Each Friday and Saturday night in the small dressing room behind the stage of Lips Atlanta, Charles Dillard begins the transformation he has performed for almost 50 years.
The wig is usually short. The dress, often with sequins, reveals lots of cleavage. The jewelry is rhinestones, the bigger the better. Penciled-in brows with a sky-high arch replace the ones that no longer grow back. A glittery pink semicircle of eyeshadow hovers above heavily mascara’ed lashes. With a generous swoosh of pink blush and a coating of pink lipstick, Mr. Charlie Brown is ready to take the stage.
» PHOTOS | Meet drag queen Mr. Charlie Brown
It is the fifth anniversary of Lips Atlanta, the drag dining club on Buford Highway, and Dillard is one of the original MCs. At 69, he is also one of the most well-known and longest-performing drag queens in Atlanta. His career has taken him all over the world, granted him entry into the television and film industry — he recently shot a scene as himself in the forthcoming film “Limited Partners” starring Tiffany Haddish and Salma Hayek — and it has allowed him to make a living doing the thing he loves the most, making people laugh. Those who know him best described him as supremely witty and one of those people who has no idea how many lives he has touched.
“The best thing about my career is I am entertaining. I am making people laugh. In five years, I hope to be right here,” said Dillard on a recent afternoon seated at a booth in Lips Atlanta. “If you can’t laugh at a 69-year-old fat, baldheaded man in a dress, you don’t have any business here after dark,” he said, quoting a line he tells his audience.
From a farm to the clubs
The world of drag has evolved since Dillard first began, moving from novelty to mainstream with the release of books, films and television shows such as VH1’s “RuPaul’s Drag Race.” But drag performance is nothing new. Men have been dressing up as women for thousands of years, as far back as ancient Greece when male actors dressed as women to play the roles women were not allowed to perform.
In his book “Drag: Combing Through the Big Wigs of Show Business” (Rizzoli, $35), Frank DeCaro pegs the rise of modern drag to the early 20th century. Julian Eltinge, considered the RuPaul of his time, made his first appearance on Broadway in 1904 in the musical “Mr. Wix of Wickham.” Eltinge paved the way for many to follow — Flip Wilson, Tom Hanks, Tyler Perry — but as DeCaro notes, while mainstream audiences have always sought and enjoyed drag performances, it wasn’t until the 1980s and 1990s when drag also offered a platform for the LGBTQ community, allowing performers to live as authentically offstage as they did while performing.
As a boy growing up in Westmoreland, Tenn., Dillard said he always knew he was gay. Back then, it wasn’t something you shared, he said. “I grew up on a country farm in a missionary Baptist family,” Dillard said. His grandfather was the founder of a church in Tennessee. His father, a foreman at a shirt factory, and his mother, a woman of strong Christian faith, raised their three children in a close-knit family, he said. But it was Aunt Mary who left an indelible impression on a young Charlie.
“She was the funniest woman who ever walked the face of the earth. When there was a funeral, the men would gather in the kitchen and Aunt Mary would be in there telling dirty jokes. If the door opened, she would go straight into a quote from the Bible,” he said.
In high school, Dillard did time in the school band, was a rifle-carrying member of the color guard and sang in a gospel trio. After graduating in 1968, he joined the Air Force in 1969 and later made his way to North Carolina. He didn’t know anyone else who felt the way he did about men until he moved to Nashville and discovered the bars and parks around town where gay culture flourished. He was 19 when he went to Myrtle Beach, South Carolina, one summer and first saw a drag performance.
Back in Nashville, he took a job as the male lead in a drag show. One night, they did a turnabout, and all the male leads dressed in drag. “I was a hit and that was it,” Dillard said.
His drag persona would evolve from a Las Vegas showgirl to a sassy Southern woman with a bawdy sense of humor. At the time, drag queens in the South mostly aimed to look like real women rather than having a campy or fantasy look, so Dillard would spread makeup on the coffee table while watching movies and try to re-create the work of makeup artists. He also drew on his favorite comedians for inspiration — Carol Burnett, Tim Conway, Dom DeLuise, Red Skelton and Jonathan Winters. “Those were my heroes,” Dillard said.
In 1976, he met Fred Wise at the ladies’ room of the Carousel Club in Knoxville, where Dillard worked as show director. Wise’s ex-wife introduced them. “Charlie was on stage when we walked in. He was doing a snake act. I had never seen anything quite like him before,” said Wise, 63.
The next time they saw each other, Dillard was not in drag. They were two hippies with long hair and bell bottoms who began hanging out and learning they had more in common than they had differences, Wise said. One night, Wise went to the club searching for Dillard. They had a drink and Wise surprised both of them with a confession, “Well, I came here for you,” he said, and they’ve been together ever since.
With Wise, Dillard began to take himself more seriously. “He saw stuff in me that I didn’t,” Dillard said. “That is the secret of my career. I always had him there working to support me. We have always been a tag team and the absolute best of friends.”
Together they entered the heyday of modern drag, moving from Knoxville to Atlanta in 1978. Dillard took a job at a club as an entertainer. Two years later, he was crowned Ms. Gay Georgia.
