Walk into Gigi’s Gay Bar today and you’re likely to see drag queen Nickki Stevens grace the stage. Her punchy humor, big looks and classy style — despite her trucker mouth — have been thrilling audiences since the late ’80s. But, what some might not know is that in many ways, Stevens’ act could be considered double. After all, even though her mother, Sharon Hughes, doesn’t grace the stage herself, she spends her Saturday nights working concessions, selling jewelry, and providing her drag daughter much support: from painting, to cleaning, to decorating.
“I’ve gotta keep her active,” said Stevens. “If you rest, you rust.”
After three decades of female impersonating, Stevens has become something of a drag mother herself as the manager and show director of Gigi’s Cabaret since 1990, which, according to Stevens is the “longest-running showroom” in Michigan history.
And, as with any long-running show, along with the drama onstage, running things comes with a bit of sass off of it as well.
“It’s like grade school. Whenever you get more than two girls in a room it’s trouble,” said Hughes about watching her daughter manage several different personalities, four of whom Stevens has taken upon herself to mentor in the skills of the art form. They are Destiny Hunter, Veronica Madison, Revue and Serena Escavelle. Sadly, her fifth drag daughter, Tori Lancaster, passed away in the mid-’90s. Stevens said that the secrets she passes on to her drag daughters, she learned from her own mom.
“Mother taught me honesty and hard work always prevails,” said Stevens who in a way was raised not only by her biological mother, but her drag mother and Detroit legend, Lady “T” Tempest, too.
“And if you can’t handle the truth, don’t ask the question,” she said.
And with that drive coupled with a healthy serving of sass, it’s not surprising that Stevens has been doing drag long enough to be a well-seasoned veteran. From the moment Stevens saw Charles Pierce on TV she knew what she wanted to be when she grew up.
“Baby that’s it. That’s what I’m gonna do,” she said.
After all, Pierce was one of the 20th century’s foremost female impersonators.
“I could be funny, pretty, accepted,” she said.” How’s that? That’s a big word.”
And acceptance was especially important for Stevens in high school, because her family had moved from South Bend, Indiana, to West Bloomfield and, in many ways, she felt out of place.
“I was always funny, but I had to be to be the gay one in school or you’re gonna get beat up,” she said. “It’s better to be self-deprecating and be the jokester.”
A talent she said she honed while she worked as a server at the Ram’s Horn diner, where every table was a different audience. Stevens’ mother, Hughes, agreed that humor might have been the best coping mechanism after moving across state lines.
“My heart was breaking because all the rest of the kids were driving Lamborghinis to school and she had a Fiesta,” said Hughes. “High school was hard.”
But, even beyond Ram’s Horn, Stevens found the greatest comfort in the dressing room at the Pink Flamingo at 16. That’s when she started dressing drag queens – her role models – like Candy Sweet, Jennifer Foxx, Elaine St. Jacques, April Summers and Melba Moore. That was when she began to hone her love of the craft — and for heels, in which she stands at a comfortable height of 6’4.”
Stevens had already been performing at Gigi’s since 1988, but her mom didn’t start coming to watch her perform until 1995. Hughes worked nights before switching to the day shift as a charge nurse at Jackson State Prison from where she has since retired.
“I carried pictures of her and showed everybody at work. Half of my staff was gay anyway so they knew her,” she said. “People were surprised to find out that I was her mother. At first when the new boss comes, you know, people like to give them trouble, but not Nickki Stevens’ mother.”
Hughes spent a lot of time stoning Stevens’ costumes by hand in the late ’90s. That’s how she got started making jewelry, which she now sells at the bar and at various pageants. The business, owned by Stevens, is called Purple Angel Jewelry.
“It’s a little hobby of mine. It’s no big deal,” said Hughes, who believes, “We all have angels watching over us,” and her favorite color is purple. So, with every piece of jewelry made, Hughes said another angel starts watching over members of the community, friends and customers.
Hitting Her Stride
Stevens was a traveling performer on the road with the all-male dance troupe, Male Order, in the late ’80s. Quite the hustler, Stevens made appearances throughout the Midwest, in Ohio, Dallas, Florida, West Virginia and Pennsylvania. She also flew back and forth between Detroit and Chicago for almost a year to be the hostess and emcee at the famed Baton Show Lounge from May 1995 through February 1996.
