Foreword

It was a great time to be alive in the Seventies, especially for those of us in our twenties and residing in gay Atlanta. It was a time of sexual exploration and identity searching, and a time for defying traditional taboos and laws. It was a time for growing up and creating a subculture that would flourish and nurture an abundance of followers. It was a time for disco, drugs, and of course, drag. It was the era of the Sweet Gum Head, the original Showplace of the South!

So many entertainers crossed the threshold of the Sweet Gum Head, but not all were fortunate enough to perform on its stage.  Through the years, some who graced its oaken boards made it big, some just made it, and a few were flashes, but they were all very important in the scheme of life on Cheshire Bridge Road.  Some are still with us, yet most are not. As there are two sides to every story, I’m sure there are different perspectives to the events and images that I’ve written about.  I want to convey that many of the following stories are simple vignettes that I remember that usually bring a smile to my face and hopefully to you, the reader. In no way do I want to convey a mean spirit or embellish the truth; I just want to record a history and tribute to a special time.

 
Chapter 1 Chapter 2 Chapter 3 Chapter 4 Chapter 5 Chapter 6 Chapter 7 Chapter 8 Chapter 9 Chapter 10 Chapter 11
Chapter 12 Chapter 13 Chapter 14 Chapter 15 Chapter 16 Chapter 17 Chapter 18 Chapter 19 Chapter 20 Chapter 21 Chapter 22
Chapter 23 Chapter 24 Chapter 25 Chapter 26 Chapter 27 Chapter 28 Chapter 29 Chapter 30 Chapter 31 Chapter 32 Epilogue
Dedication

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.

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Teased Hair and the Quest for Tiaras

(The Story of Rachel Wells)

by J.R. Greenwell

Chapter 1

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 Atlanta.  I had a calling, but I didn’t know what it was.  It was on a wet January evening that I found myself on a Greyhound bus with eleven dollars in my pocket, leaving my hometown and headed for the big city, all the while I kept hearing Petula Clark’s voice in my head singing Downtown over and over.  I remember learning the song in the eighth grade, and for some reason, and maybe because I was focused on the lights in the distance, it just became the song of the moment.

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 Morningside Drive.  After being introduced to him one evening, I was able to rent a room in one of the houses that was a just a few blocks away from Ansley Mall where I started my new job as a sales clerk at the Super- X drug store. He would let me pay rent weekly. Finally, I was able to settle down with a real job and a comfortable place to live.  Of course, the calls of the night life were beckoning me, and though I was underage by about six months, I still found it exciting and daring to try and enter the gay bars.  Each Friday night was a different adventure and challenge, with little success in getting in, but I was persistent.

Clay Millwood was the bouncer, among having other part-time jobs, at Chuck’s Rathskellar in Atlanta.  It was one of the few gay clubs in the city, but the biggest, and some considered it to be the best.  We met one night when he asked me for identification. I was only twenty, six feet tall, and I weighed about one hundred and fifty pounds. Of course, I was not old enough to get in, nor did I have any fake ID since it had been confiscated a few weeks earlier at the Cove, another, but small night spot.  I’d paid ten bucks for what I thought was a real looking ID.  Apparently, there were a lot of them going around and they were easy to spot. In those days, bars seemed to have a holding tank, better known as a lobby, where the under-aged, future patrons would sit and act as if we were waiting for our friends to arrive so we could all go in together.  It was the perfect place for many a chicken hawk on the way out to find easy prey.  And in my case, it was also an easy place to find a ride home.  Clay found me cute and entertained me in the lobby when he wasn’t busy, and I waited till closing for him to get off from work.  I thought my time would be well invested, because if I befriended him or gave into his flirtatious requests, I might find myself with a new fake ID or at least a free pass to get into the bar.  I ended up spending the night with him that night and in two days I became his friend and roommate. His apartment was right across the street from the mall.  It was quite convenient, and it was a step up from the room I had been renting on Morningside Drive.

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 Atlanta from Valdosta and look for a job and apartment.  She knew that Clay had another vacant bedroom, and finding another roommate meant that Clay wouldn’t have to work so many jobs to make ends meet. Larry was an odd cookie.  Just like many in 1971, he wore tight polyester pants with a wide belt, and because he was short, he wore platform shoes to make himself appear taller. Only problem with that was that almost everyone wore platform shoes.  He had a Tom Jones look about him, as if he had watched the star on television and said, “I want to be like Tom Jones.”  When I first met him I had a mixed reaction.  Cute, I thought in a strange kind of way.  He had red hair styled in a short afro, and a face full of freckles. And when he walked, he bounced as if his platform shoes were four inch high heels.  Yes, Larry Bell looked butch, but when he moved, he was pure woman.  These were characteristics that he would battle with for a long time in finding his identity as a gay man. 

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 Pearl become the real Pearl Bailey doing “Hello Dolly.” There were others whose names I can’t remember, and then there was Allan Allison, sexy and blond, and looking very real.  I had met Lavita and Allan Allison at a party sometime before when they were out of drag, and even though I thought the whole concept of doing drag a bit perverted, I was still mesmerized by the entire transformation and production.  The more I watched over the next two months, the more intrigued, but cautious, I became.  And as entertained as I was with the shows, I still had to pay more attention to not being caught in the bar. 

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 Georgia. Though disturbed by the thought of a black drag sleeping in his bed, Larry agreed to share his room. 

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 Crystal, I was wearing one of her black bouffant wigs and fake eyelashes that seemed to stretch out four inches or more.  Oddly enough, it was Crystal’s idea to go in drag as part of her entourage in getting into Chuck’s.  It was brilliant. We arrived at the club and like the other members of the show, I carried in costumes and a makeup case.  No one asked for ID.  Fully aware of the charade, Clay winked at me and welcomed us all to the club.  The other bouncers eyed us up and down. Wow, I thought to myself.  This is a way to get in under the radar.  Of course, I stayed in the dressing room the entire evening, embarrassed that I was in a dress, wig, and makeup.  I didn’t know too many people in the club and there were a few hundred there, but I did know the stigma of being considered a drag queen, and I wasn’t ready to wear that badge of courage on my chest, not just yet.

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 Atlanta stage. She was introduced to a mild ovation. The lights were out and the music started.  It was Melba Moore’s I’ve Got Love from the Broadway musical Purlie.  She had her back turned to the audience, her long arms wrapped around her as if they were the arms of someone else making out with her.  As the prelude to the song ended and the tempo rose, she turned around and started to strut and flirt.  The crowd went wild.  Billy and David tipped her, something new in Atlanta.  I had never seen tipping before.  Members of the audience began to pull out their one dollar bills.  She started to create a pile of money at the edge of the stage.  It became apparent after her third call back that it was a game with her and the audience to see how high the pile could get.  Toward the end of her number, she was on the floor, embracing the pile of money, then picking it up and letting it float onto her body.  The crowd was ecstatic! It was the highlight of the night.  It was entertaining.  It was impressive.

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 Crystal, Larry and I went to the Cruise Quarters to watch their drag show.  If there was a level of drag, with Crystal and her crew being an A, then the Cruise Quarter cast would have to be an E, F, or G or below.  It wasn’t good, but it was there.  We were watching the show when Larry had suggested that maybe I should perform a number sometime soon.  Strangely enough, I suddenly found myself comfortable with the idea.  I had always wanted to be in show biz, but my amount of talent did not measure to the level of my desire.  I could sing, but not great.  I could dance, but only with a small bit of rhythm. I did have the confidence, or perhaps the nerve, to think I could do better than what I was seeing on the stage in front of me.

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.  There was Berry, who showed up every now and then pantomiming to a different song but always wearing the same dress. He wasn’t a hunchback, but he looked like one when he was in drag.  And then there was Penny Nichols who did a little of everything, but was just a bit weird on and off the stage.  There were special guests each week, guests who no one ever knew, and in most cases, no one ever saw again.  The sound system was a small stereo system that sat at the back of the stage.  Only LPs and 45s were used, and the DJ was the owner’s boyfriend of the week.  It would be a busy night if there were twenty people in the audience.

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.  Kentucky seemed so far away.  During our conversation it came out. Don’t know why, but it did.

“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.

*****

 

Chapter 2

 It was a hectic week, and just waiting for Thursday night was killing me.  Between my job at Super-X and going to Crystal’s show on the weekend, and then of course, practicing for my first drag number, I was glad to have a late afternoon free to hang out in Piedmont Park. 

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 Crystal was lending me a few outfits, it would be fun to wear an actual gown. We discussed drag names and I was at a blank.  I had never even thought about a drag name. 

“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.       

*****

 I arrived at the Cruise Quarters before the anticipated crowd would show up. Larry was delighted to be my escort, and even though I was much taller than him and feeling awkward being all made up in drag, he was the perfect gentleman who opened the car door for me and carried my things. Crystal and her entourage, along with Christy and his friends and husband were on their way.

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 Berry were not there, though I kept waiting for Rusty to come through the door and question why I was there.  I imagined that she’d pull me by the ear, take me outside, and then proceed to whip my ass. Penny was busy putting on makeup.  I was introduced to three petite queens from Florida.  They had long hair and were barefooted.  Weird, but I guess they didn’t wear shoes in Florida.  Larry said he’d buy me a drink.  The dressing room was below the outside staircase, and the sound of foot traffic was getting louder.  There was laughter coming from the bar.  The room was filling up.

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.”

“She’s good.”

“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. Crystal’s here.”

“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 Florida opened up with a Supreme song, then Penny took the stage. I kept looking into the mirror, not yet nervous, but preoccupying my time with practicing gestures and expressions, and playing with the black wig on my head, making sure every hair was in place. I still looked like John, I thought.  No one paid any attention to me.  They were all involved with creating and perfecting their own characters.  The crowd was loud.  Dee Dee would emcee from the dressing room so that no one could see her in her costume.  Apparently, it was her only one she brought with her. After what seemed like listening to a hundred acts, I was next. I was ready.

“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.”

“Thanks.  I’ll remember that.”  It was totally the opposite of how Crystal handled her tips.  She would get on the floor and scoop them up, begging for more.  Of course, I liked Crystal, but I didn’t want to be her.

“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 Crystal’s costumes for my second number and couldn’t wait to get it off.  It was extremely skimpy and short, and my confidence level in wearing such an outfit was not there.  After the show, I wanted to have a drink, get Larry’s feedback on my performance and on how I looked, and then just mingle a bit.  I put on Christy’s gown and left the dressing room. I spotted Larry and was walking toward him when from the front of the club we heard the words, “It’s a raid!”

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?” Crystal asked.

“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?”

“I did,” Crystal said, getting up from the sofa.  “I told him I was your manager and to give me a call if he was interested in hiring you.  Here, let me have it.”  I surrendered the phone to her and she immediately went into business and barter mode.    

“Hello?  Yes, this is Crystal, and we appreciate your offer, but Miss Wells doesn’t work for less than fifteen per night.   That’s right, fifteen per night.” She put her hand over the mouth piece and looked at me.  “Fifteen per night is okay with you, isn’t it?”  I reluctantly nodded my head.  Of course, it was okay.  I was doing the math in my head.  “That sounds great.  Thanks for calling.  I’ll have Miss Wells get back with you.  Bye now.”

Wow, I thought out loud.  That was pretty impressive.  “I’m going to get paid for moving my lips…”

“And swinging your hips,” added Crystal.         

“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.”

Crystal, I could never be as good as you.”

“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.  Crystal left Atlanta the following week to return to Louisville.

*****

 

Chapter 3

 The next few months would probably be the most defining time of my life.  If there were to ever be anything resembling an underground experience for me, this would be it.  Pure Bohemian.  This would be a time of “finding” myself, but not just for me, but also for the new people in my life.  We weren’t necessarily trying to find our ways, but more so in creating a space that we could call our own.  It was about losing our pasts and old identities and reinventing new ones.  The exciting part of it all was that we had no idea of where we were going and how we would get there.  There was no plan, just opportunity, though it would come with some pains. But our lives would also be filled with so much joy and humor.  We were reckless with a sense of invincibility.  We were young with no concept of time or ambition.  We would live a day-to-day existence, with an innate desire to see who could last the longest in the subculture that we would be creating. We would be dancing in the dark shadows with the people of the night, eating and drinking side by side with the likes of the homeless and hustlers, johns and junkies, and predators and prey.  At times it would be difficult to tell one from another.

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 Crystal’s departure, I met Herman at the Cruise Quarters. He too, was underage (nine months younger than me), but had a really good picture ID that he brought with him from Alabama, and he was able to get into all the major gay clubs. He was a nice guy and very quiet. He looked like a young Paul McCartney, but sounded like a mild version of Gomer Pyle.  He was definitely southern. He was working at the airport in food service, as he told others.  I think he worked behind a counter selling sandwiches.  He hated his job, but it was a job till something better came along. 

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 Georgia, but apparently didn’t get along with his parents, and of course, the gay thing was at the center of it all, so he came to live with his aunt who was more tolerant of his situation.  His accent was purely exotic, made up to accentuate his looks.  His voice was deep and his words were very exaggerated with no trace of a southern drawl at all.  He smoked his cigarette as if he were in a commercial being shot from all angles. Every inhale and exhale was a pose.  He would give Larry Bell a run for his money if there was a competition to see who could suck the most life out of a cigarette butt.

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 Louisville with Crystal, but decided to stay in Atlanta.  Billy had a new boyfriend, but still hung around with David. The six of us would make a night of it.

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.

*****

 It wasn’t long until the Cruise Quarters was officially our new home and our bread and butter.  I was being paid fifteen dollars a night, which was a whopping thirty per week.  For some reason, Rusty left the show, as did Penny, so the owner wanted me to be the new show director.  I assumed the responsibilities of show director meant making sure there were people in the show and that I would also be responsible for the lineup and collecting music.  Interestingly enough, the owner told me the budget for the two shows was sixty-five dollars, and I was already making almost half of that.  I put two and two together and talked to Herman and Michael about us all being the whole show, and between the three of us, we could move into an apartment together and pay rent on a weekly basis. With tips it would be enough to have food and shelter.

