Clean and Sober…and still entertaining.
by Donalevan Maines
Photo by Charles Singleton
With 19 years of sobriety to her credit, drag star Kelly Lauren returns this month for a show at Numbers nightclub, where she was crowned Miss Gay Houston in 1981. Numbers isn’t where the pageant was held, but more on that later.
Since 1985, Lauren has mainly lived in Chicago, where she reigned as Miss Con-tinental 1988. However, she returned to Houston in 1995 and got clean and sober at Lambda Center. “I did what the people at Lambda told me to do,” she explains. “Like they say, ‘If you want what somebody has,
do what they do.’”
Lauren says, “I started sneaking into bars long before I was old enough to be in them.
“I was 13 or 14 and had a girlfriend who ended up being a big ol’ lesbian, and we would go into Mary’s and ask what time it is or ask to use the bathroom. We were dying to see what it was like.”
At 16, Lauren infiltrated The Old Plantation disco. “They had the most amazing drag shows,” she says.
Her “humble beginnings” on stage included winning her first talent show at The Cove and performing “Fancy” by Bobbie Gentry at the Midnite Sun.
Offstage, Lauren washed dishes at a restaurant on Westheimer. “I wore pink latex gloves and pulled my apron strings so tight. One night, a guy looked at me and said, ‘Oh, Kelly, you’re so nelly.’ He thought that was funny—‘Nelly Kelly’—and it stuck. But I would have gotten that name regardless, being so feminine and all.”
Tiffany Arieagus, who was Miss Continental 1982, helped complete Lauren’s stage name when Arieagus wore the first perfume for women launched by the design house of Ralph Lauren. Smitten with the flowery fragrance, “Nelly Kelly” became “Kelly Lauren.”
With the encouragement of her “drag mother,” the late Naomi Sims, Lauren entered the 1981 Miss Gay Houston pageant, with preliminaries at Numbers and the final night of competition at the Tower Theater.
Something didn’t seem right when she was announced as the second runner-up. “I remember being proud of myself, so I was disappointed [in the result] and a little bit puzzled,” she says.
Within a few days, the producer’s assistant discovered an error in tabulations, which made Lauren the actual winner. (If that sounds crazy, consider that two contestants in the upcoming Miss America pageant didn’t get their crowns this summer until after mistakes were corrected.)
On the night she was crowned Miss Gay Houston at Numbers, fans carried Lauren into the club in an elaborate Egyptian number staged by Naomi Sims. “It was like Cleopatra in the movie,” says Lauren. “I started taking hormones right after that.”
While Miss Gay Houston winners generally advanced through the ranks at Miss Gay America (a competition that prohibits female hormones or breast implants), Lauren segued into Miss Continental. That pageant, which is held each year over Labor Day weekend in Chicago, attracts many transgender entertainers; there’s even a swimsuit competition.
In 1984, Lauren’s first year at Miss Continental, she placed in the top five and caught the eye of the pageant’s owner, Jim Flint, who invited Lauren to be a guest entertainer at his nightclub, the Baton Show Lounge. She became a regular cast member in 1985.
Lauren pulled out all the stops with a medley from ThePhantom of the Opera (that year’s Tony Award-winner) in the talent competition at Miss Continental 1988. “The thing I do best is treat a number like a little piece of theater,” she explains. “I like to tell a story, like a tiny play.
“I did the entire musical in seven or eight minutes,” she says, describing her Phantom highlights medley.
“Rock-bottom” hit five or six years later.
“I was a hot mess,” says Lauren. “Drug and alcohol abuse—if left unattended, it accelerates. I thought if I was here or there or with my boyfriend, I’d be happy. I did all this crazy moving around, but I was really running away from myself.
“My only chance to be any kind of happy was to get sober.”
So, with a gentle shove from a good friend, “who finally got sick of my shenanigans,” Lauren returned to Houston and was embraced by fellow addicts at Lambda Center. “They gave me a strong foundation,”
Although “it’s not recommended,” Lauren continued to work in bars, even winning the job of Miss Texas-USofA. “It was a wonderful year,” she says, “working with the owner, Craig ‘Ann’ Henderson—and you have to say ‘Craig Ann.’”
Lauren subsequently returned to Chicago, but says she’s “super-excited” about performing in the August 11 show at Numbers.
“Our star is going to be Kelly Lauren,” says local favorite Dina Jacobs, whose 50th anniversary as a female impersonator was feted March 31 at Numbers. “It went over so well that we’ve gone back with a show every six or eight weeks,” she says.
Other special guests at the August 11 show include Candi Stratton and Tasha Kohl, whom Lauren remembers as one of the Fabulous Four at the Copa in Houston. “I am practically out of my mind to even see Tasha again, much less work with her,” says Lauren.
The show starts at 9 p.m. Admission is $10, or $25 for table seating.
Donalevan Maines also writes about the Emmys in this issue of OutSmart.