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Dressed in an evening gown and wearing a plumed hat over his shaved head, Wanda, a very tall black man, stops briefly at a table to drink a champagne toast with a fashion magazine publisher. Then he dashes to a backstage area where he flirts with shirtless Hugo Boss models (the party features a fashion show). "Look at how you white men all come around me," he teases. "You got jungle fever, honey?"
"She's a sweetheart, totally out of control," sighs Coral, a model who's working the show. "Everybody knows Wanda." Well, he/she is kind of hard to miss, especially when he sashays by with his trademark balloons-cum-breasts thrust out in front like two colliding Hindenburgs. Despite the good vibes Wanda engendered at the Living Room bash, from one end of Washington Avenue's clubland to the other he is generally considered almost seven feet of trouble in a dress. He is, by his own admission, notorious -- banned from almost every club on the Beach. This is not easily accomplished in the demimonde of fashion and pleasure, where flaunting outrageousness is usually a winning modus operandi. The reasons he is so popularly unpopular include fighting, harassing customers, and rumors that he works with the cops.
Last month he even had the dubious distinction of being the subject of a flyer glaringly titled "SHE'S BACK!!!" Sent to nightclubs, it warned owners and managers not to admit Wanda. Many managers have posted it in their offices for employees to read. "Dear Club Owners, Managers, and Members of our Community," the flyer begins. "Once again we are faced with the Wanda issue! The most undesirable element of South Beach!" The advisory was issued by the anonymous "Concerned Citizens ... a nonprofit organization ... relentless in the pursuit for justice." It lists no return address, no telephone number. Among the accusations it slings at Wanda are "snitching, physical assault and intimidation, contributing to the arrest of innocent people, and the closure of nightclubs due to framed drug busts."
Over a lunch of turkey soup and a "fuzzy navel" cocktail at the Palace on Ocean Drive, Wanda -- 34-year-old Anthony Lee -- takes it all in long-legged stride, stating, "Oh, that was probably put out by some malicious, jealous fag who wasn't man enough to put his name on it." With a deft flourish of a platter-size hand for emphasis, Wanda embraces the controversy that clings to him like a cheap Versace knockoff. "I have been barred from every fucking club on the Beach. But I always get back in."
So far the clubs that have banned him include Liquid, Shadow Lounge, KGB, Bash, Warsaw, Chaos, WinWin, Groove Jet, Twist, and Salvation. But Wanda figures it's only a matter of time before those doors open again. "These rumors that I work for the police are because I always talk to them," he theorizes. "And if I'm late for a show, they'll give me a ride." Such gossip first started, he adds, when he got kicked out of the club Niva and he told its management: "You won't be open long anyway." A short time later police raided the place. Sheer coincidence, says Wanda.
Drag queens have always been the court jesters of Beach nightlife, regularly MC'ing shows and hosting special nights. And South Beach has no shortage of drag queens who cultivate personalities as calling cards. The Lincoln Road restaurant Lucky Cheng's, an offshoot of a similar New York City establishment, is staffed almost entirely by drag queens. "Part of the stock-in-trade in drag repertoire is the realm of the outrageous," notes David Rohn, a sculptor and drag observer who insists on referring to the drag scene as art. "And Wanda has taken that to the ultimate, further than anybody else."
No disagreement from the Mistress of Mayhem. "I take it all the way," he proclaims proudly between sips of fuzzy navel. "I've thrown people in fountains, I've pulled women's breasts out, I've ruined people's clothes. I'm a comedian. Don't sit in the front row if you don't want to be picked on. I'm different. There's nobody on the Beach like me."
Whether drag performances should be considered an art form remains open to debate, but they can certainly run the gamut -- from what you would expect (a nightclub appearance) to what you wouldn't (bar mitzvahs and birthday parties). He has been doing drag since 1992, and charged into South Beach from Atlanta approximately three years ago. In the summer he leaves Florida, taking his gowns and tresses on the road to clubs all over the world. "I've been to Ibiza, Spain; Frankfurt, Germany; Texas; California," Wanda explains. "It pays. You've got to understand, I'm not trying to be a woman. It's a character. It's all fun, I'm out there to entertain the audience, not to look fabulous, like some people."
He's not without admirers. Ernie Harrell, the promoter of the funk-theme Fat Black Pussycat at Liquid, where, incidentally, Wanda is banned, appreciates Wanda's honesty. "Wanda is one of the few people who say exactly what they think, and a lot of people don't like that," Harrell asserts. "I've partied with her -- she's crazy. She's constantly walking the line. Sometimes I even have to tell her, 'You've gone too far.' But when she's walks that line, she's great. She's an artist. Come on, a six-foot seven-inch black man with balloons for breasts and size sixteen feet wearing ladies' pumps? You've got to be an artist to pull that off."
Eric Lepkofker, the beefy head of security at the Living Room, concurs: "I think the dude's a riot. I think he could make millions as a comedian. However, when you dress a certain way you've got to expect people are going to react to you."
But where some see art and comedy, others see cuts and bruises.
"She's eighty-sixed from this club," says Gary Thoulouise, general manager of Chaos, where Wanda used to do promotional work. "She's a menace to society. The most irritating thing is not that she's rude, abusive, and loud. It's more than that. Wanda herself instigates negativity; she brings a whole negative vibe to the customers."
During a New Year's Eve party at Chaos, Wanda was in the VIP section when he stepped on a woman's foot. "You can imagine a six-foot-seven drag queen -- over 200 pounds -- in heels stepping on this woman's foot," adds Thoulouise. "The woman is screaming and Wanda is acting like nothing's wrong. I said to her, 'Wanda, you really have to be careful,' and she said, 'Darling, if she doesn't want to get stepped on, she should get out of the VIP room.'"
"I banned Wanda from here," huffs Jacques Milhomme, manager of the WinWin Bar (formerly Rose's Bar & Music Lounge). "He/she may be a drag queen, but she is definitely a drag."
During an open-mic night at the club, Wanda pushed his way to the front, sang an obscenity-laced song, and then insulted those on-stage at the time, Milhomme contends. Then he got into a brawl. A bartender who asked to remain anonymous recalls watching the incident. "I saw Wanda get into a fight with a bull dyke," the bartender says. "It was the funniest thing I've ever seen. I hear glass break, and I look around and there's Wanda stepping out of her tutu. Out come the balloons and she's handing them to a friend. Then she's putting her hands up. I mean, she was ready to go. It took three guys to break it up."
According to the bartender, Wanda eventually apologized to the woman.
Not true, counters Wanda. He does not own a tutu. "Do you know what those look like?" he sneers. As for the fight: "She hit me first. I've got to protect myself."
Other club workers are too scared to give their names. "Please don't use my name -- she's extremely vicious and vindictive," says one club manager. "A lot of people are scared of her. Yes, she's banned from here."
Wanda cops to being involved in some trouble. "I got into a fight with the owner of Moe's Cantina a couple of months ago," he remembers. "You didn't hear about that? He had to get eight stitches over his eye. It was at KGB. He hit me first. Now we're friends again. We made up."
Morgan Craft, co-owner of Moe's, smiles as he confirms the scuffle. "I decided it was better to kiss and make up," he says, rubbing a spot over his left eye where Wanda left his mark, "because Wanda pissed is like a spider monkey on crack."
Wanda points out that he is tiring of the South Beach scene and wants to move to New York City and get discovered -- maybe get his own talk show like Oprah. (Or RuPaul.) While many would applaud his departure, promoter Harrell, for one, would see it as a loss, part of the ongoing taming of South Beach. "Look, this town needs its degenerates," he declares. "It's what gives the place color.