If you’re looking for a way to give back to a community hugely in need, while also enjoying an evening of one of the most electric, fierce and outrageous drag queen shows this side of the Mississippi, then get your tickets for the annual Best in Drag Show, held at the Orpheum theater in downtown Los Angeles on Oct. 7.
A fundraiser for Alliance for Housing and Healing, the Best in Drag Show emerged out of an annual night of friends getting together to watch the “Miss America” contest in a small West Hollywood apartment in 1989.
“A hairdresser and friend of mine who had AIDS, Alexis Pittman, loved the ‘Miss America’ contest,” Jack Lorenz, Director of Development and Communications at Alliance for Housing and Healing tells the Blade. “So, every year, whether we liked it or not, we had to go and watch the show with him. One year, he decided to invite some drag queens over, and while the women on TV were doing the real show, the drag queens were doing the same thing. The next thing I knew, people stared crumpling up dollar bills and throwing them at the drag queens. At the end of the night we asked Alexis what he was going to do with all of the crumpled up dollar bills. He said, ‘I’m gonna’ iron the bills and take them to Aid for AIDS in the morning.’ That night we ‘raised’ $40 dollars. Fast-forward to last year, and we ironed $20,000,” Lorenz says.
Alliance for Housing and Healing’s flagship initiative, Aid for AIDS, was founded in 1983 by a small group of friends in the greater Hollywood. The group got together to help a community being devastated by the HIV/AIDS pandemic. AFA provided emergency rent, mortgage, and utility payments, allowing people to die with dignity in their own homes. Since AFA’s founding, it has touched the lives of more than 16,000 men, women, and children.
Moving from Pittman’s apartment and then to larger and larger venues, the official Best in Drag Show launched in 2003, and has since made more than $600 million to support the work of AFA.
All of the six contestants are amateur drag queens. The auditions are held in March, and though it’s not fierce, Lorenz says, they’re also not easy, he adds. Contestants work from March to October to hone their characters.
Some of the original “Miss America” watch-party group, as well as an army of volunteers organizes the show. And for more than ten years, Kathy Griffin has generously opened the show. She leads the judges’ panel and contributes her talent by doing what she does best… keeping things hilarious and raucous. She is also a major financial contributor.
Griffin tells the Blade that a great drag queen always starts with a fabulous name. “My drag name is ‘Safonda Cox.’ I come from a long line of Cox,’” she says.
“I’ve done this show more years than I can count and even I’m surprised about what still comes out of my mouth the minute I hit the stage,” Griffin says about her duties as comic relief. “The good news is that this audience has always been so open and receptive; I know I can say anything. They show up to laugh and leave any and all political correctness at the door,” she adds.
Alliance for Housing and Healing provides group homes with 24/7 care for those who are too ill with HIV/AIDS to live on their own and have no other resources. It offers permanent, subsidized apartments that are safe places for individuals and families with HIV/AIDS and a second diagnosis. And it gives emergency financial assistance to help cover rent and utilities for those with HIV/AIDS who are facing eviction and homelessness.
Lorenz explains that in the years since the organization first began helping people, the folks getting assistance are not the same today.
“Our mission has shifted from people like me who have HIV, to people who are marginalized and on the fringes. And at the time we started people like me were marginalized and on the fringes,” Lorenz says. “So, the face has changed, but the need has not. We are committed to an AIDS-free generation, but the only way we know for sure we can end this problem is to solve the homeless problem,” he adds.
Raising money for this new face has become a very real challenge.
Lorenz says young men of color, trans women, women of color and the homeless, are the new faces, and he adds that he spends much of his time fundraising, educating the old guard about the new need.
“One of the group homes is almost entirely devoted to Latina women and children. Many of those women are undocumented and acquired the virus from their husbands who then kicked them out of the house, Lorenz says.
“When I talk to people in my community, I say I believe you have a moral obligation to help people who need help now. Because there were people who were not like us, who took care of us. And it’s now our turn to help those people who don’t look like us,” he says.
Events like Best in Drag will raise a lot of money to help all of the faces of people living with HIV/AIDS.
“This is a community that does not stop. This is a community that approaches a health crisis from every angle and is now allowed to be a hell of a lot more open and proud then when I started doing standup all those years ago in gay bars where so many of these sufferers were forced to be in the closet. Progress has been made and progress will continue to be made,” Griffin says.
Each year, the Best in Drag Show blossoms into a bigger and more star-studded evening, with top-shelf contestants.
“Patrick Rush has always been the host. I am merely the crazy red-haired shiny object thrown on stage like a piece of red meat to a den of gays, glitter, and catcalls,” Griffin says. “My hosting has changed in that I have probably gotten bolder (if you can imagine), because as a long-time ally in the LGBTQIA2345Caitlyn community, I couldn’t feel more at home,” she adds.