Heroine Addiction

Giving Gender the Shakes, Four Performers Prove There's Life in Drag Yet

Bond: When I moved to New York I thought it was a good thing that I was Kiki, since I only had that one dress and that one wig. I was couch surfing for a year and a half. I never had any money. I couldn't buy anything new. We did get work right away, though. We did a brief period at 88s, where we weren't really going to get the audience we needed for this, and then we got a gig at the Cowgirl Hall of Fame, where we did the show for free and they gave us $100 and a piece of fish. And then word spread and we moved to Flamingo East and did that for a year, and then we opened at Fez. And now we have a really good sound system.

Roberson: Before I did this full time, I was in advertising. I was an art director at Ogilvy & Mather, and then at Foote, Cone & Belding. It turned out I could make more as Varla Jean. Plus the hours are better. With the phenomenon of drag being so big and so huge, with all that shock value and craziness, it kind of went too far for a while. Now it's settled again to the point where you can see it's basically about acting. It's not like the club thing where it's Halloween all the time. It's not about "Look at me in my crazy dress and pretty wig."

Siff: Moneywise, it don't work. Gran Scena is a not-for-profit. We're a tax-deductible charity, an arts organization. We got our status because we are a serious musical organization and we're sort of educational. Mainly we survive on touring to Europe. No one in the company is in its full-time employ. We all have other opera and theater engagements. One of my great divas, Phil Koch, whose picture graced the New York magazine rave review, temps. I teach a lot of voice lessons to support this company. We all experience a lot of heartache and disappointment doing fund-raising, but people would be devastated if we suddenly didn't come back. The laughing and screaming that excellent drag performances can give, well, for every two hours of that, we do 200 hours of schlepping. But it makes people ecstatic. And I can't tell you how much it's worth it.

Not one-liners in a dress. From left: Vera Galupe-Borszkh (Ira Siff), Brini Maxwell (Ben Sander), Varla Jean Merman (Jeff Roberson), and Kiki (Justin Bond)
photograph by Robin Holland
Not one-liners in a dress. From left: Vera Galupe-Borszkh (Ira Siff), Brini Maxwell (Ben Sander), Varla Jean Merman (Jeff Roberson), and Kiki (Justin Bond)

Sander: The character of Brini is so much like what a certain type of woman in our society was once like and, in some places, is still like, so nonthreatening as a character, so innocent and so sweet that she fools people into being comfortable and can insinuate herself into society that way. She can represent herself in such a way that the transgender person becomes palatable to a larger number of people. They don't really see Brini coming. But ultimately her goal is to create a Martha Stewart empire, to do a line of home furnishings products and furniture and food. My Web site comes online in December and we'll give recipes and tips. It's going to ultimately be a full e-commerce site. I love the idea of people completely surrounding themselves with Brini, who has completely surrounded herself with the 1960s.

Bond: I do have things I would like, ambitions. Eventually it would be nice to tighten up the show and have sound cues and light cues and take it to a little theater Off-Broadway. Kiki could have her very own HBO special. But say Kiki became like a fucking Batman franchise, I'd still be singing with bands at Squeezebox and doing plays and having all that going. Because I really love that. And even if Kiki gets successful, I don't have to worry about staying pretty to play her because she's 66 years old. I can grow into the role.

Kiki and Herb: Do They Know It's Christmas? begins a 21-performance run at Fez on November 26; Vera Galupe-Borszkh's 14th (and Final!) Annual Farewell Recital is scheduled for December 5 and 12 at the Triad Theater; Brini Maxwell's weekly show airs on Channel 35, Fridays at 8:30 p.m. (uptown) and 9:30 p.m. (downtown); Varla Jean Merman appears regularly at clubs around town.

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