Apparently all drag queens work for tips.
Last year, a gay club owner in Manhattan wanted to copy the aberrant-behavior-fest known as Trannyshack, unaware that its San Francisco founder, Heklina, owns legal rights to the name. Upon finding out — he paid her for it. Now, on late Sunday nights in Chelsea, New York City's gay tourist ghetto, something akin to Trannyshack®-Lite transpires between Desperate Housewives and shirtless dancing. The talent is tamer and better rehearsed, the audience more jaded, and the venue a thumping 10,000-square-foot disco cavern called Splash Bar New York.
Imagine your favorite public access TV show has gotten picked up and retooled for Bravo: That's how the legendary Tuesday night at the Stud translates at Splash. Unlike similar versions in Los Angeles, Reno, and (come April) London, which are Heklina's own offspring, Trannyshack New York is the bastard spawn she rarely visits.
On a recent Sunday night, hostess Sweetie strolled out at 12:45 a.m. and warned the crowd, "I'm running on fumes!" Moments ago, meaty go-go dancers had yanked up their thongs and scurried away, and small, metal tables with candles had been rolled out for the show. Sweetie, a nightlife veteran who paints her face "for the back row," introduced Miss Bianca Leigh, "the Donna Mills of the drag set." (Leigh has a bit part in the transgender-themed road trip flick Transamerica.) The would-be Knots Landing understudy has the slender figure, sculpted cleavage, and sweet smile of a suburban trophy wife. Her gown plunging deep, her long, blown-out reddish hair swaying just this side of Farrah Fawcett, she performed a sultry version of "Sisters" — drag legend Joey Arias's signature at the old Bar d'O, before he stopped channeling Billie Holiday there for a living and moved to Vegas.
"We're going to send these bitches packing!" Sweetie barked before the next act, with the viciousness of a reality show judge. Like much of life in New York, Trannyshack here is a cynical competition with no real prize. Sweetie, we learned, had been cast as a hooker named Olestra in RuPaul's new movie, a hush-hush transploitation flick, and she'd woken up early to do a shoot with various porn stars and dragsters. "I've been working this face since eight a.m.," she announced, but her day-old mug looked flawless.
And then Miss Debbie Taunt was bounding across the stage like a Saint Bernard in hose and heels, gyrating to a diva medley. Behind her the floor-to-ceiling mirrors featured working shower heads for the naked strippers who usually earn their rent there. Miss Taunt's short black overcoat concealed neither her barrel-shaped torso nor her large white panties, out of which poked two hamlike thighs. Sweetie praised the "shameless, shameless bitch" for her gratuitous crotch shot and then set the stakes: "These girls are competing for a $50,000 Jeep Cherokee full of Latino hustlers picked up at the Port Authority!"
Mother Flawless Sabrina, a stately figure and contemporary of Andy Warhol, performed next, tottering under a large wig that looked like a vanilla ice cream tsunami wave with chocolate swirls. With her taut pale skin, she could have been Warhol himself in a gold-beaded flapper dress and black eyeliner. Using a prop telephone, she phoned her deceased pop artist friend to tell him about cell phones, Internet sex, and the fact that speed is back.
Appropriately enough, a statuesque queen named Miss Tina performed last, neck-rolling, convulsing, and shaking her buxom booty to '70s funk. Composed of thigh-high boots and a hooded, backless, shredded outfit assembled with safety pins, her look said "Flashdance burqa meets sexy new wave pirate."
The most choreographed and leggy of the bunch, Tina was the clear crowd-pleaser — but as diehard Trannyshack fans know, the winner never wins. With Tina doomed, Sweetie, whose low-battery light was by that time blinking, pitted Flawless Sabrina against Bianca in a scavenger-hunt tiebreaker. Among the 16 items: an out-of-state driver's license, lip balm, a cock ring, a straight female, a condom, breath strips, one white athletic sock, a six-foot-tall man and poppers. Before the girls could hit the floor, a drunken crowd rushed the items to the stage. And the winner was ... Miss Bianca Leigh!
San Francisco phenoms rarely translate well in New York (long live the Cockettes!), and Splash isn't serving Trannyshack à la Heklina. But Sweetie's show is tasty too — even if it is lite. *
Paul Freibott writes about New York and San Francisco and will travel anywhere for a good drag show.
When to go Trannyshack NYC celebrates its first birthday March 5. Avoid the cover by signing up on the Web site before 6 p.m. that night. Go early for the beer blast ($8 for 10 Buds) and go-go boys showering onstage; end the night drunk, horny, and wondering when the dancing beef slabs in G-strings morphed into singing drag queens.
Where to stay The Chelsea Lodge and Chelsea Lodge Suites (1-800-373-1116, www.chelsealodge.com ) offer historic panache in a renovated brick townhouse; $99 a night and up. The gay-friendly Colonial House Inn (1-800-689-3779, www.colonialhouseinn.com ) has a clothing-optional roof deck (seasonal); $104 a night and up. Rooms at the Chelsea Inn (1-800-640-6469, www.chelseainn.com ) are mere slivers without private baths, but it's right next door to Splash.
SPLASH BAR NEW YORK
50 West 17th St., New York