There is an art form to Drag Queen Bingo, and like any artistic endeavor, there is a method to the madness: Play by the rules or risk public scorn — all in the name of fun, of course.
On a late fall night, two women walk into a crowded Five15, a Royal Oak gift shop by day, Drag Queen Bingo site by night three times a week. They try — unsuccessfully — to sneak into the packed room as hostess Lauren Jacobs, wearing a dark-striped shirt and tight black pants with knee-high boots, gets ready to kick off the show.
“Will you sit the [expletive] down already?” says an irritated Jacobs (whose real name is Larry Cotton). As the embarrassed women scurry toward a table, Jacobs immediately calls them out.
“That table is reserved. There are two seats right here,” Jacobs says, pointing to a table with their waiting friends up front.
The two leave, never to return.
“Come back inside!” Jacobs yells, as they exit. She turns around to tell the audience: “I don’t have time for this [expletive].”
The pair broke two rules of Drag Queen Bingo: Don’t be late and be prepared for ridicule.
“I’m an equal opportunity b—-. I will pick on everyone in here. … I already have your money,” says Jacobs, who lets the insults fly about as fast as she calls bingo numbers.
After the show, Jacobs likens the “queen of mean” persona to Sophia from The Golden Girls.
“I got a reputation for being brutally honest. I say what [people are] thinking and are afraid to say,” says Cotton, who works as a personal chef and caterer by day. The 45-year-old longtime performer from Chicago makes the trip weekly to host bingo on Thursdays, adding it’s one of his favorite roles because of the audience response.
Tyler Cooper, aka “Sabin,” one of four hosts who performs the third weekend of the month, is the originator of Five15’s Drag Queen Bingo. He says you have “to take off the bulletproof vest” when you walk in because “nothing is off-limits.” Anything is fair game: clothing, hair, and spouses.
Aside from Sabin and Jacobs, there are three other bingo hostesses: Gia Diamond, September Murphy, and Trixie Deluxxe.
Ed Dobski, 43, a Waterford native, makes the trek from his Orlando, Fla., home to perform as Trixie Deluxxe the first weekend of the month. Deluxxe is considered the “G-rated” hostess “and the least dirty,” relatively speaking.
“I’m the one you can bring your grandmother to,” Dobski says, “and still make her blush.”
Many of the jokes can’t be printed here. But Nancy Gaarenstroom of Warren, who came to watch with three friends, will never think of salad or croutons the same way again. “It’s been educational,” she says.
Whether they’re G- or X-rated, all hostesses aim to engage the audience, making for a very interactive round of bingo.
Just make sure you really have bingo when you say so. After one winner was announced, Jacobs continued to call out numbers for a double bingo (going for a second bingo after the first bingo on the same card). An overenthusiastic player called out “Bingo!”
“Is it a double bingo?” Jacobs asked, skeptically. No, was the sheepish reply. “Didn’t I say it was gonna happen? What do we say?”
Collectively the crowd yells out “shut the [expletive] up!”
You don’t have to be female to attend Drag Queen Bingo, although a typical audience includes bachelorette parties and “girls night out” groups.
Men should be prepared to be made fun of. Just ask Joseph Zarazua of Detroit, one of three men in the audience on this particular night, whom Jacobs zeroes in on and dubs “Jose.” Despite the constant jokes, Zarazua wasn’t scared away, saying it was “actually fun.” But “if I bring someone here I’m not going to warn them,” he says with a mischievous grin.
“You have to be able to take a joke,” says Marie Harrington of Troy. “It’s all about adult humor.”
Jacobs even pokes fun at herself. “Don’t judge me. I’m a man in a wig.”
Sometimes the jokes are on the hosts. One night, Sabin, known as the “angry drag queen,” turned on the mic to broadcast outside and started yelling, “Hey, Kenny Rogers!” at an elderly man walking by. The man didn’t turn his head and kept going — but expressed his strong opinion. “He flipped me off; I almost peed myself,” says Cooper, a 30-year-old who lives in Hazel Park and works in a medical office. But he loved the reaction; it’s about entertainment.
It’s the game of bingo you might not want to win, Five15 co-owner Gary Baglio says. The prizes include mugs and T-shirts with inappropriate sayings. Here’s a rare printable one: “If you’re looking for trouble, you’ve hit the jackpot.”
“It’s a place for ladies to come and let their hair down, come with their girlfriends and laugh and not worry about getting hit on,” Baglio says.
“My cheeks hurt from laughing,” says Kari Hays, a teacher from Rochester Hills who came with her friends Jamie Stratford, an engineer from Pontiac, and Amy Mikiciuk, a Troy resident who works in the auto industry. “The raunchier the better; sometimes you need a good laugh.”
The event started as a fundraiser, and Baglio then started offering it two Saturdays a month. He started marketing it exclusively toward the gay community. But Five15 was missing out on an untapped market of people unfamiliar with the hijinks and hilarity of Drag Queen Bingo.
By 2009, the event started generating buzz through word of mouth and the crowds grew larger with unlikely groups pouring in. First, it was the Red Hat ladies, he says. Then the housewives. Then housewives and their husbands. The audience has evolved over the years, with different crowds coming to different shows; later shows bring in the bar crowds, couples on dates, and more men.
Baglio added another Saturday show, then Friday, and then Sunday brunches. Recently Five15 started Thursday night Drag Queen Bingo. Tickets for Friday and Saturday evenings often sell out, with the brunches selling out weeks in advance.
It’s also one of the top-selling deals in Michigan, according to Groupon. Between their deals in August and October, Five15 sold a total of 1,500 vouchers and sold out in hours.
When Five15 started offering bingo, Baglio says, “Royal Oak was this sleepy town. I thought, ‘I’ve got to do something to wake it up.’ ”
Five years later, Royal Oak — and Michigan — has definitely woken up to the sounds of raunchy jokes and roars of laughter.
Tickets for Drag Queen Bingo are $20. For more information, go to five15.net.