THE SETTING: Lamberts Barbecue, Austin, Texas, on the eve of Valentine’s Day.
THE PLAYERS: Rebecca Havemeyer and her eccentric and absurd band of entertainers.
THE PLOT: Rebecca and her companion Stanley Roy reflect on their desire to find true love, which currently manifests itself in a Haitian meat-doll named Tracy.
THE ATMOSPHERE: Blazes, it’s just deliciously wicked, boys!
The air in Lamberts is electric as Rebecca Havemeyer, Austin’s nutty-but-loveable ‘30s-throw-back drag queen, takes the stage alongside her cohort Stanley Roy Williamson. The crowd thickens, bar patrons ducking this way and that to catch a glimpse of the bejeweled Rebecca, her bobbed, curly locks bouncing in time to the music as she and Stanley Roy break in to song.
As their final note rings out, the audience erupts with glee, and hoots and hollers spew forth from every corner of the upstairs bar. But they soon quiet, anxious to devour the next twisted and senseless declaration to escape Rebecca’s mouth. And they’re not disappointed when she introduces them to Tracy, a gruesome Frankenstein-esque “love doll” comprised of organ meats. Tracy shall be their symbol of love, the object of their affection, at least momentarily and in lieu of “the real thing.”
Guffaws ring out and the audience convulses with laughter as the show continues, a spectacle of song and dance. Rebecca’s friend Mitzi Myers, herself an enchanting and remarkably talented drag queen, appears alongside Rebecca, and the two begin to belt out an alternate version of the song made famous by Marilyn Monroe and Jane Russell in the film “Gentlemen Prefer Blondes.” Their slapstick rendition, however, does not feature glitzy rocks, but rather is a tribute to adult diapers.
“Diapers are a girl’s best friend,” they croon.
As the show continues, the crowd is treated to Mitzi’s version of “All that Jazz,” a raunchy arrangement that, unsurprisingly, is not at all about jazz but the male … climax. Later, a sentimentally ridiculous musical performance from Rebecca with optometrist Bruce Kirkland on piano nearly brings the crowd to their knees. The antics persist in this manner, with the occasional fairy-tale-like interlude featuring dance troupe Little Stolen Moments. The spectators look on with glassy-eyed amazement all the while.
Eventually, as the show comes to a close, Silky Shoemaker – another of Rebecca’s theatrical side- kicks – appears on stage in a monstrous, lumpy “meat sack,” the physical incarnation of Tracy, who has magically come alive through the bewitching power of voodoo.
“Ah, ah, ah, ah, ah …,” a haunting chuckle is all she seems to muster as, behind her, the cast of characters gathers for their curtain call.
Paul in the Big City
Paul Soileau- Rebecca Havemeyer’s alter ego- was raised in Lake Charles, La., and proudly touts his Cajun upbringing. After all, he says, it has helped define him as an individual and as an actor. With a flair for the dramatic from a young age, Soileau was destined for a life in theater, and after graduating from high school, headed to New Orleans to study drama at Loyola University.
But the idea of moving to Austin was never an option for Soileau, who instead opted to hone his acting skills in New York City. There, he spent more than seven years living and working in the East Village, taking jobs as a cocktail waiter and spending his free time attending drag shows featuring the likes of Shasta Cola, and Kiki and Herb.
“I went to New York to get my ass kicked,” Soileau says. “I wanted to be there, and you’re supposed to go to New York when you’re involved in acting. I just loved the people there. That was the biggest drug, meeting people from all over the world. New York was really like grad school for me, especially with regard to the drag education.”
During his last two years in New York, Soileau waited tables at a restaurant called Schiller’s. Though it was an easy going work environment, things could get hectic.
“In those times of high stress, the only way to get through it was to be completely idiotic,” Soileau remembers. “I’d always just turn my clown on and start coming up with weird voices. That’s when Rebecca just came out of me. She developed her voice. Once it got to be a regular thing, I named her.”
Soileau always wanted to perform as a singular and engaging character. The more he adopted the persona of Rebecca, the more he learned, and tweaked her personality.
“If people seemed to laugh, I jumped on that and just threw more at them,” he says. “I think there’s just something about Rebecca’s voice that, by itself, makes people laugh. I mean, she’s nuts!”
Who’s Afraid of Rebecca Havemeyer?
A bawdy broad for sure, Rebecca emerged from Soileau’s idea of a washed-up 1930s movie star, similar to Hollywood starlet and singer Alice Faye. What really brought the idea home for Soileau was the somewhat scandalous “little Miss Alice Faye” reference in the film “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf.” (In 1950s underground culture, “Alice Faye” was used as sexual slang.)
“That was fate. It was a sign,” Soileau says of having viewed the film at just the right moment in time. “After that, my model for Rebecca just happened.”
