It is 11-something-something on a Friday night inside Club Shadows at Metro Entertainment Complex, and BeBe Deluxe is here to host and tell jokes, not to put up with anyone’s asinine antics. Truly.
There are two birthday groups in attendance at Deluxe Fridays, and the smaller and markedly drunker of the two collectively think they’re funny and pretty enough to be onstage alongside Ms. Deluxe. Or, at the very least, are eager to pay homage to her in hasty, awkward booty dances and excited flailing that isn’t actually funny or good.
It’s not even cute.
Well, maybe it is, if on some planet matching gingham shirts and slim khakis are in any way more interesting than the striped black-and-white ensemble with candy-colored plastic jewelry and fedora, accented by a teal beard, which Deluxe wears while cracking jokes and running the show, simultaneously channeling Chanel and a Pulcinella.
She introduces the first act and exits the stage, addressing the would-be back-up dancers out of the side of her mouth: “No, really, shut the fuck up.”
It’s all in a night’s performance for the artist Alex Palmer (aka BeBe Deluxe), who is arguably Jacksonville’s most celebrated drag queen, and who, along with husband Hayden Palmer, regularly produces the monthly The Glitterbomb Show, the weekly Deluxe Friday, and intermittent Glitterbomb Presents—drag shows that tread the line between fun and filth, with a lot of smart, relevant commentary sneaked in.
That doesn’t make them any less funny or naughty; rather that, in their ability to tread closely to camp and commentary, they evince a kind of art house/club kid ethos that Deluxe explains actually takes cues from the drag troupe The Cockettes.
“I found out about The Cockettes—a psychedelic counterculture drag troupe in SF in the late ’60s—I remember trying to explain that to the amateur drag night at The Metro. They’d be, like, ‘Oh, you’re a club kid,’ and I’m, like, ‘I’m actually doing a 1969 Cockettes reference—this is actual queer history—but I’m glad you watched Sally Jesse Raphael back in 1989.’”
Formed by George Edgerly Harris III (aka Hibiscus) in 1969 San Francisco, The Cockettes were quasi-anarchic, anti-capitalist, psychedelic performers (drag queens and hippies) who staged loose events that were fantastical, glittery, LSD-laced Dadaesque happenings. The events were wildly popular in SF, but failed spectacularly when The Cockettes attempted to export that success to NYC. That willingness to fail hugely and publicly, however, is part of the lineage upon which Deluxe draws.
The group is also especially important to Deluxe’s personal performance lineage. “I didn’t think that drag was something that could ever belong to me because I was naturally covered in hair; I remember getting my first chest hairs in fourth grade. [Laughs] … I’m this big, hulking linebacker fag.”
The Cockettes, unlike more traditional, high-femme drag that takes cues primarily from ideas of “passing” and amplifying cis-woman-ness, performed original material that parodied American musicals, designed their own sets and made their own costumes. Those same get-ups are now considered important artifacts of the Wearable Art movement.
And they had glitter in their beards.
“I used to joke forever because I have a weak jawline,” Deluxe said, when asked how she arrived at the decision to put glitter in her beard (the practice has become something of a national trend). “But it wouldn’t make any sense for me to try to shave any of this stuff off,” she said, gesturing to her neatly trimmed—but certainly sumptuous—facial hair.
“When I first started drag, I caved to the pressure from older girls who felt like they were helping me and I just remember being so uncomfortable and I shaved my chest and I felt like that scene in The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe where they shave Aslan and he’s all ashamed … . It just didn’t feel right. [I said to myself], ‘Drag is not supposed to be something where I feel uncomfortable … and I’m already breaking the theoretical rule by being a man by wearing women’s clothes. So why not push it further?’
“After I let my hair grow back, I was wearing Under Armour and I was just mad and sweaty all the time. Then it just kind of turned into me making statements.”
It is an understatement to say Deluxe is known and celebrated for her gloriously sparkly pelt. What might get missed in the rapturous praise of her glittering hirsuteness is the exquisite way it frames her rosebud mouth, and how it’s all pulled together with makeup that looks like a ramped-up page from Kevyn Aucoin’s book. Her look is whimsy and beauty, with a healthy dose of pop culture commentary thrown in. She also doesn’t shave her legs—or anything else—and it’s not just a social statement within the specific and rarified world of drag, but an aesthetic choice that’s surprisingly successful. The juxtaposition of masculine and feminine is effective because it touches on the wider cultural implications of beauty ideals.
Izzy A’Mon (aka Eric Conley), one of the artists who regularly appears with Glitterbomb and Deluxe, talks about performance in terms of duality and identity. “Fun fact about Izzy/Eric: Eric has terrible social anxiety and is an introvert; Izzy is a full-blown extrovert.”
