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Illustration by Lily Moline

The bright, brassy mark Lady Pearl left on Gainesville

It isn’t difficult to imagine the University Club packed wall-to-wall, vibrating with energy and the thump of dance music. With three floors, multiple bars, pulsating strobe lights, a way-too-small dance floor and an outside balcony for the club’s more nicotine-inclined customers, the UC is tailored for all-night excitement.

On a Friday night around 7:30, however, the club is decidedly subdued. Patrons mosey around the club’s middle floor, nursing a cocktail more often than not, while a stray few dance on the floor below as a pianist plays Adele and Whitney Houston.

But any hint of calm is thrown out the window when 11:30 rolls around, and the evening’s main event is underway: the drag show.

The lights dim. The dance floor clears and becomes a stage. A spotlight flickers to life, falling on the first queen of the night, dressed in a costume festooned with sequins, feathers and jewels. The crowd bursts into applause, and each queen launches into a song and dance number right on the floor with the audience. All of this unfolds under the watchful eye of Lady Pearl, whose image looks out from a portrait hanging above the building’s first staircase.

Lady Pearl also watches throughout the evening, as the nightlife flows in, from a poster outside the club’s entrance on East University Avenue. It’s a recent addition, replaced after a number of years in retirement. Where before it was used as a marquee for Pearl’s iconic Thursday and Friday college nights at the UC, it now serves as a memorial to Lady Pearl, who passed away from liver cancer in August.

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Lady Pearl, whose birth name was William Moorehead, was born in Williston, Fla., in 1960. Moorehead, or “Brent” as her family knew her, joined the UC after persistently approaching co-owner Mark Spangler about working there in 1991. At the time, the UC had only been open for about a year.

After hosting an incredibly successful AIDS fundraiser in April 1991, Spangler said that Pearl became, for all intents and purposes, the public face and voice of the UC. Unlike many drag queens, Pearl’s performance was more than song and dance. All 280 pounds, 6 feet and 8 inches of her had gravitas.

“A lot of people can perform and be on stage,” Spangler said. “But to do the MCing — that’s what separated her. She had the whole package.”

Pearl’s skill as an MC reflected her ability to captivate and control an audience. When people discuss her onstage persona, she is described as a boisterous, chaotic, confrontational force of nature. Pearl was infamous for picking on the UC patrons and directly involving them in the show, Spangler said, often dragging visibly uncomfortable straight men into the spotlight.

“Thursday nights used to be dead,” Spangler said. “Pearl transformed them into the UC’s most popular night.”

Acting as both host and performer for Thursday and Friday nights’ entertainment at the UC for over 20 years, Pearl established a rapport not just with regulars, but with the Gainesville community as a whole.

Tom Miller, a Gainesville performance artist who had a cable access show with Pearl in the ‘90s, and Spangler both said that people who normally wouldn’t go near a gay club started coming to see and get picked on by Pearl.

Miller said Pearl was often a feature entertainer at fraternity and sorority parties. He and Pearl had even taken their drag show to punk clubs.

“Really,” he said, “who’s going to mess with a man the size of a linebacker in a dress?”

Miller went on to say that Pearl’s ventures into nontypical shows was game-changing.

“Before then, drag queens just didn’t perform for non-gay audiences such as fraternities or punk rockers,” he said. “Mostly, folks warmed to her comedy and charms and found themselves far more tolerant than they ever might have imagined.”

Pearl’s notoriety reached far beyond the immediate Gainesville area, Spangler said. When Pearl initially planned on retiring in 2010, her farewell show drew fans and friends from across Florida, from Orlando to Miami.

“We were even voted No. 1 gay club (by Playgirl magazine) in the United States for heterosexual people to meet and hook up,” Spangler said. “And that has a lot to do with Pearl, ‘cause she paved the way for people to come in here and not judge gay people.”

According to her friends and co-workers, it was her penchant for comedy that allowed Pearl to not only be as successful as she was, but to break down cultural barriers between the LGBTQ+ and mainstream communities.

