The Main Drag

There’s nothing about Jimmy to suggest he’s a showman.

At 34, the short, somewhat chunky Hispanic looks polite but entirely modest to the point of boring. Hiding his smiles under his baseball cap and his shrugs under his hoodie, he stands in a dimmer part of Club Passions and sips quietly from a longneck.

Jimmy isn’t the last person you’d expect to go perform on stage, but he is toward the bottom of the list. And that’s before you notice he’s got a bad hip and a limp.

But that was a workday. The next time I see him, it’s a Saturday, and the weekend changes things. Jimmy has put on his dancing shoes, girded his loins — and torso — and put on a dress, wig and makeup.

When Peaches comes out of the dressing room and into the spotlight, the former winner of the local title “Ms. Texas International” lipsyncs to Jennifer Hudson with no hint nor whiff of hesitation. By the time she’s done, Peaches has pretended to belt out a rendition of “And I Am Telling You I’m Not Going,” and has actually gotten so into it, she’s flung herself back and forth across the floor and rolled up and down it. Somehow, the limp disappeared with Jimmy.

So, Peaches finishes, panting, and stands to receive her ovation. There’s a smattering of applause from the audience of Passions. “Smattering” is a generous noun.

There are maybe 10 people in the club, not counting performers, bar staff and the media, that is myself and Albert, the photographer. Maybe five of us are actually watching.

Peaches shuffles off the stage looking somewhat frustrated and very tired but goes back to the dressing room to change into another outfit for her next routine.

It looks like a failure. So does the bar. But, like much in the world of drag shows, things aren’t always what they first appear.

* * *

The drag show has long been associated with gay culture, some sources claim as far back as World War I. Even in Odessa, drag shows have been part of the city’s landscape since the late ’70s. The Nitespot, or Miss Lillie’s, finally closed its doors in 2006 after three decades at 8401 N. Andrews Highway and many wild times.

Drag queens are traditionally gay men acting as “female impersonators,” an exaggerated or at least flamboyant interpretation of femininity. You aren’t a man who thinks you’re actually a woman, or a gay man looking to seduce straight men by deceit, but more on that later.

The drag show is gay men performing with a wink-wink, nudge-nudge “hey, this is a lady,” involved, and part of why while in “face,” that is, dressed as a women, drag queens customarily get addressed using female pronouns.

How much winking and nudging varies according to talent and inherent androgyny, but the ultimate purpose is showmanship rather than illusion.

Now, the drag show is not crossdressing, which is when men, usually heterosexual, dress up like women for kicks, either generally or more purely sexually. That’s just a fun time, or, when more consistent, transvestitism.

Nor are drag shows transgenderism/transsexualism, although of course there’s some crossover.

* * *

Most drag queens are what, then?

Well, they’re certainly messed up, but only as messed up as the rest of us are, with our quirks and human failings. A drag queen isn’t someone with daddy issues or identity confusion; a drag queen isn’t a freak, pedophile or rapist.

They’re someone who like, Dennis, 57, went to his first drag show 35 years ago thinking it was, you know, you know, a car race. Then the guy he was with, who Dennis said was not especially attractive as a man, went to go change into his performance outfit.

“When he came out of the dressing room, he was real cute, real pretty,” Dennis said. Dennis was so impressed by the transformation, he found himself wanting to try it, too, and now performs as Lady Denise.

Chris Crawford, 34, one of the owners of Passions and its regular bartender, said that years ago someone bet him he wouldn’t perform in drag, and he took the bet. He’s regularly performed as Chrissy Dion since.

“I enjoyed the art, and the illusion,” Chris said, as he mixed drinks in his Coke-bottle glasses, jeans and a T-shirt over the torso of a middle-aged man.

He enjoyed the masquerade of it, he said, being able to be a convincing woman. But he’s also willing to perform in completely masculine attire, changing only his mannerisms but changing them so well, he seems more like a woman dressed up like a man than a man pretending to be a woman. Some younger men may look like a woman, standing in high heels and a dress, but their shoulders still slouch like a man’s, and their facial expressions are still a man’s.

They haven’t got the artistry.

About 30 years ago, someone bet Tim, now 51, that he couldn’t beat some other man in a drag show competition. Tim took that bet.

“And I did win,” Erin Davis said as she put on mascara in Passions’ dressing room.

Erin is the show-runner at Passions now, after a sort-of career in Dallas in the ’80s.

“I quit for 15 years,” Tim (as Erin) said, driven out by the competitiveness. She said that at its height, people would regularly steal outfits, and someone once put ground-up glass in a rival’s makeup. But she said she was also driven out by the popularity of gender-bending replacing the illusion.

