I have done many interviews over the years. The very first cover-story interview I did was for Creative Loafing and came out March 19,2002. It was strange how it happened. A friend of mine had a friend, who had a friend, who was writing a story for Creative Loafing. It was going to be about Drag in Atlanta and how you can find a show almost every night of the week. We set up a meeting at Nickiemotos for dinner with Jerry Portwood who was writing the story. After that, we then went out a few nights that week together. He came to the house as I got ready one night. He also interviewed Bubba and EJ for the story. EJ and I did a Photo shoot for it at 1150 witch is Opera now. When it came out, quite a few of the other girls in town where not so happy. Some people thought that they should have been interviewed for it. It caused a few girls to act crazy, I was very surprised by that. Well here it is My first cover story.
Power of the wig
Once relegated to the fringes, drag has come slinking into its own in Atlanta, giving rise to a different sort of runway queen.
Nicole Paige Brooks walks into a room and heads turn. Slender and brown-haired, she glides along on towering heels in a slinky red thing, unashamed of her beauty, her sex, her power. Brooks commands so much attention, in fact, that it may be lost on some — dare say, many — that she is actually he.
Brooks is among Atlanta’s burgeoning drag glitterati. A transvestite and then some, she uses her dress-up time as means to both entertain and attain a certain celebrity status.
“I don’t consider myself a good entertainer, a good dancer,” says Brooks. “My talent is transformation. I’m an artist, and this is my talent.”
Atlanta has its Elton and Jane sightings and its L.A. Reid excesses. But lacking the sheer glut of rich and famous found in, say, New York City or Los Angeles, some have opted for another homegrown variety of star-fucking: the drag queen as underground pop idol.
Drag has been a force in certain Atlanta circles since the late ’60s, when it was relegated to the fringes in gay bars and mostly hidden from popular culture. But drag is coming into its own in Atlanta and elsewhere, transcending queer culture and finding an audience in straight men and women. With the help of Hollywood and movies like The Adventures of Priscilla Queen of the Desert and The Birdcage, drag reached a wider mainstream audience. And thanks to the reign of former Atlantan RuPaul, with her numerous appearances on MTV, the big screen and eventually her own VH1 talk show, seeing a nearly 7-foot-tall man in a thong isn’t so unusual anymore.
As drag’s saucy appeal has waned in other cities, Atlanta remains a hotbed for (mostly gay) men looking to express their inner diva on stage. Granted, there’s no longer any one bar dedicated solely to drag, as was the case 20 or 30 years ago. But it’s possible to witness a drag performance every night of the week in Atlanta (see Sidebar, p. 49), with the largest shows happening at the infamous Charlie Brown’s X-rated Cabaret at Backstreet in Midtown. The cabaret has been featured on HBO and VH1, and is viewed as the top of the heap for those aspiring drag divas looking to be the best in the business.
Brian Pryor by day, Nicole Paige Brooks emerges at night to taunt club-goers at Charlie Brown’s Cabaret twice a week. But on this Monday, she’s sitting among the packed tables at Dragamaki, the weekly drag show at the Midtown restaurant Nickiemoto’s. Bubba D. Licious, Martina Diamante and other entertainers lip-synch, shimmy and shake in the aisles, dodging servers and palming tips as diners look on spellbound. Diamante ups the ante when she breaks out her violin and plays a solo to her song of choice. She’s rumored to be a member of the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra, but that may be just another of those tidbits of gossip everyone likes to spread about her and the other girls.
Pryor never planned on Nicole Paige Brooks when he moved to Atlanta five years ago. He’d experimented with drag performance before in his hometown of Oklahoma City. But after moving to Memphis, Tenn., with his partner, he refrained from donning a dress. Seems his boyfriend didn’t approve. After that relationship ended, Pryor moved to Atlanta, where he was coaxed into performing in the “Drag on the Edge” amateur night at the Metro. There, Brian found his inner Nicole.
“Nicole is a cartoon character that Brian created. She’s anything I want her to be,” says Pryor, talking about his alter ego as if it were a separate personality. “My close friends don’t like going out with Nicole. She’s loud and will cuss anyone out and get away with it.”
