Lena Lust answers our questions

The famed Blake’s drag queen on the evolution of Atlanta’s gay scene

Caroline Kilgore

This article originally appeared in our October 2010 issue.

Drag queen Lena Lust (nee Lester West) has worked in more than seventy Atlanta clubs since gradually moving down South from Chicago during the seventies. The HIV-positive fifty-nine-year-old—who now watches the door part time at Blake’s—started performing in high school choir, studied music education in college, knows how to belt an opera, and once got a fifty-dollar tip from Janet Jackson. Drag aficionados can hear Lena take on Tina Turner, Whitney Houston, and Diana Ross at Blake’s, where the dame performs on Wednesdays, Thursdays, the second Friday of every month, and Saturdays.

Whom do you like to sing? The ones that I get the most requests to do that I’m known for are Eartha Kitt, Tina Turner, Patti LaBelle, Whitney Houston, Aretha Franklin, and Donna Summer. And Diana Ross; I can’t leave Diana Ross out.

What’s your favorite song to sing? The audience likes to hear me do “Proud Mary,” by Tina Turner. I do enjoy that, too, as much as they do, but my favorite one would be “I Will Survive.” I do that a lot. At Blake’s, I’ve been doing the version by Diana Ross, but I’ve done it by Gladys Knight, and Eartha Kitt, and of course the original, Gloria Gaynor. My favorite version is by Ross, because she did it for her kids.

How has the drag scene evolved? When I moved here in ’77, the drag scene in Atlanta was totally different. We had a lot more clubs for the entertainers to perform at. We had probably four major clubs that had full-scale productions. From Downtown—probably near the Hyatt Regency and [Ritz] Carlton—all the way to Fourteenth Street, there was nothing but clubs, and we had a lot of gay clubs up and down that strip up to Fourteenth Street. And we had a lot more over on Cheshire Bridge at that time, and we had a few in Buckhead as well, in those days. Disco was still pretty much real popular at that time, and that’s when John Travolta in Saturday Night Fever came out, so that was in the middle of all that type of history, with Donna Summer, who was the queen of disco. I come from that era where Patti LaBelle, Diana Ross—those were the ladies of that era—would feed my profession. And we had so much to play with then. We had a lot more parties, circuit parties. You had the Hotlanta party, which was like the river-race-type thing, which was very, very popular; it was more like the White Party that you see in Florida these days. It was a big event, and it happened like once a year. But that was just one of many circuit parties that we had. The city was quite colorful back then. The gay community for the most part was taking over Midtown and spruced it up and beautified the place a little bit. The hippies, more or less, were moving out. Before, Midtown was more of a hippie-type generation of the flower child. And the gay community took it over. And I have seen so much change in Midtown alone. I’ve lived in the same apartment personally for twenty-two years, and I’ve seen a lot change around it in the twenty years in this apartment complex and in this area, Midtown, which is really the central point of the gay community. And for the most part, I have lived [in Midtown] for the thirty-three years that I have lived [in Atlanta].

What were the venues that dominated the seventies and the eighties? There is a club now called the 24-Karat Club on Cheshire Bridge—the Gold Club—that was the show bar of the South, but it was called the Sweet Gum Head. That was known as the Las Vegas show club of the South. It was like a Cirque du Soleil–type thing before there was Cirque du Soleil, but that’s the kind of feeling you had. That was the bar. Then around the corner—where the little mall is, where there’s BJ’s and that little area—but in the corner, that used to be a club called Hollywood Hots that was like a chain of bars from Florida. It was a bathhouse next door called the Locker Room, but it was all conjoined together; it was a men’s social club, politically correctly speaking. The clubs on Cheshire Bridge were considered more the uptown clubs, whereas the ones in Midtown weren’t quite as uptown. Then when you went Downtown, it was considered a different location as well; it was like a different class. Backstreet was in the midst of all that. It was an upscale, basically gay white club. The walls were real plush; the floors were in red carpet; the booth was made out of chrome. It was fantastic. It was something you’d never seen before; it was like coming out of a James Bond movie, rolled in red velvet. It was wonderful because it was still a complex. There were three levels. You’d come in the main door, and you’d have to your left a bar and a booth for a DJ, then you’d go downstairs to a dance floor with all the entertainment. And they didn’t really have a show bar then. That was more or less a dance bar. You had two levels, or floors, where it was just dancing going on. Charlie Brown’s Cabaret came in 1990, and I joined it in ’92. Those were the highlights, the three main bars.

What difficulties does the drag scene currently face? The city a few years ago made things so difficult, but I see it coming back to a larger-scale bar. I think Jungle is the closest we have now to the big type of stages that we’re accustomed to for working the full-scale shows that we used to do. Now we have to pare them down.

Do you think the drag scene will ever go away? I think it will always be here. It’s just one of those surviving things; there’s gonna be somebody there keeping it going. I just think it’s evolving in a different way, like everything else is.

How did you get into drag? Actually, it wasn’t a serious thing; it was just like a joke. My best friend—we have what you call “drag mothers” in the business—was getting his master’s degree in costume design at the University of Illinois, and we were giving him a send-off party, and jokingly I said, “I wonder what I would look like in drag.” And he did drag, and his stage name was Lady Victoria Lust, so I took his last name, and my idol’s always been Lena Horne—who we lost recently—and combined that for my name: Lena Lust. And our neighbor had an apartment complex that was like a split level—the kitchen went over the bedroom, and so you had the living room way up front—so we just put up a backdrop of black fabric to cover up all the kitchen utensils, the stove, and so forth, and had a show. And the first two songs I ever did was “Delta Dawn” by Bette Midler, from her first album, and my second was “God Bless the Child” from the sound track from Lady Sings the Blues by Diana Ross. And I decided I could make a living doing that, and I enjoyed it so much, and I still to this day enjoy it. I was twenty-two at the time, and I will be sixty next year.

