Like many drag queens, Chicago’s Tori Sass has been through it this year. It started with some bang-up success: When the South Michigan Avenue drag palace Lips Chicago made its grand opening in August 2019, Sass landed a coveted showgirl gig at the venue, whose opulent interior is a cross between upscale Victorian bordello and Mad Men-era steakhouse. In addition to Chicago, Lips owner Mark Zschiesche installed Lips in New York City, San Diego, Fort Lauderdale, and Atlanta. Chicago’s is the third to reopen post-COVID, after Florida and Georgia.
Back in the Beforetimes, Sass made bank at Lips, turning heads with her combination of atelier-worthy sewing skills and dead-on celebrity impersonations. But there were bumps in the road for Zschiesche’s latest Lips. Within five months, the Motor Row venue has endured two break-ins and a fire that burned the next-door dry cleaners to the ground. Within six months, COVID-19 accomplished what the fire and the break-ins had not: Lips shut down.
“I’m not going to lie,” Sass said, “The break-ins. The fire. COVID. Months trying to get through to unemployment. The depression is real. And it’s been tough.”
Lips reopens Thursday, September 24 with one of its signature shows, “Dinner with the Divas.” The queens tend their tables until the 60-minute show begins at 7 PM. Sass, Buffalo Grove native Angel LeBare, and a select few of the roughly 20 queens that regularly work the club are whipping out the duct tape, strapping on their heels, beating their mugs, and hoping the venue will be able to survive.
That survival is predicated on whether patrons will return, assured of their safety by Zschiesche's assurance that the club is “in total compliance” with Illinois’s list of mandatory health precautions for Phase IV reopening of indoor restaurants.
Per those precautions, Lips will be reopening at 25 percent capacity, or a maximum of 50 patrons in the audience. On any given night, staff and freelancers in the venue will include four queens, three kitchen workers, a host, and a general manager, Zschiesche said. Also, he explained, nobody goes to work until they’ve tested negative for COVID-19. The tables will be six feet apart.
The show itself will be markedly different than it was in the freewheeling days of 2019. As Sass put it: “It sucks we can’t leave the stage for our [lip-synch] numbers, but that’s what we have to do so we’ll make it work.” That’s not the only restriction on queen-audience interactions.
Lips’s Beforetimes performance aesthetic could be a manual of what not to do if you want to avoid COVID. Lips, like most drag shows, has long been rooted in audacious audience interaction. Queens sashayed among the cabaret tables, delivering plates of cheeseburgers or penne vodka and glow-in-the-dark shots to giddy bachelorettes and birthday girls. Sometimes they’d plunk down in your lap. Sometimes they’d whisper in your ear, throwing shade with bull's-eye precision, often at the other girls.
If it was your birthday or anniversary at Lips, you’d get invited on the stage for what Zschiesche describes as “a moment of fame.” Now? All touching is off the table. As they work the room, queens will be masked and in gloves.
Then, of course, there’s the flying saliva involved with lip-synching, when self-styled Britneys and Pinks and Chers subvert the gender binary by making it abundantly clear that gender is as performative as it is determinative.
In COVID’s world, there’s no lip-synching except on the stage, delivered by queens in face shields. Tips won’t be tucked into bedazzled décolletages or bespoke bikini bottoms. Instead, there will be buckets on the tables. The queens’ Cash App handles will be available as well. Offstage, dressing rooms have been redone with plexiglass panels between stations, Zschiesche said. The cabaret tables are six feet apart.
Audiences won’t be let in if they aren’t masked. And while you can remove said mask while you’re eating or drinking, it must go back on if you leave your table.
Zschiesche has learned a few things about enforcement from reopening Lips in Atlanta and Georgia.
“We did get some pushback. Some guests didn’t want to wear a mask. But we’re aggressive about enforcing it. You get up to go to the bathroom without a mask, someone is going to stop you and say ‘Oh darling, you have to put that on.’ And we’ll give you one right there if you don’t have one. I hate becoming a policeman in the sense of enforcing this, but you have to. It’s a safety issue,” he said.
COVID-19 is also, obviously, a financial issue. In February, Zschiesche began tracking the virus’s spread. “I could see this coming. I told all the queens—stop spending money if you can. Save. This is going to be difficult.”
LeBare can verify that. Before the shutdown, she bought a house in Des Plaines with her husband. On an average night, she said she brought in $50-$100 in tips.
“My biggest worry about going back to work is not going back to work, because I cannot keep my house if I cannot work. I’ve been living off my savings and using my credit card. I’ve sold some of my costumes,” LeBare said. “I’m still panicking to be honest. When the shutdown happened, it wasn’t just Lips. I lost all my Pride Month gigs. I had something every weekend in June. It was devastating.”
Sass initially thought the shutdown would be a matter of weeks.
“I was like, OK, cool, I’ll finally be able to get some rest. I’d been doing so much—painting and helping set up the set and working on the costumes, and rehearsing—I was actually glad because I was like I could breathe for a minute. And then the depression set in.” Sass combatted that toxic malaise with hard-core, white-knuckle ferocity. “I quit smoking. I started running,” she said. “The other day I got so angry about something I couldn’t shake. So I ran for four miles. Then I felt better.
“The important thing to do is find things that give you joy. That’s my survival mechanism right now. There is so much uncertainty and fear—you just have to find something you love or that brings you joy and do it,” Sass said.
Both queens say they are satisfied with the “laundry list” of precautions Lips is taking, even though the inescapable uncertainty of the situation unnerves them.
“Will we get 25 percent capacity—which is about 50 people? Or will we get five people? Nobody knows,” LeBare said.
That’s weighing on Zschiesche as well. “For now, all the proceeds from the reopening will go directly to the performers," Zschiesche said. “We’re hoping it’s safe enough that they raise the limit to 50 percent capacity before too long. I think we can hang on at 25 for a month or two.”
In the meantime, Sass is ready to get to work.
“We’re doing what the state requires for reopening an indoor dining facility, and I feel safe with the way Lips is handling it. I also understand that everyone needs to make decisions that are right for them. I hope we’re able to bring some joy to people, if just for an hour. In 2020, I think most of us could use that.” v
Lips reopens with “Dinner with the Divas” at 6 PM Thursday, Sept. 24 at 2229 S. Michigan Ave. Tickets for dinner and show start at $40. For more information go to lipschicago.com.