Going in Style

Clothes and Comfort Backstage at Shelter’s Final Blowout

By Todd Savage

At a little past 2 AM Byrd Bardot takes center stage at Shelter before a large cutout of a five-pointed star. The DJ stops the heart-bruising bass of the club’s house sound track, and the clubgoers on the dance floor turn toward the softly lit stage.

After a few introductions Byrd, the club’s host, says into the mike, “Hit it!”

But the DJ’s having problems cuing Byrd’s music.

“Hit it!”

Still no response.

“What part of it didn’t you understand?” Byrd says, then adds sarcastically, “It wouldn’t be Shelter if they didn’t fuck it up.”

A couple more minutes pass as the murmuring crowd waits.

Dressed in a pink Chinese silk dress, his shoulder-length hair pulled back and held up with a chopstick, Byrd is surrounded on the tiered stage by a dozen costumed figures. It’s difficult to see much except the tiny orange points of the lit cigarettes in their hands, but it’s possible to make out glitter and wigs, headdresses and sequined trousers, platform shoes and painted faces. The figures pose and cavort onstage, trying on sassy, pouty, seductive faces.

Moments earlier they’d emerged from a basement dressing room where they’d been holed up for three hours and forced their way through the impossibly jammed club. Most of the clubgoers–a largely straight, conventionally attired crowd doing a final tour before Shelter closes forever the night of March 21 to make way for a condo development–were probably in high school when it opened eight years ago. Some look surprised at the appearance of the performers as they walked single file along the candlelit bar. Some offer compliments on the order of “You look fabulous.” Others, including a couple of smooth-faced frat boys, send unappreciative, hostile looks. But it’s too crowded for most people to stand back far enough to see them.

Byrd, who’d led the performers onto the stage, thanks the audience for its support over the years. A fixture on the Chicago club scene for eons, he’s worked at Shelter since it opened. Earlier he worked at the New York import Limelight, whose mantle Shelter took up when it closed in the late 80s. Shelter in turn paved the way for other West Loop night spots. Now bulldozers are poised to flatten the old building.

Finally the DJ locates Byrd’s music, and he talk-sings his way through a couple of dance numbers, including his signature “The Bardot Swing.” Next the stage is cleared for Bobby Pins, who could pass for a younger sister of Morticia Addams–tall and thin with a straight black wig, dark makeup, and a shimmering black and purple dress that runs to the floor, concealing ten-inch platform boots. He does a passable lip sync of a Billie Holiday number. The DJ announces that Bobby Pins and Jo-Jo will return later with another performance, then shifts the music back into high gear. The whole performance lasts about 15 minutes.

Jo-Jo and Billy the Kid had been the first of the performers to arrive earlier that night. Around 10:30 PM they skipped past the line forming outside and greeted the bouncers. Descending into Shelter’s cluttered basement, they passed a rack of employee time cards and a large painted plywood sign that read “Shelter open thru MAR ’98” and settled into the makeshift dressing room with its high ceilings, black walls spray painted with a few unintelligible phrases (“until your smile makes it right”), a couple of ragged couches, a cardboard box marked “old clothes,” and a sparkle-covered sign that reads “The Glitter Palace.”

A couple of months ago they’d heard rumors that Shelter was doomed. Then hours before they were expected to show up at the club, Jo-Jo, who was sewing a new gown for that night’s appearance, got a phone call. He and the rest of the paid performers had been laid off.

Over the last few years Jo-Jo, who’s in his early 20s like most of the performers, had picked up work at clubs like Crobar and Red Dog, adding a little exotica by appearing as a host at the door or performing a routine, and he’d made enough money to give notice at the hair salon where he worked. But with the Shelter gig ending, he’s had to ask for his salon job back.

Tonight they’re back one last time for Shelter’s final-weekend blowout. Billy the Kid is standing in the dressing room wearing a skintight blue spandex bodysuit with a pink vertical stripe and platform shoes with three-inch heels that look something like ski boots. Jo-Jo is stripped to the waist for the moment, revealing a round belly that’s tattooed in several places. He sits before the dressing room’s wood-framed mirror, which is illuminated by four bare lightbulbs. Across the top is scrawled “Diva.”

On the table are all kinds of odds and ends that will become part of Jo-Jo’s Medusa-inspired headdress–an homage to Dave Medusa, the night’s promoter–including half a dozen rubber snakes with green sequins glued to their heads, feather plumes, artificial flowers, strands of fake pearls. His head is shaved except for several patches where green and purple braided hair extensions are attached. The new Bjork CD plays on the boom box on the dressing table, and it masks the thump of the music upstairs. Jo-Jo starts attaching pieces of electrical wire to the plugs of hair on his head, pulling each braid over his head and twisting the wire around it so the strands stand on end.

