The stairwell of the Velvet Lounge in Santa Ana winds down into a basement that opens up to a dressing room, where wigs of every color line the wall and sequins twinkle throughout the dimly lit space. A pair of oversized, feathered black boots demand attention as drag queens and staff filter in and out of the lower level. Bryan Watkins, founder and host of the Lipstick & Lashes Dinner and Drag Show, sits at his vanity wearing a black hat and t-shirt. His piercing blue eyes are electric, despite the fact that he's two performances down on a four show day. Resting his elbow on the corner of his cluttered dressing table he asserts with diva-like conviction, "There's an insane amount of drag in California, but nobody really does what we do."
The Velvet Lounge's Lipstick & Lashes review is a full-scale production featuring a lineup as diverse as its clientele. Watkins hosts the show as Shannel, an irrevocably fierce diva whose headlined multiple shows in Las Vegas and appeared on the reality TV series, RuPaul's Drag Race. Shannel serves as the common thread for Lipstick & Lashes, navigating a flurry of rhinestones and size 12 heels with bawdy charm and raunchy comebacks. The show doesn't discriminate when it come to song choice and characters, enlisting impersonations of Disney princesses, Broadway stars, and Top 40 icons. Drag queens and their sex kitten male dancers work the intimate venue for multiple performances five nights a week, and saunter out into the crowd whenever possible.
Props for the show range from Snow White's wishing well to the Phantom of the Opera's two-way mirror, and energy generally reaches a fever pitch during the naughty dance numbers. The show draws in a mixed crowd that can lead staff to seating a 21st birthday party next to a table of Red Hat Society members. What's the secret behind drawing in such varied audiences to a drag show? Watkins believes it's his revival of cabaret and the decline in the accessibility for Vegas style reviews.
"Now, so much of the 'trashier' side of drag has become more mainstream," Watkins says from his dressing room. "I feel that by bringing in older characters and illusions like Marilyn Monroe and Liza Minnelli, along with more contemporary artists, encompasses more of a variety that I feel mainstream America gets and understands. That's why I look at [Lipstick & Lashes] as cabaret and Las Vegas style, because in Vegas, you have to do what's more comprehendible for people."
While that may sound lofty for a drag show, Watkins' approach for Lipstick & Lashes seems to be working. The show is riding a six-month wave of success that was initially pegged for a four week run, and carries all of the risqué glitz and glam that a drag production with a $30,000 price tag should. Watkins notes that the review is his brainchild, and his love for the show is obvious. As for knowing what Vegas caliber cabarets should consist of, Watkins' resume speaks for itself.
The seasoned drag queen and character illusionist performed as Boy George in CeeLo Green's Loberace, starred in his own shows at The Rivera and Las Vegas Players Club, and narrowly missed an opportunity to host Cirque du Soleil's Zumanity. The gigs in Las Vegas made Shannel a sought after name, but it was landing the spot on RuPaul's Drag Race that catapulted the character's exposure. The competition earned Shannel a new fan base that lead to roles in the spin off series RuPaul's Drag Race: All-Stars, and Drag U.
Watkins' varied experiences gave him a broad perspective on drag, which ultimately lead to the inspiration for Lipstick & Lashes. "I feel in the world of drag, as time has progressed and through watching RuPaul's drag race, that the art form of female impersonation has changed so significantly. The type of drag that people now see as being spectacular is not the same as 10 years or 12 years ago, when it was about full glamour and larger than life hair and gowns and jewelry."
So how did the reality TV starlet wind up in Santa Ana? Consider it a homecoming.
Watkins was born in Long Beach and grew up in the Garden Grove area, and while he admits his travels across America and abroad were exciting and adventurous, schlepping around ungodly amounts of giant wigs, gowns, and overall fabulousness started to wear him down. He returned to Long Beach and after a few years of performing at clubs across Southern California, the owners of Velvet approached him about orchestrating a review. He jumped at the chance to create a show on par with his grandiose vision.
Although his overall lifestyle changed from traveling queen to cornerstone hostess, Watkins admits that finding a base camp has given him a sense of relief. The show also gave him creative license to arrange costuming, makeup, and casting that realized his vision of cabaret drag. Rubbing his eyes in the dressing room, fatigue seems to creep over the performer, but he shakes it off, looking up with alertness and fiery determination. While not all of his workdays consist of fourteen hours and four shows, he shares with a smile that he doesn't mind spending the majority of his time at Velvet. He also shares that Lipstick & Lashes is a labor of love that allows him to engage with a cast that he's proud of, and an opportunity to offer audiences his brand of drag.
"You can sit in the audience and be gay, straight, whatever ethnicity, whatever age, whatever race and just be able to appreciate the artistry and love behind what we're doing," says Watkins. "I want people to be able to say 'I saw feathers, I saw rhinestones, I saw Marilyn, comedy and Top 40. I want it to be in people minds that if they want to see a great show, they want to come and see Lipstick & Lashes."
The Lipstick & Lashes Dinner and Drag 3 course dinner and drag show takes place the Velvet Lounge, 416 W. 4th St., Santa Ana, (714) 232-8727; www.dinneranddrag.com. Show times and ticket prices vary; all ages, guests under 18 must be accompanied by an adult. For more on the Velvet Lounge visit www.velvetoc.com.
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