe I might be next. At that point, I felt we had gone too far with our run amuck theories, though we couldn’t rule anything out. We were completely in the dark about what had happened and we were also feeling the loss of our dear friend and cast member. We all lived in fear for the next few days, just wondering who and how, and if it might happen again.
It wasn’t long until the whole truth was revealed and the crime solved. British had apparently left the Kavanaugh party and went to the Cove where she met a guy named Ricky, and his friend, Gene. Ricky was AWOL from the army. Both young men had dropped a hit of LSD. They had returned to the party, and later went to British’s house. British and Ricky went to bed leaving Gene alone in the living room.
Early in the morning, Ricky was awakened by Gene, who was holding a broken bottle, and was told to get up. British was already dead, butchered while asleep with the jagged bottle. Klaus was in the next room and heard the noise. He startled Gene and then was stabbed in the chest with a carving knife. Both young men fled.
It was Ricky who turned himself in and gave the account of what had happened that horrible night. Gene was brought in and questioned. He pled guilty and was sentenced to twenty years on two counts of voluntary manslaughter. Ricky, considered an accessory, had his charges dropped, but would end up facing the penalty for being AWOL.
Most of us were relieved to hear about the arrests, but eventually we were outraged at the verdict of voluntary manslaughter. If British and Klaus had been straight, the killer would have been sitting on death row. At that time, we had to accept the unjust sentence given because it was a “gay” casualty. However, we were all satisfied that this killer was, at least, not on the streets to kill again.
Though time would slowly heal the pains of that horrible October night in 1972, nothing could restore the innocence lost for us and for Tony. But more importantly, there was nothing we could do that could bring back the lives of Klaus and British who died without cause in an untimely manner.
It’s hard to say how long it really took for things to get back to normal. For most of us, things were never the same. Tony took a long time off, and the rest of the cast started to work on new routines. By January, I was in need of a change. I gave a two weeks notice one Saturday night, but Frank Powell fired me on the spot. He called me ungrateful. I just needed time away, but he resented the idea of my departure. For me it was the end of the Red White & Blue Revue. The show would continue without me.
Finding work wasn’t a problem. I traveled and
performed shows in
My looks had changed as well. I dyed my hair red, which had grown to shoulder length, and shopped at Goodwill and consignment stores for old fifties and forties style clothes, and they had to be red, black or white, or any combination of those colors. Though I was utilizing Bette’s voice with her new album that included Friends, Do You Want to Dance, and my favorite, Delta Dawn, I wanted to look like Rita Hayworth. I put the Jungle Fever image away, at least for a while. I was enjoying having a different look, though it would turn out not to be my best look. It was a transition period for me. I was away from the safety and protection of the cast and crew of the Gum Head, and every night was different. By being Miss Gay Atlanta, I had reached a celebrity status in the gay nightclub scene, so even when I wasn’t in a show, I was partying and having a great time.
The show at the Gum Head went on without me, though
one by one, the cast all went separate ways, but often we worked
together, either on the road or in
I finally ended up working for Ray Zeller. Ray
owned the baths in
To get paid, I had to go to Ray’s home, guarded by
a pack of great danes whose leader was named Katherine, wait for Ray
(for at least two hours) to get out of bed, the whole time guarded by
his lover/adopted son who would not wake him until the appropriate time.
In the early seventies, a large number of older gay men would legally
adopt younger but of age men to assure a partnership and even take the
same last name. After being stranded in
Wendy called me to remind me about the Miss Gay
America Pageant that was going to be held in
“Yeah, that would be nice.”
“Oh, and Leonard is going to enter as well,” Wendy said.
“He’s doing what?” I responded. I’d never seen Leonard in drag, nor could I even imagine him in a dress.
“Yeah, he already has a sponsor and he’s going to sing live for talent.”
Talent. God I wish I could sing, I thought to myself. I need a talent. I could perform Sweet Inspirations by Streisand. It was good but I wasn’t sure if it would be good enough.
“Call Frank, he’ll sponsor you in a minute,” Wendy said, interrupting my brief thought.
“I don’t know. I guess I could. I haven’t seen him since I left the Gum Head. Is he still upset with me?”
“Hell, no. He talks about you all the time, how he discovered you and made you who you are. Of course, we really know it was me who discovered you, right? He stays drunk most of the time. And anyway, it’s been about four months since you left. You know he owns other clubs and he’s hardly ever at the Gum Head anymore. They have new management.”
“I really don’t like the idea of asking him.”
“Then I will. I’ll get him to sponsor us both.” Somehow, I think Wendy already had the whole scenario planned out. But I didn’t mind, and eventually he called back confirming that Frank was sponsoring us and that Frank wanted to see me soon. I went to visit him a few nights later at the Cove. It was like he never fired me.
Herman, Larry, and I piled our things into the old
blue Maverick and headed to
Unlike most contests where everything is over within a couple of hours, the Miss Gay America Pageant went on for a few days and nights. After the first night of competition, we headed back to the hotel. Carmen asked me if I wanted a black beauty. So that’s where he gets all his energy from, I thought to myself. I took it from him and like a fool, I put it in my mouth.
“Why are you taking it now?” Carmen asked me, laughing.
“It’s early,” I responded, swallowing the large black pill. I remember taking one once about two years ago, with no real lingering affects, so what would be the harm.
“Girlfriend, that one pill will keep you up all night.”
Within an hour I was a buzzing. I asked Herman for
the car keys, asking if anyone wanted to go driving around
Alone, I took off driving. I hit downtown, and I was just riding up and down, not looking for anyone thing, just driving, my hair blowing in the breeze, smacking on a piece of Juicy Fruit gum, with a cigarette in my hand. God it felt good. Like a freedom. Without any warning, police lights were shining from the back window. Fuck, cops. I pulled over. A big man in blue walked up beside the car, and asked me if I knew that the left headlight was out, and then requested to see my driver’s license.
“I must have left it in my motel room,” I said searching my pockets, remembering that I actually left the motel without my license or money. He then wanted some kind of identification, proof of registration, and of course, any evidence that the car was insured. I had none of those. A few minutes later, I was in the back seat of the police car, being taken to night court. It was about twelve thirty. They have court at night? Weird.
Before entering the courtroom, the officer gave me
words of advice. I remember him being kind, but also acting proud of the
catch he just made. I could sense it. As we walked in, heads turned.
Though out of drag, I had on slacks, a tied up shirt (just enough to
show a bit of skin at the waistline), my collar turned up, and my hair
bouncing, the curls still in place from the day’s competition. I wasn’t
a bit nervous being here, just annoyed.
Soon, I was asked to approach the bench. The tiny judge looked at
me and said, “Don’t you know it’s a crime in
“No sir, I didn’t know that, but I’m not wearing any makeup.” He squinted his eyes and peered at me, then he quoted the charges against me. Blah, blah, blah, I said to myself drowning out his voice. I was taking a fucking drive. How did I know I’d be stopped because one of the headlights was out. Herman was going to kill me.
Before I knew it, I was headed for the slammer. I got my one phone call, but the motel desk was closed, so there was no way to get in touch with Wendy or Herman other than leaving a message on the answering machine. I would be in the slammer until the morning. Suddenly, I began to panic. I’d heard stories about jail, and as exciting as some of them appeared, I wasn’t quite ready to be anybody’s bitch. After processing, I was led through what seemed like a parade of cops, all taking a look at me then making comments under their breaths. Their words were restrained, but I could see that they’d never encountered the likes of someone looking like me.
An older cop who put me in the chamber was very kind. He told me to stay close to the door and let me know if I needed anything. He shut the massive metal door, and I stood next to it, peering out the little block of window. I could see him sitting at his desk, occasionally looking up at me. I wouldn’t leave that spot all night.
I wanted to venture into the dark, but I didn’t dare. I could hear the sounds of men snoring and coughing. I wanted to put my body down and rest, but I knew that wouldn’t be a good idea. And anyway, I couldn’t sleep if I wanted to. I was having a high buzz, grinding my teeth, and smoking my Winston Light 100’s. Thank god I left the motel with a full pack of cigarettes. I was so tense that if anyone had even come close to me I probably would have killed them. One man did approach me, asking for a light. He could see the fear in my face, but didn’t challenge me. He lit his cigarette, farted unapologetically, then headed back to one of the open cells at the end of the hall.
I stood in that one position for hours, my legs locked so I wouldn’t fall over. Suddenly, I was startled by the door being opened. It was an officer leading a prisoner into the chamber. The man only had on a towel, and he was fucking hot. They walked by me, then disappeared into the dark. Soon, the officer returned, winked at me, then exited, locking the door behind him. I could hear water running. The prisoner was taking a shower. God, I wanted to look, but I thought that maybe this was a set up of some sort, like those in the porn films I’d heard about or even like some of the stories that Ernestine would tell from her days in prison. I wanted to, but I couldn’t, and anyway, I didn’t want to get my hair wet. I didn’t look good with wet hair.
The water ran for a good half an hour, though it was hard to really judge the time. The door opened and the officer returned to retrieve his prisoner. The man was soaking wet, and I could see his penis half erect through the towel. As they passed me on their way out, the cop stopped and said, “Did you like that?” and laughed as he walked out the door. Hell yeah, I liked it. I liked looking at it. I never knew if the whole scenario was a set up, if I was to be a fag victim of prison rape, or if I was intended to just be of token of appreciation for a prisoner on leave in the shower for good behavior. Nonetheless, it would not be a fantasy come true for me, and it was probably for the best. The door shut behind them, and there I stood, lighting one more cigarette. I wanted out of there.
Wendy and Herman came to my rescue the next morning after receiving my message from the motel desk clerk. My fine was seventy-five dollars, plus impounding fees, but more importantly, there was a round of pageant interviewing that morning, and I was beginning to crash. Sleep or no sleep, I soon found out that I was completely out of my league.
Carmen worked in Danny Windsor’s show at the Gum Head before the Red White & Blue Revue became the house show. It wasn’t until Carmen did guest spots with us did I get to actually see him on stage. He was incredible, and the hyper active energy that he possessed off stage was well channeled when he performed. His tap dancing routines along with his Vegas style acts were top notched.
Carmen and I were in the balcony watching the preliminaries when Roskie Fernandez was announced, and he began his famous Tahitian routine. Having never seen Roskie perform, I was in awe. Carmen leaned over to me and said, “Watch her mouth. She pantomimes like a frog.” And then she laughed. “Look at her. Just like a frog.”
I guess being a first generation Filipino made it difficult for Roskie to move his lips properly to the English words in the song. Though I found Carmen’s comments somewhat rude and disrespectful, sure enough, Roskie was pantomiming like a frog. It was a bit humorous and I had to get that thought out of my mind as I watched her perform. What I didn’t know was that the two were pageant rivals and many times they came in first and second, taking turns winning. Oddly enough, I was in the same place when Carmen was doing his preliminary number. Roskie was standing next to me and leaned over and said, “She dances good, yeah? But she has a thick neck, yeah?”
“Yeah,” I said with a smirk on my face. It was obvious that these old rivals thrived on each other’s competitiveness. However, in this contest the frog-pantomiming dancer Roskie would best the thick-necked dancer Carmen; but the finger orchestrating Baronessa would beat them both without lifting a leg.
Though many of the contestants were older and looked like, what I called, old drag…stiff hair, heavy makeup, gaudy costumes, and pantomiming old drag tunes, they still possessed the professionalism and discipline that I had lacked. I chalked the whole pageant up as experience in more ways than one. I was fortunate to witness Lady Baronessa win that year. She was stunning and did My Way like no one else could. I also got to see a weeping and emotional Norma Kristy, the first Miss Gay America, give up the crown.
The trip was also a bust for Leonard and Wendy. Leonard floated around the place looking like a mushroom in a dress, and even stopped his talent and reprimanded the judges for taking notes while he was singing. Wendy was also given the ticket out of the building after he was warned about his talent, but did it anyway. He did a Carol Channing cooking act where he made a fruit salad (yes, with watermelon too), and proceeded to cut and throw the ingredients all over the stage and into the audience, primarily saturating the judges with cut up fruit and watermelon rinds. He later entered the building incognito, basically out of drag, figuring that no one would recognize him. They didn’t, but the audience did remember his act.
With the contest over, I wanted to get back home to
1973 was already turning into a wonderful year for me. Though I still found myself in precarious situations, the bookings kept coming in, there was a contest here and there, and sponsors were easy to find. I still hadn’t found my real niche yet on the stage, but I was beginning to believe that I might never ever find it; that my act just might be an evolutionary one. I was beginning to phase out of the black, red and white mood, into a more contemporary look.
In the meantime, Art Elliston was the new manager of the Sweet Gum Head. I met Art one night while out with some friends to watch the Neely DeMann Show. The show had replaced what was left of the Red White & Blue Revue, and featured Neely, Heidi, and Mona March, with a few others that I didn’t remember. The crowds were small. Heidi looked like Julie Andrews and included at least one song per night from the Sound of Music. Mona’s big act was Aretha Franklin’s Chain of Fools, but I couldn’t believe that everyone who tipped Mona got a big French kiss with her extremely long tongue. Yuck, I thought when watching her, but apparently, others didn’t feel the same way that I did while I watched fan after fan line up to tip her and get the big tongue in return. What would Dee Dee Daniels say about this? Classless, but I guess it worked.
Art wanted me to join the show. I was ready to get back home to the Sweet Gum Head, and I agreed to start the following week. It would be different being in a regular show again, especially one so structured. Even the crowd had changed since our show had completely disbanded. The following month wasn’t fun. Neely taped the show and whatever the song that was taped on the reel-to-reel was the one that was performed that evening. No spontaneity, no improvising, no production numbers. Just a routine. It was boring. And not only had the mood of the club changed, I found myself between acts being propositioned over and over, with questions like “You want to blow me?” and “Hey, you wanna see what’s in my pants?” What the hell? What had become a beacon of theater for me had suddenly become a brothel for free sex. I watched as Heidi and Mona groped and licked patrons in the dark corners of the club. No wonder they liked her long tongue. I was almost ready to quit.
Art talked me out of it, and assured me that he
wanted to start a new show, a show that would bring entertainers from
I searched for newer songs, always trying to keep a top forty in my repertoire since they were the ones that brought in more tips. But more importantly, I didn’t want to be known for doing the same song over and over, like Rhonda Blake and Does Anybody Miss Me, which she did in every one of her shows back in the Red White & Blue Revue days.
I played with songs like Help Me Make It Through the Night, by Sammi Smith, where I would literally “take the ribbon from my hair and shake it loose and let it fall,” sometimes not fully aware of what it really looked like when I did let it down. Chi Coltrane’s Thunder and Lightning was still a crowd favorite, but I hated the ending…there really wasn’t one. I experimented with some of her other tunes, but none warranted the time it took to learn them. And of course, any young white girl would be cast into hell for not doing Olivia Newton-John’s music, especially I Honestly Love You.
One night between shows, a young and handsome gay couple approached me and asked me if I had heard Melissa Manchester’s debut album. I hadn’t even heard of Melissa Manchester, let alone her album. The tall one of the two told me that she was in the Bette Midler and Barry Manilow circle and that the songs on the album would be perfect for me. Little did I know.
I can still remember coming home after buying the album, taking the seal off the cover, and playing it, one song at a time while I stared at the cover with Melissa’s picture on it. My god, I thought, this woman’s voice sounds like it could be coming right out of my mouth. It would be a perfect fit, and the songs, though not top forty, were beautifully written and of course, performed so well. I learned them all. Easy was my favorite. It was sexy, vulnerable, and strong, all at the same time. With a soft piano beginning, the words followed, “If you want me, you can have me…” It was a great song and it made lots of money for me.
It wasn’t long after that Melissa Manchester was
going to be appearing at the
The opening act was Martin Mull sitting in his arm chair with a lamp by his side. He played the guitar and told stories. The man was hilarious. He said he had a friend who told him to sing his song exactly the way it was on the album. He proceeded to play his song with it skipping as if it were scratched vinyl. The crowd loved him. And then he introduced Melissa.
She was short and had this enormous mane of curly, almost frizzy, hair surrounding her round face. Her smile was bigger than her head, I thought to myself. She looked exactly like her album cover, but there was a warmth that generated from her soul right through her big set of beautiful teeth that said that she was a genuinely nice person. I listened, almost in tears at times, to every song she performed, but when she went into Easy, I was totally into a different zone. As she sang, I felt like she was borrowing my voice and that it was my song she was singing. With a drummer and a guitarist behind her, she put on an incredible show. For one brief moment I had an eerie feeling that this emotion I was experiencing was like the ones stalkers felt. No, stalkers were usually just crazy. I was just in heaven.
After the show, I went backstage. I was determined to speak to her. There was a line outside her dressing room, and she spoke to her new fans, one by one. When it came to my turn, I just remember saying, as I towered over her, “Hi, I’m Rachel Wells and I’m a female impersonator and I do your music…I use your music when I perform.” She looked at me with those big wide eyes then took me into her dressing room. We sat there talking for twenty minutes or so. She wanted to come and see me perform. Wow! Coming to see me perform? And she did.
Roxanne Russell was famous for many things. He was an incredible Miss Gay Florida, he was stunningly beautiful, and he did a fabulous impersonation of Marilyn Monroe; however, his biggest fame came from his outrageousness, though it was always disputed whether his actions were real or just lore. And just as the truth seemed to always just catch up with him, like a chameleon, he reinvented himself. Out of drag he looked a lot like Billy Idol. I was never sure what his name really was or what it would be. I knew him as Bobby and then Logan, but nonetheless, he was always an inspiration and a joy to watch. He did things that no other entertainer could get away with.
We first met in the Miss David Pageant in Dallas, Texas, and it was obvious from our initial meeting as contestants that we would have a mutual respect for each other; yet in contests we would be fierce competitors though we actually only competed against each other a few times. But honestly, we liked each other, and as time went by, that feeling was stronger than ever.
One afternoon in Little Five Points, we were stuck
in traffic. Out of nowhere,
“Impressive,” I said.
“I’ve always wanted to do that,” he said laughing and trying to catch his breath.
Yes, he was quite the actor. One night at the Sweet Gum Head, he performed Hello in There by Bette Midler. Dressed as an old woman sitting in a rocker, he was dead on and real in his performance. The song is dreadfully sad and really slow, but he pulled it off. I watched him from the side of the stage and I was moved by his performance.
We also created an act together to the song,
Is There Life on Mars?
We mixed the Streisand and the David Bowie versions. I did the
Barbra vocals and he did the
I have other stories about
It was time to gear up for the Miss David Pageant
to be held in
Carmen Del Rio won that contest in
Roxanne and I, along with Pearl Bailey, were being
sponsored in the Miss David Pageant in
Roby Landers had given me, what I called “
There were a lot of contestants, and a lot of feathers and long eyelashes. There were people from all over the country, even more than in the Miss Gay America contest. There were two categories, evening gown and talent. Things were simple in those days. The contest was held in the Prince George Hotel, where all the contestants stayed. I remember so many homeless people hanging around outside, and the hotel had a funky smell to it. But it didn’t matter. I’d worked in worse places.
The crowd was huge and when I was introduced for evening gown competition, I walked out to a nice round of applause, and headed down the longest runway that I had ever seen. None of these people knew me, and I certainly didn’t know them, but by the time I got to the end of the catwalk, the crowd was screaming and cheering. Good god, I thought to myself. I ought to move here if this is the kind of reception they give newcomers. I truly felt special, and by the time I had headed back to the main stage and turned around, the applause was even more deafening.
For talent, I performed Easy by Melissa Manchester. I felt lost on the huge stage, but my reception was still very good. I felt happy with my performance, but I knew it wasn’t enough to win the contest.
Soon, the announcement of the winners was taking place after about three hours of competition. They announced fourth runner up, and then the emcee said, “And the third runner up is…Rachel Wells!” Holy shit, I was third runner up! I didn’t even care who won. I was third runner up! I soon settled down after acknowledging the judges and the crowd by waving my trophy in the air. And later, Brandy Lee was crowned the new Miss David after singing Maybe This Time live. She actually wore the song out and deserved to win, no doubt. But it didn’t matter. I was third runner up in a national cont
The highlight of visiting
On the way back to
I pulled back the curtain and looked out the window, counting backwards to the room where the door was open. I then dialed the room.
“If you wanna have some fun, come down to room 127.” I hung up the phone. We both giggled not knowing what really might happen. A few minutes later there was a knock on the door. I peered out from the edge of the curtain. There were six men all spaced about ten feet apart with boards in their hands. This was not good. Roxanne was peaking out the other side of the window. He wanted to call the police. I told him no, that we could handle the situation. We turned the lights out hoping they’d go away. They didn’t.
There was another knock at the door. I’d dealt with these kind of thugs before. They’d rather fight than have sex, but they’d never hit a woman. Roxanne screamed at me not to open the door. He was dramatic, as usual. He kept yelling, “My face! My face!” I told him to get under the covers and to act as feminine as possible. Roxanne was already tearing up; only his eyes and curly blond hair were visible. I threw my head down and came back up tossing my hair, and then I opened the door.
“Hello. What’s up?” I said, trying to look as
feminine as possible. I was hoping that if the night court judge in
“You call my room?”
“Was that your room?”
“Who’s in there?” he asked, trying to look past me.
“Just me and my friend. I think there’s been a mistake.” He suddenly put his hand on the door, slowly pushing it back. I stood there. I could take him on, but it would be ridiculous to try and think I could handle the whole group. Roxanne was starting to cry out loud.
“You think we’re fags?” he said.
“No, we don’t think you’re a fag. We’re gay. We just thought that maybe you guys might want to have fun, but it was a mistake. But you’re welcome to come in.” I thought I’d toss him a curve ball. He still wasn’t comfortable and insisted that I turn on the lights, so I did.. I could tell he thought someone was lurking in the dark waiting to pounce on him and beat the crap out of him. He peaked in, looked at Roxanne, who was still under the covers except for his wet eyes. He was crying just like a scared woman. Perfect.
The guy put his board down by the door and walked in. After a quick inspection, he waved his comrades away. He left the door open.
“We ought to beat your faggoty asses,” he said.
“And what would that accomplish? I mean look at us. We’re just like women and you wouldn’t beat up a woman would you?” I could see in his eyes that he was getting more and more confused. With our eyebrows tweezed, flowing hair, and our facial structures, it was easy to not think of us as gay, but as women. I was playing drag without makeup right now, and it was working. This guy had no idea what to think.
