Tuck of the Town

Every muscle in China Doll's powerful thighs jiggles as she struts through the massive hairspray cloud in the dressing room. The ladies have just gotten the call: "Two minutes till showtime!"

Their chatter about high heels and eyeliner is drowned out by a blow dryer. As Jill puckers her lips for a final dollop of lipstick, China ducks behind a dressing screen and pulls on her tiny, down-to-the-navel-cut white fringe dress that barely covers her sinewy frame. It's a perfect match to her white patent-leather boots, which grip her firm, strong calves. Standing in front of her mirror, she poofs up her thick, curly mane, which looks like it jumped off Chaka Khan's skull.

"One minute!"

It's almost time. One more quick fluff of the hair and dress adjustment. Outside, the bass is throbbing and the crowd is hollering. Her song is "Lose My Breath" by Destiny's Child, and China Doll Dupree Iman -- who's actually a 21-year-old guy named Walter -- is tucked in and ready to kick it.

Once one of the crown jewels of Houston's gay club scene, Rich's has been billing itself as primarily a straight spot. But on this Saturday night, it's a mixed crowd of young gay club kids, hipsters, hetero couples on dates, single ladies and a couple of bachelorette parties who've come to see one of the first performances of the weekly Anita Bump Drag Show.

In Anita's newly dubbed Powder Room, it's a feel-good party. Hot pink lights splash on the walls and the electric-blue neon fixtures. It's a far cry from the opening show last week, which boasted 600 partiers. Now it's much more intimate, maybe 100 max. Most folks congregate at the bar, which sits in the middle of the room. Others lounge on the padded seats in the back. It's dark, shadowy and dramatic -- perfect for a drag show. The drinks are ridiculously cheap (75 cents cheap), the DJ is working hard and folks have their cash out, ready to scream for the ladies.

Backstage, behind a star-marked door that says "Anita Bump," a small group of men have transformed into divas in little more than an hour. What was a scene of guys in pasties walking around with globs of eyeliner, enough foundation to paint the side of a house and half-on, half-off gowns is now a scene of lady performers waiting for their moment. Once they leave, Anita, statuesque with shapely arms and long legs and clad in a hip-hugging short black dress and blond wig, preps her girls.

Jill Jordan, who's been performing drag for more than 30 years, is on the bill tonight. At 57, Jill's one of the oldest drag queens in town, and at six foot three, she's one of the tallest. "And I'm wearing five-inch heels," she says, "so I'm really six-eight." Her shoe size is a 14-DD, and she towers even over Anita, who's wearing four-inch heels. She's thrilled that in a few weeks, she'll be competing in the upcoming Miss Rainbow Vision, a national, over-50 drag contest that's slated to be judged by Gene Hackman, Jane Fonda and Ali MacGraw.

The muscular, African-American China opens up about the tuck before the show. She thinks of Malaysia Alexander, the dancer in New Orleans who first showed her the ropes, every time she does it. Some ladies use duct tape to rein it in -- but that can be really painful. Not that it doesn't hurt, at first. But China, an amateur dancer, is smart: She uses a girdle.

After the quick pep and prep talk, Anita's out the door and in front of a screaming crowd to deliver an opening monologue. "Bush's approval rating dipped into the 30s this week. Congressman Foley dipped into the teens!" This one gets a huge howl, and Anita pushes on. "One of the teens had sex, felt guilty and went to confessional -- and got fucked by a priest." Another howl. "Paris and Nicole are friends again. They were seen at Dan Tana's Steakhouse. Paris had the 20-ounce Porterhouse, Nicole had the parsley." She does a riff on an 83-year-old Mexican woman crossing over the border with 10 pounds of crystal meth. As the crowd laughs, she crows, "The more you drink, the funnier I am, bitches!"

The crowd's sauced up and ready for the ladies. They freak for China Doll, who, while lip-synching Jennifer Holliday's "The Woman's Got the Power," kneels and leans all the way back until her head touches the floor behind her, then hops up and kicks as high as any Dallas Cowboys cheerleader. At the close, the nimble dancer plants and drops effortlessly into the center splits and swings her torso side-to-side. The women in the audience scream and reach for their cash, waving it at her. The guys reach for their crotches in sympathetic agony.

Next up is Jill, who's decked out in a black evening gown. She struts through her number, mouthing the words to "Hey Big Spender" and grabbing bills from outstretched hands. She's working it hard for a crowd that averages about 30 years younger than her, but they appreciate her. After Jill's done, Anita joins her onstage, sees the price tag on Jill's dress and grabs it. "It says XXXL, 35 dollars," Anita says to the crowd. Then, in mocking vibrato: "Hey Big Spender, I'm returning this shit tomorroooow!"

As a host, Anita's an ornery bitch. She steals a Corona from a girl, takes a swig and fellates the bottle. "I don't want my tampon to shoot out and knock your drink over!" she says to the crowd. The crowd goes insane for her routine, a raucous, ass-shakin' rendition of Kelly Clarkson's "Walk Away." The blonde bartender jumps up on the bar and rocks her hips, handing Anita cash. Straight and gay guys practically molest her, and the women rub her down like she's a buff, bow-tied LaBare dancer.

When Chris Whatley first moved to Houston ten years ago, the Montrose club Heaven was a popular drag spot. "Then, when it burned down," he says, "there wasn't that one good place to go." He remembers hearing about the glory days of Rich's. And it just burns him now that Galveston has the Undercurrent Bar, San Antonio has The Saint and Dallas has The Rose Room. "But Houston has no regular drag bar -- a city as cosmopolitan as this? We should have the best because we're the biggest city. Houston should have the biggest dick."

Three years ago, he created the Anita Bump persona for the annual Montrose Softball League event "Jocks in Dresses." "I live for the instant gratification of a live audience," he says. The show gave him the idea of creating a local drag night. He envisioned a weekly gig where gays, straights, singles, couples and everyone in between could drink, shake their things and scream for drag divas.

That's definitely the crowd tonight. With all the screaming straight girls, the event could become the next big bachelorette spot. "It's because your inhibitions are out the door the minute you walk in," says Jana, a brunette from Midtown. "You don't have to worry about some crazy straight guys hitting on you here. You can hang out with your girlfriends, drink and have a great time. And you can flirt with the gay guys if you want." Jana's friend Cindy, who lost a brother to AIDS, loves the vibe. "You could actually bring a boyfriend because it's funny and witty," she says. "And the crowd's straight, gay, whatever." Chris, a young gay guy from Dallas, agrees. "This is like Dallas's Rose Room," he says, "but like, so much better -- and friendlier."

There have been some snags tonight: Anita trips, Vanessa loses an earring and Jill's CD skips during her entire second act. "How do you think I feel?" she snaps when asked how she's doing backstage. But the audience is in love. Anita returns in a black lace dress that hugs her body. Her wig is short, spiky and choppy on top, with bleached areas jutting out and long braids dangling down. There are fake bloodstains on her calves, lips and mouth. Her left eye has been blackened. She looks like a member of KISS who's just had her ass beat down. Which is the point, as her song is the '80s Pat Benatar classic "Hit Me with Your Best Shot." This is how Anita finishes all her numbers, with a kooky comedy bit. The week before, she took the stage as Britney, carrying -- often nearly dropping -- a baby. And there's no telling what she has in store for her Halloween party, which pits her and the entire cast in "some crazy shit."

"There's a little drag queen in everybody," she says. "I think that's why everyone loves this. Houston needs a show where people can drink, dance and get dissed by a crazy bitch."

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Steven Devadanam
Contact: Steven Devadanam