“That’s not what this is about,” Erin said.

Erin thought, and still thinks, breast implants and a surgically-created vagina shouldn’t be a prerequisite to perform in drag, but back when she was trying to be really competitive, she considered sex-reassignment surgery.

“I had even gone to see the doctor,” Erin said, but she changed her mind. “I was doing it for the wrong reasons.”

Tim remains a man, and doesn’t at all regret it.

The drag show experience remained, even after the hiatus, and Tim came back to it. As show-runner for Passions, Erin Davis is responsible for scheduling everyone and their songs, warming up the crowd and keeping things moving between numbers.

But Passions is a long way from Dallas, and not just down I-20.

* * *

Club Passions started in 2005, and the bar, in the middle of that great big nothing between the West Loop and FM 1936, that is, 5246 W. 16th St., is not really a gay bar. That’s probably the simplest explanation, but it would be better to say it’s a “queer” bar, in a sense closer to the original meaning of the word.

It’s not that straight people aren’t allowed or welcome, but gaggles of straight partiers are very rare to see. Gay men are most prevalent, but the disc jockey used to have country night for the lesbians, and bisexuals are common. But they’re legitimate bisexuals. A 50-year-old man who enjoys the hunt of anything with legs and is quite sure of it, not a college student “experimenting.”

There are, after all, two gay bars open in Odessa, although the other, Club Sin Citi, is nothing at all like Passions. At the latter, you could expect to have a good beer or mixed drink and relax or even play pool. At Sin Citi, open Thursday to Saturday at 2319 E. Second St., you’re going to a legitimate club. You might not even notice it’s a gay bar except that more of the men are flamboyantly dressed and the women have close-cropped hair. But even then, the dance floor will be packed with male-female couples sometimes outnumbering the same-sex ones.

Sin Citi had to move to its current location because it had outgrown the one at Eighth Street and Grandview Avenue, and it shows.

Passions and Sin Citi are adversaries of a nature beyond pure competition. But Sin Citi is easily winning that competition, if that were the case.

“We do popular music,” Sin Citi’s show-runner Sable Couture explains, in fishnets with a very girlish looking bum hanging out of them.

At 23, she’s less than half the age of Passions’ show-runner Erin Davis. Like most Sin Citi performers and patrons, Sable is young, and although she’s a man in her working life, she says she has always been very feminine and performing as a woman made her feel like herself. Five years ago she began doing drag shows; two years ago, she legally changed her name to Sable.

“I won’t book anyone that doesn’t bring 100 percent what people are interested in,” Sable says. And that’s the difference.

Sin Citi gives the audience what it wants: young, athletic performers doing something shocking or forbidden to the sound of music contemporary or at least recognizable for the 21- to 29-year-olds that most reliably frequent bars and clubs late at night.

Giving the audience what it wants (at a gay bar) also includes pushing the envelope of taboo a little further, otherwise it’s not exciting. If heterosexuality is defined by being straight-laced and “normal,” it’s the abnormal that’s going to impress, enthrall, titillate.

Sable said her goal is to give people something they’ve never seen before, at least in West Texas.

The question Sable asks her audience, of maybe 150 on a down Friday, isn’t, “Are you having a good time tonight?” It’s, “Do you want to get f—ed up tonight?”

Sable doesn’t dress up like Bette Middler; she gets in those fishnets and a leather cap and holds a horse crop while she lipsyncs to Rihanna.

“Sticks and stones may break my bones / but chains and whips excite me.”

No one is shuffling back and forth to Liza Minelli ballads at Sin Citi. They’re back hand-springing to Ke$ha, and they’re, pulling the entire club’s attention to a singularity via “Firework” by Katy Perry — with the help of a performer’s breasts that are nearly as large as the original singer’s.

* * *

That’s a point of much contention with the Passions crowd, what drag shows are really about and who should be performing them.

“The best part of all is when I go into the dressing room and take it all off and become a man again,” Tim says, speaking through his Erin Davis mask.

“Amen,” Chris Crawford seconds.

The Passions drag show is mature gay men, while Sin Citi’s is young, often gender-identity ambiguous men. This reflects a more general divide between what gay men consider to be theirs and what wider culture seems to have endorsed, in a less purified sense. The more feminine and attractive the drag queen, through implants, hormones or just the right sort of exercise, the more acceptable it will be.

But the motivation, across the years, time and generations, seems to be the same for performers.

The feeling of someone coming up to give a dollar or 10 for a kiss on the cheek is gratifying, Jimmy/Peaches said.

“People make you feel special,” Peaches explained. “It makes you feel like a different person.”

