LGBTQ South Florida

Elaine Lancaster, other LGBT luminaries to receive Harvey Milk Diversity Honors awards

Elaine Lancaster judges the 2015 Miss Miami Beach Gay Pride contest, flanked by Miami Beach Gay Pride Executive Director Ivan Cano and photographer Dale Stine.
Elaine Lancaster judges the 2015 Miss Miami Beach Gay Pride contest, flanked by Miami Beach Gay Pride Executive Director Ivan Cano and photographer Dale Stine. Miami Herald File

On stage, blond and bombastic Elaine Lancaster is always a lady. Off stage, not so much.

“It’s akin to someone going to Disney World and putting on a Mickey Mouse or Minnie Mouse costume. That’s their character,” says James Davis, the man behind the woman known as Elaine Lancaster. “Lots of professions require uniforms when you work: police officers, firemen, waitresses. Elaine Lancaster is my uniform.”

For nearly two decades, Davis has donned the Elaine drag and entertained at LGBT and non-gay galas throughout South Florida, including White Party, Miami Beach Gay Pride and The Blacks’ Annual Gala (co-hosted by good friend Lea Black, with whom he co-starred on Bravo’s Real Housewives of Miami).

Saturday night, Davis will receive an inaugural Diversity Honors award from the Harvey Milk Foundation and the Pride Center in Wilton Manors, at a dinner to be held at the Seminole Hard Rock Hotel & Casino near Hollywood. Other honorees: Judy Shepard (mother of Matthew); transgender teen Jazz Jennings; recording artist Deborah Cox; Palm Beach County Human Rights Council President and founder Rand Hoch; Lillian Tamayo, CEO of Planned Parenthood of South Florida; Miami-Dade Circuit Court Judge William Thomas; and Fort Lauderdale Commissioner Dean Trantalis.

“We were looking for people who are constantly giving back to the community or people who are tremendously authentic. James is both categories. He brings forth, with glitz and glamor, authenticity. And he brings forth, with glitz and glamor, giving back to the community,” says Stuart Milk of Fort Lauderdale, president of the national Harvey Milk Foundation and nephew of the slain San Francisco supervisor.

Davis, who in March became celebrity liaison for Multimedia Platforms, a global LGBT publishing company based in Broward County, jokingly refers to himself as “just a simple woman of simple means.”

“I was born in Alabama, raised in Georgia, educated in South Carolina and Kansas. And I’ve been reared all around the world,” he says. “My father was in the farm machinery business. We salute the American farmer. In Central Florida, we lived on a farm for a while, in Plant City. We had a horse farm and chickens and pigs, cows. How do you think I became so self-reliant?”

His grandparents were deaf and he learned magic tricks and ventriloquism to entertain them. “I took on the art of illusion,” he says. “Visual illusion, not drag illusion.”

The first time he dressed in drag: “When I could reach the doorknob of my mother’s closet.”

“I played dress up for a party my parents had. Unbeknownst to them, I come sauntering down the staircase in one of my mother’s evening gowns, a wig she had and my grandmother’s screw-in rhinestone earrings. With red lipstick. I was extremely glamorous,” Davis says. “Everybody oohed and aahed and told me how beautiful I was. About five minutes later, my father said, ‘OK son, go on back upstairs and take that off. With a smile on his face.

“The next day I said, ‘Wasn’t I pretty?’ He said, ‘Yes, you were pretty.’ At the moment, I enjoyed the attention. I was always an attention seeker, obviously. It stemmed from my desire to want to make my grandmother smile.”

After high school, it took Davis about 10 years to finish college. He graduated in 1991 with a business degree from University of Kansas. In between, he learned the art of drag from stars of the day in the Midwest and Key West, where he was crowned Miss Copa in 1985. His age at the time: “I don’t recall. You can say I was 20.”

After a stint fashion modeling in Europe in the mid 1990s, the six-foot two-inch Davis says he moved to South Beach to work for Gianni Versace. He arrived about 1 a.m. July 15, 1997. A few hours later, the famed designer was slain outside his mansion on Ocean Drive.

“I moved here the day he died,” Davis says. “My friends told me they were having a memorial party the following Wednesday at Warsaw Ballroom. I thought what better way to honor his memory than to get into high drag and go celebrating. ... I walked into the lobby at Warsaw Ballroom and met the general manger, Maxwell Blandford. ‘I’m Elaine Lancaster and I’m new in town.’ He offered me a job on the spot as the emcee Wednesday nights of the amateur strip contest. I made a lot of friends, but I made a lot of enemies. The drag queens all hated me from that moment on. I had taken a job they all thought they were entitled to.”

Davis says he’s lived frugally for years and now owns a four-unit apartment building in Miami’s Upper East Side. He rents out two apartments and lives in the top floor, sharing two connected units. “I have a door that opens to a little hallway. Then you open another door to Elaine’s world. Everything that pertains to Elaine Lancaster is on the other side. I don’t like to look at wigs in the daytime.”

If you go

The first Diversity Honors, co-presented by the Harvey Milk Foundation and The Pride Center at Equality Park, will be hosted by the Seminole Hard Rock Hotel & Casino near Hollywood from 6 to 10 p.m. Saturday.

Inaugural honorees: Judy Shepard, founder of the Matthew Shepard Foundation; recording artist Deborah Cox; Palm Beach County Human Rights Council President and founder Rand Hoch; Jazz Jennings, the transgender teen who’s about to launch her own TV reality show; entertainer Elaine Lancaster (James Davis); Lillian Tamayo, CEO of Planned Parenthood of South Florida; Miami-Dade Circuit Court Judge William Thomas; and Fort Lauderdale Commissioner Dean Trantalis.

WSVN news anchor Craig Stevens will host the event. Tickets are $150 each and can be purchased at www.diversityhonors.com.

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