“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 from Florida that performed the same night of my first show.  She was beautiful, had a Mary Tyler Moore face, and was very dramatic. Her favorite song, and I say that because she did it every night, was Did You Read the Morning Paper by Diana Ross. She would walk out holding a rolled up newspaper, put on the table in front of the stage, look the people at the table squarely in the eyes and begin, “Did you read the morning paper?” It was a song about somebody breaking up with their lover and the lover (her) was the last to know.  Eve would be weeping all the way through the darn thing and the audience loved it.  The queen could cry at the drop of a hat, and I envied her ability to do that, even to the point of rubbing an onion on my wrist one night before I went on stage in hopes of bringing tears to my eyes during my song. It would be so dramatic, I thought. I never cried during the performance, though I was sure that the audience was wondering why I kept putting my arm up to my face.  I could smell the onion, but it had no effect on my tear ducts.

“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 12th street about a half a block away from Piedmont Park and about two blocks away in the other direction from Peachtree Street.  It was a basement apartment, the length of the entire building on one side.  It wasn’t much, but it was furnished and freshly painted a mint green.  Even the pipes that hung from the ceiling seemed to add character to the place.  Michael seemed to think they would come in handy for hanging costumes and dresses.  The cost was thirty-five dollars a week, paid on Mondays, which was perfect on both counts. Another plus was that two gay guys were our landlords, so we felt comfortable knowing that they would understand our new life style, though they might not agree with it.

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.

*****

 Joe East had bleached-blonde hair, always wore a thin leather strap on his head that tied in the back, and he had the most incredible laced-up brown leather boots that came up to his knees.  He was definitely a sissy, pretentious to say the least. He worked as a waiter in one of the chains, but wanted to go to beautician school one day.  He had only been in Atlanta for a few months.  He and his roommate, Eddie, were frequent patrons of the Cruise Quarters.  At first, Eddie was the little butch boyfriend that everyone wanted. He pissed guys off with his infidelities, and a few even pulled plugs from his car on more than one occasion.

One evening at the club, Eddie suggested that Joe, Larry, Herman, Michael, and I go bowling the next night at the lanes near Piedmont and Cheshire Bridge Road. I told him that we didn’t have any money for bowling, even though the cost per game was only fifty cents. He said he was getting paid the next day, and that it would be his treat. Suddenly, bowling sounded fun.

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 Chattanooga with one of his boyfriends.  Joe was left high and dry with only the clothes on his back.  At least he had his laced-up brown leather boots.   

“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 Rome, Georgia trying to find himself and make his place in the world.  Welcome to 12th Street.

*****

 

Chapter  4

 Dee Dee Daniels was now in charge of the show on Wednesday’s at Peach’s Back Door, a club on Peachtree Street that would later become the famous Backstreet.  She asked me if I would like to work in the show, and of course I said yes.  It would be an additional income for us, and it would also give me a chance to play to a new and different audience.  Peach’s had a clientele very much like Chuck’s, young and cruisy. I wasn’t sure what kind of numbers to do, and even though I was still new to drag, I already knew that audiences could be fickle and indifferent one night, and adoring the next.

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 Crystal would have been proud, I told myself.

*****

 The sense of invincibility, which, by the way, was more about me being ignorant and naïve than being strong and not vulnerable in the world around me, gave me a whole new feeling of taking charge.  I found myself becoming more impulsive, more daring, and feeling the thrill of going with the flow and the unknown, not only on stage, but at every opportunity possible.  Herman was also becoming more empowered as well.

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.”

*****

 Larry Bell had an abscessed tooth and insisted on going home to go to the family dentist in Valdosta instead of going to the free clinic in Atlanta, so the two of us found ourselves on Interstate 75 hitchhiking south. He had to go home anyway to pick up his car that was being repaired by a family mechanic, but Larry was cheap and didn’t want to spend money on a bus ticket.  I thought we’d be in that one location on I-75 for the rest of our lives, but within fifteen minutes a woman picked us up.  I imagined some fat redneck creepy trucker or some hot stud would be our options for a ride.  Not this day.  There we were heading south with a plump woman in her forties. So much for fantasies.  She gave Larry a sleeping pill and he fell asleep in the back seat.  She fondled my leg all the way to Valdosta.  If only she had been a man, I kept thinking to myself.

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 Valdosta, that Larry had to go to the dentist there, but he had to go anyway to get his car, and that he just didn’t want to go by himself.  Robert said that he had to go to Saint Louis and was leaving later that evening.  Already had his suitcase in his car.  Saint Louis was his home and he was going to visit his family that he hadn’t seen it quite some time.

“Wanna go?” he asked me.

“Tonight?” I answered.  I’d never been to Saint Louis and I wasn’t really doing anything for the next few days. “When are you coming back?”

“Probably the day after tomorrow.  Three days at the most.”

“You driving?”

“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 12th Street and after I finished packing, we headed to Missouri. Robert drove like a bat out of hell hitting speeds of up to eighty and ninety miles an hour, and with it being dark and not having visibility or control, I was extremely nervous, especially at such a high speed.  I put my head down in the front seat of his old Cadillac and tried to go to sleep thinking if I was going to die, I’d rather not know that it happened.  For the short time that I had known Robert, he appeared to be the quiet and gentle type.  This was a different Robert, I thought to myself.  This Robert seemed reckless and daring.  It was scaring me a bit.

We arrived in Saint Louis just after noon the next day.  His family lived in an upper middleclass neighborhood in a two-story brick home with large white columns in the front.  We met his mom, who was very cordial to me and happy to see her son.  After a short visit, the two of us went upstairs to take a short nap. There would be a family dinner later that afternoon with grandma, and a few aunts and uncles attending.

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?”

“Sorry.”

“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 eight thirty 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 Atlanta. Two hours after the call I was on a Greyhound bus heading south.

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.

*****

 

Chapter 5

 My crew and I wanted to have a party.  We were due to host one after all the parties we had been invited to the past few months. Bars closed at midnight on Saturdays, and it was the custom in Atlanta, not to necessarily look for a trick, but to be invited to a party at someone’s house or apartment with the intent to mingle and make friends, and then, of course, to look for the Saturday night cock to play with. We spread the word for the entire week that there would be a party at our apartment on 12th Street right after the Cruise Quarters closed for the evening.

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 blonde haired Sidney, it was Harry that would become one of my

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.  Sidney had to take a piss and said he’d be back in a minute, then walked back outside. Apparently, the use of indoor facilities was foreign to him. Harry walked me across the room. I was wearing one of my new purchases from the thrift store.  It was a short one-piece dress and made of a printed polyester, and belted at the waist.  I felt gorgeous, like the perfect hostess should.  I looked around and saw all our friends from the bar, and some people I didn’t even recognize.  Everyone was laughing and seeming to be enjoying themselves. Okay, I’d been to some Saturday night parties, but this one might just go down in history. I didn’t see Herman.  Maybe he was in the bedroom. I heard Larry Bell’s voice.  Suddenly, he was yelling at a girl that I didn’t know, and he was getting red faced.  Trouble, I thought to myself. The next thing I heard was Larry and Harry getting into it.

“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 Sidney walked in and saw his buddy in distress, or what he thought was distress.  Sidney was not too bright, but quick to react. He pulled out his knife as in self-defense, and with one hand he took an innocent and unsuspecting bystander, Steven (a young hustler) by the neck, held him to the wall and stabbed him in the stomach.  The boy fell to the floor.  Sidney put the knife down on the table and ran back out the door.  The whole situation was surreal.  By the time I got to the victim, the entire apartment was empty except for me and a kid hanging on for life.  Just as I was about to run down the hall and outside to the payphone, the police were coming through the door.  Apparently, they had been called because of the noise.  Their timing could not have been better.

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 Grady Hospital during his surgery.  I was apprehensive about being in drag, but not a soul looked at me indifferently or made comments.  They were kind or just confused at what I was.  I was, as usual, in hooker type drag, so when someone saw me, there was something left to the imagination, or maybe not. But I didn’t care.

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 12th Street that evening.  When I got there, Sidney’s truck was still outside.  He was long gone, but I knew he’d be back at some point.  I went in the apartment.  Everything was cleaned up, and everyone except Herman was asleep.

“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.

*****

 To say our lives had become simply disconnected from reality would be stretching the truth. It could have been said that we were not contributing anything to society. Each day was a fantasy adventure for survival. We had created our own little world, and though money was always tight, the lack of it did not discourage us or keep us from fighting conformity. We were softies at heart, weeping uncontrollably while watching Imitation of Life, but then calling the main character a bitch when our tears stopped flowing.  For the most part, humor kept us going.  It was not unusual to find Herman, Joe and me dressed in look-alike dresses we bought at the thrift store, and having coffee at ten in the morning, wearing lipstick and our hair in pigtails, sucking on a cigarette and talking about our pretend husbands in Viet Nam.  Joe’s nick name in drag was Moo Moo, named after Elsie the cow, because he had these huge cow eyes.  It was a good thing for Joe that he didn’t take drag seriously. 

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 England. Talk about not living in reality.  We soon found out that he was homeless, a runaway from southern Georgia.  We would run into him often.  He was flitting from one place to another.  At one point, he reconnected with his Southern Baptist parents who were okay with him not being at home, but who drove to Atlanta once a week to drop off food for him.  Always being opportunistic, we invited him to stay with us for a while, and like clockwork, each week his mother would bring three to four brown bags of groceries and home-cooked food and leave them at the door.  Angelique was only with us for two weeks as we figured out that his facade was more like a mental condition. I woke up one morning, finding him sitting in a chair and hovering about six inches over my face.

“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 Piedmont Park.

“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 Atlanta police, who responded to a call of a dead body in the bathtub in the bathroom of our apartment on 12th Street.  After the police inspected our apartment, it was established by them that it was a bogus call by someone who was trying to get us in trouble.  Why would anyone do such a thing, we all asked each other out loud. I guess we didn’t look smart enough to pull a prank like this and get away with it. The police left.  They had been very gracious, and probably very happy not to find a dead body in the tub. And as for Angelique, we never saw him after that night.

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 Atlanta and the night they found a dead body in the bathtub.  That’s how legends get started; but then again, I didn’t think that anyone would believe any stories that Angelique would tell. After all, delusion was his middle name. My own theory was that his condition was actually caused by an old fashioned Southern Baptist baptism and being repressively raised in the south.  He had a delicate soul and the demons he possessed in his mind must have been overwhelming.

*****

 

Chapter 6

 There came a time when not everything was running smoothly in our camp.  Joe was reluctant to find work, or should I say, keep a job.  He was really a lazy fucker, as Larry would say, dreaming big, but with no real desire to sweat and earn a buck. It was like he was born into royalty and was expected to have everything given to him. Larry and Michael had become a couple, and it was a volatile relationship. They were so Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor; hot with each other one moment, and then pulling knives on each other the next. The relationship was hurting the dynamics of our group, and it didn’t help that Larry had no patience with Joe for not keeping a job.  Larry’s role seemed to be that of authoritarian, which at times was a good thing; but at other times, it just ruined the mood of a good day.  Larry and I had an unspoken understanding. He never once got in my face or raised his voice to me, but I had to defuse uncomfortable situations with him and other members by simply saying his name and talking to him.  He understood the pecking order between the two of us.

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 Valdosta, and Joe was headed to Rome.  Stephen had finally left after healing his wounds from the attack by Sidney, and Michael, tired of all the conflicts with Larry, had decided to go to New York to make it big. So Herman and I stayed in Atlanta.  I had no real desire to go home to Kentucky, and at the time, Herman was not happy with his family back in Alabama; but in reality, we both would have loved to be going home for the holidays.  

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 Peachtree Street, and noticed the vending machine outside.  The place was closed, but I thought a candy bar would taste terrific.  I had a dime in my pocket. Yeah, just a dime…enough for one candy bar.  I put the coin in the slot, but it seemed stuck, as I didn’t hear it go down all the way.  Fuck, I thought to myself, one dime and it’s gone.  I pulled the lever anyway, and a Snickers bar fell to the tray below. Great, a Snickers!  Perfect.  I started to walk away, when I decided to turn around and test the machine again. Once more I pulled the lever, and another Snickers fell into the tray.  I pulled again, and again, and again.  I stuffed my pockets and filled the inside of my coat with a wonderful selection of chocolate bars, but mostly Snickers, and then I ran home to show Herman what I had found. “A Christmas angel,” I said over and over.  I wasn’t religious, but it had to be a Christmas angel.   There was no other explanation.  Herman and I ate chocolate for nearly a week and it carried us over to our next payday.  It was a good thing we were so thin, but by the time we ran dry of the sweets, we never wanted to see another Snickers bar again. 

*****

 Herman and I were walking on 12th Street in our version of waitress outfits, heading up a couple of blocks to Peachtree Street.  We had made acquaintances with Darlene, who worked at as a waitress in a restaurant not far from our apartment. It was called the Light House, a family style restaurant that featured seafood dishes.  A young eastern European couple ran the place and they had openings for wait staff, so we had applied with Darlene’s recommendation. Darlene also told them that Herman and I performed in drag shows, and they were fascinated with that aspect of our lives and said they wanted us to wait tables as women.  Another challenge, I told myself.  This would be the ultimate if we could pull this off. 

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 four o’clock 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 Atlanta, so customers would never expect to see men in drag waiting tables. It was all about perception and expectations.  I think Herman was more comfortable at the game than I was.  He would jokingly tell men that he was actually a flight attendant who had been laid off and was now waiting tables to pay the bills.  His long list of tales was amusing and believable, and he really knew how to work for tips.  He always earned more than me, and I was happy that we pooled our gratuities at the end of each shift.

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 Ponce to eat, but those establishments were usually packed. The Light House was so conveniently located for customers coming from downtown, and especially for us.  It would be perfect for an after-hours eatery, even if the place did smell like fish. 

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.  I only saw Aqua a few times after our brief encounter at the restaurant, standing against the buildings on Peachtree Street.  One day she was just gone.  It was like one of those moments that you say to yourself, “Haven’t seen Aqua for awhile,” and then the thought disappears.  Hope she found some peace.

