Tuesday, July 23, 2024

Despite Politics and a Pandemic, Miami’s Drag Community Thrives

Miami’s reputation for a lively atmosphere is well-known, and part of its allure includes a vibrant drag scene that entertains residents and tourists. The popular 1996 film The Birdcage shined a spotlight on the community, a legacy that continues to flourish throughout the city.

On Ocean Drive, made famous by that same iconic film, the Palace Bar and Restaurant has entertained guests since 1998 with its popular drag brunch. Nearby, R House in Wynwood, known for its weekend drag brunch, is set to mark its 10th anniversary this winter. The milestone highlights the sustained success and popularity of venues hosting drag shows among residents and tourists in the face of government efforts to stamp them out.

The past few years have introduced significant challenges for the Miami drag community. The COVID-19 pandemic in 2020 forced restaurateurs to work around government restrictions creatively. Performances shifted outdoors, and drag performers donned bedazzled face shields for protection while lip-syncing and performing. In early 2022, as businesses tried to claw their way back to normal, drag shows came under attack by conservative groups and politicians nationwide who called for drag events to be banned, saying the events promoted “inappropriate” and “immoral” behavior to children. Restrictive anti-drag laws were created in states like Tennessee and Texas, sparking protests by artists and throwing the future of drag shows at restaurants and bars into question.

In July 2022, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis filed a complaint against R House, threatening to revoke its liquor license for allowing children to attend its family-friendly drag brunches, saying at the time it was a “public nuisance,” characterizing the complaint as an effort to “protect children” from events that “try to sexualize” kids, according to the Tallahassee Democrat. After a year-long legal battle that brought national attention to the plight of Miami’s drag scene, a resolution was reached with R House agreeing to pay a $10,000 fine. In addition, the restaurant implemented a mandatory age limit of 18 and over for its drag show performances in January 2023.

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In a statement from R House’s attorneys, Greenspoon Marder, “The settlement agreement contains no admission or finding of guilt on the part of R House. The State’s undercover investigation affirmed that no unlawful content was present in R House’s shows.”

R House is moving forward, with co-owners Rocco Carulli and Owen Bale preparing to mark a decade in business. The partners, both in business and life, declined to talk about the past few years, choosing instead to look ahead. “We’ve been playing defense, but all the while we were planning all the things we wanted to do when we were back on track. And now we are,” Bale says.

The future for R House includes an ongoing renovation, set to debut during Miami Art Week this December, that involves new color schemes, improved seating, and audio/visual upgrades such as LED screens for daytime brunches and nighttime events. There’s also a new raised platform for increased performer visibility and disco ball installations.

“It’s very glam. Very drag,” Bale says of the restaurant’s facelift. Capitalizing on the refreshed look, R House is set to broaden its offerings, adding varied entertainment to cater to a surge in interest. “After the pandemic, the demand for drag was huge,” Bale said

Bale and Carulli are also refining R House’s food offerings, emphasizing the venue’s roots as a restaurant and art gallery. “In the early years, we used to have art collectors come for a quick dinner and leave with a $20,000 painting. But the art scene moved on from Wynwood as it became a nightlife hub. Ten years later, it made us think about what we’re all about.”

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For Palace Bar, drag shows are a core part of the venue and Miami Beach history more broadly. Tourists flock to the bar to see the high-energy shows. Despite challenges during the pandemic, the bar managed to avoid scrutiny from the DeSantis administration because it was already an 18-and-over venue. However, the restaurant is still vigilant about keeping who is walking into (or near) the bar. “Since we are an outdoor venue, we do pay attention to what can be seen from the street,” general manager A.J. Prasaguet says.

group dancing

Palace’s lively drag brunch on Ocean Drive.
Palace Bar.

Since its 1998 opening, the restaurant has demonstrated resilience, maintaining its popularity even after relocating. Recently, Prasaguet adopted new strategies to rejuvenate the bar. “For us, a shift in strategy is how we market and reach out to the local community through social media. We’re more proactive than reactive.”

The bar has been offering themed shows and events like hosting a sold-out Barbie-themed weekend and a Beyonce-themed show when she was in Miami during her tour. The work paid off, “Beyonce’s production and dance team came. We had a record August because of that,” Prasaguet says.

Palace Bar’s drag shows have evolved this past year. “I can say every weekend, the shows are more curated. We’re not the only game in town,” Prasaguet says. “We welcome the healthy competition.” Palace Bar is also looking at expanding its roster of performances and events, adding late-night shows and customer appreciation programs.

Prasaguet is also hopeful that Ocean Drive will remain pedestrian-friendly, as it has been since the pandemic hit. “I was raised here. It’s still as safe as it was 20 years ago and just as enjoyable, despite the perception of what some people have of Miami Beach.”

As South Florida approaches its peak tourist season, Prasaguet predicts a bright future for Palace Bar, which rivals the sparkle of the sequins on drag performers on Ocean Drive. “South Beach is the East Coast’s mecca for winter enjoyment. We’re sitting in a pretty good place right now.”

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