Key West, Florida - Inga, a 6-foot something "full-figured gal," is in the middle of a set lip-synching her way through Bette Midler's greatest hits. Wearing a tent-like baby-doll dress and a blond beehive that would make Marge Simpson swoon, Inga towers over me. She gestures for me to put money in her cleavage.
All right, what the hell. I'm 5-foot-8, so it's a rare moment when I'm eye-level with a huge set of breasts. It's my own fault. Seconds earlier I'd hoisted a dollar bill in the air for the fourth time tonight.
"Shove it in there, honey," he says.
"What you don't know about me," I think.
This is Duval Street, Key West, Florida, USA - specifically, Aqua dance club near the "700s," a campy pivot point on the main street that runs from the Atlantic Ocean to the Gulf of Mexico. It's the main artery of this eccentric vacation destination defined by a swirling mix of history, cultures and lifestyles.
At one end of Duval is the predominantly gay southern point of the island, home to a high concentration of gay and lesbian guest houses and resorts. Nearby is the Atlantic Shores resort, notorious for its Sunday-night gay mixers and clothing-optional beach. This is also the spot to catch the Saturday morning Gay and Lesbian Trolley Tour, the only island tour allowed to pass by Tennessee Williams's former home.
Two miles away, the northern end of Duval offers pubs, restaurants and cheap souvenirs shops catering to beer-loving middle Americans and cruise ships. This is where you'll find Sloppy Joe's watering hole, a favourite haunt of Ernest Hemingway's and a draw for hundreds of less literarily inclined tourists.
The best part of the northern end is Mallory Dock, host to a nightly spectacle called the Sunset Celebration. Buskers flock to the dock to coerce dollars from the tight grip of visitors. Escape artists shimmy out of chains while hanging upside down, dogs walk tightropes, and cats jump through hoops while the sun quietly sets behind it all.
At the meeting-point of north and south, barkers for the outlandishly gay clubs openly hawk their nightly drag shows, attempting to net anyone walking from either end of the street. The performers at 801 Bourbon Bar are the subject of a recently published academic/documentary book called Drag Queens At The 801 Cabaret, conferring cult status on them. A block away, at 711 Duval, is Aqua, owned by a lesbian couple. At both clubs, the "girls" work the streets before the show, beckoning the uninitiated into the dark opening of the bar. A few hand-holding same-sex couples head upstairs to the second-floor cabaret. But most of the cabaret audience is groups of giggling women, some with men, trying something different while away from suburbia.
Wedged beside me on bar stools at Aqua are two young heterosexuals. He clings tightly to his girl through the entire show, silently telegraphing, "Hey, I'm here with her." An older ma-and-pa couple seem amused but don't tip. They leave at the end of the show, before the dance floor bursts open.
Truth be told, I didn't need to be encouraged into the club by the glittery high-heeled Desiray or Gugi or Margo who stand outside calling passersby like good-humoured prostitutes. I love a drag show, good or bad. I find drag queens provocative, curious and pretty damn hot. That's why I've spent my week basking in the openly celebratory atmosphere of Key West, where rainbow flags fly from every third balcony, boat mast and awning. I've been to every drag show that circulated a flyer.
Sure, the performers lip-sync rather than sing, but these entertainers rehearse, develop characters, play to an audience and adorn themselves in costumes that should earn awards for best special effects at next year's Tonys.
Maybe that's my favourite part. I get a little sly enjoyment from seeing the brothers attempt to pin, pluck and preen themselves into a bizarre form of idealized female persona that only a plastic mould-injected Barbie can attain. But there's a mix of mocking and mimicking going on here that's flattering, political and gutsy.
Disney be damned - this island is the theme park of Florida.