Debbie Delicious does royalty
The campy camaraderie of Chico’s Imperial Sovereign Court of cross-dressing
Amid a sea of tiaras, the new empress knelt before the reigning monarchy, head bowed in respect and anticipation as she was draped in the robes of her new station and a crown was affixed to her head. She was handed the glittering scepter announcing her new reign and walked the runway to applause from dignitaries representing courts from as far away as San Francisco, Las Vegas and Salt Lake City.
This passing of power was the final act in an evening filled with rituals of honor and celebration. One after another, visiting royalty—many decked in tuxedos, gowns and mile-high hair—took to the stage, bearing gifts and bidding adieu to the passing monarchy.
The new empress’s name was Debbie Delicious, which should clue you in that this was no ordinary coronation. Yes, it was held in Chico—on Jan. 24 at the Park Tower Pavilion, actually—but Debbie Delicious is actually a man, though it was difficult to tell with the series of stunning gowns, beautifully styled wigs and dramatic make-up she covered herself with throughout the festivities. She will reign for one year over a five-county district in the Northstate as the newest elected emissary of Chico’s 16-year-old Imperial Sovereign Court of the Czaristic Dynasty.
Never heard of it? That’s because it’s one of Chico’s best-kept secrets.
In fact, the Chico court is just one of 64 similar groups ranging throughout the United States and into Canada and Mexico. Their history spans nearly 40 colorful years, back to 1965, when the infamous Widow Norton (Jose Sarria, who in 1961 was the first openly gay man to run for public office) founded the International Court system and became San Francisco’s Empress One. Membership is surprisingly diverse, from men and women in the gay community and transsexuals to heterosexuals, including some who like to cross-dress and some who don’t.
The courts are all nonprofit organizations whose primary purpose is to get together and have fun parties while raising money for charity. While the fund-raisers are heavy on camp, they are just as rich in camaraderie, and the sparkling, humorous tone of these events ("Rosemary’s Baby Shower,” “Emperor’s Erotic Birthday Ball,” etc.) may mask the fact that the I.S.C.C.D., and her sister courts, donate all proceeds above costs and raise considerable funds that support local service groups.
Some of the local charities that benefitted from last year’s events include the Esplanade House, a burial-assistance fund, scholarships for gay high school students, and CHP Plus—which provides Christmas gifts for local kids with HIV.
The court has maintained such a low-key profile that I was lucky to meet “Jim” (who asked not to have his real name revealed), a.k.a. Debbie Delicious, who along with two others was actively campaigning for the title of Empress 13 of the I.S.C.C.D. It was he who invited me to attend the annual events surrounding the selection of new royalty.
I learned it was OK to photograph the members, and I was free to use their stage names, but mentioning real names was by permission only. As Jim said, “It’s a matter of discretion.”
Though perhaps not much of an issue for out-of-town guests, for locals it can be a different matter. Court identities and behaviors may be at odds with daily lives. There are jobs and families to consider and the fact that this kind of event can stir local hostilities. Bob M., long-time member of the court and I.S.C.C.D. work-horse, casually mentioned they’d been receiving “hate calls.” Though he didn’t seem too concerned, that could explain why there was some reticence to allow extensive coverage of these events. Plus, there has been confusion between the court and journalists in the past. “Some people just don’t understand camp,” Bob said.
Despite his cautiousness, Jim is open, friendly and eager to get the word out about the I.S.C.C.D. His story is a bit unusual, even for this eclectic group. An attractive, married man in his 50s, with three adult children, he’s an active sportsman who enjoys such ordinary manly activities as golf, hunting, and camping as well as the more unusual hobby of performing as a female impersonator.
The I.S.C.C.D.'s celebration consisted of four events held over two weekends. The first was “election night,” or the “In Town Show,” in which the contestants and other local performers provided the entertainment.
From the beginning, on “election night,” Jim was gone, replaced by Debbie Delicious, who was out to win over the voters. Like all court events, this one had a theme, “A Trailer Trash Affair,” and Debbie’s act was a trailer trash delight. Dressed as a frowsy housewife in unkempt curlers, a very stuffed hot pink maternity blouse and a stream of toilet paper stuck to her shoe, she lip-synced to the country hit “It’s a Little Too Late to do the Right Thing Now.”
The night’s theme was honored with a trashy buffet of chips, dips and bologna and cheese sandwiches. The stage was festooned with a resin chicken, a line of laundry, a TV tray, a tire and a curtain made of black garbage bags. Pink flamingos and vinyl tablecloths adorned the tables. And there were raffles—including one for a drag queen cake with a Barbie doll stuck in the middle.
