There's a strange pantomime going on inside the basement of a Capitol Hill high-rise: A group of eight grown men are pretending to sing in unison. As their mouths move, their chins and chests lift and fall as if in song. But there's no sound coming from anything but a CD boombox that teeters precariously on a buffet ledge in an adjoining kitchen.
Blasting from the box is a Broadway-esque showstopper with an easily memorized chorus: "Everybody wants to be a drag queen." Over and over, the words form on the men's lips as they pose and preen around the room. As the song reaches its crescendo, they put their arms around each other and form a silent, synchronized kick line.
"I know it can seem a little strange that we don't sing," says Jeff Betsch. "I think a lot of people do drag because they don't have to sing."
Jeff Betsch is not exactly sure how he came to find himself in this basement. Like all of the eight members of the Denver Cycle Sluts, the 25-year-old camp-drag performing ensemble he joined two years ago, he hadn't always planned to become a drag queen. But here he is, vamping with the other Cycle Sluts, practicing lip-synching and thinking about what kind of wig and makeup he'll wear the next time he takes center stage. When he isn't wearing makeup or a dress, Betsch is mild-mannered and polite, with a wry sense of humor. When he morphs into Portia Potty, though, he becomes a scatological New Orleans-bred diva with a gold beard and a taste for parrot-orange headdresses.
"I was a late bloomer coming out," Betsch says. "I remember hearing about the Cycle Sluts when I was younger. Here were these weird people who would make the news, and who people would talk about.
"And then somehow it comes to be that you are one of those people," he continues. "One day you're saying it's crazy, and the next you're walking down the road dressed like a giant daffodil. I'm telling you, it happens."
Denver wasn't always a friendly place for drag queens. In 1969, when James Martinez began performing as Nina Mantaldo, he was worshiped in gay nightclubs but tormented on the streets. On his way to clubs like the Triangle and the Backdoor 3, he'd wear a man's suit over his costume to avoid trouble. The community swelled with horror stories about queens being beaten, arrested and hauled off to jail by Denver cops.
"You'd go into the club, take off your men's clothes, do your drag, put your men's clothes back on and drive to your house," Martinez says. "People would throw eggs at you when you were in your car -- even gay people. No way could you walk the streets of Denver in drag."
Three decades later, a bunch of bawdy Denver drag queens are celebrating their 25th anniversary, getting ready to play bingo with the mayor and marking their very own day on the calendar: John Hickenlooper has named Saturday, October 16, Denver Cycle Sluts Day.
"When you consider this happens at a time when the president is considering proposing a constitutional amendment against our community," says Cycle Sluts director Tim Fischer, "it really takes a beaten-down community and lifts it up. It's a brave and powerful message. It's not just that the mayor embraced the gay community; he embraced us -- the freaks of the freaks of the gay community. The Cycle Sluts. Who would have thought?"
"Denver has come a long way in embracing diversity," adds David Westman, who performs in the Sluts as Nuclia Waste. "The city will really receive, respect and appreciate anybody as long as they're working for good. So, yes, you can be a drag queen, you can wear a green wig. If you're positive, you can do whatever you want."
Since 1979, the Cycle Sluts have presided over Denver's gay nightlife like a gender-bending hydra that feeds on glitter, feathers, torch songs and applause. The Sluts are Denver's oldest drag troupe and one of the city's longest-lasting performing ensembles, period. The current lineup -- Gabbriella But'zin (Fischer), Portia Potty (Betsch), Zoey Diddum (Coryn Fairchild), Iona Trailer (John Rochard), Nuclia Waste (Westman), Sheneeda Bleach (Bill Wright), Wilma Titzgro (Bret Farris) and Latexa D'Vinyl (Jason Martinez) -- is an over-the-top assemblage of big-haired, large-breasted camp drag queens who share a train-wreck fashion sense that gives the effect of a cross between a rodeo clown and a burlesque harlot.
But the Sluts are also gay men, activists, professionals, volunteers and artists who share a storied history of sporting huge fluorescent wigs and fake boobs in the name of charity. To date, the Cycle Sluts have raised more than $100,000 -- for everything from women's shelters and animal clinics to AIDS outreach programs and hospices. Last year they incorporated as a non-profit organization and landed a sponsorship deal with Coors. In August, all eight of the Sluts put on a show for the 2004 Colorado AIDS Walk, strolling the streets of Denver in full-camp regalia alongside a pair of Broncos cheerleaders.
"They loved us, but I think at first they thought we were going to upstage them," Westman says.
"We've found that people are much more likely to part with their money when they're laughing and smiling," he adds. "And they get something for their money: They get this evening of fabulous entertainment, a real show."
