Excerpt: 'Who the Hell is Rachel Wells?' by J.R. Greenwell
Yvette Gilbert taking a Curtain Call, Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec, 1894
From Silver Pumps and a Loose Nut:
The fifty dollars Daphne won for placing third wasn’t as much or as impressive as the five-hundred dollars Stella received for winning first place with her two talent numbers. Stella had a way of wowing the crowd at any show, and this contest was no different. She had the audience in her hands the first time she walked on stage during the parade of contestants wearing a yellow costume consisting of tights and a rhinestone vest loaded with strobe lights on the front and back, with compact speakers on the shoulders, and a huge yellow feather collar that reached higher than most headdresses. When she hit the center of the stage and turned on the battery pack, the lights came on and then sirens blared. And if that wasn’t enough, the old rock song, “Wipe Out”, filled the stage as she broke into a short shimmy routine. Some people have said she was a cross between Big Bird and the Roadrunner when she wore that outfit. Stella made all her outfits, and working during the week at Radio Shack with her employee discount gave her access to the electronic gimmicks that she used in her acts. Though Stella was an old school drag queen, usually confining her routines to old classic tunes and costumes, no other entertainer could compete with her.
But Stella’s talent numbers for the evening were no less spectacular. The first was a rendition of “I Will Survive” as she brilliantly portrayed a kidney transplant patient in ICU, and of course, Stella always added flair to her acts. She would perform the operation on herself, pulling a donor kidney out of a cooler full of ice as she broke into the first lines of the song vowing that she could no longer live without the organ by her side. Stella had a way of taking a comedy concept that would normally be considered slightly entertaining or even offensive or in bad taste, and turn it around and deliver it in a dramatic fashion, totally serious, and get away with it. But it was her rendition of “God Bless America” that stole the show and secured the crown as she walked out on the stage with crutches portraying a battle-worn female soldier, her uniform torn by shrapnel, her right leg missing. And to top it off, she broke into “Boogie Woogie Bugle Boy of Company B,” the whole time working the crowd into a frenzy with her energetic version of a combination of the Jitterbug and Quick Step, all on one leg.
Most people in attendance assumed Stella had her leg bent up behind her, her ankle taped up to her thigh, but Stella only had one leg. Stella, or Steve back then, was twelve when a group of middle-school bullies started to make fun of her during baton practice, calling her sissy and faggot. Not being one to back down, not even at an early age, she returned the taunts until the preteens began to chase her around the football field. Stella was fast, but in this case, too fast. Unable to stop her momentum as she left the confines of the school grounds, she darted into the street, and was hit by a car. A blue Chevy Camaro, one witness said. It was a hit and run. She lay motionless in the street, her body mangled, the baton slightly bent, but still clutched in her left hand. An ambulance arrived and whisked her away. She would survive after weeks of recovery, and she was able to go back to school, her right leg replaced with a prosthesis. Stella’s middle school dream of becoming a high school baton twirler in the marching band had come to an end. It was on that day, as Stella would testify, she decided to become a drag queen, but not just any guy wearing a dress in the weekend shows. Stella would become the “drag avenger” out to conquer any evil or hostility that would threaten the peaceful world of the domestic gay man. In other words, Stella was out to beat up any bully that got in her way. But in essence, Stella had become a bully in her own right, though the connotation took on a different meaning when it pertained to a fat man wearing a dress.
Daphne, like most people, was intimidated by Stella, yet she revered the way her mentor performed and even admired her outlook on life. By contrast, during the contest, Daphne walked out in the parade of contestants wearing a White Castle uniform because she thought it looked original and Daphne just happened to like White Castle sliders. Of course, the audience didn’t get it, and her applause was light. And for both her talents, she performed two different Britney Spears medleys, quite simply because Daphne thought of herself as a dancer. Unfortunately, Daphne’s impersonation of Britney was nothing more than a bad six-foot-tall illusion of the pop star. Falling down at least three times during each act didn’t help her score, but Daphne was of the mindset that regardless of her performance, with the help of her beautiful silver pumps and skimpy costume, she would receive style points to make up for her slips that landed her on the floor. Each time she ended up on her ass in front of the confused audience, she just rolled over and spread her legs, pretending to be sexy. But she reasoned she probably lost a point or two when her left nut popped out a few times, exposing a bit of her chicken skin to the front row. From her perspective, her talent acts were no different from the real Ms. Spear’s performances, except Britney had no scrotum.
Copyright (c) 2013 by J.R. Greenwell. Excerpt republished with permission of the author and Chelsea Station Editions.