“We know you’re not gay. It was just a mistake.”
“Well, you two need to be more careful. You don’t know what kind of people are out there who could hurt you.”
“You’re right. Did you want to stay for awhile?” I didn’t really want him to stay at all, but I wasn’t going to ask him to leave, either.
“Naw, I gotta go.” And then he left. I closed and locked the door behind him.
“You can stop crying now,” I told Roxanne, bringing my voice down an octave.
“They could have killed us!” he said, shivering.
“But they didn’t.” I was curious to know if the others from our group had seen any of the commotion that had transpired. I was secure in the fact that if I did need to scream for help, Ted and the others would have run outside to our aid. Maybe not. At least Pearl Bailey would have. I had no doubt that she had dealt with thugs like this in her past as well
Gary White introduced himself to me one night between performances at the Sweet Gum Head. He was the president of the Peachtree Modeling and Talent Agency, also known as the Peachtrees. He wanted to know if I might be interested in modeling in The Phoenix Affair. I had no idea about The Phoenix Affair, but after about five minutes of conversation I learned that it was an annual event to raise money for various arts programs. This year’s was to benefit the Atlanta Civic Ballet. Of course, I said yes. I had modeled in hair shows, posing as a woman, mostly just to see if I could pull it off. It was always the secret between me and the hairdresser who always wanted to get one up on somebody else. Eventually, because people began to know me, we couldn’t pull those kinds of stunts. And anyway, been there, done that.
For the next few months,
The highlight and the reality of the project hit me as I walked through Lenox Mall and saw a poster for the Phoenix Affair. There I was, pictured next to the country’s top black model, Naomi Sims, and listed as Rachel Wells, presented by John Greenwell. Gary and I both felt it would be best to be up front with the marketing, but yet subtle. Rachel Wells would be a character, not a real person, and that way we slide under the radar without being fraudulent.
But just as I rode on cloud nine one moment, I
suddenly crashed when
There was even an article in the Atlanta Constitution:
Ballet Benefit: ‘Rachel Wells’ Is Out of Show, by Nancy Lewis
A model who
was to be featured in an elaborate fashion show to benefit the
The fashion show, The Phoenix Affair II, will be presented by the Peachtree Modeling and Talent Agency September 11th and 13th at Symphony Hall in the Memorial Arts Center.
But Amanda Brown, representing the agency and the fashion show said that after learning of the nature of the special attraction Thursday, she and the agency president Gary White decided that the fashion show would not be the appropriate time to introduce the “personality.”
White said Greenwell was hired for the show about two months ago before it was decided that the ballet would be the beneficiary for the event. “We got so involved with the ballet participation that we forgot about this and pushed it to the back,” White said.
Mrs. Lindsey Houkles, III, of the ballet said she had known nothing about the act until she was notified Friday, and she might be questioned about the model’s cancellation.
Although Greenwell could not be contacted for comment, the owner of a local club in which he has been performing for about two years said Greenwell was very upset about being removed from the show. The club owner said the model has won numerous contests including the Miss Gay Atlanta contest 1972 and was third runner-up in a similar national contest.
They came down late with dozens of posters. Everybody wanted one. I guess because his (Greenwell’s) picture was on it for souvenirs the club owner said. He said there had been some talk of special showing including the models. But White said this was in the talking stage. They made a guarantee of 1,500 people, the club owner said, but I doubt they would pay to go to a fashion show when they could see him perform with a live boa constrictor every night.
White said the show would go on with Miss Sims as the star, that cancellation stickers probably would be printed for the posters already out there. White said, “I might have a nervous breakdown because people keep asking me about this thing.”
Of course, I was pissed at
However, I soon cooled down and decided that I was
not to be outdone.
The night of the show, I remember walking into the
Symphony Hall before the program started. I would put on a show of my
own. Heads turned and mouths dropped, as I walked by the snooty crowd,
the ostrich feather coat draping off one of my bare shoulders.
Larry went to the bar and then brought me a vodka and tonic. I
was in ‘model zone’ (a term I used when I didn’t speak, but just posed).
I saw a group of Cuban drags in
A few days later, after the entire Phoenix Affair was completed, another article appeared in the Atlanta Constitution:
CITY ART SUPPORT IS DOUBTED
Coupled with what White now terms the wrong decision to withdraw Atlantan John Greenwell’s presentation as model “Rachel Wells,” White said the complete “lack of enthusiasm about raising money for the ballet” spelled large financial losses for the benefit.
“Members of the ballet, its director Bob Barnett and Mrs. Becky Hopkins, of the Ballet Guild, were most gracious and understanding,” White said. But their enthusiasm was not translated into attendance, he added.
held last year, only at night and not as a benefit, drew a capacity
crowd in the 1,200 seat symphony hall in the
White said that many people had objected to the removal of the Rachel Wells’ segment. “Many of the socialites in the city wanted the act left in because they felt it would give them an opportunity to see the act in a very sophisticated setting,” White said. Greenwell now appears at a local night club.
Star of the
White said the show will be presented next year, but probably not as a benefit. “I will have to consider very closely whether it will be presented as a benefit again,” he said. “I think it might be better with one of the larger arts groups, such as the symphony.” But White said that next year’s show will not be for the ballet.
Greenwell said Thursday he considers his removal from the show as “discrimination.” “I am beautiful and I know it, and that’s what it is all about,” he said.
I felt vindicated, though also embarrassed about
the last comment in the paper. Why did I say that, I said to myself. And
why on earth would they print a statement like that? Life moved on, and
of course, my pride soon healed. The publicity was enormous. I mean,
wow! I was written about in the Atlanta Constitution, not once but
twice. Not bad for a drag making a living in a club called the Sweet Gum
For some reason, I enjoyed being with the girls…gay girls, that is. I loved sports and so did the lesbians. I was often invited to play volleyball on girls only nights, and a group of us got together on Sundays to play softball. There was Socks, named because she had an incredible collection of really strange socks, and my favorite player was Lightning. She was aptly named because she was so large, actually more bottom heavy than large. When she connected with the ball, she hit is so hard that it would have been a homer for anyone else; but for her, hitting the ball hard gave her enough time to get to first base. I don’t think I ever saw her get to second base, even when somebody else followed her with a hard hit. The poor girl was so slow that one time the batter who followed her actually tagged second before she did and was called out. Poor Lightning, not really as fast as lightning, but everyone liked her.
It was in the fall of 1973, during a break in playing between innings, the small group of us who were employed at the Sweet Gum Head decided that it would be great to play on a gay team, but none existed. Most of the girls we played with were on city league teams, but none were openly out. After tossing the idea around, Art Elliston agreed to sponsor our team the next spring in the men’s city league.
By the time league play began, we had a core of team members: Deva Sanchez, Michael Andrews, Toni Doran, Herman, Joe, the Stergion brothers, and I was the pitcher. Of course we had a rotating crew coming and going. Though half of us played because we liked the game, there were also some of us who were just participating for the publicity, and boy did we get it.
I’ll never forget our first game in a city park in
We were up first and ended the inning with only one hit. Then it was my turn to pitch. Now understand, I was not a great pitcher, but I was the best that we had. After three hits, which by my account, should have been caught by our fielders, I thought it was time to shake things up. A few of our teammates, who didn’t want to appear gay, were reassured by those of us who couldn’t give a damn, that we would calm down our look and mannerisms when we played. Well, by now it was obvious with the errors occurring on our team that we were different. We looked like a bunch of sissies, and after three easy “comedy of errors,” the other team finally figured out that our team was not the run of the mill softball team.
When the next batter came to the plate, I turned to my teammates and said, “Are you ready?” I remember Nick looking at me and with his face I could tell he wasn’t going to like what was coming. I turned back around to face the batter and as soon as he stepped into the batter’s box, I stepped off the mound, took off my cap letting my hair tumble down, and then I bent over shaking my head and fluffing my hair. I came up with a full mane of hair and a diva attitude. I went from trying to pitch the ball like a man to standing like a woman luring the batter into a state of confusion. He stepped out of the box and kept shaking his head in disbelief. Not long after, he struck out. Poor dear, I said to myself. Now bring up the next sucker.
Of course, we lost, and lost badly, be we learned a valuable lesson. We were going to play our game, no matter who we played. Within weeks, we started to have fans come and watch us. In fact it was reported that we had more fans showing up for the games than any other team in the league. And we had to put on a show. We got to where we (not all of us, of course) would arrive in facial drag and wearing wigs. What we found was that once the word was out about our gay team, the other teams were looking forward to playing us, and our new mission was not to just freak the players out, but to have fun and build a bridge between our two very different worlds.
But even we had to laugh at ourselves so many
times. Once, when Chili Pepper was doing a guest appearance at the Gum
Head, we invited her to play with us. She agreed but later said she had
no idea what softball was. Chili was from
“Batter up!” yelled the umpire. I hit the bat against my shoes and stepped in the box ready to hit the ball.
“Strike one!” I hardly had time to grip the bat before the pitcher threw the ball over the plate. It didn’t matter. One of our team rules was to never strike at the first pitch.
“You hit a homerun and I’ll go home with you.” It was the catcher trying to harass me. I stepped out of the box and gave him the once over. He was a hunk, with the most beautiful blue eyes. This was our fifth game playing in the city softball league, and this team was overwhelmingly Jewish. Young Jewish men were so sexy to me. I liked Greeks, too, but Jews were near the top of my eye candy list.
“You’ll do what?” I asked, just making sure I heard right.
“Hit a homer and I’ll go home with you.” I heard him right the first time. He even said it louder the second time so his teammates could hear him. “Come on batter!” they started to shout. Apparently, they would love nothing more than to see the pretty boy on the team eat his words. Of course, the odds were not on my side. I was a consistent hitter, yet I never had the power to hit more than a double, let alone a homerun. I glanced at him again. God he was beautiful. I had nothing to lose but my pride. I stepped back into the box.
“Strike two!” Damn, I thought to myself. I stepped out of the box again. It was apparent that the umpire was getting annoyed with my breaks in the action.
“Are you ready for me to hit a homer?” I asked the catcher.
“Yeah, I’m ready,” he said in a taunting manner. “Like you can hit a homer.”
“Watch me,” I said.
The pitcher tossed the ball over the plate and I swung the bat as hard as I could, hitting the ball into right center field. The outfield had been playing me shallow and the ball went all the way to the fence. I rounded first, then second, and then I headed for third, my long hair flowing in the breeze. As I neared third base, I could see the fielder winding up to throw the ball to the infield. I wasn’t going to settle for a triple, not this time. And hell, we’d never won a game so nothing else was on the line if I got thrown out. I headed for home. The gorgeous catcher was blocking the plate. Not only did I have to beat the ball to home plate, I also had to knock down my potential date. It was all or nothing. Before I could think another thought, I collided with the catcher just as he caught the ball and then dropped it. I jumped on the plate and the umpire called me safe. I had just hit a homerun. My first and last, but oh it was so good.
The catcher brushed himself off while his teammates began to razz him. “I’ll give you my number before the game is over,” I said before heading back to the dugout. My teammates and our fans were there to give me high fives and hugs. Thank god I hit that ball so hard, I told myself, or the other team would be laughing at me instead of him. Though the game was close, as usual we lost again.
About a week later, the catcher kept his word and called me. He came to my apartment and spent about an hour with me. I wanted to see him naked, but that never happened. He was just a nice college kid who was curious about the gay team they had just played, and he was determined to keep his word. I was impressed with his demeanor and his honesty. To this day, I can still see his beautiful blue eyes, but I’d still rather have seen him naked.
I had no idea that 1974 was going to be a great year. Heck, I was having a wonderful time and couldn’t even imagine that things could even improve. I was enjoying performing, especially with the new cast members that were coming and going. I was still belting out Bette Midler’s Do You Wanna Dance? and production numbers by the Pointer Sisters. Thank goodness for Bab’s The Way We Were, and Olivia’s I Honestly Love You. It was turning out to be a good year for drag music, especially when it came to ballads.
New bars were opening in
Daisy worked as a regular at the Onyx Lounge, and was known for her barely clad costumes. Daisy was always happy in a high school cheerleader kind of way. She always said hello when we were in the same room. Hell, she said hello to everyone. Daisy met no strangers.
In one of the early Miss Gay Atlanta Pageants, the opening theme was “Beautiful Brides” from Funny Girl. Each contestant would parade down from the balcony wearing a wedding gown and veil. All the contestants looked beautiful and the parade of brides was going quite well until Daisy made her entrance. Walking like a cheap hooker (this was vintage Daisy Dalton), with piles of platinum blonde hair under the veil, and smacking the biggest wad of bubblegum that could be put in one mouth, Daisy made her way down the stairs to the stage. She was obviously and intentionally stealing the show. The producer, Buddy Clark, was not pleased. It seemed that every year someone went out of their way to ignite Buddy’s temper. This year, it appeared to be Daisy.
Daisy’s talent for the contest was a striptease
act. She had been warned
that if she took off too much clothing she would be disqualified.
In the early pageant days in
Not only did she do the striptease and take off more than she should have as requested by Buddy Clark, she also made sure that the judges, who were sitting ringside, saw every pore on her lily-white ass as she mooned them at the end of her number. Daisy was disqualified, but everyone remembered her name.
There seemed to be an influx of new faces every
week in Atlanta, most migrating to the big city from small southern
Podunk towns; suppressive towns. Even though
My original group of friends had gone separate
ways, though we were still close. Larry continued to wait tables, but
now in the more upscale restaurants. Joe was finishing beauty school,
Stewart (Joe’s older brother) was back in town and taking art classes at
Money was flowing, unlike the early days on
Art Elliston had heard that the Red White & Blue Revue had performed Jesus Christ Superstar, and wanted the current cast to do it again in April. Though I was not really wanting to redo the grueling role of Jesus, I agreed. We worked on the production for weeks (while still doing the other shows). It would end up being a better production with a bigger cast and more money for sets and costumes. This time we would even have enough cast members to have angels, played heavenly by Angela Terrell and the new and exiting Hot Chocolate. Lavita and I shared the title of director, and once again, Lavita replayed his original role as Judas Iscariot. Julie, the Teddy Bear male impersonator, was flawless and extremely feminine as Mary Magdelene. The rest of the cast included Deva Sanchez as Caiphas, Toni Doran as Pontius Pilate, Bobby Holiday as Peter, and Mickey Day as King Herod. We had others playing the roles of apostles so no one had to worry about quick costume and character changes. I had input into the creation of the sets, so I was also acknowledged as the scenic designer. I had never been called a scenic designer, and to tell the truth, I just told people where I thought things should go. They just listened and obeyed; thus the title.
The show was incredible and it was light years ahead of the original that we had done two years earlier. We ran it for only two nights, and by the end of the run, I was exhausted and tired of being whipped and beaten, having my hair pulled harder than it needed to be pulled by Toni Doran, who for some reason, found the opportunity to play Pontius Pilate in a way to get even with me for every prank that I pulled on him. He hated pranks. But I had to give him credit; he played the role to the limit.
The experience was a good one for all of us involved. It gave so many of the cast members the opportunity to play outside their drag roles; to actually act and be recognized as thespians. Of course, there were some complaints that with not having the chance to perform singles, there were no tips to be made. Art was generous to provide extra compensation. Sometimes a little bitching does produce results.
The Miss Gay America Pageant was just around the
corner and I was planning to enter, though the talent segment was still
on my mind. The pressure of it being held in
One evening, when I was off and while I was pondering what kind of talent I might need to pull the contest off, I came up with a crazy idea. I had performed the single from Jesus Christ Superstar, I Don’t Know How to Love Him for the past two years because I thought it was just a pretty song. I had also performed as Jesus in our cast productions. How could I perform both roles and make it work? I later sat and listened to the music over and over when suddenly, bingo! I had it figured out.
I would start with the
The contest was going to be a marathon, even more
so than the one that I had entered in
The Lady Baronessa was the reigning Miss Gay America, and she had worked with us many times at the Gum Head. But she took on a different role during the contest. Whether she was asked to help herd the contestants from room to room, or if she took it upon herself to be in charge, well, it didn’t matter. She had found her calling by being in front of any group, yelling “Ladies, ladies! I need your attention!” Her eyes would bulge from her face, lips tight. Of course, everyone complied by stopping conversations and falling into line. At one time, I tried to say hello to her as I passed by her while I was in the single-file line. “I cannot fraternize with the contestants during the pageants,” she said in a stern voice, motioning her head for me to move on. “Rude bitch,” I mumbled to myself, embarrassed that she would speak to me in that tone.
After a grueling schedule and little time for
anything else (other than creating a scandal by having Miss
After all the categories had been completed, the top ten were asked on-stage questions, from which the top five would be selected. My question was, “A reporter comes up to you and asks you if you’re gay. You answer him, yes or no, and why or why not?” Pause. That was the dumbest question, I thought to myself. Number one, it’s obvious I’m gay, I think to myself standing in a dress and makeup in front of all these people, and who in the hell really knows why me or anyone else is gay? The room became very quiet, waiting for me to give an incredibly intelligent and assuring answer. I reached for the microphone, smiled at the audience and said, “Yes, I’m gay, and because that’s just the way I am. Thank you.” I think a few polite people in the front clapped for me. It was over for me, at least for this year. Suddenly, the air came out of my balloon. I felt exhausted and I was ready to check out and go home. A few contestants later, Shawn Luis answered her question, “Why are you gay?”
With eloquence she answered, “Why am I gay? Well, why is the grass green? Why is the sky blue? Why…” The crowd went crazy for her. I remember how feminine and gracious she was, and did I say beautiful, too? Why couldn’t I have thought of an answer like that? Damn it. Maybe next time. Not long after, Shawn was crowned the new Miss Gay America. Baroness hated to give up the crown. I could see it in her eyes.
There was no time to waste. The next Miss David
contest was going to be held late in July in
Herman had just competed in the Miss Gay Atlanta contest, finished in the top five, losing to the Lady Shawn. He won the talent competition with an incredible Cher/native-American/baton-twirling/fire-dance act. He blew the house away, and he was disappointed that he didn’t win. With tears in his eyes I talked to him about how proud I was and how people would remember his act; how he should have won. I gave him every compliment that I could to help cheer him up, to help him feel better. Nothing seemed to work. His tears just got bigger.
“Can I borrow your gown for the Miss David contest?” I asked. It just came out of nowhere, but the timing must have been right.
“Sure,” he said. “I don’t have much need for it anyway,” he quipped, a smile coming across his face. He had the gown made especially for the pageant. It was made of black velvet fabric, a classic Vogue pattern with a plunging neckline and long sleeves. Herman was just a tad shorter than me, but we both were the same size. His dress was stunning on stage, and I didn’t have one any better. I felt selfish for asking, but at least I put a smile on his face.
The July weather in
Hot Chocolate and I shared a room at the
Fontainebleau Hotel, site of the contest. After arriving and getting our
things put up, we went to rehearsal. There were over forty contestants,
most I had never heard of before. Many Florida entertainers where there
because they were local, and others from across the country were there
to make a name for themselves and get the incredible nationwide
publicity that David Magazine would provide. It was, after all, one of
the leading gay magazines in the country. And of course, Roskie
Fernandez was there, the one to beat, along with the
A few hours later, Chocolate and I were in our room putting on our makeup. Even though most of the contestants were getting ready in an area set aside for the contestants, we had permission and found it convenient to get ready in our hotel room. Both of us were laughing at each other, making small talk, when the phone rang.
“Hello?” I said. “Oh, great. Can you send it up? Oh. Okay.”
“Is your cross here? They found it?” Chocolate asked, his eyes not leaving the mirror as he put the final touches of blush on his face.
“Yeah,” I answered. The airline had lost it and now they finally found it. It was just a couple of two-by-sixes wrapped up waiting to be assembled when it arrived at the hotel. “…and they won’t bring it up and somebody has to sign for it…and I can’t possibly go down to the lobby in half drag and with my hair in rollers. Could you?”
“Miss Thing, I can’t go down there like this either.”
“You could put a scarf on your head and be flawless. Please?” I pleaded and he gave in. I would have rather died than to go down to the lobby with only half my makeup on and with my hair in rollers. I had already conceded to not using the cross, just walking out without it. Now that it was here, well it was a relief, but a hassle at the same time. A few minutes later, Chocolate opened the door with a bellboy toting the package. He put it on the floor next to the bed.
“You’ll have to tip…me and him,” Chocolate said as he sashayed into the bathroom closing the door behind him. I tipped the bellboy and thanked him. With the look on his face, I knew that he would he have a hell of a story to tell his grandkids one day.
As the pageant started, we all lined up in order. I was contestant number 28. The line was long in front of me and long behind me. Needless to say, it was going to be an endless evening and I surmised that’s why the pageant started so early.
Herman’s gown looked wonderful on me, and it did give me a classy look. I wore rhinestone jewelry that gave the simplicity a touch of sparkle. I wanted the dress to accent me; I wasn’t there to sell the dress. Others wore incredible gowns, thousands of rhinestones and sequins glittering as they hit the stage one at a time. I wanted to look different and I did. I wanted to stand out, and hopefully, I would.
Judging was simple: evening gown and talent. The top six would be asked a question, and then the winners would be announced. It was a one shot deal for evening gown and the first time that judges and the audience would see the contestants. It was a two-minute introduction before getting ready for the talent category.
I was well received during the evening gown competition. Getting applause out of town while competing with the locals was often difficult, and I was satisfied with the response I got. I now had to get ready for talent. I figured I had about three hours before I went on stage again, so I went back to my hotel room, undressed, and I lounged around on the bed and watched television. Chocolate decided to get ready with the others. He was more of a social animal than I was; and anyway, I didn’t want to be hanging around a bunch of drags with a Jesus beard on my face. I also didn’t want anyone to know what I was doing for my five-minute talent act. The biggest component of my act was the element of surprise.
I did want to see Roxanne’s talent, and Chocolate kept me posted as to when he would be on stage. Wearing a robe and slippers, I walked past the dressing area and went back stage to watch a most impressive Marilyn Monroe impression. The props, the dancers, the costumes; yes, everything was perfect. He brought the house down. Wow, I thought to myself. I’ve watched Roxanne really grow, and this was his finest hour.
