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.
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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.''