"It is working?"
Bianca Del Rio tests the microphone onstage in the back of the posh dining room of Zoe Bistrot inside the W Hotel. The monthly "Sundays Are a Drag!" is about to begin. Its raw camp energy initially seems like an awkward fit for the swanky hotel. Hostess Bianca's sailor-blushing repartee bounces off lime velvet curtains and into the ears of waiters with names like Aristide. She says she got the gig when "a friend of a friend of a friend" saw her "Bingo Night" show at Oz, the popular gay nightclub on Bourbon Street, and told the W management.
Plus, Bianca adds, "a lot of queens work there, so that helps."
On this Sunday morning with storm clouds forming outside, Bianca's brown eyes are wide and demanding, her makeup unable to conceal dimpled cheeks. Her looks are exotically Latin, with her pronounced nose, Mediterranean complexion and jet-black wig hovering high above her forehead. Wearing a spangled, black-and-white knee-length cocktail dress, she tries to warm up the sold-out crowd dining on Crab Pain Perdu, Seared Pork Tenderloin, and Steak Frites. She cracks a broad grin as she cradles the microphone in her hands. "OK, honey, are y'all ready to have a good time today?" she asks. The diners smile and nod their heads. Her smile dissolves into frown. "Oh, this sucks. Please, people, I don't need this shit!"
The crowd bursts into laughter. "Has everybody had a drink yet? Does everybody have a Vicodin? Lorraine? Where's Lorraine?" Bianca searches out a friend in the crowd. "Lorraine, you got a Vicodin? Somebody told me you might have one. No? Lorraine doesn't have a Vicodin. OK, well, I'd like to welcome everyone this evening to the W Hotel's drag brunch. Is this your first time seeing a drag show?" A lack of response only eggs her on more. "Oh, please. Ahhhh, hah-hah-hah, yeah-yeah-yeah-yeah-yeah," she cackles madly in her razor-sharp nasal voice that hints at her West Bank accent.
"I'm having a little trouble with my voice today, so if I sound somewhat like Becky Allen," she cautions, referencing her longtime roommate and sometime collaborator, "it's only because I've been out all night and I really had a hard night but I'm doing so much better now because I'm drinking the French Lemonade. How many have tried the French Lemonade? It's quite tasty you like it? It's not bad you don't realize you're f--ked up until the third one."
This is how Bianca Del Rio usually starts off a show: lots of drug and booze references ripping out in Uzi-like cadence -- she speaks almost in completely hyphenated sentences, regular punctuation be damned -- calling out a member of the audience, introducing her fellow performers, and away she goes. New Orleans' most famous drag queen is all piss and vinegar, and food-chokingly funny.
She intros the rest of her crew. "These are the usual suspects I usually deal with. Basically they're the only queens that were left on Rampart Street at 4 a.m. and I was in a hurry people, so ..."
Her co-conspirators include Denesha Jenkins, who does a mean Billie Holiday on heroin; Blanche Debris, a butterball of a queen whose sense of camp humor almost rivals Bianca's; and Jean Taylor, with whom Bianca once worked at the now-defunct French Quarter restaurant Lucky Cheng's before it became the domain of Gennifer Flowers.
In one of several off-the-cuff diatribes, Bianca segues from the financial woes of Lucky Cheng's to Flowers' emergence to Monica Lewinsky in the span of about 15 seconds: "And now I hear about Monica Lewinsky, who is now making purses. Did you all hear about that? That she has a line now where she's designing purses? What kind of monkey shit is that? Hellooo? She sucks somebody's d--k and all of a sudden she can create a handbag?! I don't understand how that works. But I've totally lost my point. Ooooh, these drinks work; can I get another one?"
Yet as hard as she works, the show this Sunday can't seem to find its rhythm. The CD player crackles in and out during Blanche Debris' number; Bianca, clearly annoyed, follows in the fourth number, decked out in a deep sea-blue jumpsuit and bob wig as Liza Minelli. She lip-synchs to "Liza One Note," a Minelli parody from the off-Broadway series Forbidden Broadway with lyrics like "I'm Liza One Note/ When I start singing, you're ears will start ringing in pain/ And my singing will drive you insaaaane."
