For the better part of two decades, Felicia Fahr was the Valley's Queen of Queens, a flame-tressed temptress who ruled the local female impersonator circuit with stiletto heels, sequins, lethal talons and, as more than a few colleagues can attest, a tongue to match.
Arriving in Phoenix from Los Angeles in the early '80s, Felicia took up professional residence at the notorious -- and now defunct -- 307 Lounge. Located in a male hustling district on East Roosevelt, just off Central Avenue, the anything-goes drag den was unlike any place the city had to offer: The talent had to dodge traffic as they raced to the stage door from a dressing room across the alley, and it was just on a nearby side street that former Partridge Family star Danny Bonaduce had his much-publicized 1991 melee with a beefy transvestite hooker who frequented the joint. Closed earlier this year, the club was so spectacularly seedy it was featured as one of Phoenix's more colorful tourist attractions in Rolling Stone magazine.
A lanky looker who from some angles resembles an equine version of comedienne Christine Baranski, Felicia started off as just another member of the bar's Golden Girls Revue. Over time, however, the ambitious newcomer eventually took over the show (and, to some extent, the bar itself), augmenting her onstage activities with duties ranging from resident choreographer, publicist and interior decorator to den mother, house mascot and, when she felt the situation warranted it, even commandant. ("If you look bad, if you need your makeup fixed, I'll tell you. If you don't want to know, don't ask," says Felicia, whose candor has cost her more than a few friends. She asks, incredulous, "I'm a bitch because I'm honest?")
A heady era highlighted by testimonial fetes for her charitable work on one end and screeching, hair-pulling brawls on the other, Felicia Fahr's roller-coaster reign in Phoenix's drag demimonde now appears to be nearing its end in more ways than one.
And with it, she may be drawing a permanent curtain on one of the most jaw-dropping finales in the annals of local female impersonation: At the end of her act, the impeccably groomed Felicia frequently doffed her wig, then removed her dentures. And, for a sure-fire wrap-up that never failed to shock first-time viewers, she triumphantly flashed the pair of hormonally enhanced breasts that had been her pride and joy for more than 30 years.
Professionally inactive for several years and far out of the local drag loop of which she was once the epicenter, Felicia Fahr has announced she now suffers from a cancer that's spreading through her artificially induced breasts.
"They tell me I've got a year, maybe a year and a half," says the painfully frail Felicia, her trademark rasp barely audible. Sallow without makeup, her strawberry-gray hair pulled back into a ponytail and wearing a black slip and flannel shirt that dwarf her skeletal frame, the former ball of fire now spends her good days curled up in front of a TV in a modest Glendale apartment she shares with her 22-year-old Latino boyfriend. She spends her ever-increasing bad days in bed.
"I've never slept so much in my life," she say wearily, sounding far older than her 50 years.
Concerned about multiple lumps she'd noticed in her breasts over the past few years, Felicia finally heeded a friend's advice and visited a doctor this past summer. Outside of morphine administered during periodic visits to the emergency room when the pain becomes too intense, however, she says she doesn't have the desire, finances or energy to fight the disease.
Whether the disease is even remotely attributable to the massive doses of female hormones she's been taking since she was a teenager (even among experts, the jury's still out on that one) is a matter about which she couldn't care less.
"What is there to say?" says the gaunt-looking former showgirl between coughing jags. "I didn't cause this. I may have helped it along, but I didn't cause it. I had a biopsy, it was malignant and I'm not having an operation. Plus, they'd never get it all anyway. My aunt had breast cancer, and within a week of her third surgery, she was dead. No way I'm going through that shit."
Growing up in Rochester, New York, as the fifth son of an Italian father and a Puerto Rican mother, young Phillip Mortuiccio (Felicia's birth name) once had considerably more faith in the medical profession than he does now.
Convinced that he was actually a girl for as long as he can remember ("When no one was home, I'd drape a sheet around me as a gown and use a hairbrush as a microphone to sing along with songs on the radio I liked"), the teenager visited a clinic specializing in transgender cases with the hope of qualifying for sex-change surgery.
The initial 45-minute consultation was $350. But where there's a bill, there's a way.
"My parents always had a lot of money, but I didn't get none of it," says Felicia. Instead, Phillip turned to prostitution to finance his odyssey into womanhood. "Sure, I've worked the streets a few times," she snickers. "I've been there, done that. But let me tell you, a lot worse things happened to me in the 307 than ever did working the corner."
