South Beach on Heels: Behind the Scenes With Palace Bar's Drag Queens
All photos courtesy of Dmitry Zhitov
South Beach is synonymous with neon signs and having a rich, vibrant nightlife. Part of that nightlife includes dancing in the middle of the street, strutting on the sidewalk, and even climbing atop double-decker tour busses - it does, at least, for the remarkable drag queens who perform at the Palace bar. But the dazzling performances are only one part of who these drag queens really are.
Enter curious outsider and filmmaker Dmitry Zhitov, who wants to take you deep inside the real world of drag. Underneath the makeup, the wigs, the dresses, and the heels, there is a real person - and that is what Zhitov aims to expose in his documentary film South Beach on Heels.
Originally from Siberia, Zhitov moved to Miami six years ago. After working as a yoga instructor and personal trainer, he went to broadcasting school to pursue his dream of becoming a filmmaker. Though he enjoys being both in front of and behind the camera, Zhitov chose to point the lens at some very fascinating people for his first ever film.
Zhitov never before thought about filming a documentary about drag queens, but as he started watching shows like RuPaul's Drag Race or documentaries that featured drag queens, he became interested in understanding why people did drag. Realizing that what he saw was just a surface-level depiction of a very vivacious community, he wanted to go deeper and really discover the why.
"They showed the people doing makeup in front of the mirror, and how they put on the shows and all that, but they didn't go deeper," says Zhitov.
Dmitry filming life behind the scenes
So why do people do drag? What is underneath the makeup and flashy outfits? What do they feel when they perform? What happens when they go home and take off the makeup and the wigs? Who are the men behind the mask? What is their family life like? How's dating? Questions like these and many more are what propelled Zhitov in his journey to create South Beach on Heels. What he discovered, he says, is that "there are real men behind the makeup. When they take everything off, they're real, genuine nice guys."
South Beach on Heels follows various drag queens from Miami, and a few from out of state, during all parts of their day. Zhitov films them performing in the streets and sidewalks outside of the Palace bar; he follows them backstage to their dressing rooms; he goes home with them and talks to their families and partners; and some days he even goes to work with them at their day jobs.
Zhitov even snagged Elaine Lancaster, one of South Florida's most famous drag queens, for the documentary. You might know Elaine (the oh-so-fabulous alter personality of James Davis) as one of the divas in The Real Housewives of Miami. Lancaster has been described countless times as South Beach's most famous drag queen -- a title she earned, she says, by working her "butt off to get to the top and even harder to stay there" - so she's certainly a great asset to the film.
But she wasn't an easy one to get. The two had a common friend, and despite reaching out many times, she was too busy to meet with him. That is, until she finally saw one of his trailers and knew she wanted to be a part of it. Of course, this is Zhitov's explanation of how it happened; Lancaster, on the other hand, has a different take on it.
Elaine recalls how Zhitov called her up and told her about his project. She was busy filming RHOM, "but he refused to give up on me." Eventually, she called up their common friend, Kitty Meow, and told her she was ready to meet Zhitov. "He came over with camera in hand," she says. "I could see his passion and enthusiasm. I knew he was fully invested in this project and had a deep commitment to it, so that made me trust him and his vision."
When asked how he would describe the film to someone who's never heard about it, Zhitov gets very excited. With a smile across his face says, "I wouldn't only say South Beach on Heels is a film about drag queens. It's more than that. It's a film about love, it's a film about equality, it's a film about compassion, it's a film about tolerance, [and] it's a film about respect, all told through the stories of drag queens." The main message he wants to get across is that we're all normal. He says that even within the gay community, drag queens are seen as abnormal, but for him, they're representative of the gay community, and so people need to know more about these fabulous frontrunners. "It's all normal," he says, "it's normal to be a drag queen, it's normal to be gay, it's normal to be transgender, it's normal to be straight."
He's fascinated by the drag queens at the Palace bar in particular, because "they're not only entertaining, but also educating people." When they see a child passing by, they'll go up to him and let him know it's okay to be gay and it's okay to be different, he says. They'll see a couple walking through and remind them to use protection and practice safe sex. Basically, they not only put on a fabulous show that will leave your mouth agape, but they take the opportunity to do a little educating. "It's empowering," says Zhitov.
Through his experience, Zhitov has expanded his drag queen knowledge tremendously. He's learned that some drag performers choose to put on a persona that is merely an exaggeration of who they normally are; for others, it can be a completely different person. Some queens, who can afford it, even have separate rooms for their alternate persona. They always say "this is not me, this is so-and-so" and draw a line between their male self and their female counter part, says Zhitov.
"What I've noticed," he says, "is that it changes them when they put everything on; it changes their personality, but they learn from this new personality." For instance, Elaine describes herself as "beautiful, sweet, and gracious - a true Southern lady," whereas James is more "kind, thoughtful, and fiercely loyal." Both are dynamic, she adds, "but as Elaine, I have to stand out and I want to be in the spotlight," and as James, "I am more willing to take the backseat, so to speak, and let others be in control."
Zhitov quotes from memory something one queen told him in one of their interviews: "If you like what I'm doing, then applaud; if you don't like it, just walk away, but don't threaten me, don't hurt me, don't call me names, because I'm still a human being, and as strong as I may seem, it still hurts my feelings." He hopes to get this message out there and raise awareness on the beauty and art that is performing in drag.
Wigs, wigs, and more wigs
Before starting work on this project back in October of last year, Zhitov thought that when drag queens took off their entire fishy façade, they were still feminine and wanted to be a woman all the time. Not only did he discover the opposite, but also he found that "they're very strong. Usually, when you think of a drag queen, you think it's a weak guy who [didn't] get enough attention as a boy. But what I found out is that [doing drag] gives them a lot of strength." Through this artistic form of expression, performers learn to be strong and are able to use this strength in their everyday lives. Drag gives them power, he says.
Zhitov and Lancaster both agree that the most common misconception about drag queens is that they want to be women. "I don't want to, and could never, live as a woman," says Lancaster. "Too much work, and besides, I enjoy being a man!" Within the film, a variety of drag queens are represented, so you'll be able to listen to the stories of those who live as a man and enjoy drag as an art form, and stories from those, like Tlo Ivy, who live as women and still perform in drag. But by no means does one drag queen's story answer for the entire community.
Right now, Zhitov is still filming interviews and show, so the documentary is not entirely complete. But in order to make this dream a silver screen reality, he is fundraising on Kickstarter. Donors have until September 23 to help Zhitov reach his $29,000 goal.
Carefully described on the Kickstarter pledge page, Zhitov breaks down what he will be using the money for. Most important, he tells us, is upgrading the equipment so he can shoot in higher resolution in order for the film to look crisp on large, movie theater type screens. So far, he has been doing everything on his own - filming, editing, producing - but in the final post-production stages, Zhitov will need to hire additional editors and a crew. By donating, he says, you're investing in the project: "You help the project be completed, and you get the final product in December."
Despite still being in the production stage, Zhitov has received a lot of buzz on the project. He says he already has big companies and film festivals contacting him and telling him to send over the film when it's finished. Drag queens from all over the world are also sending him messages expressing their gratitude and happiness over the film; "they say, 'finally people will know who we really are.'"
Get the Arts & Culture Newsletter
Find out about arts and culture events in Miami and offers you won't hear about anywhere else.