Pryor is an illusionist — one who uses his body as his palate. Some drag queens practice “camp drag,” wearing clothes and makeup that imply an over-the-top, almost cartoonish femininity, often employing gags or grotesque jokes. But Nicole could pass for a woman — except that her hair is a little too coifed and brittle, her makeup too thick and exotic. Then there’s that telltale Adam’s apple.
“I don’t think I’m pretty,” says Pryor. “My monologues during shows are what people remember me for.”
And they do remember her. At Nickiemoto’s, as Nicole tries to eat or have a conversation, she is constantly approached. Someone tells her about the time they first met. Another offers an anecdote about Nicole embarrassing an audience member. Mostly, though, they just want to touch her, to be seen next to her. Nicole graciously smiles and talks to her fans, accepting their praise and letting them know she appreciates the attention. This must be an inkling of what it’s like to be a star — the stares, the knowing smiles, the peeking at what you’re eating.
“The power of this wig is amazing,” Pryor says. “I’ve done more in the last two years as Nicole than in my wildest dreams.”
Pryor used to work days as a Rich’s salesman in Lenox Square mall. It was only when he began working for Atlanta drag legend Charlie Brown that he realized he could make a career out of dressing up. He quit his day job two years ago and does well for himself on the money and tips he makes two nights a week at Backstreet — though he did recently take a job as a host at a popular Buckhead restaurant.
But it’s not just the money. The first time someone came up to Pryor and quoted something Nicole had said, it blew him away. Other groupies want more than Nicole is willing to give. Pryor describes Nicole as an “unattainable sex siren,” and he tells prospective suitors, “You have to give me head before I do you.”
But the lifestyle does encroach on Pryor’s personal life. He rarely gives out his home address — not since a fan stalked him and broke into his apartment as payback for being thrown out of the club. He also knows that what fame Nicole enjoys only lasts as long as the guise is in place. Driving this point home, he relates a story of a young fan who was turning tricks for money. As Brian Pryor, the advice he gave fell on deaf ears. But when Nicole urged him to stop selling sex, get a job and respect himself, the boy turned his life around.
“That’s why I still do this,” says Pryor. “As Brian, I couldn’t get him to stop, but when Nicole speaks, people listen.”
When Bubba D. Licious speaks, people pay up. So far, she’s landed sponsorships with Coors beer and a local car dealership, and raised nearly $3.5 million for charity — all while wearing a dress.
Bubba is ubiquitous around Atlanta, appearing at myriad charity events, emceeing drag shows and popping up on billboards all over town. But Jim Marks, Bubba’s creator, sees it as more of a hobby than anything else.
Marks, who moved to Atlanta from South Carolina in 1989, is actually an accountant by trade. He is CFO of the Names Project Foundation in Atlanta, whose mission is to utilize the AIDS Memorial Quilt to combat the deadly disease. Marks has always had a day job, donating his time in drag to various causes for the last 14 years. In fact, he didn’t accept his first paying gig until the fall of 2001, assuming the role of emcee at Nickiemoto’s Dragamaki.
Marks had been in Atlanta for less than six months when he joined the softball team at the Armory, then a popular drag club. As a type of initiation, the team encouraged its new pitcher to audition for the club’s cast.
“Everyone on the team had done drag. They expected me to do it as well,” recalls Marks, who, at the time had only been openly gay for a year. “I had never done drag and I didn’t want to be an Armorette.”
The audition consisted of a written application process, an interview and an on-stage performance. Among the four cross-dressers that day, only two were selected as potential members of the cast: Bubba and Kitty LeClaw. With his blond wig, garish makeup and bulbous nose, Bubba was none too pretty — which made him the perfect fit for the decidedly campy Armorettes.
Since then, Bubba has been named Humanitarian of the Year by the Human Rights Campaign in 2001 and was awarded the Phoenix Award by former Mayor Bill Campbell (Marks served on Campbell’s senior advisory committee for five years as liaison for the gay community). Then City Councilwoman Cathy Woolard even declared an official Bubba D. Licious Day in 1999. Not bad for a 5-foot-8 guy in high heels.
When Coors was looking for new ways to market its light beer to a gay audience, they struck upon an ingenious scheme: Get Bubba D. Licious to drink their beer. Turns out, Bubba is a suds-guzzler of the first order. But until Coors came calling, she was a Bud Light girl. In the end, she agreed to make the switch after the company agreed to provide corporate sponsorship for the Bubba D. Licious website. (Leave it to a bean-counter to turn drinking beer into a profitable venture.)