During the year he was required to live as a woman, a prerequisite for potential sex-change candidates, the future Felicia was prescribed female hormones -- a massive dosage of 400 milligrams per day. And if that chemical kamikaze course sounds extreme (under normal circumstances, a biological woman of average body weight would probably be prescribed a daily dose of less than one milligram of replacement hormones), the hormonal blitz was nothing compared to what some of Felicia's fellow sisters-under-the-skin were subjecting themselves to.
"I knew queens who were injecting floor wax and Wesson oil into their tits," she recalls. "You can't lay down; you've got to sit up until it gets hard. And you can't go out in the sun because it'll start melting and seeping down."
International Chrysis, a semi-famous pre-operative transsexual and sometime protégé of Salvador Dali, made headlines when she died from this procedure several years ago. Not recognizing the danger of the treatment, she'd whimsically named her breasts "Johnson" and "Johnson." Cuddling what remains of her own petite bosom (she explains she stopped taking self-prescribed hormones she obtained in Mexico after being diagnosed with cancer), Felicia manages a small laugh. "Man, I've done some stupid things in my day, but nothing that fucking dumb."
But just because Felicia was under a doctor's care didn't mean the burgeoning woman was out of the woods.
Sometime in the early '70s, the newly full-figured Felicia was on the verge of kissing her manhood goodbye when doctors discovered she had intestinal cancer. Although the disease was successfully eradicated through an arduous schedule of chemotherapy treatments, doctors advised against going ahead with the construction of an artificial vagina, a procedure that would have involved wearing a colostomy bag. Sadly deciding to forgo the sex-change surgery she'd dreamed of ("It'd have only been there for show -- I could never use it"), Felicia decided to take her own life instead.
"It was a big drama thing," Felicia now says dismissively. "I was staying with some gal who had epilepsy, so I got in her medicine cabinet and took like 500 pills. But first I shaved and put on makeup, because when they found me, I wanted to look good."
But when medics arrived on the scene 12 hours later, the would-be suicide looked so bad they were amazed to discover that Felicia was even alive.
"It was a miracle I didn't die," reports Felicia, who says she spent the next two months in a coma. "From the time I climbed into that bed until the time I woke up, all I remember is some kind of dream about being strapped to the table and being attacked by people with knives, hatchets and axes."
Could that vivid hallucination possibly represent some psychological manifestation of Felicia's failed odyssey into surgical womanhood?
Testy, Felicia answers, "I don't even want to think about it. [Not having that surgery] changed my life, but it was meant to be. What would I be doing right now if things had gone the other way? Who knows? But you sure wouldn't have found me hanging out in gay bars. If you're going to go to all the trouble to have the change, what the hell's the point?"
A good question -- and one that some might argue that no one is in a better position to answer than Felicia Fahr herself.
Still under the effects of female hormones that eradicated her beard, softened her skin and provided her with feminine breasts (at one point, filling a 36D cup), Felicia continues to live her life as a woman. So, unaware of what lies hidden beneath her dress, what possible difference could her birth gender have made to the public at large, especially in the world of interior design where she'd originally hoped to make her living?
Part of the problem undoubtedly stems from the fact that while Felicia cuts a striking figure onstage, offstage she's somewhat less convincing as a biological woman.
Skirting that issue, she replies, "They didn't go for the dress. They said, 'There's no reason you can't be yourself, just dress as a man.' I said, 'But I'm not gay, I live as a woman.' Shit, that business is lousy with feminine guys with mustaches, but I'm a pervert? I don't get it."
Moving to Los Angeles sometime in the '70s ("Don't ask for names or dates, honey," she explains. "I'm crazy with that stuff"), Felicia Farr (as she was then spelling her assumed surname) had no trouble finding work at C'est la Vie and the Queen Mary, two of the top female impersonator venues in that pre-La Cage aux Folles era.
It was during this period that she even attracted the unwanted attention of Jack Lemmon, who was married to the identically named but little-known actress Felicia Farr. Chagrined to learn that his wife's name was adorning the marquee of a transvestite nightclub, Lemmon's lawyers threatened legal action if the Felicia-come-lately didn't change her stage name.
"Who knew there was another Felicia Farr?" asks Felicia, who simply altered the spelling of her last name. "Shit, I never even heard of this dame."
