Nothing cuts through the frigid gloom of a Vermont winter like a wild night of dancing and cross-dressing. Because, let's face it, gender roles are still pretty rigid in American society. And breaking them by donning an audacious dress or pasting on a fake mustache can be remarkably liberating.
This Saturday, hundreds of revelers will flock to Higher Ground to bend their gender at the 11th Annual Drag Ball. The event, a fundraiser for the Vermont People with AIDS Coalition, features a slew of DJs and performers, including The Dirty Blondes, Mr. Empire State Leather, and Skippy & the Chicksy Dicks. The entertainment will occupy both the Grand Ballroom and the Showcase Lounge, and will culminate with the ceremonial crowning of the 2006 King and Queen.
This year's Drag Ball is a major production, and for the fourth year in a row volunteers from the House of LeMay are its coordinators, gratis. The House isn't an actual place; it's a coterie of drag queens headed by Bob Bolyard and Mike Hayes, two gay men who masquerade as Amber and Marguerite -- the Sisters LeMay.
The Sisters and their multitude of fictional kin have become an institution in Vermont. They host benefits and fundraisers for an assortment of charities, most of them in the queer community. They also do drag shows at regional venues, and host the annual "Leaf Peepin' Cider Sippin' Revue." Several House of LeMay members will perform a cabaret at this year's Drag Ball, with their straight-guy back-up band The Decoys.
Over the years, the audience for the Sisters' shows has broadened. These days, Bolyard estimates that close to half their fans are middle-aged straight couples. That's because the LeMays aren't ordinary drag performers. Most entertainers who do drag value style over substance; they look realistic, but would rather lip-synch than sing. Not the LeMays. They write and perform their own material, and play their looks for laughs.
Scene queens might call it "bad drag," but LeMay fans say it's good fun. Especially if you like redneck humor.
Yes, the LeMays are, more or less, redneck drag queens. They're tacky, crass and politically incorrect. And they look more like your loony Aunt Ethel than some sexy woman of the night. But what do you expect from a bunch of broads who claim to hail from the Hot Damn Trailer Park in Beaver Pond, Vermont? And where is that, exactly? "Oh, it's out there. It's over there someplace," Bolyard answers over lunch at Halvorson's. "Most people assume it's in the Northeast Kingdom, and we don't persuade them otherwise."
Bolyard, 50, is taking a lunch break before heading to one of his four part-time jobs. He's a health outreach worker at the R.U.1.2? Community Center; he works as a professional test patient for the Medical College at the University of Vermont; and he helps out at the Champlain Valley Senior Center. He also hosts Saturday night karaoke at the St. John's Club in Burlington.
Today he's dressed casually, in jeans and a cable-knit sweater, with a button-down work shirt underneath. Our fellow diners are no doubt unaware of his feminine alter ego.
Bolyard explains that the LeMays are not transgender. They're not transsexuals or, technically, even cross-dressers. They don't want to be women, and they don't get off on dressing in women's clothes. They're just guys who like to act. "These are characters," he says.
He and Hayes first shimmied into skirts 12 years ago. The two friends had been doing stand-up routines, but performing as themselves. "People just didn't laugh much at us," Bolyard remembers.
Things changed when the pair saw former Burlington drag queen Cherie Tartt. "We said, 'We can do that," Bolyard says. At first it was just the two of them, but eventually they made room in the act for a few friends. Now the House of LeMay has at least four members, and their shows often feature appearances by special guests such as game warden Bucky Snatcher.
On the last Sunday in January, the LeMay regulars -- Bolyard, Hayes, Johnnie McLaughlin and Michael Glidden -- gather at the Old North End apartment Bolyard and Hayes share. They're preparing for their Drag Bingo show at Red Square, a fundraiser for PRIDE Vermont.
It's only 1:30 in the afternoon, but they're already drinking; alcohol helps loosen their lips. It helps the audience, too. "We're not pretty women," Hayes quips. "But the more you drink, the prettier we look." Glidden arrives late, so doesn't have time to imbibe, but Hayes and McLaughlin are sipping mimosas. Bolyard has a tall glass of OJ with "Vitamin V" -- a.k.a. vodka.
The apartment's living room is crammed with various corrugated-cardboard props for the Drag Ball, and for the LeMay's Mardi Gras float in the parade down Church Street later in February.
But if the mess here is temporary, the apartment's basement is hopelessly cluttered. Two sewing machines sit on a counter in the center of the room. Plastic bins of wigs and shoes line the walls, along with cowboy hats, sombreros and rack upon rack of women's clothes. A large metal tackle box full of cosmetics lies open on the floor in front of the make-up station -- a full-length mirror turned on its side and illuminated by seven bright, round bulbs. Welcome to the LeMay workshop.
Hayes, a tall, beefy 49-year-old, is putting the finishing touches on his outfit. He's already squeezed himself into a beaded black dress, and has nearly finished his face. "This is work," he says with a huff. Hayes describes his layers. First, he says, there's clean underwear, then panty hose, and a girdle. "Then," he says, "you slide in your tits."
Hayes explains how to make fake breasts: Take a pair of nylons and cut off the legs. Then fill them with birdseed. "You can even make a nipple if you tie it just right," he says.
As for outerwear, Hayes has plenty to choose from. A clerk at Rags and Riches fabric store, he's also a former college costume-design instructor who still works with local theater companies. Hayes has compiled quite a wardrobe. He points out dresses, miniskirts and matching hers-and-hers outfits. "We love glitter and sparkles," he gushes.
