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Power of the wig 

Once relegated to the fringes, drag has come slinking into its own in Atlanta, giving rise to a different sort of runway queen

Nicole Paige Brooks walks into a room and heads turn. Slender and brown-haired, she glides along on towering heels in a slinky red thing, unashamed of her beauty, her sex, her power. Brooks commands so much attention, in fact, that it may be lost on some -- dare say, many -- that she is actually he.

Brooks is among Atlanta's burgeoning drag glitterati. A transvestite and then some, she uses her dress-up time as means to both entertain and attain a certain celebrity status.

"I don't consider myself a good entertainer, a good dancer," says Brooks. "My talent is transformation. I'm an artist, and this is my talent."

Atlanta has its Elton and Jane sightings and its L.A. Reid excesses. But lacking the sheer glut of rich and famous found in, say, New York City or Los Angeles, some have opted for another homegrown variety of star-fucking: the drag queen as underground pop idol.

Drag has been a force in certain Atlanta circles since the late '60s, when it was relegated to the fringes in gay bars and mostly hidden from popular culture. But drag is coming into its own in Atlanta and elsewhere, transcending queer culture and finding an audience in straight men and women. With the help of Hollywood and movies like The Adventures of Priscilla Queen of the Desert and The Birdcage, drag reached a wider mainstream audience. And thanks to the reign of former Atlantan RuPaul, with her numerous appearances on MTV, the big screen and eventually her own VH1 talk show, seeing a nearly 7-foot-tall man in a thong isn't so unusual anymore.

As drag's saucy appeal has waned in other cities, Atlanta remains a hotbed for (mostly gay) men looking to express their inner diva on stage. Granted, there's no longer any one bar dedicated solely to drag, as was the case 20 or 30 years ago. But it's possible to witness a drag performance every night of the week in Atlanta (see Sidebar, p. 49), with the largest shows happening at the infamous Charlie Brown's X-rated Cabaret at Backstreet in Midtown. The cabaret has been featured on HBO and VH1, and is viewed as the top of the heap for those aspiring drag divas looking to be the best in the business.

Brian Pryor by day, Nicole Paige Brooks emerges at night to taunt club-goers at Charlie Brown's Cabaret twice a week. But on this Monday, she's sitting among the packed tables at Dragamaki, the weekly drag show at the Midtown restaurant Nickiemoto's. Bubba D. Licious, Martina Diamante and other entertainers lip-synch, shimmy and shake in the aisles, dodging servers and palming tips as diners look on spellbound. Diamante ups the ante when she breaks out her violin and plays a solo to her song of choice. She's rumored to be a member of the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra, but that may be just another of those tidbits of gossip everyone likes to spread about her and the other girls.

Pryor never planned on Nicole Paige Brooks when he moved to Atlanta five years ago. He'd experimented with drag performance before in his hometown of Oklahoma City. But after moving to Memphis, Tenn., with his partner, he refrained from donning a dress. Seems his boyfriend didn't approve. After that relationship ended, Pryor moved to Atlanta, where he was coaxed into performing in the "Drag on the Edge" amateur night at the Metro. There, Brian found his inner Nicole.

"Nicole is a cartoon character that Brian created. She's anything I want her to be," says Pryor, talking about his alter ego as if it were a separate personality. "My close friends don't like going out with Nicole. She's loud and will cuss anyone out and get away with it."

Pryor is an illusionist -- one who uses his body as his palate. Some drag queens practice "camp drag," wearing clothes and makeup that imply an over-the-top, almost cartoonish femininity, often employing gags or grotesque jokes. But Nicole could pass for a woman -- except that her hair is a little too coifed and brittle, her makeup too thick and exotic. Then there's that telltale Adam's apple.

"I don't think I'm pretty," says Pryor. "My monologues during shows are what people remember me for."

And they do remember her. At Nickiemoto's, as Nicole tries to eat or have a conversation, she is constantly approached. Someone tells her about the time they first met. Another offers an anecdote about Nicole embarrassing an audience member. Mostly, though, they just want to touch her, to be seen next to her. Nicole graciously smiles and talks to her fans, accepting their praise and letting them know she appreciates the attention. This must be an inkling of what it's like to be a star -- the stares, the knowing smiles, the peeking at what you're eating.

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