SAN DIEGO, California -- The neon kiss that lights up historic El Cajon Boulevard at night is a monument to a drag entertainment institution that is 15 years in the making. Lips San Diego has an affectionate presence on the outside and the inside, and that is what makes its history and creation so important.
Lips, which also has locations in New York, Fort Lauderdale and Atlanta, is not only an essential destination for San Diego drag entertainment, but its existence has improved the quality of life in North Park and the lives of the people who work there.
In 1999, Lips moved into its first location, the old IBM building on Fifth Avenue. The building, now home to Croce’s Park West, would become the genesis of a San Diego staple: a drag show with New York character and San Diego appeal.
Under the tutelage of Lips owner and founder Yvonne Lame, the mononymously known Tootie helped to create an enchanted distraction for not only the gay community, but for the straight one as well.
Mitch Albert is the managing partner and Glen Wise is the general manager, but Tootie is a spokeswoman for the showplace.
In the late 1990s, San Diego was just finding its own character as a metropolis. With only a few skyscrapers and hotels to outline the cityscape, the urban gay nightlife was trying hard to find its own way and establish the identity it is known for today.
When Lips decided to extend its New York show to San Diego in 1999, several of its drag performers flew to the West Coast to help out. Tootie says it wasn’t long before they noticed that the busy, active nightlife of the Big Apple was missing from the streets of America’s Finest City. They screamed, “‘It’s 8 o’clock and the roads are bare! There’s nobody out!”
“Fifteen years ago,” Tootie said, “San Diego was still a very small town, so we were a small town playing dress-up.”
And dress up they did. With Lame and Tootie both having plenty of experience, they began to bond. They would discover not only their life-experience similarities, but what the essence of Lips San Diego would eventually become.
“She saw something in me that she liked,” Tootie said, “and so I said, awesome let’s do this. So we started working together and I learned so much. The first thing we did together was prior to opening 15 years ago, we did an interview for NPR radio. I found out through that we had very similar experiences coming of age. And so it was reassuring to be working with somebody like that and as glamourous and as beautiful as she is y’know.”
Transforming a building into a showplace
But their new franchise location on Fifth Avenue was not so glamorous. Inside, the building was daunting to a performer as several architectural obstacles obscured the stage, making it difficult for some guests to see the performances.
“Our location on Fifth Avenue was sort of a hand-me-down location,” Tootie said. “We took over from WD’s. They were more of a dinner house, which incidentally I started the drag show there at WD’s. I knew that room very well when we moved in. Except there were levels and barriers.”
For seven years, Lips San Diego occupied the Fifth Avenue building. Their success was based on the inspiration of its founder, and Tootie said that Yvonne wanted to bring even more of that New York City enthusiasm to San Diego and eventually to more places.
“I think the original inspiration In New York City was that there was a budding nightlife and drag queens gone wild basically, and Yvonne took over a club, a restaurant once a week and that’s how it sort of grew from there.”
Moving to The Boulevard
Lips did grow, and eventually it was time for a big change. They would close the Fifth Avenue site and transform a Chinese buffet on El Cajon Boulevard into a smorgasbord of drag queens, food, music and fun. The signature neon Lips sign found a new neighborhood to kiss, but like its previous location, the setting was far from perfect.
The building has had a long life on El Cajon Boulevard, and Tootie recalled its history: “This was originally the Carnation Ice Cream Parlor back in the early ‘50s to I think early ‘60s, and then it was a Bob’s Big Boy and then it was a Sizzler and then we bought it from a Chinese buffet.”
With designer Brenda Starr by her side, Tootie began to design the inside of Lips to accommodate the drag performers, the dining patrons and the ambiance of the venue.
“With this place, I got to design more like a showroom, and everybody has a great view in here,” Tootie said. “You can sit up on our Lips couches, which are a take-off of a Marilyn Monroe couch that was done by Dali, and I just knocked that off. We put more glitter in here than you can shake a stick at. We had a lot of fun.”
The showroom has a theater layout with a stage up front and a bar to the rear. A Phantom-like chandelier hangs over the dining room like a scene from “Beauty And The Beast.” With splashes of color, gold ornamented statutes, and legs with decorated high-heeled shoes dangling from the showroom eaves, Lips establishes its flair for the outrageous as soon as one enters the pious palace.
Helping to change the neighborhood
With the stage newly set and ready for an audience, there was still one thing that needed to be done: changing the atmosphere of the defiled El Cajon Boulevard. Tootie became involved with altering the community, eventually joined the Board of Business Improvement and becoming its secretary. She now challenges people to find a hooker on The Boulevard, and is working with developers to add other reputable businesses to the grid.
“Lots going on,” Tootie said. “Sonic is moving in a block and a half down the street here, so we’ll have to start our own car service. You get two lines of a song and ‘What’s your order?’”
One big family
Now with the homestead in place, and the venue in full swing, the San Diego drag community had a place to call home. And like most homes, inside there are families with needs of their own.
“We are a family and drag is very familial like that,” Tootie said. “Y’know we all take care of each other we all share our experiences from years and years of doing it, and it’s sort of passed down make-up tips and hair tips and song choices and all that kind of stuff is passed down from generation to generation.”
It is that family atmosphere that gives Lips its 15 years of success. With various shows running from Tuesday through Saturday and the biggest show — a gospel-inspired revival and brunch -- happening on Sundays, Lips continues to celebrate birthdays, bachelorette parties and drag enthusiasts alike.
It also seems that the clientele keep coming back to Lips because the atmosphere is one where everyone can be themselves and take a little time to enjoy what makes them unique. When asked, Tootie reiterated that sentiment about why people come to Lips.
“That’s easy. Fun. It’s that fun and humor that breaks through all these barriers and preconceived ideas about what we do.”
Disco Dolly, a drag queen performer and an eight-year veteran, said it is important to be true to yourself and never forget who you are, but also to have fun at the same time.
“This is a place where you can come and you can do drag, and you can be who you are on the inside and project it on the outside, and just be who you are. And there is nowhere else in … really the world that I know of that you can do that as a full-time day job. There’s no other place like it in the world, and I don’t know what I would have done without Lips in my life.”
Looking to the future
As for the future of Lips, Tootie said it’s very bright.
“These girls are coming in with one foot up already because they get RuPaul in their living rooms once a week. They’ve been to see the Lips show since they were 12. A lot of times I have people come and their like, ‘I celebrated my 11th birthday here, and you said something to me like, all you needed was a wig and you could start working here, and I thought about that this whole time. I’ve had drag kings that have come to me; were an equal opportunity enjoyer.”
When asked if her future includes Lips San Diego, Tootie explained: “Right now it is. It depends where we open next. We’d like to open Los Angeles, we have an offer in Tokyo … I speak a little bit of Japanese … I’m open to whatever the future is.”
From an old building on Fifth Avenue to a revitalized neighborhood in North Park, Lips is an institution that, for 15 years, has not only improved the lives of the people around it, but it has embraced the lives of those who go within its doors.
Tootie sums up the spirit of Lips and its magic.
“It’s a jewel box sanctuary.”
Soon, that sanctuary will be enjoyed by the people of the Windy City, as Tootie reveals that a new Lips will open in Chicago.
For more information on Lips, including show themes, times and reservations you can go to their website HERE.