I went back to my room and started getting ready. I would be up soon. I had to tone down my makeup, and then I applied the rubber cement to the beard pressing it perfectly in place to my chin and upper lip. As the glue dried, I looked at my cross on the other side of the room, getting into character, trying to be Jesus, at least for a few minutes. I put on the Mary Magdalene gown, and then I slipped into the Jesus costume. Barefooted and ready, I picked up the cross, put it over my shoulder and headed to the dressing room to wait for my onstage call.
I received stares and gawks from the contestants and their assistants. Nobody said a word to me as I stayed in character, slowly making my way through the jungle of sequins. The only thing I needed was a bunch of nasty Roman soldiers beating me and spitting on me. But then, maybe not. This was, after all, a drag contest. I don’t think anyone recognized me, and that was part of the surprise element of the act. The other contestants were expecting me to be glamorous, so to think the bearded guy walking through the dressing room was Rachel Wells would be absurd.
Finally, my name was announced and the reception
was excellent. Thank goodness, I thought to myself, I have a good amount
of fans here. I had hoped.
The music started and I walked on stage, my cross over my shoulders. A
hush came over the crowd. It was
Then came the second part of my act with the thunder and lightning, and in a flash I was standing in front of the audience, not as Jesus, but as Mary Magdalene, moving my lips to I Don’t know How to Love Him. The audience was standing and applauding. I could hardly hear the words. As the song came to an end, the applause continued. I was truly humbled by the experience. The audience reaction to my act was more than what I could even imagine. I waved to the crowd, acknowledging their approval, and as I walked back to the curtain, I even did a thumbs up to the Lord for not letting this moment be a total bomb. The applause continued even as I left the back stage dressing area and headed to my room to reapply my makeup and get ready for the end of the pageant.
After the gown and talent competitions were completed, all the contestants were called onto the stage. I just remember how big the stage was and how full it was with contestants. The top six were announced and I was one of the finalists. Now it was time for the onstage question. I didn’t want to blow it this time, and I couldn’t even imagine what the question might be. The emcee read my question out loud. Thank god, I thought. As I listened to the emcee read the question, an ease came over my body. Something practical to talk about. The question was about how to handle hecklers while performing. I switched into high gear and gave an answer that was complete, simple, and humorous. The crowd’s reaction assured me that I said what I needed to say, and I said it well.
Finally, the winners were announced. Roxanne was
third-runner up, and not too happy. Roskie Fernandez was the
second-runner up, and Michael Andrews was first-runner up. “And this
year’s Miss David is…from
After winning the Miss David title, I traveled quite a bit, doing shows when I wasn’t working at the Sweet Gum Head, which was usually on Sundays and Mondays. The advantage of working so much at the Gum Head was that all of us had time to work and perfect our numbers. During our shows at the Gum Head, the third show during the week was a time to introduce or “practice” a new routine or production number, because that was usually when the seats weren’t so full and the patrons were a little intoxicated. Under those circumstances, a few mistakes went by unnoticed, and by the weekend when we had to be at our best, the kinks had been worked out.
Going on the road meant that no new numbers could be performed without the fear of forgetting lines or making missteps with choreography; so consequently, the performances on the road might be new to the out of town audience, but they were old to me. That’s why I saw the value of keeping my place at the Gum Head, not to mention that it was just a wonderful place to work.
Life was good, and it was easy. For the next year,
I stayed focused on fine tuning my craft and having fun with my personal
life. I was invited and paid to go to parties, picked up by limousines,
neighbors curiously watching. I was still living on
I was in
Everything electrical was taken. All the closets and drawers were emptied, with what the thieves didn’t want, they left strewn on the floor. The place was a mess, as if it had been turned upside down. Even my parakeet was gone, cage and all. I never knew who did the horrible deed, but it was a wakeup call to get out. Herman offered me a place to stay and I took him up on it. That night, I moved into Herman and Stuart’s apartment as a third roommate, and within the week I had gathered all the things that I wanted from the old apartment, and I left the rest to be pilfered by the person who would clean it up. I never went back there again.
With the year’s reign passing, it was apparent the winning the Miss David contest was a milestone for me, not just because I scored higher than Roskie Fernandez, but because it put me on the national scene as a legitimate female impersonator. It was one of the most prestigious titles due to the fact that its owners also owned one of the preeminent gay magazines in circulation. The publicity I received was enormous, affecting my value and my status. Unfortunately, I was the last Miss David and never received all of the prize money. I found out later that Brandy Lee, the previous winner, was promised but never received the prize money either. Only my closest friends ever knew that I never received my monetary prize; I was too embarrassed to let anyone know.
Apparently, the owners were crooks and I thought about taking them to court, but by the end of the scheduled reign, and after receiving so much publicity, the money didn’t matter. And anyway, the cost and trouble of handling the legalities, especially out of state, would be a waste of time and more trouble than it would be worth. If only Judge Judy had been around in those days. I would have loved to have been on court TV. At one point the magazine disappeared then resurfaced, probably with new owners and staff. It’s actually a very good magazine. See, I’m not bitter.
The Gum Head kept getting notoriety from unusual
sources. The latest was from Creative Loafing, a sort of alternative
newspaper written by leftover members of the hippy era. Its main focus
was to inform readers about musical events going on in the city, though
political viewpoints were also abundant throughout the publication.
Satyn, Lavita and I were pictured in an article written by Jim Pettigrew
titled, Cheer and Scoping:
behind Tiger Auto Parts on
“Sure we get a lot of ‘straight’ patrons,” the amicable deejay informed, “and business is booming. We can hold about 350 and on Friday nights you can’t even get in the door.”
Yes, a lot of straight people were coming to the Gum Head, and after this article, we saw even more. But they were the liberal type, which when mixed with our regular patrons, was a great combination. The club was still a safe haven for most, and a wonderful meeting place for men or women, gay or straight. Though it sounded naughty, it was years later when I found out what “purlieu” really meant. I liked it better when it just sounded nasty.
Lavita Allen was one of my favorite entertainers. He had a knack for wanting to be the center of attention and in most cases he was. He brought a joy to any rehearsal and always inserted a bit of ‘Vita’ into any routine. And probably more than anything else, during the show he was able to entertain himself as well as the audience.
Lavita was always open to suggestions. At one phase of his career he started doing the oldies from the fifties and early sixties. One song he did was called The Wayward Wind. It had a western flare to it. One night I saw that he had put it on the schedule for the second show. I suggested that he use a fan for the number to create a breezy condition. It turned out to be hilarious! When the music started, he walked out very seriously with the box fan from the dressing room in his hand, the long orange extension cord stretched behind him. When he reached the song’s chorus, he placed the fan on one of the tables, carefully as to not to disturb the customers’ drinks, turned it on full blast, and then stood back allowing the breeze to blow his hair and chiffon dress into a frenzy, the whole time with a deadpan expression on his face.
Lavita’s career ebbed and flowed, but his presence
was always a given. His mind was always clicking from one idea to
another. Unfortunately, his
fans couldn’t always keep up with his changes.
I will never forget the night he came out to do a vintage
Streisand number. For two
years he had been doing camp and oldies, but decided on this particular
evening to pull out his Barbra routine that had made him quite famous in
Sadly for Lavita, he never won the Miss Gay Atlanta Pageant. First of all, Lavita was not pageant material in the sense that he was not the standard beauty, nor were his acts pageant acts, though his routines were some of the wittiest and humorous that I had ever seen. In the late Seventies, he entered the contest, won the talent award with a fabulous Dolly Parton medley, was a crowd favorite, and was awarded the first runner-up trophy. I might add, first runner-up to the ultimate winner, Hot Chocolate. Though disappointed, Lavita could still hold his head high with his accomplishment. It was one of his finest moments.
I was enjoying work even more than usual, but still dealing with the dramas that occur with the nightlife. Art Elliston crossed the line by making me his pet and his favorite performer, and to the point of causing angst with my peers. I was never allowed to carry anything. He would have a bartender or waiter carry my things when I would come or go from the club. “You’re a star,” he would tell me, flittering his fingers in the air when he said it. For a while, I was the only one allowed to perform ballads when everyone else did upbeat numbers. When I talked to him about the problem it was creating, he offered me the job of show director. Maybe I should complain more often, I thought. I said yes, and even got a raise. It was my second significant increase in money within the year. I was easily the highest paid female impersonator in the city. There was resentment at one juncture from Lavita and Satyn when they found out about my nightly pay rate. I listened to them as they let me have it in their sheepish ways, how they resented me getting more than them for the same amount of work. In actuality, they probably worked harder than me, but I had star power, as they say in show business. And I knew that star power is fleeting, so I wanted to take advantage of it while I had it.
“Have you ever asked for more money?” I asked them. They both responded with a no. As much as I cared for both of them, they were like old women when it came to being confrontational or bold. They would work themselves into a frenzy when together, but would always back down when forced to be up front.
“Then thank me. I’ve just set the standard for getting a raise and hopefully I’ve paved the way for you to make more money one day, when you can get the nerve to ask for it and feel confident that you can get it.”
Bobby Holiday was another import that Art Elliston
brought in from
Bobby felt discouraged and he had an attitude that everyone was out to get him, which, unfortunately, is very common in the drag world. He really didn’t trust anyone. At the Sweet Gum Head, I always tried to instill an air of trust with the cast, where nothing was ever stolen and we respected each other despite differences. He never seemed to buy into the whole concept. He never stole anything as he was honest by nature, but his frustration with never getting great applause from the audience was eating him up.
One evening I had a plan.
Of course, I had a plan...there was always a plan.
I was feeling sorry for the guy, but the truth of the matter was
that he was getting on my nerves with all the whining and complaining
Bobby was going to perform Shirley Bassey’s This is My Life toward the end of the first show, so it gave me time to instruct the cast with their role in the plot. The one thing I could say about the cast (for the most part) was that they liked to get into a good prank. For a long time the song he selected was an anthem for drags and it always brought the house down for the one who performed it; but at this time it was a tired old song, another tired old song that Bobby liked to perform. The music began and he entered the front stage with the curtains closing behind him. The entire cast gathered behind the closed drapes and just as the song reached the dynamic part three quarters into the music, the curtains opened and there we stood, half naked, posing like mannequins for about thirty seconds before the curtains closed shut. The crowd roared with approval at what they had just seen. We all rushed back to our dressing rooms so that the new diva would not discover our plot. Bobby got a call back, and when he came back to the dressing room, Satyn and I congratulated him on his first call back at the Gum Head. He was so elated.
“They finally like me,” he said as he undressed, getting ready for our curtain call. “It’s about goddamn time,” he mumbled under his breath.
“What on earth did you do to make them scream and clap like that?” Satyn asked as he worked hard not to crack a smile.
“I don’t know.
I just really got into it tonight, and when I got to that one
part, well…they just went off.
No one ever clapped like that during the middle of the song, not
It was easy to see the confidence in his face. Even his posture was pure as he looked into the mirror, admiring himself. It was a good thing to see him happy, and I don’t think he ever knew that his single number had turned into a production of half-naked mannequins standing behind him. He never mentioned it. Unfortunately, his frustration worsened as he continued to do that number every night for the next few weeks and with little applause from the audience for his effort. Fortunately for us he quit doing This is My Life, but occasionally he still reminded us of how he got that great call back, his first one ever at the Sweet Gum Head. Sadly, it was his only one.
You Came A Long Way From Saint Louis by Della Reese was Deva’s signature song. At about five eight and well over two hundred pounds, seeing Deva pull up his gown to expose large caramel colored legs, then take off running and do a cartwheel toward the end of the number always brought the house down. Deva also had a very long tongue and would use it on stage, trying to be sexy; but somehow the tongue wagging was more funny than alluring. Everyone liked Deva, not only for his stage persona, but because he was always so caring. He was also reserved when it came to giving his opinion. Whenever I’d ask him about someone, his response was usually, “Now, Miss Thing. You know I don’t have to answer that question because you already know the answer.” And then he’d shake his head. Deva never wanted to be in the middle of any conflict, but whenever I got the “Now, Miss Thing” answer, I knew he was agreeing with me.
Deva went through this meditation phase after hypnotist Sandra Sennis performed at the Sweet Gum Head. For some reason or another, Deva soon discovered his psychic power, able to penetrate the minds of others, and was able to predict or influence the future. Suddenly, everything became a mind over matter issue with him. At one point he started coming into the dressing room around fifteen minutes before the show was to start, and then began the transformation from one persona to another. No one in the dressing room was that real. At a minimum, most of us took at least an hour to get ready, if not more. As director, it made me a nervous wreck keeping my eye on Deva’s progress. He invariably made it to the stage on time, but he really didn’t look his best. I tried to break him of the habit by signing him up to open and emcee the beginning of the show. Still, he continued to thrive on the pressure. At one point I’d had enough. It was prank time!
As Deva was finishing putting on his eyelashes, I asked for his cassette tape. He always kept is tapes in a tool box under his makeup station, and he had them stacked in an order known only to him. With his face staring into the mirror and one hand on his left eyelash waiting for the glue to dry, he reached down with his right hand, opened the box and with his fingers he felt for the tape. Suddenly, there was a two hundred pound black man making a run for the door, screaming at the top of his lungs, and knocking down everything and everyone in his path. I continued brushing my hair like nothing had happened. A few seconds later, Deva came back into the dressing room.
“Deva,” I said looking at him via the mirror. “Is something wrong?”
“Miss Thing, there’s a snake in my box. You put a snake in my box. I can hardly breath, my heart is pounding.” His eyelashes were also crooked.
“Oh for Pete’s sake, that’s Reba (my snake). She must have gotten out of my bag,” I said trying to act as innocent as possible. “I’m so sorry.” I reached down and picked up the six foot boa constrictor and put into its bag. Deva stood back, ready to run again at any hint that I might lunge forward with it.
“Miss Thing, that damn snake just about scared me to death,” he said as he headed for the clothes rack. “You know I hate that damn thing.”
“Deva, the overture is about to start so get your costume on. I’m not starting until you’re dressed,” I said, using my director’s voice. I wanted to laugh my ass off the whole time, but then half the fun was acting like nothing was really happening.
Deva reached for the hanger when suddenly, a hand grabbed him on the wrist. The hand belonged to Davy, one of the stage hands who was also into the joke. He had been hiding behind Deva’s clothes just waiting to scare him at the right moment. Deva fell to the floor, gasping for air and holding his chest. We were all laughing like hell, when it finally became apparent that Deva might be in trouble.
“Oh my god, I think he’s having a heart attack or seizure! Everyone get back!” I ordered. I got on my knees and leaned over him. “Deva, are you alright?” I asked. He stared up at me and put his big hand around my neck.
“If you ever do that again…” he whispered, pulling my ear to his mouth, making sure I heard every word.
“And if you don’t quit coming in fifteen minutes before the show starts…” I said staring back. “Deal?” I asked. He paused. I could see his mind racing, wondering how many times he would have to endure these never ending pranks if he didn’t agree.
“Deal,” he said.
We started the show a little late that night. The dressing room was full of laughter, and Deva was laughing the most. “Miss Thing,” he said, “you just don’t know what I was thinking when I reached down and touched that snake. I said that’s not a cassette tape and it was so cold and smooth. I told myself, it’s a fucking snake, and baby, that’s all it took and my body took over.”
“It was priceless,” I said as I put on my final touch of lipstick. “Priceless.” We both winked at each other. “I’ll make sure Reba is locked in her bag when you’re here.”
Deva chuckled. “I’m gonna grab Davy by the balls when he’s not looking and see how fast he falls to the floor. And then I’ll be even.” Deva and Davy were close friends and I don’t know if Deva ever took him down; but clearly, I had made my point. After that night, Deva Sanchez came early for every show.
Being in charge of the show was difficult at times, but it also allowed me to take the lead in directing the cast into new areas. There was always talent available and often times the rehearsals were more entertaining than the actual shows. I tried to harness this exuberance and zest for fun many times into something different, not just for us, but for our fans as well. I was always looking for ways to expand the horizons and to add credibility to our shows, not just as drag entertainment, but as classy and gifted actors. Most of the cast were satisfied doing the drag thing, but my thought was that we all had done the drag bit, so I made it a point that we had to do much more, and that we had to try new things. I wanted the show at the Gum Head to be cutting edge. One of our first experiments was “GUMS!”
Jaws, the movie, had been released and had caused quite a scare with the public. One afternoon at rehearsal while eating sandwiches from Happy Herman’s Deli, we were discussing the film and laughing about various scenes, though some were scary, some were so contrived. We decided how wonderful it would be to recreate particular snippets, but we were baffled about how to do it. We were pantomime artists and the stage was not set up for the type of dramatic oration that would be required. The place was just too big.
“What if we write and record the script using the mike, and then pantomime our own voices during the show?” I said out of the clear blue. Lavita immediately started setting up the sound equipment, and the rest of us huddled together, brainstorming our parody of the film.
“Gums!” I said. The cast looked at me. They didn’t
quite get it. I spelled the word out on paper. “GUMS!” I said. “See, the
gums are connected to the jaw, and instead of a shark, the skit can be
about an old toothless giant catfish in the
“I like it,” said Satyn. “At least until we can
think of another name. But I love the idea of a giant, people eating
catfish in the
“Gums sounds kind of erotic,” Deva chimed in. Deva always went with the flow, never being one to rock the boat, but always wanting to add his two cents.
“Not when it’s on a giant catfish,” Satyn blurted back. “Unless, of course, there’s something about you that we don’t know.”
“No you won’t,” Deva said, snapping his fingers. “Don’t you be starting any rumors about me that aren’t true.”
“It isn’t true, is it?” I asked mockingly.
“Is what true?” asked Lavita as he joined the group.
“Deva gets aroused thinking about a gummy catfish,” Satyn answered.
“That’s nothing. I haven’t had good sex in a month. I might even find some satisfaction with an old gummy catfish,” Lavita replied.
“Okay,” I said. “Let’s get on task. There’s nothing sexy about a catfish, young or old.”
“Not unless you’re another catfish,” Satyn cleverly said as he lit a cigarette. I couldn’t argue about that.
So we were off creating the characters, and then writing and recording the script. Deva played the old man on the raft, fishing for the legendary and elusive catfish. Satyn was the scientist, Lisa the sheriff, Chocolate the story teller, and I was the gal who gets eaten up by the fish, and of course, Lavita was delighted to portray the giant catfish in full costume. The person who stole the show was Dina Jacobs who played the role of Mayor Maynard Jackson, and oddly out of drag and with a Seventies white suit, he was a young dead wringer for the man.
The skit was camp at its best with wonderful props and costumes (imagine the prim and proper Satyn in a wet suit with goggles and fins). Eventually, everyone gets eaten except the old fisherman and Chocolate, who had the last line, “He who rafts last, rafts longer.” The crowd loved the skit and we repeated it a few times.
Our next big adventure was a take off on The Wiz, using various songs and monologues, and zany dance routines. It was a crowd favorite. And of course, there has to be at least one big bomb and we had it with “Snowfly and the Seven Gnats.” The parody on Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs included fruit flies, houseflies, and horseflies, and the Friday night packed house who came to see men dressed as women were not at all happy with the production, bringing boos down upon the cast at the end of the forty-five minute skit. Even I was disappointed with the reaction, but in all cases, gauging what the public wanted is what was keeping us in business. Soon the next show started and the audience was pleased. No more “Snowfly” at the Sweet Gum Head.
Another one of our fun numbers that we brought back often was the Can-Can. We had being doing the high energy routine since the days of the Red White & Blue Revue, but it was now time to include the entire cast in a mega production.
Deva volunteered to make the costumes for the ten cast members who would be in the routine. I should have known that something was amiss when on the final day for dress rehearsal, he hadn’t finished the dresses, but said that he would have them ready by show time. The costumes arrived half way through the first show and as the cast gathered for the closing number, the almighty Can-Can, I could see that we were in trouble. The costumes were as ugly and ill fitting as any I had ever seen. They were hideous. But there were other maladies ahead other than the costumes.
Lavita and Satyn appeared on stage first doing the prelude to the routine, then positioned themselves for the rest of the casts’ entrances. Each cast member appeared on the backstage, then moved forward into a headstand, and with Lavita and Satyn spotting them, they were propelled onto the bigger stage toward the audience, shaking their crinoline skirts. The problem that occurred right from the start was that the stage had its six month wax and shine job done right before the show. We all knew it was slippery, but to no avail. As each person was tossed to the stage, they virtually flew into the audience. Lily White took several minutes to get to her feet, fluffing her wig and dodging the other cast members coming her way. Michael Andrews was wise and said no to the headstand, but fell on his ass when his feet hit the front of the stage. As the routine continued, cast members slipped one by one, then rejoined the routine. I ended up playing the straight role, not missing a beat, and by virtue of not making mistakes, I was the one keeping the routine going. At the end of the performance, the line totally collapsed into one big pile of ugly costumes. The number was a mess, but it was one of the funniest numbers we’d ever done. The crowd roared with approval, wanting more, and they got it. After that night we never did that number again at the Gum Head because we would never be able to duplicate the performance even if we wanted to. Thank god the audience had a sense of humor.
I reached a point where I hated my long hair. It had been a trademark of mine for so long, but it was also a great deal of work just to keep it maintained during shows. During the day I could pull it back in a loose ponytail or just let it flow. However, the real problem I was having was with my self image. Even out of drag, which was probably about eighty percent of the time, I was still recognized and called Rachel. It was apparent that John hardly existed anymore, and I hated that I had totally lost who I really was. It was odd that in an attempt to find myself, I lost myself. I had worked so long to create the Rachel Wells persona and now that creation had slowly cannibalized who I really was. I didn’t want to date people who were attracted to me because of the drag mystique. I sought out people who didn’t know me for my stage personality, but instead for me, John. It was hard to escape from the notoriety, nor did I really want to give up on being a celebrity. I just wanted my privacy and my identity back. I wanted Rachel to be a character that I could put away when not working. I wanted to go to a bar and not be recognized as a drag queen. I wanted to be John.
“You’re kidding me, right?” Stuart replied. “You want me to cut your hair?”
“Yes, and I want to do it now.”
“But are you sure you just don’t mean a trim?”
“I want it short.”
Stuart was one to analyze everything and he
continued to question me about why I wanted it cut.
