Happy 20th Birthday to a Phenomenon
Loud bursts of color and a bright red carpet adorned East 56th Street this past Wednesday, as the finest in New York City drag celebrated the 20th Birthday VIP Party of the Lips Drag Queen Show Palace, Restaurant & Bar. Owners Yvonne Lame and Edward LayFaye were there to greet guests and performers, including Michael Musto, Bianca Leigh, Frankie C, Peppermint, Sherry Vine, Michael Todd, Lady Bunny (who supplied the music), Frankie Cocktail (the best bartender in the world), Porsche, Ginger Snap, Gusty Winds, Ariel Sinclair, Morgan Royel, Len Evans, Brenda Star, Jesse Volt, the entire staff of Lips and too many more to even comprehend. The party was a life-sized fantasy event, including, drink, food and performances by the crown jewels of drag and those in the LGBT community.
The first time I ventured into this eclectic, kaleidoscope of drag queen decor, it was quite by accident; however, I thought I was walking into heaven. What could possibly be better than a two-level sanctuary in the heart of NYC’s Greenwich Village, flamboyantly adorned and celebrated with mesmerizing, lip-syncing queens, hair, heels, glitter, dazzle and sparkling lips everywhere, complemented by delicious gourmet food?
Twenty years later, thanks to the brilliant gaiety of founder Yvonne Lame and partner Edward LayFaye, Lips has flourished and grown to become one of the most successful and popular places to dine, or to glorify a bachelorette party, a Sweet 16, a birthday party or just about any event you can think of.
Lips moved uptown to a huge, dazzling palace at 227 E 56th Street in NYC. You can also visit Lips in Atlanta, San Diego, Fort Lauderdale and opening soon in Chicago.
Gusty, introduce yourself.
Gusty Winds, drag icon, legend, old person.
So you’ve been here for a while.
I’m one of the original waitresses. Twenty years.
How have you seen it change through the years?
Well, we started out in the West Village on a terracotta tiled floor. That was two levels and sat 70 people each. Now we are in a gorgeous location on the East Side with one level, full stage, lighting, spotlight and we seat 200. It’s changed a lot in 20 years that I’ve been here.
And what have you been up to?
I have a day job. I work for American Express, I work on Fire Island and I’m here on the weekends still.
What do you love the most about Lips?
It’s a toss up between the girls I work with—there’s a certain camaraderie when you are a guy in a dress serving bachelorettes—and I would say the performing. I love to perform, and Lips audiences are some of the most responsive and positive, receptive audiences I have ever performed for.
So what’s going on tonight?
Tonight’s our 20th birthday party. All the girls are here. I am so excited, because not only are we having our current girls perform, but later on in the evening we are having what we call the alumni show, which some of the original girls will be performing. I am so excited, because I haven’t seen some of them in like 10 or 15 years, and they’re coming out just for tonight to do a one-time-only show.
By the way, I have the distinct honor of being the first Lips waitress ever to be suspended from a shift for conduct unbecoming of a drag queen. I won’t get into details.
Are you so excited about tonight?
Yes. Twenty years. I’ve been here 16, downtown, uptown.
How have you seen it change?
This room is so much better. It’s so much more glamorous. You can fit so much more people here. It’s more of a party, I think. The clientele is wonderful. They pay the bills.
What do you like best about performing here?
I like the energy I get from the audience. They give it back to me, and I give it back to them. It’s a give and take.
What are you looking forward to tonight most of all?
To have fun! I’m hosting the first show, and then I wanna get crazy and enjoy myself and have a wonderful anniversary.
Say a few words, Len from Project Publicity.
Obviously it’s the 20th anniversary of Lips, which was founded by Yvonne, who started it 20 years ago in the West Village. He kind of started the trend of restaurants doing drag shows. No one really did it 20 years ago. Now, 20 some years later, it’s a huge phenomenon. But the majority of the crowd I would say are straight.
My daughter had her bachelorette party at Lips.
