"My mother was Italian — a Catholic — and my father was a German-Jew," explains Henrietta, her blue eyes wide under two pencil-thin brows. "Back in those days, when I was a kid, people didn't believe in mixed marriage. So when I came along and I was a gay boy, my grandmother said, 'See what happens when you mix blood.'" Henrietta is a mix, all right — 60-plus years old, full of sass and class, and topped by a five-inch quaffed bleach-blond wig, which is not quite a beehive but can easily be mistaken for one, complete with bangs and an elaborate Flock of Seagulls-esque flip that frames the right side of her blushed cheek.
She offers a man-handful of stories à la South Beach, aged for about 50 years and served straight up. "I haven't been out of drag since 1958. In '58 I changed and that was it."
Henrietta sits comfortably in a black fur-lined blouse and matching slacks at the tiki-theme Bungalow Bar at Twist (1057 Washington Ave., Miami Beach). She's unfazed by the herd of Gaiety Men, the bar's resident erotic dancers, who flutter (or waddle, depending largely on their muscle mass) about the small window-lined bar in nothing but orange plum-smuggling briefs and, more often than not, nipple rings.
One of the dancers, unabashed and well versed in the art of bumping 'n' grinding, go-go's on a small silver tinsel-backed stage. Under the glow of an amber light, which makes his tan skin glisten, the dancing queen slides his hands along his chiseled abs and slightly pulls down the top of his skivvies, revealing a thin line of black corkscrew pubes. He then sticks his hands in his pants and molests himself.
"Most of those guys have girlfriends waiting for them at home," says the handsome (and well-moisturized) Chuck Fancy, who I'm shocked to discover is knocking at 40. "They're basically in the same position as porn stars. Straight men go gay for the money. They do all this kind of stuff for tips."
Then one of the two brunet lesbians who introduced me to Mr. Fancy points out an embarrassing fact as she drunkenly sways on a burgundy barstool. "Your boob's popping out," she says. I look down. My chest is certainly feeling Twist's sexually liberated vibe. I adjust myself.
"No," she says, eyes glazed, in a fashion that sounds way more demeaning than flattering, "since it's already halfway out, you gotta let it all the way out."
I turn back to Henrietta. It's this kind of interaction that makes her aware of the change in gay clubs over the years. She came down from Boston in 1958 to cook in her uncle's mob-tied restaurant, Mario's — a then-popular Italian eatery. There Henrietta not only learned the craft of making (and hiding) cannolis, but also became comfortable with all kinds of alternative lifestyles.
"My uncle was liberal because he had nightclubs all over the place and would cater to and make big money off of the gays. He owned these backrooms where gays could go in, dance together, but when the lights came on, you had to sit in your seat because in my day you couldn't touch another guy or you went to jail. They were very strict here on Miami Beach. Blacks weren't allowed on the Beach either."
The Supremes, she says, were among those excluded from America's playground. "You know, they were so strict on Miami Beach that the Supremes had to be off the island by 12 o'clock and stay in a hotel in Overtown." Despite that persecution, Diana Ross had no empathy for the man who was making her favorite Italian food in Miami. "She saw me and said, 'That's who's making all this delicious food for us? A sissy?' 'Yeah, honey,' I said, 'This sissy made it.'"
I head off to explore sissy-galore in Twist's Frolic Lounge, located upstairs, past the breezy, star-lit staircase where beautifully man-scaped men dance frantically to Daddy Yankee's "Gasolina." In a dark, secluded corner, two thuggish guys — one whose neck is heavy with a thick, twisted gold chain; the other whose shorts peek out of his low-hanging jeans — viciously make out. I walk past the crowded dance floor, bedazzled with fleeting rainbow-color disco beams, and spot a woman reaching over the bar for a wine glass. Once she finishes cleaning it with a corner of her pastel floral blazer, she pours a bottle of Bud Light into it.
I have to introduce myself.
Helen Swan, formerly Sergio, is a preop transsexual. She is 50 years old, Cuban, and rocking red lipstick and a Brigitte Nielsen 'do. Although Ms. Swan had her breasts augmented and can walk like a bad-ass in a pair of heels, she still lacks the balls to get rid of little Sergio.
"No operation yet, but I'm going to, yes. I don't know when, though. Not today, not tomorrow, but someday."
Swan has been doing a drag show for the past 20 years.
"I just went to Rio, I just go to New York, I just go to Las Vegas, to Canada, Vancouver."
Because she's in such global demand, I decide to catch her show later that night.
As the schmaltzy opening chords of Sarah Brightman's version of "Time to Say Goodbye" begin, an attentive and doe-eyed crowd quietly surrounds the makeshift stage, which earlier was the Frolic Room's dance floor. Swan emerges in a blue sequin prom dress and a severely teased brown wig. Both look like they once belonged to Miss Texas 1987. Although Swan doesn't possess the pipes of her idols, Celine Dion and Barbra Streisand, she sure lip-syncs like 'em, bending back and slowly raising her arms dramatically whenever she pretends to belt out an extended note. The audience cheers enthusiastically as Swan twirls and extends her arm into the crowd for kisses on the back of her hand.
Then it's back to Henrietta, whose hand is embellished in gold — a ring and a matching dangling coin bracelet.
"That's some fabulous jewelry," I say, noticing the matching pendant around her neck.
"I only wear the real, genuine things," she replies and then busts out a story about meeting Gianni Versace at Club Deuce (222 14th St., Miami Beach). "I was in Versace's book modeling when he first came to Miami. When he first saw me, he told me: 'Wow, you're really Art Deco.' I'd go to his house nearby just for a party and I'd make homemade lasagna. He was always so thrilled."
Then I feel someone grab my lady-junk. I jump a little and glimpse a dancer's waxed bare ass on the stage. He pulls up his Speedo, presses himself against a wall, and begins humping it. Next my butt is being caressed. I turn around to find the banana-hammock mafia congregated behind me. About five of them stand there, giggling.
"What's your fascination with my ass?" I ask.
"Well, it was out there," says a beefy, thick-necked one.
I turn back and attempt to continue my conversation with Henrietta. A smaller, dark-haired stripper, with tattoos that creep up his biceps and spill onto his chest, isn't about to let that happen. He puts his arm around Henrietta and begins massaging the back of my neck with his free hand. After we ignore him for several minutes, he walks away.
"A lot of them, you know, are prostitutes on the side," Henrietta says and then pauses. "You want any of their numbers?"