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 Cheshire Bridge Road?” his voice raising with enthusiasm. 

“Yes, on Cheshire Bridge Road!” I said with my voice going up an octave or two.

“Oh my God, Rachel. That’s like going to Hollywood!”

Yes, like going to Hollywood, or Broadway, or Music City, or…yeah, like Hollywood sounded just fine.  Just so very fine.       

*****

 

Chapter 7 

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 trip to Cheshire Bridge Road.  Yes, even though the club was a few miles from 12th Street, the cab ride, cost of drinks, and the ride home would be far too high on a budget with a zero balance.  Even though Larry and Herman had cars that operated on whether their engines would start or not, driving around on someone else’s schedule never seemed to work. Our motto was if we couldn’t walk to it, we usually never got to it.

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 three fifty.”

“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 12th Street and my roommates have cars but I can’t always depend, you know…”

“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 Virginia Highlands neighborhood, so even as I walked through the audience between numbers, everyone was a stranger.  It was a challenge to be working with well known entertainers when I was the least known, or in this case, not known.  I felt overly scrutinized, and the first week was difficult. I pondered on a gimmick or some way to stand out so that people might remember me or at least talk about me.  In Midtown, our gang was recognized, and if not admired or loathed, at least they knew who we were. I needed something. The right number, the perfect costume, maybe new hair.  Just something. My hot pants, tied up shirt and laced up boots would be an image that wouldn’t last long on the big stage.

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. 

*****

 

Chapter 8

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 Hollywood, Florida, a city north of Fort Lauderdale. I went to Wendy for advice.

“It’s the very first one, and we thought we’d try it out,” I said.  Herman and I had talked about going to Florida one day, and we’d heard stories from Wendy and Lavita about Allison’s escapades in Daytona Beach.  “I know we’ll have to pay our own sponsor fee, but we really want to go.  So what do you think?”

“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 Florida.

A few weeks later, Herman, Larry and I headed to the Sunshine State. It was a big adventure, and of course, when the three of us were together, we had fun, and it was great to get out of Atlanta.  The drive seemed like it took an eternity, and many hours later we found the site of the pageant just after the sun was coming up.

“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 Atlanta, who was sponsored by bar owner John McBride, won the contest and no one had any clue to who she was.  She became the first Miss Gay Florida.  Sadly enough, she was embarrassed when Mr. McBride followed her backstage and demanded her three hundred dollar prize money.  What a jerk, I thought to myself, watching him put the money in his pocket. The cocksucker didn’t even congratulate her. What a bastard.

***** 

It wasn’t long after the Florida pageant that Frank Powell, the owner of the Sweet Gum Head, asked me if I wanted to be in the Miss Dixieland contest to be held in Daytona.  He was going down to visit friends from his old stomping grounds and wanted to sponsor me and pay my expenses. One of his favorite bartenders, Dave, would ride with us. My first sponsor! I couldn’t wait. I wanted to bring Reba, but Frank hated the snake.  “If you bring that goddamn snake, you can take the bus,” he said jokingly with his big hearty laugh. But he wasn’t joking. Oh well, I told myself. I’ll just do the standard stuff. It was a free trip.

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.  Suddenly, Florida seemed a bit more exciting. He approached the bar, and it was apparent that he knew the owner, who made him a drink on the house.  There was conversation, and then quiet.  The guy began to approach me.  Frank was giving me thumbs up. 

“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.”

“Rachel.  I’m from Atlanta.”

“Wanna go have some fun?”

“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.

“Thanks.”

“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. 

*****

 

Chapter 9

Allison moved back from Florida to Atlanta with her partner Travis, and joined the cast on a regular basis. Allison was a wonderful addition to the cast, but her inclusion also changed the dynamics, especially with her partner Travis who had his nose into everything we did. While she was working in Florida, I was building a fan base, and upon her return to Atlanta, it was not at all uncommon on a weekend night to hear the fans (mostly women) trying to out scream each other with “Rachel!’ and then “Allison!”  It was a competition with the fans, but Allison confronted me backstage one evening, telling me that I needed to put a stop to “that shit.” I didn’t like it either, and I was hurt by her insinuation that I was responsible for the screaming. What could I do?  At one point I realized that it was her problem, not mine.

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 Atlanta, but the big buzz was about Ernestine Brown. Yes, Ernestine was this very tall and thin drag who always surrounded herself with tall and muscular ex-cons.  She was being sponsored by Ray Zeller’s businesses …bath houses and drag shows (Ray would later have Alicia Bridges under contract when she recorded I Love the Nightlife).  The word was that Ray gave Ernestine a blank check for costumes and evening gowns. That evening, the rumors were true.  She wore outfits that only Cher would put on. They were so Bob Mackie. 

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 San Antonio, Texas at a girls club.  Yeah, the Red White & Blue Revue was in Texas. Wow! Though the booking didn’t live up to our expectations, it was a fun experience. I remember how we stopped in New Orleans on the way there, went clubbing early, and Allison and I were truly bored after hearing about the excitement and gay times that people bragged about when they visited the city and we weren’t even being noticed. After about two hours, the two of us went back to our rooms and played dress up, putting on eye makeup, a little blush, and we got rid of the jeans and tees and put on shorts and tied up shirts.  Both of us had close to shoulder length hair at the time, so we lifted and teased our locks, and then sprayed the Aqua Net till the hair stood out on its own. We weren’t in drag. We were just looking a little freakish. Why, it was New Orleans, right?

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 San Antonio for three nights. My second act on the first night was my snake act. Yes, Reba came with me.  Allison thought it would be a good idea that when my music started, the cast would run out from behind the curtain, half dressed, screaming like women in a black and white Japanese horror flick. I agreed.  We should scare the crowd before I came out.  It was if someone had set off a fire alarm.  The screams startled the crowd, and when I came out with the snake, the audience followed the cast, but kept running out the door.  They acted as if I had just found it back stage and came out holding it, saying, “Look what I found hidden in this funky snake infested club!”  Unfortunately, we discovered that whipping out a snake in Texas is a no-no.  Needless to say, the crowds for the rest of our stay were small.

 *****

Once we were back in Atlanta, Wendy and Lavita announced that we would perform the musical Jesus Christ Superstar.  It was an idea that was born on the long trip back from San Antonio. They had decided that I would play the role of Jesus.

“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 12th Street living among the hookers and drug addicts. We found ourselves living in very nice digs near the club at the intersection of Lenox and Cheshire Bridge Roads.  The show had matured, the cast was working well together, and the crowds were continuing to come and see us.

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 Cypress Street. It didn’t matter to me what he did. Though he was the same age as me, he was coming to me like a big brother.

“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 Lenox Road allowing me to see his face.  I told him about losing my identity, about hurting my friend Herman. I wasn’t sure what I wanted, but I really knew that I didn’t want to be a woman, that I was experimenting with this whole drag idea.  Rachel wasn’t real, but just a character, and a character growing out of control. I loved performing, and I was excited about the persona and how people reacted to my stage presence, but I was still John and wanted to be John. He listened to me, holding one of my hands with his and with his other caressing my bare back. It felt good to have him near.  God he was cute, I told myself.

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 announce 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.

*****

 

Chapter 10

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 in northern Georgia.  Apparently, she wowed the judges that night. And of course, British was the second and reigning queen of the city.  I wanted to be the third.

Buddy Clark owned the contest and had a reputation for running a tight ship.  He was a no-nonsense kind of guy, short and hyper, and played by the rules, rules made by him.  There was no committee or process for appealing a decision, only his final word which was his first word. And he made sure that everyone knew who was in charge…that was the first thing out of his mouth when we met for rehearsal that Saturday afternoon before the contest (held on Thursday).

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 Atlanta who knew anything about shows knew that I did that song.

“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…”

“Yeah?”

“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?”

“Yeah, 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.

*****

 

Chapter 11

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.

“How?”

“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 North Carolina and Florida. Other clubs were always opening in Atlanta and show bars were popping up all over.  For me, the whole scene was like pre-Sweet Gum Head, with shows on different nights at different clubs, various audiences, mostly in Midtown, but my attitude had changed; I had a bit of experience on my side this time around.

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 Atlanta. New shows were brought in at the Sweet Gum Head, but crowds waned. The Red White & Blue Revue’s run had ended. And it was a splendid run for all of us.

*****

I finally ended up working for Ray Zeller. Ray owned the baths in Atlanta and Charlotte, and acted as an agent for drags and other entertainers with his primary star being Ernestine Brown.  He approached me at one of my shows, and I thought what the hell? Someone other than myself to do the bookings. I agreed, but I soon regretted my decision.

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 Charlotte for a week after a booking with no funds, and after waiting for countless hours each week to get paid and outmaneuvering the pack of giant dogs, it took me about four weeks to say enough is enough. Ernestine can have Ray and his lover son and the whole brood of wild animals living on the property. I would not be one of Ray’s possessions and be at his beck and call. I was on my own again.

*****

 

Chapter 12

Wendy called me to remind me about the Miss Gay America Pageant that was going to be held in Nashville, Tennessee. We had talked about entering a few weeks earlier, and I wasn’t too sure about entering, but he convinced me that as Miss Gay Atlanta, I was bound by some understood civic obligation to represent the city and even the state of Georgia since there was no Miss Gay Georgia contest. He in turn would be representing the entire southern part of the United States since he was the reigning Miss Southeast winner. He always had a way of exaggerating the issues. Wendy was good at convincing me to do things, as well. He also had a theory about entering pageants. One, put a package together and enter to make money. And two, take every opportunity to put on a great show because bar owners are always present at these contests and bookings can come quickly by putting on a good talent number. “Make sure they remember your name, whether you win or lose,” he’d say. “But it also helps to leave with the tiara on your head,” he added.

“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 Nashville. Wendy and Leonard would meet us there. We had booked rooms at a motel on the outskirts of the city. It was an exiting time for us. We even invited Carmen Del Rio to ride and stay with us. It was a new pageant and adventure for us, and for Carmen, a new contest to win. He was notorious for winning, and for good reason. His talent was excellent and his poise on stage was incredible. I had a lot to learn from him. We did a few shows together and had become friends. I was thrilled that he would be traveling with us.

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 Nashville for a while. My motel mates were being pageant conscious, needing their sleep. I couldn’t.

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 Nashville for a man to be wearing makeup on the streets?”

“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 Atlanta. This was just the beginning of pageant season, and I was ready to run like a race horse. I just needed to work on the package, the total package.

*****

 

Chapter 13

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 the Midwest, like St. Louis and Chicago. He wanted to start new, but he wanted to include me in the show. It sounded like a dream come true. Suddenly, he sought out a young Michael Andrews, Deva Sanchez, and Roby Landers, and he brought in Satyn DeVille and Julie (a local male impersonator), and he brought back Lavita Allen. Soon Lisa King would join the cast, along with the Grease Sisters. For the next few years, all kinds of local and national entertainers would join the cast, though some would stay longer than others. The crowds came back to the Gum Head, and each week was a different show with guest entertainers. The club became known as the “Showplace of the South.” The Sweet Gum Head was back in business, but more importantly for me, I was back home.

***** 

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 Great Southeast Music Hall off of Piedmont and Lindbergh. I couldn’t wait. I didn’t go to many concerts, but this one I wouldn’t miss.  Some of my friends came with me. Everyone knew I was already a Melissa fan, though most didn’t know of her other than the music I did on stage. Well, even I didn’t really know her other than by her music. We all sat in the front in beanbag chairs. The hall was typical of the times, laid back and relaxed.

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.

*****

 

Chapter 14

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.        

Logan was always on the move from Florida, to Atlanta, to Texas, New York, and California. But when he was with us in Atlanta he was just plain fun to hang out with. I would ask him about the tales that I had heard about him, like if he had really crapped on stage in Jacksonville.  He would just laugh, but he never answered the question.  One night at the Gum Head he did moon the audience during the curtain call. It was a slow and unresponsive audience that evening, and even showing his ass didn’t wake them up. Okay, I thought to myself.  This is how these stories get started.

One afternoon in Little Five Points, we were stuck in traffic.  Out of nowhere, Logan jumped out of the car, pulled out his gay rape whistle, and then proceeded to direct traffic.  The serious look on his face was incredible and believable. He was acting at one in the afternoon, and the role was that of a traffic cop.  Even more awesome was that the other motorists followed his lead as he blew his whistle and used his arms to guide the traffic through the intersection.   I moved with the traffic, and as soon as we were in the clear, he came running to catch up. 

“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 Bowie part. With special lighting and unique costumes, it was quite the show stopper, but more importantly to both of us, it was artistic and theatrical.

I have other stories about Logan like when we rode all night together in the New York subway, or when the yellow jackets swarmed us in Piedmont Park while riding bikes. My tales with Logan all involve him being impulsive and daring.  Logan’s impulsiveness was one of the characteristics that made him who he was.  He protected himself with a certain façade and often hid behind the mask called Roxanne, but it was also through that mask that he was able to project his real feelings and persona.  He was unique; he was great.

***** 

It was time to gear up for the Miss David Pageant to be held in New York.  I had entered the contest in Texas the year before, and actually did well until I pulled Reba out for talent. Unlike the Cubans when I danced with her in the first Miss Gay Florida Pageant, the judges in Texas were in no mood to score me and my reptile very high. I should have learned my lesson when I pulled the darn thing out in San Antonio, that Texans don’t like snakes. Though I scored almost perfect in the other categories, my talent score was very low. It was the last time I took my snake to a contest.

Carmen Del Rio won that contest in Dallas. She was sick with the flu and had an extremely high fever, but went on to wow the crowd and the judges. Of course for me, the highlight of the trip to Dallas was that I met Roxanne Russell.

Roxanne and I, along with Pearl Bailey, were being sponsored in the Miss David Pageant in New York by Frank Powell, and he had a couple of fun time bartenders drive us to the Big Easy. Ted Stevenson was entering the Mr. David Contest, so in all, we had a group of party people making the trek.

