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Reno's queens of the desert

‘Judy Garland is dead and so are my calves’ – We meet the outsider artistes at Reno’s Silver Dollar drag court

Reno, 1pm. The biggest little city in the world simmers in the lurid afternoon. Downtown is weather-beaten, deserted by everyone except men in Harley Davison t-shirts and packs of roving tweakers. There’s a street fair going on where a band plays a pitchy rendition of Def Leppard's “Pour Some Sugar on Me” to people nursing beer. Inside a white canvas tent a stripper shows off her cellulite to five or six men who are escaping the infernal and caramelizing sun. The horizon is boarded up motels and dead neon. The motels that are still in business look like the kind of places people never check out of. Beyond are the mountains, heaped like butts in an ashtray.

I’m here for the 38th annual imperial coronation of Reno’s Silver Dollar drag court. The theme is "Once Upon A Time in TV Land". The location is the conference room in Harrah’s Casino. I and the photographer are the only press present. I feel, absurdly, entitled to something. A t-shirt or vouchers for the casino.

The history of the imperial court offers an instructive lesson in American chicanery. In 1964, a San Francisco drag queen named José Sarria declared himself Empress José I, widow of Joshua Norton (a crackpot buccaneer who proclaimed himself Emperor of the United States and Protector of Mexico). In 1965, Empress José founded the imperial drag court, which rapidly metastasized to chapters in Portland, Seattle, Vancouver, and ultimately to cities across North America. Every year the various local chapters host a coronation in which they elect a new emperor and empress in Harrah’s conference room, the night before the big monarchical handover.

Day 1: Friday Evening – From Foreign Lands

I’m watching the out of town show, where drag queens lip sync for each other to whet the appetite for tomorrow evening’s pomp and circumstance. Fluorescents are dimmed, martini glasses and stars are projected on to the wall, a blocky plywood stage sits centre. The emcee is a queen named Pandora whose red shrub of a wig rides back on her forehead.

“Is anybody awake out there?” she deadpans into the mic. Crickets. Half of the room is posing for selfies.

Twenty-five or 30 people mill around the conference room. Most are drag queens but there’s also a smattering of male lords of the court. A Betty Rubble lookalike sips rosé from a straw. A queen in a tropical-print kimono appears infrared in the doused light.

The out of town show is supposed to be where queens let down their hair and perform more risqué numbers. Tonight, however, the mood is one of melancholy. A skeletal blonde named Mona Lott announces that today is the one-year anniversary of her best friend’s death. “Tim, this is for you,” she says, launching into a teary rendition of Nina’s “Don’t Say Goodbye.” To make matters worse, Mona has a muscular dysfunction that lends every movement a stop-motion effect. I’m mesmerised by her, but feel that by simply paying attention I’ve somehow exploited her.

The other performers don’t do much to lift the mood. A paunchy septuagenarian who looks a bit like Ray Bradbury pantomimes “Calendar Girl” as though embarrassed. A grizzled old guy named Cowboy John performs “American Honky-tonk Bar Association” in what seems to be a fog of prescription drugs. He doesn’t lip-sync so much as bare his incisors and stare into the distance.

“Judy Garland is dead and so are my calves,” the emcee quips after he quits the stage. People’s faces are jaundiced in the citrusy backwash of stage lights.

The evening’s standout performer isn’t a drag queen, but a man in a pink, collared shirt who looks like a washed-up sitcom actor. He performs “I Want Your Sex” with a zealotry reserved for jihadists. He bounces off stage and there’s a contact high of endorphins when he capers by. The room startles briefly and erotically awake, there is the sense of having witnessed a miracle that, once the music stops, becomes something else: a con, something you chide yourself for having fallen for. 

The Royal Family of Las Vegas

After the out of town show everybody decamps to a bar in the middle of nowhere. It’s humid with body heat and mauve with cigarette smoke. There’s a stripper pole that various jowly drag queens take turns molesting.

I sit with Leslie Michaels and Bill, the reigning emperor and empress of Las Vegas. They’re a bit of a mismatch. Leslie is peroxide blonde and lavishly perfumed; Bill looks like he should be ensconced in a middle-management cubicle.