Hayes often whips up garments on his own. "We have Xena and Gabrielle outfits," he says, referring to characters from the TV show "Xena: Warrior Princess," a queer cult classic.
McLaughlin, who has completed his transformation to Lucybelle, interrupts. "That was a number of years ago," he clarifies. Bolyard, whose miniskirt is barely visible under his blazer, chimes in. "That was the last time I shave my chest." You can almost hear him rolling his eyes.
Hayes also points to a few garish dresses covered with American flags, and one outrageously patriotic American flag peasant blouse. Apparently the LeMays have had a few Fourth of July gigs. But why the multiple outfits? "You can't wear the same thing two years in a row," Hayes protests. "People will talk."
Meanwhile, Glidden rushes down the stairs to begin his transformation. He's behind schedule, still wearing jeans and a button-down black shirt. He has boxy glasses, and looks like a guy you'd run into at IKEA.
But then he strips off his shirt, bares his hairy chest, and gets to work. First Glidden opens his plain metal, construction-worker-type lunch box. The round hollow meant for a Thermos actually holds two rice-filled nylon bags -- fake boobs.
He grabs some heavy-duty foundation from the box and begins slapping it on his face with a plastic spatula. "It's meant to cover up scars, burns, 5 o'clock shadows," Glidden says.
Next, he applies powder. "The base is greasy," he explains, "and if you don't set it, everything else slides around on it."
McLaughlin sits on a stool behind him, waiting patiently and sipping his drink. He's the most glamour-conscious of the group. Over his beaded green dress he proudly sports a lavender sash that reads "Miss Beaver Pond." Pinned to it at the top are four buttons -- awards from drag-queen contests at the Provincetown Carnival. One, from 2001, is for Best Drag Queen. The other three are for "Biggest Hair." "I won three years in a row," he twitters happily. Indeed, his bird's nest of brown hair -- a wig, natch -- is enormous.
McLaughlin's character is a cousin to Amber and Marguerite LeMay. Lucybelle hails from Mississippi. The LeMays joke that she's their "foreign-exchange student."
In fact, they've created quite an elaborate fictional world for their characters. Amber and Marguerite, for example, grew up in a doublewide in the last row of the trailer park, next to the sewage treatment plant in Beaver Pond. The town itself is small, but there's apparently room for a few shops, such as Peggy's Plump & Proud, and the Fluff 'n' Stuff Beauty Salon & Taxidermy.
Liza Little, Glidden's character, runs the Edna St. Vincent LeMay Memorial Laundromat, Library, Community Center & Lint Museum. "Liza brings culture to the show," adds Glidden as he smears a thick trail of blue eye shadow towards his ears.
He compares Beaver Pond to Garrison Keillor's Lake Woebegon. "It's the other side of the tracks," Glidden explains.
When the ladies are ready, they climb the stairs to the living room and pick up their giant bingo cards. Glidden has undergone a complete transformation. The 6-footer now sports a green velvet dress, black sneakers, a short, mousy-brown wig with wispy, straw-like strands of hair, and a hideous set of crooked fake teeth. A long, snaggly one in front is painted gold.
"The gold one's my inheritance," he warbles in an overly loud, ugly voice. "Brought a ballpeen hammer to the wake."
Glidden beckons the ladies to his van. He'll be driving to the bar downtown. They arrive half an hour early for the 3 o'clock show.
The first person to show up is Rose Kelly, of Burlington. Kelly has been to several LeMay shows. She's happily married -- to a man -- and has two teenage children. She describes herself as Italian Catholic, a conservative Republican, and says she's thinking of volunteering for Republican Richard Tarrant's Senate campaign.
But she loves the LeMays. "They can get away with comments that no one else can," Kelly says.
The gay thing doesn't bother her. "It shouldn't be an issue," she insists. "You gotta get out of your box and enjoy life, and enjoy people."
Sergio Corrales, a gay massage therapist, arrives later. Corrales, who emigrated to the U.S. from Costa Rica, says he's seen drag shows everywhere, from Montreal to Miami, and he prefers the LeMays.
"Their humor is so clean," he says. He calls their comic style "old-fashioned." "I've seen drag queens make fun of drug addicts, and sleeping around," he says. "They glamorize being a crystal-meth addict."
He remembers one drag queen in Montreal. "She came out with a huge joint, and was talking about cocaine and ecstasy," he says. "With the Sisters LeMay . . . it's more like making fun of themselves."
And that's essentially the secret to the LeMays' success -- that and the fact that they never pass up an opportunity to do a benefit show. Instead of delivering a fantasy, the LeMays reflect a Vermont working-class reality that's not far removed from the one popularized by Rusty Dewees' Logger.
Consider a song Marguerite sings on the DVD of the LeMays' 2005 "Leaf Peepin' Cider Sippin' Revue." In it, she describes the mobile home of her dreams. "A car up on some cinder blocks," she croons earnestly, "the transmission in the sink. / A Jesus in a bathtub, / a Mary in a half-shell. / In a doublewide, that we share, where it don't smell." And, she notes, her husband falls asleep drooling while watching ESPN.
If Marguerite/Hayes had been standing onstage in jeans and a flannel shirt, he might have made some of his audience uncomfortable. But he's wearing a saucy brown wig and a frilly white apron over his black skirt. In the background, everybody laughs.