Roby Landers had given me, what I called “Chicago” costumes. They were very stagy, unlike the simple things I normally wore on stage. I took my favorite, a mirrored gown, with me to the contest. It was slit up each side, and it was a perfect fit, though the plastic that the mirrors were attached to was extremely warm and sticky. The price to pay to look good, I thought to myself. I brought my red feather boa to top off the look. Pure glamour.

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 New York was when Roxanne, Ted and I rode the subway. Like fools we went into areas in the evening where we probably should not have gone. But we were impervious to the dangers of the big city.  It was a short ride, but it was fun.

On the way back to Atlanta, we spent the evening in a motel in Virginia. The motel was near a truck stop. Roxanne and I shared a room together. When checking in, we noticed a small group of nice looking guys hanging outside one of the rooms, the door open. Probably truckers we told ourselves. After settling down in our rooms, I asked Roxanne if he wanted to have fun. His response was a “fuck yeah,” and he laughed that nervous laugh that was so Roxanne.

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 Nashville thought I was fishy, maybe this hot little guy might react the same way.

“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

****

 

Chapter 15

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.

Gary said that he wanted to work on my makeup and hair, and have a professional photo session set up for publicity prints. I kept asking him if this was a joke, and because I didn’t know him at all, I was a bit apprehensive. But of course, as impulsive and daring as I was, I was happy to oblige him. He gave me his card and said he would be in touch with me about the details. He called me the following week.

For the next few months, Gary put me through a crash course on real girl modeling, along with cutting and conditioning my hair, and refining my makeup. It was a true makeover. And the photo session produced some wonderful shots, images of me that I didn’t even know would be possible. We never talked about money, but I felt that the time and expense that he was investing in me, along with the exposure that I was going to get would be worth it, compensation or not.

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 Gary called me to let me know that I had been cancelled from the show. Apparently, he was pressured to edge me out because someone important felt that it was inappropriate for me to be in the program.

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 Atlanta Civic Ballet has been removed from the show. It turns out that Rachel Wells is a he, not a she.

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.

Dancers from the Atlanta Civic Ballet were to be the main attraction along with the country’s top black model Naomi Sims and Rachel Wells, presented by John Greenwell.

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 Gary. I wasn’t sure why, but I was. I felt he could have stood his ground, but again, he was already in hot water because of the situation. When he tried to talk to me after letting me know of the cancellation, I just remember yelling at him, and stating that I just didn’t think it was fair. I was being selfish, but at the time, I was feeling bitter, and I was thinking about the embarrassment of being kicked out of the show.

However, I soon cooled down and decided that I was not to be outdone. Gary invited me to go to the show, and I did. Larry Bell was my escort, and I made him promise not to try and hurt anybody. Even after knowing him these past few years, he was still a red-headed hot head. I went and bought a beautiful and skimpy, flaming red and layered dress with spaghetti straps. It took me forever to figure out how to get the thing on, but I did. I purchased red, opened-toed shoes that matched perfectly, and I wore a white, floor-length ostrich feather coat on top of it all.

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 Miami do it once, sort of Vogueing before Madonna made it fashionable. I was making my statement, but in a glamorous way, saying with my face and body, “Look at me bitches, just look at me.

Gary approached me and told me how wonderful I looked, and of course, I broke out of the model zone to speak. He then introduced me to some wonderful people who were actually disappointed that I wasn’t in the show, but who were delighted that I was there. We later watched the show, and afterward, I was invited to go back stage and meet Naomi Sims. She was charming, but I could tell she couldn’t be bothered. I loved her attitude.

A few days later, after the entire Phoenix Affair was completed, another article appeared in the Atlanta Constitution:

CITY ART SUPPORT IS DOUBTED

The producer of the Atlanta Ballet benefit, the Phoenix Affair II, said Thursday he questions just how serious Atlantans are about supporting local arts. “Despite their dire need to raise money, the public support to raise money was zero,” Gary B. White of The Peachtrees, a local modeling and talent agency said.

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.

The show, held last year, only at night and not as a benefit, drew a capacity crowd in the 1,200 seat symphony hall in the Atlanta Memorial Arts Center. “We had a total attendance of about 1,200 persons for three shows this year,” White said, “ and no more than 150 of them were drawn directly by the ballet aspect of the show.”  “People in the ballet guild told us that 11:30 a.m. would be the time their supporters would attend the show,” White said.  “So we put on a matinee performance Wednesday.  There was an attendance of about 110 people.”  “But if John’s (Greenwell) female impersonation presentation had remained in the show, I feel we would have sold out all three nights.”  The act was removed two weeks ago.

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 affair was New York model Naomi Sims, the nation’s top black model.  White attributed Ms. Sims’ appearance to cooperation from national fashion houses in supplying clothes not locally available. The show, while presenting designer fashions, focused attention on the modeling of the clothes, presented in vignettes. There also was a short performance by members of the ballet.

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 Head on Cheshire Bridge Road.

 *****

 

Chapter 16

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 south Atlanta. We were all nervous, not sure if we were going to be warmly welcomed or if we were going to get our asses beat. I felt pretty safe with our crew, but I do remember Herman being a little shaky in the waning minutes before the game. Surprisingly, the other team didn’t seem to pay us much attention. They were there to win the game.

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 Chicago, and was Puerto Rican, extremely glamorous and funny. And the girl was as pale as anyone could get, but even more in the daylight. What we didn’t know was that she was telling the truth about not knowing anything about softball. When it was her turn to bat, we had to show her how to hold what she called the “long wooden penis.” And when she hit the ball, she turned and started running to third. Even the other team was enjoying the moment, especially the player who walked to get the ball and then slowly took his time to walk to first to make the out. Chili finally headed to first and even after being called out, began to berate the official for being so rude to her by yelling it so loudly.  Even out of drag, Chili was Chili.

*****

“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.

 *****

 

Chapter 17

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.

Atlanta drag was beginning to take a shape of its own. People were coming from all over the South to see the shows at the Sweet Gum Head. Our shows were different, entertaining, and in many ways, cutting edge. Across the country, names like Roby Landers, Billy Boots, Tiffany Jones, Brenda Dee, Criss Cross, and the twins, Lana Kuntz and Donna Drag were headliners in their states. I wanted to be as famous, but I didn’t want to be like them. Yeah, they were wonderful with their acts and their emceeing, but I wanted my own niche, my own identity. Though talented in their own right, they represented old drag. I wanted to be a part of the new generation of performers.

New bars were opening in Atlanta in the early and mid Seventies. And there was a demand for them. Other than the Gum Head, most of the gay nightspots in 1974 were downtown, or near the edge of midtown. The Amory, the Cove, Score One, and Club III were favorites. Underground Atlanta was the location of Poor Richard’s Leather, Ponce de Leon was home to the historic and famous Mrs. P’s, and the Club South Baths was always busy. And of course, there was the Stardust Lounge, My House, and the club that would produce so many wonderful acts, the Onyx Lounge, Jim Nally’s infamous night spot and home to Taisha Wallis, and my favorite bartender, Bill Sullivan, and of course, Daisy Dalton.     

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 Atlanta, winning the contest was only second to the impact an entertainer could make.  After the contests, not everyone talked about the one with the tiara on her head; the one who broke the rules and or was the crowd favorite was the one who kept the phone lines busy.  This year was no different.  This was the year of Daisy Dalton.

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 Atlanta was becoming a diverse and progressive city, the surrounding sea of communities was still tightly associated with religious bigotry and even the KKK. It was not a good time to be gay in the south, and even though Atlanta may not have been the haven for gays like San Francisco, it was surely a much better place than the outskirts of southern Georgia.

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 Georgia State, and Herman and Tommy broke up. Herman and I moved to Euclid Avenue into our own apartments. Wendy and Lavita had lived in the Euclid Avenue apartment complex and they were moving out, and I was going to take over the Wendy’s lease. For Herman and me, it was a great opportunity to be independent, but still connected. It was not too far from the club, but now we had plenty of cash for cabs. Herman was working in the show as well, but one evening Art told him he needed him to wait tables. Herman, reluctantly did so, and he served drinks in drag.  By the end of the evening, Herman had raked in so many tips that he never looked back. Suddenly, Marlo was the big money maker of the group and only appeared on stage for special events and pageants. He’d found his niche.

Money was flowing, unlike the early days on 12th Street, and I even paid my rent six months in advance. I had a boyfriend, though being monogamous was not a virtue that either one of us would possess. I was flirting and playing with everything, male or female, while he had a real girlfriend on the side. She liked me and my circle of friends, but she had to be living in a world of denial, pretending that her beau and I were just close friends. Yeah, we got close a lot. It was a safe time; a time when ignorance was truly bliss.

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 Atlanta was overwhelming for me. I didn’t want to fail, nor did I want to be outdone by any of the locals. At this time, I was regarded by many as Atlanta’s favorite drag star, though many were nipping at my heels. There were so may upstarts like Hot Chocolate and Lisa King ready to move in on the subjective title, and there were many like Roskie Fernandez and Carmen Del Rio who had proven records of wiping out the competition. I didn’t realize that the answer to my dilemma for talent was right under my nose. Like the song from Gypsy, you have to have a gimmick and I had learned that lesson well, but I was still searching for the gimmick that would stand out and win the talent category.

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 Gethsemane scene, where Jesus is praying through song to God and asking why, why should he die. It’s a powerful song from the show. Then at one point, there would be thunder and lightning, and I would transform into Mary Magdalene. I could see the performance in my mind, but I had to work out the details. The precision of the transformation would be detrimental to the success of the performance.  I listened over and over to the music, working the act in my head.  I had our DJ create a tape, cutting it down to the allotted time, and it sounded great. I already had a breakaway Jesus costume, and it was easy to have a Mary Magdalene gown put together. With all the other categories covered and thought out, my talent act was ready to go. My biggest gamble would be if the judges would buy into what I was doing. And then there was the other factor: would judges or even members of the audience be offended with the act. No one could doubt that I had a gimmick, and win or lose, they would remember me. My only real concern was that I wanted the act to be a surprise, primarily to the Atlanta audience, which meant that the first time I did the act would be in the preliminaries. It would almost be like cold turkey; a one time shot. A dress rehearsal being scored. The whole idea was a long shot, but it was one I was willing to take.

The contest was going to be a marathon, even more so than the one that I had entered in Nashville the year before. It would run May 3, 4, and 5 at the Atlanta American Hotel at Spring Street and Carnegie Way. First prize was $4,000 and that amount of prize money alone would attract all kinds of talent from across the country. 

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 Oklahoma’s boyfriend in my hotel room), I made the top ten, which was my goal, and at one point I really thought I had a chance to win (as we all do).  I performed my talent again and it was received well. The Atlanta crowd treated me as a hometown favorite by clapping and cheering for my every move. I was the only one from Georgia to make the finals, which made the locals root even more for me.  Folks in Atlanta always pulled for the local favorites, but they were also so drag savvy that they applauded for everyone and anyone who was entertaining. 

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 Miami, Florida. A one night contest would be less strenuous and I already had gained quality pageant experience, and I had a new talent. I was almost ready to go.

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.

*****

 

Chapter 18

The July weather in Miami is hot, but Miami is hot all the time, if you know what I mean.  It was always a treat to visit lower Florida no matter what time of the year it was. The music, the ocean, the smell of Cuban inspired foods permeating the air. For me, it was like being in a different country. I wanted to take the Miss David pageant seriously, but a part of me wanted to just go and disappear in the Atlantic seaside.

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 Florida goddess, Roxanne Russell, who was just coming into his own as the hottest drag in the state. Yes, there was going to be competition, alright, but I was up for it. I just needed to stay focused on the categories.

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 Miami, very catholic, and also wanting to see glamour drag. Had I gone too far with this gimmick? Did I look ridiculous? I found myself in a bit of a panic, but I also realized that there was no turning back now. Sink or swim. The crowd was staring at me. Better swim, I thought. I was moving my mouth to the words and in a few moments I was totally into the act. By the time I finished the first part, I was wondering if they would get it. I couldn’t read the faces in front of me. Were they liking it or not? Yeah, entertainers can get into an automatic zone and be thinking about different things while performing, and I was in that zone.

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 Atlanta, Georgia, contestant number 28…” I didn’t even hear my name called out. It was a moment of surrealism. But my first thought  was not that I won this darn thing, but that I had beaten Roskie Fernandez. It was the craziest thing. Roskie was the measure of success for when it came to pageants. I beat Roskie Fernandez! I had arrived!

*****

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 Euclid Avenue, in my tiny apartment. Herman had moved back to Lenox Road and moved in with Joe’s brother, Stuart. I wanted to stay in my apartment. Not sure why. Though the area was turning into a rough neighborhood, it was still exiting living there. I foolishly felt safe enough walk or ride my bike to the Ponce area to eat at the Majestic and then ride back home. One day I was robbed at gun point while riding my bike. Another day, again while riding on the same bike route, I was approached by three Georgia Tech students who were looking to have sex. That was an experience to remember. I went through a couple of boyfriends in that apartment, along with being broken into while I was sleeping, only to scare the burglar away when I jumped out of the bed naked. There was a lot of traffic coming and going through my doors, but at one point I had reached my limit for tolerance of the good and the bad.

I was in Saint Louis when Herman called me. He was watching my apartment for me while I was away for a few days on a gig. He informed me that my apartment had been broken into and almost everything was taken. I came home the next day to find my apartment ransacked. The police had been waiting for me to return, and they came quickly after I called. The police report said that the neighbor upstairs saw a white truck back up to the door and then she watched as they started to load things in it. She was later surprised to find out they were stealing my things. After all, she had told police, “He has company down there all the time.” The bitch was always high on Valium, which made for her being a good upstairs neighbor. But when it came to being a neighborhood watchdog, she failed miserably.

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: Atlanta’s Disco Scene. The author was doing a disco run of clubs in the city and the following was our part of the article:

We pulled behind Tiger Auto Parts on Cheshire Bridge Road and swept into the Sweet Gum Head, a dark, sensuous purlieu for Atlanta gays and probably the city’s oldest disco. An evilly-blasting bump-and-grinder was on their new p.a. and a trio of gorgeous female impersonators was on the stage-dance floor.