The crowd bursts into applause, and Bianca promises a better second act, which is in fact better but not by much. By the end of the brunch, she has gone through three costume changes, and she and her cohorts have done two numbers apiece. "All right, ladies and gentlemen, that's our show," she says, swaying about in a tight left-and-right rhythm. "This might look like a f--ked-up lineup, but I can tell you, not a one of us gotcha purse. We'll be back next month, and hopefully we'll have a better DJ and I'll have a Vicodin. Thanks, Lorraine. Byyyyyye."
After the show, I come up to congratulate her. "Oh that sucked!" she says.
A week in the life of Roy Haylock is a case study either in professional work ethic or insanity. Either way, it shows the kind of profound impact he and his drag alter-ego, Bianca Del Rio, have had on New Orleans' entertainment scene. Over the next eight days, Haylock/Bianca will host a drag brunch, plan costumes for an upcoming play, host three different drag shows at Oz while performing in two of them, fly to Atlanta for another performance, and return to New Orleans for a Sunday appearance at the 15th annual Gay Appreciation Awards, in which Bianca will defend her titles as Bitch of the Year and Entertainer of the Year.
One part Carol Burnett, one part Bob Mackie ("my idol!"), one part Don Rickles ("He made me pee"), but only a small sliver RuPaul ("not my cup of tea"), Haylock has virtually redefined how to entertain a city steeped in theater and drag traditions. His Mackie- and Erté-inspired costumes have already earned him, at the tender age of 27, five Big Easy Entertainment Awards for Best Costume Design. Haylock won his first one for 1993's Snow Queen at Le Petit at age 17. Working primarily with directors Ricky Graham (Becky Allen's longtime collaborator) and Carl Walker, Haylock has made glamour campy yet tasteful, bold yet durable, colorful yet fashionable.
But it is when Haylock cakes on the makeup, slips into his own creations and metamorphoses into Bianca Del Rio that Bourbon Street, Mardi Gras balls, fundraisers and (more recently) gay "circuit" events around the Southeast come alive with the sound of music -- and Bianca's spitfire wit. She transcends the most weather-worn of drag queen stereotypes: fame- and money-obsessed, fraught with sexuality and allure, humor colorized by bitterness. Bianca never forces her beauty. She produces curves with a little help, but never swishes for effect. She gladly takes dollar-bill tips -- mainly because they inundate her with every performance -- but never solicits them. She's funny as hell, but any bitterness appears to be part of the act.
"The drag thing was a fluke, really," Haylock says over coffee Sunday afternoon at PJ's on Frenchmen Street, just a stone's throw from the lower Decatur Street apartment she shares with Allen. "Lisa Beaumann (a long-time local drag queen) saw me in drag in a show (1996's Pageant, which also earned him a Big Easy Award), and later asked me to do a show at Oz."
Conversations with Haylock include myriad references to serendipity, to happenstance. He can't point to a time when he realized he was gay -- just that he always knew he was "different, and I was cool with it." He never planned to become a drag queen, and is even leery of its trappings. He doesn't plan 90 percent of what comes out of his or Bianca's mouth. He says he doesn't even mean to be funny per se, just that he doesn't suffer fools gladly. ("I just tell the truth," he says.) One of his favorite expressions is "It depends on the day." And he has no clue as to what the future holds for him. ("People who say, 'I'm going to do this in X years and be here in X years just set themselves up.") He is an utter original, completely self-possessed -- free of contrivance, pretense and compromise.
Even his relationship with Bianca Del Rio is devoid of any of the identity crises sometimes associated with men in drag. She's no doppelganger, just a fun creative outlet. "I mean, c'mon, a man in a wig. Get over it," he says, on more than one occasion. "It's an act."
PLACE: "The Gong Show," Oz
TIME: 11 p.m. Monday
Monday nights at Oz become Bianca Del Rio's highwire act, a night where she's almost strictly on her own. She refers to it as the night of the "crackheads," because "no one with a real job would be here at 11:30 on a Monday night." Her 5-foot-9, 140-pound frame with its 28-inch waist wraps snugly in her fitted and fluted floor-length dress with black and pink horizontal stripes. Her movement is precise and fluid as she enters the downstairs bar, saying hello to employees and patrons alike while keeping track of the time needed to get ready for tonight's show.
She's just returned from her first look at rehearsal for Carl Walker's production of Dirty Blonde (opening this weekend at Le Petit), a fictional account of Mae West that has the potential to be a landmark role for her friend and roommate, Becky Allen. But after watching the blocking of the show, Bianca/Haylock is a little worried about the logistics of costuming actors who are playing multiple roles. "By Wednesday, I need to know what's going to happen. There's a lot of back and forth in the scenes.