They do birthdays, bachelorette parties, Sweet 16s. They are usually suburban wives who want to come out and celebrate and see a drag show. The LGBT community does support it, because a lot of the drag queens are gay, but the majority of the clientele are straight. They are expanding: Fort Lauderdale, Chicago, San Diego and Atlanta.
Len, you’re obviously not a drag queen. How are you involved with Lips?
I do the publicity.
So what exactly is your role with Lips?
I’m one of the partners with Lips, the ultimate in drag dining!
Do you do drag?
No, no, no. Here is the man you should speak to…
How did you get this amazing and creative idea?
Well, I wanted to put food and cocktails and a party together, and that’s how this came about.
It’s like heaven.
It’s a big part of heaven, darling. The glitter and the feathers and the sequins.
Have you ever done drag?
Yes. I used to do drag. I just wear pants now.
What’s your name? You’re beautiful.
What does this night mean to you?
This night is an amazing night for me. I’m so happy to be a part of a wonderful, wonderful establishment. I’m here 11 years. They gave me an opportunity to be who I am. I love this night, because it shows how much love we have with the community.
A night wouldn’t be complete without a comment from you, Michael Musto.
It’s grown; it’s like a franchise, the McDonald’s of drag.
The following day I was able to have an in-depth conversation with owner Yvonne Lame…
What a fabulous party last night was.
Yes, yes, it was like the old days.
How did you ever come up with this idea of mixing drag with dining?
I came to New York in the era of Studio 54, The Limelight and all of that. That was all before Lips, so after going out to dinner and stuff, I thought it would be fun to have a place that you would go to have a party. You would go to dinner, but it’s a party. We would play fun music, dance, and then I thought maybe throw a little drag in there.
Did you have any experience in the restaurant business?
The only experience I had was I was a waiter. The people that had the experience were my two partners. They basically had a restaurant there on Bank Street. It was called Arte Pasta, and it was failing. They were actually joined. We pitched the idea to my partner’s partner, who owned a club called Rome. They liked it, and they had the experience.
Did you have any idea back then that it would become such a phenomenon?
No, I had absolutely no idea that it would blossom into what we have and that it would be such a success.
All the other Lips, do you run them all?
Yes, it’s like a mom and pop. We run them all. It’s not a franchise. The other partners really aren’t active partners; it’s really myself and Ed Lafaye, and Mitch Albert. We are more the active partners. We are pretty fortunate that Lips has been in business for 20 years, and it’s a pretty good, well running machine. Everyone knows what they’re doing and does a good job.
A lot of them have been there for 20 years, like my very dear friend Frankie Cocktail. She’s the best bartender in the world.
I love Frankie.
So, you used to do drag?
Yeah, I used to in the beginning. I used to do like this open call night at the club, Rome. I would do a drag night, and it became very successful. It was sort of the karaoke of drag. If people showed up, I’d let them perform. That’s really where I met Evangeline and Gusty Winds and a slew of other queens that were not working there, but they performed at Rome. A good handful of those queens helped open Lips.
Did you think it would become a venue for the straight audiences that you get?
No, I had no idea. A gay business is actually a difficult business, because gay people have finicky appetites. I can say that because I’m gay, darling. And it’s really the same demographics in all of the locations. The gays come at the beginning, but then it just quickly morphs into a straight clientele. Now we sort of even target it. They come to the brunch.
Is there anything else that you want to promote or that you want to say?
I’m definitely very thankful for the success, and even 20 years later the business is rocking and rolling in New York, and as I said we have a location in San Diego, we have a location in Atlanta and Fort Lauderdale, and next year we are opening up the biggest and greatest one in Chicago. I think also with “RuPaul’s Drag Race,” it has put drag out there even further. It’s just sort of exploded. Everyone loves it. We’re fortunate, because it is a party atmosphere, and because people are coming to celebrate a birthday or a bachelorette party, most of the people come happy. Because they’re coming to celebrate something, everyone is in a good mood.
227 E 56th St. New York, NY 10022