Berry Ayers is feeling especially sexy today.
It’s raining and he’s standing in a doorway at the Golden Apple Dinner Theatre smoking a cigarette in a $7 Calvin Klein dress, rhinestone choker and high heels.
As cool drizzle lands on Pineapple Avenue, a hot mist rises from the concrete. Despite the properties of humidity, the weather fails to flatten the actor’s loose brunette curls.
“When I first started, I had mostly boy clothes and one skirt I bought from Wal-Mart,” Ayers says, scanning his ample décolleté. “Now I’ve got all these lace-front wigs and amazing dresses.”
To the cars whizzing past, Ayers is any curvy woman in a short dress who is taking long pulls off a cigarette. But to his adoring fans, he’s Beneva Fruitville, the plucky God-fearing Southern belle with a dirty mouth who hosts the Golden Apple’s “Drag Queen Bingo” every Friday night.
He sets his purple purse on a table in the theater’s dark lobby. Other than his dress, it’s the shiniest, brightest thing in the room.
“When I’m dressed as Beneva, I prefer to be called feminine pronouns,” Ayers says, reclining in a bucket seat and crossing his legs. “I don’t necessarily mind if someone calls me Berry. I get it a lot when someone recognizes me, but I’m not afraid to correct them.”
Even under a fan of fake eyelashes, Ayers, 35, is recognizable. He’s been an actor at the theater for six years and its production coordinator for the last six months.
A graduate of the University of Cincinnati College-Conservatory of Music, Ayers, a Winter Haven native, has been performing in Sarasota since the Golden Apple’s 2004 production of “Chicago.”
In fact, it was during rehearsals for “Chicago” that he invented his drag-queen moniker. He was new to Sarasota at the time, and the cast was rehearsing at a ballet studio on the corner of Beneva and Fruitville roads.
“I told my friends, ‘That’s a drag name if I ever heard one,’” Ayers recalls, laughing. “My close friends have called me that for a while now … you know, before Beneva was Beneva.”
Beneva was born four years later, after Ayers wrapped his role as Chantal in the Golden Apple’s “La Cage Aux Folles” — his first drag experience.
“I realized I was good at it,” Ayers says. “The biggest thing, though, was I realized I was pretty.”
Ayers is pretty. Some women shell out small fortunes for his cheekbones.
In 2008, he began performing as Beneva in drag shows at The Alley Bar & Lounge, a North Tamiami Trail gay bar, and at ID Martini on Honore Avenue. Within three months he went from a little-known guest performer to one of the bar’s most popular emcees.
Ayers bats his long, synthetic lashes and purses his rosebud-shaped lips.
“People have told me that I’m ingratiating,” he says, “that there’s a sparkle in Beneva’s eye. People want to be her friend while she’s tearing them apart.”
With the blessing of his friend, XuXu Fontana, who hosted “Drag Queen Bingo” during its controversial heyday at the now defunct Canvas Café, Ayers pitched the idea of reviving the game at two downtown locations: The Golden Apple and Horse Feathers Grill and Lounge.
It didn’t take much goading to get both venues to agree. Three years ago, drag queens drew 100-plus people every Monday night to Canvas Café.
“What’s interesting about drag is that just by its nature, it’s self-deprecating,” Ayers says. “I’m a dude in a dress. The fact that I’ve already established that gives me the license to make fun of people. I’ve never necessarily had a filter on my mouth. As a man it’s gotten me in a lot of trouble. As Beneva, it’s perfect.”
Ayers has endeared himself to gay and straight audiences with his tongue-in-cheek Bible-thumping shtick and signature “jump splits for Jesus.”
Even his non-bingo performances have garnered attention in unlikely places. Ayers is now hosting drag shows at Bacalao Sports Bar & Grill near Ed Smith Stadium.
“I was looking for a way to pick up business,” says Bacalao owner Rafael Perez. “Whatever she’s doing seems to be working. We had 80 people here last night. I’m straight, so this all new to me, but you’ve gotta respect a guy in a dress who can do a split. It’s opened my mind.”
Ayers says the character has grown a lot in one year. She’s developed fashion sense. She’s lost weight. Her wigs look more natural. Her bras have gone from makeshift falsies stuffed with cotton batting to store-bought lingerie padded with memory foam.
“I’m overwhelmed by how this thing has blown up,” Ayers says. “Beneva has taken on a life of her own. I hate to talk about her in the third person, but she’s helped me become a more confident person, a more positive person. I take pride in the fact that a lot of what I’m doing — and what Beneva is doing — I created and grew myself.”
On top of “Drag Queen Bingo” and his full-time job at the theater, Ayers has been booked for bachelor and bachelorette parties, baby showers and birthday parties. Two weeks ago, he celebrated his own birthday at the start of bingo by performing “Roxie” from “Chicago.”
He substituted the name Roxie with Beneva, of course. And he donned a blond wig and slinky black dress.
“I actually hate bingo,” Ayers reveals with a wink. “But, when I host it, it’s so much more fun.”
if you go
Beneva Fruitville and Lindsay Carlton will host “Drag Queen Bingo” Sept. 17 and Sept. 24, at The Golden Apple Dinner Theatre. You can also catch Fruitville hosting bingo Tuesday, Sept. 21, at Horse Feathers Grill and Lounge. For more information, call the Golden Apple at 366-5454 or Horse Feathers at 955-9179. Both events are free.