At first, it’s the bone structure that tips me off. Then, the thick, full lips. But ultimately, it’s the way he walks with unmistakable precision through Lulu’s crowded restaurant on Main that finally confirms that this man in a Spurs t-shirt could be none other than the singular Tencha La Jefa. When he joins our table and orders a cup of coffee, his suave carriage grossly contradicts his outlandish showbiz persona as one of San Antonio’s preeminent drag luminaries.
Fasten your seat belts because there’s only two things to remember on this ride: Pronouns are increasingly interchangeable — and drag, in all its diverse forms, is making a big comeback.
When Tencha, now 44, haphazardly began her drag career to make good on a dare for a fundraising event over a decade ago, she set in motion a public life dedicated to community service that would reward her over time with local notoriety. The dare was, however, on his terms. “I was like ‘I don’t want to come out pretty,’” he recalls. “I want to come out doing something funny.” How he came up with the name for his dentally-challenged brainchild goes back to his wonder years. “I remember there was this lady that was at my aunt’s house. Her name was Tencha. She always had rollers in her head,” he says, chuckling.
And La Jefa, a last name of sorts, came from someone at a function she was running who called her “La Jefa” in passing — it stuck. Monolingual fans have sometimes mistaken the last name as “La Heffer.” “I know I’m fat — but, no. It means ‘the boss,” he says.
When he smiles, I am genuinely surprised to see a full set of teeth.
A few days later, up the street on what is commonly known as the Strip, Michael Rodriguez, assistant general manager of the Pegasus Show Bar leads me to his office and shuts the door behind him. The room is dark and Orwellian; the kind of room that really only makes sense afterhours. He tells me how the previous owner of the Saint — Raphael Ruiz de Velasco — spent a lot of effort going around the country in search of the best drag performers of the day. Ruiz de Velasco passed away in 2002, but he planted a seed.
“He would book girls like crazy,” Rodriguez remembers. “The Saint kind of became the drag mecca. When he passed away, the family took over and they weren’t making an effort to basically bring the talent over and no one really focused on the shows.”
Eventually, the entertainers began to go their separate ways, ushering in a dark age of drag.
Rodriguez, now 31, managed the Saint for six years before coming to the Pegasus in February. He introduces me to Gabriel Dominguez, the Peg’s general manager, who was also one of Ruiz de Velasco’s employees. “He really fell for his legacy and what he had going on,” says Rodriguez of his GM.
Dominguez also fell for Ruiz de Velasco, a man roughly 30 years his senior, and for a time, they were an item. “We would talk all day long about business…about drag,” Dominguez recollects. He is impish and soft-spoken. “He would always tell me, ‘Listen closely to everything that I’m telling you because one day you’re going to need it.’ Ten years later, I’m using everything he taught me.”
Rodriguez still dreams of getting the Saint’s late ’90s gang back together again. “Shady Lady, Erica Andrews, Layla LaRue, Tersa Mathews, Kourtney Devereaux, Jenny McCall, Sweet Savage…Zori Zanell. Those are like the main show cast members at the time back when every night was just busy. We haven’t got them all. We’re still working on some,” he says intently as he leans back in his chair.
“The trick is getting the girls that people want to see. The crowd’s really different now. It’s a lot of younger kids, the 18 to 21 year olds, that don’t know the drag scene — the way it used to be.” He’s seen nights when the throngs who prefer Selena Gomez over Selena Quintanilla simply weren’t responding to the art form. Rodriguez took this as a challenge.
“We are trying to bring it back up by bringing in girls that the older crowds will like for their accomplishments and the younger crowds will like for their performances.”
When the phone rings, Rodriguez glances at the caller ID. “That’s Shady, right there,” he says as he silences his phone and places it back down on his desk.
And just like that, one of San Antonio’s most celebrated drag legends, Shady Lady, goes directly to voicemail.
One star, however, will not be able to join the soiree. In March, Erica Andrews passed away of a complicated lung infection according to reports.
Legend has it that last year, the most famous drag queen San Antonio has ever called her own popped out many “children” all at once at a competition at the Pegasus. Instead of crowning just one, the aphroditic somebody passed her gilded Andrews name on to all 25 surprised contestants to a multitude of mixed responses.
