The outfit of the moment is lime green. Tasha Salad bounces, flits, and struts through her performance space in a skintight mini-dress and cape the color of kiwi. Her wig resembles a serving of mint froyo, garnished with a dark green peacock feather, coiled atop her head. She’s got smoky eyes and long, long lashes, a massive ring shimmering from her finger, and she’s prancing around on high glittery heels. Patrons dine on burgers, salads, and fries, and Tasha sashays from table to table, lip-syncing along to the buoyant voice of cabaret singer Ruth Wallis: "You’ve gotta have boobs if you wanna impress tycoons and rubes. You need boobs to fill out a sweater. You need 2 but 3 might be better."
She scoops up dollar bills from excited customers while making her way around the room. "Some are like watermelons and some are like grapes," Wallis sings while Tasha shimmies and places her open palms beneath her own boobs, as if she is serving them up on a platter. "And some are like knobs upon the door."
Related | Drag's Most Sickening 60
Tasha moves lightly on her toes, almost as if she is floating. She steps up onto the little stage at the front of the room for the grand finale. "You start out with A-cup and wind up with E-Cup, silicon’s a girl’s best friend."
As Wallis belts and trills the final word, Tasha slips her hands down the front of her dress and yanks out two silicon inserts from her bra. With an enormous, open-mouthed smile, she spins them around above her head and then shimmies back and forth to the whoops and screams of the crowd.
“Hold on,” she says into the microphone, hunched over, when the song ends. “Gotta put my titties back.”
Tasha Salad is a witty, self-assured diva of a drag queen. She’s “cunty on the mic,” says Tony Cook, the man who transforms into Tasha several nights a week. She loves to mock audience members, but she’ll also give them shots and mingle after she performs to make sure everyone knows her words are in jest.
Her favorite song to perform, which she lip syncs, is "Coming Back to Me Now" by Celine Dion. She can easily make a few handfuls of money when she does that song. It’s emotional for her, and Tony says the crowd can feel it.
Tony considers Tasha’s style “classic glamour.” She loves big hair and high heels and sparkly pieces of jewelry. Her fashion sense, Tony says, is reminiscent of somebody’s southern aunt. On any given night, she will change outfits two to four times.
Tony, on the other hand, is a stocky 39-year-old with short salt and pepper hair and a bit of scruff sweeping across his cheeks. He was a practicing nurse for 18 years, and he is now the manager at Chicago’s Hamburger Mary’s restaurant, a national franchise famous for its burgers and its drag shows. Situated on Clark Street in the heart of the queer-friendly Andersonville neighborhood, Hamburger Mary’s holds events every night of the week, many of them hosted by Tony as Tasha Salad.
As himself, Tony is quiet. The idea of getting up on stage in front of other people makes him nervous. He needs several drinks to get the nerve to sing karaoke with his friends, a type of courage he never need seek out as Tasha.
“I am not ever nervous when I’m her,” he says. “I’ve learned I just have to shut that off. I just let her kind of take over.”
Tony says being Tasha feels like wearing a mask. Once his beard is shaved and he is adorned with hip pads, a wig, nails, a dress, jewelry, makeup, heels, breasts, and a bra, the woman inside him emerges. His walk becomes more feminine, he holds his hands differently, and most of all, he radiates confidence.
On October 11th, 2001, National Coming Out Day and the one-month anniversary of the September 11th terrorist attack, a 21-year-old Tony competed in his first ever drag competition inside a jam-packed Missouri bar.
It wasn’t only his first time competing. It was his first time doing drag at all. When “I Do” by Toya began to play, Tony began to dance. "Watch me pop. Pop my hips as I dip and roll. Watch me stop. Stop traffic as I enter the room."
It had been three years since Tony first laid eyes on a drag queen, inside a club when he was 18. He was mesmerized by the over-the top-outfits and the attention drag queens seemed to command. He considered trying drag himself, but his then boyfriend told him he didn’t think he could pull off female impersonation. For some reason, Tony listened. When they broke up a few years later, he decided to prove his ex wrong.
During his drag debut, Tony was so caught up in the passion of performing that his nerves all but disappeared. He loved every second, and for the short while his routine lasted, he was fearless.
He made a lot in tips that night, but what he most remembers is the crowd. The show was so packed, he thinks, because after thirty days of mourning the deadliest attack in our nation’s history, people needed to get out. Tony could feel the intensity in the air that night. Everyone was trying to find a way to have a good time again.
Tony loved being the one to provide that good time, yet after this performance, it would be seven years before he would return to drag.
“Here’s to you, here’s to me, the best of friends we’ll always be. If we should ever disagree, fuck you all, here’s to me.” Tasha Salad raises her shot glass in the air before gulping it down, and the six customers she has pulled up onto the tiny stage at the front of the restaurant do the same.
“The only problem with doing free shots is that they’re not really free,” Tasha says into the microphone once everyone has swallowed their liquor. “Turn around. Face the curtain behind you,” she demands.
Everyone on stage turns to face the velvet green curtain hanging behind them, except for one woman, who is busy on her phone.
“Girl, get off of Snapchat and turn around,” Tasha yells in a sassy, high-pitched voice. The audience roars with laughter, and the woman smiles and turns. “There you go,” Tasha says. “God damn millennials.”
At this moment in the Friday night show, Tasha’s look includes smoky eyes, big, shimmering earrings, and a floor-length yellow dress adorned with blue, purple, and leopard print patches. Her wig is a gargantuan black and purple Mohawk, at least six inches high, that curves all the way from her forehead to her upper back.
“Everybody count backwards from three!” Tasha yells after everyone is in place on stage, their backs turned to the audience. “3! 2! 1!” A song begins to blast. "Shake that ass bitch and let me see what you got. Just shake that ass bitch and let me see what you got." Everyone does as the song instructs while the audience hollers and cheers. “Come on! You can do it!” Tasha shouts.
