South Beach wasn't always a stomping grounds for deep-pocketed rappers and popped-collared yuppies. And things were far from family-friendly. Gays built the Beach, and female impersonators were as ubiquitous during the '90s as palm trees. South Beach Wanda -- born Anthony Lee -- made her name as one of the era's hard-partying club kids before getting banned from every club on Washington Avenue. Wanda was a six-foot-six hot mess in heels, and she became one of Miami's most notorious and influential queens despite -- or because of -- her antics.
Wanda was gunned down in her native Tampa this past May 28 in what police are calling a botched robbery. Although many queens today look Photoshopped to perfection, two performance artists from Hialeah are carrying on Wanda's tradition.
Through their characters, Juleisy and Karla, Gio Profera and Josue Garcia have cornered the market on some truly gender-bending drag. Although the concept sounds like a tautology, it's never really been done in South Florida to the extreme in which performers have full-on beards.
"We're definitely not typical female impersonators," Josue mused. "I would call it a mind-fuck of gender."
For a recent photo session with Alejandro Santiago, the duo met up at Gio's house, where his mother made sure the guys ate pizza with paper towels and drank enough off-brand soda to send a small horse into diabetic shock. Gio's cousin Alberto also joined in on the action.
Alejandro encouraged Gio to work it for the camera and blow condoms into small balloons as his grandmother watched and sang along to Nat King Cole in Spanish. ("She loves it," Gio said of his 81-year-old abuela. "It brings people together around the house.")
After the shoot, Gio immediately traded his hairwrap and wig for a flat-brimmed Dolphins cap. One of Josue's knee-length white vinyl boots had already come off after they were filled with rainwater during a raunchy performance involving a garden hose, and he had hobbled back inside to remove its mate. With the flourish of a wet-wipe, he removed his makeup to become the boy next door. In the same way that Wanda could switch effortlessly through personas, Hialeah's finest go from being ridiculous to ridiculously normal in a matter of minutes.
Amid the pope paintings and plastic-wrapped furniture of the living room, they sat down to discuss their vision for Juleisy and Karla, as well as Wanda's influence on their characters.
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"I think we're losing drag artists and getting imitators," Gio said. "No one is coming up with their own personas. They're trying to be Nicki Minaj or a watered-down version of some artist."
Follow Allie Conti on Twitter: @allie_conti