Wednesday, July 13, 2011

QUEENS OF THE NIGHT: NOT SUCH A DRAG IN THAILAND

First, a true confession: I don't do drag -- not as a queen, and not as a fan. I know that any self-respecting gay man is supposed to love the campy burlesque and embrace the bawdy humor of drag shows, but as far as I'm concerned, Saturday night fever would be so much hotter without them. For the most part, they just interrupt my flirting fun and bore me as silly as they are.

If only the ones I've suffered through in Buenos Aires and, more recently, in Melbourne were half as entertaining as the drag act in The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert. The elaborate numbers they performed in the 1994 Australian film far exceed anything I've ever seen outside of Chicago (the city, not the musical).

Several years ago, a friend invited me to join him in the Windy City for a drag pageant, and although it wasn't quite the best weekend ever, I was pleasantly surprised by how entertained I was most of the time. She works hard for the money, I thought, act after act, most of whom did so much more than merely putting on the glitz and lip-syncing to current pop hits and silly love songs.

Some of them sang live, others played instruments, one re-created Carol Burnett's Eunice character from her eponymous TV show for an original skit. I'm sure I must have stood up and cheered once or twice, but since Chicago, my drag experiences have been all downhill. Drag is huge in Buenos Aires, and unfortunately, so are many of the drag queens -- and not the good huge. The don't so much celebrate femininity as mock it, and those jokes about sex and penis size may have been mildly amusing in high school, but not anymore.

The shows I've seen in Australia haven't been better, which is pretty disappointing, considering the country's Priscilla legacy. Mercifully, though, they're much shorter than they are in BA, and you're always pretty much guaranteed a Kylie Minogue number. Still, I wouldn't drag myself away from the bar just to get a closer look.

My recent history with drag left me unprepared for what happened when the queens took the stage at DJ Station in Bangkok last Thursday night. I didn't want to run for the exit. In fact, I didn't want it to end. The lip-syncing was on point, which must have been particularly challenging since most of the songs were in English. And these dudes really did look like ladies. I could totally imagine some straight guy waking up next to one and thinking he'd scored the real deal.

The one who did Cher doing "You Haven't Seen the Last of Me" (the remix version, of course) had perfected both of Cher's looks (the one she wears on her body and the vacant one she now wears on her face due to too much cosmetic surgery). And they all were so emotionally invested in what they were lip syncing that sometimes I wondered if it was live or if it was Memorex.

Fast forward (and southward) to Phuket, where I'm currently enjoying the Thai (and tourist) views, and the queens are even more skilled than in Bangkok, offering dead-on impersonations of Madonna, Rihanna and Celine Dion as well as choreography, cartwheels and splits. The last thing I was expecting to hear at Kiss, the Paradise Complex bar I was dragged into on Monday night by a guy who apparently is paid to do that kind of thing, was a drag queen doing Faith Hill's country-pop hit "Breathe." (Country is huge in Phuket: At one beach-side restaurant, the cover band performed Shania Twain, Martina McBride and Lady Antebellum.) Neither the singer nor the song is in the standard drag repertoire, but the drag queen actually sold the song, which I always hated, better than Hill did.

She was followed by one who seemed to be going for Whitney Houston doing her best impersonation of Shirley Bassey ripping into Madonna's "You'll See." I'd never before heard Bassey's version, but it was so over-the-top good, I'll probably never want to listen to Madonna sing her own song again.

The closing number was Beyoncé's "Run the World (Girls)," performed by a cast of six. None of them looked anything like Beyoncé, and the leader of the pack was slightly off in her lip-syncing, but they'd obviously studied the video well. They matched Beyoncé and company move for bootylicious move, and for the first time ever (or perhaps the first time since the Thai go-go boys did their thing to the same tune at G.O.D. in Bangkok a few nights earlier), I actually didn't want the song to end.

I didn't want the show to end either. Someone must have figured that would be the case because there was an encore performance at 1.45am. That's way past my Monday night bedtime, but that I even considered sticking around for a second course of drag was the night's biggest surprise of all.
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