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Lips unsealed, new drag venue coming to Chicago
by Tony Peregrin

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The new dinner, drinks and drag concept that will be on everybody's lips next spring is Lips—a dinner-theatre "show-palace" located in the historic Motor Row district in Chicago's Near South Side. The first Lips launched 22 years ago in New York, and today there are locations in Atlanta, Fort Lauderdale and San Diego.

"Many moons ago when I was working in my glitter basement with a young friend who was a graphic designer we came up with the name Lips," said Lips co-owner and Chief Executive Queen Mark Zschiesche, also known as Yvonne Lamé. "I wanted a name that had something to do with the face because a fabulous face is what makes a drag queen. And "lips" also means love and happiness—and that's a big part of the concept behind Lips."

The Chicago location—which is set to lock lips with the Windy City in March/April 2019—will cater to celebrations of all kinds, including birthdays, bachelorette parties, marriages, divorces, retirement, graduation and more, according to co-owner Ed LaFaye.

"Lips is drag queen dinner theater," explained LaFaye. "It's a totally interactive experience. Instead of just coming in and sitting down and having dinner and drinks and then seeing a show for an hour, you're interacting with the waiters who are all in full drag on the floor." The interactive experience typically includes on-stage celebrations where guests are brought up to the stage, placed on a throne and presented with a crown or tiara.

Some members of the Chicago LGBTQ community have expressed reservations about partying alongside bachelorette parties in Boystown, which can feel invasive and disrupt the overall vibe of a night out at a gay enclave—and LaFaye readily acknowledges that perception. "If you go to Lips on a Saturday night, I would say the crowd is 90 percent straight. Twenty years ago, I think mainstream audiences didn't know what to expect when they went to a drag show. Now, people know what drag is. There are some people who don't want to be in that atmosphere and we encourage them to visit during the middle of the week. There's a little something for everybody at Lips, which is all about love and diversity, and all types of people coming together and enjoying a night out.

RuPaul's Drag Race has played a pivotal role in the mainstreaming of drag and has been a factor in Lips enduring appeal to audiences of all backgrounds, according to LaFaye. "To be honest, I think RuPaul's Drag Race has upped the game for everybody, because now people are expecting to see Drag Race-type queens when they go out. I think it's helped [the industry] dramatically."

LaFaye and Zschiesche are looking for Chicago-based talent to entertain their guests, with at least 10 shows per week.

"Lips will definitely use local queens because that's what makes Lips become a part of the Chicago community," said Zschiesche. "One of my main jobs for the Lips company is finding the best talent out there, and I think I have a pretty good eye. In fact, at least six Lips queens have appeared on RuPaul's Drag Race, including Peppermint from our New York location and Violet Chachki from Atlanta."

"When we opened Lips Atlanta five years ago we had more than 100 auditions," added Zschiesche. I think Chicago's auditions will be even more because I have already been contacted by at least 40 Queens and we have not even run one ad about the auditions." Zschiesche said he is not only looking to cast "current stars in Chicago," but the queens who will be "the fabulous stars of tomorrow."

The show's hosts are always the most challenging to cast and hire, revealed Zschiesche, because they require comedic skills that can "carry the room."

Not only do all four existing Lips locations share a commitment to hiring top-quality entertainers, they all boast a similar look and vibe. "We have jewel tones; we have pink, purple and blue and colors that most people might not think go together," said LaFaye. "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."

Unique to the Chicago location are the bones of the building, which in a previous life, housed a Ford dealership with 25-foot tin ceilings. "Because the dealership kept automobiles on all of the upper floors of this building, it was reinforced with humongous steel beams across the ceiling. These beams allow us to have a big show room theater setting with no columns or anything else that will interfere with guests viewing the stage and the show," said LaFaye.

Existing Chicago venues, including Kit Kat Club and The Baton, feature a similar style of entertainment. Is the Chicago market large enough to support another show-bar?

"I think there is room for everyone," said LaFaye. "There are several clubs in New York and everybody's got more than enough business. 22 years later and there's several other big outlets there, but we're still doing record business pretty much in all of our locations."

As for getting LGBTQ audiences to venture out of Boystown or Andersonville and to the Near South Side, LaFaye doesn't think it will be a problem as none of the other Lips outposts are located in traditional gayborhoods.

"There are a lot of places that are starting to open in the Near South Side," added LaFaye. "By the time we open in March or April, there will be several other restaurants, bars and hotels in the area or opening shortly thereafter. Some people have said there is a great possibility that this area will become the next River North. The thing about Lips is that it's really a destination. You're not really getting people walking down the street saying, "Oh, this looks good. Let's go in." When you have a destination—a big party like this—people will travel to you."

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