Life is still a cabaret
Brandy Lee is back for one night of risqué entertainment in Waikiki
Brandy Lee remembers the glory days, decades ago in San Francisco, when a limousine was her standard mode of transportation, lines for her shows stretched around the block and fans loved her so much that they tried to tear off pieces of her clothing or hair for souvenirs.
A female impersonator revue, starring Brandy Lee
On stage: 9:30 p.m. and midnight Saturday
Place: Hawaiian Hut, next to the Ala Moana Hotel
Tickets: $25 advance, $35 at the door
Now, she jokes, "they're taking me out of mothballs."
But as her waist-length hair flows across her floor-length gown in the Kakaako apartment she shares with her boyfriend of 11 years, nobody would ever guess that the female impersonator is approaching 65. After 30 years of performing -- and a decade-long break -- she's returning to the Hawaiian Hut on Saturday night. Fifteen other performers will join Lee for "Le Bizarre," a show with singing, dancing, outrageous costumes and enough unscripted fun to make it more than a little risqué.
"I always wanted to do a Parisian type of show," she said of the Jack Cione-directed performance. "Anything and everything!"
Lee, who is Hawaiian, Chinese, Japanese and Spanish, grew up Catholic and male in Hawaii. After studying ballet and modern jazz, Lee participated in local productions of "West Side Story" and other musicals. "When I tried singing as a young man, it just didn't seem to work. But when I put on my first gown, a pair of heels, a beautiful wig and lots of jewelry, I became a great nightclub act."
Though drag was forbidden on Oahu in the 1960s, according to Lee, she began to challenge convention more publicly. "We kind of laid the groundwork for what the girls can do now," she said.
Several drag shows were shut down in that era, but the club owner who successfully kept one alive was someone who "had a little pull" with local police, chuckled Lee. Word spread quickly. Three cabaret performances a night -- until 4 a.m. -- often sold out. "It was slave working," she said. "For 30 years, I never saw daylight."
In 1969 she moved to the mainland, and her career took off in San Francisco and New York. She won beauty pageants, mingled with celebrities and performed all over the world. Rock Hudson was a regular at Lee's shows, and she dated one of the Village People for a while.
When her parents became ill in the 1980s, she moved back to Hawaii to care for them until they died. "In the beginning it was kind of hard for them," she said of her lifestyle. "My father was Oriental, so everything was 'shame.' But he came around. So I decided that if I'm going to be this way, I'm going to be the best 'this way' that I can."
While many drag shows feature lip-synching, Lee is proud that she always sings live. Saturday's show may be a revival of sorts, but she insists the material will be fresh. There's only one prerequisite for attending: "You gotta be open-minded."
Because her personal life is inherently tied to her public persona, Lee openly discussed her refusal to have a sex-change operation. "When I was young, I wanted it," she said. But time brought more acceptance. "I like myself the way I am. If someone is going to be with me, they're going to like me for who I am. People are hung up with genitals. But that doesn't make you who you are."
Hormones were part of her regimen for a while, but she stopped taking them years ago. "I'd cry for nothing and get angry over little things," she said. "Excuse me, let me out of here!" She flipped her hand. "Ladies, you can have it."
There's little that Lee hasn't tried or experienced. "I've been through a lot in my life," she said. "I've had guns in my face. In the old days, you had to fight to survive." Her reward for enduring those years is contentment.
Even so, she knows there's no reason she can't embrace the spotlight again -- at least for one night. "The show has become ... Brandy Lee's new coming-out party," she laughed. "I'm the oldest debutante in all of history!"