Behind the black, glittery curtain and the wafting scent of hairspray lingering on the stage of Big Wigs conceals a dedicated staff of people with one common goal: making their guests feel welcome, appreciated and glamorous.
Big Wigs opened its doors on Oct. 22 this year and will host its grand opening this weekend. Rusty Brammer owns and operates the bar but is far more than a business owner. He might even be more well known as Vanessa Taylor, who has been performing drag for the past 25 years. These days, he keeps busy with managing Big Wigs, where he performs as Vanessa Taylor for two shows every Friday and Saturday. But this wasn't always what his life was like.
“When I turned 21, I discovered drag, and that completely changed what I thought I wanted to do,” said Brammer.
Brammer recalls going to The Garden, a gay bar in Des Moines, when he turned 21 and seeing drag for the first time. Years later, in 2013, Brammer would become a partner owner of The Garden. For two years, he worked his day job as well as remodeled and operated The Garden.
After taking a step back from the world of drag and working as an entertainer, Brammer had the opportunity to buy and remodel his grandparents' home last summer. With the money he made flipping the house, he knew he wanted to open a drag bar, and he had a feeling that he needed to open one in Ames.
“I didn’t know for sure where I wanted to do it at, but one of the options was always Ames. I always thought Ames should have a gay bar,” said Brammer.
Brammer also had insight thanks to his history in the Ames and Des Moines drag community. In his twenties, Brammer hosted shows at local bars around Ames to make money. He recruited other queens to perform and never had any trouble crowding a bar with an audience, even on a Tuesday night.
He knew what it took to make guests feel welcomed and to keep people coming back. Ultimately, Brammer knew exactly what he wanted from his new bar. Down to the people who worked there, he had a clear vision of what it would be like to have a drink, what it would taste like and who would serve it to you. He knew he wanted Mia “Coco” Marnell to be that person.
“At the time, I think Vanessa was working another job up north and eventually these ideas kind of came together and she was serious about it,” said Marnell. “And I didn’t realize she was so serious, but she told me one day she found a building, and found a contract, and signed it and we’re gonna start doing that.”
Marnell has years of experience behind the bar, but like Brammer, she does a lot more. She also owns Big Girl Nails. She does custom nail sets for the drag community and even for drag queen Dominique Cass, a show cast queen at Big Wigs.
“It was a lot of long nights, and Coco was right there with me, working, doing all the projects and stuff, my friend Randy helped me do some of the construction and stuff, but mostly it was me and Coco,” said Brammer.
The bar has a room equipped with arcade games, pink upholstered pool tables and a claw machine that the staff lovingly refers to as the “Gayme Room”. There is no shortage of gaudy chandeliers, zebra print accents or the color pink throughout the space.
“I also wanted a game room, but not just a game room, I wanted pink pool tables,” said Brammer.
The entire venue is a large, open space and Brammer has plans to use all of it. In the future he hopes to host other events like drag brunch on Sundays and drag bingo, have custom cakes for order and, of course, continue with hosting drag shows Friday and Saturday nights.
Dominique Cass met Brammer through the drag community in Ames. In 2009, Rusty dressed Cass for the Miss Gay Iowa pagent, which she won that year. Dominique Cass is Junior Jimenez’s drag name.
“When I’m a boy you can call me Dominique, Dom, crazy, whatever, I don’t care,” laughed Cass.
For Cass, agreeing to be in Brammer's show cast was a no brainer. Despite needing to commute from Cedar Rapids where she works and saying goodbye to her weekend availability, this was something she wanted to do.
“It’s something I enjoy, the moneys good too, not gonna lie,” said Cass. “Drag hasn’t died, people enjoy it.”
After performing drag for 16 years, Cass is to the point where she can get her drag look on in about a half an hour. She’s no stranger to the stage, but recalls what it was like in the beginning.
“Everyone on cast is seasoned, I would say pageant girls, where we like the glamour,” said Cass.
The show cast at Big Wigs consists of five entertainers, including Host Vanessa Taylor.
Classic, glamorous drag is what Brammer and his cast do best. Feathers, sequins, glitter and rhinestones are staples in every show, as well as fully styled wigs and drag make up. No one gets on stage with any stubble or shadow. Bodies are shaped and molded to get everything in the right places. Brammer holds his cast to a standard that leaves little room for mediocrity but freedom for creativity.
“Everybody knows Selena, and I own my Latino heritage and Latin culture and I love doing Selena,” said Cass. “I’ve had people crying in the audience before when I come out and do Selena.”
At the end of the day, what Brammer wants most of all for Big Wigs is to be a place where anyone can come and feel welcomed, a place where people have no hesitations to be themselves.
“I mean, it's very different in the sense that it’s an LGBTQ bar, like it’s a lot more inclusive, not to say that other bars aren’t inclusive, but it’s definitely got a more welcoming feel,” said Ebony Trout, a senior at Iowa State and an animal ecology major.
Trout sees Big Wigs as a great opportunity for students on campus, whether they identify as LGBTQ or not. Students have the chance to try something new and branch out from the typical college bar scene.
“‘If you are interested in learning a little bit about drag or seeing a drag show, come in. I’m sure they would love to have people coming in,” said Trout.
According to Marnell, Big Wigs could also be a place for LGBTQ student organizations to host meetings or gatherings. Most college age students are welcomed, because it is an 18+ bar, so it’s not the kind of place where you have to drink to be welcomed.
“Hopefully, bring in some charity organizations too and do some fundraising and what-not here,” said Marnell.
For years, Ames has welcomed drag shows and performers to the stage of local bars for weekly or monthly events, but rarely regularly scheduled shows. Big Wigs is the first bar in approximately 16 years that is owned and operated as a gay bar by a gay person. Brammer and his staff know this is something to be proud of.
“There's never a night we’re not proud here, so it's like a home really, for people who may not have felt so at home before at other places,” said Marnell.