"It's not necessarily about me," she emphasizes. "I have to make her look her best. If Becky has what she needs, she'll be good."
"The Gong Show" is a hit-or-miss affair, as are most "talent" shows. Patrons sign up to get the chance to get up onstage and do something, anything, with judges rewarding them with prizes derived from a wheel onstage offering anything from bar tabs to a Monster Sack Meal from Krystal.
As she breezes by, Bianca tries to pump herself up. "Yeeeaaahhh, yeah-yeah-yeah-yeah-yeah," she says, grabbing her drink of choice, a margarita. "I can do eight tequila shots a night," she boasts. "Nine, and I fall out." It's not easy getting psyched up for the show, and she'll only do a few shots. "It's like a 15-day dragathon," she groans, counting the number of consecutive nights in costume.
The show begins. Bianca Del Rio strides onto the stage and surveys the crowd before her warm greeting: "All right, you crackhead motherf--kers; how the f--k you doing?" A crowd of about 30 cheers. "At this point, we have no contestants, which means there's going to be a lot of monkey shit going on."
Bianca starts grabbing people up onstage. She goads them to name the opening bars to a song, tell a joke, dance "sexy," anything to kill time before someone signs up. Suddenly, she sees a short, stocky woman jiggling about on the floor and beckons her -- only to freak out when she realizes the woman's shirt is barely buttoned, breasts flopping about underneath. Bianca sees their potential and pushes her back, saying, "No, no, no, no!" as the crowd howls with laughter. She sizes her up. The woman opens her shirt. Bianca's beside herself: "Bitch, put those things back in! It's like you got two empty six-pack rings in there!" Still, she forces the woman to dance around for a while and spin the wheel, and she gives her a gift certificate and sends her on her way.
A full-figured man is the next target, a tourist from Cincinnati who's already purchased an Oz T-shirt. "Wellll, aren't you a ton of fun," she says as he looks on, oblivious. "What do you do?" she asks. "I teach special education." "Well, someone's gotta deal with those retarded motherf--kers!" The crowd is aghast, but Bianca is unrepentant as she snaps back, "It's a joke!"
Bianca makes no bones about the fact that she's an equal-opportunity offender. Her humor is so unrelentingly offensive, so over the top in its political incorrectness and insensitivity -- a masochism tango where everyone wants to be on her dance card.
She spies a Latino in the crowd with a T-shirt from Emerald City, the gay club in Pensacola run by Oz's owners. "Bring your Mexican ass up here. I don't work for immigration."
Finally, gratefully, some contestants come up and perform, the best being a woman calling herself Sky Covington who sings a worthy a cappella version of Billie Holiday's "Strange Fruit" while Bianca looks on half-impressed. Sky wins, the crowd applauds and the show is over pretty quickly, with Bianca encouraging the crowd to vote for her in a Cher lookalike contest that TV station WDSU is holding on its Web site -- with the winner getting a chance to meet the great gay icon during her farewell tour that rumbles through New Orleans next month.
"That way, I get to ask her what the hell she was thinking with all that work she had done," Bianca declares.
Roy Haylock grew up in Gretna with his Cuban-born mother and Honduran-born father, the fourth of five children and first of two boys. Though he can't remember when he first realized he was "different," he does recall doing, as early as 12 years old, his mother's and sisters' hair and makeup. "I was very meticulous about how I looked, and how they should look," he says. It got to the point where Haylock's sisters would page him when they snagged a date so he could return to the house to get them ready. "They would pay me if I would fix them up. Even my friends would ask me to help them."
He started designing costumes for and performed in plays at Gretna's West Jefferson High School. "It wasn't about being gay, it was about being different," Haylock says. "It never really bothered me. I was completely comfortable in my own skin." He endured his share of teasing and ridicule and even got into fights, winning some and losing others. "What was on my side was, I was fearless," he says. "And that's why some people think even today I'm a little intimidating, which I don't understand."
His reputation as a costume designer grew beyond West Jeff, and upon graduation, Allen recruited him out of desperation when the costume designer for a production of Graham's Nighttime Naughties at Rivertown Rep "flaked out." Haylock produced all of the show's costumes in a week.
