No blonde wig. No pink lipstick. The fabulous creation known as Shelley Novak isn’t meeting me at the Quarterdeck restaurant on Alton Road today – instead, I’m sitting across from Tommy Strangie, the man behind the makeup. He’s got a scruffy beard and a black skullcap. His build can best be described as robust but compact – although his calves are as cut as an amateur bodybuilder’s. That’s the legacy of two decades in drag queen heels.
The man best known as Shelley Novak has created quite an interesting Miami Beach legacy in the two decades since he moved here from Boston with childhood friends Desi and Ellen Pompeo. Both of them have since moved – well-known stylist Desi has returned to Boston, and Pompeo is off in La La Land, where she plays the role of Dr. Meredith Gray on Gray’s Anatomy.
Strangie is getting ready to host the 15th annual Shelley Novak Awards – his self titled celebration of the best and brightest of drag. Back in the good old days, Shelley Novak was at the epicenter of a thriving local drag queen scene. Now she’s tired. “This year it was a struggle to come up with nominees for the awards. My finger isn’t on the pulse. It’s like The Picture of Dorian Gray. I’m getting older, and everyone else is so young! I just can’t do it anymore.”
Strangie has brought his drag queen scrapbook of memories to the restaurant where he now works. We sit in a quiet corner, and flip through photos and newspaper clippings about the late Eighties and early Nineties South Beach scene.
Several are from defunct publications, New Times and Ocean Drive clippings by long gone writers. He flips past the Newsweek cover following Versace’s murder – the menacing visage of Andrew Cunanan glowers at us. “The nightclub scene here was like alchemy – like Studio 54 or Warhol’s Factory. It all just… happened. Liquid, Chris Paciello, all the celebrities, Versace. Then they shot Versace and arrested Paciello – that was like 9/11 for South Beach,” says Strangie.
A conversation with Strangie is riddled with obscure pop culture references and bemused speaking in the third person. He’s full of hilarious stories, like the one about the time Madonna made a rude gesture at him in the VIP room of Liquid, or when he puked on Ricky Martin’s shoes at Crobar.
His eyes light up when he gets to reminiscing about the era of the self-dubbed “Justice League of Drag,” when he was best known for dancing on speakerboxes, and eating meatball subs on the middle of the dance floor.
Now, he admits he simply doesn’t have the energy to bring the Shelley Novak persona out as often. Or the tools. “Max Factor’s heir turns out to be a rapist, and I can’t get my pan stick anymore. I gotta use this Jennifer Love Hewitt shit and it’s not working. I need clown makeup! It’s not easy being an elder stateswoman of drag. Every day I look more and more like Baby Jane.”
Strangie has some regrets, but not many. “I’m not sad – I’ve met George Harrison and Madonna and Mick Jagger, and I’ve been treated just as famous, even though I’m just a dude in a wig.” His biggest laments are financial. “I burned through my savings. Back in the heyday, I had ten grand just sitting in the bank. The cash was just flowing so fast, I didn’t even need to touch it,” he recalls.
Those days are over. Now, Shelley’s ecstatic over a Valentine’s Day gig at the Kampong in Coconut Grove, where she will hand out condoms and sex toys to old fogeys looking to get their jollies. “They’ve also hired a midget who will be dressed as Cupid. So they’ve hit all of the stereotypes. But it’s $500! For $500, I’ll perform for the Manson family. That’s Elaine Lancaster money!”
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Novak plans to “retire like Cher,” and reemerge every so often for paid gigs. He’s run out of camp films for his monthly screenings at the Miami Beach Cinematheque, and the nightclubs don’t pay a queen to hold court anymore.
Most of his friends have moved on. What’s a semi-retired queen to do? “Whenever I try to do something serious, it doesn’t work out. I got a 40 on my real estate exam,” he says. Strangie wanted to work on a gay cruise, but can’t bear to leave his German shepherd behind. He contemplates a Vegas lounge act, but says “no, I love Miami too much.” So here we sit at the Quarterdeck, where Strangie works a day job serving burgers and fish sandwiches. “I’m just gonna wait these tables and live quietly. I’m from New England, so I have no problem with minimalism. I’ll live like Katherine Hepburn – frugally.”
And will this be the last year for the Shelley Novak Awards? “Maybe,” he admits with a heavy sigh. “Maybe some industrious queen could take on the mantle. Elaine? She’s off skiing in Aspen. Daisy Deadpetals? She’s such a busy girl. I think Adora is more over it than I am. But it’s hard to say if this will be the last year – it’s like the gay mafia! Whenever I think I’m out, they pull me back in.”
The 15th annual Shelley Novak Awards will take place on Monday February 25 at Score, 727 Lincoln Rd., Miami Beach, Call 305-535-1111, or visit www.scorebar.net. --Patrice Elizabeth Grell Yursik