“That was her…knowing what was going on with her,” says Rodriguez. “She wanted to give everybody a chance to be part of that family. If you have that name it opens up a lot of doors.”
The drag cognoscenti would agree that the name Andrews carries with it a Kennedy-like distinction. The name was given to Erica by her “drag mother,” the equally exquisite Tandi Andrews, who once appeared on Sally Jessy Raphael to discuss her transgenderism.
Could any other drag performer in town potentially rise to an Erica Andrews-type royalty in the midst of this perfect storm?
Rodriguez produces two names. “Toni Raven [Andrews]. I think she’s going to be a big deal. She’s still technically new,” he says. “And Ka’aliyah McKim-Diamond. She’s gonna be big.”
Sometimes, even star names can’t draw crowds alone, and Rodriguez and others have to get a little creative.
“Getting gays to come out early is hard. For years we battled it,” Rodriguez confides. “We would throw cheap drinks, no cover, do early shows and they would not come out ‘til about 11:45 or 12:30.” At the Pegasus, they have a half-hour drag show at 10:30 p.m. that showcases classic club music, and a later one that focuses more on current R&B and hip-hop songs starting at 11:45 p.m. The model seems to be working. Over the course of only an hour after the 10:30 show one recent Friday night, the outdoor crowd grew from about 60 to 200.
And Rodriguez dictates the format that goes on their al fresco stage.
“We are very involved. We just have an image that we want as far as the way our girls look…act and perform…” he explains.
“There are times that we tell them, ‘you’re not doing that number. You need to think of something else because it’s something similar to what they did two days ago,’” he says. “Or we won’t let them use a costume unless a certain amount of weeks have gone by…. We want them to constantly be progressive and changing it up.”
But isn’t that expensive? I ask.
“They get paid very well,” he says confidently. “That’s the one thing I like about this bar. They pay the girls what they’re worth. They start off at a base rate, then, when they progress up the ladder through the pageant systems… When you win your city prelim and your state prelim, your rate goes up.”
And the Pegasusian showgirls are watched down to their behavior at the bars.
“If we find out that they got sloppy drunk at one bar… We don’t like that. There’s an image we want to give about our showgirls. Too often when people think about crossdressing or transvestites and drag queens they think of prostitutes…and drugs and stuff. We try to keep it professional so that people know this is a different caliber of girl. They are entertainers,” Rodriguez says.
Back at the Saint, promoter Rey Lopez of Rey Lopez Entertainment has found notable success in his Thursday night production, which runs roughly 90 minutes without an intermission.
“The owner of the Saint (Ruiz de Velasco), he made drag important,” says Lopez who brings a weekly parade of RuPaul’s Drag Race contestants to town. “I was told that I was the next him…by doing everything that I’m doing.”
He has an emcee, Tencha, and three first cast showgirls who are known as the RLE Girls.
Tencha opens the Thursday night show, dressed to the nines and lip-synching “Fuck Me,” a parody of torch standard “Get Here” by Oleta Adams. Swirling, colorful lights above highlight her intricate eye makeup. The semi-circle of mirrors behind her look like they were nicked from the non-equity tour of A Chorus Line. The headliner tonight is Jade Jolie who breathlessly grabs the mic after her second number and wishes everyone a wonderful sexual experience before the night is through – but not with her because she’s married.
Last year, when Lopez flew in a dozen RuPaul girls for his birthday bash in the ballroom of the Bonham Exchange – which had 1,200 fans in attendance, inadvertently setting a record. “I was the first person in the U.S. to have that many [RuPaul] girls come to a show. There hasn’t been a club or a person that has been able to get that many girls in one room. People flew in from Hong Kong, New Mexico…all over,” he says. His dialect is melodic and curt. “I’m very proud of that.”
Due to Lopez’s consistency with his guests, San Antonio is once again on the map among national headliners in the drag industry. Like a local drag Ziegfeld, Lopez soon had every queen in town asking for a guest spot in his show. Tired of saying no and coming off as callous, he came up with an idea. He created a Wednesday night competition at the Saint called Drag Me to Fame. “So you want to be in my Thursday night? Win Wednesday,” he says with an arch of his left brow.