By the time he had graduated high school, Haylock already had won a Big Easy Award for his costume work and decided to head to New York City. After nine months in the city, which included a stint selling shoes at Bloomingdale's but no theater work, he returned home.
By then, his family had moved to Baton Rouge. After a few months there, Becky Allen asked him to move in with her. Allen's longtime roommate had died recently, and she liked Haylock. She had even given him his first non-theatrical drag job, working a New Year's Eve party at Anne Rice's house when he was 21. They've been together as roommates for eight years.
During that same period, Haylock has become one of the most honored costume designers in the city. "He's done costumes for virtually every show I've done for the past few years," says the 55-year-old Allen. "Daryl's Perils, Nighttime Naughties, When Ya Smilin', At the Club Toot Sweet on Bourbon Street, Out Da Box ... ." When pressed for a ballpark number, Allen draws a blank. "I dunno ... 25?"
Haylock and Allen are a logical match. They're both known for their broad personalities and their camp sensibilities. Allen loves Haylock's costumes. "He makes them to last," she points out. "They have to last. They can't rip, they can't be flimsy. You have to think about how much time you have to get dressed. It's like being an engineer." She leans over. "Of course, he likes glitz, and I like glitz, so we had that right away."
Allen might be twice Haylock's age, but she doesn't see herself as a mother figure to him. "I think my place in his life is to keep him grounded. But I never push anything on him. Our lives our separate. My daddy used to tell me, water seeks its own level. Plus, he keeps me in the know. I'm connected to the young people more than the others because they're always around."
Allen has watched as Haylock has figured out how to make a career out of his talent -- and maintain his sanity at the same time. "When he was younger, he would spend all his money on the costumes," she says. "You get $3,000, and you learn to save some of it because that's your money. Now he's found a way to make money, and he can make a budget up.
"Costuming is not easy," Allen continues. "Everyone has a bitch ... and you have to learn how to be in charge. People would tell him what they wanted early on, but now he's learned to speak up in the beginning, instead of hearing what they all have to say."
Ricky Graham, who has worked the most with Haylock, sees his costume-design work as ground-breaking, his drag-queen success instantaneous: "I thing Roy Haylock has singlehandedly introduced the local theater community to the miracle dot fabric, which looks like it's sequined but it's processed," says Graham. "Roy definitely has that Bob Mackie, Vegas-style sensibility. His costumes always have a slight cartoon edge to them, which is very nice because it's a distinctive look.
"His drag career has come in kind of a meteoric fashion when you consider he's only been at it for four years," Graham continues. "As soon as he burst onto the scene, as a friend of mine says, he grabbed it like a rat and shook. He hasn't made any false steps."
Carl Walker of All Kinds of Theatre, who is reuniting with Haylock for Dirty Blonde, also sees the vibrancy in Haylock's personality and work. They did their first show together in 1996 with Walker's Ruthless, which won both of them Big Easy Awards. "He was young at the time," Walker recalls, "and wildly inventive, and had a great sense of humor about costumes for Ruthless and several other things that were high camp. He's got a great sense of high style but he's clever as Bob Mackie was."
Dirty Blonde, a huge off-Broadway success, features loads of character changes for the local production's actors: Allen, Bob Edes and newcomer Charlie Owens. Allen plays West at three stages in her career, as well as a West fan named Jo; the versatile Edes, not surprisingly, plays four characters. For Haylock, the question becomes how to change the costumes accordingly.
And as Haylock sees it, it's a chance for Allen to tackle someone even larger in life than herself -- an icon taking on another icon -- and he doesn't want to disappoint his roommate. "There are people who see her in a show and they don't even see the show because it's always Becky," says Haylock. "But I didn't even see 'Becky Allen' (as she was rehearsing her roles). I think the interesting thing is to see her as Jo. You have to understand, I see her around the house in heels. And here she's in flats?" Haylock rolls his eyes. "Puh-leeze!"
PLACE: "Show Night," Oz
TIME: 10:45 p.m. Wednesday
"My name is Maison Blanche DuBois," Becky Allen crows in her throaty Y'at voice, "and I've come here straight from Belle Reve." The crowd gets it.
