July 18, 2006


My twisted drag sister from Miami got a whole article! Do it, you whore!

Every diva has her day. But South Beach drag queen Elaine Lancaster is still going strong after nearly a decade.


A glam blond in full evening gear sweeps into the women's bathroom at Opium to check her mascara. Nearly seven feet tall in heels, she's as hulking as a couple of still-celebrating Heat players here to guzzle champagne.

But the girls crowding the mirror don't even blink. This is South Beach. Drag queens are hardly anything to gawk at any more.

Nobody knows it better than Elaine Lancaster, one of the last drag queens standing in a town where boys in boat-sized stilettos used to own the night.

Back at the start of the South Beach renaissance, they had nightlife carte blanche, breezing past velvet ropes because they were the magic potion that got celebs and club kids flying freak flags.

Things are a lot less imaginative these days. The party crowd is standard issue and way straight: Guys in untucked designer shirts, girls in the smallest black dresses their carb-free diets allow. Now you just have to agree to blow $800 on a bottle of Cristal, and you're as good as inside Opium and the adjacent Privé, pretty much the most coveted nightspots on the Beach.

You should be mortified that the bottle arrives at your table literally flaming, some rocket thing taped to the side to announce what a big spender you are. But you're into it, because you're what passes for a player now.

Back in the day, you had to add something to the party. You had to have some sort of edge. But Elaine, polished Southern diva with comic wit, is no crybaby. She couldn't afford to get stuck in the South Beach past. That's why she survived it.

''I arrived in Miami on July 15, 1997. The day Gianni Versace was killed. I came because everything was happening here. But it all turned on a dime,'' she says in her twang, the picture of overblown femininity in padded bra as she leans forward to pour you another Grey Goose and soda in Privé's VIP room. Privé hooks her up with a bottle and a table Friday nights. Because she's part of the show.

''The tourists still want to see you. It's not that the party ended after Versace died, but it did become less edgy. Worked out just fine, though,'' Elaine says with a warm smile. She's not one of those clichéd queens, offering bitter snaps and reading everybody who goes by.

She's not beyond a little dishing every now and again (and who is, really?) but she's about being a class act, not an eye gouger. She likes making folks feel embraced by the party, not mocked by it.


''The corporate events pay very nicely,'' says the alter ego of James Davis, born in Alabama and raised in Georgia. Dad sold tractors, mom was a homemaker. They're all still tight. ``I've done the conservative PGA. I've done the [South Beach] Food & Wine Festival. I just did an event for Hewlett-Packard, $2,000 for two hours. There are still plenty of people to entertain.''

Elaine, 6-feet-2 in silk stockings, much taller after she's raided the size 10 ½ shoe racks at Neiman Marcus Last Call, doesn't whine because the gay boy scene is not so jazzed by drag queens any more. Or because there isn't much of a gay boy scene, for that matter. She has always soberly carved out her drag queen career, which is why she still has one.

''Drag queens are not very much in vogue these days, but the exception is Elaine Lancaster,'' said Maxwell Blandford, marketing director for The Forge, one of the nightspots where Elaine regularly appears. Blandford first hired her to work at Warsaw Ballroom in 1997.

''She hasn't fallen out of favor because she's about glamour, not camp. She positioned herself not as a tranny or a cross dresser who's trying to pick up the guests, but as an actor. Because she's serious about her work, she gets a lot of the corporate bookings,'' Blandford said.


So what's the difference between a cross dresser, a tranny and a drag queen, you ask James a couple of days after Privé? He's looking like a cute, clean-cut boy, munching on a turkey burger at Soyka on Biscayne Boulevard in a gingham button-down, Levi's and crocodile loafers.

''A cross dresser is usually a heterosexual man who wears women's clothes for sexual gratification,'' he says, Elaine's Southern accent still with him. ``They like the way it feels to have nylons on or whatever. None of that is a turn-on for me. I have never identified as a woman. I'm not a tranny who is trying to pass for a woman. The last thing I want to do when I'm not working is be in drag.''

He may have a healthy detachment from his character, but his dates rarely do.

``The men that I'm emotionally drawn to and have things in common with don't want boyfriends who are drag queens. And the men who are drawn to Elaine, well, that's about a fetish. I'm not going to turn Elaine into a sex object.''

But James, who is happy to tell about his cozy past with a pro basketballer, and the night the cameras caught him in a clinch with a certain A-list actor at Casa Casuarina, has always had a weakness for the spotlight. So he has learned to deal with the part that's a drag about being a drag queen.

