Drag shows are not for the easily offended: The jokes are raunchy, the bodies are bodacious, and the wigs are a mile high (and wide).
The shows draw a variety of people, but especially women, who are attracted to drag bingo and brunch as the perfect places to celebrate birthdays and bachelorette events. Most of the performances take place at gay bars such as Strut in Costa Mesa, the venerable Main Street Bar & Cabaret in Laguna Beach, and until March, Velvet Lounge in Santa Ana.
Fortunately for fans, drag shows don’t depend only on gay bars anymore.
In a sign of how mainstream drag has become, even Catmosphere Laguna, a cat cafe and nonprofit cat rescue, takes pride in promoting its every-other-Saturday drag bingo nights.
What is it about these shows that so delights and entertains?
The shows’ allure might be a reaction to overzealous political correctness, says Endora, leader of bingo nights at Main Street Bar & Cabaret. “Queens poke fun at ourselves, and we offer the guilty pleasure of bitchy wit that’s somehow never mean but doesn’t hold back.”
“I think people love how outrageous we are,” agrees cobalt-eyed, narrow-waisted Niobi McQueen, who hosts bingo at Catmosphere Laguna as well as several shows at Main Street Bar & Cabaret. “People love the glamour and the comedy.”
That’s exactly what attracted Cherri Perry, one of seven birthday celebrants recently enjoying a Sunday drag brunch at Strut. “These girls are more beautiful than we are,” Perry says. “It’s fun, and it’s a great way to celebrate friendships.”
Statuesque Xotica Erotica at Strut opines that many in the audience have never seen shows quite like these before. “So they come out of curiosity and experience the inclusivity and love, and they come back. Everyone knows it’s all in good fun.”
Brandon Taylor attended the brunch at Strut to support performer Lexi Vaughn. “I’m so proud of her,” Taylor says. “It’s just a great show that everyone can enjoy, gay or straight.”
Dorothy Atkisson, the former manager of Velvet Lounge, noted that drag shows owe some success to their vaguely voyeuristic, somewhat subversive appeal.
“People love the sense that drag shows feel mildly taboo, even though they’ve evolved to be much more acceptable these days,” Atkisson said. “There’s this feeling of being able to experience an alternative culture in a lighthearted way.”
No matter the vibe, drag shows are business decisions. Australian Luke Nero opened Strut last September because of the opportunity the location offered. “It was a market-driven decision. We’re close to Newport Beach and relatively central. There’s a lack of entertainment for the younger gay community here,” he says. “We didn’t offer brunches at first, but we quickly found out that there’s a huge demand for them across genders and sexuality.”
Wendy Nelson, co-owner of Main Street Bar & Cabaret, introduced bingo nights and karaoke events a few years ago to attract a more diverse crowd. One of the oldest bars of its kind in Orange County, the bunker-like space became a refuge for the gay male community during the height of the AIDS crisis, forming the epicenter of a three-block area in Laguna Beach that included the famous Boom Boom Room and the Little Shrimp.
“Nowadays, with the internet, there’s not as much call for dive bars as places for gay people to meet, plus many LGBTQ people don’t feel the same need to hide their orientation, so they feel safe patronizing mainstream hangouts,” Nelson says. “Which meant we were in bad shape. The answer was to broaden our appeal beyond a primarily gay male crowd, revitalize the place, and become recognized as inclusive of all genders.”
At nearby Catmosphere Laguna, founder Gail Landau wanted to make the most of her space. “I was looking for a fun and all-ages event that would lend itself to using both my cafe space for food and wine and the Rescue Cat Lounge simultaneously,” she says. “It works. We sell out (the bingo) each time.”
After nine years in business, Velvet Lounge abruptly closed in early March. Owner Zach Moos believes the support in the community still exists. “We developed a really great and unique business, that truly evolved in to something amazing,” Moos says. “While we have been very profitable over the last few years, our debts were bigger and our profits were not enough to keep up with our (expenses). I’m hopeful we can turn things around (with the right investors).”
The main draw for performers is far more than business. Just ask the queens.
“I’ve been a drag queen since I was 15—for 21 years now,” says buxom Big Dee, former lead queen at Velvet Lounge. “Performing helped me come to terms with my sexuality, creating this character who would say outrageous things and be accepted and even applauded. It gave me confidence in myself. I was in a community that accepted me.”
Niobi agrees. “Without Niobi, I’d just be a plain white dude. It’s an art, really. I love it.”
Endora, who is hairstylist Terry Redding when not on stage at Main Street Bar & Cabaret, is frank about the best part: “I get to be the center of attention.”
Big Dee believes that drag shows bridge a gap in the community. “We see conservatives and liberals in the crowd, and we watch them bond, laughing at the same jokes, realizing we’re all just people like them—but in a big ol’ diva dress,” she says. “I feel like we make a difference; we bring people together in a place where there’s no holds barred.”
Though many backstories are similar, the vibe at each venue is unique.
“What’s most important to me is the show,” Nero says. “We don’t offer anything half-assed—not the queens, not the dancing, not the music. We attract a younger, more hip, fun crowd.”
Strut “girls” are mostly lean, athletic dancers, some of whom dispense with falsies and instead go natural under their bras. Their hair is big, their lips are pursed and purple, and most have legs to die for. They perform to music by Beyoncé, Tina Turner, and Rihanna for a pounding, energetic hour and 45 minutes, which the young crowd loves.
While drag bingo isn’t as high octane as a drag brunch, there’s plenty of energy to go around. Players of all ages at Main Street Bar interact with each other and their regal hostess, Endora. “Everyone likes to have a good time and win prizes. And it’s mindless fun,” she says. “I take on a bossy persona during bingo—you know, ‘Excuse me, pay attention, people!’ I’m pretty good at reading the room. Most of what I say each night is improvised. I push the envelope but try not to get too vulgar.”
But rescue cats and bingo? Catmosphere Laguna offers a bright, early evening, mostly PG affair. There’s a queen in the cathouse every other Saturday from 5 to 7 p.m.
“It’s great. There are about 16 cats and kittens lolling about or racing around while you play bingo,” says Niobi, who feels a connection between cats and queens. “They’re both sassy and don’t want to be told what to do; there’s a lot of feline energy in drag queens. Look at Catwoman—dressed in leather, a strong, powerful woman. Meow!”
Whatever your style, there’s a sense of community and a good time to be had.
As queen Syren says: “Drag shows are unique, bawdy, and high drama. It’s performance art; it’s like nothing else.”
Main Street Bar & Cabaret (temporarily closed)
1460 S. Coast Highway, Laguna Beach, 949-494-0056
Catmosphere Laguna (set to open next month)
381 Forest Ave., Laguna Beach, 949-619-6369
Strut (back open for drag shows)
719 W. 19th St., Costa Mesa, 949-536-4389