Illustrated by Mieko Tsurumoto/OutWrite
Have you ever heard the term “dinner and a show?” Now imagine drinking from a fishnet and stiletto adorned leg over 12 inches tall, followed by a three course meal, a stack of dollar bills in your hand. This is the experience of Lips Drag Palace.
Lips Drag Palace is a bar filled with disco balls, sparkling mirror pillars, and luscious lips colored pink, red, blue, and magenta adorning the walls. Mannequin legs decked out in eight inch heels haphazardly jutt from the stage. You would expect the usual suspects, like a bachelorette party or a girls’ night out to attend such a bar; however, Lips brings in all kinds and shapes and colors. A table of older men sit with their wives giggling over a drink called “The Sexy Redhead,” a couple on their 20th wedding anniversary sits at the central table (closest to the action), and a gaggle of older women in their sixties make small talk with a queen serving drinks.
Lips is a chain of restaurants across the United States with locations in New York, Chicago, Atlanta, Fort Lauderdale, and San Diego. Lips was founded 27 years ago in New York City by a fabulous drag queen by the name of Yvonne Lamé. She pioneered Lips to rival the clubs and restaurants she frequented in NYC. However, she also wanted a space for her people, fellow queens.
Drag is not simply a job. It is a way of life, a form of art, and a desire for self-expression in a raw and unfiltered form. However, the drag world can be inconsistent, as not many establishments put on performances six days a week like Lips does. Lips is not only a thriving business, but it also provides a service to drag performers in a steady job that guarantees continuous revenue.
Lamé has expressed that drag is an expensive passion and lifestyle. It can be difficult to build a career in a field with such high expenses and inconsistent pay. For those who wish to develop a career in drag, Lamé hoped Lips could be a place where future performers could cultivate their craft and find confidence in a stage setting. The turnover rate of employees at Lips is extremely low due to good working conditions, income, and a love of the people and place where they work.
I recently attended my first Lips drag and dinner show because of my own curiosity and my mother’s influence. I discovered that 32 years ago, my mother, Julie Kunin, worked as a coat check girl at a popular lesbian bar called The Flame. As an employee of The Flame, my mother was enveloped within lesbian, and eventually drag, culture. In the early 1990s, drag shows were not as common as they are today, and many queens began their careers as “candy girls.” The job of a candy girl at The Flame was to sell small items to customers, like candy, cigarettes, and other trinkets. Enter a queen by the name of Tootie Nefertootiee. When Kunin was coat checking, she and Nefertootiee worked side by side, and hence, she saw a future drag queen before she had ever hit the stage.
If any one person represents the spirit of drag, it would be Nefertootiee, now a drag performer at Lips in San Diego. She has not lost her love for performance. Though many drag queens use flips, cartwheels, and twerking to capture the audience’s attention, Nefertootiee uses her own brand of drag to bring in the crowds. Her sense of humor brings a lighthearted comedic element that has an entire room laughing in their chairs. Whether it’s stumbling onstage with a bottle of Fireball tucked in her wig or encouraging patrons to stick dollar bills into her thong and corset, she has the ability to make everyone laugh. That’s what makes drag such a special form of entertainment. It is not limited by age, race, religion, sexuality, or tax bracket.
“The Flame was one of the first gay bars in San Diego to hold real drag performances,” Kunin said. After my own experience at Lips and after watching Nefertootiee on the stage, I find it hard to believe that she never performed onstage at The Flame, as she is a born entertainer. To describe my experience in one word: amazed.
Though Kunin never saw Nefertootiee perform as a drag queen, she was present for the evolution of drag performances in the 1990s. The drag explosion in New York during the ‘90s set off a wave of LGBTQ+ support and desire for performance. Drag had always been a marginalized and disregarded performance art with little popular appeal until The Pyramid Club. Artists and stars, like Andy Warhol and Madonna, would put on shows featuring drag performers, which were considered eccentric and odd but still led to an increase in drag countrywide. Now, however, drag is currently under attack.
Anti-drag bills have been proposed in fourteen states, including Tennessee, Arizona, Kentucky, and Oklahoma. Florida is another state on the list, where Lips currently has a location; it could be affected by the wave of anti-drag legislation swarming the state. Many of these states have also been passing anti-trans legislation. Though the jargon of this legislation focuses on limiting drag in public places, it is still worrisome for members of the queer drag community. Passing laws that ban drag, even at the lowest level, could set a precedent that extends to more private event spaces like a Lips drag show. An increasing concern for queens that rely on drag as a source of income stems from the possibility of commercialized or televised drag appearances becoming next on the chopping block.
The reasoning behind these bills stems from conservative viewpoints that say drag is a danger to children, and that drag queens could be “grooming children”. Others argue that kids are not mature enough to view drag and it could be harmful to young developing minds. However, drag performances are in no way harmful and any risque shows are put on specifically in bars (like Lips) or other 18+ locations. They are a form of expression in the queer community, not an attack on the country’s youth.
By attacking drag queens and their profession, domestic policy makers at the state level are simply adding fuel to the fire meant to hinder the rights of the LGBTQ+ community. Lips’ location in California may be safe from future restrictive drag laws for now, but the same can’t be said for Lips locations in less progressive states. Drag is not just for the LGBTQ+ community; it is a performance art that can entrance and entertain any number of individuals regardless of gender identity or sexual orientation. It is worth protecting this art from discriminatory laws.
Author: Taylor Kunin-Ur (She/Her)
Artist: Mieko Tsurumoto (They/Them)
Copy Editors: Michel (He/They), Bella (She/They)