I'm kind of like a drag mother," says Brandi Roberts, "in that I have a lot of drag children. I help with hair, makeup, shopping--it's what I love."
In whatever passes for real life, Brandi is a 45-year-old man who lives simply, among his beaded gowns, with his twenty-year-old daughter. By day he does hair. By night, for the past fifteen years, he's appeared in drag shows all over the country, where he serves as a motherly presence to those who have yet to understand the intricacies of press-on nails and big, big artificial hair. Like any other maternal figure, he's always been a bit more protective of his less popular children, which explains his latest cause: a pageant for drag queens over 200 pounds, who Brandi says don't have a fighting chance in the world of organized beauty.
"The judges are conditioned to size eight," he explains. "When a large person competes in a group of smaller queens, they just aren't going to win."
Irked by this trend, Brandi--who at six-foot-two and "200-something" pounds is no size eight himself--decided to start Denver's first pageant for larger drag queens. Along with fellow queen (and perfect size ten) Vaden Andress, Brandi bought franchise rights to a Houston pageant known as Miss Gay U.S.A. At Large. At Large is an offshoot of the ten-year-old Miss Gay U.S.A. pageant, which is expected to draw 100 finalists from up to fifty states to its finals in Dayton, Ohio, this spring.
"At Large has been going on for five years now," Brandi explains. "It's already very, very popular, because everyone is equal. We expect to have somewhere between forty and sixty contestants at the finals."
Two winners--first place and first runner-up--will be winnowed down from the hopefuls who compete at the Denver pageant, set for March 12 at the Ye Olde Matchmaker Pub.
"The person that wins will be able to speak on a mike, address a crowd and really be a representative for Denver," Roberts says. "They'll compete in three categories: The interview, which shows how calm, poised, witty and intelligent you are; and then there's evening wear and talent, most of which is lip-synching, but anything goes. There will be lots of costumes and lots of expense--just like a real girl pageant."
This is fine with Robert Gonzales, a 22-year-old customer-service rep for US West who says he is often mistaken for a "real girl" when he dresses as his drag alter ego, Jasmine.
"It's kind of funny," he says. "I'll tell these straight men: `Look, I'm not a girl,' and they'll say, `I don't care.' Well, I do. I don't need their ex-wife shooting me. Besides, I dress up as a woman as an entertainment. Being mistaken for a woman in everyday life does not give me a thrill. That would make me a transvestite, which I'm not. I'm a drag queen--but, of course, the doctors lump us all together."
An avid singer and dancer since elementary school, Gonzales got the urge to do drag at eighteen. Already, he says, he's placed first and second in two local pageants-- despite the fact that he was the largest contestant in both.
"I'm not intimidated by the smaller queens," he shrugs. "I can dance as good as any of them, I'm just as pretty and I can wear clothes just as well. I had a 31-inch waist once, too, but then I met my lover, and we've been together four years now. I guess love makes you fat."
Now leveled off at 250 pounds, the five-foot-ten-inch Gonzales believes he can out-sing and out-dance the run-of-the-mill queens who "look beautiful, but all they do is stand there." The At Large pageant, he hopes, will be his ticket onto the national scene. "If I was to run for the small title, I would have no chance," he says flatly. "Miss USA winners are show-girl types--they even wear little pasties. Obviously," he laughs, "I can't do that."
He does, however, plan to wear a plunging, backless gown for his Aretha Franklin talent number--which will feature a set change in midsong. His outfit for the judges' interview will be considerably more sedate. "I'm gonna do it as a boy, in fact," he says, "to show that I keep my drag self separate from my life, just like if I were in a band. I want them to know that I'm as proud to be a man as I am to be a fabulous entertainer."
Should this fabulous persona win him the state title, Gonzales says he will have no qualms about being designated not just plain gorgeous, but large and gorgeous.
"Screw that," he says good-naturedly. "I feel good about myself. I tell fit people: `Look, I work as hard at my figure as you do. It costs me just as much to go to McDonald's as it costs you to go to Bally's.'"
"Size eventually becomes so unimportant," agrees fellow contestant Jerry Reese, who's been Bubblz LaRue for twenty years. "Especially when you're a hundred million years old in drag years, like me."
Reese is actually 47 and a mild-mannered technical writer at US West by day. Several nights each week, however, he becomes a cross-dressing comedian so talented he once did a road tour with Las Vegas's famed Boylesque review. "Drag is a warm, dear, old friend," he explains. "Growing up in small-town Texas, I thought I was an ugly boy--but when I got all dolled up in a dress, everybody loved me. I hide behind that drag a lot, even now. We queens are the stereotypical sissies, but when it comes to raising money, they call us. I've raised a lot of money for a lot of organizations. A lot of people have been helped because I put on a dress."
Known throughout Denver for his Bette Midler impersonations, Reese says he will step outside his "normal comfort level" for the At Large pageant's talent segment. "But I can't tell you what I'm doing," he says. "All the other queens would know, and then where would we be?"
As for his wardrobe, he says, "It's long, straight lines--Barbie clothes made big. When you're this size, that's what you do."
Not that he doesn't intend to wear bright colors and lots of glitz. "Because of the size-eight mentality that exists everywhere, whether you be gay, straight, male, female or indifferent," he says, "people perceive a large person as a failure. I don't. I've probably lost a small city in weight over the years. I even had my stomach stapled and lost 120 pounds, but right when I was enjoying my smaller self, someone told me: `I liked you when you were fat, and I don't like you now.' I thought, I'm not sure I don't agree with him."
Since then, his weight has crept comfortably up to the 300-pound mark, where it continues to loll. To Reese, a contest whose lower limit is 200 pounds still runs the danger of attracting tall, hard-bodied males.
"Maybe next year they could crank it up to 300," he muses. "That would be fine. I could still run."
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LIVING LARGE Always wanted to be a 200-pound drag queen--or just look like one? Follow these handy fashion pointers from the pros.
Bubblz Larue: "Large as I am, I wear white, red, bright seafoam blues and greens. The idea that you should wear black because it's figure-forgiving is such bullshit. You end up looking like a big black sausage. You might as well be flamboyant and colorful."
Brandi Roberts: "So what if you're fat? As long as it's fun, you should go for it. If it's a little bizarre and you're comfortable in it, people will love it. Try the Hero Group Outlet in Silverthorne--it's full of great Bob Mackie knockoffs."
Jasmine: "I like to dress casual. Not too many beaded gowns, no fake nails or eyelashes. I wear stirrup pants, platform shoes, crop tops with ruffles, itsy bitsy shorts--a younger look. Why do big women think they have to wear a housecoat, slippers and rollers in their hair? One queen told me, 'You're too big for that thing you're wearing.' I told him, 'Well, you're too little for yours, and at least I don't look like Karen Carpenter.