Menjos Entertainment Complex Hosts History of Detroit Drag Queens Panel
The Menjos Entertainment Complex and specifically the Olympus Theater are hosting their second of a three-part series of panel discussions on the stories of gay life and gay bars in Detroit. For this installment of the Our History in the D panel, the title is “Episode 2: The Queens.” The panel will include veteran drag queens including Eunice Alexander, Fantaysa Dior, Renee Peters, Nicki Stevens and Lady “T” Tempest. They will recount their histories in the Detroit LGBT community and recall the early days of their careers.
For Eunice Alexander, her story began over 40 years ago.
“It was 1977,” Alexander started. “I was with a group of friends and we were actually barhopping. We went into a bar called Bookie’s. They had a drag show going on … and I said, ‘I can do that.’ I wanted to be a part of the theater and so forth. So me and my friend, we started developing Eunice.”
Alexander’s beginnings in drag were humble.
“Eunice went around from ’77 to ’82 running from bar to bar trying to get a title,” she said. “Back then if you weren’t in a clique or you didn’t have a title you couldn’t get any shows.”
But after five years in the game, Alexander grew tired and questioned her calling.
“It was 1982 at a bar named Todd’s,” Alexander continued. “I had made a decision that if I didn’t place or win the title I was giving up. I’d spent too many years and too much money on it. But then I placed second runner up for Miss Amateur Todd’s.”
So, with a title under her belt, Alexander’s career took off – and she didn’t remain an amateur for long. Just a few short years later she won her first major title: Miss Gold Coast. And after that, she would win another title that many consider the epitome of success in the Detroit drag scene: Miss Gigi’s.
“The moment I figured that I’d made it as an entertainer was when I won Miss Gigi’s,” said Alexander. “Once I was a part of that group that meant that I was the cat’s meow. I now had a star on my door. Everything else that came after was an extra feather in the cap – or an extra rhinestone in the crown.”
Throughout the years Alexander would go on to win Miss Gay Detroit, Miss Other Side, Miss Gigi’s Classic, Miss Motown Invitational Classic and Royal Queen Mum from the Royal Court of Michigan.
“It’s just been a whirlwind,” Alexander said. “I’ve performed in almost every bar in Detroit as well as Flint, Lansing and Toledo.”
Today, at 60, Alexander still performs. She shows no signs of slowing down but if and when she ever does, she knows how she wants to be remembered.
“I hope when people think of me they think of someone who basically was humble and loved to entertain and put smiles on people’s faces,” she said. “I just want people to remember Eunice as a good person, a humble person, and I think someone that is talented. I don’t want to brag but I do feel that Eunice is talented. She’s not the prettiest thing on two feet but I think she is talented.”
Renee Peters is another Gigi’s girl. But her first time, so to speak, was at Backstreet.
“I entered a contest for the first time in drag and we were all in line waiting for the contest to start and we looked at each other,” Peters remembered. “We didn’t know our drag names or nothing. All of a sudden I said, ‘I’ll just say, Renee.’ And they said, ‘Renee, what?’ And I said, ‘Peters.’ In hindsight, I’m Latino. So, I wish I had come up with a name that showed my ethnicity. But it’s no big deal now.”
Just a fledgling drag queen, Peters encountered two more experienced girls, Vanessa LaSalle and Lady “T” Tempest.
“They both came up to me and they said, ‘Renee, with a little bit of work on your hair and your makeup, you’re going to go a long way,’” Peters said.
And she did. Like Alexander, she has racked up a laundry list of titles including Miss CT’s, Miss Gas Station, Miss Gold Coast, Miss Other Side, Miss Gay Michigan America and Entertainer of the Year for the Performers Awards of Detroit. Oh yes, and Miss Gigi’s and, eventually, Miss Gigi’s Classic, too.
“It’s so funny, the year that I won Miss Gigi’s Tempest crowned me and the year that she won Classic I crowned her,” said Peters. “She was like my drag mom. I lived with her for a while. She always had people living with her.”
The good ‘ol days, Peters said, were a simpler time.
“Back then we really didn’t have much drama,” she said. “I’ve always been more to myself. I never wanted to get involved in any kind of drama. I don’t have time for that. I love everybody. You be friendly to me and I’ll be friendly to you. I don’t want to be a mean queen. I just like being happy all the time.”
Still happy at 61, Peters continues to perform about once a month.
“I’ve still got it in me, as far as an entertainer,” Peters said. “As long as I can still get up on stage and entertain I have no desire to retire.”
The Importance of Drag
“Drag, female impersonation, and gender-transgressive performance has a been part of queer life around the world and in the U.S. for more than a century,” said Tim Retzloff, historian and Adjunct Assistant Professor of History and LGBT Studies at Michigan State University, who will once again moderate the panel discussion. “Detroit has been a dynamic part of this history and has had its own distinctive local impact.
“It’s important to explore this vital aspect of Metro Detroit’s LGBTQ heritage,” Retzloff continued. “I look forward to learning first-hand from some of the performers about their triumphs and struggles.”
The History in the D panel discussion will take place Friday, June 22 at 7 p.m. The Olympus Theater is located directly next door to Menjo’s at 940 W. McNichols Road in Detroit.