By the mid-'80s, there were few habitués of the Phoenix gay bar scene who hadn't heard of -- or seen -- Felicia Fahr, the brassy new girl in town who held court in the 307's ribald weekend revues. Whether impersonating Cher, Joan Rivers or Barbra Streisand or participating in elaborately costumed production numbers like "Dueling Dollys" (a surreal number involving soundtracks from multiple productions of Hello, Dolly!), Fahr handily held her own again a cast of Valley vets that included the late Tish Tanner and Penelope Poupee, Ebony, Cissy Goldberg, Lady Cossandra and a rotating roster of others. As captivating offstage as on, she delighted clubgoers during breaks by wandering through the audience like a world-weary clip-joint hostess in a B movie, dropping pithy bons mots before moving on to the next table.
"She was a very good entertainer," says local female impersonator Miss Antewenette, the reigning Miss Gay Pride Phoenix. "For a long time, at least, she was one of the best," says the pageant winner, who has weathered a sometimes stormy 15-year relationship with Felicia.
Barbara Seville, the dizzy persona of Richard Stevens, a local drag performer who also hosts KZZP's dishy Lather, Rinse, Repeat radio show, is even more expansive in his praise. "When I first started going out to the bars, she was an inspiration to me. If it hadn't been for her, I might not be doing what I'm doing today." Pause. "And that's why it's so sad to see what's happened to her over the past four or five years."
While some colleagues might question Felicia's more extravagant claims (during her heyday, she claimed to routinely make $300 a night in tips and boasted of owning a closetful of $700 gowns), few can argue that the larger-than-life virago was a crowd-pleasing cutup. She was a top-liner at 307 for more than a decade, and for years, her over-the-top charity birthday bashes at the club (she variously claimed to be anywhere from 57 to 67) were one of the hottest tickets in town. Today, she's still got a knee-high pile of plaques and commendations attesting to her various good works in the gay fund-raising arena.
But if the public saw her as a selfless Mother Teresa in a Bob Mackey knockoff, fellow performers viewed her as a tough cookie who had less in common with Oscar de la Renta than she did with Oscar de la Hoya.
"She is a wonderful, warm, giving person," says one fellow performer, who, like most contacted for this article (including some at Felicia's behest), spoke on the condition of anonymity. "She is also a mean, cold-hearted, taking person. The reason I got along with her as well as I did was that I was smart enough to stay out of her way. I like Felicia -- but at a distance. The name is Felicia Fahr, as in fahr away. She's stepped on a lot of toes in her time."
By Felicia's own admission, she also administered her fair share of fat lips, whooped derrières and bruised egos. Annoyed when a drag queen sitting at ringside insisted upon singing along during Felicia's Tina Turner impersonation, Felicia hauled the offender out into the alley for a woman-to-woman talk. "I said, 'You -- outside!'" recalls Felicia, obviously relishing the memory. "She pushed me first, so I really gonged her one. Knocked her glasses off and stepped on them. She was bawling by then, but she had the nerve to turn around and try to walk back in the bar. So I grabbed her, kicked her in the ass and said, 'You're not going back in there. Go down to Cruisin' Central [a Central Avenue dive], you little whore!" (Miss Antewenette, the aggrieved party, acknowledges the incident but says the two have since mended fences.)
Another pageant queen suffered the wrath of Felicia when she interrupted the performer's big Beauty and the Beast waltz number when she climbed onstage in mid-song and began dancing herself.
"I had to take her outside, too," says Felicia. "I tore her gown off, threw her crown across the street and sent her on her way. I grew up with four brothers, and they taught me if you don't beat the shit out of someone, they're going to beat the shit out of you."
If Felicia Fahr seems to delight in crowning pageant winners, it might be because she's only worn the tiara once herself -- and that was the result of a fluke.
"I was a first runner-up," she explains of her mid-'90s stint as a substitute Miss Gay Pride Phoenix. "They had to crown me after the reigning Miss Gay Pride was busted for selling dope and she had to step down."
By all accounts, her acceptance speech was not soon to be forgotten by any who heard it. "I let those bastards have it," says Felicia, who used the occasion to deliver a heartfelt apologia. "What bugs me about Gay Pride is everyone is always like, 'You have to accept me because I'm gay.' Well, maybe they will, when the gays start accepting themselves. All you hear is 'That fuckin' drag queen' and 'I hate lesbians.' Me, I never got any further in those pageants because I'm a titty queen and they can't handle that. They want people to start accepting themselves. They can't even accept their own lifestyles. Don't come talking to me with that stuff."