He understood why I wanted to get rid of the locks, but he also
wanted me to be sure of my decision without being too impulsive.
He was also concerned that he would be cursed by every lesbian in
“Gonna kill me?’ Stuart said, peaking around the doorway. I didn’t answer. “You like it?” He was still not sure he did the right thing. I was of the nature that right or wrong, I had to live with it.
“Stuart, it looks wonderful. And it feels terrific.”
“Well, it does look pretty good, and it will grow back,” he said.
“Herman’s gonna shit,” I said. “He’s gonna think I’ve lost my mind.” We both laughed. And I was right. When Herman came home later that day, the first thing he said was, “Have you lost your mind?” I needed reassurance and support, not a lecture. But that was Herman, Mr. Conservative. After we spoke for awhile, he came to agree with me, though I could still see him looking at me at all different angles when he thought that I wasn’t looking.
“It’s kind of the way you used to look when I first met you,” he said after staring at me for a long stretch. “You know, at the Cruise Quarters.” He quickly shifted the conversation to the characters we had known there and we spent the rest of the afternoon wondering whatever happened to those lost and searching souls that we once knew in 1971.
I was starting to look at drag as a real career and not just a phase in my life, and more than just looking pretty or real. I felt a sense of professionalism coming over me with each passing month. I could also sense the appreciation from the audience, as well as the okay from them to try new and different things. Of course, they wanted to see the “glamorous” side of me, as well as the “wild” version of me, you know, the extreme teased hair and seductive mannerisms; however, they soon came to expect the variety of characters that I was so fortunate to create or that just happened to fall into my lap. And in some cases, it was just by chance or by the thought of “what am I gonna do in this weekend’s show?” that got my mind swirling and coming up with ideas.
One spur of the moment idea I had was to do Loretta
Lynn’s Coal Miner’s Daughter.
I was a fan of Loretta Lynn, and Sissy Spacek had just won an Oscar for
her performance of
“I don’t normally look like this. I’m doing Loretta Lynn for my first number.”
“Oh. And who’s Loretta Lynn?” he asked. I was in trouble, I thought to myself. I should have done this on a Friday, not Saturday when the disco divas were out.
I knew the song (doesn’t everyone?), so I hadn’t even rehearsed the performance. I was a bit nervous, but as always, that feeling of apprehension didn’t really hit me until it was too late to turn back. Soon, I was introduced and received an enormous welcome from the crowd. With a fake mike in my hand, and protruding overbite on my face, I hit the stage and the spotlight. The audience loved it and I was called back for an encore. Loretta made a few more appearances during the next couple of years.
On another occasion, Lavita, Satyn and I were rehearsing a comedy routine. I was to play the dumb blond using one of Lavita’s old Dolly Parton wigs. I wanted to get that Marilyn Monroe look for the part, but I was long and thin, not short and voluptuous. I brushed the wig out and put it on my head. No matter what pose or pout that I used in trying to be dumb and sexy, I kept seeing Carol Channing. Yikes! Only old queens portrayed Carol Channing. I was still young and fresh. I went on pretending to be the sexy blond in the skit, but in the back of my mind, I knew that Carol was waiting to come out.
It was about a month later that I was thinking about a new weekend act, and I listened to Channing’s version of the Broadway musical, Hello Dolly. I was already familiar with the songs, but I didn’t have a costume, especially one needed for the title song. I selected So Long Deary because of its campiness and, well I knew the words, and I felt I could make it work. I pulled out one of my old gowns, and ironically it was the one that Wendy gave me for the first Miss Gay Florida contest. Enough time had passed that it looked like an old lady dress and perfect for the part. I also, and wisely, decided to do the number on a Friday night, a night when the audience was usually more forgiving of a new number that wasn’t quite polished. The performance went well, well enough to invest in a full Carol Channing costume. Not long after, I perfected my Carol, omitting the older look for a younger, extremely near-sighted and over-emoting Carol who could kick as high as the sky. I actually put a little Lucille Ball into my version to provide a bit more bounce. The act was a hit and provided me a chance to be more versatile. Occasionally, I would have the opportunity to utilize dancers with the act, but the number was just as effective with just me on the stage alone.
One of my favorite characters was my rendition of
Flo, a take off of Florence Jean Castleberry from the TV show
But probably my all time favorite impersonation to
perform was that of Katherine Hepburn. One afternoon, Deva brought in
the recording of the Broadway show,
One evening, I was playing around between shows, trying to work my wig into a fashionable “up” do. Satyn took over and brushed it round and then lifted it, rolling the ends in a loose knot.
“Look! It’s Katherine Hepburn!” He said mockingly.
“I don’t want to look like an eighty-year old
woman,” I said. He brushed the bangs and created a side sweep, something
more contemporary and more suited to the look I wanted. But I also saw
what Satyn saw, and that was a slight resemblance to Kate. That weekend,
I took the
I found the time to talk to Deva about what I was doing, wanting his permission to perform the number that he brought in. Deva was always the trouper and when I discussed the idea of me performing Kate, his response was, “You know, the first time I saw you I thought about you doing this number.” Okay, I thought to myself. Deva is making all this up, but it sounded good and it made the request of using his number a lot easier. I waited for over two months before I had a costume created and a special recording of the number made. The act was an instant hit. Now I could add Kate to my repertoire of Jesus, Flo, Carol, and of course the ever evolving Rachel Wells.
The Sweet Gum Head had reached an unparalleled status by 1975. The place was usually packed and celebrities were always in the house, and most often around the late show. Paul Lynde was a frequent guest, along with Melissa Manchester, and once we were blessed with the presence of Liberace all decked out in his cape and rhinestones. He was hanging around the club as we were closing, the patrons wanting to get close to him, when Tiger Lil (who was doing a guest performance that evening) came up to him and began to give him an abundance of adulation.
“I just love you, and all your records. I have all your records, you know.”
“Why, thank you,” Liberace responded in his ever gentle way.
Then Tiger got right up to his face and said very loudly, “So cut the crap. Are you gay?” Poor Liberace didn’t have time to even blink before his entourage whisked him away. “Well, I just wanted to know,” Tiger later said with tears in his eyes. The queen was drunk and obnoxious, though when sober he was kind and caring. This night he went too far and never performed at the Gum Head again.
One Thursday night, Karen Valentine of Room 222 fame walked into our dressing room. She was with Gene of Gene and Gabe’s Restaurant. Gene would usually bring his out of town guests to the club when the restaurant closed. Karen was a little bitty thing and as cute as could be. Gene introduced her to me and Satyn.
“I want to do a drag number,” she said, a half
glass of white wine in her hand. How could we say no, I thought to
myself. And anyway it was Thursday night and we were in the mood for a
little fun. It didn’t take long before we had her in a blond wig, a long
dress, my ostrich feather coat, and eyelashes and deep red lipstick. And
not long after getting her in drag, we had her on the stage pantomiming
to Tammy Wynette’s Stand By Your
Keith was a novice when he joined our show. He sort of worked up the ranks from doing small gigs, to the Tina Devore show, and then into ours. Our show’s cast was fluid, with big out of town stars working for awhile and then leaving, and young and local talent filling the void. Keith was one of the young and local ones, and he was dependable and willing to work hard. He was a team player. He worked hard trying to find his niche in the show, and he respected the others in the cast. I don’t know why he picked the name Kelly, but I do remember when he selected the name Keebler to be his second name. He said it sounded cute, like the Keebler elves in the cookie commercial. And it worked well with his slightly round body and funny personality.
As I mentioned, we often had celebrities in the house. One Saturday night, Kelly came up to me saying that his boyfriend, who was very handsome, had been asked to sit at the front table with Paul Lynde and his entourage. “Can you believe they asked my honey to sit with him?” he said beaming with pride. Not everyone got to sit with celebrities, and no matter whom the celebrity was, we were always honored with their presence.
The beaming pride soon faded. During Kelly’s number, Paul had his hands all over Kelly’s boyfriend. It was hard to miss with them sitting in the front row. By the time the show was over, Kelly was in tears. His boyfriend was leaving with Paul, but not just leaving the club. He was leaving to go on tour with the comedian.
After a few weeks, we were all able to laugh about
what had happened. The
boyfriend was obviously a gold digger, but Paul Lynde was at the end of
his brilliant career and he was old by our standards. “I probably would
have left with him too if he (Paul) had asked me,” Kelly would later
say. It wasn’t long after
Kelly left to direct a show in one of the clubs in
Meeting Melissa Manchester was such a thrill, and
she did visit me at the Sweet Gum Head. I followed her career, watching
her venues and fan base grow larger with each new concert. When she went
One night while I was on stage performing her first top forty hit, Midnight Blue, she surprised me by being in the audience, but also by walking up on the stage with me. It was a moment I’ll always cherish, but more importantly was the time we spent back stage together just chatting about her new success. Then it was time for her to go. She was a star now with better things to do than just hang out. Her entourage whisked her away. The following night at her concert at the Fox Theater, she wanted to thank all the Sweet Gum Head fans who came out to see her. The crowd cheered. I was proud.
I performed her songs throughout my career. Songs like Don’t Cry Out Loud, Just You and I, and Come In From the Rain, were songs I could totally embrace, and they were always crowd pleasers even after the songs ran their time on the radio. For me, they were classics.
“Herman, what are you doing in here on a Saturday night?” I asked. Herman was always so busy serving drinks and counting his tips that he hardly ever foraged back to our dressing room on a weekend night.
“You’re not going to believe who’s sitting in my section. And make it quick, I’m losing money as we speak.”
“Then why don’t you just tell me and be on your way so I can get ready for the next show.”
“Burt Reynolds. Burt Reynolds is sitting in my section!” His voice was getting higher. “And he tipped me! His fingers touched mine!”
I was getting set up for a prank. I could feel it. This was going to be the pay back of all the pranks I had pulled on him.
“Yeah, right. Like he would come in here. The biggest box office star around and he’s sitting in your section,” I said as I looked at him through the mirror as I reapplied my blush. “Good try, Herman. I’m not falling for that one.”
“It’s really him,” he said as he exited the dressing room, not a bit bothered by my lack of interest.
A few minutes later Satyn and I could hear the crowd getting louder than the music. That was rare. It was a Saturday night and Herman’s section was just on the other side of the dressing room wall. Though the volume of the dance music could be irritating, I usually used the “people” noise before and in between shows to gauge the mood of the crowd.
“You don’t think…”
“Could be,” replied Satyn as he sprayed his hair.
I put on my robe and made one of my rare appearances outside the dressing room. I turned past the deejay booth and with the music blaring, only a few patrons were dancing, though the dance floor was packed.
“Excuse me,” I said over and over as people parted for me as I got closer to the center of the excitement. “Excuse me…” I said as my eyes met his. “Oh my god! You are Burt Reynolds! Hi, I’m Rachel Wells. I’m in the show here.” I held out my hand and he shook it.
“It’s a pleasure to meet you,” he said as he held my hand. I was about to drop right there and I was embarrassed to be standing in front of him and the customers in a tacky robe.
“I’ve gotta go,” I said as I turned around and headed back to the dressing room. Herman hadn’t lied to me. What a shock to see Burt Reynolds in the Sweet Gum Head. Suddenly, I started to throw out my plans for my act and tried to think of something that might impress just him. Yes, at that moment, he would be the only one in the audience. I was going through my costumes when John Austin, the new bar manager, came in with Burt and some woman who didn’t look like she really belonged with him.
“Sorry, Rachel, but can Mr. Reynolds hide out in here for awhile? We need to get away from the mob scene out there.” I didn’t even look at John, my eyes locked to the handsome movie star behind him. I was in shock. The place was a mess and it reeked of cigarette smoke and beer, but what the hell, the whole club smelled the same way too.
“Of course, come in,” I said as I moved clothes from the last show off the chairs and into the corner. I’d straighten them out later, I thought to myself. For the next fifteen minutes, we sat and talked, with John, who just conveniently had a camera with him, taking a few pictures. I had no idea what we talked about. The time spent was just a blur. Burt Reynolds was in my dressing room and no one would ever believe it. He left the club before the show started, and he apologized for causing such a disturbance. When John finally had the pictures developed, he gave me a couple. My god, I thought to myself as I looked at them. I had the most star struck look on my face, and it wasn’t flattering at all, but at least I had proof that he was there with me in my dressing room. Little did I know that our paths would cross again.
An excerpt from an article in the BARB: Phyllis Killer’s Nite Notes, March 1976.
the sensation of Atlanta, leaves the Sweet Gum Head to take her act on
the road. But don’t fret, she’ll be doing guest spots there. Chatting
over dinner at Shelly’s Place, she talked about her four years at the
club, people she had worked with and the plans she has for the future.
I’ll never forget the wild time we had when she won the Miss David Award
I had so many requests to perform out of town and the money was too good to turn down. I was already taking a weekend off here and there from the Gum Head, and I tried to book shows on Sundays in other cities. But I had a calling to move on, and I also felt that I needed a change. I knew that it would be easy to get stale, and more importantly, it was difficult to come up with new material to stay fresh each and every week. Getting away would be a convenient way to be missed, so after some thought, I decided to go on tour. I would miss the show and audiences at the Gum Head, as well as the security in knowing I could work right across the street from where I lived. But I also knew that very few entertainers got the opportunity to work out of town on a continuous basis. Only the good ones did, and for me, this was also a test about being good.
Getting booked was not a problem, and once the word was out, I was receiving a number of calls. Martha Ann, known as Dean in our circle, was happy to call herself my agent. She could wheel and deal so well, and she also liked getting the attention. And for me to be able to say, “I have an agent. Here’s her number,” was so pleasingly arrogant.
I worked in
Probably my worst nightmare came true as I was changing into costume for my Carol Channing act when I had problems securing the wig and headdress on my head. The music was prerecorded, of course, and when the tape started, it ran without any interruptions. The intro to Hello Dolly began and I had to do the whole number with the configuration literally sitting on my head. Carol had never been so stiff. It was if I was one of those young ladies in boarding school learning to walk properly by having a book on her head and not letting it fall off while she walked across the room. Of course, when it was time to do the kicks, I was holding on to the wig with both hands and I made it through the act without any other problems.
The only drawback that I ever really had working in
By July, I was ready to come back home to the Sweet
Gum Head. In just a few months, things had change, as they often do in
the entertainment and nightlife business. Hollywood Hots had opened
across the street from the Gum Head, and Deva Sanchez was hired as the
show director. Hot Chocolate, the now reigning Miss
A lot of bars were featuring entertainment and food, and even the Sweet Gum Head Restaurant opened next door to the club. Sara, formerly from the Egg Shell Grill, provided home style cooking and it was a wonderful addition to the neighborhood’s selection of eatery’s that included a Waffle House, Happy Herman’s, Dunk N Dine, and The Varsity Junior where you ordered your “dogs uh walkin’.”
I soon rejoined Lavita, Satyn, Lisa, along with
Dina Jacobs, Lady Shawn, and Heather Fontaine as regulars. Bertha Butts
was returning as well. It was exciting for me to be working again on a
regular basis, and though there was new competition with other show
bars, we still maintained a solid customer base. Business was still
good. My welcome back was wonderful. Actually, once the first show was
over, it was as if I hadn’t left in the first place. But my biggest
welcome back to
The Incomparable Rachel Wells
It was a quarter after five when I came in Ms. Garbo’s out of the summer heat to find the tall boy I was there to meet playing the pinball machine. He looked up and smiled.
“How are you doing?” he asked as he continued to maneuver the ball among the bumpers.
“Late as usual,” was my reply to John Greenwell, more commonly known as Rachel Wells, one of Atlanta’s and the Southeast’s most popular female impersonators.
I had first
met John when he came to
Numerous times I’ve tried to analyze just what it is about Rachel that makes her an outstanding performer. Is it her pretty face, her long sensuous body which moves so seductively in her livelier numbers, her stage presence, her skill at selecting songs that fit her personality, her skill with makeup and costume, or is it some combination of all of these? When we sat down to talk, this was the first question I asked. “What is the secret of your success?”
“You have to give people what they want,” he replied. “Rachel Wells is a character. She’s a character that’s a little different from what people are used to seeing in female impersonation shows. And that’s the gimmick, she’s not a phony, she’s real.”
“How did you get started doing drag?”
“I don’t know how I really got started, I just did it. Somebody suggested I try it and I did. It was sort of a game at first and then it was sorta fun and then it became a way to make money. At some point I really started taking it seriously.”
“At what point did you start taking it seriously?”
“The first night. No that’s not true. I guess it was about the time I went to work at the Sweet Gum Head, about six months after I started.”
her start in the summer of 1971 at a bar in the cellar of the building
on the northwest corner of
Wendy and Lavita influenced me an awful lot. When I fist started at the
Gum Head it was like a training ground. I kept my mouth shut and
listened and they pushed me to do a lot of things I wouldn’t have tried
otherwise.” Except for a few short intervals, Rachel was at the Gum Head
as a regular for four years, until this past winter. During that time
she did guest appearances in
to learning a lot at the Gum Head, I’ve gotten into a few different
things like some hair shows and there was the
“What was the
supposed to model at Symphony Hall. It was a big fashion show and
bizarre. Gary White from
“You weren’t allowed to participate because they found out that you were a female impersonator and not a real female?”
“Yes, someone remembered me from the Gum Head and they wouldn’t allow me to participate. It was supposed to be a big breakthrough and all that but it didn’t work out that way.”
Rachel admits to going through a phase where she didn’t know exactly what she was or who she was.
“Anyone who gets into female impersonation goes through a period of thinking they’re real, of convincing themselves that they can pass as a woman. Unfortunately, a lot of people stay in that stage. I’m glad my friends kept reminding me that I’m not a woman, just a man dressed like a woman. It took me a while to get that through my head.”
“When did this occur in your case?”
years ago. About the time of the
Rachel is one of the few female impersonators who has an agent. When we asked about it, she gave an interesting explanation.
“Well, you see, I’m sort of an introvert when it comes to talking to people and I just don’t know how to do it. So about a year ago, I got Dean Mobley who I’ve known a long time to represent me. Dean is a person I can communicate with and a person I can trust.” Which brings up another interesting thing about Rachel Wells. You rarely see her in the audience between shows. Again she offers a rather unusual explanation for such a gifted performer.
“First of all, people scare me sometimes, especially if it’s a big place. I don’t particularly get nervous, but I never really mingle in a crowd. I don’t know what to say to them. I get real uptight and I don’t know why. I’m sure a lot of people think I’m arrogant and stuck up, but it’s just that I don’t know what to say to these people. I’ve got a bad memory for names and I get terribly embarrassed when someone comes up and starts talking and I can’t put a name with their face. But mostly I think it’s just that I’m an introvert.”
To me, it’s hard to understand how someone who claims to be an introvert can be such an extrovert on stage. Rachel claims that while she likes the big stage and the good lighting and sound at the Sweet Gum Head, she really likes working smaller clubs better because the audience is closer and she can relate to them better.
There’s no doubt that the great variety of material that Rachel does is one of the things that makes her appeal to so many people. Her latest accomplishment is Katherine Hepburn, but in the past she has wowed her audiences in roles as diverse as the Tin Man in the Wizard of Oz and Carol Channing. You could call her the man of a thousand faces or would that be the woman of a thousand faces? She worries that the state of the art in gay clubs is regressing, going back to the days of the amateur entertainer who gets ten dollars a night to put on a dress and pantomime a song.
“I can understand why bar owners hire these people. They call up their friends to come see them and get in a crowd. So even if they aren’t around next week, there will be another one. With someone like myself, the bar owner must rely on advertising to bring in a crowd and that costs more money on top of what he’s paying me.”
Regarding the various clubs around the south where she has played, she has nothing but good things to say about them all.
has to be one of the best, but then I’ve had great times in
It was important for me to mention the period of not knowing who or what I was. It was a valuable lesson for me that I needed to share, and I soon became an advocate for not using any body altering methods, especially for those who were too young to make those decisions. I never had any face surgery or injections, though many of my colleagues did. I would never object to any “legal” alterations, but I found it profoundly difficult to understand how anyone could let an unauthorized person inject an unknown substance into their face, but it was happening and it was easy to get. There were silicone parties that were probably no more worse than a heroin party with everyone sharing the same needle. It baffled me how some queens would be so desperate to look better, though the reality was that the stuff being injected into their cheeks or lips would shift and move, or even harden into knots. For some, the process became a nightmare, and for many, they just didn’t know when to stop. For me, eating very little each day kept my cheeks accentuated. I didn’t need what could have been floor wax, for all I knew, injected under my skin to make my features stand out.
Oddly enough, the timing of the article was wonderful. As the first Miss Gay Georgia Pageant was going to be held late in August at the Sheraton Hall at the Atlanta Sheraton Biltmore Hotel, I was primed with a big head to enter and win the contest. I mean, who else was more deserving than me? I pulled out all the stops. I had a gown made by Taisha Wallis, and I bought a hot sportswear outfit. I even resurrected the Jesus act for talent. I was ready for a new tiara.
When the time came to announce the winners, I was named first runner up to Vicki Lawrence, an up-and-coming talent from the Onyx Lounge. Nobody told me she could tap dance. Another humbling moment for me, and another reminder from the words of Crystal Blue, “There’s always someone around the corner…”
Though disappointed in not winning, I was very thrilled to watch Vicki being crowned. And I remembered what Wendy had always said, “Win or lose, make sure they talk about you.” I’m sure they did.
As another new year rolled in, I set my goals high for 1977. Established by my own standards by just reflecting on my past, the even years seemed more lucrative and rewarding, and though my belief in higher powers was not great, I still found that some degree of fate or divine intervention always rescued me or set me in a new direction. With 1977 being an odd year, I could have easily told myself to not bother, nothing good ever happens in odd years. However, my glass was always half full. And even if my fate was not all that good, it certainly would not be that bad. In other words, even my bad luck was usually not that bad, and certainly better than others’ misfortunes.
My goals that year were to travel more on the road and to enter contests, the big ones. I was in the mood to run in any event that I could. More than ever, I felt that my pageant prowess was high and sophisticated, and that my time was now.
