Beefcakes, Betty Bangles & lip-sync

Bernard Buys as Betty Bangles, performing Don’t Rain On My Parade at Beefcakes in Pretoria.

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BY BILLY SUTER

I HAD long heard about Beefcakes but had never experienced the pleasure of this fun, camp yet stylish, retro-chic, gourmet burger bar inspired by the ’50s and Miami’s South Beach. Until now.

Beefcakes is a franchise noted for its flamboyant cocktails, muscled waiters and colourful drag shows, branches of which have long attracted patrons in Cape Town and Johnannesburg. Hen’s parties, birthday groups… all love Beefcakes.

So it was with gratitude and enthusiasm that I took up an invitation from one of the country’s most prominent drag queens, Betty Bangles (also known as hairdresser, make-up artist and TV and radio personality Bernard Buys), to check out the new Pretoria Beefcakes and her first weekly solo show there.

The 110-seater venue, which opened in February at the corner of Dely Road and 18th Street in Hazelwood, is open every Tuesday to Saturday. The phone number is (012) 941 9966 and the email address is pretoria@beefcakes.co.za

It is a delight with its pastel colours (predominantly pinks and whites), flamingo décor, scattered framed photos of Marilyn Monroe and other ’50s kitsch including draped pearls, towering metallic palm trees and loos which, believe it or not, each have their own revolving discoball and piped Abba music.

Regular drag shows are held there, but at 8.30pm each Thursday, the spotlight is solely on Betty Bangles with From Bloemfontein to Broadway.  Buxom Betty also performs at this venue every Saturday, with her lip-sync group Menopause, and the group also entertains on Fridays at Beefcakes Joburg.

Betty Bangles in the All That Jazz number in From Bloemfontein to Broadway.

Her solo show unfurls on a small, raised stage at the far end of the room where a collection of wigs stands on a shelving area centrestage and is flanked by glittery costumes on hangers on a rail.

Amid a fanfare of introduction, Betty, a large gal in size 13 shoes, enters to the strains of All That Jazz, wearing a red wig and black shimmery leotard-cum-hotpants, miming to the hit from Chicago before introducing herself as a lip-sync artist… like Britney Spears, she tells her audience.

With some choice and quick banter, and with a recurring bassline allowing her to change costumes, wigs and characters on stage – all the time with her back to the audience, and with her backside swaying – Betty then delivers eight more lip-sync routines.

Her show theme loosely tells of a Bloem wannabe who dreams of making it big in showbiz and the story mostly unwinds through amusing lip-syncs to songs by everyone from Amanda Strydom (the tale of Grieta du Plooy) to Queen Latifah (When You’re Good to Mama from Chicago), to comic renditions of such favourites as Time to Say Goodbye, Supercalifragiliciousexpialidocius and I Will Follow Him (complete with nun outfit and novel puppets).

There are also salutes to Barbra Streisand and Sarah Brightman, as well as a mickey-take of Liza Minnelli, in a slick and fun hour-long entertainment that kept a happy audience delighted throughout the night I was in.

After the show, for which tickets cost R100, Betty calls on all the Beefcakes waiters to join her on stage. She issues each with a shooter and asks them to remove their tight pink and black vests to entertain the crowd. Betty then returns minutes later to mingle and chat with patrons. It’s great fun.

For those not in the know, 38-year-old  Bernard Buys is more than just a lip-sync artist. He was the star of, and mentor to novice drag queens in, Betty en die Dossers on DStv’s VIA, has been a professional hairstylist for 16 years and has been a make-up artist for three years. Also, he has spent four years as a special guest of comedian Casper de Vries in Cliff Central’s The Casper Radio Show.

I got to chat with Bernard/Betty and this was the conversation:

TELL US ABOUT “FROM BLOEMFONTEIN TO BROADWAY” AND WHY PEOPLE SIMPLY HAVE TO SEE IT.

I had been dreaming about doing a one-man show for many years but always put it off for many different reasons. From Bloemfontein to Broadway is exactly about that. Dreaming!

The show loosely tells the story of a girl from Bloemfontein, with dreams of becoming a Broadway star. One night she goes to bed and dreams of all the roles she would like to play and, like it is with dreams, it doesn’t always go the way we want it to.

In a way, the show is about my personal dreams but From Potgietersrus to Broadway just doesn’t have a nice ring to it.

The show is full of favourite hits from musicals with a little twist on some. I do nine characters and costume changes on stage. People can sing along or just sit back and have a laugh!

Betty Bangles glam, photographed by Joe Strydom.

WHERE AND WHEN WERE YOU BORN… AND AT WHAT POINT DID YOU BECOME INTERESTED IN DRAG?

