Arts, Career, Entrepreneurs, Play, Slide Show — February 12, 2012 7:51 pm

Fit for a Queen

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A Cincinnati drag performer turned a hobby into a business with his one-stop costume shop for queens near and far.

Employees at the Sweatshoppe in Cincinnati create wigs, costumes and make-up for drag queens. Photo by Lauren Purkey.

Tucked away on a dead-end street in one of Cincinnati’s roughest neighborhoods is a rather nondescript 19th-century row house, identified only by a tiny sign in the window reading, “Sweatshoppe.” Visitors typically are greeted not by the shop’s bigger-than-life owner, but by a choking haze of hairspray that permeates the long and narrow workspace. (Do not light a match in here.)

Sweatshoppe owner Tony Cody puts the finishing touches on a wig, adding to the hairspray haze in the Cincinnati shop. Photo by Lauren Purkey.

The Sweatshoppe is a hobby-turned-business run by Tony Cody, a.k.a. “Penny Tration,” Cincinnati’s preeminent drag queen extraordinaire. Standing well over 6 feet tall before donning high heels, Cody is quite the imposing figure as he waltzes through the maze of desks, baker’s racks jammed with faux hair, makeup, masses of foam rubber, and can upon can of hairspray and aerosol glue. This hydrocarbon heaven is lined with so many different raw materials used to make drag queen wigs, costumes and makeup that Cody didn’t even need to hang a rainbow flag inside. The Sweatshoppe is a rainbow flag.

Cody’s life as a drag performer has certainly always been this cluttered, but only more recently has it evolved into a profitable mini-empire. “One of the most important things I’ve learned,” he says, “is that life doesn’t care what your plans are.”

Cody, performing as his drag persona Penny, has been an icon in the Midwest drag scene for decades. But the road that got him here is much like the community of his fans and supporters: far from straight. “My family is from Cincinnati, but I was raised in southern California, which is about as camp as it gets,” Cody says. “I decided to move to Cincinnati when I was younger so I could spend more time with my family. Then, on a whim, I decided to move to New York City with a friend of mine. I had just gotten dumped by my then-husband and I thought, ‘What the hell. Why not?’ So off I went to the Big Apple.”

Donning his "Penny Tration" persona, Cody is the emcee every Friday and Saturday night at The Cabaret lounge in Cincinnati. Photo by Lauren Purkey.

While in New York, Cody began a 17-year stint in the everyday 9-5 workforce, first with advertising and PR firm Ogilvy and Mather. The New York show circuit drew him in, though, and Cody soon found himself getting more involved in drag. “I never thought of drag as something I wanted to do,” he says. “When I was in New York I got really involved in doing hair and makeup for the big names in drag. I was backstage at major clubs, on television sets [doing makeup for] really famous queens for commercials. I still didn’t want to do drag myself, but that creative aspect of drag was something I craved.”

It wasn’t long before Cody’s life’s plans changed again; he decided to move back to Cincinnati to once again be closer to his family. “As cool as New York is, and as cool as it was to live there, Cincinnati always felt more like home,” he says. Fittingly, he was living in the Queen City—that is, after all, one of Cincinnati’s nicknames, although for very different reasons—when he began performing as Penny Tration. “I never had thought of drag as anything more than just a hobby; I never wanted to make money from it. I started performing more for charity,” he says, adding that his shows benefitted local HIV/AIDS charities. “I just wanted to make a difference.”

By the early 2000s, he was making a significant difference, traveling and performing in some of the country’s most famous bars and clubs. “I figured I’d move to Atlanta or San Francisco to utilize the professional skills I learned working for Ogilvy and Mather in New York,” he says. “But then I got a call from the people at the retail architecture firm FRCH here in Cincinnati. They brought me in for two weeks to help them draft some proposals for a huge project they had coming up. Next thing I know it’s seven years later and I was still working for them.“

Cody as "Penny Tration" at The Cabaret. Photo by Lauren Purkey.

Cody also signed on to become volunteer show director at the Cincinnati club Adonis, while still holding down the 9-5 FRCH job. “I got to meet and work with queens from all over the place,” he says. “That show director gig was a lot of work, but I enjoyed it because of the variety it gave me.”

When the economy crashed, FRCH had to lay off a massive portion of its workforce—and Cody was one of them. Adonis wasn’t able to pay him for his work as a show director, so things looked grim, financially, for the Cincinnati queen.

Cody says he managed to get through this rough phase thanks to Will Reed, his partner of five years. “We met via a mutual friend,” Cody explains. “He’s at the very edge of my ‘10-year-age-difference’ rule, but I asked him out and the rest is history. I always made it clear to Will, even through my unemployment period, that I am responsible for paying the bills. I’ve always supported his dream of becoming a singer, so I’ve always been committed to being the provider for us.”

Tony Cody outside the Sweatshoppe in Cincinnati. Photo by Lauren Purkey.

Cody capitalized on his legendary skills as a drag costume maker to help himself and Reed through the hard times. “I had been making wigs and pads and things in the basement for a long time,” Cody explains. “I sold them online for fun, and for a bit of extra income. After I got laid off from FRCH I needed that extra income, so I ramped up my production and started doing it with [nationally known drag queen] Mystique Summers. It finally hit me that drag really could be my career. I could make money doing this. Who knew?”

Reed supported Cody’s decision, recognizing his partner’s creative talents. “When faced with a challenge, ‘no’ is not an answer Tony will accept,” Reed says. “With Tony, though, work never comes first; family does. But sometimes it’s [necessary] to work so you can have a family.”

And so it began: Cody rented a small space and opened the Sweatshoppe, where he and a few other employees work five days a week, making wigs, pads and custom costumes to sell online to drag queens from around the world. It’s a rare one-stop shop for drag-queen clientele.

Nationally known drag queen Mystique Summers steps out at The Cabaret. Photo by Lauren Purkey.

But the Sweatshoppe wasn’t Cody’s only business venture: He also helped open Cincinnati’s first dedicated drag-show venue, converting the second floor of the Below Zero lounge into The Cabaret, a cozy lounge with a large stage that features two drag shows on Thursday through Sunday nights. The Cabaret employs a regular cast of queens who not only perform, but also serve drinks to the patrons in between shows. “The people explicitly come to see a drag show,” Cody says. “They’re not getting pissy at us for being on their dance floor like they do at other places. The great part is that between The Cabaret and the Sweatshoppe, I gross the same amount of money per month as I did working my 9-5 job even after I pay rent, utilities and my employees.”

Already having earned an impressive reputation as a performer, Cody now is equally recognized as a successful entrepreneur. “Penny is a role model in every way imaginable,” says fellow drag queen and Cabaret employee Mirelle Jane “Delicate Flower” Divine, who has worked with Cody for years. “She [Cody/Penny] successfully turned her hobby into her full-time career, which I think deserves the utmost respect. She’s an admirable business woman.”

Cody contemplates new wig inventory pinned on the wall at the Sweatshoppe. Photo by Lauren Purkey.

And after 20 years in the drag business, Cody has no interest in slowing down. His fans, friends and customers at The Cabaret and the Sweatshoppe are eager to see what he’ll cook up next. But although he’s warding off a mid-life crisis with gusto and flair, there are some parts of life he can’t change.

“The other day I’m like, ‘Bitch, I’m 40,’” he says. “How the hell did that happen?”  

 

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