Soileau listened to and mimicked as many Alice Faye songs he could get his hands on, and the character continued to evolve. Once, while in search of a last name for Rebecca, Soileau happened upon Havemeyer Street in Brooklyn. He knew it was the perfect fit. He fabricated an entire dossier on Rebecca, inventing a tragic yet well-off past, a son named Jimmy and an attitude of “winning ignorance.”
“Rebecca isn’t super catty, but she’s kind of nasty,” Soileau says with a wide grin. “She went to the happy house, if you know what I mean. She’s cleaned up, but not really; she has a comfortable addiction with everything!”
Once her character was defined, all Soileau needed to make Rebecca a reality was the costume. His original dress and the blonde bombshell wig (Rebecca’s trademark) were all given to Soileau. (In fact, his friend Brooks Braselman, who performed as Mitzi in Rebecca’s “Love Doll,” gifted Soileau the now decade-old wig.)
“That’s when it really all came together,” Soileau says. “It was just like being possessed and I was always wanting to be Rebecca. Because she had built up in my brain for so long, she needed to come out.”
And come out, she did. But it wasn’t until Soileau made a fateful trip to Austin that Rebecca became a star.
Deep in the Heart of Texas
Soileau has a knack for being in the right place trip from New York to Lake Charles for a visit, thereby missing the tragic events of that day. After moving back to New Orleans, Hurricane Katrina devastated the city, but he was in New York at the time. During a trip to Atlanta to visit friends, Hurricane Rita hit Lake Charles, a city he had planned to call home again. So he stayed in Atlanta for several months, pondering his next steps. With friends in Austin, Soileau couldn’t stay away, so he packed up what few belongings he still had after losing nearly everything in Hurricane Katrina and headed to Texas, where, unbeknownst to him, Rebecca would be welcomed with open arms.
Soileau tweaked much of Rebecca’s character while attending Shoemaker’s Camp Camp, a queer version of open-mic night at Bouldin Creek Coffee House. Soon after, he began collaborating with Shoemaker and Williamson, coming up with ideas for entire character-driven drag shows featuring Rebecca and a crazy crew of other entertainers.
“Austin is really good for Rebecca,” Soileau says. When I got here, I knew that this town was the best workshop town in the whole world. People here always want more, and you never feel like they’re not going to ‘get it.’”
Despite establishing Rebecca as an enterprising star, Soileau still holds down a day job at Starbucks, a gig he says provides several elements of support for his unpredictable theater lifestyle: health insurance, an outlet for inspiration and a pedestal from which to preach the virtues of Rebecca Havemeyer.
“I’ve got to say, Starbucks really embraces diversity. That’s something that I was looking for. I wanted a place where I could get health insurance, be gay and be happy,” he says. “Plus, it’s the best PR joint I ever worked in. I’ve gotten a lot of fans through the customer base there.”
Soileau doesn’t have a partner, (“I’m always single,” he says. “I guess there’s a bit of selfishness involved in doing something like what I do.”), so when he’s not working at Starbucks, he spends the majority of his free time collaborating with his theater mates and developing characters.
In his time as an actor, Soileau has fulfilled many of his career aspirations. (His role as Lulu, Luis Guzman’s prison boyfriend in Steven Soderbergh’s “Out of Sight” was flawless.) The real challenges he faces, he says, are not in having to climb the entertainment ladder, but in finding a connection with his audiences, whatever the phase of his acting career.
“I just want to be real,” Soileau says. “When I put on my Rebecca helmet and think, ‘What would Rebecca do?’ and not give a damn about the audience, that’s when things really start to click. I think it’s all about being in that character’s head and finding something from that perspective that will be believable for the audience.”
That’s a skill Williamson says Soileau has mastered.
“Paul has a commitment to the audience, to connect with them,” he says. “It really makes the audience want to be there and feel a part of his night. I think [his talent] also just has to do with natural timing and wit, as well as schooling. And he also is a workhorse, which I love. He doesn’t settle for the easy way.”
For now, Soileau is focused on building Rebecca’s fan base, and developing new characters like the haunting and disturbing Verena Von Kant, an androgynous German oddball that made her first appearance at Soileau’s Valentine’s Day show.
In the comedy world, Soileau is influenced and inspired by the likes of Phyllis Diller, Dame Edna, and Kiki and Herb. A longtime fan of variety comedy shows like “The Carol Burnett Show,” “Laugh- In,” “Hee Haw” and “Barbara Mandrell and the Mandrell Sisters,” Soileau has played with the idea of creating a character-driven variety show of his own. And he’s always wanted to be the next Johnny Carson, albeit in a dress.
Currently floating around in Soileau’s mind is an idea for a drag version of the classic musical “Annie,” staring Rebecca Havemeyer, of course.
“The more I do these kinds of shows, the more I find out who I am,” he divulges. “I’m not just a drag queen; I have a spiritual connection with my audience. That’s why I’m here. I just know I’m destined for something great.”