It was a time when drag queens were discouraged from walking in Atlanta’s gay pride parade. Their presence, which inevitably received enthusiastic media coverage, was thought to diminish the importance of the event, Dillard said. Dillard became the first drag queen to participate, riding down the street with the Texas Drilling Company (a former Atlanta bar) and leathermen wearing chaps.
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Dillard continued working, refining his act and building a following. He was known for heckling the audience and landing jokes, never memorized, in the same manner as his Aunt Mary, most of which can’t be repeated here. As with many drag queens, Dillard had found a way to express things as a woman that he couldn’t express as a man. In drag, he was a firebrand commanding attention the moment he opened his mouth.
Eventually, he told his family what he did for a living. “Of course, they didn’t like it and they prayed for me and begged for me to quit, but that was my lifestyle,” he said. His sister, 13 years older, is the only family member to ever see him perform. She covered her eyes when she stuffed a $1 tip into his cleavage.
‘An icon for sure’
By 1990, Mr. Charlie Brown was an Atlanta legend. That year, Vicki Vara, whose family owned the popular bar Backstreet on Peachtree and Sixth, was looking for a big draw. “When people came in, it was a big empty room and people left,” she said, referring to the top floor of the club. “I remember thinking we needed a crowd starter.”
They tried dancers and a few other things, but nothing worked. Vara knew the drag scene was exploding and Dillard was the name on everyone’s lips, both for his talent and his activism in the gay community. “He was raising money for charities. Whenever they needed a host or an MC, he was perfect for it,” she said. “He has been an icon for sure, and everyone knows him in the gay community.”
Charlie Brown’s Cabaret was exactly what Backstreet needed. The show would kick off at 11 p.m. and sometimes wouldn’t end until 7 a.m. Dillard hired the best performers, and the club attracted some of the biggest celebrities passing through town. During one memorable show, Mr. Charlie Brown began teasing gymnast Cathy Rigby, who was seated in the audience, suggesting she prove her identity by turning flips. “She stood up from her chair and did back flips across the front of the stage and snapped her fingers when she finished,” Dillard said, laughing at the memory.
In 1997, the club was featured in an HBO documentary, “Drag Time,” a film which confirmed drag was fully mainstream. It has also become more inclusive, extending beyond the stereotypical heterosexual male dressing as a woman for laughs to a mode of expression for members of the LGBTQ community. It was also becoming big business, and Dillard was part of that wave.
Dillard had been on the road doing shows from Boston to Key West and Las Vegas to Amsterdam, but back at home, the tides were changing on the club scene. In 2004, Backstreet would shutter, a victim of metro Atlanta’s neighborhood bar battles. Dillard kept touring and landed a gig at Blake’s on the Park, where he worked before meeting Mark “Yvonne Lame” Zschiesche, co-owner of Lips.
When they opened the first Lips location in the late ’90s at a small restaurant in New York’s West Village, Zschiesche and his partner wanted to create a party atmosphere — a club scene with great music, drag queens and good food. The concept was such a hit in New York, they soon opened outposts in San Diego and Fort Lauderdale. Five years ago, Atlanta seemed a good location for what was then their largest club (Chicago is opening soon and will be the biggest Lips ever).
More than 100 drag queens showed up for auditions, said Zschiesche. He was looking for polish, personality and great performers. “I didn’t know that many queens in Atlanta, but Charlie Brown is known nationally,” he said. “I knew she was very funny. I met her and her husband. I didn’t even see her in drag.”
Dillard was offered a spot on the roster of 30 performers at the club. Though Lips was already thriving, Zschiesche said they have gotten a boost in the past decade since the debut of “RuPaul’s Drag Race.” “Television just catapults people to another level,” he said. “Now you have people who have become instant celebrities and the world loves celebrities. That in general has helped us thrive more.”
‘I am very fortunate’
Performing in the era of the young, insta celeb is the one thing Dillard struggles with the most. “The most challenging thing I have faced is that as I got older, everybody got younger,” he said.
Dillard once tipped the scales at 360. Gastric bypass in 2004 helped him get down to a life-changing 214, but now arthritis has come to visit. He recently had cataract surgery, which has limited his costume designing hobby.
After working together for more than 16 years, Wise recently retired. When Dillard is not working, they retreat to their Austell home to spend time in the garden or cooking. Sometimes they enjoy meals with friends at favorite restaurants like the Colonnade, or they watch movies and hang out on the deck with Rusty, their Cavalier King Charles Spaniel.
But on Friday and Saturday, Dillard can be found on stage at Lips, delivering barbs to the birthday girls, bachelorettes and the handful of men that have been dragged in by their wives and girlfriends.
At the shows, nothing is off-limits for teasing. “I make fun of where they live, how they dress, anything,” Dillard said, but it’s all in fun and he doesn’t take any of it for granted. “I am very fortunate to still be doing this at age 69. I live for the show each night.”
And each night, to show his gratitude, he walks up to every person in the audience and makes sure he says thank you.
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