7 Queens Look Back at Lucky Cheng’s, the NYC Drag Dinner Show Celebrating 25 Years in Business
It’s maybe the only thing that Britney Spears, Sir Richard Branson, the Village People’s Randy Jones and Prince Albert of Monaco have in common — they’ve all stepped into famed drag dinner show Lucky Cheng’s at some point over this NYC institution’s 25-year history. And as the city’s top employer of drag queens and trans women, it’s a spot that means a lot for the community. A quarter of a century in business is nothing to balk at, and last night, Oct. 18, saw Lucky Cheng’s celebrate the right way with the party of all parties at Stage 48 (where it currently operates on Friday and Saturday nights) in Hell’s Kitchen.
Twenty-five years of Lucky Cheng’s performing alums were invited to last night’s party as special guests alongside the bar-restaurant’s current roster of performers. And what a roster of alums! Lucky Cheng’s helped launch the careers of people like Laverne Cox, Sense8‘s Jamie Clayton and more RuPaul’s Drag Race queens than can be counted, including Bob the Drag Queen, Thorgy Thor, Vivacious and Ongina.
Many people might not know that the very first episode of Sex and the City had a scene shot inside Lucky Cheng’s.
Check out images from last night’s 25th anniversary party for Lucky Cheng’s here:
Named after a busboy who later became a co-partner of Lucky Cheng’s, the bar-restaurant opened on Oct. 1, 1993, in New York’s East Village. It was the first spot in town to feature a waitstaff, bartenders and performers who were drag queens and trans women.
Though she tragically passed away from breast cancer in 2014 (the reason why proceeds from the big 25th anniversary party are benefitting breast cancer nonprofit the Tutu Project), Hayne Suthon founded Lucky Cheng’s with her partner Robert Jason. These days their daughter Josephine Jason is a co-owner as well as the Lucky Cheng’s house DJ.
In honor of 25 years of Lucky Cheng’s, Hornet asked some of its beloved alumnae to recount some of their favorite stories from throughout the years.
Here are the stories of 7 queens for whom Lucky Cheng’s has meant so much:
1. Paulina Princess of Power
I remember when I first met Founder Hayne Suthon in the ladies room. As she saw me come out of the bathroom stall, she lifted her shirt and asked me in front of some other women to choose which titty was real and which wasn’t. Of course I could tell and chose the correct falsie. She pulled back down her top muttered “bitch,” and I was hired shortly thereafter.
The one thing that is been my continued blessing through all the years is that my growth as an entertainer has been supported by the customers who have come up to me saying they’ve been to a few Lucky Cheng’s recreations and at each one I bested myself. That I’ve gotten better at what I do based on what they’ve seen, and it’s a testament to the power of changing people’s minds to the positivity of what a good drag queen can do for the world.
2. Lailah Lancing
One night at Lucky Cheng‘s I was hosting the show. We had a full room that night, and I did an opening number and then decided we would do our faux Chippendale’s male strippers contest. I chose four men from the dining room to compete. Then somebody from the bar said they wanted to be in the contest as well, so I invited that gentleman up to the stage. I lined the men up with the man from the bar being the first in the contest. I explained the rules — that when the music started they had 30 seconds to take off a shirt or whatever and dance sexy to the music.
The first guy started to dance and take off his suit jacket. He then removed his tie and his button-down shirt. He then removed his undershirt. The crowd was screaming and cheering. My jaw hit the floor and he then shocked everyone watching when undid his belt and dropped his pants and kicked off his shoes. This man was now standing onstage completely naked. He began to wiggle and gyrate to the music.
The room was buzzing and going crazy, shouting wildly. He then took it a bit further and did something that completely blew my mind — he proceeded to walk across the row of tables closest to the stage from the front of the room to the back. He walked across the table of a bachelorette party, four women celebrating a birthday party, an elderly couple having dinner … and the last three tables were a party of 24 firemen from New Jersey celebrating a retirement.
As he walked across the tables, completely naked, his “business” was swinging to and fro, and the entire room was screaming and cheering. The bachelorettes and birthday ladies were in heaven. Then he got to the poor firemen. They looked up and had no idea what was going on. I’ve never seen a bunch of people so bewildered in my life.
The guy then turned around and was walking back on the tables towards the stage. He was halfway down when he got to the table of the elderly couple. That’s when he lost his footing and in what almost seemed like slow motion he and the entire table tipped over, food and drinks everywhere. I panicked and jumped off the stage and ran to the table. The naked guy’s friend was helping him up off the floor, and I helped to fix the table. I felt horrible and asked the elderly couple if they were OK. The gentleman said he was fine, and then I asked his wife if she was OK. She looked at me a bit, stunned and confused, then said that was the most fun she’d ever had in her entire life!
