When you get up as early as I do and decide to watch television, your choices tend to be restricted to unusual programming options such as preachers from somewhere deep in rural America; half-hour long infomercials for some miracle vitamin or exercise regime; the Turner Movie Channel (thank God!); or, as happened to me last week, RuPaul’s Drag Race reality show.
The latter offering — bad, truly, truly bad yet entertaining in between sips of coffee and waiting for the daily newspaper to hit my porch — with RuPaul separating the chaff from the wheat with a husky cry of Chantez or Sashay, reminds us that drag, that hardy perennial, still holds considerable appeal for a lot of men and at least one woman: photographer Rosamond Norbury.
Norbury speaks about drag with a certain authority: she and Vancouver author and CBC personality Bill Richardson produced the definitive Canadian book on drag, Guy to Goddess: An Intimate Look at Drag Queens. Norbury has been following the local drag scene since 1969.
“It was the beginning of an era,” she remembers, “but at the time I didn’t realize that — when you’re in it, you don’t know that you are. But drag back then, you would emulate an icon: Judy Garland, Marilyn Monroe, Ethel Merman. It wasn’t about passing. You made yourself enormous,” she exclaims, waving her hands around her head to indicate a great big mass of hair. “You made yourself BIGGER. Now, because of television, MTV, you want to make yourself television size rather than movie screen size. That’s the whole difference. Back then you were definitely full blown, over the top.”
A big personality goes along with big hair. Norbury lists a few, beginning with Dee Dee Ambrose: “She did drag, but she was actually one of Vancouver’s first transsexuals. And while she was transitioning, she would entertain at Champagne Charlie’s. She would lip-sync to Marilyn Monroe numbers, Barbara Streisand too. Dee Dee was huge. She married a guy and moved to Calgary, where she died of a heart attack 10 years ago.”
Then there was Sandy St Peters, “who was thin back then, and got bigger and bigger,” Norbury says. “She started off looking like Twiggy and in her later years, more like Peggy Lee. There was Stella Mae. Those were, like, the big ones.”
Big personalities on a small performance circuit. Champagne Charlie’s was the place to perform, Norbury says, before adding “then BJ’s, with the golden curtain.”
She goes on to dispel any notion I might entertain that drag queens were profit minded. “Drag queens never get any money to perform,” she states. While it’s true that customers could show their appreciation by tipping them, Norbury points out that “with the demise of the one and two dollar bill” this has become trickier.
“A drag queen could make, easy, $40 a performance if enough people tipped her, but now it’s just not right to tip them with a loonie or a toonie,” declares Norbury, who collects American $1 bills precisely for that purpose.
She then explains the etiquette of tipping a drag queen.
“Number one, timing is everything! You can’t go giving her a tip in the middle of her dance routine. The other thing is if a drag queen likes you she’ll take it. But if she doesn’t like you, if she’s angry or irked in some way, she can shun you and you’re left standing. Everyone can see, and you know that you’ve done wrong.”
Then there’s the minion. “Say you’re a drag queen expecting a really big amount of tipping,” Norbury says. “In that case you have a minion take the money. You dump the money in your minion’s hands. And you never bend over and pick up your tips. Your minion will do that for you.”
Every big drag queen has a minion, I learn. “She’s like a mother duck with little ducklings following behind, talking, providing. When you come to a bar and change into whatever you’re going to wear to perform your number, it involves carrying many, many suitcases, and you never carry your own suitcases. Someone else carries your suitcase.”
Norbury has one last piece of advice on tipping — keep your distance to maintain the illusion of glamour.
“Remember, the best place to see a drag queen, like my friend Myria Le Noir used to say, is from the parking lot. You don’t want to be up too close. The closer you get with your money… it gets a little more horrific — the bright lights on her, you can see everything, every wrinkle,” Norbury warns.
“The art of tipping, there’s nothing like it, there really is nothing like it,” she concludes.