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.
(page 2 of 2)
He started rehearsing in the spare bedroom with a cassette tape he’d play over and over again. Madonna’s “Hanky Panky” from “The Dick Tracy” soundtrack. Treat me like I’m a bad girl, even when I’m being good to you. I don’t want you to thank me, you can just spank me…
Chose a name. “Jezebel was always the only woman with jewelry and makeup in the pictures in the Bible studies where I went to elementary school. I wanted to be like her. Then I realized it was actually a term used down south for loose women: ‘You’re such a Jezebel.’ So, I even liked it more.”
He added a blonde wig. Expensive rhinestone jewelry. Makeup left over from Halloween. Called his best friend, Harry. “I don’t want to go by myself. Come with me.” Smoked a joint.
“I was a ball of nerves. I can’t remember if I even did the words right.”
But Jezebel won the amateur contest. A hundred bucks. “Fabulous,” she says, sipping her martini.
Afterwards, he and Harry celebrated at 825 Sunset. Sat at the bar. Ordered drinks. Caught attentions. “You’re beautiful,” the owner told her. “Want a job?”
“I was beside myself,” she says. “A job at the hottest club in Fort Lauderdale. Every queen in Fort Lauderdale wanted to perform there. And I was the one that booked it. A nobody. Out of nowhere. A lot of people hated me for that.”
When Allen returned home, Orlando told him about the contest, the new job. Allen was all for it. He worked in the hair industry and knew a lot of queens. He introduced Orlando to a couple who took him under their wing. They gave him makeup, jewelry, wigs.
When Allen lost his job in the 1990s, he and Orlando drove the Firebird up to Allen’s hometown of Charleroi for a visit. When they arrived, Orlando had no idea what he was looking at. Neither did Charleroi. “These people up here thought I came off a boat. They didn’t know what Puerto Rico was. I had really long, curly hair. Was very feminine. Very thin eyebrows, thin body. They kept asking whether I was a boy or a girl.”
Allen wanted to stay. Orlando thought he was crazy. “I almost had a nervous breakdown, and I hated the cold weather.” But Orlando stayed in Charleroi. They made friends. Orlando performed full-blown drag shows in places like Yuppies in Mount Pleasant and RK’s in Greensburg, the only gay bar in Westmoreland County at the time. Performing constantly. Winning pageants. Crowned Miss Greensburg in ’93, Miss Pittsburgh in ’96, Miss Steel City in ’98, and Miss Laurel Highlands in 2005. There would often be three shows a week, some benefiting the Humane Society, the American Cancer Society, volunteer firefighters, victims with PTSD; one show helped to build a playground in nearby Grindstone.
Even after he and Allen broke up, he reconciled with his dad, his mom died of cancer, and Allen passed away, Orlando remained in Charleroi. Got his own apartment, did odd jobs, obtained his cosmetology license at the Pittsburgh Beauty Academy. Worked at Philip Pelusi, Glamour Shots, Saks Fifth Avenue, and eventually Salon D’Bella.
“He’s been with me so long he’s just like another coworker,” says owner Gregg Brown. “At first people would kind of feel funny coming in, knowing he does drag. Then, after awhile, they’d come in and I’d say, ‘You don’t even have an appointment,’ and they’d say, ‘I know, we’re just coming in to hang out with Orlando.’ I guess you just get used to it.”
In 2003, Orlando decided it was time to just go for it. He was about to turn 40. Everyone was always asking if he was on hormones anyway. So, he researched. Googled everything. Talked to his doctor, who put him on 2 milligrams of estrogen and 100 milligrams of the testosterone blocker Spironolactone.
“For the first time, I felt like that angry little fag was actually calm, instead of being like, ‘Get the … out of my way. I hate people and I hate being this way and I hate this beard and I hate life’ because I was perceived as the wrong gender. There is a lot of tragic in my story, but I just choose not to highlight that because that’s not what I want to leave behind. I want people to say, she had a good time and made everyone happy, and that’s the legacy I want to leave. I’ve had material crap and lost it and had it again and lost it again. And I’m sure I’ll get it 10 times over before this whole ride is over with. It all comes with perspective. The negative things, my therapist deals with. I don’t want people to think my life is tragic and sad. Yeah, I struggle every day. Like, you have no idea."
