These girls are glamazons. Their drag queen motto is simple: “hair and paint make a man what he ain’t.”
And their den mother, the inimitable Miss Shi-Queeta Lee, is a local phenomenon, an indefatigable impresaria who keeps them in line, ready for even more recognition if their D.C.-based reality TV show goes on area television later this year.
But in the meantime they appear every Sunday at Nellie’s Sports Bar — and for this weekend’s Capital Pride also on Saturday — as the stars of the weekly “drag brunch,” which continues to pack in people, into the big first floor corner room framed by big windows looking out onto U Street N.W. Shi-Queeta’s aim is always to keep them looking their best, and as the growing band of drag brunch regulars can attest, these girls do, each of them — five in all, including Shi-Queeta Lee (or SQL, for short).
But who is this Wonder Woman? She has been a Blade favorite, winning this paper’s reader’s choice as Best Drag Performer in 2006. In 2009 she appeared at the People’s Inaugural LGBT Gayla, on the eve of the swearing in of President Barack Obama. Now she appears to be nearly everywhere at once. She not only headlines the Sunday drag brunch but in addition hosts Tuesday night’s drag bingo, also at Nellie’s, and she is the “Diva of Town,” appearing there as a cast member of the Danceboutique’s drag shows every Friday and Saturday night. But where did it all begin, before the person born and raised as Jerry Van Hook became Shi-Queeta Lee, and how did this persona emerge?
“There ain’t too much to say about Jerry,” she says today, “because Shi-Queeta done took Jerry over.”
But the answer to his life in female impersonation is more complicated that that and it begins to unfold in Gretna, Va., on a farm near that small town south of Lynchburg. He was born there in 1964, the fifth of six siblings, and he seems always to have been conscious of his feminine side, saying, “I was a real country girl then, because I was a girl there, too!” But growing up, “No one called me fag or punk, and I wasn’t bullied,” he says. “They just didn’t know what to call me.”
He was a farm boy for sure. “We would get up at 5 a.m. to slop the hogs, feed the chickens and milk the cows,” he recalls. His father owned the farm but he was also a tobacco sharecropper. By high school, he recalls, “we were known as the black ‘Brady Brunch,’” since they had a live-in Alice (their aunt), like the TV sitcom of the early 1970s.
While he loved drama and music in high school, and excelled in art, he also played basketball and tennis, and in the first half of high school he played cornerback on the football team’s defensive line and ran the ball also as tailback. Later he also was a team cheerleader. After graduating, he went to the University of Pittsburgh Art Institute to study commercial art there, but two months later he returned home. He was, he says, “homesick” and he didn’t like the colder temperatures.
First he found work at a local show factory, learning how to make women’s shoes. He says that he continued to draw, especially family portraits, but he stopped pursuing it as a career, though he still has “that creative vision, which you have to have doing drag.” Eventually, an uncle who lived in Washington visited and told young Jerry that “you should live in D.C.” And so, the youth packed his bags on Christmas Day in 1985 and moved, living with his uncle for a few months, while he took several short-term jobs until he found his calling, in hospitality and food service, becoming first a busboy and then a waiter at Planet Hollywood.
Soon he was also helping train crews for the restaurant chain, which flowered in the mid-1990s backed by film stars Sylvester Stallone, Arnold Schwarzenegger and Bruce Willis. During its heyday, “That’s when I got to see the world for free,” he recalls, traveling to Atlanta and Orlando as well as to France and Indonesia. Later he worked for BET (Black Entertainment Television) when it opened its own Caribbean-style restaurants.
Later he began an acting career also, in road shows on what he calls the “chittlin’ circuit.”
He took a job as wardrobe and costume designer for a play starring the actor Billy Dee Williams, “The Maintenance Man,” and also as an extra in the play, which was about a high-priced male escort. Van Hook admits that later, as a drag queen, he also worked “for a few years” as a male escort. It’s something he says, that many drag queens do so “at some point, if you need some faster cash to make ends meet,” and there are always customers, generally straight men who sometimes frequent gay bars “to fulfill that sexual fantasy.”
