Many Miami drag performers found the art form within the past few years and have only recently dedicated themselves to full-time careers as gender-bending artists. For South Beach's Shelley Novak, a longtime queen and staple of the local drag scene, the art has become the locus around which Novak's life revolves.
"At this stage, honestly, I literally don't know anything else," Novak tells New Times. "I don't know what else I could do; I don't know if there's anything else I could be doing. Shelley Novak is all I know."
Out of drag, Novak sunlights as Bostonian-turned-Miamian Tommy Strangie. As a child, Strangie entertained family members by singing Barbra Streisand and Cher hits. ("Of course, my family saw no signs of gayness!" he quips.) The drive toward "being the goofball and entertaining" is something that's lived within him for decades. He also fantasized about living a double life in the vein of Clark Kent and Superman and distinctly remembers he "wanted to be a newspaper reporter by day and a rockstar by night."
His prediction wound up not being too far off from his eventual life. "Here I am as an adult, getting into a costume and being a rock star at night, and then when I go home, that all comes off and I just want to smoke pot and eat Chinese food with my dog."
He even dreamed of hosting his own award show one day. "As a little kid, I used to stand in front of the mirror holding a hairbrush like it was an Academy Award, saying, 'I want to thank my parents; I want to thank my agent; I want to thank the directors and all the other actors,' to myself," Strangie reflects. "I used to give pretend Academy Award acceptance speeches in front of the mirror when other kids were out playing baseball."
This Saturday, February 29, Strangie will once again transform into Novak for the über-popular Shelley Novak Awards, now in its 27th year, for an evening that will celebrate the Magic City's greatest queer performers. Instead of awarding golden statues of naked men, Novak will hand out gold spraypainted knockoff Barbie dolls. ("I'm going to the Dollar Tree to get the dollar Barbies," Novak says in her thick Boston accent. "I'm not going to get the expensive Mattel Barbies for these whores!")
"It's a celebration of the community. It's a celebration of drag queens, and I'm giving a voice to these queens to get up there and have a microphone and be able to talk and to thank the people that are giving them gigs," Novak says of the occasion.
"The drag queens in Miami, we're like a sorority. The only competition I think that we really have is with ourselves," she adds. "I'm my own worst critic, and I'm my own competition."
This year, Novak has done a bit of restructuring with the awards. First, gone are the gendered categories of Best Drag Queen and Best Drag King; the new Best Performer award will be up for grabs among artists such as Kunst, Andro Gin, Kat Wilderness, and Vex the Thing. "I'm lumping everybody together, the way I hope award shows will someday follow suit," Novak says. "Gender is such a walking-on-eggshells, tippy-toes subject, so I really just want to be inclusive of everybody."
Beyond other talent-filled categories, such as Best Emcee, Best New Artist, and Best Makeup, Novak will also honor those in Miami's queer scene who have been working for years for the advancement of the community "I'm giving away more recognition awards this year, like the Craig Varla Coleman Trailblazer Award," Novak says. This year, Novak will give this honor to Herb Sosa for his work with the Celebrate Orgullo festival, Pioneer Winter and his dance troupe, and the folks at the Villain Theater. Also, this year's Lifetime Achievement Awards will be handed to Noel Leon, Athena Dion, and DJ Jody McDonald. The award for McDonald represents a full-circle moment: In 1992, Shelley Novak was born in a seafoam-green sequin dress at the Winter Haven Hotel's tea dance where McDonald DJ'ed.
By the mid-'90s, the release of movies such as To Wong Foo, The Birdcage, and Priscilla, Queen of the Desert meant "it became in vogue for rich people to have, instead of an ice sculpture, drag queens come to their parties and perform," Novak says. Opportunities such as those led her to meet music icons such as Madonna, Ricky Martin, and George Harrison, with whom Novak spent 20 minutes talking about cake less than two months before his death — all moments she attributes to her mastery of "the art of cocktail conversation."
Despite being a fixture on the South Florida drag scene for nearly three decades, Novak welcomes the new generation of performers who have launched their careers following the art form's recent explosion in popularity. "I am really proud of this younger generation that I'm working with," Novak says. "I never thought at 52 that I would be working with kids in their 20s and be so respected by these kids and watching them grow... I'm so happy to be a part of it and to still be working and still be relevant." At this year's Shelley Novak Awards, Novak will hand out golden Barbie statuettes with the help of Yoko Oso and Madonovan, two promising performers from the new school of Miami drag.
Ultimately, Novak is hopeful that the spirit of her awards will live on in Miami's queer scene forever. She knows she has built something to last and continues to be grateful for the support of the often judgmental generation after her. However, she's most thankful for having created something that may outlive her: "The fact that I'm able to give these kids that stage and that spotlight, if that's all I'm remembered for — if that turns out to be the only thing that I do in my life — then maybe that was good enough."
Here's the full list of nominees:
Opal Am Rah
Bobby Ray KhasaMarina
Auntie Maim Noire
Malayah Damore Foxx
Jason Jasmine Cobian
Best New Artist
Julian the Butler
Best Live Act
Julian the Butler
Auntie Maim Noire
José Almora Lords
Dang-Ho Yu Sickening
British J Foxx
Vex the Thing
Daniel Hottpants Blair
Florida Elizabeth Man
Best Drag Venue
Drag Mondays at Kill Your Idol
777 International Mall
Craig Varla Coleman Trailblazer Award
Lifetime Achievement Award
The 27th-Annual Shelley Novak Awards. 9 p.m. Saturday, February 29, at Las Rosas, 2898 NW Seventh Ave., Miami; 786-780-2700; lasrosasbar.com. Admission is free.
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