To this day, very few people at the salon refer to her as “her” or “Jezebel.” She doesn’t mind. “I got the affirmation I needed myself. I didn’t need people to call me ‘he,’ ‘she’ or ‘her.’ I needed me to feel he, she and her. And I do. In the morning when I wake up I feel like a woman and feminine and I’m happy with my body. Very happy. If I could walk around the street naked, I would.”
She also started growing breasts. “People always mistake them for implants,” she says. “But they’re real.”
People still ask: “What are you?” She gets the curiosity, the confusion. But you don’t just go barreling into a conversation with a complete stranger like that. “What are you?”
“It’s none of your business what I am. It sounds crass and rude and obnoxious, but it’s true. Are you gonna solve a problem in this world by knowing what hangs between my legs?” she asks, having moved into her bedroom to continue getting ready for the evening, surrounded by a pile of makeup, frilly bras and two rows of false eyelashes, all neatly arranged on the partially unmade bed. “I wish they would politely refer to me as the gender they think appropriate, you know? And start a conversation. Never in my life did I want this to be like this big stink about my gender and sexuality. I never really thought that much about it.”
“Emilia!” She exclaims as her dog scrambles. “Out. Of. My. Room. Now!”
But will she or won’t she is the BIG QUESTION, she offers. What everyone always wants to know is will she have sex reassignment surgery.
“I hate surgery. And I despise needles and blood … I feel really good about my body. I don’t need to get anything put on or taken out.”
But kudos to all those who do, she adds.
But the facial hair?
“It doesn’t grow like it used to, but I hate it,” she groans.
She wanted to get electrolysis. The electrologist took one look, shook her head. “Sweetie, there’s not much I can do for this. You need to get laser.”
“Do you know how frustrating that was?” Jezebel asks, setting her foundation with translucent powder. “My best friend was sitting there with me and was like, ‘Oh, I felt for you.’ And I was like, ‘Shut up, Val.’ She’s a real woman, you know?”
Life for Jezebel isn’t a 24-hour cycle of Lights! Costume! Makeup! Drag! “We sit at home a lot. We’re just like everybody else. We just want a nice life. A quiet life. We want to find love, have a decent place to live, and have a little sense of community, you know?”
More often, you’ll find her grabbing a chai latte or working at the salon without any makeup on, wearing Converse sneakers and Levi’s jeans. “If they want to see me in full drag, they better pay for the show. Why buy the cow if you can get the milk for free?”
When she and her friends head out for a low-key night, no one is glammed up. “Just be normal. Just be regular,” she says.
But with the world focused on gender these days, she feels marginalized. Persecuted. “I don’t hang out with people that are going to still question your gender every time that they turn around and talk to you or introduce you to someone.
Over the past 30 years, Jezebel has experienced the good, the bad, the Mennonites protesting with their signs, people walking out of a show, the disgusted sighs of the cashier at the grocery store, the nasty names, the stares, the snickering.
“That’s their problem,” she says, finishing her makeup with a swipe of Nicka K lipstick in Violet. Then, she changes her outfit. “I always do that.” Settling on a short, pleated black skirt, garters and knee-high boots, she heads across the river to North Belle Vernon for the drag bingo benefit to raise money for the volunteer firefighters.
“Someone has to be the fabulousness,” she says. “Somebody has to have the flair and the glamour and give these people something that they can’t get anywhere unless they turn on an old Rita Hayworth movie, which is very doubtful. These people need me, they just don’t know it yet.”
When she steps out of the car on a gray, dreary evening, the people coming into the fire hall call out to her, smile, wave. Their faces light up. So does hers. She’s glad to be there helping. Happy the Gens4PR event turned into something ongoing, enabling her to send water and toiletries for now, and a generator when they raise another $1,800. Doesn’t care if people talk about her, snicker, shake their heads, wonder what she is.
“I’m like that little, really pretty ornament in the tree. You’ve got to have ornaments, but they all can’t be balls or stars. Everybody will draw attention to that particular one because it’s not a ball or a star. I’m just a different kind of ornament in the tree, you know?”