“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 the early Atlanta drag days.  At one point he leaned backward, carrying the long note, one arm reaching out over his head to balance his body (classic Barbra pose from Funny Girl) when one of his overweight lesbian fans walked up onto the stage and proceeded to put a dollar bill into Lavita’s mouth.  It was so very funny.  The crowd began to laugh, yet Lavita didn’t seem to think it was so humorous. When the number was over, he marched off stage in a Barbra style diva rage and returned to the dressing room.  It was the last time he did a Barbra Streisand routine.

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.

*****

 

Chapter 19

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 Saint Louis.  He was young and ambitious, cute, and into being real.  The only unfortunate thing with Bobby was that he had no originality with his act.  His repertoire of numbers was a mixture of old drag songs and a few new ones.  I always felt that his coming to Atlanta to become part of the show was because in Saint Louis, he was doing other people’s acts and none of his own.  This was not uncommon in the drag world to see someone idolize and then copy their favorite drag entertainer’s performance and appearance.  In some cases, if there was a void, let’s say with a Diana Ross performer like Jimmie Dee who did a wonderful illusion of Ross, and if he were to leave a club, then there might be another Ross impersonator to take his place and all would be fine.  But it would be a mistake and pure hell if there were five Ross impersonators working the same club, especially on the same night. Picture being in that dressing room and witnessing the discussion about who would be the Boss Miss Ross!  I think that Art felt that if Bobby were to come to Atlanta, he would be filling a void of old drag tunes; the problem really was that Bobby was young and the old tunes weren’t even popular anymore.

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 about Atlanta audiences.  He shared the dressing room with Satyn and me, and even Ms. DeVille was getting annoyed with Bobby’s negativity every night.

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 even in Saint Louis.  It feels so good.”

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.

*****

 

Chapter 20

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 Chattahoochee River.” They still looked puzzled. Half of them were still hung over from the night before, and they other half weren’t very creative in the first place. “Okay, maybe I didn’t explain it very well, so let me try it again.”

“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 Chattahoochee River. That’s a queen’s worst nightmare,” he said rolling his eyes. He was always sarcastic, but in a funny way.

“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 Atlanta if he were the one to take the scissors to my hair.  I didn’t look in the mirror, nor did I say goodbye to each snipped strand as Stuart methodically, and with precision, clipped away. Within thirty minutes my hair was on the floor. When I went into the bathroom to take a peak at myself, I was amazed to see an old friend…me.

“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 Lynn in the movie. It was a packed Saturday night. I borrowed one of Satyn’s old dresses and wig. That evening I put on very little makeup other than creating aging wrinkles on my face. Chocolate was working that weekend with us and shared the dressing room with Satyn and me. One of his many cute fans came back before the show started and the guy stared at me with a strange kind of look. I knew what he was thinking.

“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 Alice. I took the Tanya Tucker version of Texas When I Die, and turned it into a barroom sing along, while I waited tables, hair teased and piled high in a southern Pentecostal twist, and with a cigarette in my mouth. With my wing-tipped glasses and wearing my uniform and apron, I was the epitome of the not so perfect, but adorable truck stop waitress.  It was a number that allowed me to just have fun, where I didn’t have to be glamorous or sexy. Again, another spur of the moment idea that paid off.

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, Coco, starring Kate in the lead role as Coco Chanel. The song, Always Mademoiselle, was the finale number. Deva directed the number, where in the musical bridge, we would all come out like models. The number was simple and basic, but Deva’s pantomiming was totally out of sync with the recording. It was like watching an old Japanese movie dubbed in English. And anyway, even with his efforts, a man in Della Reese drag doing Kate just didn’t work. We performed the number a few times, but it never really took off.

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 Coco recording home and learned the words. I even studied her latest films, her expressions and mannerisms, and even her now famous shakiness.

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 Man. It was a blast watching her as she got serious one minute, then laughing at herself the next. Karen had had a bit much to drink prior to making it into the club, but before she left, she was way on her way to hangover city. So is this how Hollywood celebrities release their stress when they’re away from home? Poor dear, I thought to myself. She probably thought that no one knew who she was.

*****

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 Chattanooga.  After that, and for some reason not known to the rest of us, he enlisted in the Navy. I think it was his attraction to sailors.  

*****

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 to Hollywood, I was excited to have received a post card from her. And not only did she go to Hollywood, she went glamorous as well. The little short singer I met at the Great Southeast Music Hall had a makeover, and suddenly, Melissa was a vixen.

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.

*****

 

Chapter 21

An excerpt from an article in the BARB:  Phyllis Killer’s Nite Notes, March 1976.

Rachel Wells, 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 in Miami. We laughed when reminded how the airlines lost her cross, and when it did arrive just in time to drag it across the stage in her Jesus Christ Superstar number that stopped the show for ten minutes. She goes back to Miami and will thrill audiences at the Hayloft and at the 8000 Club Resort. Let your friends down that way hear from you and the good news. Rachel Wells, we love you and best wishes on your tour.

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 North Carolina, Tennessee, Alabama, and Florida for the next few months. Most were easy gigs, but my longest was a week in Miami’s 8000 Club/Resort at the Stonewall Too Showroom on Biscayne Boulevard. It was exciting to be in Miami again, and the show format would be very different for me. Instead of the usual few numbers a night, I had to perform two forty-five minute shows by myself. It was a challenge when I began to put the songs together, and it made it even more difficult for me to do my characters. The managers where happy to build a changing screen on stage that would allow the audience to see my shadow as I got ready for the next act. It was just a way to keep the patrons occupied while I changed my costumes.

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 Florida was the heat. During my gig at the 8000 Club I would get so soaked with sweat that I had to shower and get back in drag between each show. It was convenient to be a guest of the hotel where I could freshen up, but in a few other shows I did in the state, I just felt yucky between numbers. But getting booked in Florida had its perks. For a few hours of being in drag and getting paid well, I always had more time off to lay in the sun and play. The trade off was great.

*****

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 Florida and newly crowned Queen of Disco, was working there along with Kelly Keebler and Grease Sisters Lily White and Kitty Litter. The Onyx featured Roski Fernandez, Micky Day, Tiger Lil, and Terry Douglas. And of course, entertainers were floating in and out of Atlanta, working wherever they could.

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 Atlanta (though I never really left…I only worked out of town), was a featured article on me in the August 1976 Cruise Magazine by Rod Horny. I always questioned his name, like was it a pen name or alias, but he swore it was real. Though I had been written about and had so much publicity in the past, this was the very first time that I had a real interview. Though it would feel awkward to later read the article, asking myself, “Why did I say that? It sounds so stupid,” I was also realizing I had arrived. Not everyone warranted an interview, especially one so prominent and as long as this one.

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 Atlanta from Huntsville, Alabama in 1971, and except for his glasses he didn’t look any different from the way he had looked five and a-half years ago. As always when I see him out of drag, I had trouble accepting the fact that with a dress and makeup, he can transform himself into one of the most glamorous looking women in Atlanta. But wait, that’s not correct because there’s a lot more involved in the transition than a dress and makeup.

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.”

Rachel got her start in the summer of 1971 at a bar in the cellar of the building on the northwest corner of Virginia and Highland which was then known as the Cruise Quarters. She worked there as a regular and did other appearances at Chuck’s Rathskellar and Peach’s Back Door. After the Cruise Quarters closed, she even spent two weeks working as a waitress in drag at the Lighthouse on Peachtree just before joining Lavita, Wendy, Rhonda Blake, British Sterling and Allison in the Red White and Blue Revue in early 1972.

“I think 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 Miami, Charlotte, Knoxville, Birmingham, and San Antonio. As she puts it, she had lots of opportunities.

“In addition to learning a lot at the Gum Head, I’ve gotten into a few different things like some hair shows and there was the Phoenix Affair.”

“What was the Phoenix Affair?”

“I was supposed to model at Symphony Hall. It was a big fashion show and bizarre. Gary White from Peachtree Center Models spent six months grooming me for it and then I didn’t get to perform. But it was good training and the publicity didn’t hurt.”

“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?”

“About two years ago. About the time of the Phoenix Affair.”

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.

“Birmingham has to be one of the best, but then I’ve had great times in North Carolina and I loved Knoxville. And I think Miami is probably the most exciting with a different crowd every night. But Atlanta’s home and while the crowds here are probably the hardest to please, they are the most thrilling to work for.”

Well, Rachel, Atlanta is thrilled to have you back at the Sweet Gum Head on a regular basis. As for me, I’m still trying to figure out what it is about your performance that makes you one of my all time favorites. Maybe it’s just the fact that Rachel Wells, as you said, is a character who is a little different from what we are used to seeing in female impersonation. She’s a little special in the way she looks, the way she performs, and the material she does and in her close rapport with the audience. And she’s not a phony, she’s certainly REAL to me and to her countless other fans here and all over the Southeast.

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. 

*****

 

Chapter 22

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, Atlanta was my home, and even though I was encouraged to move west by many who had already left, I just couldn’t see pulling up and starting all over. Touring was enough for me and it made coming home more joyous and rewarding. And anyway, I had it too good to just give it away.

Herman and I moved into a three bedroom apartment in the same complex that we had been living in off Lenox and Cheshire Bridge Road. We seemed to move at least once a year. The place was quite spacious with the pool located conveniently right outside the front door. Not long after, Herman got in the nesting mood and brought Charles home to live with us. He was a nice addition to our small family, and his specialty was cooking home style meals, and he had a knack for playing cards and gambling. He would be a perfect fit.

*****

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 Atlanta was no different. It was an easy way to bring in crowds and make lots of cash at the expense of drags like me who felt a need to have a tiara on their heads to validate a high caliber talent and acceptance. I mean who hasn’t wanted to be a legitimate and beautiful queen, even if it was just a one year commitment or until another opportunity came around to ditch one crown and grab another?

Like a soldier leading the troops into savage territory to be conquered, I was aiming for the title of Miss Florida to be held in May at the Grand Ballroom of the Fontainebleau Hotel in Miami Beach. Chocolate had won the title the year before and it just seemed fitting that he would put the new crown on my head. At least, that was my intent. The pageant had grown in stature and prestige. It had come a long way from the huge room at the American Legion bingo hall in its first year. I had come a long way, too. I was ready.

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 Florida pageant, and I was treated with respect, and perhaps with some degree of awe. It was, after all, the same place that I won the Miss David contest back in 1974. For some of the contestants, I was probably viewed as a seasoned veteran, which meant they probably thought I was old. Thank goodness there were some there more seasoned than me. The tension was high with most, but again, it was a contest where exposure was as good, well, almost as good as winning. It was estimated that there were over two thousand people in the audience. I was excited and confident.

From Cruise Magazine, June 1977, an excerpt from an article on the pageant:

Rachel Wells stunned the audience with her fabulous Katherine Hepburn impersonation from the musical Coco. As her number began, the stage lit up with huge pictures of Rachel. Each represented one of her well known characterizations including Jesus Christ Superstar, Raquel Welch, and Carol Channing. There was also one of Rachel (John Greenwell) as himself out of drag.

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 Florida. I later found out that I lost by two points. Two lousy points. But I was okay with it. I felt good about my performance and I had nothing to be ashamed of.  And how could I possibly not be happy for Dana?

Dana turned out to be a good friend and a great Miss Florida. Over the next few years we would hang out together, work together, and even get into trouble together. Of all my losses in a pageant, the loss to Dana was the best one I ever had.

*****

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.

*****

 

Chapter 23

The Miss Gay America Pageant was going to be held in St. Louis in September. The contest had evolved into a franchise system, a system where only the winners and first alternates to preliminaries could enter the big one. In June, I headed off to work in Dallas for about a month. I would be working with Shawn, Candy, Deva, Donna Day, and other cast members. My timing was perfect as I wanted to enter the Miss Gay America Pageant in September, but I had only a handful of preliminaries to enter to qualify. The Miss Gay South contest was going to be held in the third week of my booking, and at the same club. It was a no brainer to enter and hope to qualify.

“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 Hollywood icon, smoking a Winston and holding the cigarette like John Wayne. The man smiled and went on. My name precedes my act, I repeated in my head.  Not sure what that phrase really meant. Did he mean that I’d been around for a long time? It had been six years since I started drag, but that wasn’t really a long time was it? It could be a good thing or a bad thing, I thought, but I was going on stage in the next few minutes and I didn’t need to lose any self-confidence, so I assumed that what the stranger said was a compliment and I headed for the stage.

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 St. Louis.

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), August 5, 1977. Though not great journalism, it did reflect the mood of the contest, the variety of the entertainers, and it was a real tribute to all who took part in the festivities.

(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 Asia. Athena offered to make him invincible in war. Venus offered him Helen, the most beautiful girl in the world. Venus won and Paris, of course, won Helen. This was the first beauty pageant.)

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.

The contest attracted a lot of stars from other states, as well as the cream of the crop here in Atlanta. The audience loved Rhonda Lee, a Barbra Streisand look alike who was sponsored by Club Hollywood and Damien’s Yum Yum Tree of Daytona.  Candy Jo, sponsored by the We Three Lounge in Macon did some great tap dancing to Sweet Georgia Brown. Zette appeared first in a black bag with only her head showing and then in what looked like a space outfit as she gave us another bizarre but talented performance. Brandy Alexander form North Carolina did I’m Your Puppet while an interesting blond pulled the strings. Tiffany Arieagus from Daytona’s Zodiac Lounge did some exceptional dancing to music from Chorus Line.

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.

There were 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 Inseparable. Dusty Rhodes was poignant doing Vicki Carr’s With Pen in Hand. Tina Devore was fantastic as Shirley Bassey doing Goldfinger and This is My Life. Dina Jacobs did her live rendition of Bring in the Clowns. Lene Hayes was good doing Reflections, and Michelle Blanch’stau was also excellent in her talent presentation. Little Dana Lamour kept shedding clothes and a wig as she did a soulful song about her man. But it was the last contestant who gave one of the happiest performances of the night. Lisa, who is also known as Atlanta’s own Pearl Bailey, came on with Sweet Georgia Brown, then made a quick costume change on the stage behind a screen before doing Purlie, and then changed again to give us Hello Dolly. Like I said, it was happy music and it was a fitting last performance of the talent portion.