“I can tell when he goes to work,” Billy says. “He’s real quiet.”

Working without his glasses, Billy struggles in front of an unlit wall mirror trying to get his blue-green eye makeup in the right place. A couple of other club kids are powdering their faces.

Someone refers to Jo-Jo as a club kid.

“Club kids don’t get paid–club personalities do,” he explains.

“Most people don’t realize it,” says Billy, who made the transition from kid to personality last year with Jo-Jo’s assistance.

“What time do we go on?” asks a young man named Angel.

“When we get our faces on!” Billy says.

Angel’s naked torso sports a pierced navel with a pair of mermaids tattooed around it. He’s wearing silver sequined pants, and his blond hair is gathered on top of his head in an I Dream of Jeannie ponytail. He and his friend Nora, who’s poured into sparkly blue hot pants and an orange rubber top, are helping each other with their makeup.

They all work for a while in silence. Angel dabs silver glitter on his hairless chest, Nora touches up her eyes. Jo-Jo outlines his lips in two shades of green and dusts them with glitter. Billy draws on green arched eyebrows. They all begin to look a little foreign, a little less human.

At 11:20 the dressing-room door opens, and a guy says, “Are we all just geeked up and ready to go?” He doesn’t stick around for a response.

Nora and Angel are ready. They study Jo-Jo, who’s still twisting snakes onto his head.

A little later the door opens again, and in strides a large young man in heavy makeup, his hair cut short and spiky. He’s dressed in a quilted vinyl jacket open to a smooth bare chest, and platform shoes and a miniskirt covered in a black material that’s like poodle fur. He looks ready for a Rocky Horror revival. He says his name is Gemini, and he appears pretty new to this scene.

Gemini stomps around in his furry shoes asking a lot of questions. Where did Jo-Jo get that canister of blue powder? What’s this music? Jo-Jo seems mildly irritated that Gemini has never heard of Nina Hagen or Grace Jones.

“Where are the kids?” Jo-Jo asks. It’s past 11:30 and the other two club personalities–Bobby Pins and Bernardo–haven’t shown up.

A few minutes later the two sweep into the room. Bernardo has already prepped his face with foundation. Bobby looks like a phantom with his goth makeup and hooded coat. “I won’t kiss anyone because I’m sick,” he says feebly.

Jo-Jo struggles to attach a small silver tiara to the foot-high construction on his head, but he can’t find a stable place for it. “Goddammit,” he says. He gives up and begins painting his pierced nipples to match his lips.

Billy, who’s brushing out a blue wig, informs Bernardo that he and some of the other Shelter performers have been asked to appear next week at Karma, a new club in River North that seems to be Shelter’s heir apparent.

“I haven’t been asked yet,” Bernardo says, pouting.

“You’re on the flyer,” Billy assures him, and Bernardo relaxes.

Jo-Jo puts in his earrings–large cones that have stretched out his earlobes–douses himself with green glitter, and dusts blue powder over his chest and arms. “Little do the people upstairs know what’s going on downstairs,” he says.

Bobby Pins has pulled together his outfit: a black mesh shirt with a long black skirt overlaid with a purple sequined wrap. He raises his arms over his head in an Evita-like salute, bumping his left arm against a hanging light fixture. “I’m a little taller than I thought I was,” he says. He’s six feet with his ten-inch boots. Around his neck and wrists he attaches purple and black swatches of fake hair.

“No–I’m wearing the same fabric!” Jo-Jo gasps, staring at the purple sequined wrap.

“You are?” Bobby says.

“I won’t wear it then. I was just going to wear it as, like, a sash,” Jo-Jo says.

“Did you save your receipt?” Bobby asks.

“You guys get reimbursed for your costumes?” Gemini asks.

“Yeah, for events like this,” Jo-Jo explains, then begins helping Bernardo with his makeup.

The door bursts open and in walks an androgynous person with shoulder-length black hair, black hose, lace-up boots, and a bindhi on his forehead that matches his red smock. “Get ready for a long fuckin’ night!” says Byrd Bardot, who’s spent the last couple of hours working the club’s front door. “I hate these people!”

Byrd, who’s 40, talks about how the club gave a lot of scenesters the opportunity to experiment and explore, about how the scene isn’t as competitive as it used to be, how Chicago used to be a hot club scene back in the early days of house music. He speaks reverently of the days when he and his friends used to fly in from New York for a night out.