Chocolate, Shawn, Deva, and many others had headed
west to Texas to live and work the drag circuit that included Dallas,
Houston, San Antonio, and even as far south as Brownsville. Chocolate
was instrumental in getting those bookings for me that paid very well,
but it usually meant spending about six weeks at a time away from home,
then returning home to work at the Sweet Gum Head. The money was too
good to turn down, and even though I was spending time with my old
friends and I made some new ones, too, I found myself most often lonely
and out of place. After all,
Herman and I moved into a three bedroom apartment
in the same complex that we had been living in off Lenox and
Satyn DeVille saw me naked more than anyone I knew, and there had been a lot of people who’d seen me undressed. We shared a dressing room for so many years. Satyn was a smart fellow, but he was also a very passive person, never making waves. Ironically, he also had one of the most wicked tongues around. Satyn had a quick wit, but the only person to hear his words would usually be the one next to him. I was fortunate to be the one next to him for so many nights in the dressing room and he kept me in stitches with his humor and dry satire.
Satyn was one of those entertainers who had everything perfectly in place. His makeup was immaculate, his wardrobe wrinkle free, and his hair always looked professional quaffed. In his early days, he often looked like a brunette version of Cloris Leachman from her stint in the May Tyler Moore Show. I was almost his opposite. He often referred to my wigs as rats’ nests since most of the time I would just tease and spray and put them on my head, all in less than five minutes, and fortunately, I got away with it as having wild hair as my gimmick. When I needed to be glamorous, Satyn obliged me by styling my hair, the whole time with me saying, “Don’t make it too perfect.”
Satyn loved his Wild Turkey and would float around the club between acts looking for someone to buy the next drink. By the end of the evening, he would be highly intoxicated, but still in full control, not missing a beat to his numbers. Normally, he would get out of drag before going home to his wife and his four-year old daughter (that’s another story all together), but sometimes he would just leave after the show in full regalia and drive himself home. Many times, he would tell us, he’d wake up in his car, perfectly parked in the driveway, the sun shining in his eyes.
One day at rehearsal, he came in with an obvious hangover from drinking too much the night before. He poured himself a coke and lit a cigarette, then sat down with the rest of us. We were discussing some new routines. “You won’t believe what happened last night,” he said.
“You get a DUI?” quipped Lavita.
“No, that hasn’t happened, anyway not yet,” Satyn responded in a tone that perhaps one day he would probably be getting a ticket for driving while intoxicated. “No, I went home and luckily, everyone was in bed, so I went into the bathroom to get out of drag and take a shower. I had just gotten into bed when Lauren (his daughter) poked me on the arm and whispered in my ear, ‘Daddy, wake up.’ I told her to go back to bed and she said, ‘But Daddy, I just saw Wonder Woman go into the bathroom.’ I finally convinced her that she had been dreaming and that Wonder Woman was not in the house.”
“That’s hilarious,” I said. Satyn had that Wonder Woman look with the dark shoulder length hair and the heavy eye makeup. We laughed about that story for quite sometime.
It was late spring of 1977 and I was still trying to get over losing the Miss Gay Georgia Pageant to Vicki Lawrence. I mean it didn’t keep me down, and I wasn’t really upset; it was just that I felt that the title should have been mine. Selfish thoughts. Envious feelings. I tried to justify the fact that it was a Jim Nally production, and of course, Jim owned the Onyx lounge where Vicki worked for him, so…but then again, I won the Miss Gay Atlanta contest, which was held at the Sweet Gum Head where I also worked at the time. In all fairness, perhaps there is a home crowd advantage like there is for the home team in ball games. And in all fairness, Vicki did turn out to be a pretty good enertainer. And again, in all fairness, maybe she was just better than me that night. So, in all fairness, she probably won outright. But fairness or not, the reality was the she had the crown and I didn’t. And I wanted it.
Pageant season was starting and by now every gay
bar in the south had a contest, if not more than one, and
Like a soldier leading the troops into savage
territory to be conquered, I was aiming for the title of Miss
Oddly enough, this was a fun pageant with people I
knew and there were some new faces as well. It had been awhile since I
performed in a
From Cruise Magazine, June 1977, an excerpt from an article on the pageant:
stunned the audience with her fabulous Katherine Hepburn impersonation
from the musical
Yes, my talent act had gone accordingly and it was well received. This pageant also featured a swimsuit category in which the contestants went all out. I decided to go vintage Coca-Cola, wearing a 1950’s black bathing suit while standing in front of a giant bottle cap made by Taisha Wallis before I headed down the runway. Taisha had also designed and created my off-the-shoulder silver and black gown for eveningwear.
By the end of the night, nine finalists were announced: Angie DeMarco, Tiny Tina, Dana Manchester, Kim Ross, Tina Christie, Lori Del Mar, Coquina Chel, Chili Pepper, and of course, me, Rachel Wells. It was already apparent that Dana and I were crowd favorites, with Dana having the edge.
And now it was time for the dreaded question and answer segment. One by one, the contestants answered their questions to nice rounds of applause. Then came my question, “What is your recipe for world peace?” For God’s sake, I said to myself in front of two thousand people. What in the world did this topic have to do with being a drag queen? I did a quick grasp of my thoughts and responded.
“I wish I had a real recipe for world peace, but in all honesty, I don’t. But we already have some very good recipes for peace created by others. They come from the teachings of Jesus, of Buddha, of Allah. If we could just remember to treat others like we want to be treated, then peace could be achieved.” Phew, I thought to myself as I got back into the line. Pure bullshit, but that’s what people wanted to hear. My applause was good, so perhaps I did alright, or at least maybe enough to get by on.
Finally, the winners were announced. Kim Ross was
third runner-up, and Chili Pepper was second runner-up.
I was awarded the first runner-up trophy, and Dana Manchester was
crowned the new Miss
Dana turned out to be a good friend and a great
I did a nude, well semi-nude, out-of-drag layout in the featured picture section of Cruise Magazine. I don’t know why I did it, but I did. The photos were professionally shot and filtered, and I only showed my ass. Chocolate said I looked like a scarecrow, but again I was trying to push the limit. I think it was my attempt to separate Rachel from John, making sure that I wouldn’t lose my identity, but I was also trying to separate myself from the pack of other female impersonators. It was a means of elevating my professional status. Of course, I was not alone in this ever evolving process. Hot Chocolate, Michael Andrews, Roxanne Russell, and of course there were others, were doing the same kind of things; to be known as men who impersonated women, but who were not wanting to be women.
I wish I had bigger arms, I thought to myself when I first saw the printed photos. But then again, they wouldn’t look right in spaghetti straps. Ah, the dilemma of living in two worlds with just one body.
The Miss Gay America Pageant was going to be held
“Your name precedes your act,” the man said to me. He had just walked backstage during the talent segment of the contest. “You’re beautiful.”
“Thanks,” I said, feeling a bit odd. There I stood
dressed like an eighty year old
That evening, I didn’t bring my full pageant
package, but I did have a decent gown, and I performed my regular
version of Kate. When it was all over, Jimmie Dee won the title and I
was selected as first alternate. Oddly, it was my third time in a row to
place second in a big contest. I was hoping this wouldn’t be a pattern.
But nonetheless, I qualified to enter the big pageant in
About a week later, I entered the Fort Worth Entertainer of the Year contest, a winner-take-all contest, and it was opened to anyone who wanted to enter it. The prize was one thousand dollars. I ran over to Cow Town and performed my Kate act and then I did some flowing and twirling disco number. There were about fifteen contestants, and we all had to perform two numbers. I just wanted to show some versatility, and it worked. I won the contest, with Donna Day coming in just behind me. I think Donna hated me. I saw it in her eyes. Of course, I felt bad about coming into town and leaving with all that cash, but oh well. It was so Roski Fernandez, wasn’t it? And anyway, even though it wasn’t a “real” pageant, I felt that I had at least broken the “coming in second” streak.
The Miss Gay Georgia Pageant was just around the corner that summer and I was primed to enter. I was amazed at the number of contestants, but more importantly I was awe struck when I saw the names of the contestants who were entering. A month before the contest, the event was dubbed Star Wars, and truly, that would be the case. I decided to go with the Farrah look, wearing a frosted, shag wig. For sportswear, I decided to wear a hot red and white swimsuit, revealed when I took off my mid-length fur coat. It was for pure shock value. And my gown was still being pieced together as the overture was being played. Fortunately, it all came together just in the nick of time.
The pageant was also an opportunity for bar owners to get drunk and showcase themselves, foolishly in front of all who paid to see good entertainment. Of course, they were the ones producing the show, and if you knew them as I did, their entrances and pageantry were funny. If you didn’t know who they were, you might have thought “Who in the hell are these drunk idiots?” It was all part of the game.
The following article is from the Cruise Weekly (a
byproduct of the monthly Cruise Magazine),
(Once upon a
long, long time ago, on a mountain called Olympus, a goddess gave a
golden apple to an assembly of the gods and challenged that it should go
to the “most beautiful.” At least three goddesses laid claim to this
title and entered the contest. Paris, son of the King of Troy, was able
to be the judge. Each goddess tried to persuade the judge to decide in
her favor. Juno offered to make him Lord of
On Tuesday night, August 2nd, another beauty pageant was held. It was called the Miss Gay Georgia Pageant, 1977, and just as in those flaming days of yesteryear, the gods, goddesses, and judges assembled to select the most beautiful person.
The program opened with the overture to Star Wars, certainly an appropriate selection considering the stature of the stars that were competing. Next we had the entry of the emcees, Micky Day and Satyn DeVille in white gowns and R.C. Cola wearing little more than a few grapes. They introduced the contestants, all twenty-one of them and then made way for the entry of the gods.
The gods were something else! Their costumes rivaled those of the contestants, and if you like pretty boys, you’d have loved those six that carried Jupiter into the pageant riding high in his salon chair. Frank Powell was Jupiter and he was attended by Mercury and numerous other gods and goddesses, as well as those hunky bearers. After a welcome from Micky Day, and an introduction of the judges (who, by the way, seemed well qualified), Vicki Lawrence, the 1976 Miss Gay Georgia, made her entry. Then it was time for the evening gown competition. The girls went all out and there was much originality as well as many beautiful creations. Lily White stayed in character with basic black. Vonda Delanie was beautiful in an outstanding orange gown by Ernesto. Taisha Wallis and Lisa Treymonte were beautiful in gowns of their own designs.
The sportswear competition followed and almost everyone stepped out in the latest fashions for fall. Hot Chocolate brought the house down when she appeared in a safari outfit complete with a man. Lily White came in bondage, ropes and chains, while Zette, sponsored by the New Orleans club of Mystic Krewe of Apollo, also appeared in a bizarre outfit.
attracted a lot of stars from other states, as well as the cream of the
crop here in
Tiffany wasn’t the only one to dance to music from the Chorus Line. Terry Douglas and two backup dancers did a fine performance of Music and the Mirror and Kiss Today Goodbye. And Taisha Wallis also did a medley from this popular Broadway hit with all the fine dance numbers.
Great dancing was really the order of the night. Lisa King and her two backup dancers were among the best with some spirited musical numbers which included Blow the Bugle, Hallelujah, and Let’s Hear It for Me. Hot Chocolate showed us some new steps in her performance, but it was typical Chocolate and the crowd loved it. She was dragged onto the stage by four natives who chained her to a tree before doing a little dancing. King Kong appeared over a fence behind her and the natives fled. She managed to get loose and went into her wild disco number. Four hunters in safari outfits joined her in the dance for a while but they deserted her, and in the end, Kong snatched her up and carried her off. Like I said, it was typical Chocolate and it went over great.
Rachel Wells was the winner in the talent competition. At the opening of her performance, an unseen voice said, “Over the years, John Greenwell has become an impressionist.” Lights went on the first spotlighting John as himself and then as Raquel Welch. Then as the music changed, another spotlight revealed him as Carol Channing, Next, to the music of Jesus Christ Superstar, a final spotlight revealed him in an impression of Jesus in that role. Finally, he appeared in person to do a spellbinding impression of Katherine Hepburn. It was so good that for those few moments I completely forgot where I was and I was totally enthralled by the performance.
Another spectacular impression was that of Marilyn Monroe given by Heather Fontaine. A stunning look alike for Marilyn, Heather has perfected her always good rendition of several of Marilyn’s favorites.
many other fine performances, all very professionally done. Vonda
Delanie really got into She’s a Star. Lady Chablis was a crowd favorite
with illusions of Natalie Cole. She did I See the Harbor Lights and
After the intermission, the awards were given. The talent trophy went to Rachel Wells. Then the third runner-up trophy was presented to Lisa King. The second runner-up trophy went to Taisha Wallis and the first runner-up trophy went to Hot Chocolate. There was little doubt left then that Rachel Wells was the winner and sure enough, that’s the way it went. The Gold Apple award was presented to Vicki Lawrence because she was the first Miss Gay Georgia.
It was the
best female impersonation show of any kind that’s been seen in
Chocolate and I decided to run over to the
Majestic, the diner on
“Well, well. It must be Rachel Wells.” A booth of gay guys across from us had recognized me. It happens all the time, I told myself, even in this neighborhood.
“They’re talking about us,” Chocolate whispered to me.
“I know. It’s hard to get away from the fans,” I said, putting a mouthful of hot roast beef and gravy in my mouth.
“Yes, it’s that skanky Rachel Wells. She thinks she’s Jesus.” Chocolate and I suddenly realized that these were no fans.
“And that must be the Ultra Hot Chocolate. Big fucking deal. She doesn’t look too hot to me.”
Chocolate and I looked at each other. “Don’t say anything,” he said to me as I crunched my face in disbelief in what I was hearing. I turned and looked at the booth. Three tiny little redneck drag wannabees were looking at us, legs crossed with cigarettes in their limp wrists, drinking coffee, and not any trace of any eyebrows on their faces. They reminded me of three feral cats eating and hissing at the same time. It was apparent that we were on their turf, but I was not to be challenged into leaving.
“You got a problem?” I asked. I could handle all
three, and I wasn’t a bit intimidated. After all, at one point, I ruled
“No, we don’t have a problem, but you do,” the one sitting next to the wall said.
Trying to be diplomatic, I said, “What gives you the right to bother us while we’re eating?”
“You bothered us. Why, I was feeling perfectly fine until I saw you, and then I felt ill. You made me sick. Both of you make me sick.”
We exchanged a few more barbs, and Chocolate was ready to run out. He hated any form of physical confrontation, always worried about damage to his face. With our voices getting louder, the waitress came back and asked what was going on.
“Nothing, except these people are bothering us while we’re drinking our coffee,” the spokesperson for the group said.
“I’m sorry, but they were bothering us,” I quipped back.
“You’ll have to leave,” the waitress told us. She was throwing Chocolate and me out of the restaurant, and not just any restaurant, but the Majestic of all places.
“We were just leaving anyway,” I said. I wanted to slap the little fart as he sucked on his cigarette, a snide grin on his face. “I’ll see you another time,” I said in a low voice as we followed the waitress to the cash register to pay our bill. She rang up the total and I put money on the counter. She handed me my change.”
“Those people started it,” I said, trying to make my case.
“Those people have a right to be here like anyone else. They can’t help it because they’re gay, and you have no right to come in here and make fun of them, so just go somewhere else. We don’t need you here.”
Chocolate and I exited the place and headed for the car.
“Did she say ‘Those people’?” I asked, totally stunned.
“She thought we were straight,” Chocolate said, beginning to laugh.
“Didn’t she see you sashay when you came into the place?” I asked, mocking his swishy walk. We both laughed and snapped our fingers in the air. It was time to get out of the neighborhood.
It was my third time to enter the pageant when it
was held in
There were thirty-three contestants, but with the dancers and promoters and all the other entourages, it seemed like a hundred. Many were my peers who had worked with me at the Sweet Gum Head or they were entertainers that I had worked with when I was on the road. Though competitive, the contest had an air of friendship and encouragement for others. Hell, we had all worked together and if we hadn’t, we would.
Michael Andrews was there to give up his crown. He
had won the contest the year before when it was held in
Soon after moving to
Michael was a fun fellow, too. We often worked together, but always out of state, or we’d be competing in a contest. Many times, contests became like get togethers for many of us, being serious during competition, but having a blast afterwards. In most cases, it didn’t really matter who won. It was just an opportunity for old friends to reunite. Michael was one of those old friends.
The first night of preliminaries, I won the talent competition with my Kate act and received two-hundred fifty dollars in prize money and a plaque. I was on my way. On the final night, the top ten finalists were announced: Jennifer Fox, Jimmy Dee, Ronnie Summers, Lady Shawn, Hot Chocolate, Lisa King, Donna Drag, Genevieve Ryder, Ginger Roberts, and me, Rachel Wells. We would compete again in all the categories. The night was long, and for some reason I could feel the wind in my sails shifting directions. Jimmy Dee was a crowd favorite and Chocolate was gaining the momentum. When the winners were announced, Jimmy Dee had won the title, and Chocolate collected the two-thousand dollar first runner-up prize money. I was happy for Chocolate. He was definitely in the big time now.
Even though I won the talent category and made the top ten that year, I just wasn’t what the judges wanted. I felt as though I did my best, but my best just wasn’t good enough. Perhaps, a loose thread here or there. Maybe my sportswear wasn’t appropriate. Maybe someone got wind that Lisa King and I secretly left the hotel on the next to final night after curfew to get something to eat at the all night diner down the road. Surely, no one saw us walking in the high grass next to the road on our way to the diner and back. We looked like two gay ex-cons on the run, ducking into the weeds every time a car went by. When we ordered our food to go, we had to assure the nervous waitress that we weren’t on the run or that we weren’t going to rob her; we just weren’t supposed to be out at night. She was extremely confused. We were just hungry.
Oh well, who knows. Of course, having my hem on my evening gown getting snagged in my shoe’s buckle didn’t help either as I paraded down the runway during evening gown competition with the left side of my dress being pulled lower with every step I took. At the end of the contest, I just had to be gracious and move on. Jimmy Dee was flawless in all categories. The crown was his.
“It’s your move,” I said. I caught Mike looking at my crotch as we sat across from one another. A smile came across his face.
“I know it is. I’m just trying to figure out when I
was going to make it,” he said back to me, winking his right eye. He was
coming on to me, and I hated winkers. He was cute and pretentious, every
pleat perfect, every hair in place; yet the reality was that I didn’t
just come here to play backgammon, I came to find someone who wanted to
get wild and crazy. Well, that person would be the ideal
“I’m talking about the game,” I said, pointing to
the game board in front of us. Yeah, he would be the one, at least at
this point in the evening. Here I was in
It was apparent that we were both getting bored
with the game. The next thing I knew he was driving me to his apartment
across town. He didn’t look like a murderer, but killers look different
The next morning we woke up to the ringing of the phone. “Hello,” Mike said, pulling himself up to a sitting position. I opened my eyes, looking up at him. He sure looked cuter the night before. He looked down at me. He was probably thinking the same thing about me.
“Oh, I’m just getting up. Yeah, well yes, I did meet someone last night,” he said. This was going to get awkward. The caller was wanting to know about Mike’s trick, and there I was getting ready to hear my score on how well I performed. I wished I was dressed and out the door already.
“Yeah, I had a great time,” he said, grinning at me and rubbing my arm. “Yeah, he’s still here. Yeah. Uh huh.” I rolled over, facing the wall, looking down at the floor. There was the used condom just laying there with what was left of my band of dead sperm. Poor things. They were doomed from the start.
“But I don’t want to see a drag show tonight. I know it’s packed on Sundays, but you know I hate drag shows. It’s sick, you know, men dressing like women. And anyway, they carry diseases.” I knew that I had worked hard to get to the point of living two lives, one as John and the other as Rachel Wells, but I also hated to hear the disgust for my profession. On the other hand, I also understood Mike’s position on the matter. I used to hate watching them too, and for the very same reason. But this was also my show that he was talking about.
“Yeah, well, okay. But just for the first show and that’s all I can stomach. Yeah, okay. I’ll pick you up.” Mike hung up the phone and then cuddled up next to me, ready for a morning fuck. Little did he know. I wanted to break out in my Katherine Hepburn monologue, but then, I still needed to get a ride home.
“Gosh, I’ve gotta go,” I said as I looked for a clock.
“Yeah, I’ve got a lot to get done this morning. You’ll give me a ride?”
“Sure. And where is your friend’s apartment?”
I told him the address, but I had no clue on how to get there, but he said he knew where it was. We were soon dressed and in his car driving across town. I was still bothered about his comments on the drag show. It was a quiet drive, both of us trying to wake up and still feeling awkward, if not just plain guilty for having almost anonymous sex the night before. I stared at the asphalt through the windshield. This town has more interstate highway, I thought to myself, more asphalt than... Before I could finish my thought, we came off the ramp and I saw Larry’s apartment complex. We pulled up front.
“So when can I see you again, or can I?” he asked.
“Well, I don’t know. You’re going out with your friend tonight, so you won’t…”
“Yeah, I won’t be able to tonight, you know, to see you,” he said. I wasn’t really interested in playing around with him again. I mean he was nice, but he wasn’t all that. And anyway, I was on tour and couldn’t even think about a long term romantic relationship, especially with someone who hated drags. Imagine that.
“I’ve promised Bob that I’d go see that damn drag show tonight,” he said. Well, that was it. He was referring to “my” damn drag show, and if he really didn’t want to go, then when in hell would he go? The window of opportunity was wide open and I couldn’t miss this chance to crack his face.
“Well, you might see me tonight.” I said.
“Yes, as a matter of fact, you will see me tonight. I’ll be the tall one in the show. The tall, pretty one.” I had to throw pretty in there. “And do me a favor. Let your friend know that the tall and pretty one fucked you last night. He should get a kick out of that. I think you did. Oh, and thank god we used protection,” I said, rolling my eyes. “I sure would’ve hated to give you some sick drag disease.” The look on his face was that of pure shock.
“Thanks for the good time,” I said. “See you later.” I got out of the car and closed the door. I went into the apartment. A few minutes later, I looked out the window and he was still there. Probably still in shock. I took a shower to wash away my sins, came downstairs, and peaked out the window again. He was gone. I suppose he just had to get his head together after getting the breaking news. Poor dear. His life was changed forever.
I was touring on the road, and splitting my time in
It was an extremely lonely time for me, being on the road. I felt that I was at another crossroads with my career and with my life. To be honest, I wasn’t enjoying performing as I once had. I had become known as the “Sweet Heart of the South,” a nice prelude of an introduction, but tame by my previous standards. But it was heartening to know that most people didn’t think of me as a bitch. For me, there just didn’t seem to be any novelty in doing drag any more, and impersonators were a dime a dozen anywhere in the country. I even thought about just being bitchy. I saw it work for some entertainers, but that wasn’t me.
