LAS VEGAS -- It's no coincidence that my plane is touching down the same afternoon that Beyonce, Jewel, Whitney Houston, and a whole host of other temperamental divas are screeching at full lung capacity across town at the MGM Grand in preparation for VH1 Divas Duets.
That's because in addition to slot machines, bad buffets, and topless dancers, Las Vegas is fast becoming known for its divas. Sure, there was a time when this town was ruled by the boys. Frank, Sammy, Dean, and Joey were the kings of the Strip, and the only queen in sight was a timid Angie Dickinson hiding under a massive plume of teased blond hair. But these days, it's the queens who reign. Celine Dion's show at Caesars Palace is the toughest (and priciest) ticket in town. And mainstays such as Gladys Knight and Sheena Easton have proved to be solidly entertaining and profitable.
Vegas is still a very macho and heterosexual town, but apparently there's also plenty of love for Siegfried and Roy. In fact, things are getting so comfortable here that even Liberace has finally started to come out of the closet -- 15 years after his death. But more on Lee later. I'm running late for my date with Charo.
You see, even though the VH1 divas are performing at the MGM Grand on this very night, I'm not here to rub shoulders with the A-list. I'm on the prowl for the kind who work a room for years and don't mind having their picture taken alongside men who wear socks with sandals.
At the top of my divas-to-do list is Charo. Not only am I seeing her show at the Aladdin Hotel, but I've even arranged for a little one-on-one, post-show cuchi cuchi session. Throw in Gavin MacLeod and Joanne Worley, and my childhood dream of taking a cruise on "The Love Boat" would be nearly complete. But my fragile dream is quickly crushed. When I reach the theater, there's no sign of the show. I ask at the ticket kiosk what time Charo goes on. The woman behind the counter looks at me as if I've sprouted a third eye. It appears that Charo is no longer performing at the Aladdin.
"She's probably on some cruise ship or something," the woman tells me, clearly puzzled by my anguish.
I regroup by slipping some quarters into a nearby "I Dream of Jeannie" slot machine and make a new plan. Sheena Easton's show is also dark (oh, the humanity), so I decide to take the midnight train to Gladys Knight at the Flamingo. From the opening strains of "Love Overboard" I know I've made the right decision. Gladys is truly a class act, and I had forgotten what an amazing catalog of hits she has. The only downside to the evening is the comic goofery of her older brother and former Pip, Bubba.
My spell of bad luck continues when I see my hotel. I have decided to forgo the glitz of the Strip and reserved a room at a new gay "resort" called the Blue Moon. Sadly, not a single cab driver in Las Vegas seems to know where the Blue Moon is located, and on the way back from Gladys, one cabbie lectures me endlessly about the evils of staying off the Strip. He seems to have a point. The hotel appears to be located in an industrial park that's surrounded by clubs with suspicious-sounding names such as the Peppermint Hippo. The Blue Moon is clearly designed for gym-toned gents who want to lounge by the pool or sit in the steam room -- activities that are not on my itinerary.
I'm sharing the room with my friend Ben from Los Angeles, and the next morning he finds the silver lining to our accommodations. Our hotel window provides a perfect view of the pool area, where several dudes have decided to shuck their Speedos and sunbathe au naturel. Ben insists that I have a look. I protest, but he assures me that the windows are tinted and that no one will see our Peeping Tom routine. How can I refuse?
Later, when we're outside, I look up at the windows. They are not tinted. From this point on I decide to wear my sunglasses every time we walk through the lobby of the hotel.
We start the day at a museum honoring one of Vegas's biggest divas: Liberace. The museum has recently undergone a $2 million renovation and is now looking as regal as Lee's mirrored-tile Mercedes Excalibur. The museum is also finally addressing the issue of Liberace's sexual orientation. After his death in 1987, both the Liberace estate and museum remained adamant that the cause of death was not AIDS. But recently the museum's official position on the subject has started to change. They now acknowledge that the cause of death was AIDS, and even that Liberace was most likely gay.
You won't hear any of this on the official tour through Liberace's ostrich-feather capes and Bob Mackie-designed sequined trousers. But on a walk through the galleries with collections manager Brian Paco Alvarez, he acknowledges that outreach to the gay community is a necessity for the museum's long-term existence. In fact, one of Liberace's sparkling pink cars led this year's Las Vegas Gay Pride parade for the first time. The museum is not only marketing Liberace as a gay icon, these days it is also pushing him as the original king of bling. Check out his diamonds, furs, cars, and artifacts from his crib, and you get the idea that he probably enjoyed downing bottles of Cristal with his homeskillets by the pool, only he probably didn't call them homeskillets.
The climax of this trip is a visit to Celine Dion's Caesars Palace show, so we prepare ourselves with a visit to drag queen Celine. She's part of a show of female impersonators called La Cage (hmm, very fresh name) at the Riviera. The show, which features a lip-syncing Reba McEntire, Patti LaBelle, and the requisite Diana Ross, Judy Garland, Bette Midler, and Cher queens, feels as though it was lifted directly from 1996, complete with jokes about the Clapper. I suspect that some of the wigs used in the show were secretly fished out of Nancy Sinatra's dumpster, but the illusionists are still wildly entertaining. Even the Celine queen is good, except that his face is a little too feminine to be believable.
In the interest of full disclosure, I should confess that I really don't care for Celine Dion, and I've come to Las Vegas not expecting much from her concert. In fact, before Celine's show, called "A New Day," I fortify myself with a few mango martinis until I start feeling sufficiently tipsy. Happily, the woman sitting next to me, an entertainment lawyer from Los Angeles, shares my disdain of Celine and my love of mango martinis. The evening is suddenly looking up.
The show starts with Celine singing Nat King Cole's "Nature Boy." I'm not sure if it's the martinis, but I'm not completely appalled by what I hear. By the time she hits "It's All Coming Back to Me Now," the lawyer leans over and whispers "Wow, she has a great set of pipes." The only thing keeping me from heading over to the Dion side is her hideous new haircut, both blonder and shorter than ever. She probably should have borrowed the wig from her drag queen doppelganger at the Riviera.
There were certainly plenty of missteps. The corny between-song chatter with the audience, the singing of "What a Wonderful World." But, and it pains me to say it, I had a good time. Not good enough to splurge on the $35 Celine throw pillows at the Celine Dion boutique, but I walked away with a new respect for the chest-pounding singer. Heck, walking away with any respect at all is a definite improvement over my previous stance.
I also gain a new respect for the art work of Andy Warhol the next day at the Bellagio Gallery of Fine Art, which is hosting a show called "Andy Warhol: The Celebrity Portraits." But the best part of this show is the audio guide from Liza Minnelli. In a tone both manic and moving, Liza-with-a-z recounts the halcyon heights of 1970s New York glamour. But it's not all flimsy eye candy. Some of Warhol's portraits, such as 1964's "Jackie," are downright haunting. Who knew a place as vapid as Vegas could be so deep?
Later in the day, I'm quickly brought back to reality when I hear a couple talking in the lobby of the Bellagio.
"Hey, honey, you want to see those Andy Warhol paintings?" a wife asks her husband.
"Yeah right, then we can have tea with Siegfried and Roy," the husband replied. "We're here to gamble, baby. Quit wasting my time."
Christopher Muther can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.