"They same I'm a virgin," continues Allen, dressed in a créme-colored chiffon gown with ruffled, flowing sleeves. "Well, honey, every time's a first time if you're a good enough actress." The crown howls. "We gotta try to remember, boys will be boys -- and sometimes they'll be girls." She touts the drinks specials of the evening before her introduction: "Our first girl, all I'm gonna tell you is it's her birthday, and she was voted the Bitch of the Year last year, and she's my roommate. So won't you help me welcome to the stage, Bianca Del Rio!"
Bianca's moves are all self-assured and sometimes self-mocking as she lip-synchs her way through Jennifer Lopez's "My Love Don't Cost a Thing." She's borderline stunning in her mod Pucci print jacket and black velvet pants, straight brown wig, hair past the shoulder, with a bold swash of red lipstick, and big, gold hoop earrings.
Charlie Owens, who moved here from New York, is standing at the bar. "You know, it's funny," says Owens. "But there really aren't a lot of shows like this up in New York. Everything's a gimmick now, or a conceptual thing. ... Roy would clean up up there." He takes a swig from his beer. "Roy's a f--king genius."
When Bianca returns for her next number, she is wearing her black wig all up high, and in an ostrich-feather fringe coat. She is mouthing the words to "Get Here" by Oleta Adams, her coat sparkling under the massive mirror ball overhead. At the bar, a chubby black queen sings along, mesmerized, lost in the words.
Allen returns to the stage and assures the crowd, "Bianca will be back." Before the show ends, the performers all return to the stage, and Allen has everyone sing "Happy Birthday" to Bianca. Allen grabs her roommate in a tight hug throughout, and Bianca pulls out her secret comic weapon: a double-take that is a cross between Carol Burnett and Don Rickles. Allen is oblivious. "There's nothing like not saying anything and just giving a look," Bianca later points out.
And so it goes. When the show is over, Allen says she needs to get up the next morning, but not before playing a few rounds of video poker. Bianca is out on the sidewalk and talking to friends, trying to head home for the evening. She's wiped, she says. Someone offers to get her a margarita. "Oh, God no," she says. "If I even see another margarita I'm gonna die." Armed with her luggage and tips, she heads for home down Bourbon Street, and disappears into the night.
PLACE: "Drag Bingo" and "Glitz: The Art of Illusion," Oz
TIME: 5 p.m. Thursday
It's going to be a long night, but clearly, this is Roy Haylock's favorite. He likes the crowd interaction of the drag bingo show, which he's done for a year and a half as Bianca, but it has been the emerging success of "Glitz" and its trappings that gives him his latest thrill. It's the classier version of Wednesday's show, in which the performers, Vegas-style, emulate such icons as Liza Minelli, Cher, Marilyn Monroe, Barbra Streisand and Bette Midler.
It also gives Bianca Del Rio a chance to shine both as hostess and performer in a familiar, welcoming environment and a fresh routine. "That's why I love 'Glitz,'" Haylock says. "I don't do the usual gay humor. That's more of what I like to get into. It's more rewarding, it's more theatrical. I get to be more in control. Drag isn't as rewarding as when I get to really perform."
Haylock's also in good spirits because he'd spent a productive afternoon meeting with Carl Walker on Dirty Blonde. "There were a lot of things that I was worried about," Haylock says. "There are a couple times when Becky can't leave the stage. But the lighting will change, and the lighting will actually change her character, even if her costume won't. So that was a relief." Bianca and Walker went shopping for clothes but couldn't find anything, though Bianca's not concerned; she's going to Atlanta this weekend for a performance at a gay-pride party at Oz's sister club, Blu, and will shop up there.
Haylock is in the Oz's upstairs dressing room, which holds a couple sofas, a chair and a mini-bar. He is seated in front of a bureau, looking into a mirror as he finishes applying his base makeup. He moves on to his eyes, accentuating them with at least two circles of liner including a white border. Next come tarantula-sized eyelashes, which he applies by first dragging a line of white glue along the base, and easily fitting them over his smaller dark lashes. He chooses a tube of red lipstick, adding a second layer to his thin upper lip for extra effect. He pulls all his equipment from a four-tiered toolbox from Home Depot.
Friends, well-wishers and fellow performers come in and out, and he never breaks stride as he juggles the interview, small talk and getting ready. Kevin Charpentier, AKA Blanche Debris -- who co-hosts the Bourbon Street Awards with Bianca-- walks in, taking a puff from a Marlboro Ultra Light. He tells Roy about a job in Las Vegas he's learned about, where he can earn $600 for one performance a week. "I hate Las Vegas," Roy spits. "Unless you're a compulsive gambler or near death, there's nothing there for you.