The music was a factor as well. The most popular music was being performed by Patti Labelle, Tina Turner, Diana Ross, all black singers, and there were plenty of black drags to impersonate them. Other than my dearest Barbra, I had no consistent music providers, though the Melissa Manchester songs carried me through some rough spots. And disco music was limited for me as well. I couldn’t compete with the likes of Chocolate and some others when it came time to dance. As much as I tried, there was not a black bone in my body. I did jump on the “soft” disco tunes, the ones that my black friends thought were too white for them, but even those were limited.
I kept remembering about the man in
That summer, after thinking long and hard about it,
I told Chocolate that I was going to enter the Miss Gay South
preliminary to qualify for the Miss Gay America Pageant to be held in
During the interview for the Miss Gay South
contest, the judges asked me why I wanted to win Miss Gay South.
I told them that I wasn’t there to win; I just wanted to qualify
for the Miss Gay America Pageant.
My goal was to be first runner-up. They looked puzzled when I
made my statement, but they granted my wish.
I was announced as first alternate to the Lady Shawn. Oddly
enough, Allan Allison was working in
Back home in
Everything went very well, the competition was incredible, and the crowds were totally entertained throughout the pageant during the preliminaries held at the Sweet Gum Head. Talent was tough, to say the least. I was grouped with Vicki Lawrence, who could easily tap her way to the finals. My Jesus Christ Superstar act during the preliminary night didn’t quite click. I had revamped my costume, but the transition from Jesus to Mary didn’t go as smoothly as expected. Herman and Charles were dressed as Roman soldiers for my entrance as I carried the cross, and they were perfect in the addition to the act. It looked more like a production number than just a solo act. However, Vicki was announced as the preliminary talent winner that night. Once again, her damn tap shoes outdid my act of dragging the cross onto the stage. For a brief moment, I thought about a new talent, perhaps me as Jesus tap dancing to Wall Street, or maybe as Mary Magdalene kicking my legs high like a Rockette. The thoughts were fleeting.
Sportswear was a different story. I threw things together to come up with a “fishy” little outfit, with a total cost of less than one hundred dollars. I was standing in the hall waiting to do sportswear with the likes of ensembles from Calvin Klein and some questionable furrier names. I never saw so many queens sweating from wearing fur coats in September. At the last minute, I felt I had to have one on. I remember asking Roxanne Russell if I could borrow her kolinsky, or rather, a cheap piece of fox, to wrap around my neck, the kind that still had the head on it. She obliged. To the amazement of the others who spent hundreds if not thousands of dollars on outfits that would never be worn on stage for any other event, I won the sportswear category. Admittedly, I was surprised, too, and a bit embarrassed. It was to be my category to just get by on, and here I won it. I guess it’s sometimes true that it’s not what you wear, but how you wear it.
Again, before the final night, I found myself in my hotel room having a late night craving for food. I never ate much before performing, and during the Miss Gay America Pageant, the four days of not eating much seemed to always catch up with me. We had “floor mothers” who walked the halls looking for curfew violators. It would be difficult to get food, but luckily for me, Micky Day was monitoring right outside my room. I asked if I could run down to the restaurant on the main floor and get a bite to eat or else I would become deathly sick. Technically, I wouldn’t be leaving the hotel, so I wouldn’t be violating curfew. Being the kind person that she was, she agreed to let me go. I remember eating the best damn piece of fried chicken and the most savory pile of mashed potatoes! On returning, I no sooner got to the elevator in the lobby when I heard, “Rachel Wells! What are you doing down here?” I turned, expecting see the Wicked Witch of the West, but instead it was the Lady Baronessa, hands on hips, and her eyes about to pop out of her head. Baronessa was one of the sweetest people anyone could ever have known, but during pageant time, she turned into a pit bull, bossing folks around, clapping her hands and shouting, “Ladies, ladies! Let’s be quiet and listen!” I explained to her that Micky had given me permission to go eat. She felt I should have gotten the food to go, if at all, and that I violated curfew. She would have to tell Norman, the owner of the contest.
That morning, I told
On the final night, held at the Fox Theater in
“As Miss Gay America I will NOT try to represent the gay community as a spokesperson for such a diverse group. As Miss Gay America, my goal will be to take drag off the streets and put it on stage to help promote the art of female impersonation as a legitimate form of entertainment.” The crowd and the judges liked my answer. Even Shawn Luis would have been proud. Unfortunately, my friend Chocolate was announced as first runner-up. His dream would have to wait another year. Fortunately for me, I won, and became Miss Gay America 1979.
It didn’t take long to realize that my goal as I stated in my on-stage interview was lofty and unrealistic, but my purpose soon became apparent as I started to attend the next year’s preliminaries. “You’re so nice,” was a common description given to me by pageant promoters. Apparently, I was not as demanding and insistent as my predecessor. I even carried my own luggage, helped others out, and just tried to have a good time. Somehow this was odd for some folks. They had expected another diva.
Another odd thing happened.
As an entertainer, I had always been known for the characters
that I portrayed, and for the wild hair and makeup.
Not only had I been struggling to manage the identities of John
as well as Rachel Wells, I now had a new persona to contend with, that
of Miss Gay America. Suddenly, as Miss Gay America, all the audience
wanted to see was me stand on stage, looking pretty, and move my lips to
one of the many ballads in my repertoire.
I spent a year not sweating on stage.
It was great, but not challenging.
I soon found myself saving my really good acts, like my Jesus
Christ Superstar/Mary Magdalene, Katherine Hepburn and Carol Channing
routines, for special occasions.
I also found traveling to be easier with less luggage.
But taking the easy way out was not always the best choice.
Toward the end of my reign I had been invited to be part of show in
Before I captured the crown I traveled so much, but
the title led me to new places that I hadn’t been before.
I found myself becoming an ambassador for the pageant, as well as
female impersonation. Though
I had a busy schedule before, being Miss Gay America did open more doors
for special occasions. On my
first visit to
I also found it amazing how people would pay their
respects to me, the reigning queen.
One time in
Drags in other cities would try to flatter me by
attempting to look like me, especially if they were tall and thin. I
can’t tell you how many times I would perform in a city and then go back
for another gig to be sharing a dressing room and stage with someone
looking and dressing like me.
As the year progressed, I learned to accept the
role of official queen. There would probably be no more competitions
when my reign was over. After all, winning this crown was the ultimate
tiara. Like Kentucky Derby winners, I would probably be put out to
pasture. Until then, I savored the role of gay royalty. Somehow, gays
love royalty. I also began
to accept the emulation and forms of flattery that were bestowed upon
me. It was a great year,
with lots of traveling, meeting people that I can hardly now remember,
as well as meeting some of my greatest friends ever.
Many people put so much effort, time, and money into pageants to
be accepted, when in reality, it all passes when it’s all said and done.
I was an entertainer before Miss Gay America.
Being Miss Gay America did not establish me as the best, but
being the best for a few nights in a contest in
Of course, the ride ended in September of 1979, when Chocolate won the crown. It was a thrill and pleasure to pass the torch to him. He, on the other hand, was just glad to win the damn thing after being first runner-up for two years in a row.
My first time to see the Lady Baronessa was in
I had the chance to work with her over the years and to hang out with her. Though I saw her out of drag often, Baronessa was at the point of being just that…Baronessa. Though male, the thought of the beauty having a penis just didn’t seem right. Out of drag, she was quite androgynous. In drag, she was pure woman.
I used to get a kick out of how serious she became during the Miss Gay America contest as she would be in charge of herding the contestants from one event to another. “Now, listen ladies,” she would say, no matter how butch any of the contestants looked. In or out of drag, we were all ladies. She would look for those who would break the rules, deliberate violators or not. She was a watch dog always on the alert for someone to step over the line. When pageant season was not going on, she was a bit more relaxed, but still, the royal blood seemed to run through her Puerto Rican veins.
I had the pleasure as Miss Gay America to travel
with Baronessa and Norman Jones to
All of a sudden, lightening hit the wing of the plane. I don’t know what scared us the most, the sound of thunder and the flash of lightening hitting the wing, or the sound of Baronessa screaming at the top of her lungs. The flight attendant came running to find Baronessa in a panic. She kept screaming and sweat was profusely dripping from her face.
“Are you okay? Can I get you anything?” the attendant asked Baronessa.
“A wet towel. A cold one,” I said, answering for Baronessa.
“No, scotch! Scotch on the rocks! A double,” Baronessa yelled, ordering the attendant as if it were last call.
“Sure,” the attendant said, and then she rushed to the front of the plane.
Norman and I tried to calm Baronessa down, but she was obviously still panicking.
“Please! I need a drink!” she yelled. The flight attendant hustled back with a wet towel in one hand and the drink in the other. Baronessa downed the scotch and said, “Another, quick!” With eyes wide open, the attendant went and prepared another double, and then one more after that. Soon we landed.
It was about eleven in the evening and the airport was not too crowded. As we waited for our luggage to come onto the carousel, Baronessa was busy touching up her makeup, looking into her compact mirror as she brushed through the curls on her wig, making sure every strand was in place. She had just finished reapplying her lipstick when a short and cute Latino approached her and said, “Excuse, me. I just want to let you know that you are one of the most beautiful drags that I have ever seen.”
Baronessa’s eyes began to bulge as she began to berate the guy in Spanish. He stepped back and began to walk away, looking wounded.
“Gosh, Barry. What did you say to him?” I asked.
“I told him he had a lot of nerve to think that I was a drag queen, and that he insulted me, my mother, my family…” and she went on and on and on. Baronessa was not a drag queen. Baronessa was a woman. A real woman of royalty. She fascinated me with the delusion of herself that she had created in her mind. Oddly enough, many of us get caught up into our own levels of delusion whether it’s with makeup on or not. I suppose it’s a survival mechanism for many. For the Lady Baronessa it was a way of life, and if I might add, she did it her way.
For most gay men in the south, if there was any
The first opportunity that I had to work with Lil was a few years later when I was the show director at the Sweet Gum Head. We had booked him for the New Year’s Eve show as our featured guest. We made sure that he would go on close to the countdown with plenty of time to entertain beforehand. We were packed with our regular patrons, but Lil also brought in a large following, and many of them were rude and inconsiderate of the regular cast. As each performer came out, chants of “Lil! Lil! Lil!” came from the back of the club. This continued for the length of the show, and once Lil did appear, only his fans applauded, clearly a backlash from the crowd for his fans being rude to the other entertainers. I chatted with him after the show in the office, and voiced my displeasure with his fan base and with him. The meeting was conducted in a professional tone and we shared a moment of mutual respect; a bit of detente between a legend and one who hoped to be.
A few years later, I made sure that Lil would be a
weekend addition to the show.
He had an originality like no other using his emceeing abilities
to a new level never seen in
One Saturday evening during curtain calls, Lil was
calling out the cast for final bows.
As he continued to call out each cast member, Lisa was imitating
Lil’s gestures as if to be mocking the emcee.
It was Lisa’s attempt to upstage the star.
Unfortunately for Miss King, Diamond Lil was in his element and
at the top of his game.
Without blinking an eye, Lil said to the crowd and Lisa, “Excuse me my
dear. Your attempts to
upstage me are for naught, for you see my dear…the king of spades
(pointing to Lisa) will never outshine the queen of diamonds!”
Lil posed in old
Bertha, or Oscar, as I liked to call him, was such
a decent human being, and when I say decent, I mean that in a business
where many can’t be trusted, he was open and honest, and above all, very
kind. When he first came
On one slow evening towards the end of the second show he came down to my dressing room. He lit a joint and said, “Here, baby. Take a toke.” I wasn’t a fan of pot and never smoked it during a show; in fact, I never allowed it, but for some reason I let him blow the smoke into my mouth and I inhaled. “Enjoy,” he said, smiling at me with his big brown face, his extra large eyelashes fluttering.
I’m not sure when it hit me, but I do know that during my final number I was getting carried away with spinning and ran smack into the wall. It was supposed to be a seriously glamorous dance number, but it turned into a klutzy comedy routine. Thank goodness it was a slow night. The only ones who got a kick out of my number were the bartenders and waiters, and of course, Oscar. He came back to the dressing room after the show and said, “Girl, you were putting a spinning down till that wall got in your way.” Though a bit embarrassed by the experience, I had to chuckle.
After giving up the Miss Gay America crown, I was now able to get back to just juggling two identities again. By now, John had learned to maneuver around the drag schedule, and it actually became easier for me to differentiate between my two alter egos. I was also excited about being able to let Rachel loose. I wanted to let her evolve into something more dynamic and appealing, and of course, different. After a short amount of deliberation, I wanted to be an Amazon Goddess. And thus, that became my new tag line: Rachel Wells, the Amazon Goddess! Well, I had to elevate myself to a higher level. After all, I wasn’t the queen anymore, so what would be more gratifying and ambitious than to become a goddess? It was the perfect fit.
I wore longer and wilder hair teased high, incorporated Pat Benatar music into my act, and I began to wear body padding to give me a more voluptuous figure. I wore spandex to keep it all in place. Thank goodness my timing was right as I entered the eighties. Rachel was a more mature, sexier character, with less focus on being real and more emphasis on being a caricature of a vixen. It worked well, though there were those who still preferred the beauty queen image. Of course, as always, I had to regress and tone back every now and then just to give the fans what they wanted. And when I was able to perform my other polished characters, it was an added plus to my repertoire.
Gay publications were abounding in
I curtailed my
Tiffany Arieagus was one of those beauties who also possessed so much talent. Her timing was perfect in that she came in during the disco craze, as did other dancing queens. But she would have been famous no matter what she did. Other than dancing, she loved to show flesh and she showed it well.
I first met Tiffany at the Miss Gay Georgia Pageant
in 1977. The pageant was
being billed as the Star Wars of pageants because of all the stars who
were entering. I had heard of her, and Hot Chocolate was the first to
say, “You better look out!”
And Chocolate was right. She was not only stunning in her evening wear,
but she knocked the crowd over with her talent.
She didn’t win (thank goodness…that would mean that I didn’t),
nor did she place in the top, but she left her mark. People in
Though she was from
She started to work at the Sweet Gum Head in the late Seventies on a rotation system. We were the first to do No More Tears (Enough is Enough) by Barbra Streisand and Donna Summer. The two of us could have done it over and over because the crowd loved it and we had so much fun performing it as well. I fed off Tiffany’s energy, and I truly believed we complimented each other on stage. It was also nice to do a duet with someone as tall as me other than Lisa King. I did feel a bit intimidated wearing the outfits that we wore for the number. The taffeta skirts with corsets had a gypsy look to them; however, I looked very flat-chested next to the buxom beauty. She had a gorgeous bosom!
At the Gum Head, things were brewing, and it wasn’t necessarily for the best. A new cast had been formed as a regular show that would focus on high end dance production numbers, with the guests appearing after the opening and before the closing numbers. The show was directed and choreographed by Marc Jones. Lisa King and I were the mainstays of the so called guests coming in to perform, and it was easy for the most part, just performing four numbers a night. I wanted to have input into the productions, to offer spontaneity and comedy to the show, but my input was disregarded. I soon got over it and learned to just appreciate the opportunity to perform at my convenience. Lisa, on the other hand, became quite vocal about the show itself; spouting off publicly that the show was not very good, calling the cast “cheap labor.” She went on to say that the cast was against her and me. I really did not want to get involved in the situation, at least not in the manner that came about.
The publications were eating the controversy up, and quite frankly, I believed that they instigated the bulk of the dispute. Even Taisha Wallace, now employed as a Gum Head costume designer, wrote an article, lashing out at Lisa. In the Gaybriel article, she wrote of me:
The most puzzling aspect of Lisa’s interview was the constant referral to Rachel. I’m surprised to learn that he harbored such feelings. Other than the first week or so after the change over, Rachel has been everything I ever felt he was. A true professional. He has never been late for a show or number and has always been ready to respond to the needs of the show. Rachel, I only hope that Lisa is just using your name for leverage for her “cause” and that you don’t really show the same opinion. If so, I’m sorry that you do. If not, I’m glad.
Why didn’t anyone come to me and ask me my opinion? I was out of town when the articles were circulating among the quid nuts. These publications, though great for publicity, were no more credible than the National Inquirer, yet people couldn’t wait for them to come out with the latest gossip and hearsay. Though there was some merit to Lisa’s argument, it was tacky to target specific people in the show to attack publicly, especially when those people worked long and hard hours for small pay to provide top notch production numbers. I tried my best to stay out of it, by following through with apologies for Lisa, understanding that I also wanted to perform with the cast and I had respect for the work they did.
Of course, I sort of wanted to alienate myself from Lisa, but at the same time, we did some incredible things together. So it was tough to maneuver the situation, though, I felt in time, things would blow over. And it did. Lisa was usually in the middle of any controversy, and this was no different.
Lisa and I worked out an agreement with the Sweet
Gum Head manager to have a Sunday special once a month. In the past, I
had done specials every now and then, working for the door, which was
quite lucrative for a ninety minute show.
My latest show was with Laverne, Chocolate, Brandy Lee, and
Diamond Lil, and it was called Nutty Hot Fudge Sunday. For publicity
photos, we posed as nuns in drag. It was a classic picture that I just
loved, especially with the Southern Baptist Laverne guzzling a bottle of
I had no doubt that Lisa and I (along with Laverne) could pack the place for our First Sunday Special, as we named the show, and our first one was just that. Packed. However, the show was not without its problems. The opening was supposed to start at eleven. By twelve, I was in a nervous twit because Lisa was nowhere to be found. Eventually, she arrived in a limo, sending word for me to come out the back door to get in it and then we would ride to the front, let it park for five minutes, and then we would get out and walk through the front door of the Gum Head to the opening music. Of course, that was our original plan to start with, but at eleven, not twelve. Fortunately, we got the show underway and things went well after that. When the night was over, and after we cleared our expenses, we both took home a thousand dollars each. Not bad.
The next month’s show didn’t go so well. We flew in
Donna Day from
As the drag winds in
Lisa had been given an opportunity to put together
a show at the Cabaret Room at Numbers, a new and exciting club down the
street from the Gum Head.
Over the years, numerous clubs had opened on
I was in
“What do I tell them is the reason?” he asked me.
“I don’t care, just tell them something.”
“Like what?” he persisted.
“Like I got hit by a truck or something,” I flippantly blurted back. We spoke a little while longer before saying good bye.
Upon my return, I was in the drug store at Ansley Mall when a woman came up to me and asked if I was alright. I assured her that I was, and then I inquired about why she thought I wasn’t. Apparently, after my call with Charles, he called Lisa, who in turn called R.C. Cola to tell him of the news, and when Friday rolled around, he proceeded, out of the kindness of his heart, to let the audience know that I had been hit by a truck crossing a street in Houston, Texas, and to please pray for my recovery. I let her know that her prayers worked and I went on my way.
That next Friday night as I went to enter the front door, I was stopped by the bouncer and asked for I.D. and a cover fee. I told the obviously new front man that I was in the show and my name was Rachel Wells. He didn’t believe me. Thank god, at last someone doesn’t see me as Rachel Wells. But I had to get ready for the show that started in just a little over an hour.
“Honestly, I’m in the show,” I said, pointing to my picture on the marquee, still trying to be polite. He kept shaking his head slowly, left to right. I was feeling embarrassed as the patrons in line were being amuzed.
“How do I know that?” he asked. I should have just called for management, but they wouldn’t have recognized me either.
“I’m the one that got hit by a truck in
“You’re kidding? That was you?”
“Yeah, that was me,” I said, emoting a sigh.
“I guess that was you, I mean is you. Go on in.”
“Thanks,” I said, slowly walking away, slightly limping, pausing to look back at him with sad eyes. The cocksucker was feeling sorry for me. How sweet. Would I have to do this every time I came to work, I thought to myself. And how many times could I possibly get hit by an imaginary truck?
I was being led down the steps into the basement. It was hard to walk down the steep stairs with four-inch heels on. I was barely awake at eight in the morning, and with hardly any sleep I had started putting my makeup on at . Normally, on a show night, I would just be getting home. The door opened. It was smoke filled and full of people. Their heads turned, looking at me as if they had all been waiting for my arrival.
“Good morning, Rachel. You look beautiful.” Burt Reynolds had just said I looked beautiful! I bet not many guys have heard that from him.
“Thanks,” I said. “Where do you want me?”
“Right over here with Brian,” he answered, walking me over to a desk. I sat down and looked up. My god! It was Uncle Bill! I was sitting across from Uncle Bill!
“Hi, I’m Brian Keith,” he said, holding out his hand for me to shake.
“Hi, I’m Rachel…uh, John,” I said, not sure if the
cast or principles knew who I was supposed to be.
It had only been three weeks ago that the casting call came out
for a prostitute drag role in the movie “Sharky’s Machine,” starring and
being directed by Burt Reynolds. After a friend of mine called me about
it, I made an appointment with casting. Apparently, by the sight of the
waiting room, all the queens in
When it was my turn to meet with staff, it was as if the casting crew already knew me. As it turned out, Burt had remembered me from his visit to the Sweet Gum Head a few years earlier when I gave him refuge in my dressing room, and when he found out I was bringing my photos, he asked them to be kind to me. The way they retold the story of my first encounter with Burt, it was if they had been there themselves. How nice. I showed them my pictures, they told me what I’d be doing, when and where to report, and shook my hand as they congratulated me. They also asked me not to say anything yet about the part because they were looking at others for possible additional roles. My lips were sealed. At least until I could get home and tell Herman and Charles.
Unfortunately, I later had to listen to Charlie Brown talk about how he was getting the role, the whole time I knew that he didn’t get it. And he didn’t. They added Lisa as the next actor. I’m sure the choice of Lisa hurt Charlie more than not getting the part.
Brian Keith was trying to make conversation with me and all I could do was sit there in awe, staring at him, shaking my head in agreement to his comments. He was an icon. “When I was a kid, there was a female impersonator who lived in the apartment above me and my mother. I can’t remember his name, but he sure was funny,” he said, starting a new story between takes. Across the make shift vice squad room were Charles Durning and Berney Casey. I didn’t recognize anyone else. All extras, I thought to myself. And the cops were probably local.
