Exclusive: ‘The Bitch is Back!’ Atlanta Drag Icon Charlie Brown Discusses His Return to the Stage March 4
Legendary Atlanta drag performer Charlie Brown can sum up his feelings about his much-anticipated March 4 return to the stage in three words: “I’m antsy, I’m excited and I’m nervous.” Hold up, the city’s most famous female impersonator who’s been gracing Atlanta stages for 44 years, the star of Backstreet’s iconic Charlie Brown’s Cabaret and the subject of the 1997 HBO documentary “Dragtime” is nervous?
“Yes, bitch!” Brown told Eldredge ATL Friday morning, laughing. “You have to understand, I haven’t really worked since 2019. “I’ve been going back and listening to my numbers again to refresh my memory. I’m 72 now. I don’t remember what I have for breakfast on most days now!”
After a long absence from the stage due to multiple health issues and the COVID pandemic, Brown has accepted an invitation from his old friend and former fellow Backstreet performer Shawnna Brooks to join the weekly Friday night cast of “House of Legends” at X nightclub in Midtown, beginning March 4 at 10 pm. Prior to the pandemic and a host of medical obstacles, Brown had been working at Lips Atlanta, the popular drag dining room on Buford Highway.
“I loved working at Lips but I’ve been away from there for over two years now,” Brown explained. “There are now other emcees in those positions and it wouldn’t be right to take someone else’s spot. Shawnna asked me if I wanted to perform again and she talked to the manager at X and they said, ‘Get her!’ and so here we are. I’m excited!”
Best of all, Brown can once again drop the F-bomb with abandon. “We had to work clean at Lips,” said Brown. “Sometimes, there would be kids in the crowd there. I can’t wait to get back on stage and say motherfucker again. Hell, I may spend most of my first number just saying motherfucker on stage! [laughs]. The manager at X told me, ‘We want you dirty.’ I told him, ‘I think I can manage that!’”
Since the last time he worked regularly, Brown has faced down and recovered from cataract surgery, a minor stroke, heart arrhythmia, a fall resulting in a mild concussion, eight stitches, a fractured arm and ribs and finally, last fall, neck surgery to rebuild two vertebrae. “My doctor called it a Home Depot surgery. Nothing but nuts and bolts and rods!” The surgery was postponed three times, due to hospital COVID surges and the pain at night was so severe, Brown had to sleep in a recliner.
While he’s still going to weekly physical therapy, Brown is grateful to finally be on the mend. His legions of Atlanta fans organized a fundraiser for him last year to help out with medical expenses as a way to give back to the performer who has raised hundreds of thousands of dollars in the battle against AIDS over the last 40 years.
“I was always the person to raise the money and give back so it was a little embarrassing to be the one needing help,” Brown explained. “But it made me more grateful than ever to be an Atlantan. The support and the love we have received has been amazing. This city has been so good to me. Atlanta has made my whole life, my whole career and those people gave back when I needed it. I thank God for all of those people.”
Throughout the pandemic, Brown and his husband Fred Wise have had to mourn to passing of Brown’s older sister Ramona from COVID early in the pandemic and the losses of former fellow drag performers Lily White, Tina Devore and Ginny Tonic.
“Those hurt like a son of a bitch,” Brown reflected. “The hardest part was we were in lockdown and we couldn’t be with our friends to mourn together. I couldn’t go to work and help each other through it. For over two years, the only time I left the house was to go to doctor’s appointments and to the grocery store.”
Throughout the pandemic lockdown, Brown and Wise kept busy digging up stories from his illustrious half century career in drag for weekly phone interview sessions that will be turned into a memoir later this year.
Brown says he already has an outfit picked out for his March 4 return to the stage and he’s shaved off the COVID beard he’s cultivated for the past year. “This is going to feel like coming home, especially getting to work again with Shawnna,” he said. “I have friends coming in from all over the country. I still love entertaining people. To me, there’s nothing better than being up there on that stage and looking out and seeing those smiles and people laughing and having a good time. It makes me feel good, I still enjoy it and it still excites me.”
So what advice does Mr. Charlie Brown have for the millennials and the Gen Zers who may have heard of the legend but will be seeing her for the first time in the flesh next week at X?
“I represent an era you don’t get to see anymore. I’ve always dedicated myself to doing the best in female impersonation possible. You’re gonna see something nasty. Mama’s home. Buckle up, because the bitch is back!”
Shawnna Brooks and X Midtown Present “House of Legends,” featuring Mr. Charlie Brown, beginning Fridays on March 4 at 10 pm at X Midtown, 990 Piedmont Avenue, N.E. Atlanta. Click here for table reservations.
Richard L. Eldredge is the founder and editor in chief of Eldredge ATL. As a reporter for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution and Atlanta magazine, he has covered Atlanta since 1990.