Behind the scenes at Lips Atlanta’s flawless, madcap drag brunch

Sequins, stilettos, and shrimp and grits

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Serving Sunday brunch is one thing. Pulling off a drag show is another. But serving back-to-back brunches for hundreds of guests while nine high-octane drag queens perform in full costume, higher-than-heaven hair, and a full set of lights and music? That, in the words of performer and maître d’ Evelyn Caldwell, “is just madness.”

“Not that we let you see that,” she added with a smile.

Lips Atlanta, one of the city’s most popular drag restaurants, produces shows five days a week, where performers double as servers while a team of cooks, bussers, and bartenders delivers a full menu produced by executive chef Ron Boston. Saturdays (three dinner shows in a row) and Sundays (back-to-back brunches, followed by a dinner show) are busiest; brunch tends to attract armies of brides-to-be, birthday girls, and their very exuberant friends. Fueled by bottomless mimosas and Bloody Marys, the energy level starts high and only climbs from there, observed Nikki Diamond Simone, a veteran performer with a striking Donna Summer impression: “They come out one way, and they leave another.”
On a recent weekend, Lips invited us to follow along during one of their seamlessly executed Sunday brunches. We were there, and we’re still not quite sure how they pulled it off.

Drag Brunch at Lips Atlanta
Applying drag makeup can take anywhere from 30 minutes to two hours.

Photograph by Lynsey Weatherspoon

9 a.m.
Makeup prep begins

Applying drag makeup can take anywhere from 30 minutes to two hours, depending on a performer’s experience and the look they’re creating. Blush left last night’s shift at 3:00 a.m., arriving back at 9:30. She’ll perform and serve for both brunch shows, and host the 6:30 dinner. This morning, she’s doing a Rihanna medley, which involves—but is not limited to—the red wig to her right. A daub of glitter on her nose completes the look: “Glitter makes everything pretty.”

Drag Brunch at Lips Atlanta
The kitchen crew arrives at 8:30 a.m. to begin prep work.

Photograph by Lynsey Weatherspoon

10 a.m.
Kitchen prep underway

Having arrived at 8:30, the kitchen crew preps for three shows’ worth of meals. Chef Boston’s brunch menu includes a dozen options, though chicken and waffles is generally the crowd favorite. (The dinner menu features everything from chicken Parmesan to Jamaican vegetable curry.) Boston had never seen a drag show before joining Lips, but it’s his favorite job to date. “Every show feels new,” he said. “It’s never boring.”

Drag Brunch at Lips Atlanta
Justice Counce is Lips’ assistant manager, as well as a server and performer.

Photograph by Lynsey Weatherspoon

11:15 a.m.
Doors open

“The people become like a family by the end of the day, so I call everyone ‘Auntie’ or ‘Mom,’” said Justice Counce, Lips’ assistant manager as well as a server/performer. “The audience really becomes part of the show.” The crowd forms well before the doors open; upon entering, they’re greeted by thumping pop music, maximalist decor, and a volley of repartee from performers. “Remember, the more y’all drink today, the thinner I’m going to look!” Counce joked to a gaggle of women celebrating a birthday.

Drag Brunch at Lips Atlanta
Taejah Thomas

Photograph by Lynsey Weatherspoon

11:45 a.m.
The host delivers a preshow speech

“You can do better than that!” host Taejah Thomas calls to a roaring crowd, already several mimosas in. “You already skipped church!” Still getting ready, Thomas delivers her first speech from backstage. She doesn’t wait tables: The host is in charge of keeping the audience animated, moving between acts, and riffing with guests celebrating birthdays and bachelorettes. “I like hosting,” Thomas said. “I love performing, but you know—I love talking trash on the mic!”

Drag Brunch at Lips Atlanta
Meetya Makuh (right) zips Elea Atlanta into her server dress.

Photograph by Lynsey Weatherspoon

12:05 p.m.
The show begins

Performers all start onstage, but end up dancing between, around, and sometimes on top of the cheering guests, followed faithfully by a spotlight operator. Tips are divided evenly after each show, which encourages camaraderie. “We really work together,” explained Blush. “If one person looks bad, it looks bad on all of us.”

Meetya Makuh zips Elea Atlanta into her server dress after Elea finishes performing her Pink medley. Performers have two acts to get into costume, and one act to get back on the floor; other team members cover her tables for her while she’s gone.

Drag Brunch at Lips Atlanta
Aspen York chats with Deangelo, a cook

Photograph by Lynsey Weatherspoon

That’s the idea, at least: “It doesn’t always go down that way,” added Aspen York, pictured here chatting with Deangelo, one of the cooks.

Drag Brunch at Lips Atlanta
Blasting freeze spray from Schwarzkopf’s Göt2b Glued collection (seen in the bottom right corner) is a secret weapon for the performers.

Photograph by Lynsey Weatherspoon

12:25 p.m.
Costume change

Hosts, per the job description, must change outfits throughout the show. Thomas will switch four times, wigs included, with about 10 minutes for each change. When it comes to on-the-fly wig maintenance, performers have a secret weapon: blasting freeze spray from Schwarzkopf’s Göt2b Glued collection. “This is our saving grace,” said Blush. “I even use it as finishing spray to set my face!”

Drag Brunch at Lips Atlanta
Evelyn Caldwell

Photograph by Lynsey Weatherspoon

Getting sky-high hair requires one of several methods. Some drag performers tease out the wig and smooth out the top, but Evelyn Caldwell opts for maximal stacking. “This is about three wigs sewn together,” she said.

Drag Brunch at Lips Atlanta
Folks celebrating birthdays get a photo op, a slice of cake, and a roast from host Taejah Thomas.

Photograph by Lynsey Weatherspoon

12:35 p.m.
Birthday celebrations

Anyone celebrating a birthday gets a gold crown, while bachelorettes get tiaras. The line for the birthday throne snakes around the restaurant, but each one gets a photo op, a slice of cake, and a roast from host Taejah Thomas. “Well, don’t you look like you live in a gated community?” she quipped to a suburban-looking birthday celebrant, who roared with laughter: “I do!”

At 1:05, the bachelorettes line up for their turn under Thomas withering review, which includes some commentary we can’t print here. Thomas also invited up three recent divorcées. “Ladies, look to your right: This is what you have to look forward to!”

Drag Brunch at Lips Atlanta
Nikki Diamond Simone closes the show.

Photograph by Lynsey Weatherspoon

1:17 p.m.
Last performance

Nikki Diamond Simone closes out the show with a stadium-worthy version of Donna Summer’s “Last Dance.” Patrons part with the last of their one-dollar bills, servers line up with checks, and the lights come up. With the crowd already gathered for the 2 p.m. show, the staff has about 30 minutes to clean up and get things ready.

“It’s all about making sure everyone’s where they’re supposed to be,” said David Wright, Lips Atlanta’s general manager. The team runs transitions like a well-oiled machine, but there’s no accounting for the guests, who sometimes need to be gently ushered out, or in some cases relocated to the bar and handed a glass of water. Today, things go smoothly. Two elderly women make their way to the door, putting on their coats. “I’ve never seen anything like this before!” one remarked to her friend. “Lord have mercy.”

This article appears in our February 2023 issue.

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