``My parents gave me a Charlie McCarthy ventriloquist doll when I was a kid. People would have me at parties to do my act. Later I got into magic. I guess I'm still doing magic. Instead of making things appear, I'm making things disappear. But I'm still a ham. What's great is that when the superhero costume comes off, I can relax and enjoy anonymity.''

James, who doesn't want his age out there, studied American history and business administration at the University of Kansas. But he never expected to leave with an extra degree in drag.

``The university had a huge Halloween costume contest one day and I entered it. I did a redhead, sort of Dottie West meets Ann-Margret. Everybody was flipping out. Being in drag is like putting on a suit of armor. Have you ever put on a Halloween costume and the role playing gives you a certain amount of power? I became addicted to it.''

After college, he moved to Dallas where he worked retail by day and did drag just for giggles at night. It didn't become a way to make a living until he moved to Miami. And that only happened because Versace was dead.

``I knew Gianni from doing showroom work for him in Milan as a boy model. I came to South Beach to be in the fashion world. But Gianni was killed the very day I got here and that changed the whole scene. So I had to come up with something else.''


Which is how Elaine Lancaster was born.

``I always thought of her as the illegitimate love child of Lana Turner and Burt Lancaster. There's this sense of glamour that borders on the gaudy. She would probably prefer a beer out of the bottle, but she drinks champagne just to keep up appearances.''

The polish is what sets her apart, says Michael Capponi, one of South Beach's hottest promoters, who hires Elaine for weekly parties at Privé and Glass.

''She is a society drag queen, not an old lush,'' he says. ``She's extremely sophisticated and wears $10,000 gowns. You wouldn't see the old-time drag queens at some black-tie event at the Biltmore or at Roy and Lea Black's house mingling with the society folks. But you see Elaine there.''

James hung out with a lot of other drag queens who worked the Beach. He learned from their mistakes.

'I would look at these people and think, what a mess. They would make money, buy a box of Kentucky Fried Chicken and give the rest to their drug dealers. I said, `That's not gonna be my life.' ''

James saved the cash the nightclubs paid Elaine and bought a four-unit apartment building off Biscayne Boulevard back when real estate was a steal. He lives in one unit and rents out the others.

'I bought the building after a friend told me, `You can be young and poor but you can't be old and poor.' ''

James thinks there's a bigger future out there for Elaine, something closer to Dame Edna territory. Elaine has had a taste: She was in one episode of Wings, played a small part in the 1998 docudrama The Versace Murder, hosted direct-from-South Beach segments for E! Entertainment Television.

But for all the love, there are some in the gay community who look down on Elaine, suggesting drag sets back a movement that today is focused on finding mainstream acceptance. But James doesn't sweat the button-down contingent.

``So many people try so hard to divert attention from their sexual orientation. I think what I do helps bridge the gap. I entertain a lot of straight people who wind up not feeling threatened and learning something.

``Plus, in the end I think I'm much more of a man than most of the muscled-up Marys I know.''


Anonymous Anonymous said...

That was such a nice read, really.

1:47 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Me rikee, me have hope for future

A grasheeass

12:24 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

That was really a Nice story about Elaine I know her socially and she is in a class by herself. I do remember reading in other interviews about her that she listed you as one of her best friend. Not just as a fellow drag entertainer, but as a real friend. Bunny I think it says a lot about you promoting your peers. I know you are friends with Ru Paul & Elaine who are probably the most professional in the business. I am glad you guys have a future that may or may not include dressing up & shoving your nuts up your butt for a living... Hats off to the three of you. We need more positive figures like you guys.

11:19 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Great article! Thanks.

12:42 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Thanks for interesting article.

6:46 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

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6:46 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

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7:52 AM  
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6:03 AM  
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8:21 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

James is a horrible man. He attempted to destroy the careers of innocent hoteliers in San Francisco years ago by lying about not getting a room because he was in drag. Untrue! He had no reservation, no credit card and no ID. He HAD a very rude attitude. His lawyer dumped him when he was seen on video NOT in drag when he was at the desk of the hotel.

11:45 PM  
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Anonymous Anonymous said...

This was such an enjoyable read, and wanting to know more about 'her', I couldn't wait for the next sentence. Although I have never met Elaine Lancaster, I would love to. Thanks for this well written article.

12:04 PM  

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