On a crisp winter’s night, a beautiful, lithe woman emerges from the glutinous darkness that saturates the stage of a bar and restaurant in upmarket Illovo, Johannesburg.
‘Strike a pose! Strike a pose!’ breathes Madonna, as her hit song ‘Vogue’ begins to ooze from an overhead speaker.
The audience below is dappled in diamonds of light that dance over them from a massive mirror ball.
Flashes from a strobe light herald dawn at midnight, bouncing violet light off the gyrating woman’s platinum blonde hair, which is streaked with pink. Lips caked with shocking pink lipstick shape a pout, the woman wears a tight and knotted ruffled pink blouse and a powder blue satin dress that accentuates her thighs.
When she winks they erupt, whooping and shouting.
But the object of their manic cheers, as attractive a package as it is, is no woman at all … It’s Herman Botha, a “middle class, Afrikaans boy,” fashion designer by day, one of South Africa’s top drag artists – Alley Hoop - by night.
His “partner in heinous assorted crimes of passion” is the bigger-boned and tattooed Cadenza, aka Alain Fleischmann, a Jewish hair stylist in a crimson wig, thick scarlet lipstick, skin-tight black and turquoise striped spandex leotard and black gloves sporting sharp silver talons.
Women are taking over
While Alley Hoop and Cadenza entertain the crowd, muscular young men in pink and black tank tops prowl the premises of Beefcakes, a night spot modeled on a burger bar circa 1950’s Miami Beach, serving Pink Tea cocktails and Greek God hamburgers.
“All of our staff are gorgeous, with six packs; all young,” says manager Jono Lawson.
One of these “beefcakes” is Daniel Critchfield.
“When I started here about a year ago, most clients were gay men. Then suddenly huge amounts of straight women of all ages started coming in. I’d say seven out of every ten clients now are women,” says the 18-year-old.
“On Saturdays we’re fully booked three months in advance and it’s just women. There are just women everywhere and they go wild and start screaming…”
This, says Critchfield, is “heaven” for a “straight boy” like him.
“It’s a good feeling when you’re on stage and you take your shirt off and almost a hundred women start screaming for you… Once they get started you never know what’s going to happen.
“One night I was walking around; I had no top on… with two plates in my hand with burgers on them…. then this woman just jumps at me out of nowhere, just grabs me … The women go crazy; they actually lose their minds…”
‘Safe and sexy’
According to Lawson, Beefcakes used to be the center of Johannesburg’s gay universe.
“It was started as a gay bar, with the idea of it catering to gay men and their friends, and having something (for them) a little bit more fun than a dark, dingy, dodgy club to go to.”
But now, he says, the venue’s become “a happy, safe, sexy place for girls to go to, a place where they don’t feel threatened. So they don’t have to be harassed by drunken men at a bar and if they want to get a bit drunk and throw (their) name (away), it’s just with the gays and some girls.”
Lawson says the bar’s become so popular with women that he’s had to reserve Thursday and Saturday evenings for bachelorette parties.
“So there’s moms and grand-moms sometimes coming to those so you’ve got to cater for those people too, whilst maintaining the fabulousness of drag,” he insists.
Everybody blending in, with pina coladas
Tonight, as with most nights, Beefcakes is thronged by a diverse, multiracial cross-section of South African society: A group of well-to-do black ladies, dressed elegantly, tucks into Pina Coladas. Some Muslim men sit at one table, wearing pink hard hats and whistling at another of Alley Hoop’s risqué antics.
“We’ve had a 75-year-old woman doing a body shot off one our boys… We’ve had big, butch, scary men walking in here petrified, who end up dancing on the tables with feather boas and glitter hats,” says Lawson.
He acknowledges that just a few years ago this open celebration of gay culture -“and all things pink” - would never have happened, not even in one of South Africa’s notably liberal corners.
“The way that this mix has happened over the years has got something to do with South Africa’s past,” Lawson reasons. “For so long during apartheid, it was against the law for different races and religions and sexual orientations to mix. Now that we’re free of this oppression, we mix with whoever we damn well like, even drag queens. I think it’s just a sign of the times, that people don’t need to be boxed anymore.”
Lawson believes that Beefcakes offers further proof that South Africa is a remarkably tolerant country.
“I’m not saying we’re perfect; we still have our problems, but here you have mosques next to Christian churches, black people living next to white people and gay nightclubs next to straight nightclubs.
“As society becomes more accepting of homosexuals, homosexuals become more accepting of society and everybody starts blending in.”
No more freaks
Fleischmann, fresh off the stage and sweating profusely, his makeup running in rivulets down his cheeks, says drag shows were until recently an “almost exclusively gay thing” in South Africa.
He points to a table of bearded men, some wearing plaid shirts and jeans, and comments: “That’s a bachelor’s party, totally straight men coming to watch my drag show; it’s unbelievable; wonderful!”
Fleischmann says South Africans are finally embracing drag artists as “genuine” entertainers and not just as “novelties” and “freaks” … Although he says he appreciates that his Beefcakes gigs allow him to express his “freakishness.”
Beefcake body shots
In another boisterous corner of the bar, a woman in her 40s, eyes gleaming with mischief, is working up the courage to consume a shot of tequila… from the ripped torso of a beefy waiter.
“This is something unique that we offer our customers: the chance to do a body shot off any one of our waiters or bar staff,” says a beaming Lawson.
That’s Beefcakes - a place where lunacy often rules, but emerges as a sanctuary free from prejudice, and offers a reflection of a rapidly changing South Africa.