There was a very diverse crowd—reportedly the biggest gathering they’d ever had for an “In Town Show"—with an abundance of stately queens in terrifyingly tall shoes. Mixed in with the beautifully dressed people whose gender was sometimes difficult to determine were many regular looking folks who looked like they’d just taken a wrong turn on their way to the 7-Eleven.
With plenty of posturing, dancing and staged flirtation lip-synced to pre-recorded music, most of the entertainment was nothing to write home about, but besides Ms. Delicious, a few stars did emerge. Most notable were reigning Empress Cherry Rapture, exhibiting genuine on-stage sizzle; Kat, a woman impersonating Frank Sinatra to one of his hit tunes; and Alexandra, performing for the first time in drag and mostly just looking stunning in a long, black dress and a gypsy headscarf.
Tipping is standard practice; each performer was met with a line of appreciative spectators offering tips for her efforts or raw courage. There was an unmistakable sense of community. These people were having fun.
The next weekend Debbie Delicious was crowned empress in a three-day series of events that began with the “Out of Town Show” on Friday, the Coronation the following evening and Sunday’s “Victory Brunch” and “Tradition of the Flowers” (where the court visits the grave of the Chico court founder) which brought the weekend’s events to a close.
The “Out of Town Show” was where the Chico court welcomed dignitaries from courts throughout the West. Sponsored by what was referred to as the I.S.C.C.D.'s “All American Cherry Pie Court,” the event’s theme was red, white and blue, with stars and flag motifs in abundance. Several hundred people were there, and unlike the “In Town Show,” performances were by invitation only. With names like Mercedes Benz-Over (who looked an awful lot like Tina Turner) and The Leather Empress Snatch, the performers were not so much regal as outrageous.
Ranging from fun and trashy country to show tunes to standard drag, there was a lot of talent on hand—the most spellbinding performer being the reigning monarch from San Francisco. A gorgeous creature, she took the stage in a studded black-leather body suit, fish-net hose and elevated, red-vinyl, thigh-high boots. This may have been Oz, but she was no Dorothy—revealing herself instead to be a bald man with a figure the envy of any Las Vegas showgirl. The Leather Empress Snatch strutted, postured, ripped off her black wig, leaped and repeatedly slammed those red boots into the runway in a manner both thrilling and more than a little intimidating.
The official coronation the following night, titled “A Night at Cherry’s Pleasure Prison Palace,” found the Park Pavilion stage decorated with a prison theme. The “thrones” were silver-painted toilets bejeweled with glass gems, and the exiting royalty—Chico’s Emperor 12, David Green, and Empress “Cherry Rapture"—were dressed in prison stripes.
Since there were no contestants for an emperor to go with the empress, one was appointed. Bruce Harmon, president of the I.S.C.C.D. board and past emperor of the Salt Lake City court, joins Debbie Delicious for her year of reigning.
There is more responsibility than privilege associated with these titles. The main function of elected monarchs is to lead local fund-raising efforts by hosting a series of events. It is also their courtly duty to attend the events of sister courts in other regions. The dignitaries are expected to foot the bill for these expenses themselves, and it can be costly. It is not uncommon for reigning royalty to spend 10 to 20 thousand dollars during their terms.
I recently met with Debbie Delicious and outgoing Empress Cherry Rapture as their day-to-day alter egos Jim and “Adam” at Denny’s. They were busy planning upcoming events, including “Mitzi’s Big Hair Ball” on March 20 at the Subud Hall and “Closet Ball 2004,” featuring first-time drag performances by men and women, on April 10 at the Chico Women’s Center.
A few days previous, at a ceremony called the Investitures, the new monarchs appointed their staffs—an imperial crown prince and princess, duke and duchess, lords and ladies. With so much duty placed upon him, Jim was already encountering some struggles.
“Every single day I’ve found out [new] stuff—it’s a learning experience,” Jim said.
Adam spoke about his beginnings with the court. Admittedly shy in the early days, he experienced a transformation he attributes to the adoption of the Cherry Rapture alter-ego. As Cherry he was awarded queen status at his first “Closet Ball,” and he holds multiple titles in several courts. He even previously served as emperor 10 for the Chico I.S.C.C.D. during the reign of Empress Kat.
Adam is proud of his accomplishments and those of the entire I.S.C.C.D. “There is a rumor that the money we collect goes to buy crowns and gowns,” he says. “It’s not true.”
As the Chico court’s newly crowned empress 13, Jim feels a sense of mission to help diffuse such impressions by expanding both public awareness of the group’s charitable contributions and local membership.
OK, now the secret’s out. Sounds like fun, doesn’t it?