“He has a certain eye,” says Tencha about Lopez. “He knows who the good ones are going to be and who needs work.”
Performing next to visiting headliners must put the pressure on the locals. Instead, however, Toni Raven Andrews (aka Toni R. Andrews), one of the stars of this show, finds it rather thrilling. “We are always upping our game because that’s what we have to do,” she says with a bop of her head.
SA drag superiority isn’t a secret, or exclusive to the Saint and the Pegasus. Local drag performers have a particular reputation to live up to when they travel around the country. “To me, this is the drag capital,” Former Mr. Gay UsofA at Large Dakota Whitney, who specializes in boy drag, explains. “We like to compete within…to make sure we are on top of each other…it’s a playful competition but we are always practicing to compete.”
Rodriguez, however, thinks calling SA the drag capital of the world is a bit of a stretch. At least for now.
“It was…for a very long time and we’re getting there [again],” he says thoughtfully. “I’ve been to cities where there’s no drag scene at all. Just a lot of cruisey bars and a lot of bears and stuff like that…you hear about that full-beard campy drag…and you go to San Francisco that’s all you find…you don’t realize what you’ve got here.”
However, purists may point to New York, where performers traditionally sing rather than lip sync, unlike San Antonio’s scene. Star impersonators like Rick Skye as Liza Minnelli, Tommy Femia as Judy Garland, Steven Brinberg as Barbra Streisand, and Jimmy James as an unforgettable Marilyn Monroe have created their own unique personas.
New York-based Richard Skipper, 52, who has performed almost exclusively as Carol Channing for the last 20 years, says it’s because audiences in the Big Apple have more options when it comes to seeing a live cabaret show. Not only does Skipper not lip sync, he has as rule of only using live musicians when he performs – never tracks.
“There was a time when drag was very mainstream and audiences went to see the Charles Pierces and the Craig Russells and the Jim Baileys of the world,” he says adding that Bailey played Carnegie Hall. “They were highly paid artists.”
“[Then] these artists stopped getting paid and as a result what started…proliferating in the clubs was lip sync artists…they worked in bars and clubs and they worked primarily for tips,” he says. “Not to say that there are not great artists in that area [of drag], but by doing so the bar dropped to the point where mainstream audiences didn’t think of drag being anything beyond farcical.”
Rodriguez says there are Texas cities where drag never fell below standard, like Dallas and Houston. He explains the reasons why San Antonio’s recent golden era of drag broke a heel. “Here I think it stopped because we didn’t pay attention to it. We kind of let it go. We got cheap,” he says. “The quality of our shows fell off. But to Tencha and others, San Antonio still sets a certain precedent, and there’s only one way to really get noticed.
“It’s harder for you to make it here in the drag capital,” Tencha says. “You can’t get a club booking without a state or national pageant title.”
The Peg has two pageants coming up and they help their own showgirls get their dresses, talent, and entry fee together. Rodriguez hopes one of them will win because pageant drag is a whole other level.
“It’s like my Super Bowl,” he says with a Chris Duel-type enthusiasm. “That’s when you bring out the best of the best. You are judged on every movement and every stitch of what you are wearing.” In the evening gown competition one can lose points for having minor strayaways in the hair. “Any tears in the panty hose, zippers on the dress, scuffs on the shoes?” He shakes his head disapprovingly. “You’ll see girls at these pageants being sewn into their dresses just so there’s no seams. The seamstress is just there sewing them up, taped and pushed up and everything.”
Not all pageant systems are created equal, however.
And as the three contestants line up for the Mr. and Miss Gay San Antonio for Life at SA Country Saloon, emcee Jasmine Blake makes an announcement. The crowns did not arrive. “The sashes are not ready either,” she adds as the organizer shrugs his shoulders and theatrically gestures with his open palms from the stage. “Stupid sash maker.”
If the Strip is Broadway, this is feeling a little like White Plains, New York. So close, yet so far away.
One thing the pageant at the Saloon can offer is the elusive drag component. Meet Austin York. He is competing in a pageant for Mr. Gay San Antonio for Life. As he and his two dancers walk off stage, I ask how he thought his boy band-inspired number went. “I think it went well,” he says earnestly. “I think it could have been stronger, but I think we did okay.” York, 37, trained for months to get his complex choreography down, and made his own costumes.
