The key to surviving summer in New York City is getting out of town as often as possible. So last weekend, two of my girlfriends and I loaded up the Toyota, popped Madonna's Ray of Light into the CD player, and made a beeline east to Provincetown, Mass.
For the uninitiated among you, Provincetown is Cape Cod's gay getaway, a less glamorous alternative to muscle-bound destinations like New York's Fire Island and Miami's South Beach. P-town's original claim to fame is as an artist's retreat, favored by painters for its captivating northern light. But these days, the main drag feels more like a thoroughfare at Disney World, as families of all stripes duck in and out of stores peddling salt water taffy, clam chowder, and two-dollar T-shirts.
But instead of oversized versions of Mickey, Donald, and Goofy prowling the aptly named Commercial Street, there are drag queens advertising various cabaret shows staged later in the evening accosting bewildered tourists. The first time Cher zips by on a motorized scooter, the absurdity seems amusing. But how many times can a sensible person cross paths with the bleached blonde amazons dubbed Big Boned Barbies before the glitter fades? Oh, about twice.
Soon, everywhere I turned I saw Barbra to the right of me, Liza to the left, and Bette Davis bringing up the rear. As the working girls sing in Sweet Charity, "There's gotta be something better than this." If the success of RuPaul, Priscilla, and To Wong Foo truly signaled mainstream acceptance of drag, why are so many practitioners of the art content to confine themselves to clich鳿
Don't get me wrong. I love drag queens. That's why lowest common denominator fare rankles me so. I made my New York debut in a Steve and Eydie-style nightclub act, belting out "A Girl Like That" from West Side Story alongside a trooper named Endive. Once, when my ex-lover the director became exasperated coaching his star Sweetie for her role in The Christina Onassis Story, I spent hours drilling her on her obscene dialogue in phonetic Greek.
I've even donned a frock a time or two myself. Admittedly, my alter ego Helen Wheels has been in mothballs for a spell. Her last few appearances weren't all I'd hoped for. Five years ago at Wigstock, I slipped into a tattered Catholic schoolgirl uniform, oversized sunglasses, and a Hello Kitty backpack. I thought Helen looked very riot grrrl, a refreshing change from her traditional swinging '60s, Lulu-inspired look. But it was all over when a friend sized up the outfit and decreed Helen was the spitting image of Rosemary Kennedy, the clan member with Down's syndrome.
So it's not without a certain degree of authority that I implore any youngsters out there considering a career as a "gender illusionist" to bypass the tired-and-true gay icons. If the world wanted another Judy Garland, people would take Lorna Luft seriously. Strike out in untested directions! Who cares if you can't concoct a 100-percent original identity yet. If you're daring enough to imitate Nina Hagen or Diamanda Galas, you're bound to turn more heads than some tired old pig-in-a-wig simpering through "Diamonds Are a Girl's Best Friend" yet again.
Need inspiration? Race out (careful—don't break a heel) and snatch up Totally Unrestricted—The Millie Jackson Anthology, a 1997 retrospective on the Rhino label. Most folks know this Southern soul sister only for her notorious X-rated stage patter, but as this double-CD collection attests, she's an unparalleled singer, too. Millie Jackson tunes are three-act operas, complete with no-nonsense midsong recitatives and drama for days.
Take the 1977 opus "All the Way Lover," on which Millie dishes both men and women who don't deliver 110 percent in the sack. This is a superlative training exercise for an aspiring female impersonator. There are impassioned sung passages perfect for emoting like crazy until the stagehands have to clean up with a mop. And in the spoken asides, you can throw attitude all over the room. Just make sure you've got every nuance down tight before entering your little act in the 4-H talent show—at 11 minutes, doing this tune can feel like running a marathon in eight-inch platforms.
And here's another little tip for drag neophytes. Worried about five o'clock shadow under the Max Factor betraying your beauty with an unwanted rush of testosterone? Before you resort to hormone therapy, try the new Mach3 from Gillette. The silly thing looks more like a tool for slicing prosciutto than a disposable razor, but I guarantee you've never gotten a smoother shave outside of the barber's. Perfect for the girl doing three shows nightly! Now if they'd just ditch those ridiculous TV ads with the naked eunuch and get a spokesmodel with some charisma. Hmm—I wonder if RuPaul's available?