"They wanted me to move out there and be a Cher replacement, and I went there and it sucked. I don't need to go to Las Vegas to experience another world. We're in New Orleans, Miss Thing. Drive across the river. Now that's foreign."
He takes a gob of styling gel and greases his hear down to tighten it up underneath his first wig, an afro that he's bunched up and wrapped into nylon to use as a base for his regular wig. And then, in a moment of modesty, Haylock steps behind a curtain to take off his shorts and put on panties, breast padding and his bingo-patterned cocktail dress and sneakers with sweat socks. I look away as a reflex.
For a final touch, he puts on bingo ball earrings. "Becky made them for me," he says. He found the bingo pattern on sale at a fabric store, and was able to fashion six different bingo outfits from them. When I ask how him how many other dresses he has for "Bingo Night," he groans, "Oh, God ...."
In one hour, Roy Haylock has become Bianca Del Rio.
TIME: 6 p.m.
"Okaaaaaaay, for the next two hours, we're going to play 11 games of bingo over three rounds," Bianca yells out to the happy hour audience of about 50 and growing. "Today is my 27th birthday, and I'm ready to get trashed. Now, how many of you have been here before?" Polite applause. "How many of you have been here just to f--k with someone?" More applause. Suddenly, as Bianca explains the rules, a handsome, stocky Latino yells something to her. She cocks her head. "What game are we playing? Look, get your shit straight. It's bingo! We're not playing canasta! And this isn't a f--king piñata, you Mexican piece of shit. Where are you from?" "Dallas!" he calls back. "Figures," she replies without looking up.
A middle-aged woman name Dale walks in with a female friend and calls out to Bianca, who responds with a wild hello. They'd met the previous week, and Bianca sets them up with bingo cards. She seems genuinely glad to see her new friend.
Even though it lasts about two hours, the bingo game whirs by as Bianca calls out numbers and the audience members struggle to keep up. The first round of three games is over before anyone realizes it, and Bianca takes a 15-minute break to hand out cards for the next round -- an excuse to work the crowd and talk up "Glitz." Before the second round begins, I complain to her that she calls out the numbers too quickly. "If you can't stick your finger in a hole that fast, you don't belong in a fag bar," she says with a laugh.
In the middle of the second round, the game takes a sudden turn. After Bianca calls out three numbers, Dale shouts out "Bingo!" Bianca is a little taken aback, but surprisingly doesn't mess with her. In what seems like a sympathetic moment, Bianca sweetly tells her to bring her card up. But before Bianca can politely tell Dale she doesn't in fact have bingo, a fortysomething man in an unfortunate T-shirt/shorts ensemble complains that it's not bingo -- which of course everyone knows. Bianca fixes an icy stare at him and hisses, "F--k it. Bingo, motherf--ker. Take that. Come on up, Dale." Everyone's stunned and laughs nervously as she keeps her glare on the heckler. "I don't give a shit. Are you the f--king boss of bingo? Take that, motherf--ker. Here, Dale," and Bianca hands Dale her prize: $20. The crowd cheers, but Bianca won't stop shooting a sideways glance at the man, who tries to laugh it off. "Just try me, motherf--ker," she says.
It's the first time this week I've seen her truly pissed at someone. After all, he didn't seem any more out of line than any other bingo player caught up in the moment. "That asshole's been here before," she later says. "He only comes in here for bingo, and he only comes in here to win. It just bugs the shit out of me."
The uncomfortable moment is all forgotten as the game resumes at breakneck speed. After three rounds and 11 games, Bianca disappears upstairs to get ready for the second half of her Thursday-night doubleheader.
TIME: 9 p.m.
"Glitz" is a completely different world from "Bingo Night," even if it's only a room away -- held on the Oz dancefloor and stage. The average age of the crowd is perhaps 45, a mix of gay couples, older male-female couples, and a few young, curious straights. Oz has been doing "Glitz" for eight months, but the crowds didn't pick up until about a month ago after a concerted ad campaign and a gushing write-up by Times-Picayune theater critic David Cuthbert. Now, it sells out every week, a rarity for the soggy summer months.