She tells me she’s done drag for 30 years. “I started in Texas,” she says, and her voice still evokes rodeos and BBQ torn daintily by pearlescent teeth. “In Dallas it was illegal to do drag unless you were part of a show. I’d walk into a bar wearing open-toed shoes and they’d say you’ll cut your feet, get out.”

Her husband was a natural gas magnate who died after 39 years of monogamy. He left Leslie a fortune that has since bankrolled Botox and implants. Her body has enough silicone to be nearly flame retardant. 

“A smile steals across Bill’s face. ‘Ever hear of this site called’ ‘Very romantic,’ I say, and Emperor Bill grins like a chupacabra”

“I’m going to buy a penthouse in Vegas,” she purrs, “and a penthouse in San Diego and a bungalow in Palm Springs. Then I’ll drive from one to the other to the other.”

Bill confides that he’s newly divorced. “I decided I’m gay, and I’ve been dating this beautiful hockey player for three years now. Wanna see him?” On his iPhone he pulls up a picture of a sandy-haired man in hockey gear. “Pretty sexy, huh? Now lookit this.” He swipes to another picture of the hockey player dressed as a woman. It’s late and I’ve had a few drinks but the hockey player in drag looks like a young Janet Reno.

“Very sexy,” I say. “How did you two meet?”

A smile steals across Bill’s face. “Ever hear of this site called”

The site describes itself as “a meeting place for mature men and other men who are interested in keeping their daddy happy and/or sexually satisfied.”

“Very romantic,” I say, and Emperor Bill grins like a chupacabra.

Day 2: Saturday Night – In the House of the Silver Dollar Court

I’m back in the conference room, the portable walls have been removed and the room is imperceptibly larger. Yesterday’s stage has a catwalk jutting almost to the door. A pink flamingo stands sentinel at stage left to commemorate a fallen empress.

“Welcome to Lillian’s living room for an evening in TV land,” the emcee says. Lillian is Reno’s reigning empress – a short, voluptuous woman who inspires genuflection and idolatry.

The first hour of an imperial drag coronation is like watching a UN session. Flags from the US, Mexico, and Canada are marched down the catwalk; each country’s anthem is played on a crunchy speaker. The point is, the first hour is deadly boring. The second hour isn’t much livelier, although it’s amusing to hear the role call of monarchical titles: Imperial Princess of Remington Steele, Imperial Princess of Miss Kitty’s Bar in Gunsmoke, the Tasmanian Grand Duke of Reno, the Pig Empress…

Some of these title holders are called onstage just to be confirmed alive but several also perform. There is nothing like yesterday’s aerobic sacrilege of “I Want Your Sex,” although Mr. Nikki Coldwater comes close. He performs “For Your Entertainment” dressed like a blackbird with an S&M fetish. He taxis down the catwalk with narcissistic scorn, as if the song is a rebuke and he’s not here for anyone’s entertainment but his own. People stampede to the stage to tithe $1 tips.

Nikki is followed by Cowboy John, who I realise probably isn’t on meds but is just very old. His gold lamé jacket acts as a reflector that illuminates every wrinkle. The bags under his eyes resemble bunches of grapes. He performs “Razzle Dazzle” from Chicago and I can’t determine if his cane is a prop.

A couple from San Francisco performs the theme song from Growing Pains. Queens trudge to the edge of the catwalk to proffer tips, some kissing the dollars before giving them up, others essaying a curt nod or curtsy. It’s all part of the protocol that stipulates nothing can be done without filigree or accent.

Eventually it’s time to crown a new empress and the anticipation in the room is equivalent to anticipating a bowel movement. People eye the doorway or scroll through an alternate reality inside their phones. The royal family of Reno lines up across the stage as if for mug shots, and Empress Lillian musters a constipated smile for the twilight of her reign. A lush imperial robe, velvety and onion-coloured, is unraveled. The president of Reno’s imperial board clears his throat to announce the newly elected empress:

“Ladies and gentlemen, at this time the board has decided not to elect a new empress.”

If you’ve ever come close to fucking somebody but didn’t actually do it, that’s what the announcement is like. A kind of flagrant blue balls that makes the preceding two and a half hours seem like an insult to the natural order of things. Nobody seems to care. In no time at all the conference room is empty. Harrah’s personnel break down tables and sweep up glitter, their expressions inscrutable, just ordinary men doing honest work.