Pittsburgh Drag Queen Doesn't Care What You Think
Jezebel Bebbington D’Opulence discovered her place in the world through taking to the stage in drag.
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photos by JOHN ALTDORFER
Backstage at the Blue Moon in Lawrenceville, the girls are primping before they step onto a stage the size of a tabletop. The floor is barely visible, covered by a pink wig, a pair of pink stilettos (with silver bells on the toes) and a large duffel stuffed with Sephora makeup bags, boxers and Old Spice Pure Sport deodorant.
Standing at the mirror is Moon Baby. Tight, white jumpsuit. Gold lamé top. “We’re definitely a community that’s really supportive of each other,” she says, applying a theatrical swipe of blue lipstick. Anytime someone has a problem: cancer, leukemia, an abscess tooth — everyone shows up. Moon Baby, Niona, Bella Nouveau, Tootsie. “There are plenty of drag queens who don’t like to do benefits, but we do,” Moon Baby adds. “And Jez is great. She could say, ‘I just want you to be here and do it for free,’ and I would. She’s just killer.”
Jezebel Bebbington D’Opulence is the reason the girls are here at 11 p.m. on a Sunday.
Jezebel is sitting at a corner table. Shimmering burgundy gown hugging perky breasts and size 2 hips. Long legs in black fishnets. Sparkly silver polish on her toes; shimmering gold stilettos on her feet. All to raise money for people who Jezebel loves dearly and no one else in the bar has ever met.
“You need heroes,” she says.
Tonight’s Gens4PR benefit — “Generators for Puerto Rico, dahling,” she laughs, “I figured I’d give it a little gender-bending name” — will raise money to buy propane generators to send to people such as her aunts, uncles and cousins. And, most importantly, her 86-year-old father, Miguel, all left in the cataclysmic wake of hurricanes Irma and Maria.
“I have no money,” she says. So, she created Gens4PR, asked the Blue Moon if she could hold a benefit here and called the girls.
On one of three muted televisions, Martha Stewart is whipping up something yummy. Chop, chop, simmer, simmer. Chicken frying to a golden brown. Tina Turner videos are playing on another. And in the center, a looping slideshow of men; tight bodies, coy smiles. No one pays attention. Instead, Niona, Tootsie and Jezebel are huddled at the end of the bar, talking. About makeup. Men. Girl stuff. “I’m dating someone nine years younger than me, and I’m not gonna be the one to tell him.”
“Nothing’s weird, dahling,” Jezebel smiles. “Just out of the ordinary.”
Jezebel’s GoFundMe account, for the Puerto Rico aid, is up to $370. They need $1,500 for one generator. She wants to send two.
By midnight, the Blue Moon is a full house. Jezebel to the stage first. She changed into a sheer bodysuit, electric blue bustier, short, fringed skirt, and black stilettos. The music starts. Body moving, hair whipping wildly as she lip syncs to Gloria Estefan.
People reach out to her with dollars; $600 total. Too many for Jezebel to hold.
“I took it upon myself because my dad is there. He’s stuck down there with no car, no running water,” she says, breathless after her performance. “And these girls … I will forever be indebted to each and every one of you for coming out today.”
“I met Jezebel when I first started drag, when I was 20,” says Niona, now 22. “She’s a force to be reckoned with. She is literally every ounce and piece of the LGBT drag culture I’ve ever seen, easily one of the trailblazers of the drag scene in Pittsburgh. She’s amazing.”
“We don’t shower, dahling. We soak.”
Before any show, Jezebel will immerse herself into a large clawfoot tub painted a dusty rose on the outer half. On the bathroom walls of her Charleroi apartment hang two plush, amethyst-colored, terry cloth towels and framed beauty advertisements featuring Marilyn Monroe for Tru-Glo liquid makeup and Lustre-Cream Shampoo (“the favorite beauty shampoo of 4 out of 5 top Hollywood stars”).
In three hours, she’ll head out for the night. First, across the river to a drag bingo benefit to raise money for the North Belle Vernon Volunteer Fire Department and then Downtown for another show at There Ultra Lounge.
Dominating her living room is a garment rack groaning under the weight of shimmering gowns and bustiers. A line of size-11 stilettos marches across the scuffed hardwood floors, sparkling rose gold, open-toed, red satin, strappy black. DVDs including “Brokeback Mountain,” “Sunset Boulevard,” and the complete first season of “I Love Lucy” are stacked next to a television on which the “Rocky Horror Picture Show” is playing. Two dogs patter around, in search of laps to sit on; the dachshund is named Cookie Lu, and the “Jack Russell with no consideration and no sense of listening” is named Emilia Pucci, after Jezebel’s favorite designer.
“Emilia! Get out of my room!”
Cross legged, curls wild, bare faced and wearing a silky, champagne-colored robe, she sips from a martini glass emblazoned with her name and pink and purple polka dots. “Up,” she says. “I don’t like the mixes.”
Before Jezebel was Jezebel, she was Orlando. “I try to avoid divulging my last name… people can find out so much with your last name,” she says. Born in the Bronx in 1967, raised in Puerto Rico. By the time Orlando was 4, the parents knew.
“They caught me playing with Barbie dolls,” she laughs. Everything his sister Lourdes had, Orlando loved. The pink, the frills, the dolls.
“I didn’t know what gay was. Kids in the neighborhood called me faggot and pato and maricón and all this shit and I’d be like, ‘What the hell is that?’ I didn’t even know what sexuality was,” she says. “I knew that I wasn’t going to start playing soldiers and be masculine or play baseball or even like the Boy Scouts … which they signed me up for.”
“My mother loved me no matter what,” she says. “My dad was ashamed.” He showed it with his backhand.
“How could he do that?” His mother and grandma would coo. “You fragile little thing!”
“I’m not saying it was anybody’s fault, but now that I look back, I feel bad for him.”
After high school, Orlando enrolled at the University of Puerto Rico. He loved theater, dance. His mother pushed him to major in business administration and accounting. “I was like, ‘I hate accounting.’ You know what I used to do when accounting class came? I’d go to the pool hall and drink beer with the black boys.”
By 1987, his mother was exasperated. Orlando had become out of control. So, he was shipped off to Fort Lauderdale to live with his gay uncle. And fresh off of his 21st birthday party, still nursing a hangover, Orlando met Allen.
“My first love,” she smiles.
Allen was debonair. Had a good job, a fabulous new Firebird, a nice condo. “In 1988, that was everything,” she says.
Eventually, they settled into a beautiful cottage on the beach. One day, while Allen was out of town, Orlando read about an amateur drag contest at Club Caribbean, a bar on U.S. 1. He was broke and feeling bold.
So, he picked out a costume. “This red, long-sleeve, lamé gown that looked just like the one Marilyn wore in ‘Gentlemen Prefer Blondes.’”