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.
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.’”
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?”