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My Rouses Everyday, January | February 2018

The Bourbon Street Awards.

Kinda sounds like a Jell-O shot competition. Or maybe a contest to see who can climb the street’s hotel balcony poles that are greased every year just before Mardi Gras to prevent people from climbing them in a moment of madness during the festivities.

But the Bourbon Street Awards is no drunken ceremony. No mindless reverie. And it’s no time for amateurs. Let’s just say the Bourbon Street Awards is not your daddy’s Mardi Gras — unless, of course, your daddy was a drag queen.

The Bourbon Street Awards, the city’s most prestigious drag event and competition, was born in 1963, the brainchild of the late Arthur Jacobs, then owner of the Clover Grill, the infamous greasy spoon whose menu proclaims, among other chestnuts, “Our chili speaks for itself — sooner or later” and “We don’t eat in your bed so please don’t sleep at our table.” This 24-hour diner is an anchor of the two-block stretch of Bourbon Street where the Awards ceremony has often taken place and where Madonna, Blondie, Cher and George Michael still rule the jukebox. In 2017, the ceremony moved to the corner of St. Ann and Dauphine streets in the Quarter, retaining the Bourbon Street Awards moniker.

As familiar and vibrant a locale as the back of the French Quarter has become over the decades, and as much as the Bourbon Street Awards has become one of the signature events of Mardi Gras, it was not without its early growing pains. It was perhaps a little too flamboyant, risqué and over the top, even for one of the most flamboyant, risqué and over-the-top public gathering places in the world.

“A big shot reporter tried to degrade the Awards with a feature in a New York magazine in 1964,” Jacobs told a reporter many years ago. “The city was no help either, with its restrictions and rules. I’m happy the city fathers have taken a different view today.”

Indeed, the city’s tourism and marketing niches nowadays proudly hail the revelry and spectacle of the event as a feather in their caps. Safe to say, it’s a uniquely New Orleans revue, all pageantry, pomp, peacocks and plumes, as if Mae West had hijacked the Miss Universe contest and had it choreographed by RuPaul, scored by Liberace and set dressed by Pee-wee Herman.

“The Bourbon Street Awards is the greatest free show on earth!” proclaims Varla Jean Merman, a local notable on the New Orleans drag scene and sometime mistress of ceremonies for the event. And although everyone comes to see some of the most creative, greatest costumes imaginable, some people come to see the delusional drunk people who somehow ‘imagined’ they were in a great costume.

“The hardest part of the Awards is not getting the big giant costumes onto the stage, it’s getting the drunk people off of it. But, coming in at 230 lbs. and 6’9” in heels and hair, I am more equipped, effective and sweatier than a defensive linebacker when it comes to tackling my ‘stage-hogging’ opponents.” Varla Jean pauses a beat before continuing: “I mean ‘contestants.’”

Over the decades, the Awards ceremony has created its own portfolio of legends and myths, incidents and personalities — Varla Jean among them. There’s also Torchy Lane, from Houston, who would arrive annually in lavish style, costumed to perfection as Cleopatra and borne to the stage on a dazzling litter held aloft by a team of muscle-bound “Egyptians” and accompanied by a tiger. A real tiger, not some dude in a tiger costume.

After sweeping the Best of Show category three years in a row in the late ’70s, Torchy was drafted by event organizers to be one of the contest judges — so that someone else could have a chance to win. (Last year’s winner sported an enormous, elaborately adorned maritime costume/structure called the Algiers Ferry. Get it? If you’re a native, you will.)

With categories earning a $500 prize and the Best in Show winner netting $1,000, the Bourbon Street Awards is truly an opportunity for your day-to-day cross-dresser to step up his or her game. Or a chance for dilettantes to have a bit of fun and test the waters outside their closets. Mostly, it’s a great opportunity for anyone to see a rare and wonderful costume performance piece in a neighborhood that excels in such things.

Registration takes place on Lundi Gras, Feb. 12, at the Good Friends Bar on Dauphine Street, between noon and 4 p.m., and on Fat Tuesday beginning at 10 a.m. at the Rawhide on Burgundy Street. The contest begins at noon on Fat Tuesday at the corner of Dauphine and St. Ann streets. (The stage faces Bourbon Street, so at least there’s that.)

So if you’re feeling your inner diva trying to break loose, step right up. And if you’re not interested in being a contestant but would love to see this wonderful and unique Carnival revue, come on down to the back of the Quarter Fat Tuesday. You won’t regret catching this one-of-a-kind show. It’s a longtime Carnival morning must-see for locals and visitors of every persuasion.

photos by David Grunfeld​ courtesy|The Times-Picayune