Belles with Balls

Drag Shows

My Significant Other is fond of telling me that women have no idea what men find sexy. Sure we do, I tell him. Long hair — preferably blond — big tits and high heels. He rolls his eyes and tells me how wrong I am. "We don't care what kind of shoes you wear," he says. He may not notice the shoes, but they're part of the look men find so sexy because they make the legs look longer and thrust the butt up higher. Plus, they make the feet look shorter and impart that certain sexy hobbling gait that make women move like prey. The Chinese used to break every bone in women's feet and bind them to get that look. So I guess I should be thankful for high heels.

That said, I have always enjoyed a good drag show. I find it amusing that men, who don't have to do it, actually seem to enjoy employing the instruments of female bondage. They truss up their torsos in girdles and push-up bras, shave off their body hair, stuff their legs into itchy panty hose and teeter around on foot-crushing high heels. To get breasts, they voluntarily suffer surgery and hormonal imbalances. Not to mention the time and expense they spend on hair and makeup. Still, you can't help feeling and acting sexy when you're tarted up like that, and female impersonators, being men, are probably way more sexy to the average man than an actual woman because they exaggerate the look and know exactly which buttons to push.

I hadn't been to a drag show since the old El Goya days in Ybor City in the early '80s, when you had to fight your way through Cher lookalikes snorting coke in the women's bathroom to take a pee.

If Chambers nightclub in downtown Tampa is any indication, the shows haven't changed much in the last 20 years. Except maybe to have gotten a little more perfunctory.

At Chambers on a Friday night, the female impersonators descend an industrial staircase, lip synching to bad pop music, and make their way down the runway, collecting currency. Some don't even bother to dance or vamp it up much. They just basically model the outfit. And, of course, the tits. Even gay men seem obsessed with tits. Thighs and ass come next. Some of the gals are lean and sinuous. Others pump ample thighs and swing big booties at the crowd. A chunky kid in the audience strokes his companion's butt crack in time to the music while watching the show.

But, truth be told, that's about as sexy as it gets. One guy says he doesn't come for the drag shows, which last about an hour. "They're just a bunch of washed up old queens," he says. Still, he watches with everyone else. "The drag queens bring them together," says another, referring to the crowd. "And the strip shows disperse them." Sure enough, once the drag queen's are done, the crowd moves on, even though the scantily clad dancers who replace them show more skin. Love 'em or hate 'em, people still seem mesmerized by drag shows, even when the performers seem to be phoning it in.

Still, Chambers is a good club, and it brings a wonderful urban buzz to that otherwise dead stretch of N. Franklin Street that the mayor wants to animate. The people are friendly — from the bouncers and bartenders to the patrons. It's a mixed crowd, mostly gay men with a smaller subset of lesbians and maybe a few trannies. The bartenders are fast and expert, and they pour a healthy shot.

In north Tampa, Valentines has drag shows at midnight and 1:30 on Friday night/Saturday morning, and I manage to miss them both on my designated drag night. When they do take place here, the shows are clearly much more up close and personal because Valentines is an intimate place with a small outdoor bar in the back.

The music and dancing are better here than at Chambers. The crowd is mostly black and Latin on the night I visit, and the dance floor is packed with people of all sexual stripes, from regular old gays and lesbians to folks of indeterminate sexuality and exaggerated gender, all seriously grooving to the music, some engaging in sensual foreplay. Although it's definitely a gay nightclub, I wouldn't be at all surprised if there are some heterosexuals here besides myself because it's a fun, unpretentious place where people enjoy dancing and know how to cut loose.

Though I missed the drag show proper at Valentines, I must applaud the most outstanding unofficial drag show on the dance floor while I was there. My best guess on the gender: a man trapped in a woman's body dressing as a man with a truly imaginative sense of style. He wore loose red zoot-suity trousers with suspenders, a white poet's blouse, and a 'do that was a cross between a pompadour and a bonafide Tampa mullet, reaching halfway down his back. A sort of Yani-meets-Steve-Van Zandt-on-The-Sopranos look.

He looked way more comfortable than the beautiful, breasty woman wearing rhinestone-lined eyelashes, tight glittery dress and pointy-toed high heels.

And he danced his ass off for free.

Valentines, 7522 N. Armenia Ave., Tampa. Hours: 3 p.m.-3 a.m. daily. Cover charge and events vary. Call 813-936-1999 or visit www.valentinesnightclub.com for details.

Club Chambers, 1701 N. Franklin St., Tampa. It's open Weds.-Sun. nights. Hours, events and cover charge vary. Call 813-223-1300 or visit www.clubchambers.com for details.