A’Mon, 23, has been performing for five years. She started when she was involved with JASMYN and since then, her participation has grown more absurd and more divine. In her Devil’s Night show (where she channeled the undead), she was eating an undisclosed, crumbly, greasy and moist substance out of a skull. When asked, she admitted it was Spam—and laughed that the smell of room-temperature Spam didn’t endear her to her sister queens. “We make sure this gets to the Dumpster!” Deluxe recalled with a screech of laughter about A’Mon trying to throw it away backstage.
At another performance, A’Mon referenced The Ring to a mashup of “Put a Ring on It” and “Pretty Pretty” to an amazing, sneeringly hilarious effect. “I wanted to create something I’d never seen before,” she said of her early forays into drag. Hence, the A’Mon character was born and a backstory emerged: She’s an alien android political refugee who crash-landed in Japan and learned about humanity by watching anime. Technically, A’Mon is genderless; “she” is used here, because it’s traditional to use that pronoun for drag performers. “I don’t try to be overly feminine unless it’s a parody,” A’Mon said.
A’Mon, who describes living with a “high-functioning form of autism” and limited financial resources, talked about how the Izzy character helps mitigate aspects of autism that can make moving through the world very hard, simply because the Izzy character is so fearless. “As a person with a disability trying to get through life, I’m still able to do something substantial and successful.”
Fearless indeed. “Baked potato, but fashion!” she exclaims in one Facebook post that accompanies an image of her as an Japanese-inflected android swathed in gold lamé with huge, anime-style eyes. A’Mon paused to add, for the record, that she has been doing her eyes like this since before Trixie Mattel did them on season seven of RuPaul’s Drag Race. But there is a bigger point to the larger-than-life Izzy; she wants to perform, yes, but she also wants to show others that money—or the lack of it—doesn’t have to be a barrier to performing. She says that putting together her first look was “a comedy of errors.” “I live right behind a church, and the church would put clothes up on their fence and anybody who would need them, would take them ….” The look she created might be described as post-glam-punk-granny: “A horridly patterned skirt” pulled up over her chest, belted with one of her grandmother’s scarfs, a studded denim vest over it all, her hair in a Mohawk, and the entire look accessorized with a pair of KISS-style platform boots.
Of her role as a Glitterbombshell, A’Mon is reflective. “If it weren’t for BeBe, I’d still be doing these weird, obscure pieces … and rubbing chocolate pudding on my body for no reason …. She really pushed me.
“[Now] my philosophy is to be funny as possible, to try to be a beacon, and to always come up with a point of view.”
Producing high-concept themed shows with soundtracks, video visuals, new jokes and props isn’t easy, and it doesn’t happen of its own volition. Hayden Palmer is the driving force behind Glitterbomb’s set/stage design and the videos that tie the shows together. He spoke of the propulsive aesthetic behind the show, saying, “I have always had a very special place in my heart for camp, and find that it is largely misunderstood. Susan Sontag described two primary types of camp: naïve and deliberate.
“Naïve camp derives from a failure of some sort (think schlocky B-movies), whereas deliberate camp could be send-up or parody, or an exultation of something overlooked by mainstream culture. What camp has always been is a lens through which we examine dominant cultural forces.
“Camp is the queer perspective. That’s what we try to achieve with Glitterbomb: We pick a topic and try to examine it inside and out, with as many queer perspectives as we can muster. My goals with the visual portion are twofold: provide color and movement that aid the performance and, hopefully, do it in a clever way.”
At the beginning of their relationship, Deluxe said, Hayden was uncomfortable with drag and performing, but now the Chinese history scholar (with a focus on late Qing Dynasty and early Communist era) brings his substantial and “aggressively encouraging” energies to bear on helping the Glitterbombshells realize their own innate talents. When asked what changed his mind, Palmer replied, “I think that drag is ultimately a deeply personal experience. Drag personas are a sort of avatar of an idealized self, in that the fantasy of drag allows one to express their true reality.” He also explained that after his opinion changed, he began to examine his own hang-ups about gender expression, and Deluxe “let him into” this deeply personal art.
The Glitterbomb troupe, “family” in drag parlance, comprises Deluxe, her drag mother Regency Deluxe, Izzy A’Mon, Ebony Cox, Eve Deluxe, York Deluxe, Bad Juju, Coco Couture and Anita Nightcap. The range of performers is wide—think high-concept art-school project by way of garage sale and Nordstrom; encompassing aesthetics as far apart as vampire goth and girl-next-door glamour. In a word: inclusive.
Reflecting on the persona she and her husband have worked to create, Deluxe explains that she’s based in part on Tank Girl, 5 Points girls from the late ’90s, lounge host/comedian Rusty Warren and comedian Dicky Palmer (Deluxe’s father).
But Deluxe (unlike Athena) did not spring forth, sui generis. She is the product of years of development and personal searching and growth. When she was starting out, Deluxe said she “was real hung up on cowboy shirts and shit … plaid; I tried to play that li’l bear cub, li’l-brother-next-door role.”