For reasons that are impossible to pinpoint with any accuracy, Felicia Fahr's growing disenchantment with the local gay scene was, by the mid-'90s, a mutual burgeoning antipathy.
Dismissed from her longtime 307 gig over what she claims was a trumped-up charge of unapproved absences (the club's owners could not be reached for comment), Felicia subsequently performed at The Park and Wink's, two other popular drag venues. But those gigs were relatively short-lived; like the 307, they too ended over a series of foggy "misunderstandings."
Essentially diva non grata on the local gay circuit, the once ubiquitous performer virtually disappeared from sight, spawning widespread rumors of drug use. At the memorial service of fellow performer Tish Tanner last year, Felicia unwittingly lent fuel to those tales when she appeared rail-thin and haggard.
"If I was on crack like everyone says I was, I'd have never been at the 307 and held that damn place together for as long as I did," she says. "I don't have to defend myself to anyone! I've been through the mill. I'm sick."
No one had heard that Felicia was suffering from breast cancer until October.
That's when, without Felicia's knowledge, a friend arranged a series of benefits at three local gay bars. Because of the seemingly haphazard nature of the fund raisers (asked for details about the fund raisers prior to the event, bar employees could barely supply even the sketchiest of details) and rampant rumors of Felicia's alleged drug abuse, more than a few colleagues smelled a rat. It probably didn't help that the friend (who could not be reached for comment) grossly overstated the imminence of her demise.
"Shit, she was telling people I had a week and a half," sputters Felicia, who has since severed her relations with the pal. "Hell, I don't want to be known as a charity case. I've always been independent and I've always paid my own way. It bothered me a lot that [the friend who arranged the benefits] pulled all this shit without telling me first."
That said, Felicia reports that the sparsely attended benefits did help out financially; she and her boyfriend subsist on his pay from his job in the kitchen at a retirement home.
Still, Felicia wound up giving half the proceeds (several hundred dollars, to the best of her recollection) to the friend who arranged the event. With the benefit of hindsight, even Felicia admits that wasn't the most felicitous tactic. "This was supposed to be a benefit for me and people see someone else digging through the tip jar? I'd wonder what was going on, myself."
Still, she has trouble fathoming the apparent "show me" attitude toward her disease exhibited by the community to which she once devoted so much time and energy.
Apprised of Felicia's cancer, one fellow performer issues the cryptic appraisal "odd." Elaborating slightly, "Let's just say I think this situation is very odd." Others, meanwhile, are more openly skeptical. "Breast cancer?!" asks another female impersonator. "If Felicia's ill, I'm truly sorry to hear it -- but I won't believe it until I see a biopsy report."
In the event that such a report does exist, Felicia Fahr has no intention of giving her detractors the satisfaction of making it public. Nor would she share her medical records with New Times or let a writer talk to her doctors.
Instead, she bares her breasts and invites a visitor to feel a mass of lumps that run across her bosom, from one armpit to the other. (While this cluster of lumps doesn't prove the existence of cancer, the presence of these knots cannot be healthy, either.)
It's hard to conceive of a situation fraught with more irony: A biological man spends the better part of his life in quest of cosmetic femininity, only to be stricken with one of the worst diseases a woman can possibly contract. Refusing all treatment, he suddenly comes to peace with himself and, finally, decides to let nature take its course.
But any similarities between the failing entertainer and the heroine of a very dark O. Henry tale appear to be lost on Felicia Fahr.
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Her days as one of the Valley's most unique celebrities clearly over, she instead ponders her place in the cosmic limelight where she'll one day headline unto eternity.
"Here," she says, "this says it best." Rummaging through a battered cardboard box filled with old snapshots, dog-eared awards and yellowing fliers for 307 shows, she finds a third-generation photocopy of "I'm Free," an "Author Anonymous" poem about dying you might see on a Hallmark plaque.
While digging through the carton, she also runs across a certificate she earned in a bygone Miss Gay Pride contest.
"After all those fucking people calling me a fucking bitch and everything," she laughs, fighting back a cough. "Can you imagine me being named Miss Congeniality?"