From shy boy to reigning queen
In 1958, a 17-year-old man – boy, really – plucked up his courage, sneaked out of the house and drove to Chicago with some friends to the Trianon Ballroom. There, he put on an evening gown and stepped into a new world, a world of fashion and makeup and fabulous people and a life that would lead him to embrace both his homosexuality and to open Fort Wayne’s first openly gay bar and to become Tula, a drag queen who has taken so many others under her wing and set them free. Follow this amazing story as we play 20 Questions with Charles Miller, aka Tula.
1. What was it like, the first time you performed in drag?
I was scared to death! There were so many people there! But on the other hand, I knew I wanted to be on the stage.
2. When was the first time you dressed in drag?
In kindergarten! It was a (play), and the girl who was supposed to be the queen was sick so I got to be the queen. My teacher, Mrs. Irwin, she put lipstick on me and two dots of red on my cheeks, and I had a cape she’d dotted with black to look like ermine. You have to understand, I had a lot of feminine features, my hands and my eyes, and everybody called me a sissy, of course.
3. Why female impersonation?
The illusion of turning a male body into a very female body. I love to see old-fashioned drag. It really is an illusion, and they work hard to be convincing.
4. When you first realized you were gay, what were your thoughts?
Today people don’t realize the extent of the bullying back then. I had eggs thrown at me when I was playing at Lakeside Park. I just had a feminine air. And the bullying we took – but I was never afraid. I never backed down. I always fought back.
5. How did your family react?
My dad was absolutely wonderful. He was in World War I, and he had seen all the female impersonators on stage in Paris. My mother, she’d say “Dickie, if you’re gonna do that, please pull the curtains closed.” They just wanted me to be careful. My father died two weeks after he retired from Harvester, and I was finally able to talk my mother into coming down to Tulisa’s (the Miller-owned first openly gay bar in Fort Wayne). She felt very much a part of it. She got to know all the kids.
6. Why do you think some people are still afraid of homosexual people?
I honestly think the majority comes from the church. We’re a redneck country in reality. If we look at the world, we have to look at the politicians. They’re bullies. The teachers and the coaches, a lot of them are bullies. Still, a lot has changed, though.
7. Talk about Tula’s development.
When I got back from (the first show in) Chicago, I hid it. But I said, I’ve got to keep doing this. I started working at the Rathskeller in the late ’60-early ’70s. I was one of the best old-time strippers. I could make those tassels twirl! It was a gimmick! Tula just kept evolving. I had capes flowing, and it was a show and people loved it. Then I bought Tulisa’s, and that’s when Tula exploded. Gay life in Fort Wayne back then was about cruising the streets, and now we had a place we could go to.
8. Describe Tula’s personality.
Everybody thinks I’m mean, but I’m not mean. I’m very outspoken. My act is clean. I like to tell jokes. I’m very caring and giving. I’ve taken care of a lot of HIV patients until their deaths, and that’s given me an inner strength I hope I never lose.
9. You took care of your mom when she became ill, right?
I took care of her for the last three and a half years of her life. She died in my arms. I’ll never regret taking care of her. Oh, the lessons it taught me, the strength she had.
10. Drag and the art of female impersonation has grown more visible thanks to movies like “Priscilla, Queen of the Desert” and the TV show “RuPaul’s Drag Race.” Which one better represents the drag world?
Oh, “Priscilla,” of course. RuPaul is a bully. “Priscilla” (has) such a wonderful interpretation of gay life. It’s the whole thing.
11. The bar After Dark has given Tula and other female impersonators a home in Fort Wayne. How do you feel about it?
How fortunate I am to have Leo (Vodde) as my boss and for him to let us bring this art of female impersonation and give it a home.
12. What’s the hardest part of your transformation?
Covering the beard and the face and to pick the right (foundation) tones. In the old days, we had Max Factor, and we don’t have that anymore. And of course hiding the (male) parts!
13. What’s your best makeup tip?
Use translucent powder over everything. You do it to set (your makeup) and make it beautiful. Use Vaseline on your lips and eyelashes if you don’t have mascara.
14. If you had one super power, what would it be and why?
I’d love to be able to sprinkle fairy dust and make everybody happy, just to have a calm come over everybody.
15. What can’t you live without?
Candy. See’s Chocolates.
16. You’ve been involved in fundraising and caring for people living with AIDS. What drives you to volunteer?
The drive comes from my mother. She was my hero. She wasn’t afraid to talk to anybody. She was such a giving person. That’s what taught me to help people.
17. What do you think about the gay marriage debate?
I’ve known so many people who’ve been together 45-50 years, and the only thing that troubles me is when they’ve lived together and that final bell rings and there’s such a fight with the family. I think it’s wonderful, but I don’t think it should be called marriage. I think you should be able to make an iron-clad will.
18. What does “love” mean to you?
Love isn’t a hard-on, and that’s unfortunately what happens in gay life. To me, love is friendship, and if I need to cut my little finger off for you I’d do it. Love isn’t perfect. Nothing is.
19. Have you ever had a “wardrobe malfunction”?
The worst thing that happened was I was coming out to “Don’t You Know” by Della Reese, and my upper teeth fell out! The second worst was singing “Satin Doll,” and my wig got caught in a disco ball and I was still dancing around!
20. Would you do it all again?
I think I would do it all again, and I would do it bigger!
First appeared in the February 2014 issue of Fort Wayne Monthly.