I declared him the winner, and the audience applauded thunderously. That’s my favorite Lucky Cheng’s story ever!
3. Sister Mary Helen
I think my favorite moments were when we were on Broadway after the shift — some of us completely out of drag, some of us with just a face on — and we would play music and dance around and choreograph numbers that no one ever saw. We were coworkers, but we were always friends first. Oh, and all the horny daddies who bought us drinks and gave us money to sit and talk with them!
4. Miss Understood
I met many celebrities at Lucky Chengs, most notably Haley Mills, Sarah Michelle Gellar, Betsey Johnson, Paulina Porizkova, Monica Lewinsky and Elvira! The best celebrity interaction, though, was when I was asked to put Talking Heads lead singer David Byrne in drag for a music video. He was such a great guy, and he looked so lovely in my wig and dress!
5. Tora Dress, who has been with Lucky Cheng’s for 25 years
There was a close bond the staff developed. We became a sisterhood of sorts — another family that supported each other when your own blood family didn’t. We were there for each other through the ups and downs of love and life, and we’ve been together to celebrate our birthdays and also when one of us was gravely ill or passed. We went out together after work and socialized the old-fashioned way before MySpace, Facebook and Instagram.
Meeting and befriending the countless celebrities who came through the Lucky Cheng’s doors was always special. Randy Jones, the original cowboy of the Village People. Kelly Ripa and husband Mark Consuelos would stop by often (before Kelly had children and took over as co-host for Live with Regis). I first met Kelly and the cast of All My Children when Sarah Michelle Gellar threw her birthday and farewell party at Lucky Cheng’s. She was soon heading to California to start shooting Buffy, The Vampire Slayer series.
6. Allanah Starr
Many of my favorite stories from Lucky Cheng’s are so wild that they are for the most part unprintable. But one of my fondest memories is seeing Josephine being raised around drag queens without any hesitation. Hayne was a true eccentric and truly ahead of her time, too. She saw it as normal that her 2-year-old ran around playing with these creatures while her perfectly coiffed mother sipped on bourbon with a look of disapproval and her father read the newspaper without saying a word. It was truly surreal and inspiring at the same time.
7. Drag wrestler Rick Cataldo
I had an epiphany on my 21st birthday that I had to go back to a place I’d visited a few years prior. The place where I was 17, drunk, singing (awfully) a rendition of Madonna’s “Beautiful Stranger,” spread out on a leopard couch alongside a gorgeous transgender woman who would one day star in a very popular Netflix show. That place, of course, was Lucky Cheng’s.
This time around I didn’t want to go back just for shits and giggles (and lap dances). I wanted to essentially join the circus. There was something in my soul that resonated with the atmosphere of the original Lucky Cheng’s location, something that told me I belonged. So, long story short, I bought a blue wig, got a seamstress to make me a funky outfit, a pair of stiletto boots and tried to convince the world I was a prima donna drag queen. (Bitch, I fooled no one.)
The girls read to filth my makeup every Tuesday and Wednesday night (the shifts they gave to the boogers, apparently). Although my makeup skills were lacking, it was my energy and performances that not only captivated drunk women with penis-shaped balloons on their head but also the inquiring mind of a legend in her own right (and in her own head), Lailah Lancing, who went on to give me pointers and encouraged me to bring to life my obsession with Marie Antoinette as the resident Victorian-era drag queen at Lucky Cheng’s.
Thanks to Lailah’s guidance, size 11 women’s shoes at Payless and potential that was seen in me by the late Freddie Messina, my brief stint at Lucky Cheng’s culminated into my mother uttering the words “I’m so proud of you.” Words I hadn’t heard her say to me before.
As priorities went however, I left Cheng’s suddenly right as an interest was building around me, and as much as I would have loved to live out my Nomi Malone fantasy and sabotage Miss Tobell to take her hosting gig, I had to live out my childhood dream of falling down on purpose in spandex. You see, since I was 14 I had been a professional wrestler … and thanks to what I had learned at Cheng’s I soon became the first drag queen in pro wrestling, putting “the body” in body slams.
After reinventing myself in the wrestling community, from a young openly gay wrestler to drag queen sensation, I wanted to do what no one else had done before (except for that episode in Season 4 of Drag Race) and combine my passions of wrestling and drag.
I am so honored and beyond happy to be a part of the Lucky Cheng’s family, and after 25 years helping them reinvent and blaze trails by incorporating LGBTQ pro wrestlers every month in their shows. To think only seven years ago I was at a fork in my life not knowing who and what I’d become. Thanks to the vision and passion set by Hayne Suthon, I am now the (Drag) Queen of the Ring!