One of the signature celebrity impersonations of Celeste Starr — the drag persona performed by local artist Robb Smith — is Cher. Initially, Smith was apprehensive to take on the raven-haired icon, but Art Fryar, the original trailblazing owner of Scandals Night Club, threatened to fire the then-burgeoning drag artist if the impression wasn’t performed true to Fryar’s vision. “So, I did Cher, and that was actually when I won Miss Scandals,” Smith recalls. “[Fryar] came backstage, grinned at me and goes, ‘Aren’t you glad I told you to do Cher?’ And ever since then it’s been a staple of mine.”
It was Fryar who mentored Smith into becoming Celeste Starr, and Smith performed at the Grove Street gay bar for more than 20 years. However, after a recent New Year’s Eve booking misunderstanding with current club owner Jeff Davis, Smith parted ways with Scandals. Asheville’s longest-working drag queen will now appear at North Carolina’s oldest gay bar, O.Henry’s. Upcoming performance dates include Saturdays, March 10 and 17.
The news rattled fans. “It was a business decision I had to make. I do drag as a job. This is it. This is what I do for a living,” Smith explains. “I have nothing against Scandals, whatsoever. I don’t have anything against the queens, the owners or the staff.”
Smith hopes that one day he’ll be invited back for a guest appearance. “You know, I stayed there for 23 years to continue the legacy that Art gave me,” Smith says. “But, going over to O.Henry’s, I can still take that legacy with me.”
And O.Henry’s jumped at the chance to have local legend Celeste Starr perform as a house cast member.
Smith was born on a naval base north of Chicago. His grandmother pushed him into acting, and a turning point in his life was starring in Mount Morris High School’s production of Bye Bye Birdie.
“I started doing drag in 1990,” Smith says. “It was a joke in high school. It was our homecoming lip-sync contest. I was making fun of one of the cheerleaders who had to do a sexy dance in the production.” Madonna had just appeared in Dick Tracy, so Smith decided to perform “He’s a Man,” a song inspired by that film.
Eyebrows rose at Smith’s lampoon. Over the crowd’s cheers and laughter came the derogatory f-word. “The bullying got worse after that,” Smith says. “It got real bad. I was bullied all my life, growing up. Everybody knew I was gay, apparently, before I did.”
After his 1994 graduation, Smith left town. Like a story from an independent gay movie, he jumped on a Greyhound bus bound for Asheville, where he started a new life with the help of an accepting uncle. “It was scary,” Smith says. “But it was the best move I ever made.”
Smith discovered the underground nightclub Scandals. The Grove Street venue, established in 1982, is open to ages 18 and older, so it’s known as a right of passage for any young gay man coming out.
“It was grueling back in the day. But if you did what you were told, it paid off,” Smith says. “Art wanted the best of the best. He saw something in me that I didn’t see. He really pushed me hard, and my drag mom, Aurora Borealis (T.J. Haynes), took her time to help mold me.”
He continues, “It was like 1999 when I started winning pageants left and right. A light just switched on, and everything I had trained for was suddenly there, and I’d made it.”
Because of Fryar’s and Haynes’ support, Smith developed a large following over the years. He’s won every pageant title at Scandals and even competed for the elite title of Miss North Carolina Entertainer of the Year bestowed at a contest held at the Legends Nightclub in Raleigh. His bookcases are full of crowns to prove his legacy.
Fryar died from cancer in 2006; a chandelier was erected above Scandals’ main stage to honor his drag persona, Crystal Chandelier. The recent sale of the Grove Street building housing Scandals makes the future of the quintessential club uncertain. Many clubgoers among the gay crowd have shifted to O.Henry’s; many more are longtime patrons of the venue.
Recently, at the Haywood Street nightclub, Smith donned a shimmering dress and blonde-ambition wig and paid homage to his high school performance that started it all. “It’s funny, because the patrons at O.Henry’s are the people who saw me throughout my career,” Smith says. “I grew up with them, so it’s nice to be back with the old gang.”
Nowadays, inspiration for the Celeste Starr persona comes from silver screen siren Joan Crawford. “Old Hollywood is like drag,” Smith explains. “You get to a certain age, they expect you to retire. Joan fought tooth and nail to continue to do what she loved. I know if she can do it, I can do it.”
WHAT: Celeste Starr drag show
WHERE: O.Henry’s, 237 Haywood St., ohenrysofasheville.com
WHEN: Saturdays, March 10 and 17, at midnight. Free for members/$3-6 guests. Performance tips appreciated.