The long and storied history of South Florida gay nightlife is best told by those who lived through its heyday.
Before South Beach became the epicenter of queer activity in the late ’90s and early ’00s, venues such as the Copa in Fort Lauderdale and the neighboring Coliseum were the place to be for all South Florida denizens looking for a good time. The Copa — which once lured the likes of Grace Jones and Divine to a small stretch of South Federal Highway — was also the backdrop for one of the many staged police raids in the early 1990s, when Broward County Sheriff Nick Navarro invited the media and other officials to witness his forces storm nightclubs such as the Copa and Club 21 in an effort to tout his department’s reputation. The resulting media circus after one raid on Pembroke Park’s now-defunct Club 21 was deemed “a made-for-TV bust” by the club’s lawyer.
It was similar raids by police that sparked the riots at Manhattan’s Stonewall Inn in June 1969. After the AIDS crisis ravaged the LGBTQ community throughout the 1980s, the notion of gay pride had gained more steam than ever, and South Florida became one of the nation's premier hot spots for queer nightlife. It was amid the chaos of this vibrant local renaissance that drag legend Latrice Royale was born.
To most people, Royale is best known for her appearances on RuPaul’s Drag Race and RuPaul’s Drag Race: All Stars, where she endeared fans around the world with her larger-than-life personality and hilarious expressions, such as “Jesus is a biscuit — let him sop you up” and “The five G’s: Good God, get a grip, girl!”
But prior to her first Race in 2012, Royale had been a working drag queen in South Florida for some 15 years, punctuated by a year spent in prison for possession of controlled substances a few years before her reality TV debut.
Now the self-described “large and in charge, chunky yet funky, bold and beautiful” Royale is bringing her successful cabaret show, Here’s to Life, back to her hometown Saturday, February 1. “The root of my story is really in South Florida,” Royale reflects. “It’s where Latrice was born, and it’s where I went through most of my biggest learning and growing pains.”
Royale is most excited to share the evening with the community of people she says “helped and molded” her into the queen she has since become. She jokes that her stories about the Copa and the Coliseum never really landed with her audiences around the world, but she says “everybody’s gon’ know” about the iconic clubs at her homecoming show: “That’s legendary history right there!”
Along with Royale’s “home team,” friends such as fellow Drag Race alum Kennedy Davenport will be in attendance at the Aventura show; Davenport is the reigning Miss Pride South Florida and will be joined by Raul Vegas, the reigning Mr. Pride South Florida. Royale herself took the Miss Pride South Florida crown in 2004, and she's now the owner and producer of the Pride South Florida pageant system in a move that has helped elevate the local drag pageant not unlike Orlando-based Drag Race alum Trinity “the Tuck” Taylor’s purchase of the Florida Entertainer of the Year system last fall.
Over the years, Royale has demonstrated her various talents (which include color guard routines and lip sync performances) on both stage and screen, but the live music and cabaret format of Here’s to Life was something she admits she “really never knew was in [her] wheelhouse.” She recalls being at home with now-husband Christopher Hamblin a number of years ago as he played “Summertime” on the piano while Royale cooked in the kitchen; Royale began singing just for fun, and after they were done, Hamblin told her it was something she could actually pursue.
“We started looking into finding my voice, and he has helped me do that,” Royale says. They were soon joined by Braden Chapman (better known as Drag Race alum Mimi Imfurst) to listen to her stories from her life, help her choose the best pieces — “whether they be funny or touching” — to include in the show, and order them in a way that makes for an unforgettable evening with a beloved queen, complete with a live band.
As someone who frequented clubs such as the Copa and the Coliseum in the '90s, Royale knows firsthand the experience of standing firm for the things in which she believes. “Drag queens have never been just the ones who sit back and be quiet about anything!” she laughs. Critics often believe that entertainers such as Royale should stick to entertaining and not proselytizing their audiences; the Drag Queen Christmas tour, which Royale participated in when it stopped in Fort Lauderdale last month, for example, was met with protesters outside the Parker Playhouse lambasting the evils of Drag Queen Story Hour events. “We’ve been at the forefront of political issues our entire existence,” Royale points out. “We help our community get through it with a little smile and a little glitter, but we take on serious issues.”
It’s for this reason that Royale was such a vocal advocate for the approval of Amendment 4 to the Florida Constitution in 2018, which reinstated voting rights for nearly 1.4 million Floridians who had been previously incarcerated. “Obviously, it was something that was near and dear to my heart and to my world,” she remembers. “Here I am, a person who hasn’t voted in nearly two decades because of... a mistake that I made long ago. I've paid my dues, I paid the price, I went to jail, I did everything I needed to do to become a productive member of society, but there was this law that prevented me from being a true citizen.” As the 2020 presidential race begins heating up, she’s been “encouraging people to vote and to let them know the importance of their voices” at all of her shows.
Though Royale's time in front of the camera introduced her to many people, she’s much more excited for the latest chapter in her career: being behind the scenes of a TV production. RuPaul personally asked her to join the drag icon’s new Netflix series, AJ and the Queen, as a creative consultant. “I was in the writer's room with six writers, RuPaul, and the rest of the team conceptualizing and forming these stories.” She was even able to write herself into the show as one of RuPaul’s longtime confidantes: a queen by the name of Fabergé Legs.
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“You know how you just feel like you're in the right place and doing the right thing?” Royale smiles. “It was that natural to me. It was that effortless,” she says of the experience. “I couldn't wait to show up to do it the next day, and that’s what it’s all about.” She’s venturing into “what was unfamiliar, uncharted territory” but believes her “hopes and dreams are to have [scripted television] become more of [her] life.”
When her cabaret show, Here’s to Life, takes over the Aventura Arts & Cultural Center next Saturday, February 1, it will feel as much of a conclusive full-circle moment a quarter-century into her career as it will be a glimpse into the future of Latrice Royale. Regardless of the medium, she knows how to put on a show, and if the past few years of her career are any indication, her Here’s to Life homecoming is only just the beginning of her reign.
“It's going to be a real special evening — that I can assure you, honey!”
Latrice Royale: Here's to Life. 7 and 9:30 p.m. Saturday, February 1, at Aventura Arts & Cultural Center, 3385 NE 188th St., Aventura; 305-466-8002; aventuracenter.org. Tickets cost $40 via ticketmaster.com.