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Ybor's drag scene gets a fabulous makeover

For years, Melanie Minyon traveled to bars and clubs across the Southeast working gigs as a female impersonator. She had no choice. No one was hiring locally, and if she wanted to make a living, she had to hit the road.

She enjoyed the traveling but admits it took its toll. Too much driving. Too many hotels. She longed for steady work closer to home in Dunedin.

All that changed when gay bars began popping in Ybor City. Contacts from her days of performing drag at El Goya and Tracks called about new opportunities. Things were picking up.

Today, Minyon typically works six nights a week, shuffling between Streetcar Charlie's and the Honey Pot in Ybor City and Blur in Dunedin. For the first time in more than an decade, the drag scene gradually is returning to Tampa.

"It's crazy to say, but a lot of the straight clubs are now going to a gay venue at least once a week,'' Minyon said. "They know the gay folks want to have a good time. Give us a good drink special, and, hey, we're there.''

As the number of gay bars and businesses has increased in Ybor, so has the number of drag shows. Visit the "GaYbor District'' any night, except Monday, and you can find a show or at least a queen or two holding court someplace. The Honey Pot, which originally opened as a straight club with burlesque shows, brings in female impersonators on Steam Fridays and Flirt Saturdays. At G.Bar and Lounge 714, queens host weekly strip contests.

"In the past three months, we're really seeing a resurgence,'' said Carrie West, president of the GaYbor District Coalition, which works to promote businesses in Ybor. "It's all over the place. People love the entertainment.''

In May, Streetcar Charlie's introduced Engine Sundays at Club Skye, a normally straight bar that used to be closed on Sundays.

"People were looking for something to do on a Sunday,'' said Charlie Moresi, owner of Streetcar Charlie's, which has become a drinking and dining hub for the GLBT crowd since opening in February.

The Engine party was an instant success, he said, drawing more than 600 people on opening night. On the bill: Drag-A-Palooza Show by Macaviti, stripper boys and dancers in cages.

• • •

Tampa's new drag scene is quite different than that of the 1980s and early 1990s, when clubs like El Goya (which later became Tracks) put on cabaret-style productions with a full cast of drag queens, backup dancers and props. When Tracks closed in 1996, the scene lost its shimmer, ending an era.

These days, shows consist of a few queens taking turns strutting on stage in high heels and glittery gowns. They lip-synch for tips and work the audience, handing out shooters or quizzing people's sexuality. It's all over in 30 or 45 minutes.

Clubs have resorted to small-scale shows mostly for financial reasons. They can't afford a large cast because people aren't spending as much as they used to. Weekday bar business, in particular, is slow, even among the gay crowd, which is known for tipping well and dropping cash.

Some of the performers pursued regular day jobs, dressing up as women just for the occasional show or party. Others, particularly the men who live as women and have more trouble finding traditional work, left for places with more established drag communities. A handful underwent sex changes and started stripping at straight clubs.

Joey Brooks, who's been called the First Lady of Ybor City in the drag world, held on to her boas and wigs. She did shows here and there but survived on her day job in payroll.

Two years ago, Brooks started looking for a new venue to re-introduce full-scale drag shows. No place was a good fit until the former Club Hedo in Ybor — now the Mixx — became available.

"Drag has been in the gay bars forever,'' Brooks said. "For a while it kind of got lost in the scene and very few bars had it. Now that it's coming back, people are saying, 'Why wasn't this in the club before?' ''

Making it happen has proven more difficult for her than expected.

Brooks and a group planning to the buy the Mixx recently began nightly shows at the club featuring local drag legends. They planned to rename it the Copa Nightclub and Show Bar.

The shows were creating a buzz until a dispute arose with the owner of the Mixx, Richard Giorgi. Brooks and a few of her performers left abruptly. Some in the gay community boycotted the place, saying the owner killed the sale after seeing the success of the drag shows.

"It's not the Mixx,'' Brooks said. "I call it the Mess.''

Giorgi calls the situation a case of sour grapes. He has no plans to keep the club long-term and is considering several purchase offers. He declined to discuss the situation with the Copa buyers, saying attorneys on both sides are handling it.

"The club is still for sale,'' said Giorgi, a longtime South Florida club owner who bought the club in January and put it on the market in April. "I want out of the business.''