I was born on February 29, 1980, and grew up in Potgietersrus. Being gay and living in a small town wasn’t always easy. I don’t think anyone knew I was gay but I never felt that I belonged.

I hated school and everything that goes with it, except the yearly school revue! Those were the only times that I felt that my life had meaning. Oh, and the times when I made a makeshift stage from broomsticks and bedsheets to perform I’m Blonde from the film Panic Mechanic, for my parents.

After I finished school I moved to Pretoria, where I went to a gay club for the first time. There I saw a drag show and immediately knew that was what I wanted to do.

HOW LONG HAVE YOU BEEN LIP-SYNCING IN DRAG – AND WHAT MARKED THE FIRST TIME?

I have been doing drag shows for 17 years now. I started helping backstage at that same Pretoria club in 2000. I opened the curtain, carried props on and off the stage and did anything to be part of the shows.

In 2001, I stepped on stage in drag for the first time. At first I called myself Bernice, which sounds as sad as she looked. But I performed my heart out and loved every second of it.

WHERE AND WHEN WAS YOUR FIRST PRO DRAG GIG?

Over the years I performed at various night clubs and birthday parties but could never seem to ‘make it’. This was mostly because I was held back by my drug addiction of 12 years.

At the end of 2011 I decided to get myself clean and booked myself into a rehab. It took me a year to get the courage to get on stage completely sober!

At the beginning of 2013 I received a call from Brendan van Rhyn, asking If I would be interested in doing a monthly guest performance at Beefcakes Joburg with The Dreemz. I jumped at the opportunity and here I am, almost six years later, with my own show at Beefcakes Pretoria.

HOW DID YOU COME BY THE DRAG NAME BETTY BANGLES?

As I have mentioned, I first went by the name Bernice. It was during Pride 2001 that I decided to reinvent my look. I wore a blue-sequin dress with a massive blue wig and a blue-sequin flower in the wig. I also had blue glitter lips with blue eye shadow. One of my friends took one look and called me Betty Bangles, which is gay slang for the police. who are known for wearing blue.

HOW DIFFERENT ARE BERNARD AND BETTY?

We are completely different but also alike. At the end of the day we are the same person but I am extremely self-conscious and a little shy. Betty allows me to overcome that. Over the years Betty has helped me to be more confident as myself too.

BY DAY YOU ARE A PROFESSIONAL MAKE-UP ARTIST AND HAIRSTYLIST – WHERE AND HOW LONG HAVE YOU DONE THIS?

Yes, most people in the performing arts, especially drag artists, will tell you that you can’t rely only on performing for a living. I have been a professional hairstylist for 16 years and make-up artist for the past three years. I have been part of the Jeauval Hair Salon group for almost seven years now.

Betty Bangles goes Mary Poppins in From Bloemfontein to Broadway.

HOW LONG HAVE YOU BEEN ON CLIFF CENTRAL – AND TELL US MORE ABOUT THE SHOW YOU DO, AND HOW YOU LANDED THE JOB.

I was cutting Casper de Vries’s hair one day and, like any good hair session, it involved gossip. He then asked me if I would like to do a gay gossip segment on his show, and the segment called Skeer en Skinner was born. It forms part of a crazy, fun-filled comedy show with an equally crazy team lead by Casper. This May we celebrated four years of The Casper Radio Show.

WHAT ARE THE THREE GOLDEN RULES OF DRAG?

Always know your song words! If you are too lazy to do everything, don’t do anything! And never wear flat shoes…; unless it’s for a Pride parade!

WHAT DRAG ACTS ARE YOUR IDOLS – AND WHY?

Jackie Beat is one. Her style of drag is similar to mine and she is super funny! I saw her live in New York and was amazed by her quick wit. I also love Cathy Specific. I just wish I could sing like her. Then there is RuPaul. I admire her for what she has done for the art of drag. Love her or hate her, drag would be where it is today if it were not for her.

YOU SEEM MOST NOTED FOR YOUR COMEDY DRAG ROUTINES. COMMENTS?

I love making people laugh. We live such fast-paced lives, with a lot of unpleasantness happening daily. So to know that you can put a smile on someone’s face is a great feeling.

WHAT HAVE BEEN SOME EMBARRASSING MOMENTS ON STAGE – ANY COSTUME MALFUNCTIONS, TRIPS AND FALLS ETC? PLEASE SPILL THE BEANS. 

Oh, there have been many! One that stands out was during a show at a club called Stardust in Pretoria many years ago. Two other queens and I performed I Feel Pretty. The dresses we wore had big hoops at the bottom.

At the end of the song I had to do a silly run off the stage. Now, because it was a club, the dressing room was just an area next to the stage blocked off with a curtain. As I ran off I stepped on the hoop of the dress and tripped.