After an hour of shooting we took a short break. I outdid myself, wearing all black and full padding. My legacy was now on the line, to be immortalized on film for the rest of the world to see for an eternity. But I wasn’t used to being in drag all day, and I could see a problem with wearing the padding till five, especially while sitting down the entire time. The circulation in my legs would be cut off, and they’d probably have to be amputated, but I’d still be immortalized on film, not as a drag queen but as an actor who sacrificed his legs for the profession. An Oscar maybe?
I stood against the support beam, straightening my legs and lighting a cigarette. Everyone was watching me. It was weird. Didn’t they know I was a drag queen, or an actor playing one? Surely, they didn’t think I was real, not at this time in my career, and especially with the outfit I was wearing and the persona that I was evoking. Three officers who were hired as extras approached me.
“Hi, you sure are good looking,” the one in the middle said.
“Thanks,” I said back in a lower than usual voice, blowing the smoke in his face. That was my way of getting rid of a come on, and it was a come on. I hated to be flirted with when I was in drag. His eyes widened. His buddy to the left leaned over and whispered something in his ear. His eyes widened more. Then his friends broke out in laughter as they turned and walked away. Dumb asses, I said to myself. But it was a good joke to play on a buddy, especially when he was a cop. I didn’t mind being a part of it. I was after all, the queen of pranks.
We got back to work. They were shooting each scene front and back, side to side, first with noise and then without any sound. It was tedious work. One actress playing a hooker had to scream and shout her lines as she broke out into tears. She was like a faucet, turning it on and off, then back on again, right on cue. It was a shame Lisa was missing all this. She arrived late and wasn’t ready to go on even though she had been up all night the night before because she was performing in her Sunday show. She was already in drag but wanted to reapply her makeup. No matter, the people in movies wait for no one, and I assumed that she was in the dressing room in full makeup and now sound asleep. I didn’t even know why she bothered to even come. Hopefully, she might learn one day that not everyone waits for Lisa King.
The morning was going by quickly, and between takes, Brian and I had continued to have short conversations. He was a nice man. We were supposed to make up our lines after Burt gave us the scenario between us. I was a drag prostituting with other hookers at a political rally and there was this big raid, and we were brought in for booking. It was odd that all the actresses playing hookers were short people. I easily felt like the Amazon Goddess that I envisioned myself to be.
The camera crew crept slowly from the back of the room, shooting all the takes, until finally, it was time for Uncle Bill, I mean the detective, to interrogate me. No one knew it but I was in such pain. In fact I was beginning to sweat because I had to pee so bad. I just kept thinking, one more scene and then us. Finally, I heard the word “action” and we were rolling. The camera was panning from the back of my head, coming around to the front of me as the detective and I were conversing.
“Your name?” he asked.
“Rachel,” I said in a soft voice, trying to be real. He looked at me like he wasn’t buying it. “Okay. Ralph. My name is Ralph,” I said, at which point I then blurted out, “and I really have to pee and if I don’t go now (I’m looking at Burt at this point, stationed behind the camera) I’ll be peeing all over this place.”
“Cut!” Burt directed. “Hey, that was funny,” he said with that famous grin on his face.
“No, you don’t understand. I really have to go and I have to go now.”
“Let’s take a break,” he said laughing out loud.
“That way,” he said as he pointed to the door on the side of the set.
I went running as fast as my heels would let me, making my way through the crowded room of extras, and finally I ran into a security guard. “Take your pick,” he said pointing to both restrooms. Using the restroom in drag has always been a dilemma. Women freak out if they know you’re a man, and men, well, they freak out even more when someone wearing a dress walks into the men’s room. Today, I was an actor, and by god I would use the men’s room. Luckily, no one was in there, and it took me forever to get the padding off and pulled down, dancing the whole time and praying that I had at least thirty more seconds before disaster would strike. I mean, how could I show my face if I pissed all over myself? I got to my penis just in time to direct the piss away from my body and into the toilet. My gosh, it felt good. And it was at that point that I didn’t care if anyone came in and saw me with my dress pulled up over my shoulders, legs spread apart, panty hose and padding down to my ankles, and me holding my dick while the urine arched its way into the commode.
When I returned to the set, and fully composed like
nothing had happened, Burt informed me that he loved the lines and he
wanted to incorporate them into the script. He said it was hilarious.
And so we did it over and over, but I don’t think we truly captured the
urgency of the original moment.
Oh well, I would have to accept that my introduction to fleeting
Oddly enough, the peeing episode hit the newspaper
before I was even off the set. I was mentioned in the Atlanta Journal in
a Ron Hudspeth column,
Atlantan Bill Dehl, who wrote “Sharky’s Machine,” now being filmed here through the end of May, landed a part in the movie as a pimp. Oh well, you have to start somewhere…Rachel Wells is probably Atlanta’s most famous female impersonator and has landed a role in the movie, but she thoroughly confused a Lakewood Fairgrounds custodian the other day. “I didn’t know which bathroom to send he or she to,” he said.
The next day, Lisa was on time and we were brought onto the set and put into the holding cell. Burt put me in front and he told Lisa to sit on the bench in the back of the cell. As the morning went on, Lisa fell asleep and no one even noticed. Hell, no one could even see her. I just hoped that she wouldn’t start to snore. She didn’t. And the next day, it was the same thing. We were props at this time, with scenes all around us. My only moment of movement on the final two days was when one of the detectives walked by the cell and slapped his fist on the bars right in front of my face. I had to jump back, acting startled, and of course, we had to shoot that scene a few times. I felt like a real actor after that, even if I did have a dress on.
Burt was very kind those three days, giving us more breaks than on the first day. It didn’t take him long to realize that I had a very small bladder.
By summer, I was ready to call it quits. The show bar at Numbers was faltering, and to be quite honest, I was bored when I worked there, especially during the last show waiting for Lisa to finish her self-adulation act for a dwindling crowd of drugged-out straight people at six in the morning. The Sweet Gum Head was rumored to be closing soon, and Herman and Charles were on the outs. I was not eager to hit the road, and quite frankly, I was really tired of performing all together. I was thirty years old, with no real direction in life and no immediate goals. I felt like I was being swallowed up in a black hole, totally out of control and no way to be saved. I don’t know if I was so wrapped up into preserving this creature that I had created or if I was just taken aback with all the changes that were coming my way. In order to put myself into the driver’s seat, if only for even a short time, I needed to take action. And I made a drastic decision. I was going to quit doing shows, drag shows. Rachel Wells would be put to rest.
I had made friends with the bar owner, Buddy
Brindle, and his partner Jeff, in
I rented a U-Haul truck, and Herman and Charles helped me pack it full. I was hoping to feel like Mary Tyler Moore, wanting to feel free and fresh with a new start, but I only felt heartsick as I said goodbye to my friends. Herman was especially hurt. I could tell that this probably was not a good time to be leaving him, but I had made my decision to go, and I would not be turning back, not now. I’ll never forget that day as I pulled the truck out of the driveway, tears in my eyes, seeing Herman standing there, waving, wiping away the grief from his face.
The following was an article from Gabriel Magazine, August 1981:
Thanks for the Memories:
As the Sweet Gum Head Closes, An Era Ends… by Tom Oosterhoudt
thing this writer ever thought he’d be writing would be a eulogy for the
Sweet Gum Head. Before I even moved to
In many ways,
The Sweet Gum Head spoiled
As memorable as the entertainers that appeared there were the many spectacular events that many of us will never forget. The star wars of contests for Miss Atlantas and Miss Georgias that produced winners like the Lady Shawn, Hot Chocolate, Roski Frenandez, Lisa King, Taisha Wallace, Vicki Lawrence, and Rachel Wells. And of course there were contests of every description imaginable held there over the years: closet balls, the first men’s contests, black contests, and even two Miss Gay America Pageants. The bar hosted Atlanta’s first attempt at gay theater like A Fortune in Men’s Eyes which experienced fantastic critical acclaim and packed houses, as well as Altanta’s first live porno act starring Jack Wrangler in which he actually climaxed on stage. The many regular appearances of once popular Sandra Sennes, the stage hypnotist, and even the Southern premier of Jon Water’s kinky film, Desperate Living with Divine and Edie, the Egg Lady. And the many specials that made female impersonation definitely a part of the legitimate theater, starting with John Austin’s A Chorus Line, Rachel Well’s spine tingling Jesus Christ Superstar, a comic rendition of the Wiz with Hot Chocolate as the Tin Man, and the many fabulous comedy specials of Lavita Allen incorporating everything from pie throwing matches to vegamatic take offs that left clean up crew with what seemed to be garbage disposal overflows. Then in recent years there was P.S. Your Cat is Dead, Chicago, the Stars From Mars, Evita, and the many fantastic specials of the united team of Rachel Wells, Lisa King, and Laverne Edwards.
As the bar
became nationally known, many prominent celebrities stopped in over the
years to see the shows. Audiences were often surprised to see the likes
of Burt Reynolds, Dolly Parton, Liberace, Vladimir Horowitz, Karen
Valentine, Ester Rolle, and Melissa Manchester sitting in the front row.
And when the media caught drift of this, there were stories in the
Constitution, the Atlanta Journal, Creative Loafing and one year all
three networks did specials that were entirely or in part filmed at the
Sweet Gum Head. An entire show, Today in
The Sweet Gum Head also went through its share of unusual and diverse show directors starting with Wendy Grape and the Red, White and Blue Revue that included the late British Sterling. Also directing was the goddess and supreme ruler of her time, Rachel Wells, and brief terms by Dina Jacobs, Jody Paramour, Satyn DeVille, and Marc Jones, to name a few. To name all the entertainers and female impersonators that worked at the Sweet Gum Head as either regulars or guest artists one time or another would fill a Who’s Who of gay entertainment that would require a whole book.
this unfortunate obituary in the annals of gay entertainment and female
impersonation, we must thank its owner, Art Stergion for giving the
national gay community a drag palace that it could be proud of for over
ten ears. Art has always lived in
Certainly, the Sweet Gum Head leaves us many pleasant memories that we all will cherish. And hopefully, other gay bars will attempt to follow in its footsteps, in running a business as it should be. Thank you John Austin, thank you Art Stergion, and thanks to the building itself which contains so many, many fine memories.
Herman sent the article and other stories about the
closing to me while I was in
I mourned with the passing, and it was clearly the end of an era. I was also sad that I wasn’t there to grieve with my friends. But I had seen the end coming and I didn’t want to be a part of it. Still, the melancholy hung over me longer than I had imagined it would.
It was also a lonely town. I remember the first
time it snowed, the city shut down. Nothing was open; people just
disappeared from the streets. Even when it wasn’t snowing, places closed
early. There was nothing going on after ten, and on the weekends at
closing time, it was time to go home to my small apartment. Sometimes I
would just gaze out my window and wonder what in the hell had I done? I
gave up everything I had worked for in the last ten years for this? I
wanted seclusion, to be able to sort things out, and to redirect myself
will goals and purpose. I was going stir crazy, and my only goal at that
point was to get out of
In the meantime, the Sweet Gum Head had closed,
Sharky’s Machine had premiered, and life went on without me in
However, past or no past, it was in the early
Spring of 1982 that I had had enough. I was already cutting into my
savings; making money three evenings a week bartending in
I was finding life difficult, but I had been through tough times before. Working as a bartender at Illusions was not as I had imagined it to be. Yes, it was a beautiful bar, and yes, the show was pretty good, but working there wasn’t what I really wanted. I knew it was a transition period for me, and with the money being good, I usually kept my mouth shut and did my job. I loved bartending, and even though I still felt uncomfortable in a crowded setting, there was some comfort in having a barrier between me and the customers. It was a comfort zone. And being a recognized celebrity helped tips a lot too. Though the work was more difficult than performing, I at least didn’t have to worry about learning new lines, creating new costumes, and I certainly didn’t have to wait all hours for Lisa to finish her act. So in all, it wasn’t a bad gig, and I was also working with Herman, who had taught me the trade on those slow nights at the Sweet Gum Head when he agreed to teach me how to make drinks, but he would get the tips. He was a great teacher.
Summer neared and business was good for the new club down on Tenth and Peachtree Streets. The manager was named Dora DeVille, a fat old-time drag who somehow fell into the position of being a good friend of the owner. I never figured that relationship out. I sensed that Dora never really cared for me too much, though he was the one who hired me. As all the other employees, especially the cast members, referred to him as their surrogate mother, I winced at ever considering such a thought. When Dora would bless us with one of his matronly performances, I would gag as the entertainers perpetuated his position of hierarchy by tipping him and bowing to him as if he were some kind of incredible person sent from above to provide them with food, shelter and a place to do drag. In all the times that I prayed to the drag gods, not once did I ever envision a scene with Dora in it. It was disgusting. It was a shame that there was so much kissing up to keep a job, but unfortunately, there were only a few other places for entertainers to work on a regular basis.
I knew that one day the manager would approach me to do a show, though I had been adamant from the beginning that I didn’t want to ever do one again. But after numerous discussions, I eventually agreed to do what had become Monday Night Madness. Because Mondays were slow, they were set aside for specials, with the cover charge just being a dollar to get in. The cover at the door went to the entertainer putting on the special. Suddenly, the Monday night shows were packed. I had agreed to do the show, but only if I could charge two dollars to get in. I did the math, and at a dollar a person, I would only be covering my cost of costumes at best, and I was not in the mood to just do a show for the heck of it. And anyway, I had charged up to five a head for specials at he Sweet Gum Head, so getting two would be no problem as far as I was concerned. Dora agreed to my terms, and I hired someone to start on the costumes.
On a Saturday night, two weeks before the show, Bertha Butts approached me at the bar between acts and said that he heard that Dora was not going to let me charge two dollars at the door. “He gave me his word,” I said. Suddenly, I became concerned that, one, why wouldn’t the bitch talk to me about our agreement instead of with others; and two, did he think that he could pigeonhole me into his little flock like the others?
When the evening was over and we had closed, I was already fuming and I headed to Dora’s office. The rumor was correct, and when I confronted him about not discussing it with me, he became indifferent and indignant with me. I yelled at him, slammed the door, went downstairs and gathered my tips, and then to make the perfect scene, I opened my cash register and pulled out the till, and I threw it on the floor. The hustle and bustle of the staff, who were cleaning up and wanting to get out for the evening, stopped.
“You all, and this fucking, place can kiss my ass!” I screamed. It was obvious that I was upset and no one moved. I headed to the front door to exit. It would be a grand exit, and I would slam the door behind me. But no, the damn door was locked.
“Can someone unlock this fucking door, and can you do it now?” I yelled. The security guard came running, jiggling his keys, finally unlocking the front door. Well, that didn’t go well, I told myself. Even after giving me his word, and after all the advertising for the show, and of course, the costumes being made, there would be no show. I flagged a taxi and headed home.
The next evening I set out to the Answer. The Answer was right down the street from Illusions, and though the bar was not as glamorous as Illusions, it had an outstanding cast that included Taisha Wallis, Dina Jacobs, Vicki Lawrence, Chena Black, Micky Day, and Tina Devore. I met with Jerry, the owner, who also owned Bulldogs, and his manager John. I told them of what had happened, and oddly enough, they already had heard the story. Drag gossip travels fast. Not only did they agree to let me do the show, as scheduled on the same night, they suggested that I charge three dollars at the door, a fee the customers were used to paying.
That week, the headlines in the gay mags, along with a huge full picture of me read, “Rachel Wells Has Found the Answer!” The show was packed, and more importantly, they offered me a regular spot in the show. Reluctantly, but excited, I accepted and I started two weeks later. The first few months were wonderful. I was feeling refreshed and energized, and I was working with an incredible cast, none of whom was pretentious. It was a fun time. I even had input into production numbers, which had to ease the load for Taisha, who was the hard working choreographer and costume designer.
I even had another special later in the year called “An Evening of Motown.” It was more like an evening of Sixties music, with go-go dancers, and that was just the atmosphere created before the show. I also hired an all black cast to perform the Temptations and Four Tops, and I performed my illusion of Diana Ross with local black drags as my Supremes. Tina was great as my mother in a comedy routine done to Living in Shame. A few months later I was proud to accept a local award on behalf of the cast of “An Evening of Motown” for Outstanding Special of the Year. The awards event was held at Illusions and the award was presented by none other than Dora himself. I loved the surprise look on his face when he announced me as the winner. I hadn’t been in the club since I so gallantly, well, almost gallantly made my exit from there on that Saturday night in June. It was a proud moment for me and for the cast that was so outstanding in the special.
Through all the trials and tribulations of existing
in the drag world, I played ball in the gay softball league which was
just evolving. Even playing with our own gay kind, my team never faired
much better in wins than our original team, nor could we catch people
off guard with our extreme distractions which we soon never used. I
mean, no gay guy is going to be surprised by seeing a drag queen unless
it’s in the same bed the morning after having a bit too much to drink
the night before. We ended up playing and looking like regular guys on
the ball field. In fact, at that point, Dina Jacobs and I were the only
performers who were on the team. And anyway, there was no way we could
compete with the Armorettes, employees and patrons from the Armory who
showed up at many of the games dressed in camp drag and doing amusing
gay cheers. Later, I was also fortunate to be selected twice to the
all-star team to play in the Gay World Series in
Tina Devore has to be one of the most intelligent and honest people that I’ve ever met. He was always the true professional in almost every capacity, performed with one hundred percent, and was polite and tactful in almost every situation. Basically, Tina was unflappable. A rock. The heart of a show. It didn’t hurt that out of drag he looked like a young Bill Cosby, which solidified his role as counselor and advisor.
Tina filled a void at the Sweet Gum Head, or should I say, took a void and created a wonderful outlet for those budding entertainers and wannabes who otherwise might never have been seen. Tina started his All-Star Revue on the nights that were slow and Gum Head regulars didn’t work. He also created a talent night for those who wanted to get a start but didn’t mind working for free. It was also a great opportunity to work with Tina for those who might not be able to ever get on the A-list to work the Thursday through Saturday gig on the big stage.
But it was my time working in the early eighties at the Answer in Midtown that I got to really hang out with Tina. He was the show director at the time and had his own dressing room which was usually filled with guests and when the right people were there, the door was closed so that the white powder exchange wouldn’t be seen by others. Drugs were more rampantly used in the early Eighties than in the early and mid-Seventies, and they were also easier to get, especially the powdery kind.
I knocked on his door. He answered. “Hey Rachel, you want to come in?” he asked.
“No, I just wanted to give you this. It’s a gift,” I said as I handed him a small vile containing white powder. “It’s good stuff,” I added as I walked away. The door closed behind me and I envisioned Tina and his friends taking turns sharing the white powder, snorting it up their noses, eyes burning. It wasn’t long after that the emcee announced Tina and he headed for the stage. I watched from the side of the stage as he broke into a Gladys Knight ballad, his eyes watering up, snot dripping from his nose. He was working the tune! He was feeling it and the audience was loving it.
I had already returned to my station when he came off the stage and came up to me and said, “Miss Rachel, that’s some good shit. I mean really, really good shit.”
“Yes, I know. I use it all the time.”
“Let me know when you get more and I’ll go in with you if you want,” he said.
“Oh, it’s not that expensive. I’ll share,” I replied. He returned to his dressing room, friends waiting.
It’s amazing what a little powdered aspirin can do to make you feel better, I thought to myself. I just can’t believe they were snorting the darn stuff. It wasn’t until months later that I told Tina about the joke that had been played on him. He took it in stride and said, “I heard you had a reputation for pulling pranks, but I would have never thought…mmm, Miss Rachel, you got me good. But that was some good shit.”
“I know, and I still use it,” I replied laughing.
Later on, I had an opportunity to work with Tina with Pulse Magazine and we also did some writing and acting for the same company that was showcased on public access television. My favorite part of that project was the weekly newscast that we did. Tina had the “straight” lines where I was the “dumb” one; actually, my character was easily led into different and off topic conversations and had to be brought back to the script because we were on the air, which frustrated Tina’s character, who was the perfectionist. It was a fun and growing experience for both of us.
Micky Day worked at the Onyx Lounge after coming to
He was fun after work or when he was off and partying at another club. Micky loved to drink, and when he was loaded, he was a fat girl in slow motion. And the funny thing about it was that he probably never had to buy a drink. In all honesty, I was also guilty of contributing to Micky’s boozy state of mind.
I’ll never forget one afternoon at the Answer when we were all on stage working on a new number being choreographed by Taisha Wallis. The side door to the parking lot was open, primarily to let the place air out. A cab pulled up next to the door, and we all stopped when out of the back of the cab exited a bald fat man wearing a dress. It was Micky. He had gone out in drag after the show, gotten drunk, and ended up in the baths where he was a frequent patron. Wearing no makeup and with his wig in his hand, he entered through the side door in a floor length gown, walked passed the stage, stopped and said, “If anyone says one word about what I look like, I’ll…” and he stared back at the stage at us. We all wanted to laugh, but we didn’t. It was humiliating for Micky to have to come to rehearsal like he did, but it also took a lot of balls to ride through town looking as he did. He went to the dressing room, changed his clothes and then came out asking Taisha, “And where do I need to be?” No one missed a beat.
It was the first time that I had seen Micky in that particular situation, but by the reaction of the others, it was probably quite common. It was humorous, no less, and it was a moment that I will always remember. Micky was always so glamorous in drag, and to see him so vulnerable was touching.
Along with working at the Answer, I was on the road
One of the perks working at the Answer was the
access to drugs, cheap meth and cocaine, to name a few. White powder was
abundant everywhere I went. It seemed that everyone was doing it, and
openly. I soon realized that what I thought was just a happy cast when I
started at the Answer was in fact a cast that was probably high.
Perhaps, the reason I didn’t do as many and much drugs before was that
when I worked at the Sweet Gum Head, and even on the road, I stayed
pretty isolated from most of the cast and customers, even limiting my
alcohol consumption until the evening was almost over. Don’t get me
wrong. I had done my share of experimental and recreational drugs even
before this time. I think the access to all of it had become easier and
the use had become more tolerated. However, being in
I got a call from
I called Dana Douglas and asked if I could rent a gown and sportswear outfit. I had no pageant clothes whatsoever, and I didn’t want to invest in a contest wardrobe. She was exactly my size and she was stunningly beautiful. She also had a rhinestone gown that was to die for that would be the perfect dress for the occasion.
