Lips, billed as "the ultimate in drag dining," is locating its fifth location in Chicago. The South Loop venue, opening to the public Aug. 23, includes acts such as lip-synching, live vocals, choreographed numbers, bawdy humor and campy comedy, according to a July 24 press release.
Kinley Preston, the Chicago activist, transgender showgirl and entrepreneur, is one of the Lips Chicago performers. Originally from Nebraska, Preston has been doing drag since 2011.
"[Lips] is considered a 'drag bar,' [but] it's definitely on the more upscale side of drag," she said.
With locations in New York City, Atlanta, San Diego and Fort Lauderdale, the Lips brand has become increasingly prominent over the past two decades. "A lot of the [Lips] girls have gone into movies, or gone onto RuPaul," said Preston. "[Lips] can open so many doors."
Preston emphasized that Lips is a dinner theater and that reservations are required, explaining, "It's not just another night at the bar; it's a ticketed event. It's produced and treated just like any other show that comes to town."
Little Goat Diner's Tom J. Schmitt is the executive chef. "All of the items on the menu are named after cast members," Preston added.
Lips also has interactive elements to the shows as well. "From the hostess to the bartender, they're all queens," said Preston. "The performers are interacting with the tables, greeting them and helping take food and drink orders."
Preston had been in contact with Lips owner Yvonne Lame ( Mark Zschiesche ) since 2016, before Lame came to see her perform in March 2019. "I was performing at Hydrate one night, and [Lame] came to see me and hired me the next day," said Preston. "The visions been in the making for a while."
The July 24 press release calls Lips Chicago "the grandest location yet," mentioning eight-foot crystal chandeliers, pink leopard walls, velvet curtains and an onstage throne. In a 2018 Windy City Times article, Lips co-owner Ed LaFaye said, "The whole idea behind the Lips decor was that it should look like a drag queen's jewelry box had exploded all over the room."
Preston said she assisted designer Robert Tabar with the decor of the Chicago location, adding, "Along with [performer] Tori Sass, we helped create his visionsewing, rhinestoning, putting all the chairs and tables together. It was cool being there from the beginning, to see the transformation of it."
The Lips Chicago building was previously a Ford dealership, with reinforced steel beams on the ceiling, allowing for a big, open space to perform. All the decor was made in-house, according to Preston.
"It's like a doll house you'd see at Disney World," she said, acknowledging that the extravagant decor is gaudy, but in a luxurious, well-thought out and detailed way. "It's very grand. I've traveled all over the country, and there's very few stages that can compare to it, as far as the grandioseness of it. [The owners] put a lot of time and thought and detail into it."
Lips is different from other drag venues, according to Preston, in that the owners "care about their staff. I think that's very rare in the industrybar/club owners that give a shit about their girls," she said. "[The owners] definitely put a lot of thought and time into the girls and making sure that they're comfortable and respected, and not exploited."
Lips Chicago will be open Wednesday through Sunday, with a different theme each night. Wednesdays are "Twisted Broadway"; Thursdays are "Dinner With The Divas"; Fridays and Saturdays are "Glitz & Glam"; Sunday afternoons are "Dragalicious Gospel Brunch," hosted by performer Ruff N' Stuff; and Sunday evenings are "Showstopper Sundays," hosted by MiMi Marks.
"Thursday night's more of their illusion night, where you're gonna see Cher, Madonna, JLo, Taylor Swift," said Preston, though she thinks the gospel brunch will be an audience favorite. "It's a lot of fun. There's gospel numbers mixed in with some high energy hits that people are familiar with."
The restaurant will initially have two back-to-back shows on Fridays and Saturdays.
Along with Chicago queens, Lips also brought some performers from other locations to feature in shows here, among them Shavonna Brooks and Aria Cassadine from Atlanta, Delilah Brooks from New York City and Gemma Stone from Fort Lauderdale.
"Entertainers have been with them for upwards of 20-plus years," said Preston. "People don't leave them, and that says a lot. [It's] not just another gig."
Call 312-815-2662 or visit LipsChicago.com for more information.