In the meantime, he was also pitching for the D.C.-area gay softball team, the JR Gamecocks, and at the end of one season, in October 1998, he was chosen by the team to appear in a drag show, the Magic Tournament, a pageant sponsored by the North American Gay Amateur Athletic Alliance. Looking back, Shi-Queeta says, “It was considered to be camp, like a Halloween costume, you just put on a wig and lipstick and you just did it yourself.” But Van Hook, as he was still then known, told his team that if he would appear in the show, he would take it seriously, “as a real drag queen.” So he decided “to hire a professional drag queen to put me together,” the late Chynna Pen Darvis who became what he calls his “drag mother.”
That first pageant appearance was Shi-Queeta’s “breakthrough moment.” The name Shi-Queeta was the choice of his softball team coach at the time, Chip Brown. This was because Jerry was still living in Anacostia at the time, and “Chip thought I needed, tongue-in-cheek, a ghetto-type name.” As Shi-Queeta, he won each of the four categories.
“I didn’t expect to win,” he says, “But when I did win, I couldn’t put a pump down because I was walking on air.”
She began appearing at several D.C. gay bars like Bachelor’s Mill, the original Ziegfeld’s, Omega and Chaos, where she hosted a drag bingo until it closed in 2008. Town co-owner Ed Bailey suggested she approach Doug Schantz, co-owner of Nellie’s Sports Bar.
“I talked to Doug,” she says, “and he gave me a trial basis on a Tuesday night, and when he saw what money we could make at 8 p.m. on that night, it was heaven sent.”
Next came the Sunday drag brunch, which began in January 2010 at Nellie’s, though Shi-Queeta had pioneered an earlier version at the old Cada Vez, then at 14th and U streets N.W. At Nellie’s, it’s become so popular that she says “it’s now hard to get a reservation.”
The six girls shimmy and sashay through their lip-synch numbers, bejeweled and in full and flawless makeup and plumage with get-ups like bright red Minnie Mouse hair bows and polka-dot sashes, and sequined skin-tight lavender minidresses. It’s all illusion of course, though one of them announces, “If there’s a plastic surgeon in the house, give me your card, I need a real rack!”
Schantz says Lee and his cooks make a great combination.
“She brims with vivacious entertainment,” he says. “(That and) the inspiriing dishes keep guests singing for more.”
Shi-Queeta herself appears at the end in a flared, floor-length evening gown singing the Diana Ross classic, “I’m coming out, I want the world to know, and want to let it show!” And that’s exactly what Shi-Queeta plans, as producer and creator of the proposed new reality TV series, “Drag City D.C.,” featuring her and five of her girls, Epiphany Bloomingdale, LaCountress Farrington, Chanel Devereaux, Tyria Iman and Raquel Savage Black, in a “Real Housewives”-stye show that has already completed production on three short pilots as “teasers.” Shi-Queeta hopes they will begin to air eight completed, 30-minute episodes later this year on local cable — DCTV public access on Comcast channel 95 and in Arlington, Va., on Comcast channel 69. She’s hoping the stations will also run more episodes of her talk show “Spill da Tea With Shi-Queeta Lee.”
“We will tell the ins and outs of our lives,” says Shi-Queeta, in her persona as CEO of Van Hook Productions. “But also how we are giving back to the community, one show at a time.” In one of the shows the girls put together 200 bags of groceries for Food and Friends, and in another they perform a drag show on roller-skates as a benefit for SMYAL. In the third, they join a pole-dancing and belly-dancing class, “to show us keeping fit,” says Shi-Queeta, “so we can fit into our girdles.”
Nellie’s Sports Bar is at the corner of 9th and U Streets, NW. For more information on the Sunday Drag Brunch, which is offered every Sunday from 11 am to 4 pm, for $20 per person, visit nelliessportsbar.com. For more information on the “Drag City DC” TV show, visit dragcitydc.com.