But there is one barrier between York and the coveted crown.
And that’s boy drag.
York says drag kings are afraid to come out and compete against the multitude of gay male performers in SA. “Male performers can come out half naked and do performances that us females cannot do,” she says, jutting out her chin displaying a thin, black goatee made from her own hair, glued with spirit gum.
“It’s drag kings vs. male performers and drag kings aren’t popular,” she says comparing the genre to the more thriving scene in Seattle where she once lived. “The lesbians who want to become drag kings will not even come out and try because of what you saw tonight,” she says after losing to a male drag performer.
I’m reminded of something Andrews said about everyone having “their own drag” as I take in a performance at the Saint by Austin-based performer Joe Fatale, 22, who lip synced “Amazing” by Hi Fashion. He wears a huge faux-hawk wig (that, no doubt, could have only been found in nearby Austin), a white tutu, suspenders and…well, little else.
And he’s wearing no makeup whatsoever. “I call it male drag,” Fatale says after the show. “I don’t want to be a drag queen. I just couldn’t do all the pads and the boobs, the makeup, the wigs.”
He says the response in SA is better than in Austin where he says “they don’t get it.” But the pageant system tends not to get it, either. “I’ve performed in my underwear and high heels before and it’s something that’s not really loved or accepted among pageants,” he says.
Despite all this, he still feels a part of the drag environment. “I feel like a part of it…but I feel like a bit of an outcast,” Fatale concludes. “I love it.”
59-year-old Mario Tapia, a San Antonio resident also crowned Mr. Gay Laredo for Life 2013, offers another view to the drag experience. As a guest performer, he lip synced to a Mexican ranchera dressed in a charro outfit and sombrero. No make-up. “A title opens doors for you,” he says, noting that as a titleholder it’s easier to ask for things like donations to your charity. His cause of choice is HIV/AIDS awareness. This year, his 16-year-old grandson was diagnosed with HIV.
Winning isn’t everything, of course. Plenty of queens honed their acts in the clubs before hitting the pageant circuit. Take Andrews, who is one of the hotter local names, for instance.
Andrews took her first last name from her drag mother Odyssey Raven. “They call them drag mothers but for other audiences to understand they’re like mentors,” she explains. “Like Asians will have their senseis…people to train you to be certain ways…people to look up to.”
Andrews snuck into a “Super Sunday” show at the Saint at the age of 16. “I was a horrible, horrible crossdresser mess,” she says with a quick shake of the head. She entered her first pageant three years later. “I was just a little amateur queen trying to find my place in this business. Little did I know that eight years later I would be one of the premiere girls of this city.”
Most drag queens need to be able to do crowd work on the mic between numbers to tame the sometimes unruly masses. Andrews shares one of the secrets of a great emcee. “Pop culture,” she says banging the table with the palm of her hand. “We emulate celebrities or make fun of celebrities. Celebrity lifestyles are what we base some of our characteristics on. Right now everyone is making fun of Amanda Bynes. In my day, everyone made fun of Britney Spears because she was crazy.”
Even in a post-politically correct world, it still seems important to ask how someone would like to be labeled in print. Tencha tells me she prefers to be called “an entertainer.” However, Andrews prefers “drag queen.” “Because that’s what it is,” says Andrews. “When most people think of a drag queen they think of RuPaul — a man trying to look like a woman. I just say crossdressers, queens with wigs, chicks with dicks…” She palpably tries to control her passion. “I don’t really care, I mean I use the term drag queen but you can call me fag, or this or…at the end of the day I go home and wash it off and I’m still a male. We all are going to be put down one way or another and if you can’t have your own sense of humor with it you’re never going to get over it,” she says.
But doesn’t it bother you when someone calls you a “fag?” I ask.
“No. I make fun of it,” she says. “I brought myself up never to be hurt by words. I’m proud of what God has made me inside. If you don’t have self-respect for yourself you won’t be able to make it in this business. Period.”
When Tencha was just starting out at the turn of this century, the dominant metaphor was that you’d made it big if you performed at the Saint. Now, you’ve made it big if you perform at the Pegasus. Tencha isn’t surprised when I tell her that the word out on the street is that the Pegasus is the new hub of drag in town.