Byrd has known a lot of club kids over the years. “I’ve told these kids before that they are like children to me. So many come and they go. Some disappear and leave the scene, and when you do see them you discover that it wasn’t right for them. Something went wrong. And there are others who you discover blossomed so wonderfully.”

They may have blossomed as performers, but they’ve kept their day jobs. Bobby works at a pizzeria. Billy is a Starbucks barista. Bernardo is a production designer for an ad agency; he says he’ll make it to work tomorrow at 9 AM, just as he always does. Performing, he says, “isn’t going to last forever.”

The performers begin talking about the plan for the night. Byrd explains that halfway through the second song all of the club kids will leave the stage in a symbolic move and pour onto the dance floor. “At the last show at Shelter it’s my way of saying, ‘You put us on pedestals all these years. Thank you. And we’re just like you guys.'”

They talk about how great it feels when they first enter a room in full club regalia. They say they usually like to stick together. “Like with me,” Byrd says, “a lot of people don’t understand that I’m extremely insecure.”

“And I think we all are to a certain extent,” says Bernardo. But, he adds, when they’re together “there’s nothing we can’t do.”

“We all feed off of each other’s energy,” Byrd says. “We know how the crowd feels. We know the crowd is like ‘OK, here come the freaks.’ And then there’s another part of the crowd that’s like ‘Oh, here they come,’ and they’re giving us homage. Even if there are more of us we’ll all feel like we’re here for each other, and we don’t think of the crowd.”

Over the next hour assorted other people come and go: An Asian guy in black vinyl trousers, a shiny leopard-print corset, and a wreath of red ostrich feathers around his neck. A wan young man with slicked-back hair and a high-collared 60s-patterned silky shirt. A heavyset young woman in a sheer black slip. A young woman with black vinyl hot pants and fishnet stockings. A guy with bluish hair who looks like a satyr. Byrd greets them all–he calls everyone “baby doll” or “honey bunny”–and gives them a smooch.

At 12:45 Byrd needs to get dressed. “Baby dolls, would you mind?” he says, shooing them out of the room. “I’ve got to start getting ready.”

The kids leave the room, and Byrd and Bernardo pull on their corsets. Jo-Jo strips to a thong and begins lacing up his shiny black platforms, then secures a green sequined dress above his waist and lets its seven-yard train fall behind. Bernardo tops off things with a Rita Hayworth wig, and sprinkles his arms with baby powder so he can pull on black rubber gloves. Jo-Jo piles on a bunch of strands of fake pearls and slips into a sheer red jacket. Byrd cinches Bernardo’s corset until it gives him a semblance of cleavage.

It’s nearly 1:30 AM. Jo-Jo, resplendent in his headdress and sparkling from head to toe, rests on the makeup table with one of his huge platform shoes propped up. He sits quietly for several minutes, his face drained of any expression, then yawns. “I’m tired,” he says to no one in particular. “I’m going to go home.”

Byrd complains that he needs to hear some dance music on the boom box to get in the mood. He dispatches someone to find out when they’ll be called. “I want to get this over with now,” he says.

Most of the performers have drifted back into the room, and now they’re stalking around, moving a little stiffly in their high shoes, tight corsets, and unwieldy hairpieces. Gemini dabs at some lipstick that got on Bernardo’s front tooth. Jo-Jo sprinkles extra silver glitter over his chest and back.

Byrd is having second thoughts about his outfit. “Do I not look like 20 pounds of bologna in a 10-pound bag?” he barks. “Do I look OK? Do I look OK? I don’t look like a witch, do I? I could change into another outfit.”

“Just shut up, Byrd,” Jo-Jo says.

“You know, if I go up there and look stupid I’ll trip you all up,” Byrd mock warns. “I can change. I brought more clothes.”

A sleek twentysomething woman in a leather minidress and knee-high boots arrives with a quiet straight guy in a Banana Republic uniform in tow. She trades kisses with everyone, inspects everyone, and tosses out compliments. “You guys don’t understand,” she says. “There are probably like a thousand people waiting outside, and they’re telling people to go home. We had to wait out there forever, and I had to like fuckin’ beg my way in.”

Nora returns from upstairs and disappears behind the makeup mirror. A few minutes later she’s removed the hot pants and rubber top and opted for something more conservative: long black pants and a skimpy black halter top. She says guys upstairs were grabbing her and making crass comments. “The crowd has deteriorated over the last year,” she says.

Finally they get word that the DJs are about ready for them. They cluster around the bottom of the stairs. The music’s tribal beat builds.

At a few minutes past 2 AM Jo-Jo raises the battle cry, “All right, kids, let’s play!” And up the darkened stairs they go, platform shoe over platform shoe.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos by Philin Phlash.