TAMPA -- Anthony Jerome Lee, fatally shot Tuesday in East Tampa, was better known in Miami Beach as “Wanda,” a balloon-breasted drag queen famous for her Whitney Houston impersonations and penchant for being, well, a bit of a jerk.
She was big on South Beach in the ’90s, and not just because she was a lanky 6-foot-6. She had a regular Sunday performance at the now-closed club Amnesia, and the crowd loved her show-stopping entrances, like the time she wore a dress made of tampons and then jumped into a pool.
Wanda’s “bad girl” reputation got her banned from many clubs, but she made it just fine, traveling the nation by bus and train, her long-sleeved, high-necked gowns neatly packed in dress bags.
Recently, though, Tampa was home. That’s where Wanda, 44, was Tuesday night — cooking dinner for a friend — when she heard a knock on the door.
Wanda opened it, and was shot to death. Police have not named any suspects. She may have been an unintended victim, Fox 13 news in Tampa reported.
On Wednesday, shocked friends mourned a diva who may have had a prickly personality but was loyal to her friends.
“Wanda can be a certified b---- with a capital B,” said her longtime friend Henry Williams, a k a South Beach drag queen Tiffany Fantasia. “She was one of those people who could give you no fakeness, no phoniness. You got the real deal how she felt. She was a tough cookie, but once you got to know her, you fell in love with her.”
Williams described Wanda as “a mentor, an inspiration.”
“Her performances were awesome. Those that truly knew her, knew she was a real person. You didn’t get phony crap.”
Williams described Wanda as “the only person I know banned from practically every club in South Beach and coming back like nothing had happened. . . .
“She would always get into a fight. I remember one time she was at Twist. I don’t remember the details, but it involved a Bud Light and a bottle going over somebody’s head. Security walked her out. The next thing, security was on the floor and she got up and walked away, her wig in her hand.”
What made Wanda so good on stage was her comedy, said Kurt King, owner of the Hamburger Mary’s in the historic Ybor City district of Tampa, where Wanda would host a talent night on Thursdays.
She would lip synch Whitney Houston and put white powder on her nose, pretending to have recently snorted cocaine. “Cute stuff like that,” King said.
She loved designer purses and kept the receipts to prove they weren’t fake.
Yet friends say Wanda, a rolling stone, never had a place of her own. She traveled so much and stayed with godmothers, godsisters, godbrothers. (“She had more god in her family than family,” said friend Dale Wilson.)
Wilson, better known as Power Infiniti, remembers his first encounter with Wanda 17 years ago.
Wilson was new to the drag scene and was walking home down Washington Avenue on South Beach when he passed Wanda, who was out of drag at that point.
Wanda started laughing — just laughing — at Wilson.
“She thought I looked a mess,” Wilson recalled. “And, yeah, I had just started, so I probably did look a hot mess. But when a drag queen starts out, you can’t tell her she doesn’t look fabulous.”
But as Wilson got to know Wanda more, their sharp-tongued personalities somehow meshed. They became close friends.
Wanda grew up in East Tampa and over the years racked up a bit of an arrest record in Florida, mainly for writing bad checks, though she was also charged with aggravated assault in 1993.
And though she had achieved fame in South Beach, she always seemed to return to her hometown, where she had friends and family. She could often be found hanging out at the Wilson Funeral Home, where she used to work but now simply helped.
There, she dressed as Anthony, referred to as a male and known by the nickname “Foots,” likely because he had large feet.
He was just there a couple of hours before his death, said funeral home manager and friend Wayne L. Bright.
“He was just hanging around, joking,” Bright said. “I told him he missed his calling. He should have been a standup comedian he was so funny.”
Funeral arrangements are still in the works, though Bright said he assumes Wilson will handle it. Hamburger Mary’s is organizing a fundraiser to pay for funeral costs. It will be held June 6, talent night.
Miami Herald staff writer Steve Rothaus and Tampa Bay Times news researcher John Martin contributed to this report.