"The key has always been the show, making sure the show is successful," Bill Wright says. "We're in the business of making money for the disadvantaged, and we do that well because we put on such a good show."
"My character started off as a need for a creative outlet for Tim," Fischer explains. "But the most rewarding part of it is really the fundraising. Last year at Christmas, we were able to write a $4,000 check for Horizon House [a Denver organization that provides services to people with AIDS], which was a huge windfall for that organization. That was much more gratifying than performing itself."
Fischer is a big guy who wouldn't look out of place at a LoDo sports club or straight strip bar. Six years ago, he became a Cycle Slut after wowing judges during "Slut Search," the group's annual American Idol-style auditions, by ripping through a bawdy number from Little Shop of Horrors with plant blossoms stuck to his body. In 2002 he was voted Queen Mother, a role that makes him responsible for coordinating the group's creative output as well as its affairs. Fischer's character, Gabbriella But'zin, is a loudmouth and a mirthful gossip with a rainbow bouffant. Like all of the Sluts, she's flamboyant, funny as hell and about as feminine as NASCAR.
The Sluts are the drag community's comic relief, the antithesis of the Imperial Court of the Rocky Mountain Empire, part of a monarchy-style network of drag queens and performers in cities across the United States, Mexico and Canada. The local court, which was christened 31 years ago, is a high-society hierarchy of gals who love glamour: The court has thrown more balls, galas and dances than those found in the entire Grimm collection. Past coronations have been attended by mayors Wellington Webb and Federico Peña. The court sanctions an average of six Miss America-style pageants per year, and some drag queens spend a decade planning their run for the throne and the coveted title of Empress.
Since April, Matt Duncan, a broad-shouldered, dark-eyed brunette, has held the title. When Duncan came on the scene eight years ago as a busty drag performer, he was just Kiki Monroe. Today Monroe is Her Most Imperial Majesty, the Synergy of the Crystal, the Sacred Pink Lotus Blossom Empress, Empress 31.
"I have to take a deep breath before I say it," Duncan says.
Being Empress is hard work. Among the position's official duties -- which include presiding over meetings and showing up at social events several times a week -- Monroe is charged with assigning more than 400 titles to members of the court, including 24 high-ranking members of the Imperial Family: dukes and duchesses, barons and baronesses, princes and princesses. Though the election of the next Empress is six months away, Monroe is already aware of whisper campaigns to raise support for various candidates vying for the spot. In some circles, the next Empress is a hotter topic than the upcoming presidential race.
"The Court really mocks the imperial czarist monarchies of Europe," Duncan says. "You've got literally hundreds and hundreds of different titles. Probably the most hotly desired ones are in the Imperial Family, the teams that really support and help the monarchs. And the pageants and things can get pretty competitive. They're judged pretty fiercely, whether it's an evening-gown or a talent contest. It's the best of the best that night."
Yet while the monarchs tuck and tape, the Cycle Sluts ruffle their chest hair, paint on icing-thick layers of makeup and let their beards grow out. If the Imperial Court of the Rocky Mountain Empire is the drag scene's royalty, the Cycle Sluts are its village idiots.
"We want to remind people that, at the end of the day, no matter how many crowns or titles you've got, you're still a man in a dress with a big Adam's apple and big hands," Fischer says.
"In the drag world, you've got your pretty drag queens and your camp drag queens," Betsch adds. "Part of what we do is poke fun at the glamorous image, at their egos. It's like, ŒHa. We're gonna pop that bubble.'"
Luckily, the Empress is no Catherine the Great and has a sense of humor about her subjects. "I actually adore the Cycle Sluts," Duncan says. "It's definitely a needed organization in this community. They're a nice reminder that this is all done in jest, and they remind us not to take things too seriously. We can get caught up in the whole pomp and circumstance. It's not meant to be all Marie Antoinette, where we cut people's heads off."
"I think in the glamour culture, people are really focused on the individual," says Coryn Fairchild, who performs as the Sluts' Zoey Diddum. "We don't have to suffer that kind of competition with each other. We don't have to try to look prettier than anyone else.
"At first a lot of people don't know what to make of us," Fairchild continues. "But then they see that we're very non-threatening. Everybody fits in; anybody can be a fan. We're not trying to win. We're just trying to have fun."
Wednesday night is drag night at Charlie's, a country-and-Western bar on East Colfax. But tonight the term is being loosely interpreted by a parade of performers.
