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The Well-Heeled Crowd

They wear suits and wingtips by day, gowns and pumps by night. As glittering illusions, they compete for titles, raise money for charity and perfect the art of fabulousness.

July 01, 1998|CLIFF ROTHMAN | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

"You go, girl."

That was the anthem of solidarity on a recent Friday night at Hollywood's Barnsdall Park Theatre as the high-spirited audience shouted out to the 15 pageant contestants striking poses, strutting and showing their talent.

Never mind that the 15 were men competing for this year's Best Female Impersonator of California--men who by day may don pinstripes and white jockeys as mortgage assessment clerks, loan officers, real estate agents . . . even boxing instructors.

After dark and onstage, they're queens--in the most positive sense of the word--adopting attitude as well as extravagant, larger-than-life names: Pebbles Campbell Starr, Alexis Principal, Veronica Passion, Jennifer St. James, Monique Moore.

"It's illusion; it's an art and what I love," says Adrian Perez, a.k.a Starr, checking the drape of his handmade beaded gown in the full-length mirror backstage in the frenetic last minutes before the show begins. "It's what I was meant to do and brings together all that I do best: the expressiveness, the eye contact with the audience, the entertaining."

Most female impersonators hold regular jobs, and drag is the hobby, the particular spice of life. For accountant St. James, who didn't want his real name used, drag performance is also for a cause, AIDS fund-raising, and to that end he brings his "Ham and Swish" review to the Queen Mary in Studio City, or to "Imperial Court" drag events, which move from location to location on weekly rotations. A number of the pageant's contestants work at Tommy Tang's, the Melrose Avenue restaurant at which waiters perform in drag on Tuesday nights.

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For the uninitiated, this show is a lesson on how far drag has come. Like the larger gay movement of which most drag performers are a tiny subculture (and often maligned as politically incorrect), female impersonation has evolved, in this case, into something far hipper, more political, more multicultural and more sophisticated than mile-high hairdos and a Diana Ross soundtrack.

True, there were enough sequins, shoulder pads and hair extensions onstage this night to outfit all of West Covina, but parodying Monica Lewinsky and Bill Clinton, and Imelda Marcos is more de rigueur than Judy Garland at the Palladium.

The evening's winner, Alexis Principal--Richard Cross by day--mined 1940s swing, MGM musicals and the famous men of black tap with a brash dance sequence to "It Don't Mean a Thing If It Ain't Got That Swing." The sharply choreographed five-minute sequence, with Cross backed by two tuxedoed and top-hatted men doing rapid quasi-tap and swing, had the audience on its feet.

Cross received $1,000 and round-trip air fare to New York, which this fall will host the Best Female Impersonator of America competition. In fact, the country seems awash in an array of impersonator pageants. The Miss Gay Universe pageant will be held in San Francisco in two weeks. Cross is now eligible to compete in both pageants.

Cross, who does impersonation full time, was only one of many standout performers, whose acts now venture beyond Broadway routines, Vegas-style numbers and Motown divas into the realm of political satire. Another Alexis dives into the current White House imbroglio with a take-no-prisoners Moralica Blowinsky, who wears a navy beret and kneepads, and performs a quasi-Indian dance with a man in a Bill Clinton mask wielding an unmentionable oversized prop.

In a wicked parody of Imelda Marcos, Rene Roque did a dead-on drag of the former first lady of the Philippines, down to '80s-style mutton-sleeve beaded gown, slick, bubble-shaped hair and regal diamond earrings. Against the backdrop of an oversized, illuminated shoe, "French maids" in flirty uniforms filed onstage every few beats with another dozen boxes of shoes, while Rene, as Imelda, sang "Feelings" with dubious sincerity.

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But the bravado of the men to act out their feminine sides or express strong political statements is in contrast to the closeted life of most female impersonators. Society's closet is still pretty nailed shut for them, so for many of the participants, their passion is still lived out in a double -life.

Alexis, who had performed the Lewinsky parody only days earlier, whispers by phone from his real estate office to make sure the reporter won't disclose his true identity. "About 50% of my deals come from the Middle Eastern community: Armenian, Arabic, sometimes Russian. I don't want the client reading the paper and saying, 'OK, this is the last time I'll do business with that [guy].' The Armenian community is very closed to the gay issue," he confides. His family doesn't know about his sexuality, let alone the female drag act. "But at 37 and not married, they may have a hunch," he says. But he's not talking. "My father has cancer and my mother has a health problem. They don't need more aggravation."

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