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 Atlanta so far. All of the stars who put their reputations on the line are to be congratulated whether or not they were among the winners.  The clothes and the talent presentations of almost every contestant were good enough to have won most contests held elsewhere. The producers, PKN Productions (Frank Powell, Grady Keith, and Jim Nalley) are to be congratulated for bringing such a fine show to Atlanta’s gay audience. We also want to thank John Austin and the staff of the Sweet Gum Head who were gracious hosts for this event.

*****

Chocolate and I decided to run over to the Majestic, the diner on Ponce, for an early dinner. The place wasn’t crowded at all, and we sat in a booth close to the back. We ordered our food and began to catch up on things, things happening in Atlanta and in Texas. It had been some time since we had eaten here, and as always, it was good to revisit old stomping grounds. Suddenly, our meal was being interrupted.

“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 12th Street. Redneck queens were lower than trailer trash, and they were probably the most dangerous of any subculture gay group to mess with. But these were entirely out of their league by thinking they could take us on.

“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.

*****

With the Georgia title finally in my pocket and the tiara on my head, it was time to move on to the big one, the Miss Gay America Pageant to be held in St. Louis. Though I was clearly one of the favorites, and there were many, the role of underdog did not deter any of the other contestants. And clearly the contest structure lends itself to underdogs overachieving. Most drag pageants are completed in one evening, with the next day full of conversations of what could have and should have been being discussed with a hangover while drinking tomato juice with double shots of vodka or whatever leftover liquor that was found in the hotel room from the night before. This particular pageant gave the judges time to see the contestants more than once and in many different situations. It gave them time to discover the flaws with the bigger names and it also gave them the opportunity to get to know the lesser known contestants.

It was my third time to enter the pageant when it was held in St. Louis.  The pageant had become sophisticated by using the preliminary system, and even though I qualified to enter as first alternate to Miss Gay South, I was allowed to use my Miss Gay Georgia title throughout the contest, even though the Georgia pageant was not a preliminary. 

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 Texas. Michael was another one of the entertainers who came to work in Atlanta from Saint Louis, and to be quite honest, made little impact during his stay there. He was a great guy and an excellent entertainer, but timing is everything, and Michael’s time in Atlanta was probably not the right time for him.  But things have a way of working out, don’t they?

Soon after moving to Atlanta, he left for Texas, and he hit it big.  He started to do well in contests.  When I won the Miss David contest in Miami, he was first runner-up.  Not long after, he won the Miss Gay America Pageant.  His version of Ann Margaret was right on target and Michael became a beauty; his face in makeup was flawless. 

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.

*****

 

Chapter 24

“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 Texas man. However, I would really just settle for someone to have a quick fling with, and apparently, though not really my type, Mike would be the one.

“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 Houston, Texas on a Saturday night playing backgammon with a poser. Backgammon seemed to be the rage in the small bars in Houston in 1978, and it was a great way to meet people. Normally, I would be gallivanting in some loud disco with Chocolate, but he was working in San Antonio, so I was left fending for myself in this cozy little getaway not too far from his apartment. My thought was that I would just go out for a few hours, have a few drinks, and if nothing happened, I’d just call a cab and go to the apartment. I didn’t want to stay out too long because I had a show on Sunday night. But now it looked like something was going to happen. Sometimes in life we just have to settle until the next one comes along.

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 in Texas.

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.

“Right now?”

“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.

“Really?”

“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.

*****

 

Chapter 25      

I was touring on the road, and splitting my time in Atlanta.  I was spending the summer with Larry (Hot Chocolate), and doing the Texas circuit when I wasn’t at the Gum Head.  Larry was so caring and kind to me. It was if he owed me something and was paying me back. Of course, he was that way with everyone.

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 Dallas the year before, the one that said my reputation preceded my act. It was starting to haunt me. Maybe I was at the point in my career where I had done what I was intended to do, and now I was living off that reputation, making an easy and lucrative living. It’s what I had worked for, a decent amount of fame and notoriety, but now that I had it, it just didn’t seem to be enough. But I couldn’t quit now, not without one more attempt for the big tiara.

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 Atlanta in September. It was the last qualifying preliminary before the big pageant.  He wished me luck. As first runner-up to Jimmy Dee in St. Louis, everyone presumed that he would enter and be crowned as Miss Gay America.  He had already qualified and was working on his talent. He would definitely be the favorite. I’d known Chocolate for years, and we were the best of friends, had lived together off and on, and I wanted him to win. But I wanted to win, too, and I just got tired of being overlooked as a contender. I needed a new challenge. In my mind, it would be now or never.

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 Dallas and had entered the contest. He finished right behind me. I seemed to be part of the past that kept haunting him. He had moved all the way to enter a contest and here I waltz in and place above him, knocking him out of the chance to enter Miss Gay America. I was saddened by the look on his face after the winners were announced, and I stayed clear of him as to not get involved in any kind of confrontation. I now had other urgencies to deal with. I had a month to get ready for the contest in Atlanta.

Back home in Atlanta, the pressure was on.  All kinds of local favorites had qualified. Lisa King, Vicki Lawrence, Taisha Wallis, Dina Jacobs, not to mention Hot Chocolate and the Lady Shawn, who started their drag careers in Atlanta and who were adored by the fans, were entered.  And there would be others from across the country like Roxanne Russell and Jennifer Fox, who would be tough to beat.  The competition was going to be fierce, and I didn’t even have a gown yet.  Chocolate was staying with me and Herman, and a week before the contest, his evening gown came in the mail from Florida. He bought it from Rachael Santoni, a former Miss Florida. It was red and beautiful, and lucky for me, he couldn’t get the collar around his rather large neck. We both laughed, but I now had the gown I needed.  I threw together a sportswear ensemble, refined my talent, and worked on my questions and answers.  I hired Satan Deville, my colleague and friend to be my attendant, to make sure every hair was in place, every loose thread removed, and every costume pressed and presentable.  Satyn was detail oriented, and wouldn’t miss a thing out of place. I was ready.

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 Norman before Baronessa did, and it was no big deal, but apparently word had gotten out that I had “escaped” to eat fried chicken.  I remember later during the final rehearsal when Norman gave his “there is only one winner speech” to the contestants, Chocolate didn’t sit next to me for fear of guilt by association. I didn’t let him get away with it. I moved over next to him and harassed him during Norman’s talk to the group.  It was Chocolate who got into trouble when the Lady Baronessa heard him say to me, “Miss Thing, quit!” one time too many.  “Ladies, ladies!” she said, looking directly at Chocolate, putting her hand on his shoulder. “Let’s be quiet and listen.”  Chocolate was easily humbled, too.  We both had a good laugh though we didn’t dare let Baronessa see the whites of our teeth.

On the final night, held at the Fox Theater in downtown Atlanta, I was thrilled to make the top ten. My talent went perfectly. When it came time to announce the top five, I was a bit nervous, yet calm. I had done my best and I was in good company with this group of top ten contestants. Win or lose, I had nothing to be ashamed of.  And then the top five were announced.  Along with myself, the others were Donna Drag, Jennifer Fox, the Lady Shawn, and of course, Hot Chocolate. The top five were taken off the stage and isolated.  We would be asked the same question, one at a time.  In the back of my mind I knew that we would be asked, “Why do you want to be Miss Gay America?”  The question was asked every year at some point, during male or drag interviews, or during the final question.  We had not been asked the question yet, so I was ready to answer it.  Please, dear God, don’t let it be anything else. I was escorted to the stage and asked by the Lady Baronessa, “As Miss Gay America I will….”  It was repeated.

“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 New Orleans. I assumed the audience would want to see me as Miss Gay America, so again, I traveled light, doing my regular beauty queen numbers.  Afterwards, a reporter for a local gay mag came up to me and said, “It’s nice to meet you, but quite frankly, I was disappointed with your numbers.”  What could I say, but, “Sorry.”  The bitch had nerve, but was probably right.

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 Milwaukee, I had been asked to be a guest for a contest unlike any other that I had seen before.  I was sort of a guest of honor, sitting in the front row with my tiara on my head, being entertained like the rest of the crowd.  One at a time, a drag would hit the stage, with no music, prance around while a narrative was being read, and then exit the stage to applause.  During intermission, I asked if I could say something to the crowd and then do a number with music.  The crowd was wowed by my performance, and the only thing I could think of was perhaps they’d never seen a drag number to music before.  I was too polite to ask.  The people were terrific in Milwaukee.

I also found it amazing how people would pay their respects to me, the reigning queen.  One time in Savannah while doing a number, an African American drag approached me to tip me, posed with me as her friend took our picture, then asked me if I had change for the ten dollar bill she had in her hand.  As opposed to standing there having a conversation while doing a number, I took the ten, and counted back nine ones.  “Thank you, baby!” was her response as she smiled at me and bowed, and then turned away, putting her change into her bra. Oh well. Humility again. At least I didn’t miss the words to my song.  How’s that for multi-tasking? Thank goodness she didn’t give me a twenty.

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.  At the North Carolina preliminary, one of the contestants came up to me before the talent segment and said, “I hope you don’t mind, but I’m doing your Streisand medley that you did in Asheville last month.”  She even had the same costume on. “That’s fine,” I said, “and good luck.”  I had planned to do that medley for my final number.  The nerve, but contestants come first. Humbled, again.

Norman ran a tight ship with his pageant, and had no time for insignificant problems.  I knew this and tried to stay away from anything that might escalate into something regrettable.  At the time there were no real duties as Miss Gay America except to act in a credible manner while representing the pageant.  I was never precisely sure what that meant, but Norman was great about letting me do as I pleased in regard to any responsibilities.  I think he was just happy that there were no major disasters or blowups under my reign, or at least not to my knowledge were there any.  Even though I had been in the pageant four times, it wasn’t until the annual MGA retreat in Miami that I truly understood the enormous amount of real work and dedication from a promoter’s standpoint that it took to make this contest work and be successful.  I found that in a relaxed setting, Norman was not the hard driving, “I will not bend the rules” guy that he portrays himself during the pageant. He was a funny and enjoyable man who had dreams and aspirations of his own. As the first Miss Gay America, he was allowing the dream to live for others with his continued efforts to own and promote one of the best pageants in the country.           

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 Atlanta. In 1971, when I began my drag career in Atlanta, Crystal Blue, a tall black spider-woman like drag from Louisville who put the wig on my head said to me, “Honey, don’t ever sit back seat to another drag, but always remember that there’s one more talented and prettier than you right around the corner waiting to go on.”  Being Miss Gay America 1979 was my time to sit in the front seat.  And how I enjoyed the ride, even if the time seemed short.

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.

*****

 

Chapter 26

My first time to see the Lady Baronessa was in Nashville when she won the Miss Gay America pageant performing My Way by Shirley Bassey.  She was exquisite and to me she epitomized the title.

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 Miami from Atlanta in the spring of my reign.  Of course, both Norman and I were out of drag, flying like normal guys.  Baronessa was in full regalia, but looking great. The flight was bumpy as we entered the Florida skies.  The storm seemed to be getting worse as we continued, the dark night flashing with streaks every few seconds as lightening filled the skies.  We already had more than a few drinks, but even the liquor couldn’t ease the tension.

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 discussion of Atlanta, it always included Diamond Lil and the bathhouses. And when I moved to Atlanta, I had the honor of meeting and seeing the illusive entertainer fluttering around town out of drag.  I remember that he was supposed to be very old (this coming from a twenty year old), but he had incredible skin.  Even though he was famous as a live entertainer, he was also just as infamous for selling antiques.  Actually, he was well known for selling anything and everything. He had invited the Red White & Blue cast over for lunch one day.  I remember us going there, entering the old building, and being welcomed by Lil with the voice of a southern seductress.  We chatted politely, then proceeded to another room for lunch to find chili and other dishes laid out in a buffet.  I remember Wendy whispering in my ear, “Look, there are prices on each item.”  Sure enough, not only were there prices on each antique in the house, but each plate of food also had a price tag in front of it.  What we thought was going to be a free lunch, was not.  Lavita thought it was a hoot.  I wasn’t sure what to think.  Odd? Peculiar? Actually, pretty bold and brazen.  This was Diamond Lil.  Wow.

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 Atlanta.  His opening monologue became a southern Baptist revival at the temple of the Sweet Gum Head.  His catch phrase was, “Oh, my captain…” and no written words can describe the tone and pitch and even eloquence of Lil’s voice as he submerged himself into his stage character.  And though famous for performing live, he gave camp a new definition when he pantomimed.  When he performed Macarthur Park by Donna Summer, he would bring down the house when he “went crazy” and knocked his props of a table and chair off the back stage, and continued through the song as if in a state of total delirium (Hollywood fifties style). Unfortunately, Lil’s success with this number fostered discord with Lisa King who claimed the number as one of hers. There was tension building between the two.

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 Hollywood fashion and the crowd stood, cheering with approval. It was a great moment to witness Lil’s cleverness and quick wit, as well as seeing the look of humility on Lisa’s cracked face. 

*****

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 from Chicago to entertain at the Sweet Gum Head, I worried about his size and how he would fit into the show.  He was one of the biggest men I’d ever seen; not just fat, but big.  He would definitely be a specialty act and not a show girl, though I could see the humor in that scenario. When he walked out on stage people would initially laugh. You could see in their faces that they were asking themselves, how could he possibly convince us that he was trying to convey the image of a woman?  The truth was that he wasn’t.  By the time he left the stage he always had the audience standing.  He was a true entertainer.  His version of I’m Not Leaving from Dream Girls by Jennifer Holiday was the best ever, and I mean bar none.  He literally worked the number into a frenzy. Though he was great, he also didn’t take things so seriously, either.

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.

*****

 

Chapter 27

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 Atlanta, and I was featured and interviewed in almost all of them. Along with Cruise Magazine, there was Cruise Weekly, Gaybriel, Sunset People, SCENE, Knight Life, and even David Magazine was on the rebound. At one point I felt that I had been overexposed; I mean how many interviews did I have to do, answering questions like, “How did you get started?” and “Where is your favorite place to perform?” However, it was always better to be featured than to be shunned, no matter the shame in what was put in print to last forever, so I agreed to any request to see my name in the headlines.