I didn’t know what I wanted to do for talent.
All went well in
After the video was released, I realized what a wonderful decision I had made in doing the Katherine Hepburn routine live. It seems that the producers couldn’t get or wouldn’t pay the money needed to get clearance on the music that was used. So instead of hearing the original songs, the music was dubbed over by singers who sort of, but didn’t really sound like the authentic entertainers. For example, Jimmie Dee, who pantomimed Diana Ross, was moving his mouth to someone dubbing Miss Ross. Everyone’s lip sync was off. My version of a live Kate was really and only me using my voice. And looking back, it wasn’t too bad after all. It was also the one and only time I did the routine live. The one time challenge was enough.
It wasn’t long before the Answer shut its doors,
and then eventually Illusions, too. Not too many show bars would have
the run as the Sweet Gum Head did.
I had a few remaining gigs to do, and again I found myself
needing to move into another direction. My friend Charles had stayed in
the bar business, and was hired by the Varas, the owners of Backstreet.
He had come a long way since waiting tables in the days of the Sweet Gum
Head, and now he was in management. As one of the managers of Weekends,
he created a bar for me on the upper level to catch the overflow on the
busy nights. It was a great way to get back into the swing of
bartending, even if my little bar was not in the prime spot. It was at
Weekends that I got to meet and watch Rupaul as he began his career in
Charlie Brown was orchestrating a Sweet Gum Head reunion to be held in the old Gum Head building. It was to be an AIDS benefit. Charlie was doing a lot of benefits and was responsible for raising thousands for the various gay causes. They were bringing in all kinds of folks who had performed there, and of course I was asked as well. Though I hesitated, it was the chance for me to say the goodbye that I had shunned saying when I moved to Asheville; an adieu from Rachel Wells to Atlanta, and a personal farewell to the building itself.
I’d gotten rid of all my drag, from wigs to shoes, makeup and jewelry. I had to re-purchase accessories and I had a costume made. There would just be one spot to do, so the expense, though not small, was the least I could take care of. And anyway, it would be fun to see Rachel Wells fly one more time.
The doors opened at eight, and it was packed instantly. I had never seen it so crowded before. I had a chance to say hello to some entertainers that I hadn’t seen in years. The show started at nine and would run straight through the evening. Not wanting to be in drag all night, I got the perfect spot at ten. I brought a twenty minute medley of past hits. Once my music began and I appeared on stage, I couldn’t hear a thing. I was humbled by the response, and even more by the tears and smiles of those who came up to tip me and say hello. By the time my spot was over I was exhausted. It was a fitting tribute to the Sweet Gum Head and to Rachel Wells. As soon as I got backstage, I was out of drag in ten minutes, giving away the costume that I had created for the occasion. I gave Lisa my new heels. I didn’t need them anymore. And right after that, I walked out the back door and left. My own farewell was done. I was ready to slide into the darkness of another local nightspot to seek the pleasures of flesh I so desperately needed.
The Varas were getting ready to open a new bar at
the corner of
One night, about six months after the grand opening, a fire gutted the Weekends Warehouse, and I was unemployed. Bill applied for food stamps, but I was too embarrassed to sign up, even though I went with him to apply. The bar would reopen, but it would be some time before that would happen. In the meantime, Charles worked Bill and me into the rotation at Weekends, back in Midtown. The bar stayed open till seven in the morning and the money there was excellent as well. It was easy to make two to three hundred dollars in tips in four hours of nonstop pouring. But that wasn’t enough for Bill. He was not only getting into drugs, but he began to sell them to make ends meet. I knew he was still making good money bartending part-time, but selling drugs was easily doubling his income. Unfortunately, with Bill’s urging, I even started to snort more than ever before, never admitting that I had a problem; it was just one of the perks of working in the business.
The Warehouse soon opened and the patrons came back. The Varas were also remodeling the space next door. It was going to be a new show bar. I was invited to a meeting to come up with a name for the club. My one and only suggestion would be to pay a tribute to Lavita Allen, who had recently passed away, by naming it Lavita’s! They loved it and that became the name of the bar. By the opening night, I had been promoted to one of the assistant manager’s positions overseeing the show and working with Charles as manager. I was also bartending twice a week. Money was flowing in as never before. It was like when I left Midtown to work at the Sweet Gum Head early on in the Seventies, but on a larger scale, and this time around, I wasn’t obligated to buy wigs, makeup, costumes, and high heels.
The show would be based on a star format, with very
little production numbers, with hired back up dancers and drags
supporting the routines of the guest artists and so called headliners of
the show. We brought in Scarlet Dailey and Kelly Rae from
I first met Lisa in one of the early Miss Gay
Florida contests. She was young and fresh and quite talented.
Soon after, with the urging of Tom Oosterhoudt, one of our local
gay publication writers transplanted from
In the early days, Lisa was a team player, almost staying under the radar without any controversy or conflict. Even her popularity with the audience was somewhat at an even keel until Patty LaBelle made her famous comeback. With songs like I Think About You and You Are My Friend, Lisa went from being a Sweet Gum Head regular to a Sweet Gum Head star. Though her Diana Ross and Donna Summer impressions were good, her renditions of Patty songs were incredible.
There was no secret that Lisa and I had a somewhat volatile working relationship, but we both realized that we were best served when we worked together on the stage. Behind the stage was a different story. Lisa did not appreciate a good joke or gag. In fact, any attempt to play with her was viewed by her as a personal attack on her. To say the least, Lisa was one of the most defensive people I had ever met. It seemed that everyone was out to get her. This attitude never appeared on stage, and the audience loved her; but Lisa, even with a long list of friends and allies, was always difficult to work with. In the dressing room, she was a diva and that was not a good quality to have while working with others.
At one point after many years of her behavior, Lisa’s attitude and personality became amusing to me. I learned to deal with it. I would have people tell me that they were told by Lisa that they’d better not applaud for me, or to chant her name when I was on stage (when she was angry with me for some reason). I found my best approach to the situation was to simply stay calm and refer to Lisa by her real name, her man's name. Though my pranks may have seemed childish to some and perhaps an outcome of not having enough to do, they were never spiteful (well, a few were), nor meant to hurt others (maybe once). But when I referred to Lisa using her given name, I will admit, it was my way of getting even for her efforts to undermine my persona.
Lisa would go on to win Miss Gay Atlanta, Miss Gay
Texas, and Miss Gay
“Sorry, Lisa. I thought you did really well tonight,” I said, clutching my trophy.
“Whatever,” she replied and turned away. That was as good a congratulation as I would get.
She pouted when she didn’t make the top five the year I won Miss Gay America. Again, I never got any kind of a congratulation, but at this point in our working relationship, I wasn’t expecting one from her.
Later in 1986, Lisa was one of the headliners at
Lavita’s and one of my responsibilities as assistant manager was to
oversee the show. It was a
perfect venue for Lisa, just having to appear a few times a night with a
supporting cast surrounding her acts. I talked the management into
sponsoring Lisa in a contest in
The next day and about an hour into our trip back
“But,” she tried to interrupt.
“No buts, Lisa. Just listen. You’ve always been this way and I’ve always thought that maybe one day, just one day, you might look at things a little differently. You won five hundred dollars by winning the talent and two hundred and fifty for being second runner-up. That’s seven hundred and fifty dollars for one night’s work, and you didn’t even break a sweat. Quit whining for god’s sake.” There was a moment of silence. I was hopeful that she was doing the math in her head.
“You’re being selfish and rude and only thinking
about yourself.” Still, just silence. “We’re not moving from here until
you agree not to say one more word about last night while we’re driving
“Okay,” she mumbled.
“Okay, I won’t talk about the contest,” she said in a low voice turning away, cowering in to my demand. “Let’s just move on. I get nervous sitting on the side of the interstate.”
It was a long ride back to
Funny the things we recollect.
I remember how she wouldn’t wake up when we had to leave for a
“Why don’t you go back in and give them your phone number?” I said mockingly.
“Don’t be jealous,” she quipped.
“Okay, I won’t be,” I said. I looked over my shoulder to see a group of rednecks standing inside and another looking out of the window at us. We got into the car and I told the driver to move on before we got killed. Next time we’d be sure to use the drive through window, I thought to myself.
Yes, I have so many stories about my days with Lisa, but I’ll leave it to her to convey most of them. We had great times and bad times, but they were the best of times as we both struggled to find our places in the world. Though we didn’t always see eye-to-eye at times, I would never have changed the opportunity to have worked with her. We pushed each other in finding new limits for ourselves, and more importantly, we complimented each other on stage. I only wished she hadn’t been so stressed, especially about the little things, like not winning every contest she entered in the early days of her incredible career.
What seemed to others as a great time in life for me was really one big façade. Yes, I was making great money at Lavita’s, I had a wonderful apartment, and a new car. I sort of had it all, even doing well by most standards after having a successful drag career. But what most didn’t see was that I was also wallowing in decadence. The drugs had become too plentiful and easy, the sex too anonymous and careless, and the alcohol too free flowing. Though I looked younger than my thirty-five years, my insides would probably look like that of a fifty year old addict. Yes, I was addicted to drugs, sex, and worst of all, disco.
We had a big night planned at Lavita’s for the Fourth of July, 1986. Lines were forming and the show had already started. About twenty minutes into the show, Micky Day came out and started her rendition of God Bless America by Kate Smith. The crowd was eating it up, roaring with applause. Charles and I were in the lobby, helping out with the customers coming in. He turned to me and said, “Can you believe that shit?”
“What do you mean?” I asked. I could sense Charles was tense. He had also been into drugs, but lately more than ever, the whole time denying doing them at all.
“I mean, look at that shit (referring to Micky’s performance).” I was confused. I knew that Charles liked Micky, and this didn’t even seem like him. Even his face looked evil to me that night. Suddenly, he turned on me.
“You get paid to make sure the show is a good one, and no one pays any attention to it until some old fat queen comes out singing God Bless America!” His voice was raised. Though Charles was technically my boss, he still forgot the pecking order of our relationship.
“It happens to be the Fourth of July, and don’t raise your voice to me like that!” I snapped back. He began to lash out at me, working himself into a fit of rage. I walked out the front door never looking back though I could hear him screaming my name as I headed across the street to my apartment.
I locked the door behind me. I grabbed a beer and
sat on the sofa in the dark. I had one, then two, and then maybe
another. I was so unhappy, so depressed. I just walked out of my job, a
job with easy money. But, I wasn’t happy. I was lonely, miserable,
I cried uncontrollably, not sure why, but I couldn’t stop. Words filled my head and my heart pounded so loud, and for two days, I stayed locked in my apartment with the phone turned off. I wanted to die, but I didn’t want to be the one to do it. I didn’t have that much nerve even in the mood I was in. I was at a low point, no doubt, struggling with what to do next. On the second day of indulging in self-pity, a Scarlet O’Hara moment struck me out of the blue.
“I’m going home,” I told myself. “To
“I’m going home,” I said again with hope in my voice. I opened the shades, headed for the shower, and then I packed my bags. Within an hour, I was on the road. I was going home.
I was back in
I made my way to her and said, “Excuse me, are you Crystal Blue?”
She smiled. Yes, it was her. I could tell by her eyes. Older and probably less spunky, but it was her. Suddenly I felt as young as I did in 1971 when I first met her.
“Yes, that’s me, Miss Crystal Blue.”
“You probably don’t remember me…I met you in
“Sure, honey. Let’s move over here.”
We went to a more secluded area of the club, but it
was still loud. I felt like
I was screaming. I retold
the story from when she stayed with us in
“You told me never to sit back seat to anyone, but to remember that there’s always someone more talented and prettier around the corner. Do you remember telling me that?” I searched her eyes.
“I’ve told that to a lot of people, and I’m impressed that you quote me, but I’m sorry. I still don’t remember you.”
To no avail, she didn’t remember me at all. I didn’t know if she was high on something, if her mind wasn’t what it used to be, or if she had just met so many people in her life that it was impossible to just remember them all. It was her, I was sure. And even if she didn’t remember me, I still wanted to thank her for her influence and her encouragement. And I did.
I had always thought that one day I would meet
My eyes opened. I was in my bed, covered in sweat. The sound of the ceiling fan was the only noise in the dark room. The dream seemed so real, so detailed, so vivid. It was if my soul had been tampered with; as if it left my body to replenish its energy and spirit, and then returned to haunt me even more. Weakened, I went into the bathroom to wash my face with cold water. I was tired of these dreams, these windows into the past. Running late, not being prepared, always in a state of panic and insecurity, I’d somehow slip into a nightmare of redoing those moments that were already gone, trying to repair the unbroken. It was as if something was still inside of me wanting to stay alive forever.
I wrapped a towel around my head and neck, primarily to absorb the moisture on my skin, but also to shield my eyes from the lights atop the mirror. As I pulled the towel away from my face, I could see the eyes. Not my eyes, but the eyes of Rachel Wells haunting me again. It wouldn’t stop, these dreams. It seemed that no matter what I had tried, she would always be there to remind me of my past, and perhaps, who I really am.
A few years after I left
Of course, Rachel Wells lives on in film, pictures,
folklore, and even in the minds and hearts of those who are still left
around to remember who and what she was. I was often contacted by people
from the past, surprising me with their calls and letters. I denied many
requests to perform, but I agreed to do a few after the move from
I had the opportunity to work with Lisa in a New
Years Eve show at the Armory, the same night
Whenever I went to Melissa Manchester’s concerts,
and I saw many of them through the years, I would always send flowers
ahead of time just to let her know that I was in attendance. I visited
with her after a concert in
The phone rang. “Oh my god! What are you doing?” It
was Hot Chocolate on the other end. We usually had a once a year phone
conversation just to stay in touch. He now lived in
“Not sure if I’m going or not. It’s been so long.
Yeah, I know,” I said. The Miss Gay America Pageant had new owners,
Larry and Terry.
“You’re judging? Yeah? No, I’m not going to perform
in the Miss Gay America Revue. I mean I might come and walk out in the
parade of formers out of drag, but that would be it. Well, I’ll think
about it.” The pageant was the next month in October, 2005 in
I said goodbye to Chocolate and reluctantly told him that I would be there. I did have my bag with my costume and other drag in it from the New Year’s show at the Armory. It had just been stuck in the back of the closet for the past nine or ten months. What was I thinking? I didn’t want to do a number. I really had no business doing the show on New Year’s Eve, but then a part of me longed for the past. After a couple of hours of brewing over the idea, I made up my mind to go. What the hell? When it was over, I’d just come on back home like nothing ever happened.
When it came time to leave for
The night of the show went well, and my number was received with much applause, mostly by the fifty or so contestants who lined up to tip the new relic of the past. To be honest, I felt a bit matronly that evening, being idolized as a pioneer in the field of dragdom, or something like that. I performed Streisand’s version of You’ll Never Walk Alone from Carousel. I didn’t dare attempt to do anything bouncy and upbeat. I could hardly walk in the heels, let a lone dance and prance on stage. I had been told that getting back in drag was like riding a bicycle. Whoever first created that cliché wasn’t riding a bike in four inch heels. I was out of drag five minutes after my performance was over. I stuffed Rachel into the bag. Chocolate was even quicker than me in getting his makeup off. We both couldn’t wait to get a drink and relax, letting the other former Miss Gay America winners work and entertain for the rest of the evening.
The next night was the final night of the pageant. After walking out (not in drag) in the parade of former winners, I got out of my tux and into jeans and I sat in the back of the auditorium, totally unrecognized, and I watched the top ten in all their categories. I was impressed with the talent, but tired with the length of the show. After all, I wasn’t a night owl anymore. I was also amazed that after all those years, the format and categories had not changed much, nor had drag in general. No need to mess with a good thing, I thought. The top ten was a fabulous group, and it was obvious that they had spent a fortune on costumes and talent. I thought of Wendy and how he would say that you need to make a profit when entering a contest. If that were the case, and with only one winner, it would be difficult for most of the contestants to get a return on their investments.
I found it amusing in how the entertainers were openly competing to see who had on more makeup. Almost all of the contestants looked like drags, though glamorous illusionists, and not women. Seemed like trends come and go. I remember thinking the same thing when I first competed in the pageant the year Baronessa won the title, it seemed that even back then, most of the contestants looked like men to me wearing lots of pancake, lipstick, and eyelashes. Of course, during my time, it was the goal to look real, especially when competing with the likes of Vicki Lawrence, Chena Black, and a whole list of glamour girls. Wearing extra eyelashes and heavy pancake just didn’t get it. I guessed things come and go in cycles. By the end of the evening, Nichole Du Bois had been crowned Miss Gay America 2006. The pictures were taken, and tears wiped away by the winner and the losers. The quest for next year’s queen was already starting.
The next morning I packed my car and said goodbye
to Chocolate and I headed east, back to
For the next few hours, I had a lot to think about, to rue over, and even some sadness to wallow in. Of course, I had my Barbra’s Greatest Hits CD to listen to when I bored myself with my own thoughts. Even though it had been over thirty years since I first put on the wig and makeup, and over twenty since giving the up my career in drag, I was still haunted by so many memories and fears. Many times I’d wake up during my dreams, drenched in sweat, where I would be getting ready for a show, and suddenly the show would start without me. I had a phobia of sorts, about being late, late for just about anything, and in my dreams it seemed that the clock was always ticking, and I was always running to catch up. I couldn’t finish teasing my hair, or find my outfit, or worse yet, when I did complete getting ready, my number would start and there would be no one in the audience. But it wasn’t me who was in the dreams, it was Rachel. Even after all these years, she was in my mind and locked in my soul. She found her way to haunt me in my sleep when there was no escaping.
I could also be riding in my car, the radio blaring and I’d hear a song, and my first inclination was to choreograph a routine to the number. And hearing a song that I performed, or that one of my friends performed, only brought back memories, but usually good ones. If there was ever a feeling of being a has been, it’s reliving the past when I would hear a song from the Seventies. I found comfort in knowing that it was better to be a “has been” than a “never was.” At least that’s what I told myself.
I was proud of the creature that I had created, the
Sweetheart of the South, the Amazon Goddess, even Miss Gay America. I
took pride in being a part of the legend of the Sweet Gum Head, and
being a small piece of
I had just connected to I-65 in
I opened my trunk and pulled out the blue bag. I rummaged through my glove compartment for a pen and piece of paper. I walked over to the edge of the woods and sat the bag on the table. I opened it. The smell of nightclub smoke filled my nose. I looked around inside the bag. CD’s. My CD’s. I would leave them in the bag. I did have Barbra’s Greatest Hits already in the car. I would keep at least one, that one. The rest would have to go. Of course, I couldn’t leave my Melissa Manchester collection, so I pulled those out. Melissa was more than a drag voice, I told myself. But no, her CD’s had to go as well. The break had to be complete. But I couldn’t leave them all, so I just left one of Melissa’s CD’s, clutching the others. That would be complete enough.
There were some tips that I didn’t pull out the night before. I would leave those too. And the wig and the costume. The makeup and jewelry. I would leave it all in the bag and then put the bag in the woods. Yes, I would be leaving Rachel Wells on I-65 to fend for herself. She had been a survivor, so I had no doubt that she would find a way to do the same from here on out. I wrote the note:
The contents of this bag belong to Rachel Wells.
Make sure that you take care of these items and
give them a good home. Thanks.
I put the note in the bag and I zipped it shut. And of course, I had to have my moment alone before I left.
I thanked her for the life she gave me, the outlet she allowed me, and the persona that was my alter ego on so many occasions. Together, we moved our lips to make a living, mouthing words sung by others but pretending they were ours. I thought about the friends and the enemies, the good times and the bad ones, the happy occasions and the sad situations. Yes, we made it through them all. But now it was time to say goodbye. Of course, a proper farewell of this nature would not be complete without a word or two from Barbra, whose voice I borrowed for so many performances. “…So it’s the laughter we will remember, whenever we remember the way we were. The way we were.”
I put the bag at the edge of the woods. Perhaps a
trucker might find it and live out a fantasy while on the road. Maybe
the custodian will open it up and throw the contents into the dumpster.
The police might be called to investigate the bag to see if there was a
bomb or body parts in it. An old couple from
I smiled at the thoughts, then I started the car, put on a Melissa CD, and headed north on I-65. And just like at the end of every movie, the credits of my past rolled quickly in my head. Life was good, even without a tiara on my head.
Things I shouldn’t have done:
Tiffany Arieagus’s striptease act in a lesbian bar in
forty rock numbers in a
Perform in a
new club in
Do a special with Scagnolia the Great, sharing the same dressing room. I left the rude and drugged out bitch to finish the show by himself.
Go on a multi-state, two week tour with a van full of giddy former Miss Gay Americas while I was in a lengthy state of depression. I really wanted to be left alone. No, I actually wanted to slap somebody.
Perform There’s Got to be a Morning After from the Poseidon Adventure dressed like a drunken hooker. I thought it would be funny. I should have been wet with a fish stuck in my mouth instead.
former Miss Gay America who was trying to hit on me in
Try to help an ugly queen out in a contest by giving her a few makeup hints as I passed through the dressing room. Later, while in the audience, I was a bit embarrassed when I heard my name announced on stage as one of her sponsors.
Agree to do
You Don’t Bring Me Flowers
duet by Barbra Streisand and Neil Diamond
with local birthday drag
favorite, Marissa, in
Make the cast perform Snow Fly and the Seven Gnats. It was great watching cast members doing what they were asked to do, even when they were being booed. It was creativity pushed too far in the wrong direction.
Play jokes on Toni Durant. She took everything personally, even when I hit her in the face with a beer can.
Sing a live duet with Deva Sanchez, I’ll Never Fall in Love Again, and singing it to my boyfriend and his girlfriend who were both sitting in the front row. The girlfriend didn’t get it but he did. He was pissed off. She finally got him all to herself. Hey, it was the Seventies. They later had babies.
stay in a contest in a tiny
Say the words, “mother fucker” like Charlie Brown. Only Charlie Brown can say, “mother fucker” like Charlie Brown.
Wait for Lisa King on a road trip. Don’t know why I ever bothered trying to wake her up. I almost always had to leave without her anyway.
Greyhound bus to
Make this list.
Make this list.