“I can see why they would say that. A lot of the big names are there. Shady…and Layla…”
And he sees Dominguez as he sees Lopez — “very much the same.”
“They appreciate the art that we do,” he says. “They appreciate the art of drag. They appreciate the art of female impersonation. They appreciate the art of entertainment. I think that’s why people respect them because they see that passion. Gabriel encourages them to do their best. I can see why they’re saying that about Pegasus.”
He squints his eyes thoughtfully but says nothing more.
Lopez is big on giving his girls the star treatment. “He just makes us feel appreciated,” says Tencha. “And as long as I just feel appreciated I think I’ll be okay. I don’t need the red carpet or anything like that.”
For all their appreciativeness, club owners can get a little possessive. “There’s a rule right now. No showgirl from each bar can perform at the other bar,” says Rodriguez, who says the owners have enforced the regulation since he started with the Pegasus.
“How is that helping your girl if you are not allowing her to work anywhere else?” Lopez counters. “They have those rules. I don’t.”
According to Rodriguez, there are three exceptions. Competing in a pageant: Fine. Judging a pageant: Allowed. Performing at a benefit to help someone go somewhere for a charity: Sure, whatever.
Rodriguez brings up the San Antonio Spurs a few times too often for me not to ask. Are you in competition with the Heat and the Saint? “Always. I’m just a competitive person by nature,” Rodriguez says in a quick moment of self-discovery — then hastens to tell me that Dominguez is not.
Although many argue that the Pegasus is the new drag metropolis, Rodriguez thinks they’ve still got a long way to go. “That’s what my goal is,” he says carefully. “I do feel we are getting there.”
The drag revival on and off the Strip is abetted by the straight world finally getting hip to gay culture. Even RuPaul’s harshest critics must admit that putting drag queens on the small screen have in at least some part contributed to this drag renaissance.
“I performed at a quinceañera in Uvalde and I took a nonstop amount of pictures with children. More than adults,” Andrews says adjusting her glasses.
When I see her show a few days later, her transformation is astonishing.
“I respect RuPaul’s Drag Race…they are allowing families to understand the heart that goes into becoming who we are,” she says. Tencha, who’s been listening intently, adds “they see us more as people.”
Many young audiences are unaware that the sexy, celebrity impersonation-driven drag they see today wasn’t always the par.
Seasoned queens like CoCo Yepes who received a lifetime achievement award from the Texas for Life Pageant system earlier this month is outspoken on the subject when she directly approaches me by the pool table at the pageant’s location at the SA Country Saloon.
“Old drag is about the transformation,” she says balancing a cyclopean crown on her head. “Today it’s about the stripping. It’s like barlesque.”
Andrews has a slightly different take. “Now people just want to be sexy and pretty. We forgot what drag was at one point, which was camp drag. We lost all that,” she says. “I can admit that I’ve gotten kind of lost trying to be sexy.”
In the late ’90s, I recall Shady Lady walking around the Saint collecting dollar bills. When she got the amount that satisfied her, she’d roll around on the floor. “She’s still doing it!” Tencha and Andrews say in unison.
“That’s what drag was!” Andrews says with a downward point of her finger. “Now we have to do Jennifer Lopez [songs]. We have to do Madonna. We have to do what those kids know.”
“Back then…the queens had to make up their own big show,” says Tencha.
In fact, the nearly ubiquitous practice of making one’s own costumes sprang simply from the fact that department stores wouldn’t allow the queens to try on their ladies’ wear.
“And it was done,” Tencha adds. “They weren’t just coming to sell sex.”
But the current pop-culture focus does help create a common denominator for audiences, straight or gay. “The straight community appreciates what we’re doing more than the homosexual community,” says Andrews. “A lot of people come to our shows,” says Tencha of her weekly gig at the Saint. “You see a lot of regular people and you see a lot of straight people. Some of them would never have come here if it wasn’t for the RuPaul show.”
“And straight people…” He takes a deep breath and ponders for a moment. “I’m glad they’re there,” he says. “They get to see our world. We have to see their world all the time.”
And then he takes a sip of his coffee with those famous lips.
“I love that I get to be a part of that.”