A young Latino guy in khakis jerks from side to side while snorting out lines to Wang Chung's "Everybody Have Fun Tonight." After him, a portly dark-haired man in his forties lip-syncs a show tune from Rent while smiling pleadingly at the crowd and making the occasional hand gesture. Aside from Miss Ginger Blake -- a fine-boned, small-waisted blonde who works the crowd in a black, bejeweled number -- most of the drag queens are just regular-looking guys in jeans and T-shirts. There are a few wigs, even fewer gowns, and very little showmanship.
From the side of the stage, Westman looks on, thoroughly underwhelmed. When he performs as Nuclia Waste at Charlie's, the line for the tip jar often winds around the room.
"People get involved in drag for different reasons," Westman says, sighing. "Some are into it for entertainment purposes. Some want to win titles and pageants; we call them crown-chasers. Some are not comfortable with who they are, so they escape and become somebody else. It bolsters their self-esteem.
"It's a fine line," he continues. "Being risqué takes talent and art."
Over the past eight years, Nuclia Waste has become a boldfaced name in the society pages, as well as a published gossip: Once a month, Westman pens a column for Out Front, Colorado's biweekly gay newspaper, in character. "I'm like the gay Penny Parker," he says.
Last June, Westman turned up at Mayor John Hickenlooper's inaugural ball at the Denver Botanic Gardens wearing full Nuclia garb -- a blazing-green wig and three boobs. Though some of the blue-hairs in the crowd were visibly freaked at the sight, Helen Thorpe, the mayor's notoriously press-wary wife, bequeathed the title of First Lady upon her. "She said, 'Here. You like going out and socializing. You're the First Lady,'" Westman recalls. "To be clear," he adds, "I do not have conjugal duties."
Westman's tie to Hickenlooper goes beyond their fictional union. His partner, Anthony Aragon, is the mayor's aide. On Westman's birthday this year, Hickenlooper showed up at the Denver Cycle Sluts' monthly bingo gathering at Broadway's, a Golden Triangle gay tavern, with a birthday cake. And now, in honor of Denver Cycle Sluts Day, he's agreed to call the numbers during bingo on October 20.
"The mayor loves Nuclia," Westman says. "I interviewed him once for Out Front and asked him if he's ever worn a wig, which he has. He's always just a great sport."
Westman's wig-wearing began not in a drag bar, but with the Gay Rodeo Association. (Aragon held the title of Miss Gay Rodeo Association in 2003.) In 1998 he participated in the Wild Drag Race at a GRA event in Calgary, Alberta, Canada, a competition in which men don dresses and wigs while riding a steer into the rodeo arena. Westman liked the theatricality of it all, and the costume, so later that year he participated in the Imperial Court's Snow Queen Ball. To his surprise, he won. Soon after, he saw the Cycle Sluts and wanted to be one.
"If you had told me that I'd become a drag queen, I'd look at you as if you were crazy," he says. "But when I saw the Cycle Sluts, I remember thinking, 'If I ever did drag, that's what I'd do.' I just thought it looked like so much fun."
In 2000, Westman became an official member of the Cycle Sluts after then-Queen Mother Sheneeda Bleach performed a birthing ritual on stage. With her haz-mat style, Nuclia is a charmingly radioactive poster child for Rocky Flats. She's sweet, but she's toxic -- the slightly less-than-human result of in-utero exposure to plutonium by-products.
"She's kind of a distillation of everything good inside me," Westman says. "Nuclia doesn't have a nasty bone in her body. She's accepting of everybody, and she's kind of naive in a wholesome way. Her philosophy is that it's never too late to have a happy childhood, never too late to play. She's like a giant kid."
But Nuclia is a drag star in a scene with fewer and fewer of them. At high points in the history of Denver drag -- glorious stretches in the late '70s, the late '80s and the early '90s -- a fan could see a good show at as many as five nightclubs that devoted stage space to the city's favorite divas: the Triangle, the Backdoor 3, Mike's, the Grove, the Metro. Today there are two: BJ's Carousel, an ancient cabaret-style dive on South Broadway, and Charlie's.
"It used to be that if a drag queen came into a bar, it was like, &'Omigod, she talked to me,'" says former Cycle Slut Thomas Frey, who, aside from an anniversary show in 1999, hasn't donned a wig since leaving the group in 1994. "Now it's like, ŒOmigod, there's a damn drag queen. Big deal.'
"A lot of the really good ones aren't doing it anymore; there aren't any role models," Frey says. "Nina Mantaldo, she had tons of disciples. There was an entourage of people who studied and learned the art from her. Back then it was much more polished -- the hair, the costuming, the performance. Nowadays it's like you just grab a wig and jump on stage."