The set-up is simple enough. Bianca hosts and performs along with familiar faces emulating the greats: Bianca does two Cher numbers, the latter with a Sonny Bono puppet stuck on her right arm. Lisa Beaumann does Carol Channing and Liza Minelli. Teryl-Lyn Foxx does Whitney Houston and a dead-on Dionne Warwick. Nikki Rich does Barbra Streisand and Bette Midler. Blanche Debris serves up a chubby Marilyn Monroe.
The audience, seated at elevated candle-lit bar tables and matching stools, responds appreciatively -- including a gaggle of loud queens who've set up camp in the back row. One in particular feels compelled to sing at fever pitch to every song. "Look! Barbra!" one squeals. "I know all my drag icons!" "I loooove that gown!" gushes another. "You would! Flawless!"
By the end of the evening, Bianca has gone through eight costume changes and several victims in the audiences with her usual repertoire. When a black woman tries to tell her a joke, she shoots back, "I work alone, bitch. Give 'er a few drinks, and suddenly we're Amos 'n' Andy!"
While she says she rarely suffers any backfires from her caustic routines -- some complaints to management, maybe a comment that comes back to her from someone else -- Bianca concedes there have been embarrassing moments. Like one time during "Glitz" when she tried to engage a straight couple sitting in the front row. The man was flashing a benign smile through constant comments hurled his way by Bianca, and wouldn't respond. Exasperated, she said, "What are you, a f--king mute?" Recalls Bianca: "As soon as I said it, I knew something was wrong, and his wife said, 'Actually, he is a mute.' Everybody started laughing. She was laughing and when she told him, he started laughing. So I started doing mock sign language the rest of the act and introduced myself to him afterward and bought him a drink."
PLACE: 15th Annual Gay Appreciation Awards, Cowpokes
TIME: 8:30 p.m. Sunday
Bianca Del Rio hustles into the performance space of Cowpokes, a gay country-western bar on the edge of Faubourg Marigny, overlooking St. Claude Avenue. She's running late for the Gay Appreciation Awards sponsored by Ambush magazine, and adjusts her outfit just in time to perform a solo number and later with the "Glitz" cast to highlight Oz, which has been nominated for Best Showbar. Besides performing, last year's Southern Decadence grand marshal is also defending her titles as Bitch of the Year and Entertainer of the Year.
In between numbers, she says the Atlanta gig was a smashing success. She flew in Friday morning and went immediately into rehearsal with 12 dancers brought in from Miami for the Saturday night show at Blu. It's a potential career expansion for Bianca, who also performed at the Memorial Day Weekend circuit party in Pensacola this year -- all of which means more travel, more money, and more exposure.
"It was like a big music video with Vegas production value," she says of her show. "This is a whole new phase that I'm into. I'd fallen into a trap where I was just hosting and being funny, but this is a different element where I'm also dancing. They pick me up and throw me around. Woo-hoo! It's different from what I could ever do here."
She hustles back into the awards show to perform as the defending Entertainer of the Year, to Cher's "Song for You" in a black and silver sleeveless gown. Because of the set-up of the place, admirers must file, Communion-style, down a single row to hand over their dollar bills. She walks over to accept what at first looks like a tip, but instead it's a sip of champagne from the front row. Right on cue, she grimaces and spits out the drink into an awaiting cup.
She loses out on the Entertainer of the Year award to the Austin Baptist Women's Club, a collection of Bible-thumping drag queens from Austin, Texas. Later, she introduces the "Glitz" crew in a red halter dress, noting Oz's location. "You can come on down to Bourbon Street, where you can also see Chris Owens," she says to instant cackles. "She's hot! She's fabulous! She's ooolllddd."
Though she insists that a non-stop week like the past one isn't all that unusual -- just a little busier -- she admits to worrying about burnout. "Yes, because there are times when I question what I'm doing," she replies. "But then I compare what I'm doing to what other people are doing. I do enjoy what I do, and you can't beat the fun. You can't beat the audience."
She pauses for a moment and takes a slow sip from her margarita. "You know," she says, "I was watching Inside the Actor's Studio the other night with that freak, and he was interviewing Carol Burnett. And he asks all those stupid questions at the end. 'What's the worst sound?' 'Water dripping.' 'What's your favorite sound?' 'Having the audience laugh.' I mean, I'm not trying to compare myself to her, but mentally I'm on the same level. You're having just as much fun as they are. You have the same ride as they are.
"You know what I mean?"