Stevens said she is the most awarded female impersonator in Michigan history. Her awards include Miss Amateur Club Gold Coast 1989, Miss Gold Coast Saloon 1991, Miss Woodward Strip 1991, Miss Tiffany’s 1991, Miss Gigi’s 1992, Royal Queen of Queens of Michigan 1993-1997, Miss S.S. Dingy 1993, Miss Michigan Continental Plus 1995, Miss Great Lakes Continental Plus 1996 and Miss Michigan Sunset Coast 1996.
She also received the Detroit Entertainer of the Year award 12 times at the Detroit Performer Awards, and the Emcee of the Year award for 24 consecutive years (and now the award is named after her). She was the first and only drag queen to receive the Spirit of Detroit Award from the Detroit City Council in the late ’90s, too.
“I had so much money, (but) I couldn’t spend it because I couldn’t get out of bed,” said Stevens, referencing the huge amount of travel she had to do. “It was fun. I had the opportunity to work at one of the best-known female impersonator bars in the country, but this is my sandbox and I don’t travel as much as I used to anymore.”
Gigi’s, like many other gay bars, used to be a sanctuary for the LGBTQ community. Gigi’s was originally owned by Tony Garneau in the early ’70s until his death in 1991. In his will he left the bar to his long-time employees, four of whom still run the place.
“There were 45, 50 bars back then. You could go to a different bar every night of the month and still not hit them all. Until the internet and Grindr and everything else ruined everything,” said Stevens, noting that a majority of their audience now is heterosexual.
“I hate RuPaul’s Drag Race, but thank God for that bitch because all them straight housewives of Royal Oak want to see drag queens now. So alright, bring them on …. She continued, “It makes more people — now that it’s mainstream — curious and (they) want to come see us. She’s actually making me money, which I’m happy for,” said Stevens. “If gay people walk in here on a Saturday night, I’m like ‘Are you lost?'”
Stevens attributes that to a number of things, but mostly cultural acceptance.
“We all fought and fought since Stonewall for equal rights and once we got them and we could hold each others’ hands walking down the streets of Ferndale or Royal Oak, then the bars seemed to not be the sanctuary that it used to be,” she said.
However, as lauded as Stevens is, her career has come with its fair share of challenges, too — ones that other drag queens weren’t afraid to warn her about when she was just starting out.
“I said, ‘Oh I want to do this one day.’ And they all said, ‘No you don’t.’ I said, ‘Oh yes I do.’ They said, ‘No you don’t,'” said Stevens. “Well now I know exactly what they were talking about. No I don’t.”
However, resistance or not, Stevens is one of the few who have been fortunate enough to make a living as a female impersonator for this long. Depending on who they are, how long and where they have performed, drag queens can make anywhere from $25 a night to $5,000 a week.
For her, and most, she said that drag as a career is “a trade-off.” When asked what that means, Stevens explained that, “Gay men come out to be with men and when you look like a woman half the week and spend half your life on stage, they don’t want to have anything to do with you,” she said. “Oh, everybody loves you, but not one loves you. That’s the problem.”
At an age “somewhere between birth and death,” Stevens said she is ready for retirement but, “It don’t look like that’s gonna happen until that Powerball hits the right way.” Until then, she seems to have found her niche on the microphone.
“Not a lot of drag queens can do that,” she said. “If I never had to do another number in my life and just talk on the microphone, I’d be happy.”
It’s not that Stevens doesn’t love her success – she is the legendary “Blonde Bombshell” and the “Peroxide Piranha” from Detroit who has entertained and inspired many – but after all this time, she still feels like she’s second-rate in a subculture.
“We’re fine as long as the spotlight is on us. If I’ve got jeans and a button-down shirt on and my hair blown out, trying to look like a boy as much as possible with all this botox and silicone in my face, they don’t want anything to do with me, ‘Oh, that’s Nickki Stevens,'” she said, adding that she was married for 13 years to a man who left her. “I’ve gotta go out of town to find a date so they don’t know who the hell I am. Some men find it as a fetish. I don’t want anything to do with that.”
It’s why her mom said they’re so close. “We don’t get that men stuff,” laughed Hughes, also a divorcee.
“We’ve lived together for 14 years. I never cut the umbilical cord,” she said. “We’re hell on wheels. We have more fun than anybody.”
They spend their time together doing things like shopping, traveling to Las Vegas and hanging out by the pool at home during the summer months.
Plus, Hughes considers herself to be a people person which helps them work together even more so. She enjoys engaging with guests at the bar who she said always want to talk about her daughter. And, as most mothers would, she loves to gush about her child. Hughes said Stevens is “the most beautiful thing I ever saw. I knew when she was three she was going to be a star.”