I grabbed the closest thing, which was the dressing room’s curtain, in an attempt to keep my balance. Needless to say, the curtain couldn’t hold my weight and I pulled the whole thing off, leaving a bunch of queens in underwear exposed to the audience.

WHAT WAS THE BEST GIG YOU EVER DID? ALSO, WHAT WAS THE WORST?

There have been so many highlights in my drag career that I can’t pick just one – from TV appearances to having my own TV show, to some of the smallest shows that turned out to be some of the best.

The worst, by far, was actually quite recently. We were booked for a bachelorette party at a private home and, unfortunately, the sister of the bride-to-be, who booked us, didn’t know her audience.

Betty Bangles with an amusing lip-sync to an Amanda Strydom song that offers an Afrikaans variation of Liza Minnelli’s Ring Dem Bells. Picture by Joe Strydom.

We performed our little hearts out to a bunch of girls who were literally more interested in their phones than in three men in dresses. I have never felt so uncomfortable in my life!

HOW MANY WIGS, SHOES AND FROCKS DO YOU OWN – AND WHAT IS THE MOST EXPENSIVE ITEM THERE?

I own about 15 wigs and many more costumes. My drag shoes are the most expensive. Being a men’s size 13 I have to import my drag shoes from the US.

HOW DO YOU DEAL WITH HECKLERS AND SMALLMINDED FOLK WHO FEEL THE NEED TO PROVOKE OR CHALLENGE YOU – AND DO YOU GET MANY OF THEM AT YOUR SHOWS?

Luckily we don’t get that a lot at Beefcakes. People that go there know there will be a drag show so when they shout things it generally comes from a good place and lends itself to great comedy for me, who is holding the microphone.

TELL ME MORE ABOUT HOW THE VIA-TV SERIES CAME ABOUT AND HOW YOU GOT INVOLVED WITH IT. ALSO, WHAT VIEWS ON ITS CONTENT AND SUCCESS, AND IT POSSIBLY SPAWNING A SEQUEL?

I daydreamed of having my own TV show for such a long time and for about two years before we started shooting Betty Bangles en die Dossers I tried numerous times to make the show happen.

I was close to giving up when I was on set for another VIA show to do hair. The producer and I started to chat about drag off camera and the possibility of a TV show.

It was truly a “right place at the right time” moment! Some people tried to compare it with RuPaul’s Drag Race but it was nothing like it. RuPaul’s show is a fierce competition for established queens. Betty Bangles en die Dossers was about me taking three new drag queens under my wing and helping them to find their drag personas.

I had experts on the show who helped them with things like make-up and stage presence.

I also wanted to show the South African public what drag is about. There is such a huge misunderstanding about what drag is, especially in SA, so I hope we can do another season.

 HOW DID VIA-TV VIEWERS REACT TO THE SHOW – ANY FAN (OR HATE) MAIL?

There were positive and negative reactions, but mostly it was positive. I received a few bad comments from small-minded people who didn’t want to give the show a chance, to understand, and unfortunately you can’t change their minds for them.

But I received the most beautiful messages from people telling me how they understand their children better because of the show, and from kids who told me how they don’t feel like “freaks” anymore because of the show.

All those messages tell me a show like the one we did is extremely important because it can literally save the life of those who suffer from depression because society doesn’t accept them.

ANY ANECDOTES FROM THE TV SHOW YOU CAN SHARE WITH US?

The producers, HiMOM and KILROY WAS HERE, were so sneaky and brilliant that even the things we thought were off-camera made it to screen. So, there isn’t really anything I can tell except for the tale of Montelle’s missing neckbrace.

In one episode, Casper de Vries’s character, Montelle, was a judge. When it was time to film, Casper couldn’t find Montelle’s neckbrace. The production team quickly made a plan. They rolled up a piece of cloth to replace the neckbrace.

So, what people didn’t see in that episode is a crew member on the floor. behind Montelle’s chair, pulling the makeshift neckbrace tight.

Betty Bangles as Mama Morton in From Bloemfontein to Broadway. Picture by Joe Strydom.

WHAT ARE SOME DRAG ULTIMATE NO-NOS?

Apart from my three golden rules I do not think there should be any no-nos in drag. Everyone has their own style and on the way to finding that style will go through quite a couple of no-no moments. Drag is all about having fun!

WHAT PLANS FOR BETTY… AND FOR BERNARD?

I would love to take From Bloemfontein To Broadway to an arts festival. With a little tweak here and there I think it will be perfect for festivals. Next year I am travelling to New York and I might or might not do a show there… but that is all I can say for now.

NOTE: TO VIEW THE TRAILER OF “FROM BLOEMFONTEIN TO BROADWAY” CLICK BELOW:

Part of the interior at Beefcakes in Pretoria.
Gourmet burgers… a Beefcakes speciality.

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