Broadly speaking, every drag queen falls somewhere on the continuum between Crazy Sexy and Total Mess. The former you'll find in abundance at AsiaSF (201 Ninth St. at Howard, www.asiasf.com), where the girls are known as "gender illusionists" and the atmosphere is more like a strip club than your typical hole-in-the-wall drag bar. The AsiaSF girls aim for nothing more complicated than hotness, favoring bustiers and knee-high fuck-me boots over gowns and feather boas. And yes, they're sexy, so long as your definition of sexiness doesn't require a sense of humor.
On the other end of the spectrum — the end I tend to favor — are the pranksters and ironyists whose work pays tribute to the Cockettes, the genderfuck pioneers of late-'60s San Francisco.
This city has never suffered from a shortage of brilliantly messy drag queens. For years, you could find some of San Francisco's most innovative drag at the Stud in SOMA, where the ladies of Trannyshack, under the benign dictatorship of Heklina, would roll out a new high-concept show every Tuesday at midnight. For working stiffs who couldn't swing a late-night show in the middle of the week, there was always the filthier, weirder, more adventurous party known as Charlie Horse at the Cinch on Polk Street, with Anna Conda presiding over a must-see trash-fest every Friday.
Things have changed. Staging a weekly deconstruction of gender can require nearly inhuman levels of sustained creative energy. So after a phenomenal 12-year residence at the Stud, Trannyshack closed up shop in August 2008, resuming in March 2010 as a monthly event at DNA Lounge (375 11th St. at Harrison, www.dnalounge.com). The show remains as ambitious and inventive as ever, but the move to a larger, slicker venue in SOMA is bound to make longtime fans yearn for the intimate confines of the Stud, with its cramped stage and distinctive bouquet of ammonia and sweat. Meanwhile, Charlie Horse ended its five-year run in January 2010 due to neighbors' complaints about noise.
So where can you go for your weekly drag kicks, now that Trannyshack is a monthly institution and Charlie Horse has been replaced by an amateur strip contest hosted by Juanita Fajita? I spent a few weekends revisiting some of the standbys of San Francisco's drag scene, hoping to find some glimmer of the messiness and unpredictability that can transform drag from spectacle into art. I didn't exactly find the next Charlie Horse, but I did witness a few flashes of genius, even in the seediest and most predictable of drag bars.
The Castro has never been at the center of San Francisco's drag scene. But in 2009, the Lookout introduced Mary-Go-Round (3600 16th St. at Market, www.lookoutsf.com), a Wednesday night drag revue hosted on rotating weeks by Suppositori Spelling, Pollo del Mar, and Cookie Dough. A recent visit to the show was hit-and-miss, but I was glad to discover Karma Zabitch, who does a mighty fine imitation of Ke$ha. (As if to prove the difficulty of sustaining a weekly drag show, you can catch Mary-Go-Round for only a few more weeks — it closes for good on Feb. 16.)
At Aunt Charlie's in the Tenderloin (133 Turk at Taylor, www.auntcharlieslounge.com), the fabled Hot Boxxx Girls strut down a narrow path to the stage on Friday and Saturday nights. On my last visit, I found the performances far more lackluster than in the past, but at least Vicki Marlane continues to amaze: The self-styled "lady with the liquid spine" recently turned 76, which doesn't seem to stop her from paying zealous tribute to Celine Dion on a weekly basis.
After leaving Aunt Charlie's, I headed over to Marlena's in Hayes Valley (488 Hayes at Octavia, www.marlenasbarsf.com), where hostess Lady Galilea presides over a polished set of performances every Saturday night. Most notable was Ana Mae Cox, who lip-synched to Beyoncé's "If I Were a Boy" as she removed her gown, wig, and makeup, ending the number in a wifebeater and jeans. That may not be the most subtle thing ever, but it sure is gutsy.
My final stop was the weekly drag brunch at Harry Denton's Starlight Room in the Sir Francis Drake Hotel (450 Powell at Sutter, www.harrydenton.com), hosted by the perfectly coiffed local celebrity known as Donna Sachet. On the continuum between Crazy Sexy and Total Mess, the Starlight show runs right down the middle, offering mostly tasteful drag with just a few welcome hints of anarchy to distract you from your omelet. My favorite moments in the Jan. 16 show revolved around Holotta Tymes, whose boozy, irreverent Judy Garland imitation would be worthy of Trannyshack.
"This really is theater," Sachet explained to the buffet crowd. "And that's what we're going to deliver this afternoon." She made good on that promise, but she also reminded me that some of San Francisco's most exceptional drag is currently taking place in, well, a theater. Pearls over Shanghai, Thrillpeddlers' revival of the insane Cockettes musical that opened back in the summer of 2009, is set to continue its much-extended run through April at the Hypnodrome in SOMA (575 10th St. at Brannan, www.thrillpeddlers.com).
The Cockettes were the original hot tranny messes, the acid-tripping progenitors of San Francisco's most outlandish drag queens. It's only fitting that their 40-year-old material should continue to provide some of the most satisfying genderfucking you'll see anywhere. And for those of us who find messiness and originality far hotter than a bustier and knee-high boots, it's just about the sexiest thing going.