When Pearl began her career, the AIDS epidemic had thrust homosexuality into the national spotlight, and gay rights did not have support from the general public like they do today. Through her onstage comedy, Pearl provided a human element to the LGBTQ+ community that those outside it had mostly never seen.

As well known as her crass, confident stage antics and public persona were, Pearl’s co-workers at the UC and those who identified within the LGBTQ+ spectrum were privy to sides of Pearl that often went unseen: mentor, mother and philanthropist.

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Sitting in the same dressing room where she and Pearl learned the tricks of the trade, one of Pearl’s co-workers, India Brooks, spoke of her with reverence. She could get away with pushing people’s buttons.

“If I said half the things she said,” India said, “I would have gotten beaten up after the show.”

India began her career at the UC around the same time as Pearl. She said she initially thought of Pearl as competition, despite her unusual drag persona.

“Back in those days in drag, you were supposed to be very realistic. When you put on your drag, you should be able to go out on the street and fool people,” Brooks said. “And Pearl was never able to do that.”

It wasn’t long before India gained respect for Pearl not only as a peer, but as a surrogate family member. Most of all, she said, she looked up to Pearl for her quick wit, sharp tongue and electric stage presence.

“Back in the day, when we were rivals, I wanted to show-direct. I wanted to MC. But there was no way I could ever match her wit on the microphone,” she said. “She could keep an audience’s attention for an hour just talking.”

After fondly speaking at length about Pearl and her impact, there was only a single moment that Brooks paused to choose her words.

Brooks has been doing drag performances since the ‘90s and rarely gives up her position at the top, which she’s worked hard to achieve. But she makes an exception for Pearl.

“I daresay, Pearl was more talented than me,” Brooks said, before smiling and appending herself. “In what she did.”

When the curtains went down, Pearl showed an openness and vulnerability most people would be surprised to know existed, Brooks said. And Brooks, who completed her transition in 1996, would speak with Pearl at length about their respective gender identities.

“Something that most people don’t know is that Pearl was a transgender woman, just as I am,” Brooks said. “There was no Will. Will was a name given to her by her family. Pearl was who she really was… Unless you’re transgender, it’s hard to understand.”

Drag is a profession for these women. It’s a form of performance art. But being transgender is an altogether different experience: It’s their identity. It is who they are when they wipe away the makeup and the sequin dresses comes off.

Despite keeping the details of her personal life from the public, Pearl was able to use the stage as catharsis, Brooks said.

In fact, Pearl’s hardships spurred her to help others. And given that her first performance was a charity event, it was only appropriate that philanthropy would help define her career.

UC performer Ororo Jackson said Pearl would organize events for Gainesville’s Toys for Tots and Salvation Army, often doing more than was expected.

“If they didn’t have enough toys, she would donate money to them,” Jackson said. “She didn’t tell a lot of people.”

Despite her multitude of public achievements and accolades, Pearl’s greatest legacy may be one most people will never see. Derek Bass, a 21-year-old Santa Fe student and regular at the UC, recounted how when he was 18, he and his friends would make the hour-and-a-half trek from their hometown just to see Pearl.

“She was someone I idolized for a little while,” Bass said. “She convinced me to come out to my family. She convinced a lot of people to just be who they are.”

Coming from a town of about 600 people, Bass said, Pearl made him feel accepted and inspired him to be proud of his identity.

“She figured that no matter who you were, you could come into the UC and be whoever you wanted to be,” he said. “I could be whoever I wanted to be for the night.”

For over 20 years, Lady Pearl introduced many people to the world of drag. Kelly Kelly, another UC performer and one of Pearl’s last protégés, said she viewed Pearl as a mother figure. Regardless of your sexual orientation or gender identity, Kelly said, Lady Pearl made sure you had a place to call home when you stepped into the UC.

“Pearl would cuss everyone out if she saw the girls crying over her death,” Kelly said. “She’d say, ‘The show must go on; fix your hair.’”