A Brief History of Transgender Performers on Las Vegas Stages

Photo courtesy Las Vegas News Bureau

Photo courtesy Las Vegas News Bureau

The Las Vegas showgirl is one of the world’s supreme examples of feminine glamour—and artifice, swathed in body makeup, false eyelashes and push-up bras. As with
African-American performers during the era of segregation, many people who wouldn’t want a transgender person in their home lined up eagerly to watch one onstage a few decades ago.

Christine Jorgensen, recipient of the world’s first widely known, successful sex reassignment operation, was also the first transgender person to play Vegas. Back in the big-boom ’50s, casinos were willing to take a chance on nontraditional performers—which is how Ronald Reagan wound up onstage with a bevy of chimps at the Last Frontier.

After her transition made world news, Jorgensen discovered the difficulty of creating a life outside the spotlight and decided on a stage career, despite her misgivings about the “low moral tone” of nightclubs. After a bad gig in Los Angeles and a good one in Pittsburgh, she was booked at the Sahara. Jorgensen’s show was mostly telling her life story, but there was a little song-and-dance and, most notably, some spectacular evening gowns.

Jennifer Fox starred at the Gay 90s Club in North Las Vegas in 1970. The Gay 90s was a high-end gentleman’s club, and ads for Fox’s appearances billed her—with her approval—as “the Myra Breckenridge of Burlesque,” asking “Isn’t He or Isn’t She?” While audiences may have come to sate their curiosity, Fox’s remarkable proportions and dynamic moves piqued a different kind of interest. Within a few years, Fox moved from the strip club to the showroom (long before Nomi Malone) and began appearing in Ann Corio’s This Was Burlesque, which she toured with for a number of years.

Another famed transgender showgirl had ceased performing by the time she moved to Las Vegas, but her work still appeared on Strip stages. Hedy Jo Star ran away from home as a teenager and spent the ’50s performing as a stripper—and a woman—on the carnival circuit. Star was rejected for sex reassignment operations several times before finally transitioning in the early ’60s. Soon after, Star married a doctor and moved to Las Vegas, where she became a renowned costume designer. Over many years, she created costumes for a variety of performers, including Ann-Margret, Elvis and Kenny Kerr’s female impersonator show, Boylesque.

Perhaps Vegas’ most famous transgender showgirl was Jahna Steele. As a member of the Riviera’s Crazy Girls, Steele was voted Sexiest Showgirl on the Strip in 1991, Las Vegas Entertainer of the Year in 1992 and Most Beautiful Showgirl in 1993.

Steele grew up in Texas and did her best to conform, even serving as an altar boy. However, in 1992, proto-TMZ show A Current Affair outed Steele as trans. The show’s crew came to Vegas, ostensibly for a simple profile of Crazy Girls castmembers and Steele, in which she enthusiastically participated. However, after they got all the footage the needed, they informed Steele that their goal was not to profile a bodacious blond babe, but to expose her transgender status. After the news broke, she told her own version of the story to the National Enquirer (Vanity Fair apparently being unavailable at the time) and appeared on a number of talk shows, as well as an episode on NYPD Blue. In 2004, she returned to the Riviera to host the World’s Most Beautiful Transsexual Contest and was also an announcer at La Cage Aux Folles.

An exhibit of photos of Christine Jorgensen will be at The Center through Nov. 30. 401 S. Maryland Pkwy., TheCenterLV.org.