If you took The Birdcage nightclub, combined it with the glitz of “La Cage,” threw in themed menus, opulent lighting, eight-foot-long chandeliers and more disco balls than you can count, you still wouldn’t get close to the total lavishness of Lips Chicago.
“The walls are covered with quilted leopard fabric, gilded with sconces and pretty little rhinestone buttons,” owner Yvonne Lamé says during the location’s first-ever Sunday brunch. “The minute you walk in, it’s like an explosion of color and just very visually over the top.”
Chicago is the fifth location of the Lips franchise. Lamé’s first location opened in New York City twenty-three years ago and the Chicago location is Lamé’s most glammed-out drag show palace yet. The Motor Row location is more than three years in the making and made its debut in August in the shell of an old Ford dealership.
For local queens like Victoria Le Paige, Lips couldn’t have arrived fast enough. With friends working at locations elsewhere in the country, Le Paige has been waiting for Chicago’s own Lips since the plans were announced.
And what drew Le Paige to Lips? The glitz and the glam, of course.
“We have been anticipating this for over three years,” says Le Paige. “And it’s finally here. I have girlfriends that work in Lips Atlanta and they were telling us it’s coming to Chicago. It’s coming. It’s coming. And we waited and waited and waited and now it’s finally here and the whole city is very excited.”
Le Paige wasn’t alone in wanting to be part of the Chicago location. According to Lamé, over a hundred people came to audition for Lips and at least fifty had to be turned away because they only had so much time to get through auditions. There are roughly twenty-five drag queens employed at Lips who rotate throughout the week.
And this isn’t your typical drag queen gig, either. These queens aren’t just serving looks and talent, they’re also serving your tables. They pull double duty between waiting tables, serving the drinks and performing. Countering a concern that doing so much while dolled up and decked out would mean a high turnover rate, Lamé says that while there may be temporary burnout from time to time, there are queens who have worked for Lips since its inception. These are coveted gigs and the folks who work them love them.
“In the restaurant business, you expect turnover,” admits Lamé, a longtime drag performer himself. “But the one thing in regards to Lips is [that] a lot of people stay because the girls make enough working here that they don’t have to have other jobs. I’ve had queens in New York that have been with me for twenty-three years, in San Diego twenty years. With each location [there are] people who have been there since the beginning.”
For some, Lips is the opportunity to further a young career. While there are queens employed with the franchise who have decades of performance under their sequins and velvet, there are others who are new to the field. One such queen is JerFay, who will celebrate their four-year drag anniversary on October 26. JerFay has a theater background and, after tiring of the scene, decided to give drag a try. Inspired by fellow queen Lucy Stool, JerFay aspires to be a queen who combines masculinity and femininity. Because drag queens can be fabulous with a beard, too.
“I am so honored that they’re letting in a bearded queen,” says JerFay. “I believe I’m one of two bearded queens to ever work for any of the Lips locations. And so for them to let me represent my style of drag is really fun and awesome and I’m so honored to be a part of it.”
Since the Lips Chicago website has an entire section on bachelorette parties, it seemed fair to ask JerFay about if or where bachelorettes fit into this space. There has been a divide in the queer community for some time about bachelorettes taking over gay spaces. The short answer? JerFay hates that perception. Because drag isn’t about impersonating or mocking women, it’s about celebrating them. So everyone should be welcome in the space.
“We’re celebrating femininity and womanhood, so why are they not allowed to come celebrate that with us?” JerFay says. “I think it’s a very important thing that we embrace that. Plus, a lot of the time, they’re the ones who sponsor and support us the most, because a lot of us queer people are out here with broke-ass homes and no money to pay our bills. And then we have these people coming in and supporting us and loving what we do and loving that we’re expressing ourselves in a way that also expresses them. So I don’t like that opinion at all and I don’t appreciate it. That’s another reason I’m proud to work here. I love it.”
While the queens refer to their homebase as Disneyland and Versailles, Lips is a palace far beyond anything else like it. It is a place of joy and exploration, bottomless mimosa brunches and Broadway-themed evenings. It is a place where drag queens and their fans can revel in the pageantry of the moment while celebrating life.
“Expect a full, gay, queer experience,” says JerFay. “[You’re] going to come in and be served by the performers. It’s all interactive, even if the performers don’t even leave the stage, because they’ve been working with you all night and you get that familiarity. And then, because a lot of people that come here are with bachelorette parties, or birthday parties, or people bringing their families who don’t go out in the scene a lot, it’s a chance for them to experience something to the ten. It’s kind of what you would see at a club, but an overproduction of it. It’s something that we all have always dreamed of doing.”