Back in the ‘80s, Howard Hicks was already out to his younger sister when he brought her along to his bartending gig at the popular gay bar Rascals. But she didn't know he was also a drag queen there, so when guys started referring to him as Gladys, she was more than a bit confused. "Why are they calling you Glen?" she asked.
So what do you call him? He's known as Howard Hicks, the bartender at Omega. And he's known as Gladys Kravitz, the drag and karaoke queen of the Mid-Atlantic. He's rarely known as both to any one person, since he rarely appears as both at any one place.
It's a colorful, knotty wig he's created for himself as Gladys -- a wig that offers anonymity, as well as the playful schadenfreude moments when, as Howard, he greets an acquaintance of Gladys by name. "You can just see the guy's mind reeling: ‘How does he know my name? Did I sleep with him?'" Howard laughs.
But Gladys has just as much fun -- if not more -- as Howard does.
"You get away with a lot more in a dress," he explains. "You can talk to a total stranger, you can flirt with him without him worrying that you're hitting on him."
Gladys has plenty of tricks up her bustier when she hosts karaoke nights at Badlands and Windows. Her specialty? "She likes getting cute boys to sing in their underwear or with their shirts off," Howard says. "I mean, what's the sense of going to the gym if they don't show it off?" Getting people to expose themselves is what karaoke is all about, and who better to lead the charge than the namesake of Samantha's busybody neighbor on Bewitched?
Howard is not what you might expect as the gregarious Gladys's alter ego. While Gladys likes big, Dusty Springfield-style, sprayed-on hair, the handsome Howard prefers a simple, combed-through look for his blond mane. While Gladys frolics in glamour-puss dresses, Howard is likely to show up in a plain t-shirt and jeans.
Howard is Gladys's "calmer, sedate, level-headed side of life." A self-described homebody, Howard loves working in the garden or on the home that he owns with Steve, his partner of nearly eight years. He also likes sitting in front of the TV, watching TLC's ever-entertaining and ever-gay home remodeling show Trading Spaces.
Yet he's seldom home, working as many as six nights a week in five different venues, in four different cities, all three or so hours apart: D.C., Rehoboth, Philadelphia, and starting Feb. 21, York, Pennsylvania. And then there's Omega, where Howard tends bar Sunday and Wednesday nights.
And the dualities are always just below the surface. Howard has been a D.C. bartender for twenty years come this Memorial Day -- but he himself doesn't drink ("My drinking days are over," he says). As Gladys, he's a drag queen -- but only for work and at work (he shows up and leaves each bar as Howard). And it's probably Howard's influence, but Gladys is unexpectedly modest for a drag queen, stressing that her appearances aren't about her, but about the audience, about the people who want to embarrass themselves by singing.
But even if she's modest, Gladys has dreams -- maybe pontificating on ABC's Politically Incorrect. The world could use another "Rush Limbaugh or Laura Schlesinger, but one who's a little more risqué and to the left," Howard says.
Maybe the world could use Gladys. But Howard isn't sure she's ready for the world. He's content at the moment with his "diversified" life: It keeps him from burning out on either bartending or drag, or getting "overexposed" by appearing too often in front of the same crowds.
He's glad, too, that Washington has really taken to drag queens.
"Fifteen years ago people said D.C. wasn't a good place for drag, but now you have girls winning national competitions, touring around the country," he says. "Anywhere you go now, there's a drag show."
When the energetic Howard tells you he's "getting wound up for a mid-life crisis," you don't really believe him. Sure, he's about to turn 40, but this is a man who honestly wants to live to 120 years of age. "I think it's sad that our community is so opposed to aging and dismisses those who are not of a certain age as not worth the time. But there are a lot of influential, handsome forty-year-olds. I look forward to being 67 -- I think I'll be more attractive then, not less."
As Gladys surely, but as Howard?
"Even more attractive as Howard than as Gladys," he laughs.