Like in any other beauty pageant, the four contestants standing on Beauty Bar’s small stage wear vapid smiles and blow air kisses at the crowd. But unlike a traditional pageant, the contestants weren’t wearing ballroom gowns or sporting shellacked bouffants. They were the New York semifinalists for the Drop Dead Gorgeous contest, a national pageant held every month for the past six months at the six Beauty Bar locations nationwide.
Misstress Formika and Michael T, the hosts of last Sunday’s sci-fi-themed NYC contest, traded politically incorrect barbs while the four semifinalists marched down the long, narrow hallway of the bar, their path lit from below by a string of lights on the floor. Their ranks included a muddied, Mohawked punk-rock vixen inspired by Mad Max; a demented, big-haired lady in love with Star Trek‘s Captain Kirk (she made her love clear by carrying a life-sizeKirk cutout); an astronaut cowgirl; and in yet another Star Trek homage, a woman with green skin and a glittery gold dress. Halfway through the contest Janis di Milo performed a sci-fi striptease, revealing a bodacious third breast. Darth Vader was a judge.
Drop Dead Gorgeous candidates compete in nontraditional contests (themes have ranged from Heavy Metal Parking Lot to Swingin’ ’60s to Zombie). Two finalists from each city will compete in Las Vegas December 2; John Waters is scheduled to host, with the winner taking home a $2,500 prize, and photographer Alexander Thompson shooting all the finalists for a Beauty Bar 2007 calendar.
The contest is just one of many ways that Beauty Bar has turned itself into the country’s first hipster bar chain. In addition to New York, there are franchises in countercultural hotbeds Los Angeles, San Francisco, and Austin, but the chain has also brought its indie-rock bedhead style to less cool cities Las Vegas and San Diego. It’s mastered the counterintuitive, seemingly impossible trick of cultivating an indie underground sensibility while becoming a franchise. Call it McDive.
“They always call it a chain, but qualify it with ‘hipster chain,’ ” says NYC-based owner Paul Devitt, not a little grudgingly. “Not becoming mainstream is the trick. That’s what I try not to do, as I open these places.”
When the New York location opened 11 years ago, it was just a local bar built on a cutesy idea. Devitt teamed up with Deb Parker—well-known in the ’90s for opening bars including Babyland and Notell Motel—and found an old East 14th salon run by Florence Cusmano. When they took over and turned it into a watering hole, they kept on the then 87-year-old Cusmano until she couldn’t make the trip from her apartment anymore. After a few ownership changes, Devitt retained the rights to the name, and in 2005 opened three Beauties in a row—San Diego, Austin, and Vegas.
Like any chain, Beauty Bar has a formula: The bars, while not identical, invoke a similar look—with vintage ’50s and ’60s hairdressing stations for seating, and an on-duty manicurist lending a quaint air of nostalgia. Each city offers “Martinis and Manicures” specials several days a week, with a unified drink menu.
“It’s a bar chain, but it’s not corporate,” says Dave Knapp, who handles all the marketing and promotions from his home base in L.A. “It’s mom and pop—you know you are not selling out to some corporation by going there.”
But unlike other club chains—Crobar, for instance—the Beauties aren’t selling a certain city or a certain sound, but a certain ubiquitous lifestyle shared by the same audience targeted by American Apparel, Terry Richardson, and lastnightsparty.com: young, wild, and expertly messy. Everything from the decor to the clientele to the ambiance is carefully cultivated. “The music is unified,” Knapp says, “though some places stray and have other kinds of nights. San Diego might have a hip-hop night. But it’s basically known for indie rock. That’s what you are going to get when you come to a Beauty Bar.”
Thus they play a certain kind of rock (the Strokes, the Killers, the Yeah Yeah Yeahs) and call upon that city’s most popular promoters and DJs to anchor theme nights. In Vegas, popular local DJ John Doe brought a long-running party, the Get Back, to his hometown Beauty Bar when it opened in May 2005. In Austin, Jason Reece of rock band And You Will Know Us by the Trail of Dead is a part owner.
Knapp keeps a keen eye on national tours and tries to book the after-parties in Beauty Bars around the country—the Rapture, for instance, are spinning at the San Diego, Austin, and L.A. spots after concerts, and Trail of Dead will hold their after-parties at Beauty Bars in all six cities. The chain also provides after-hours and backstage hospitality suites to major festivals and concerts like Coachella and Austin City Limits, sometimes giving manicures backstage.
Beauty Bar’s owners choose a neighborhood in each city that is on the verge and popular, but not yet over—like the Las Vegas franchise located in the Fremont section of the Strip. “Vegas is the weirdest market and the hardest one to really figure out and wrap your head around,” Knapp says of my hometown. “There are locals and indie people in Vegas, but they’re not as visible. Vegas is not a real city. It doesn’t really have a neighborhood. Beauty Bar in Vegas is not a neighborhood bar. It’s a destination bar. But we try to give it as much of a feel of a neighborhood spot as possible.”
Beauty Bar’s owners have also smartly tapped into the photoblogging craze and frequently fly Merlin Bronques of Last Night’s Party and Mark Hunter of thecobrasnake.com to shoot events, further solidifying their reputation in national hipsterdom as the place to be. “Merlin has immortalized the Beauty Bar New York bathroom,” Devitt says. Merlin’s also helped immortalize the Beauty Bar customer look: girls with heavy eyeliner and boys with shaggy haircuts.
Devitt has his sights set on making Beauty Bar an international brand—he’s looking at spots in Toronto, Montreal, London, and Tokyo while eyeing other American cities like Seattle, Miami, Philly, and Chicago. He’s also working on a line of Beauty Bar nail polish—he and Knapp are talking with Maybelline and OPI to design colors for each city. “You can get colors done cheaply and easily, but if you want to get a custom bottle done, it’s harder,” Devitt says. “I wanna do it right if I’m gonna do it. I’m not looking to be the Hard Rock. I want tokeep the integrity of the place, where people can find it in a city where they don’t know where to go. When you go out of town, you think, ‘Let’s go to Beauty Bar. It’s always fun.’ “