But Empress Monroe sees the scene as evolving, not dying. She meets new, young, glamorous talented queens all the time. It's just that the look is changing: Instead of glamorous, conservative visions of femininity (think Nancy Reagan and Joan Collins with shoulder pads and lots of sequins), there's more downtown cool. Less Cher in big hair, and more J.Lo in low-slung jeans and fedoras.
"You're always going to have your classic drag queen -- the big hair, the sequined gown, dressed to the nines," Monroe says. "But you've also got this trend that says it's okay to go out in a pair of really cool jeans, maybe a cute, trendy blouse, lower shoes, shorter hair and less jewelry. It's a means of comfort and convenience to be able to just throw on a pair of jeans and go. The lesbians have known that all along; I guess we should have listened to them."
Marty Lister, a Cycle Sluts fan who's compiling a history of Denver drag for the Denver Public Library's Western History collection, says change is all part of the show -- even if plenty of drag fans resist it. "If you look at Denver one hundred years ago, our most famous citizen was an entertainer: Buffalo Bill," Lister points out. "Fifty years from now, there probably won't be drag queens. The young people, they'll just think that's Grandpa. Just like burlesque, it'll die out and eventually come back. But this was our time period. Let's save some of it while we can. Our history today is just common history, but to someone else years from now, they'll find it fascinating. And who knows? One hundred years ago it was Buffalo Bill. One hundred years from now it could be Nuclia Waste."
"One of the queens I know, he was sighing, like, ŒThere will never be another Cher,'" Lister adds. "But I told him, ŒWell, yes there will.' Now it's Britney Spears -- she's the supreme Madonna. Before you had Diana Ross. Now you get Christina Aguilera. Times change."
The Denver Cycle Sluts' wheels began turning in 1978, when Kenneth Maurice, a local gay entertainer, saw a group named the Cycle Sluts perform in Los Angeles. Dressed in lingerie, the Sluts began their show in the back of a garbage truck, told rude jokes and generally thumbed their thickly powdered noses at drag convention. When Maurice brought the concept back to Denver, he experienced a three-fold personality split: As Kinsey Rapport, he was named the eighteenth Empress of the Rocky Mountain Imperial Court in 1979. That same year, he named himself Helen Bed and founded the first incarnation of the Denver Cycle Sluts as a wing of the Imperial Court. Maurice scripted two complete productions, Emotional Rescue and Dorothy in Search of a Top Man, a takeoff on the Wizard of Oz, that were hits with both gay and straight crowds.
"It was right at that peak during the disco days -- that whole gender thing. People could be flamboyant in their dress," Maurice says. "Then it was more just men being in touch with their feminine side. It had nothing to do with poking fun at women or drag queens. Some of the people in the show were kind of like Ziggy Stardust. It was very sexual."
Later shows were a little too sexual. In the early '80s, Maurice upped the Cycle Sluts' raunch factor, incorporating kinky themes and sex toys into the scripts. Mild-mannered Denver audiences, especially those sprinkled with straight people, wanted to see somebody who looked good in a dress do a decent Diana Ross, not play with a dildo on stage.
"We had such good response to the early shows that we kind of took it over the line," Maurice says. "People thought it was a little much. And maybe they were right. It was around the time that fisting was being talked about for the first time, and no one knew what it was, so we did a number called ŒTake my hand, I'm a stranger in paradise.' People wrote me letters about that. It was a little controversial. After that, the life kind of went out of it, and it was shelved for a while."
The group disappeared while Maurice pursued Lipstick, a drag cabaret show that ran for eight years at the Metro, a Capitol Hill gay club. In 1989 he revived the Cycle Sluts and turned the group over to Frey, who reshaped it as a camp troupe. Frey, who performed as a buxom platinum blonde named Donna Drag, designed the girls' costumes, did their makeup and choreographed most of the musical numbers; he also put the artistic emphasis squarely on comedy. It was the Moulin Rouge with a sense of humor that was more clever than dirty.
"The original group had been so lewd and crude," Frey says. "But our show was never intended to offend. We were more like a Saturday Night Live skit. Everything had to be huge -- the wigs, the facial hair. In the early days, we could only wear lingerie. You couldn't have drag-queen things like fingernails. People had never seen anything like it.
"Some drag queens took offense, but most of them knew we were spoofing them," he continues. "Our core group really had a respect and like for the drag community. We wouldn't call ourselves drag queens. We were the class clowns."
The new group's members turned a profit headlining at gay bars such as Mike's, a disco on South Broadway with a special showroom dedicated to drag, but mostly they saved themselves for several big events a year. They once played an Alcoholics Anonymous meeting, and it turned out to be one of their most painful performances: "We discovered very quickly that gay members of Alcoholics Anonymous don't laugh a whole lot," Frey says.