Santiago, a 19-year-old from Hobbs, N.M., performs as Jailynn Baltimore.

“I love the attention,” Jailynn said, although she said she doesn’t consider herself to change much at all when she puts on her new face.

Another performer is Augie, a 23-year-old by the stage name of Alexis. The self-described “attention whore” says she can’t imagine much better than getting to go up on stage, dance and get paid to do it, an audience holding up bills for a kiss on the cheek.

Whatever’s going wrong in Augie’s life doesn’t matter next to that.

“But,” she says, “you have new problems as ‘Alexis.’ ”

Alexis said her aunt is a transsexual and she has no desire in making drag performances a career, or trying to.

“I know where that leads.”

* * *

It’s a Saturday night at Club Passions, and Peaches has just come off the stage having gotten virtually no response. She really didn’t do badly, but it’s a down night, despite the featured attraction.

Freddie “Sweet Savage” Cortez, a performer based out of The Saint Showbar in San Antonio, has been brought in by Passions in the hopes of attracting a large crowd. A few months before, 75 people showed up, and each person paid a cover charge.

This night, there literally may be 10 people who paid the cover, and they aren’t very excited. Freddie has performed twice, and both times everyone in the bar has stopped what they’re doing to watch. Now in between performances, she’s bored, but still the center of attention sitting at a table.

“If I had known then what I know now, I wouldn’t have done it,” Freddie says, not entirely convincingly, of becoming a drag queen.

At 49 going on 50, Freddie has been doing drag shows for 32 years. After dressing up as a girl for Halloween and sneaking out, she went to a club in her hometown of Edinburg, and that was it. She became a “Barbie doll” for a local fashion designer and had great clothes sewed for her all the time. Two years later, she started at The Saint.

Freddie’s career, therefore, began at the tail end of the first generation of big drag queens, and she said she was inspired by such people as Sylvester and Divine.

“I started working with the best entertainers in the industry,” Freddie said. Most of them are dead now.

Freddie can still perform, is still athletic and able to banter with the audience to the point that she’s equally entertaining as classic Cher as she is berating lesbians for kissing each other instead of watching her dance. But the book is closing, even for one of the premier professional drag queens in Texas, if not the country.

As she is just a few days from her birthday, that night, Passions buys her a cake and she says, “Happy birthday to me, my old ass,” in the loud, hoarse way she says everything.

The Miss Gay USA 1992 winner said she wants to end her career before people begin to ask, “Whose grandmother is that?”

Performing contemporary pop music helps, being talented helps, but her numbered days are counting down, and at the end of the night, in a cheap, West Second Street room with a cracked ceiling and permanently stained bathtub, she says she wishes she’d just been a hair dresser in Edinburg, with her family who has always been OK with her lifestyle.

In a dingy West Texas motel, that may sound right, but there’s reason for skepticism for a person who has traveled the world performing and can still enthrall a large, packed crowd or a tiny one that a minute earlier appeared to rapidly be overdosing on Ambien.

Of course, there’s something to be said for the road not traveled, and Freddie says she does her best to keep young people from pursuing drag too seriously.

“I try to steer them away from it,” Freddie said, “If you want to do it, do it for fun.”

Otherwise, she says, they’re letting go of their true aspirations for something unfulfilling.

Although you might not expect it, Freddie is also dissatisfied with the way pop music has changed throughout the years.

Freddie says modern songs are too much about sex instead of dancing or having a good time like ’70s pop was.

“Kids today want to listen to such ghetto music,” Freddie said.

Freddie, born a male and retaining his genitalia, but having breast implants, and identifying with the female gender, corrects me at one point, late in the night.

“I’m not she, I’m not he. I’m an it.”

So “it” worries about what’s becoming of our youth and their music.

“It’s not John Denver anymore,” Freddie said.

I told her I agreed.

* * *

Most of this article was written about events in January and early February, and things have since changed.

Perhaps on the verge of closing their doors, Chris Crawford and 47-year-old Ronnie Reid, his partner and co-owner of Passions, have tried to try to capture what makes Sin Citi popular, and resemble what the Nitespot was like back when they were young and going there, when it was still famously decadent: popular music, the ability to get drunk and the possibility of meeting someone to hook up with later. This is, essentially, the appeal of all bars aimed at young people.

In the process of this transformation, some people, especially lesbians, have been put off. Some of the older regulars in general want the music of their own youth, however long ago that was. Passions is losing part of its “queer” identity and becoming more strictly gay. But the alternative for this alternative-lifestyles bar is probably to shut down.

The drag show will survive, in some form or another. Sin Citi proves that. But it’ll be a shame whenever we see Passions’ form disappear, no matter how overdue it might be.

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