12 top gender benders

A dozen New York theater artists blur the lines of sex in style.

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  • Joey Arias:
    Joey Arias is a demigod of the demimonde, where he has scandalized the club world for decades. But there is more to Arias---currently starring in Off Broadway's Arias with a Twist---than his severe fetish-drag getups, extravagant charisma and gleefully filthy patter; he is also a vocalist of formidable skill, with an incongruous penchant for the broken-horn stylings of Billie Holiday.

  • Justin Bond:
    Having shed the skin that he/she wore as the front half of the punk-lounge duo Kiki & Herb, Justin Bond retains a mama-snake mixture of nurture and menace: part transsexual den mother, part cultural assassin, part offhand Cassandra. Subversive and digressive, v---Bond's defiant pronoun of choice---offers musical services for an ever-growing cult, reveling in casually shameless shamanism.

  • Charles Busch:
    The ne plus ultra of classic female impersonation ever since his 1984 cult smash Vampire Lesbians of Sodom, the playwright-actor Charles Busch has been working toward the sepia title of First Lady of the American Stage. As an actress---most recently as a nun in The Divine Sister---he specializes in lovingly nuanced portraits of defiant yet vulnerable women, in the style of the great film stars of the 1940s.

  • Flotilla DeBarge:
    Slimmed down from her nightlife days as the Empress of Large, Flotilla De Barge still cuts an imposing figure. Not many drag queens can boast the street cred of having spent time in jail, as she did for a 2006 bar fight in which she assaulted two people with a high-heeled shoe. But it's her big, rough onstage work---in a series of one-woman shows, as well as the most recent Broadway revival of The Threepenny Opera---that have made her reputation as a performer to be reckoned with.

  • Photograph: Josh Lehrer

    HARVEY FIERSTEIN as Albin/'Zaza' in the 2010 Tony Award winning revival of LA...

    Harvey Fierstein:
    His voice may call to mind the rumble of the subway trains and the rattle of the taxis, but Harvey Fierstein has spent much of his career in a dress, from his rise at La MaMa in the 1970s through his breakthrough in Torch Song Trilogy and, more recently, in the musicals Hairspray and La Cage Aux Folles (the latter of which he cowrote). With four Tonys to his name---in four different categories---the busy actor-writer refuses to rest on his laurels or anywhere else.

  • Murray Hill:
    With his slick hair, loud shirts, pencil mustache and imposing eyeglasses, old-school comedian Murray Hill looks like he should be entertaining at an Elks Club dinner in 1958---and that's how he likes it. Self-billed as "the hardest-working middle-aged man in show business," Hill can host the weirdest variety show or the raciest burlesque event with a bonhomie that appeals to ladies, gentlemen and everyone in between.

  • Bianca Leigh:
    The beauteous Bianca Leigh has emerged in recent years as New York's leading transsexual thespian, bringing authority and a classical mien to such pieces as Taylor Mac's The Lily's Revenge and Theatre Askew's I, Claudius---not to mention projects with major downtown artists like Young Jean Lee and the Talking Band. She is currently sharing tales from her days as a young dominatrix in the 1980s in an autobiographical solo show, Busted: The Musical.

  • Lypsinka:
    What Lypsinka provides to the cultural history of female representation in pop culture is much more than lip service: In the elaborate performance pieces that made her name, John Epperson's alter ego wove together elaborate soundscapes of glamour, joy and hysteria in extraordinary works of facial dance theater. Among her most recent projects is a rewrite of the infamous camp disaster Legends!, in which she also starred (in a speaking role).

  • Taylor Mac:
    One of the most exciting theater artists in America, the outrageously outr playwright and performer Taylor Mac---whose past work includes the community epic The Lily's Revenge---wears his specialness on his face, in elaborate makeup creations that have become one of his signatures. He's a fabulous Faberg clown: at once beautiful and ridiculous, and full of hidden tricks and devices.

  • Sweetie:
    With an outsize stage persona to match her ample body, Sweetie---whose bitter patter is not always true to her name---is among the best-loved drag performers in the city. In 2008, she appeared (billed as Daniel T. Booth) Off Broadway in Tarell Alvin McCraney's Wig Out, but her theatrical bent is evident in less formal settings, too; her lip-synched numbers are often expertly characterized.

  • Everett Quinton:
    A core member of Off-Off Broadway's seminal Ridiculous Theatrical Company---the damaged brainchild of his late lover, Charles Ludlam---in the 1970s and '80s, Everett Quinton has kept the flame burning with wildly ripe drag clowning. The neo-commedia richness of his work has made him equally at home of late in shows ranging from the campy Devil Boys from Beyond to the Jacobean tragedy The Witch of Edmonton.

  • Sherry Vine:
    A veteran of the New York nightclub scene (she won the first Glammy Award for drag in 1997), the wiry and wily showgirl Sherry Vine moonlights as co--artistic director of Theatre Couture, with whom she has starred in multiple shows (including a camp spoof of Carrie). The company has been dormant as Vine focuses on club dates and videos (including a parody of "Bad Romance" that went viral), but we hope she'll cling to the stage again soon.

Joey Arias:
Joey Arias is a demigod of the demimonde, where he has scandalized the club world for decades. But there is more to Arias---currently starring in Off Broadway's Arias with a Twist---than his severe fetish-drag getups, extravagant charisma and gleefully filthy patter; he is also a vocalist of formidable skill, with an incongruous penchant for the broken-horn stylings of Billie Holiday.

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