The bar at Hacienda La Esperanza, a restaurant just off Fulton Street in the Near Northside, has been outfitted with faux Spanish tile and stuccoed arches, giving the illusion that the adjacent dining room is not unlike a traditional courtyard. It’s not the most believable mise-en-scène, although it’s safe to say that no one pays much attention to the scenery, at least not on Friday nights at 10:30.
That’s when Melissa Clinton takes the floor in a sparkly red tunic, short blonde wig, and platform heels. A 20-year veteran of the stage, she is now one of the most recognizable faces in Houston’s Latino drag community, a status that she has achieved, somewhat astonishingly, without having a pun in her stage name. Clinton is the emcee of a trio of weekly shows at restaurants that draw heavily Hispanic crowds, both gay and straight.
Indeed, the crowd at Hacienda, unlike at many drag shows in Montrose, is surprisingly mixed. There are young, straight couples, there are families with children, and right in the center of the room, alongside the open performance space, there is a large party celebrating someone’s abuela’s 80th birthday. In a city like Houston, which can’t even put together a half-decent drag brunch, Hacienda is something of a revelation.
“Everything now is more open and we can actually do shows everywhere,” says Clinton. “Straight people these days are very different, they accept us much more. Years ago it was like we had to hide. Now female impersonation is everywhere.”
This night, Clinton herself takes the floor first in the character of Jenni Rivera, a hugely popular Mexican-American pop star who was killed in a plane crash in 2012. Later, she will take the stage as Paquita la del Barrio, Laura León, and other Latina divas.
“It’s almost not even fair to do an impersonation of Laura León,” whispers a friend in between margarita sips. “She looks like a drag queen already!” This has never stopped anyone from impersonating Cher, though, so no complaints here.
Unlike most female impersonators, Clinton actually sings along to each song, and although the microphone is turned off when the music starts, you can hear her as she makes her way through the crowd. In between songs, her Spanish stage banter has the rhythm of an old-school comic. She regales the audience with a story of a man she liked but whose “thing” was too small. Cue the turn: she’s talking about his bank account.
“When I start doing Jenni, Paquita, and other female impersonations, I have to be that artist and act like her, sometimes sing with my voice. When I’m just emcee I’m more funny, more like I am in real life,” says Clinton.
After Clinton’s Rivera number, she hands over the stage (such as it is) to Ana Bárbara, or rather Salma Andrews, her doppelgänger. Andrews delivers a showstopper in a slinky blue spangled gown, which she later sheds to reveal a sheer blue body suit. A sash at the waist winks languidly at propriety.
“Sometimes I’ll kiss a guy in the audience or sit on his lap,” Andrews tells us over lunch a few days after the show. “But when there’s kids around I don’t like to do that. I can’t do anything about the costume though. It’s part of the show.”
When performing, Andrews is virtually synonymous with Ana Bárbara, her look so convincing she’s basically cornered the market. She loves to open her performance with Bárbara’s “Como Me Haces Falta” (translation: “How I Miss You”) because it speaks to her heart, she says, as she’s still not over an ex.
“The people can tell if you really connect with the role, if you feel the emotion inside. If I die, I want that song to be played at my funeral.”
After moving to Houston from Mexico in her late teens, Andrews adopted her current stage name after transitioning into a transgender woman and being adopted as a stage daughter by the late Erica Andrews, a famous San Antonio–based drag queen. Erica won numerous pageants including, in 2006, Miss International Queen, the world’s largest and most prestigious beauty contest for transgender women, and was known to adopt other transgendered performers into the “Haus of Andrews” in cities where she held shows. Salma is her only daughter in Houston.
“To be her daughter you have to have the same style, so if I perform in San Antonio or in Dallas I can’t do Ana Bárbara, I have to do Rihanna or someone like that. It’s all about big hair, big makeup, and coming out almost naked. That’s the way she would do it.”
By these standards, the show at Hacienda is relatively tame. In addition to performances from Clinton and Andrews, a third performer does a turn as Paulina Rubio, but nothing can really top Salma’s sexy strip as Ana. Still, by midnight we’ve finished our margaritas and fajitas and seen bigger, sparklier versions of seven of the top Mexican divas from the past two decades.
We’re ready to call it a night, but the drag queens are just getting started—they’ll perform one or two more times at different bars and clubs before their night ends around dawn, just to wake up the next day and do it all over again.
“Sometimes I’m tired, but I love it,” says Andrews. “I love to perform.”