It was a time when Alex felt like the only way he could get attention or affection was by being this, “like, sexual object for older men because it’s, like, I looked like this [bearded and stoutly muscular], with fewer forehead wrinkles when I was, like, 14 to 15. So I was constantly hearing from gross older dudes, [affects thick/hick/country accent] ‘Herp herp I cain’t wait until you turn 18.’”
Deluxe’s telling take was, “Oh great, I don’t have anything of value to you until you won’t go to jail for touching me … . Which is so much worse than just flat-out telling someone they’re hot.”
Deluxe shared that, in the course of her life, she has endured abusive relationships in which she wasn’t valued. “When I reached that point of being 18 and 19 and dealing with these gross dudes … I remember I did a little bit of drag and these guys were, like, [drops voice to a shade] ‘Oh, but you’re so much sexier when you don’t have all that stuff on’ … and it got in my head.
“On the one corner, you have the drag queens being, like, ‘You’re too manly, you need to do this, this, this and this before we can actually validate you,’ and there were these men being, “Oh, you can’t do that, you have to do this, this and this and be a real man.” There was nowhere, really, to navigate so I didn’t do drag for a while and was in a shitty abusive relationship for a minute.”
When Deluxe first ventured into drag (circa 2008), she wasn’t BeBe Deluxe. Her name was Bizarrika LeStrange. “And couldn’t nobody pronounce it, and spell it … . It was really dumb,” she said, laughing and clapping. “It started because I had a friend named Erica who was big-tittied and thickum like I was and she put me in half-drag once and I was, like, ‘Oh look, I’m Bizarrika.’”
After Bizarrika but before BeBe, just as she was learning how to self-promote, collaborate and make a thing happen with performances at TSI and The Norm (and as Palmer’s involvement began growing), Deluxe and Palmer moved to Tallahassee. Palmer was pursuing his master’s degree. For Deluxe, “The breaks were pumped … the drag just kinda stopped.”
In Tallahassee, the couple decided that the Bizarrika character wasn’t working. And though Deluxe wasn’t doing drag at the time—she would go out to house parties dressed, in makeup, and be subjected to “mostly clueless” ogling, questions and those people who were “real jazzed [to see an actual, real live drag queen] and you start feeling like you’re in a cage being poked at.”
Then they discovered the Mickee Faust Club, which Deluxe describes as “just a bunch of old crazy hippies,” and started workshopping ideas. “I had also met this gentleman by the name of Gerry Nielsen—he and I worked at a day program for adults with developmental disabilities, and it was a very, very, very stressful job—I taught performing arts and he taught music—so when the day was over, we’d get together and he’d bang on the piano and I’d sing with him and I’d forgotten how much I loved singing jazz, and singing at my own pace.”
From there, Deluxe and Palmer, nearing the end of their three years in Tallahassee, began to think about the future. Deluxe said, “I want to focus on singing.” At that point, people were calling her BeBe “because Bizarrika was a very stupid name,” and “Deluxe is my drag momma’s last name.” When the couple moved back to Jacksonville, they started performing with a group called Houseparty. After that, Palmer and Hayden decided to strike out on their own; their first Glitterbomb show was December 2015 at Rain Dogs. “Hayden made a set for it and, oh, he went all out,” Deluxe recalls. There was no central, organized theme. “We wanted a queer showcase because, at the time, it felt like a lot of exciting stuff was happening.” She cites singer/rapper Geexella and the band Tomboi as a part of this quasi-queer Renaissance.
At Rain Dogs, Glitterbomb grew in influence, cachet and focus. It’s also where what Deluxe considers the first real The Glitterbomb Show—a retooled presentation of the original idea, but with greater emphasis on thematic consistency and theatricality-debuted. In July 2016, the “Make America Gay Again” show came on the heels of the Pulse Nightclub mass shooting. “We were all just crushed … . And at the same time, we didn’t want to make it about ourselves.”
In footage from the performance, a blonde Deluxe is dressed like a latter-day Rockette who’s taken styling cues from Uncle Sam: She’s wearing fishnets, a leotard, a red blazer, with light bouncing off her twinkling golden beard. She sings “The Star Spangled Banner,” in a manner that veers from silvery whisper to a deep baritone, a reminder to the listener that there are many different ways to be brave.
“As drag queens, we’re the gatekeepers of queer culture; I feel like it’s important to be aware and sensitive of people’s needs … . And it’s hard, because at the end of the night, you’re still in a nightclub, on the wrong side of the tracks and it’s late at night and your audience isn’t typically too concerned with what’s PC and what’s not. My audience at Metro can get rowdy, man.”
At the close of the ultimately not-too-rowdy Friday night—eventually the gingham squad settled down to just reeling back and forth to the bathroom—and after she thanked the audience for coming out, she retired to the Rainbow Room to sing for a bit … until it was time for the next show. We’d all be fools to miss it.
A Tribute to Madonna, The Glitterbomb Show’s next themed night, is 10:30 p.m. and midnight, Friday, Feb. 23 at The Metro Entertainment Complex, Riverside, $7.