On the eve of the Pride Parade, Charl Blignaut attended the country’s premiere black drag pageant
You’d never tell from the outside that Monyaka by Nite is the sort of nightclub given to displaying a galaxy of star- shaped refracting mirrors across the ceiling above its dance floor.
>From outside, you’d never even tell it’s a nightclub: a double-storey face-brick building alongside some shops on a vacated lot in the middle of a sea of dimly illuminated shacks in Sebokeng.
Then again, you’d probably also never tell that the bruised Putco bus trundling towards it carries a small army of mainly black gays and lesbians bellowing bad Whitney Houston tunes and the odd liberation song into the inky night.
Yet, once again last week, on the eve of the annual Pride Parade and for the seventh consecutive year, the Gay and Lesbian Organisation of the Witwatersrand (Glow) hosted the country’s premiere black drag pageant, Miss Glow Vaal, at Monyaka by Nite.
“We have just two night clubs in Sebokeng,” says Glow’s Peter Mohlahledi once I have made my way – to the steady thump of Mandoza and Boom Shaka – through the human knot on the stairs and have finally spotted him in a crafty tartan mini with school mistress hair.
“Monyaka by Nite is not usually gay, but it’s gay-friendly,” he says. “We have gay- friendly shebeens here too, but we’ve always hired Monyaka.”
Although Glow could have chosen one of the openly gay shebeens in kwaThema near Springs for its biggest annual party, Sebokeng holds a special place in its struggle. The original core leadership of Glow, founders of the now 20 000-strong Pride Parade, hail from here and over the years they’ve watched a large part of the community grow to accept its gay residents.
Obviously it wasn’t always this way – the fresh-as-hell drags and the young queer couples holding hands on the dance floor or kissing across tables groaning under the weight of six-packs from the bar.
Growing up in Sebokeng, deceased activist and Glow co-founder Simon Nkoli, for example, recalled coming out to his family and being summarily dispatched by his mother on a “year-long tour of the sangomas of Sebokeng” to try and find a cure.
Most of them instantly declared him bewitched by a tokoloshe and tried to make him drink “foul-smelling muti” to break the isitabane (hermaphrodite) spell. Today, even though there’s a way to go yet, many would just as well treat his mother for stress.
The change is evident all around us. The good queens of Sebokeng have become a hip nightlife magnet and Nkoli, his old friend Mohlahledi reckons, would have been indescribably happy with the turnout.
“This is double the biggest crowd ever,” he says, counting among them a handful of gleefully astonished delegates from the week’s International Lesbian and Gay Association World Conference being hosted by South Africa for the first time in its 21-year history – another idea of Nkoli’s.
Mohlahledi bustles off to greet the judges as the photographer and I dive on to a dance floor rocking to a barrage of house tracks. We re-emerge inside a cupboard of a dressing room backstage and are greeted by seven rapidly transforming finalists all sharing a solitary source of light-cum-mirror – a discarded Klipdrift brandy bar advert.
“Photographs are welcome,” says one topless contestant with a Dentyne smile, coyly turning her back to hide a flat, muscular little chest.
When the evening’s hostesses – all former Miss Glows and looking the part – finally call the seven “delegates” on to stage to meet the people, it is instantly evident that precious few of this clutch of new generation queens suffer the hormone- therapy-and-frilly-frock syndrome commonly associated with local drag.
Like members of drag’s new school of international night club and cable TV boy-divas – like Chicklet and Girlina and Miss Guy – there are, on stage in Sebokeng, no false titties and very few tucks. There are no Carmen Mirandas or Lena Horns – though Miss Meyerton was heard to mutter into the microphone “I am Natasha Kinski” and, much later in the evening, drag entertainer Lady Aurora did perform a very fetching lip-sync of Diamonds are Forever.
Instead, mincing to a club tune, were sporty cocktail garments and platform trainers, jeans and stretchy tops. And, after a protracted appearance in cocktail gowns and a great thumping of beer cans on tables, the girls gave up the stage to pageant organiser and choreographer Queen B.
Syncing but never drowning, Sebokeng’s most polished drag star would reappear after the evening-gown section with a huge Kangol cap over her eyes, doing the new soul diva thing to Mary J Blige’s All That I Can Say. Queen B comes complete with backing dancers – one of whom could be seen deftly vogueing a drunken drag queen with a shopping bag off the stage without as much as losing a high-heeled step.
“What do you think the judges are looking for?” asks the MC of Miss Beverly Hills during question time sometime well after midnight. “A beautifully intelligent woman,” says the contestant to a roar from the crowd. “Baby, you’re so beautiful I’m taking you home with me!” calls a lesbian behind me to the drag queen on stage.
“What about coming out in the township?” is another question. “By now the community knows they must just accept us – that is what I’ll tell my parents,” shouts pretty Miss Meyerton into the microphone and rides a fresh roar of approval with, “I mean, after all, if it’s so wrong then why are there gays everywhere, all over the world? Huh?”
It’s more than enough to land her a place in the final five. But, eyes firmly on the prize and hair astonishingly customised to hold a tiara just right, it was the lovely Andile – Miss Steel Park – who went on to lift the title.
On the bus all the way back to Jo’burg, the new Miss Glow sat very still, with barely a hint of a smile playing across her lips. It was only minutes before getting off in Hillbrow that she quickly slipped into something more androgynous and, waving goodbye, offered a final winning smile.