Why do you do drag? I enjoy entertainment; I enjoy entertaining. I know where it comes from. I know why it existed at the forefront of the summer of ’69—I remember that time. We were a big part of that, and I want the younger generation to be aware that drag is more than just a show point of entertainment; it’s telling the history of where we are, how far we’ve come. Because I can remember the times when you could not have a storefront bar with glass on the main street, like with Blake’s—when you had to come in through a back alley and you had a one-way mirror and you had someone with a gun on you before they let you in. That’s part of the history that we had to go through to get where we are now. Especially in Atlanta, it’s a lot more open, where you can even walk down the street holding hands. There was a time when that was the only type of entertainment we had.

How do you perform? I like to be close to the people I’m performing for, because I like to perform to the people. I’m very expressive. When I perform, I’m really animated. It’s just the way I am. I express my feelings through the song. I like to make sure when I do a song that it means something to somebody. I get feedback from people from years ago that got something from a certain song that I’ve done. That’s another reason why I enjoy entertainment, why I still do female impersonation.

What do your outfits entail? I try to wear outfits that are comfortable, that I can move in. I’ve become a big, fat goose these days, so I need something I’ll feel comfortable to perform in. I’m from a different generation; I like to have nice jackets with a little shine, like bits of glitter, sequins, and stuff. I’ll interchange different types of boots and accessories and jackets and so forth. Granted, that’s on Wednesdays and Thursdays when I’m working the show and working the door, so I have to have something that’s comfortable for me to work in both ways. But when I’m doing a show on Fridays and Saturdays, it’s just the show. Then I go out with the lovely evening gowns and sequined gowns, the bigger hair, the more glossy look.

Who are your favorite drag queens? I looked up to Rachel Wells, Roski Fernandez, Chena Black, Mickey Day, Tasha Wallace, Lisa King. Hot Chocolate, who’s still in Vegas to this day; Lady Shawn, who I get a lot of my movements from. A lot of my dance stuff comes from Hot Chocolate and Naomi Sims. Charlie Brown. I can go on forever.

What was the best bar in which to perform drag? The best bar that’s no longer around to perform in was a bar called Illusions, which was right around the corner of Tenth Street, right where they’re trying to open up this new club now. That was the best bar because you had stairs, you had full-scale productions, and it was set up with that purpose. We had wonderful dressing areas with showers, which you don’t normally get in dressing rooms. That was the best bar to perform in because everything was perfect. You felt like you were in a Radio City Music Hall show. It was like our version of the Fox Theatre, but not quite on that grand a scale, but still grand for the gay community. Most of the bars of the seventies and eighties were of that nature. It was cleaner looking; it had cleaner lines. It was more sophisticated.

What was it like working at Backstreet, the famous twenty-four-hour club that closed in 2004? Backstreet was the last of the big bars. It was open twenty-four hours. It was crazy, but it was wonderful. I have memories; I have pictures; I have videotapes. I got to meet a lot of famous people because anybody who was anybody that came to town came to Backstreet. I got a fifty-dollar tip from Janet Jackson—I was doing Tina Turner, and she tipped me fifty dollars. And I got a chance to meet Queen Latifah. I miss the camaraderie of family. We were like a close-knit family.

Will you ever retire? I will never, ever retire, because the simple fact is, I have this belief that once a person retires, they either go downhill, they don’t want to do anything, they’re lost, or they can’t do anything, or they’ll whither away. I’ve seen it happen to a lot of entertainers, a lot of people in general. The body is made to move, and you have to keep moving. Once you retire and quit using it, then things happen. I’d be selfish if I retired. God gave me that gift to do, to give.

Why do you think straight people enjoy drag? It’s amusing to them. The gay community has gotten so used to it. It was our only form of entertainment for so many decades, but it’s still fairly new to the straight community. It’s opened up so much more because it’s become so general now; it’s in the movies and the television series. When I was growing up, it was very rare you saw that, unless you were in a gay bar. Like the Rocky Horror thing, which got so phenomenal in the seventies and the eighties. When I did it in ’75 [shortly after the movie came out], I played Janet, and it was in a gay club, but we had to rent the movie from the University of St. Louis so we could see it, because it wasn’t out—it was an import from London. And it was only thirty people in the whole auditorium there to watch it. It’s a cult film now.

How has the gay scene changed this past decade? 2000 was the beginning of the start of the fall, when the big change happened with the big bars closing—the closing of Backstreet and a few other places. It just took it down from the straight bars down to the gay bars, to eventually where we are now with the small venues. It’s just very hard now. I think if we can just continue to fight, we can make it. We’ve got people out there fighting for us. If the gay community pulled together and did their part, we can get back to maybe halfway where we were before, but not all the way.

What does gay pride mean to you? It’s nice to see where it’s come, because I remember the days when there were four or five hundred people in the march. I’m hoping that it doesn’t become so commercial that it loses its message. Because that happens with so many celebrations, like the celebration of Christmas. Be proud of yourself first. Love yourself, respect yourself, know yourself—to me, that’s the biggest pride right there.