Gay bars change acts to appeal to straight customers

March 21, 2009 

In Mad Myrna's drag dressing room, where a J-Lo song wound out among the wigs and gowns on a recent Friday evening, Isanoel Pinson leaned into the mirror, pursed his lips a little and smeared foundation on his forehead.

Pinson, who is in his 40s, started performing drag just after he emigrated to Anchorage from the Philippines in the early '80s. His first haunt was an old bar called the Jade Room. These days the crowds that come to his shows couldn't be more different than they were back then.

"Oh. My. God," he said, applying a ribbon of glue to a false eyelash. "Before is all like gay, gay, gay. Now would you believe? Our audience is all straight people. Couples!"

Myrna's has been home to a drag show for a decade, and straight people have long been part of the audience. But on some Friday nights lately, gay patrons have thinned dramatically, replaced by military couples, bachelorette parties and curious young professionals. It's part of a national trend.

From San Francisco to Pittsburgh, Boston to Nashville, gay bars are closing their doors and shuttering drag shows, citing lack of patrons.

There are plenty of theories why clientele is changing at Myrna's. People are making connections on the Internet. Growing social acceptance means there are few establishments were gays don't feel comfortable. Simply put, the need for gay bars is fading.

"I have this feeling now that it's like 'mission accomplished,' " said Mike Richardson, board president of the Imperial Court of All Alaska, one of the state's oldest gay organizations.

"We really don't need safety in numbers."

Myrna's had to get creative to attract new customers to fill in where the old ones used to be, said manager Jeff "Myrna" Wood. Over the last few years, that has meant retooling the drag show to appeal to a wider audience. And now the venerable gay bar depends at least in part on the dollars of straight customers to keep its doors open.

As Wood likes to say, gay or straight, "everybody's money is green."

QUEEN OF QUEENS

The clock ticks toward 9 p.m., Paige Langit arrives in the dressing room with her mother, Donna Langit, carrying bags of costumes.

Langit is 28. Lounge singer and comedienne, she's the sexy, bossy, busty co-host of the show. She's also a registered Republican with a boyfriend. She stands in front of the mirror in a pink bra, teasing her hair and caking on purple eye shadow. A queen named Mariquita squeezes in next to her, pawing through a make-up bag.

Langit is the face of the new scene. The drag show, once the exclusive domain of gay men and transgender women, has morphed into a variety show -- kinky and freaky -- with something for everyone, from burlesque to torch singing, along with a diverse stable of queens.

A singer and actress since her teens, Langit started performing at Myrna's in her early 20s after one of the drag queens saw her sing karaoke. She had a couple of gay friends in high school but had no experience with drag.

"I didn't know anything about the transgender community," she said, but enjoyed the personalities she encountered at the bar. "It was like, 'Oh great -- a group of people who like to perform.' "

Drag is mainly about exaggerated femininity, Langit says. Once she has her hair and make-up and magenta high-heels on, she feels a bit like a drag queen too.

People in the audience wonder if she's a lesbian or if she's a "real" woman. All that ambiguity is part of what makes the show interesting, she says.

SOLDIERS IN THE AUDIENCE

Lights dimmed, cocktails flowing and tables full, music pounds out of the speakers in Myrna's show hall. Scott "Daphne DoAll LaChores" Koeller, the other drag show co-host, is dressed in a red Sarah Palin-esque suit, enormous ratty blonde wig and matronly glasses. He takes the stage, warming the audience with a monologue full of double-entendre one-liners.

Then Langit makes her entrance, sashaying into the spotlight in a tight pink top and white leggings, bubble gun in hand. An old cross-dresser and a young lady-- a drag version of Regis and Kelly -- their witty, bawdy banter serves as the backbone for the show, bridging generations and sexuality.

Koeller makes a joke referencing a decades old commercial. Langit tilts her head to the side, her face blank.

"I'll YouTube it," she says.

Soon an old-time burlesque dancer in a bustier and ruffled panties weaves through the audience starting her act. Then comes the lithe, shirtless male go-go dancer. Then the Karaoke crooner in a brown v-neck sweater. The room is full of whistles and belly laughs. There's a soldier in dress uniform and his wife in the front row.

Today's audience is usually couples or single women, Wood said.

"The girls want to go see the drag queens," he said. "Women are more tolerant than guys are."

"You can always tell the straight people," says Koeller, "because they're the ones who come on time."

Iesha Jones, 32, who is not gay, has become a regular at Myrna's. She started coming years ago because she had a friend in the show. She likes that the bar doesn't have a "meat market" feel, she said.

"It's like OK, I'm here for the show," she said. "I know I'm not going to get hit on by guys."

The straight men are almost always with women. In general men who come alone are "highly questionable" as a dating prospect, she said. Though it's not entirely impossible to meet someone.

"Occasionally you get a lot of soldiers. I did meet a guy who just got back from Iraq."

Members of the older generation might raise an eyebrow that she's spending time at a gay bar, she said. But people her age don't think it's strange and most of her friends would be comfortable joining her. There are a number of bars in Anchorage with an integrated gay-straight social scene, she said.

THE NEW SHOW

Backstage not everyone is happy. But then they wouldn't be drag queens without a little drama. Pinson, affixing a 3-foot-wide Afro wig, clicks his tongue, looking at the clock. The new acts take forever. He complains in Tagalog to Joebie Fernandez, a diminutive, smooth-skinned queen, who's sorting through a tackle box of earrings. There are eye rolls all around.

The class of drag queens once at the center of the show are aging -- most are at least 40 -- and like a fading order of nuns whose convents are closing, fewer among the younger generation are stepping into their size 13 pumps.

Some worry drag has become so mainstream, it may have lost its edge, so the younger generation isn't as interested. And, with fewer bars, there's fewer places for new queens to learn the craft.

That's what makes Trevor "Ashley" Council unique. At 24, he's the youngest of the queens by at least 10 years. On his hands and knees, he's pulling shoes out of a suitcase, naming each style as he examines them: "French Whore. French Whore. Hooker Shoe."

"I'm a boy during the day and girl on Friday nights and for special events," he says.

He stands in front of the mirror in a black dress, fluffs his wig and flashes a set of perfect white teeth. He's doesn't know what gay bars used to be like but likes the way they are now.

"I think the people who go there are the kind who are straight and more accepting of gay people," he said. "It's nice to be around those kind of people."

Out on the main floor, bass from the speakers vibrates the drinks on the bar. Pinson waits off stage for her Gloria Gaynor number. Fernandez, in a leather bikini and dangling earrings, steps out to face the audience, opening a huge set of gold lamé wings into a whirl of lights.

And at least for now, the show goes on.


Find Julia O'Malley online at adn.com/contact/jomalley or call 257-4591.

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