Bubba also works with Dwight Harrison Volkswagen, the business behind the highly sought-after souvenir paper fans emblazoned with Bubba’s face, which are thrown to the crowd at the annual Gay Pride Parade. Her face also can be seen in ads in various gay publications, and on billboards from time to time.
“I can’t explain why people listen to me when I say drink this beer or drink that beer — but they do,” says Marks.
Some say that eleven50 is the future of Atlanta nightlife, a place for the hip and the savvy to experience world-class DJs and cutting-edge multimedia-driven urban nightlife. Located amid the commotion along Crescent Avenue in Midtown, the former theater is quite the spectacle inside, with its dramatically high ceilings, sleek decor and über-plush atmosphere. While the club currently caters to a mostly straight, white clientele, the crowd’s sexual orientation is beginning to diversify.
“Three-thousand to 4,000 people come here during a good weekend,” says Bill Kaelin, eleven50’s marketing and promotions manager. “I am exposing many of the people here to something they’ve never seen before. Many people in the gay community are jaded. They feel they’ve seen it all before. The people coming here are still amazed.”
Which makes eleven50 the perfect focal point for the future of drag in Atlanta. And Miss EJ is certainly that.
“I don’t call EJ a drag queen. He’s a performance artist — 100 percent man,” says Kaelin, Miss EJ’s self-described agent.
In his red patent-leather fuck-me boots, Miss EJ is a daunting androgynous presence. Standing 6-foot-3 without heels, he towers to almost 7 feet in platforms, making him (purportedly) the tallest drag queen in Atlanta now that RuPaul has long since fled the city. Perhaps to combat the intimidation factor that accompanies his size, EJ makes himself extremely approachable. Talk long enough with him and you find that he is intensely spiritual, drawing on lessons and teachings from various religions to guide him through life.
Born Edwin Davidson Brown Jr., Miss EJ struggled growing up. “I was broke, poor, black and gay,” he says. “How much worse can it get?”
A student of Jewish mystical tradition, EJ says the Hebrew version of his name loosely translates to “finger of God.” He sees himself as that finger — there to prod, poke and nudge, to affect positive change in the world. He views his drag performances as theater, art. Miss EJ has discarded the wig and performs bald, with a bizarre assortment of often disturbing props. He no longer pretends to be a woman but, rather, something entirely new.
“If there is an edge, I am going to go over it,” he says. “If I am told not to cross a line, I am going to step two feet beyond.”
Tonight Miss EJ is performing for a Latin-themed multimedia event at eleven50. Before he takes the stage, he prepares in the building’s basement, where water pools after heavy rains and the thump-thump of the music above can be heard and felt through the ceiling. He pulls from his drag bag a corset, several wigs and a sequined gown. He adjusts his garters and fixes his makeup. CDs are shuttled to the DJ upstairs just before his transformation into a creature programmed to shock, amaze and entertain.
Eleven50 is Miss EJ’s playground. Acknowledging as much, Kaelin gives her free reign to develop her act. On one occasion, EJ strapped a small disco ball to her head and swayed robotically to the B-52’s’ “Planet Claire” in a sequined outfit. After eleven50 suffered considerable damage from a fire, EJ showed up with a lit blowtorch and pranced through the crowd, the blue flame leading the way. “It stopped people in their tracks,” says Kaelin with a smile.
Things got a little uncomfortable post-Sept. 11, when Miss EJ cavorted with the crowd in a gas mask. She offended some, but she did what she came to do, eliciting a reaction whose impact exceeded the relative simplicity of the act itself. When Miss EJ walks into a room, people step back — then they move closer. She inspires awe, even fear. She makes you laugh and she makes you cringe. You could even say she’s beautiful.
Perhaps it only seems like the best drag queens — Miss EJ included — are blessed with better hair, impeccable style, great legs and an ironclad wit. Or maybe it’s just that they have the balls to put themselves on the line, to brazenly transcend gender boundaries and, in the process, evolve from ordinary to extraordinary. From freaks on the fringe to colorful, provocative outlaw luminaries.
“People want and need to be pushed over that edge,” says Miss EJ. “They want to see what’s on the other side.”