Queen for the Night

The art of the female impersonator is one of those genres that continues to survive years of changes and fads on the Las Vegas Strip, despite their classic shtick — the often over-the-top renditions of some of the most iconic celebrities like Cher and Bette Midler and the vintage ladies, Liza Minnelli and Judy Garland. From padded shoulders and hair sprayed to the heavens, these talented impersonators recreate those bigger than life personalities for the stage and do it well — that is part and parcel to iconic shows like “An Evening at La Cage.”
Female impersonator Jimmy Emerson is a veteran of that very stage, also performing in international casts of “La Cage,” and other shows in Vegas and other places for more than 30 years.
His characters and those of his fellow performers have taken gender bending from simply a novelty act to an entertainment staple in Vegas for more years than there are brushes in their makeup kits.
In a place known for pushing boundaries with an “anything goes” and “everybody’s welcome” philosophy, female impersonators continue to claw their way to respect with their painted press-on nails in an industry that has always been a bit on the controversial side no matter what side of the fence a person may lean regarding the genre.
The fact remains, these female impersonators are really good and worth spending an evening with, whether or not you’re into feathers, falsies, frivolity and fun.
Emerson’s been making frequent trips to the Tropicana Laughlin over the last year or so with a variety of shows, however, this time he returns with his signature show, “UnBOYlievable” once again on Saturday, June 16, being performed in the Pavilion Theater.
Produced by Starr Pro Productions, headed up by Emerson, who also stars along with co-host and comedy star, Tommi Rose, the show will feature top-notch female impersonators, celebrity look-alikes and tribute artists in a show of non-stop music, dance and more.
Emerson himself is known for his outrageous characters, including the queen of country trailer trash, Tammy Spraynette. Rose performs as Mae West.
“We are very excited about coming back to Laughlin with our show at the Tropicana,” Emerson said. “This year’s theme is ‘Hooray for Hollywood’ and ‘Back to Broadway.’
“Brent Allen will perform as Bette Midler; Kenneth Rex performs as both Marilyn Monroe and Dolly Parton; Cee Cee Russell portrays Whitney Houston and Dionne Warwick.”
Tommi Rose, a.k.a. Thomas Dixon, is a veteran Palm Springs female impersonator who was crowned Queen of The Desert in 2016, hosting the longest continually running drag show for more than 16 years.
“It’s gonna be fun and it’s gonna be cool. I’ve worked on that stage and it’s a great room there at the Tropicana,” Emerson said.
“Every impersonator has three or four minutes on stage to present their characters like Bette Midler and Dolly — it’s very much a formula like we did in ‘La Cage’ for 25 years on the Strip. I’ll be co-hosting with Tommi Rose, introducing each act as they come out,” he said. “We don’t let anybody stay on stage too long. They’re on there long enough to make an impression, get a laugh, get applause, and then we’re onto the next thing. It’s a great formula that’s always worked. If there’s something on stage you don’t like, don’t get crazy ’cause there’s something else coming right up. The show is a lot of fun.”
So where did “Tammy Spraynette” come from?
“Tammy Spraynette, is a compilation of all the big-haired country music girls from the ’70s and ’80s like Tammy Wynette, Dolly Parton, and Brenda Lee,” he explained. “The higher the hair, the closer to God, that’s my motto. I buy AquaNet by the case.”
Emerson also explained the difference between female impersonation and a drag show.
“The difference between a female impersonator and a drag queen — and both terms don’t bother me — is that one means you’re working full time. That’s the female impersonator,” he said. “The drag queen means you’re still good, you know what you’re doing, but you just do it when you feel like it. You might go to a club here and there, or you book some shows. There’s not much difference between the terms.
“I get asked that question a lot,” he added. “It’s basically the same thing, man or woman, usually men dressing as women, to impersonate, in our case to impersonate a famous person, like Cher or Bette Midler, or Judy Garland, or Madonna.
“It’s all in who you are. Everybody’s different. You either want to do it and you like it, or you don’t. You can’t force somebody. If you’re an actor, first of all, and you get cast in a role where you have to cross dress, male or female, that’s part of your acting skills. Alright I’m a woman, I have to pretend to be a man and they’re going to cut my hair, I’m going to wear a suit, I’m gonna strap down my boobs, I’m gonna do whatever it takes to walk in and pretend to be a man — it’s all acting at the end of the day.
“All my life growing up, I loved theater, I loved musical comedy, I’m just that kind of a geek, I love anything Broadway, anything musical.
“For me personally, it’s something I love, It’s true to my heart, it’s what I really, really love to do,” Emerson said. “But I work with a lot of different impersonators, and everybody has a little bit different take on it. For me, it’s just fun. I’m 58 years old now, so I’m so lucky to be doing what I do and be able to book and go wherever I want.
“I’ve always said, if it ever stops being fun, I won’t do it any more. There’s been some trying times, because I’m a producer now, and I have been for years, and years, producing shows, traveling with shows, and God, it’s a lot of work. It’s tiring and it’s taxing, and it’s like, ‘God, what have I got myself into?’ When it’s all said and done, and the show’s done, and you get great reviews, you go, ‘That’s why I do it, because it is fun.’ It’s a lot of work, but as long as it pays off at the end.”
“Some people get offended by the term — I don’t care if you call me a female impersonator or a drag queen just as long as you show up at the show and enjoy what I do. That’s all I care about.
“You have to remember, back in the ’60s and early ’70s across America, a guy could not go into a club dressed as a ‘drag queen,'” Emerson explained. “He had to, by law, have on three pieces of male attire, literally. That was the law. They did arrest many people and put them in jail for trying to impersonate a woman. The term ‘drag’ comes from the Shakespeare time. When Shakespeare and other playwrights would write a play, women were not allowed to be on stage in the theater back in the olden days so men had to play women’s parts. So when it said D.R.A.G., man enters, that meant ‘dress resembling a girl.’ That’s where the term came from.”
Well, times have changed since Shakespeare waited in the wings to see how his male cast members would fare as fair maidens. Since then these guys have had a few years to perfect their take on the female form.
While impersonators often don’t take themselves seriously, they do take pride in their impersonations. They want to get it right…and by “Jimmy,” we think they’ve got it down.


The Pavilion Theater within the Tropicana

Saturday, June 16 (8 p.m.)

See “Showtimes” for tickets