I curtailed my Texas tours and I did travel a lot to Carolina, especially, Asheville, where drag was blossoming, and the money was good. I agreed to book the weekends at the Sweet Gum Head. The star system was still in place, with names like Diamond Lil, Bertha Butts, Tiffany Arieagus, and Chocolate, just to name a few, making their appearances on a regular basis, and I was given a regular spot whenever I was in town.

*****

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 Atlanta had now been exposed to Tiffany, and they loved her.

Though she was from Florida, and I did work there often, we never worked there together. Tiffany and I would run into each other whenever we worked the Texas circuit.  We spent a lot of time in San Antonio, and she’d say to me more than once, “You know, Rachel, when I have my sex change, I want you to be the first one to fuck my pussy.”  It always embarrassed me when she said that. I loved her dearly, but that was never going to happen. She was fun to hang out with and she found humor in everything…my kind of person.  She was the first person I know that used duct tape to tuck with.  In the dressing room she’d be walking around naked, and the only thing that would give her away as not being real would be her deep voice and the duct tape sticking out from the crack of her ass, holding her privates in place. Ouch.  That had to hurt.

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 Cognac. We played to a full house. People who would not normally come to see a show on a regular night would pay dearly to come and just see the entertainers that they enjoyed.

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 Texas to be our special guest. We had also promised Laverne a “regular” three-hundred dollar fee for performing. The audience was sparse, and after we paid those who were due their fees, Lisa and I left with thirty five dollars each for our night’s work. Not good. The only thing I could figure out was that the patrons didn’t or wouldn’t want to come back again and wait an hour for the show to start like it did in our first special. Then maybe it was the karma coming back to bite our asses for being so glutinous and greedy the first time around. Nonetheless, I decided I didn’t want to be a part of that situation again.

*****

As the drag winds in Atlanta began to change, I was ready to shift as well. As I often had done, I sensed that it was time to leave the Sweet Gum Head again. I probably could have stayed there forever, but with the show going in one direction, and my creative juices not being utilized, I was ready to jump at the next opportunity that came my way.

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 Cheshire Bridge Road, and it had become quite the strip for nightlife, especially for gays.  Lisa’s show was appropriately named the Late Night Revue with shows at eleven, one, and three in the morning. I wasn’t sure what I was thinking, but when Lisa asked me to join the cast on Fridays and Saturdays (paying me an ungodly amount, with one number per show), I couldn’t say no. Roski Fernandez had been hired to choreograph the production numbers, and Lily White also joined the show.  In all, there had to be at least ten cast members, but there was no doubt that this was Lisa’s show. She did two numbers per set, as well as emceeing the entire evening. At the end of the final set, Lisa worked the crowd into wanting more of her, and she obliged. Some evenings we waited till the sun came up before we could leave the showroom. My habit of getting out of drag to go cruise and play pinball were over for awhile. By the time I cleaned up and entered the disco, it was empty. I wasn’t sure I had made the right decision by being in the show at Numbers, but on the other hand, I had wanted change and I got it.

*****

I was in Texas for two weeks, and this time I wasn’t in any real hurry to get back to work at Numbers. I called home and spoke with Herman and Charles, and I asked Charles to call someone at Numbers and let them know that I would be staying an extra week.

“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 Houston, Texas two weeks ago,” I said in a raised, victim like voice. I had no idea where that came from. Maybe divine intervention or just my attempt to say anything just to get by so that I could do my job.

“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?

*****

 

Chapter 28

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 six forty-five. 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 Atlanta came out to try out for the part. Most were in drag. I just brought pictures. I thought that would be more professional. 

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.

“Which way?”

“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 Hollywood fame would be that I had to pee. It would be better than sleeping in the dressing room.

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, March 23, 1981:

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.

*****

 

Chapter 29

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 Asheville, North Carolina. He had always said that if I ever wanted to move there, he would help me out. I called, and he said yes, come on up. I made it clear that I had quit doing drag, and that I wanted to bartend. He understood and said that he was getting ready to remodel a backroom for a “quiet” bar and that I would be the perfect bartender for the new room. Of course, it wouldn’t hurt that a celebrity pouring drinks, even of my caliber, would be good for business.

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

The last thing this writer ever thought he’d be writing would be a eulogy for the Sweet Gum Head. Before I even moved to Atlanta in 1974, I had heard so much about the Sweet Gum Head as the national showplace of the superstars of female impersonation. Then I moved to Atlanta, I worked there part-time doing lights, the first job I ever had in an Atlanta gay establishment. And it certainly wasn’t the $15 a night I worked for, it was to be part of an institution that probably did more for the world of female impersonation over the years than any other gay establishment in the country. In many, many ways, the Sweet Gum Head helped establish female impersonation as a legitimate and nationally recognized art form. It presented female impersonation in its highest quality, for the first time taking drag out of sleazy little tavern bars with soap box stages and tin horn speakers and carried out the illusion to the fullest extent with professional lights, costumes and sound. And it even brought our gay world together and made the country a little smaller. It became the showcase for the super beauties and masters of the female illusion like Rachel Wells, who as its first major show director with the help of its first manager, Art Elliston, put it on the map. It presented the first shows in the country that were not just solo lip sync one after another, and with a cast as often as large as ten or eleven. And at one time or another, every major female impersonator in the country worked on its stage as either a regular or as a guest artist.

In many ways, The Sweet Gum Head spoiled Atlanta audiences by consistently bringing in and presenting the best talent imaginable. Many stars made it big starting at the Sweet Gum Head. Wayland Flowers and Madam got discovered while working there and the rest became history. More Miss Gay Americas have worked as regulars at the Sweet Gum Head at one time or another than any other bar in the country. The list includes Michael Andrews, Jimmie Dee, Rachel Wells, Hot Chocolate, and the Lady Shawn, as well as the epitome of early drag and Miss America foreverness, The Lady Baronessa. Roski Fernandez made her first appearance at the Sweet Gum Head when Felicia brought her entire Baton show from Chicago to appear there in the early seventies. Other major female impersonation celebrities like Craig Russell, Toni Doran, Charlie Brown, Bertha Butts, Chili Pepper, The Grease Sisters, Roxanne Russell, to mention a few, got their first major exposure at the Cheshire Bridge drag palace. Diamond Lil later christened it as the “Tabernacle” of dragdom. Robie Landers, God rest her soul, made her first and last Atlanta appearances at the SGH. Heather Fountaine got discovered by the national touring group French Dressing while working there. Other groups or unique entertainers that made their Atlanta debut there included Detroit’s Les Feminique Revue, Gilda Golden in the Florida Bicentennial Revue, with Emore Dubois also making her first Atlanta appearance. Hawaiians like Shown Luis, Brandy Lee, and China Nuyen also made their most spectacular appearance at the SGH.

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 Georgia, featured Rachel Wells, Lisa King and Brandy Lee while they were cast members.

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.

In closing 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 St. Louis and had never really been able to appreciate the forum for gay entertainment that the bar has presented over the years. Perhaps the one person who made it all possible, and kept the business running so smoothly over the years, while tirelessly maintaining unprecedented good diplomatic relations with all the other gay businesses in Atlanta, is John Austin. John has always been the perfect example of excellence in management, diplomacy, and good community relations as well as maintaining a better than average rapport with his many entertainers over the years. Because of John Austin, the Sweet Gum Head hosted more benefits and affairs for outside concerns than any other nightspot in Atlanta gay bar history. Whenever a benefit was called for, John’s hand was extended with a warm welcome and his door was always open. When the Locker Room many years ago opened across the street in a direct effort toward competition and getting some of their crowd, John hosted a benefit for its entertainers the very next night after a freak flask fire destroyed their dressing room and everything in it. $2,500 was raised and the cast was put back on their feet again. Things like this are often unheard of among competitors.

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 Asheville. This particular article reflected the mood of many, as well the fact that it demonstrated the impact the Sweet Gum Head had on Atlanta’s gay community over the years. Much was left out, especially about the early days regarding Frank Powell, the original owner. And also omitted was a real emphasis and credit to the new direction the Gum Head was heading into that was set by Art Elliston. He was instrumental in bringing in new talent from across the country, paving the way for an even more creative visionary, John Austin.

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.

*****

Though Asheville had always been nice to me, living there was not good for me. It was a small town, with small town values, and hot potato politics in the tiny gay circles. Did I say small too often? It was small. Small, small, small. I thought the politics in Atlanta were horrible. In Asheville, there were no secrets, no places to hide. Everyone knew everyone, had dated everyone, and actually fucked everyone. For example, the first time I went out with someone who had asked me over for dinner, it was soon news to others, and shortly, I would be faced with some jealous ex-lover who was trying to get back with the person who lied to me to start with about not having a partner or ex-lover in the first place.

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 Asheville. Though in general the people there were wonderful and the town was a nice place, it was not a good fit for me, at least not at the time.

In the meantime, the Sweet Gum Head had closed, Sharky’s Machine had premiered, and life went on without me in Atlanta. I had thought about going to the final show at the Gum Head, but I didn’t want to wallow in all that sorrow. And I declined to go to the premiere for the movie at the Fox Theater. Part of me wanted to recapture the attitude that I had at the Phoenix Affair, to get out of a limo in high drag, waving to fans and cameras, but the other part of me was thinking about having to sit on my cock for two hours and hoping I wouldn’t have to pee, all the while slouching down in my chair after the person behind me might have complained that my hair was too high and he couldn’t see the screen. No, I didn’t want to go through that either. If I went out of drag as John, no one would really recognize me, so what was the point of going at all. And any way, it was a real test to my commitment that I made to myself; to quit drag and stick to it. I put the past in the past.

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 Asheville, especially during the winter months, was not bringing in the bucks that I needed. I was going broke. I heard that a new show bar was opening in Atlanta, with most of the cast of the Sweet Gum Head heading over there. And Herman and some of the wait staff from the Gum Head were also going to be working there. I called Herman and he set up an interview for me for one of the bartender positions. I got the job. Not long after, I moved back to Atlanta, got a new apartment, and I got a fresh new start with surroundings that I could deal with. It was good to be home.

*****

 

Chapter 30

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 Milwaukee, Wisconsin. I was honored to be selected and go, but I also think that I was chosen because of my availability and I was able to get off work. But I had fun!

*****

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 Atlanta from Pensacola, Florida.  Micky was the stereo-typical fat queen, with lots of makeup, big eyelashes, enormous hair, and dresses made of chiffon…yards of chiffon.  And his act played on his weight, from a routine he did when he created a pantomiming face with his stomach, to belting out God Bless America by Kate Smith in a patriotic costume. But Micky was different in that he was one of the kindest, sweetest, and complacent people I knew.  I don’t know if he just appreciated having a job or if it was just his nature, but Micky was not one to make waves. I liked to think that it was just his nature.

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 again, hitting Texas, the Carolinas, and doing special events in Atlanta. I did a two week Miss America Tour with Hot Chocolate, Jennifer Fox, Tasha Khol, and Michael Andrews, that reached into Detroit, Milwalkee, and what seemed every major hell hole in Ohio.  We even played in Cleveland, for god’s sake. I worked with Mark Rivers and Tina Devore with Pulse Magazine, writing a monthly article called Words With Wells. We also did a monthly gay video for public access television. I wasn’t being too ambitious with my career that had been revitalized, but I was having a great time. I was just going with the flow, putting the past glory of the Sweet Gum Head behind me and trying new things.

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 Rome, I soon began to indulge as the Romans did, though mildly, at the onset of the evenings before the show started. Within a few months, the nights grew longer, when out of drag, I would spend my time in the late clubs like the Cove and Weekends, buzzing around and cruising for sex. The next night I would find myself with a drug hangover, needing a quick snort to get back up again. I didn’t think I was addicted simply because I limited myself to partaking the white powder only on Friday and Saturday nights. And it was rarely that I even paid for it. I knew I had to be careful and I was. At least for the time being.

*****

I got a call from Norman about a contest that was going to be filmed in Houston, Texas. He gave me the details and it sounded quite exciting. I was one of ten performers from across the country selected to play a top-ten finalist in a drag entertainer of the year contest. But it wasn’t really a contest. The audience would believe that it would be a real pageant, but in reality, it was purely staged. I agreed to participate. My fee would be seven-hundred fifty dollars for the day’s work. That was also hard to turn down, and another shot at putting my act on film was very inviting. We all strive for immortality, even if it isn’t in the form of real flesh.

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. Norman suggested that I perform my Katherine Hepburn routine, but I wasn’t very excited about doing that number. It seemed so old.  I was leaning to perform my sixties’ Diana Ross illusion, but knowing that Jimmie Dee would be there, he would be doing a Ross act. And anyway, some folks outside of Atlanta might take offense with me painting my face a shade or two darker, even though Naomi Simms would paint his face lighter and do Liza.  Go figure the double standard. Chocolate was going to perform his newly invented Tina Turner illusion, and Michael Andrews would definitely be dancing his way into his own history with Ann Margaret. Tasha Khol would be presenting something creative, and I was excited to learn that Roxanne Russell was included in the group and would be charming us with his Marilyn Monroe impersonation. There would also be an entertainer from North Carolina, Stella Starr, as Barbra Streisand, and there would be two others from the west coast. I decided to perform as Kate during talent, but I wanted to challenge myself. I would do it live.

All went well in Houston, and as expected Naomi won the title. The rumor, and it was just that, was that the folks who put the show together did it to promote Naomi, who was having the hardest time winning the Miss Gay America Pageant. I wasn’t surprised at the outcome and was happy with my performance and my check. The show was emceed by Lyle Wagner and Ruth Buzzi. She was hilarious, and during rehearsal most of us thought Lyle was a little too old to being wearing bikini briefs, outlined through his tight slacks. We were, after all, standing behind him on stage and it was hard not to see his “panty” line. Though too old to be wearing the briefs, he was still an extremely handsome man.

*****

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.

