South Beach on Heels: Behind the Scenes With Palace Bar's Drag Queens
South Beach is synonymous with neon signs and having a rich, vibrant nightlife. Part of that nightlife includes dancing in the middle of the street, strutting on the sidewalk, and even climbing atop double-decker tour busses - it does, at least, for the remarkable drag queens who perform at the Palace bar. But the dazzling performances are only one part of who these drag queens really are.
All photos courtesy of Dmitry Zhitov
Enter curious outsider and filmmaker Dmitry Zhitov, who wants to take you deep inside the real world of drag. Underneath the makeup, the wigs, the dresses, and the heels, there is a real person - and that is what Zhitov aims to expose in his documentary film South Beach on Heels.
Originally from Siberia, Zhitov moved to Miami six years ago. After working as a yoga instructor and personal trainer, he went to broadcasting school to pursue his dream of becoming a filmmaker. Though he enjoys being both in front of and behind the camera, Zhitov chose to point the lens at some very fascinating people for his first ever film.
Zhitov never before thought about filming a documentary about drag queens, but as he started watching shows like RuPaul's Drag Race or documentaries that featured drag queens, he became interested in understanding why people did drag. Realizing that what he saw was just a surface-level depiction of a very vivacious community, he wanted to go deeper and really discover the why.
"They showed the people doing makeup in front of the mirror, and how they put on the shows and all that, but they didn't go deeper," says Zhitov.
So why do people do drag? What is underneath the makeup and flashy outfits? What do they feel when they perform? What happens when they go home and take off the makeup and the wigs? Who are the men behind the mask? What is their family life like? How's dating? Questions like these and many more are what propelled Zhitov in his journey to create South Beach on Heels. What he discovered, he says, is that "there are real men behind the makeup. When they take everything off, they're real, genuine nice guys."
Dmitry filming life behind the scenes
South Beach on Heels follows various drag queens from Miami, and a few from out of state, during all parts of their day. Zhitov films them performing in the streets and sidewalks outside of the Palace bar; he follows them backstage to their dressing rooms; he goes home with them and talks to their families and partners; and some days he even goes to work with them at their day jobs.
Zhitov even snagged Elaine Lancaster, one of South Florida's most famous drag queens, for the documentary. You might know Elaine (the oh-so-fabulous alter personality of James Davis) as one of the divas in The Real Housewives of Miami. Lancaster has been described countless times as South Beach's most famous drag queen -- a title she earned, she says, by working her "butt off to get to the top and even harder to stay there" - so she's certainly a great asset to the film.
But she wasn't an easy one to get. The two had a common friend, and despite reaching out many times, she was too busy to meet with him. That is, until she finally saw one of his trailers and knew she wanted to be a part of it. Of course, this is Zhitov's explanation of how it happened; Lancaster, on the other hand, has a different take on it.
Elaine recalls how Zhitov called her up and told her about his project. She was busy filming RHOM, "but he refused to give up on me." Eventually, she called up their common friend, Kitty Meow, and told her she was ready to meet Zhitov. "He came over with camera in hand," she says. "I could see his passion and enthusiasm. I knew he was fully invested in this project and had a deep commitment to it, so that made me trust him and his vision."