While some migrate downtown to attend Sunday services, Godfrey's girls attract a capacity audience to worship at the temple of glamour.
A Little More Mascara
After Saturday night's club scene, the downtown stretch of East Grace Street sleeps in on Sunday mornings. At 10 o'clock the only action is a scuffle between two pigeons fighting for a fallen french fry. The empty storefronts from the Carpenter Center to the Times-Dispatch building seem to bow reverently, as if listening to the preacher's words that echo through Centenary United Methodist Church. Despite the early hour and the chilly drizzle that falls, a crowd stirs in front of Godfrey's restaurant at 308 E. Grace St. Fifteen people huddle and wait for the door to open and the chance to snatch a good table.
With just 45 minutes 'til show time, the performers known as owner Jeff Willis' "girls"are getting ready. Down a dark, steep staircase carpeted with thick mustard-yellow shag, a low-ceilinged room cages the stars of Godfrey's Drag Brunch. Here, a chef and three hair stylists shed their work-week personas for the chance to transform themselves into Sunday-brunch beauty queens.
Stage name: Victoria C. Snow
Occupation: hair stylist
Favorite leisure activity: shopping
Brush with celebrity: was once invited to Patti LaBelle's home for a party
Age: "A lady never tells her age!"A long mirrored Formica counter serves as a vanity. Wide-eyed and perched forward, India and Cricket (stage names) brush through their first routine: applying the makeup. Concealer, foundation, powder, rouge, eye shadow, eyeliner, lipstick, mascara. All are applied in thick, heavy, repeated strokes. After 30 to 45 minutes this caked-on, pore-clogging effect is something to behold. The blatant and unblotted illusions of female faces approvingly smile back at these female impersonators.
In a back room neatly lined with ball gowns and gorgeous wigs, Vicky, director for today's routine, prepares herself in her secluded sanctuary. Running late, the last showgirl, Nadia, makes her entrance like Za Za from "La Cage aux Folles," laughing apologetically in flannel pajamas and slippers her "face" already on and her blonde cropped wig mimicking the coif of Carol Channing.
Brunch host Willis whisks through the dressing room with hellos and prompts for the girls to hurry. From racks of beaded and bejeweled dresses some gaudy, even garish, all snug as a glove today's cast of India, Cricket, Nadia and Victoria choose their couture for the opening number.
Upstairs, the restaurant is now packed every seat taken, every bar stool occupied. Servers scurry between tables to take orders. The crowd is a melting pot of brunch-goers. Men, women, twentysomethings, baby boomers, lesbians, gays and grandparents, all figure in the mix.
Stage name: Nadia Shane Snow
Occupation: hair stylist
Claim to fame: currently holds title of "Miss National Queen of Queens"
Favorite attribute: her enthusiasm
Natural hair color: undisclosedGodfrey's acoustics are less than perfect. The 11 o'clock curtain time signals like a foghorn warning a convoy. Ceiling speakers blast the fuzzy opening bars of "Les Cagelles" or "We Are What We Are," the main score from the Broadway musical "La Cage aux Folles." Chatter stops and eyes fix on the emerging ensemble.
From the back of the restaurant four dazzling, scantily clad lip-syncing divas prance across the hardwood floor and stand poised with backs turned to the audience. Cricket and India glisten on display in the old showcase windows facing Grace Street. Nadia and Vicky bat lashes and pucker up, bright and larger than life. The audience grins in unison at these giant dressed-up men. Arms extend and wrists flip up to the music's blaring beat. And this is only the beginning of the repertoire. These showgirls are just warming up.
Following the opening routine, each girl performs solo. India, Cricket, Nadia and Vicky take turns tantalizing the crowd amid the spectators' bites of eggs Benedict, sips of bloody Marys and bottomless cups of coffee.
India uncoils from the back like a cobra with a turban wrapped ear to ear. She mouths the words to an Erykah Badu song and slithers between the curious appetites of patrons. The bartender and a few servers produce dollar bills and wave them in India's direction. She moves in close with a hypnotic gaze and tucks the bills away. The crowd picks up on the employees' less-than-subtle tip. Pockets and purses are picked for dollar bills. Table by table India steals a glance and wins the greenbacks of her audience.
Stage name: Felicia Taylor Farrington
Occupation: restaurant worker
Favorite attribute: her dancing ability
Age: a shameless 23Next, Cricket embraces onlookers with her choreographed version of the Eurythmics "Sweet Dreams." Draped in a black cape with barely anything underneath, Cricket sashays in sexy, spiked, black boots that could truly spin on a dime. The third contestant in this pageant, Victoria, springs from her silken self-spun web. Black and white all over and taking glamour to a scary level, Victoria lip-syncs the theme from "Kiss of the Spider Woman" and bats her lashes cat-style like Eartha Kitt. This regalia is one of many handmade costumes and Victoria's trademark.
Lastly, Nadia stuns the audience in metallic silver and spins crazily to a techno-version of "Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds." At the song's crescendo, Nadia throws open the door and lunges onto Grace Street. All faces stare bewildered at the sight of this shaking silver drag queen raging silently out in the open and in the middle of the street.
Chatter breaks out between sets as house music vibrates in the background. Two mid-forties-looking conservatively dressed women at an adjoining table lean close between drinks and cigarettes to size-up the performers. One of the two tugs Willis' elbow as he passes to ask when exactly India will be scheduled to appear again.
The speakers signal loud reverb again and diners push plates away for the big finale. Experienced drag-brunch-goers grin ear to ear and novices look around with anticipation. After various routines and incarnations, the cabaret cast files in one last time. In a Can-Can-like number the girls get restless. Egged-on by Godfrey's employees, India, Cricket, Victoria and Nadia initiate a cat fight of off-the-scale proportions. Hilarity and pandemonium ensue as these songbirds become uncaged and largely unclothed. Feathers ruffle over more than french fries. This is the high-stakes number known as "Diving for Dollars," where audience members ball up dollar bills and throw them into the middle of the floor to see the girls scramble, scratch and fight for the biggest share of the tip pool. Props are whipped out: a rope, a hairbrush, trash bags and handcuffs. Anything to spice up the action. Victoria hikes Nadia's skirt up over her waist. Cricket yanks off India's wig. Victoria and India get locked out on the sidewalk for a spell half-stripped with mascara smearing their cheeks and hairpins sticking up on previously hidden men's haircuts.
Inside this building the mood is anything but reverent. The music ends, the shenanigans halt, and the money is gathered in trash bags like wadded-up spitballs. It's a little after 1:30, and Godfrey's Drag Brunch is over this weekend. The ladies at the adjoining table finish their Manhattans. One powders her nose as the other pays the bill. From the side pocket of her purse she pulls her credit card and two tickets for a matinee performance of "Orfeo and Euridice" at the Carpenter