*****

 

Chapter 31

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 Atlanta, a young and pretty boy who would dance on a box under a spotlight, wearing thigh-high fishing boots and a g-string. He would sell his autobiography to anyone who would give up a quarter for the one page story of a star to be. He had star quality, even very early on.

*****

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 Cheshire Bridge and Lavista. It would be called Weekends Warehouse. I was one of many who applied for a bartender’s position. They hired quite a few candidates, and then for three weeks we had to audition by working the different stations on different nights, and then we were being judged on how much we rang up on the register. I was competing against the some of the best. When it was all said and done, I got station number one, the prime spot. I was honored and happy to be along side Bill Sullivan, one of Atlanta’s top bartenders who had previously worked at the Onyx Lounge. Once we had our grand opening, there was no looking back. Even though I worked only three nights a week, I was making more money than I could even imagine. Rachel was becoming a thing of the past. I was now John the bartender, and I was a good one too.

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 North Carolina, Lily White (who had just moved back to town), and some other entertainers from other cities in the South. What we wanted to do was to focus on a show that would appeal to and bring in gay audiences from all over the southern region, a ploy that had worked for the early days of the Sweet Gum Head. And of course, this show would also star big attractions on a regular basis like Charlie Brown and Lisa King.

*****

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 Florida, Lisa joined our cast. We worked together for many years in different Atlanta clubs as well as on the road, and we had some really good times.  We performed duets, and at the Sweet Gum Head in the mid-Seventies, Lisa , Satyn, Lavita and I were a real foursome.  For quite sometime, we were the consistent members of the cast, and we were also the core members for production numbers.  It was a fun time. It was the time of my life.

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 USA, to name a few. What I remember about Lisa the most, other than her incredible pantomime talent, was what a sensitive loser she was when she did not win a contest.  Of course, this is also another common characteristic among many drag entertainers, to claim foul for not winning (ask any pageant coordinator and they will agree). I remember the night I won the Miss Gay Georgia contest and running into Lisa soon after when everyone was leaving.  She was glaring at me as if I had taken the crown away from her.  Actually, she placed third runner-up, and two others placed above her as well.  As I approached her, expecting a congratulations or at least something close to an acknowledgement of my accomplishment, she just glared at me. 

“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 Nashville, Tennessee. The two us made the trip. It would be fun to be away with her on the road.           

The Nashville club was small and filled to capacity, mostly with lesbians.  Lisa was one of the many black queens in the contest so the evening was filled with Ross, Labelle, Natalie, and Whitney medleys. There was one white contestant who had come from Florida.  She had lovely breasts and did a so-so impression of Cher.  Needless to say, by showing her breasts while pantomiming Half Breed in front of a panel of lesbian judges, she won the contest. Back stage, the contestants were in a near riot frenzy.  I watched in awe as almost everyone was claiming to be the winner.  Lisa had placed second runner-up and had won talent, but she chimed in with all the others.  Someone has to lose, I thought to myself.  Don’t they get it?  I gathered Lisa’s things and pushed her to the door and we left for the motel. It took quite a long time to get her to go to bed.  She couldn’t understand why she didn’t win.

The next day and about an hour into our trip back to Atlanta, she was still going on about the night before and how could the judges think her act was not as good as the bitch who won.  I’d finally had enough.  I pulled the car over and on the shoulder of I-24, cars and semis whizzing by us, I said, “Lisa, I’m going to say this one time and one time only. I’ve known you a very long time and I don’t understand why you just can’t accept that you didn’t win, especially if there’s nothing you can do about it. Contests are contests, and just that.  They’re not always fair, and you know that.  Should the winner have won?  Of course not, but she did.  You’ve not even mentioned the other person who beat you.  You’d be saying the same thing about her if she had the crown on her head.”

“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 back to Atlanta.  And I’m serious, not one more word.” More silence.  “You can agree or you can get your stuff and get out right here.  Maybe one of these truck drivers will be happy to listen to why you didn’t win last night, but I’m not going to.”  There was a long pause as she stared straight through the windshield.  I stared ahead as well, waiting for an answer.  I wasn’t about to change my mind.

“Okay,” she mumbled.

“Okay what?”

“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 Atlanta that morning.  After Lisa agreed not to talk about the contest during the ride, she also took it upon herself to say nothing at all. Typical Lisa, I thought to myself.  She’ll be over it by tomorrow.

Funny the things we recollect.  I remember how she wouldn’t wake up when we had to leave for a North Carolina gig so I had to leave her at her apartment.  She got her own ride and showed up at the end of the show.  At one point, Lisa became notorious for being late. Or the time she fell asleep during the filming of Sharky’s Machine in the jail cell and no one bothered to wake her when it was time for her scene. Or the time a group of us went to McDonald’s.  Three of us walked in first, and as always, Lisa found a way to be late even if it was just to get out of a car, and when she walked in everyone stopped and stared.  As we returned to the car, Lisa with her soda and bag of cheeseburgers in hand and a purse hanging off one shoulder, she commented, “Did you see those guys cruising me?”  Hardly, we all thought, making eye contact with each other.  Lisa was wearing a halter top with jeans, no makeup or eyebrows, with a three day old beard, and her hair pulled back tight into a ponytail that stuck straight out from the back of her head.

“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, unguided. Atlanta was changing, and I couldn’t keep up, or maybe I wouldn’t keep up. AIDS was killing people, people I knew and loved. My friends were few, and the people surrounding me were nothing but alcoholics and drug addicts. I had a sex life, but no love life. I had no purpose, no direction. I felt dirty and ashamed. I wasn’t the same person who came to Atlanta in 1971, a young gay man seeking to find commonalities with others trying to find themselves. I wasn’t living in the age on innocence anymore. My Camelot, my Xanadu, no longer existed. There was no longer a crown or tiara to pursue, no title to claim, no new meaningful bonds or friendships to forge, and no clear vision of my future. Surely, this was not what my life was supposed to be about.

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 Kentucky,” I said out loud. It was if some shouted “Action!” and the cameras zoomed in on me, my face in the light looking upward.

“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.

*****

 

Chapter 32

I was back in Louisville in the late eighties when a few of my friends and I went to a club one evening.  I can’t remember the name of it, but it was packed and it was loud.  From across the room I saw a face that caught my attention.  I thought it was Crystal Blue. My friends, who were from Louisville, said they thought that’s who it was, but they weren’t sure.  I had waited a long time to reunite with Crystal, and I couldn’t let this opportunity go by without making an effort.

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 Atlanta back in 1971.  Could we sit down for a minute?”

“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 Atlanta, to how she put me in drag, how she let me borrow her wig and costumes, and how she acted as the agent for my first drag job.  

“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 Crystal again, and she would praise me for my accomplishments and be the proud drag mother that she was.  I was crushed that night.  It was an empty feeling, but at least I did see her and tell her how much she had meant to me.  It was amazing how her brief time with us in Atlanta had empowered us so much.  It still makes me wonder about the impact we make on others, even if we don’t recollect the encounters.  

*****

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 Atlanta, I finished college, earning a Bachelors and Masters in Education, and I began my new career teaching. Of course, I visited Atlanta often, seeing the major changes in the city as someone on the outside looking in. I visited my old stomping grounds with friends only to find most of the buildings torn down with skyscrapers in their places. Yes, Atlanta had changed and was still changing, all the while with me not there fighting the progress. It was easier for me that way.

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 Atlanta. Both were on New Year’s Eve; the money was just too good to turn down. The experiences were self-serving for me and my friends, just wanting to relive that past, I suppose, if only for a few hours.

I had the opportunity to work with Lisa in a New Years Eve show at the Armory, the same night Atlanta police closed down Backstreet the last night of December, 2004. I did a couple of numbers and then I introduced Lisa, and of course, she was late coming onto the stage. But this time, she had reason to be slow. She had a debilitating disease in her legs, losing the ability to walk unassisted. Of course, during the long pause, waiting for the curtain to open with Lisa appearing in stage, I couldn’t resist saying, “Even after all these years, Lisa is still late making it to the stage on time.”  She made a slow and painful entrance using a cane. We sat on stools and recollected the past, and holding hands almost throughout, and we performed a couple of duets from the good old days. Despite all the differences we had in the past, it was still good to work with her.

*****

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 Madisonville, Kentucky. She was as good as ever during the Christmas concert. My friends who attended the show with me were totally blown away that she knew me. Driving back home that night I kept telling them, “I told you she knew me.” Yeah, I had a big head driving home that evening, but it was really wonderful that she would remember me after all those years.

*****

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 Las Vegas.

“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. Norman had reached the point after thirty years that he wanted to get rid of it. He always had so much on his plate. The new owners had contacted me about being in the opening number. I always got an invitation, as do most of the previous winners, but over the years I just never even responded. With Chocolate going this year, it might be fun to hang out with him, even if it was for just a bit.

“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 Memphis, Tennessee, and they would be crowning the new Miss Gay America 2006. I won my MGA79 crown in 1978. And though I had returned often, the last time was in the middle Eighties, over twenty years ago.

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 Memphis, I put my clothes and tux in the trunk. I brought the blue bag with Rachel ready to jump out, just in case I followed through with performing. It didn’t take too long to get to Memphis and to hook up with Chocolate. He soon introduced me to the new owners, Larry and Terry, and I met some of the former winners that afternoon. They looked exhausted from working the past few days. I remembered those feelings of getting up after a long night of dragging and entertaining, and of course, whatever came in between. I was soon cajoled into doing a number, just one, in the Miss Gay America Revue show, the whole time pretending to be unwilling to do so, but also so desperately wanting to perform again.

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 Kentucky. It was good to see him, but I also missed my long time friends who were no longer alive. I missed palling around with Baronessa, Michael, Jimmie, Shawn, Naomi and even friends who never won the contest, but were perennial contenders. And I missed seeing even some of the winners who just never came back on a regular basis, moving on with their lives like I was doing. I didn’t even know this whole new group of former winners. A few hadn’t even been born when I had won the title. 

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 Atlanta gay history. Rachel Wells was the character that I created that allowed me the venue and audience to venture into other characters and dialogues. She paid the rent and brought in the food for over fourteen years, so I couldn’t hate her, but I just wanted to get her out of my mind. I mean, what did other actors do when they finished a role? Did Vivian Leigh have nightmares involving Scarlet O’Hara years after completing Gone With the Wind? Did Marlon Brando get obsessed with his character for years after a Streetcar Named Desire? Okay, that’s stretching the comparisons a bit. I know there are people like Cher and Liza who go on and on and on, perpetuating their image by becoming caricatures of themselves; but that’s exactly what I didn’t want to do, to live as the character. But I had to admit that this character was a part of me. Only now, I wanted it to go away, to set me free to deal with the other issues now pressing in my life. I had new goals and dreams, and I didn’t want to remain in the past, reliving the good old days and thinking about what could have or might have been. At some point I had to admit to myself that my vision of Carol Channing performing a hybrid of Hello Dolly and Stomp was not going to happen. Or seeing Donna Summer’s version of Love to Love You Baby performed by showgirls in hooded capes shaped like penises that would light up and ejaculate at the end of the number was not going to occur. All the drag acts in my head would not come to fruition, and I had to accept that fact.

I had just connected to I-65 in Nashville and was heading north. Just a few more hours and I would be home. I crossed the state line and pulled into the rest area to use the restroom and to stretch. It was unusually warm for an October morning, and after using the facilities, I got in my car and pulled over to a more secluded area next to the woods. I walked over to the picnic table and sat down, taking in the fresh air. That’s when it hit me. I would have a ceremony, a memorial service for Rachel Wells. It was the right time.  

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 Florida heading back to Michigan might discover it while having a picnic. Even a redneck drag like the one at the Majestic might find it and swear that the good Lord had sent the dress and wig as a sign to be a woman.

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.

 *****

 

Epilogue

Things I shouldn’t have done:

Follow Tiffany Arieagus’s striptease act in a lesbian bar in San Antonio with a ballad.  Well, I shouldn’t have followed that act with any kind of number.

Perform top forty rock numbers in a Miami club filled with Cubans, while Noly Greer did the classic drag hits and the crowd sang along with her…they looked at me. The following night, I brought out the Funny Girl classics and they sang along with me, too. It was a language thing, I told myself.

Perform in a new club in San Antonio only to find out they didn’t use tapes, only albums.  I brought no albums, only cassette tapes. I had to go through the DJ’s records and perform three songs that I didn’t know.  First was Last Dance (a disco remix) by Donna Summer. I don’t remember what the other two were, but I wore ballad gowns to dance in.  I felt like Lady Shawn.

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.

Embarrass a former Miss Gay America who was trying to hit on me in Nashville, Tennessee. She thought I was hot trade. When she told me she was a former Miss Gay America, I told her I was too! Ah, the look on her face.

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 San Antonio.  I did the Diamond part out of drag, but got confused and tore into the Streisand lines.

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.

Continue to stay in a contest in a tiny Florida club when the stage could only hold twenty contestants. I was last at number twenty-five, and never appeared on stage with the whole group of contestants at the same time.

Drive back from Miami to Atlanta in the back a pick up truck to save money. I took up an offer to ride back with two friends instead of flying. The three of us were comfortable in the cab, but there was not room for the hitchhiker that we picked up. He and I got cozy in the back under a blanket, at least until the sun went down. Who knew that it got so cold on the Interstate in Florida in March.

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.

Eat at Henderson’s Fried Chicken in Dallas after the shows. Two pieces of chicken with jalapeños and a slice of white bread was all it took to put me to sleep within thirty minutes, sometimes during a small party. I quickly earned the name Napping Nembutal Nancy in that circle of friends. 

Have a hairdresser in San Antonio agree to do my hair. With just five minutes before I was to perform, the queen declared that there was nothing she could do with it, threw her hands in the air and walked out. I never looked good in flat hair, even in San Antonio.

Take a Greyhound bus to Charlotte to save money for the bar owner. Having to claim lost baggage full of drag gowns in downtown Charlotte at 11 p.m. on a Saturday night wearing a full face of make up and in men’s clothes was not cool.

Perform in San Antonio. I loved the people and the Mexican drive-through on St. Mary’s, but I hated performing in the city. Odd things just seemed to happen to me.

 Make this list.