In the meantime, Giorgi has drag shows at the Mixx several nights a week. The Saturday after Brooks left, the crowd was slim but enthusiastic as Natasha Richards, Tiffany Arieagus and Amy DeMilo took the stage in their feathers and sequins. A guy hired for the night mingled through the crowd in just tight whites and flip-flops. A few straight couples dotted the mostly gay audience.

"I'm not closing my door down,'' he said. "We're bringing in a lot of stars from Fort Lauderdale and Miami. Joey Brooks is not the only show in town.''

While the controversy continues to swirl in Ybor's gay circles, it hasn't stopped efforts to bring back drag. Rather, it's more of a case of growing pains.

West, the coalition president, described it as a legal battle between various parties. "I'm staying out of it.''

He's got other things to think about, including the first GaYbor Days — the Charge of the Yellow Rice Brigay'd — July 3-6. Among the highlights: a July 5 promenade down the sidewalks of Seventh Avenue featuring who else? Drag queens.

All the shuffling of clubs and performers should settle down once the supply and demand fall in synch, Minyon said. "Right now, everyone's jockeying for position.''

Brooks remains hopeful she will return to the Mixx or find another site for her troupe. The demand for drag is definitely there, she said.

"People are always coming up me and saying how they miss the shows,'' she said. "It breaks up the monotony of just dancing all night long.''

Get your drag on

Some of Tampa Bay's clubs that showcase drag performances:

• G.Bar, 1401 E Seventh Ave., Ybor City Joey Brooks hosts amateur strip contests every Tuesday at midnight.

• Honey Pot, 1507 E Seventh Ave., Ybor City Steam Fridays with Joey Brooks and company performing at 11:30 p.m. Flirt Saturdays with Melanie Minyon and special guests performing at midnight.

• Lounge 714, 1327 E Seventh Ave., Ybor City Melanie Minyon hosts strip contests every Thursday at 11:30 p.m.

• Club Skye, 1509 E Eighth Ave., Ybor City Engine Sundays with Macaviti and DJ Power Infinite from 10 p.m. to 3 a.m.

• The Mixx Lounge & Dance Club, 1510 E Seventh Ave., Ybor City Drag shows at 11 p.m. and 1 a.m. Thursday, Fridays and Saturdays. One show on Sundays.

• Streetcar Charlie's, 1811 N 15th St., Ybor City Melanie Minyon works as a hostess on Wednesday, Saturday and Sunday nights.

• Valentines Nightclub and Showbar, 7522 N. Armenia Ave., Tampa Shows daily, except for Mondays and Wednesdays. New Talent Night on Tuesdays includes a contest for the best new drag queen.

• Blur, 325 Main St., Dunedin Melanie Minyon and Natasha Richards host Friday drag shows at 10:30 p.m. and 12:30 a.m. Minyon also performs at 11 p.m. Tuesdays.

• Christopher Street Bar, 13344 66th St. N, Largo Bobbie Lake and Summer Breeze perform at 11:30 p.m. and 12:30 a.m. Saturdays.

St. Pete Pride

One of Florida's biggest GLBT events kicks off next week in and around downtown St. Pete. For ticket information and a complete schedule, go to stpetepride.com. Here are some highlights:

June 25 Pride and A Movie featuring the murder mystery On The Other Hand, Death at 7:30 p.m. at Muvico Baywalk.

June 26 A Taste of Pride wine-tasting at Nova 535 from 6:30 to 10 p.m. Benefits St. Pete Pride. Food by Cafe Alma.

June 27 Laughter in Paradise comedy festival at Nova 535 featuring ANT (NBC's Last Comic Standing) and Christine O'Leary. Show starts at 7:30 p.m. and includes dinner, wine, a meet-and-greet with performers and admission to after-party.

June 28 St. Pete Pride parade. The 2008 Georgie's Alibi Promenade starts at 31st Street N and 3rd Avenue N and ends at the Street Festival along Central Avenue between 20th and 28th streets. The Street Festival goes from 11 a.m. to 4 p.m.

June 29 St. Pete Pride closeout party, D-Tox, from 2 p.m. to 12 a.m. at Nova 535 with headliner Nancy Rancourt.

Ybor's drag scene gets a fabulous makeover 06/19/08 [Last modified: Thursday, June 26, 2008 6:53pm]

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