Queens vie for the Trannyshack crown

  • by Jenn Buck
  • Tuesday November 15, 2005
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In San Francisco, activists come in — and with — different packages. This one is six-foot-something with a three-day beard, hard to recognize without her lip gloss. Heklina, the city's premier professional princess, sips his morning coffee-milk at a cafe table in the Castro, and surveys the scene from under her baseball cap.

"It's all drag to me," he says, looking around Cafe Flore, pointing out pretty gay men trying to look tough in their butchest Abercrombie flannel shirts.

If this is drag, wait until Saturday night. Ten years of tiaras and tears are set to converge upon the stage at the Regency Grand Ballroom as the Miss Trannyshack Pageant comes screaming back to life for 2005.

Eight new queens will step into the spotlight, hoping to take home the crown. Judges at the event will include porn producer Chi Chi LaRue and former Go-Go's Gina Schock and Jane Wiedlin. Drag phenom Juanita More will join Heklina as ringmistress for the spectacle. Last year's leading lady, Anna Conda, will be on hand to pass on her tiara and bid an emotional farewell. And if this year's pageant is anything like the last nine, some queens will be girls, some will be boys, and somebody will definitely smash her runner-up roses on the stage and stomp off in disgust as she comes in second.

It's comforting to know that life in California yields a few certainties. Flocks of swallows return to Capistrano; leaves bud, green, and then fall. Once a year in San Francisco, M.A.C. stores sell out, seamstresses wear their fingers to the bone, and wigmakers fluff each available strand into towering coiffures.

That's right, as sure as summer fog, Miss Trannyshack returns to the city, and every last ticket, every year, is snapped up. In a city where nothing is shocking, one might wonder why a parade of gay men wearing more makeup than Tammy Fae can retain its appeal.

Maybe because of Heklina. Word on the street is that she's a shrewd businesswoman, a success-driven bitch. But the soft-spoken guy in lacrosse shorts with his strong-but-moisturized hands wrapped around a coffee cup seems anything but.

"San Francisco is suspicious of ambition," he says, in a quiet, earnest tone. "People think you're selling out."

The boy in the ballcap wants success, he says, but only on his own terms. He wants to be well-known for not compromising.

In or out of drag, Heklina doesn't seem like one to pander to the masses. Her weekly Trannyshack show, SF's nonpareil drag cabaret for 10 glamorous years, may well have offended more people than it has endeared; in its decade of Tuesday night performances at the Stud, Trannyshack has sprayed audiences with (fake) blood, stripped people naked, set things on fire and given blowjobs on stage.

Sure enough, Heklina ain't lying when she says she doesn't care about pleasing tourists — or anyone else. Even the name "Trannyshack" is alienating to some transgender people, who feel the title falsely promises a trans-specific event.

Beyond boundaries

But bending gender over backwards may be the mistress's secret to success. To the displeasure of drag purists, Heklina has slowly, perhaps inadvertently, expanded the boundaries of drag performance to include such shockingly unconventional performers as biological women and transgender people. Heklina says drag is performance, drag is play. Drag can be anything.

"If you're wearing a leather outfit and trying to be really butch, that's a kind of drag," she said.

"Trannyshack is political in the sense that it's letting anything be drag," she said — a notion that, albeit San Franciscan, is highly unusual.

Despite the campy, deviant nature of most drag shows, there exists a kind of orthodoxy in the world of female impersonation: to be a drag queen, you'd better have a dick under that dress, missy.

In the US, drag culture has kept the same core values since the 1930s and 40s. Biological-men-performing-as-women has remained the norm while other parts of society have moved forward, according to Mistress H. But at Trannyshack, the exception has become the norm.

"San Francisco is a great city," she said. "We've blasted away all those things about traditional drag."

It's true: the Miss Trannyshack Pageant has invited participants from all across the sex/gender/performance spectrum, including drag kings. In 2003, a biological woman was crowned supreme diva.

That decision caused a total uproar in the drag community. Heklina's mailbox was instantly filled by praise and hate mail. But the one response she didn't get: a decline in ticket sales.

"Miss Trannyshack is a spectacle," she said with a girlish giggle. "There's always a fallout afterward."

Heklina doesn't care why people come to see her show. To her, it's about keeping it fresh, lively and local. She's contemplating taking it on the road, but not if she has to compromise.

 "It's a special thing that happened here in San Francisco," she said. "It would be hard to replicate."

Miss Trannyshack Pageant: Sat., Nov. 19, Regency Center, 1300 Van Ness Ave., SF. Tickets ($20 advance; $30 at the door): www.ticketweb.com