More successful shows included Frey and his cohorts bouncing around the stage on Pogo sticks while singing Pointer Sisters songs, and the "Yer A-Peein' Tour," with a toilet-bowl tip jar and bedpan appetizer trays.
"The Cycle Sluts were completely outrageous," says Tim Timmons, former co-owner of Mike's. "They'd make fun of themselves as well as everyone else. When you see someone in a dress with a beard and mustache, outrageous hair, it's really hard to take them too seriously. And that was the message, to lighten up a little, which I think is an important message for anybody to have.
"Their audience crossed all spectrums of the gay community," he adds. "There were a lot of straight people, too. Something about the Sluts was much less threatening, even though they were much more risqué. They put on spectacular shows, not just your run-of-the-mill lip-sync."
"In those days, a lot of the drag queens would just stand there and be very elegant and grand and classy," says James Martinez, who still performs as Nina Mantaldo. "The Cycle Sluts were making fun of being glamorous. They wouldn't shave. They wore mustaches and beards and fun wigs, campy wigs. A lot of drag queens didn't understand what they were doing, because they thought the whole point was to get on stage and try to create the illusion of a character. It took a while for some people to get it."
Back in the basement, Bill Wright is writhing about the floor, shaking his hands in the air, playing a kind fire-and-brimstone-breathing preacher. The routine is decidedly unholy, however: Wright's lip-synching a faux-gospel sendup about the virtues of promiscuity.
At 54, Wright is the longest-running Slut and the group's only black member. He's been everyone from an alien to Diana Ross. Tonight the brimstone bit is modeled on his father, a Baptist minister in Ocean City, California, where Wright lived before moving to Denver in 1977. His main character, Sheneeda Bleach, was born in 1991.
"Sheneeda is very vulgar," he says. "In her bio it says she was discovered on the playground of a school on Martin Luther King Boulevard, turning tricks for milk money. But I also do vulgar standup, because it's different from lip-synching. I like doing parodies of people. The fun part for me is to make people giggle, cry or shy away."
During the day, Wright works for the federal government as an environmental advisor ("People are sometimes surprised to find out that I'm smart," he says. "Most people think drag queens are idiots"), but for the past thirteen years, much of his downtime has been devoted to the Cycle Sluts, especially during the two years he spent as the group's director.
"I got involved at a time when the AIDS crisis hit," he says. "There was no government funding, and we were looking for ways of making money specifically for that. But then we branched out into a community group; we did it for hospices, for general charities, for children with AIDS. Everyone in the group would contribute their own money, and at the end of a show, we were able to just pile all the money up into a stack, hand it to the charity and say, ŒHere ya go.'"
The gig has occasionally taken a toll on Wright's health: A few years ago, he broke his ankle on stage while play-fighting with then-fellow Slut Holly Would. In late September, a few members of the group drove to Iowa to perform for the Des Moines Imperial Court. At some point during the evening, Wright awoke an old ulcer. After the show, he was rushed to the hospital.
"I was ready to get some air after that," he says. "These girls work me pretty hard."
Early next year, Wright will retire from Slutdom. John Rochard is also retiring his character of Iona Trailer. The surviving Sluts know it won't be easy to fill their large platform shoes, and in fact, they've had a hard time scrounging up potential applicants who meet their "Slut Search" criteria: "You must have facial hair. No long fingernails, real or press-on. No tucking. You must own one really BIG wig."
Westman believes camp drag doesn't draw young people like it used to, when gay males needed an overt outlet to shake off some of the confines of the closet. Modern drag performers tend to go for glam, not ham, which means the Cycle Slut talent pool is narrowing. Everyone seems to want to be a pretty girl, not a class clown.
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"It might have been easier to hide behind drag when it wasn't cool to be gay," Westman says. "People are growing up more open-minded and embracing diversity. You've got metrosexuals and other straight people who just want to go where people are having fun. And there's more diversity of entertainment in the gay community. You've got hiking clubs, scooter clubs. And people can just go to straight bars."
That's all well and good for the gay youth of today. But what about the future of the Cycle Sluts? Could the city of Denver really have exhausted its supply of wild, wig-wearing wannabe she-women?
"It's always been an evolving group, with a number of looks and feels," Betsch says. "In the early days, it was real trashy. There was no glitter. Some of them didn't have real facial hair, so they'd use painted fabric as mustaches. Who knows? We're having an amazing response from the straight community now. Maybe some of them will come over. You just never know."