The same night as his inaugural show, Tony met someone. They couldn’t legally wed, but after a while, they considered themselves married. His partner convinced him that drag, which is expensive due to the elaborate costumes, was not worth the money. “I think now that I look back on it,” says Tony, “He didn’t like the attention I got from it.”
When they broke up after seven years, Tony returned to drag immediately. He took a part-time bartending job at a little drag bar near his house so he could watch other queens in action. Soon, they encouraged him to participate.
“It was a dream come true,” he says, “Because some of those girls that I had seen perform for years I was working alongside and doing numbers with and talking to and we became real, true sisters. I didn't know that I was missing that until I started doing it.”
In 2008, Tony entered the intense world of drag pageantry. The Miss Gay America circuit is set up like Miss America. There are city preliminaries, followed by state competitions, and the winners from each state compete for the national title. Tony’s Miss Gay America pageant promoter thought the name Tasha Salad — created by one of his nursing coworkers from the sexual innuendo, ‘toss your salad’ — was too inappropriate. So during competitions, he was Tasha Romaine.
When he entered his first newcomer’s pageant, he’d only been doing drag consistently for six months, but Tony was talented. He got first runner-up, enough to compete at the state level for Miss Gay Missouri in April 2009.
“It was a lot of money,” he says. “I had to hire backup dancers and a dresser and travel to Springfield, Missouri, and get a hotel room. It was a whirlwind. It happened so fast, but I fell in love with that sisterhood.”
There were about thirty competitors, many of whom had been performing for decades. Tony can’t remember exactly where he placed. “I was not far from the bottom,” he says. “But I wasn't the bottom.”
Throughout his time as a nurse, Tony has worn many hats. He’s worked in rehabilitation with spinal cord and brain injury patients and in a nursing home with Alzheimer’s patients. He’s worked for the ALS Association, at the children’s hospital of St. Louis University, and in neurology at Northwestern Hospital. Drag became a way to take the edge off. As a nurse case manager, he had to deal with many devastating life and death situations. “I think the reason I was able to do that for so long was because I was able to shut all that shit off and become Tasha, who didn't give a shit,” he says. “She'll make fun of you, have a couple of shots, say whatever the hell she wants to say, and then I can go back to being the person who has listened to all the sad stuff and helping people make horrible decisions with regards to the end of life.”
Eventually, Tony needed a real break. Two years ago, he quit his job at Northwestern Hospital, took a position at Hamburger Mary’s, and decided to give drag a full-time shot.
Nothing matches inside Hamburger Mary’s. Some walls are striped with different shades of pink, others with black and white. A disco ball hangs from the ceiling along with several mismatched chandeliers. Multi-colored Christmas lights are strung around the piping that borders the ceiling, and picture frames of all shapes, materials, and sizes hang on the walls.
It’s a restaurant, not a club, which, unlike most drag performance spaces, makes it easy to host family-friendly performances. “We have people in their sixties for retirement parties and 60th birthdays,” Tony says. “People come here with their parents.” At the early shows, kids are welcome, and they are some of Tony’s favorite customers.
“The crowd goes crazy when those kids have dollar bills,” he says. “The little girls are so excited, and sometimes the little boys. Parents that come here are so inclusive that you never feel awkward. The very first time kids came to see me I had never been around that because I always performed in bars, so it was really weird. Now some of my favorite photos are me holding kids, and the parents come and say thank you.”
The middle of three boys, Tony grew up on a farm outside a 300-person town near Columbia, Missouri. Most of his family fully support him, but his mom holds the spot of number one fan.
Once, the two were shopping at a thrift store, and a dress caught Tony’s eye. A saleswoman approached him and said, sarcastically, “Oh, did you find something?” She assumed the dress couldn’t really be for him.
“Actually, I did,” Tony replied.
Overhearing the exchange, his mother immediately stepped in. “Yes,” she said, in a sassy, assured tone. “He’s a performer in Chicago. You should see him.” She made Tony go out to the car to retrieve his phone so he could show the saleswoman pictures of his drag shows. “My mom’s a big fan,” he says.
There is no photograph on Tony’s online dating profile. Tasha is well known in the Chicago world of drag, and he doesn’t want to risk being recognized. “Guys are so weird,” he says. “They'll be the ones in the audience screaming ‘yass queen!’ and watching Rupaul's Drag Race, and then the minute you talk to somebody and they realize you do drag, they don't want to date you. It's horrendous. Everybody wants that butch, almost straight-looking guy.”
He’d love to have a partner, but he’s been single a long time. He says it’s even worse because he’s on the heavier side. “I've got all these things going against me. I don't look like the ideal gay guy on top of being a drag queen.”
Tony is hopeful for younger generations of queens, though. Gender fluidity, he says, is much more acceptable to young people now. Even within the drag community, new trends have emerged. Bearded queens are on the rise. Many performers no longer wear hip pads. Some queens don’t shave their chests. “It’s just a whole new concept of drag,” says Tony, who, while supportive of whatever other queens want to do, prefers to stick with what he knows, the classic femme look, hip pads and all.
One snowy day at Hamburger Mary’s, a group of women arrived for brunch. Tasha was performing that day, and she felt like she’d seen them before. Because of the weather, the place was pretty empty, so Tasha and the rest of the queens spent a lot of time dancing around the women’s table.
After the show, they discovered one of the women had cancer and wasn’t doing well. Her friends brought her to Hamburger Mary’s because of how much fun she had last time she was there. She wanted to see the queens again.
“To hear that made all of us cry,” Tony says. “She took time out of her day to come see us — that lets me know I’m doing something right."
Photo courtesy of Zapata Photography