Diva Las Vegas: Excess All Areas

First published: DNA, April 2014

Vegas, Vegas, Vegas – the land of the Sin City, stripper central, the gambling go-go ghetto and the cheesiest place I have ever visited in my life. As my plane arced over the barren landscape and began its descent into McCarran International Airport, the kitsch aura emanating from the notorious Nevada hotspot engulfed me immediately.

The plane had touched down a few hundred yards from the imposing pyramid of The Luxor, where a flick of an eye takes you to the replica Eiffel Tower of the Paris Hotel and then on to the appropriately named Campanile that dominates the Venetian Resort.

Between them are the Statue Of Liberty and a sizzling selection of Manhattan’s skyline, while other giant hotels claim to be nothing less than Monte Carlo or Mandalay Bay. I was being bombarded by what I’d only ever seen before on postcards – and I hadn’t even set foot on the ground.

The city of Las Vegas is bigger than I’d imagined, housing over a million residents in squashed, endless, faceless suburbs, and has been expanding at a rate that justifies a new school being built almost every month.

But the lengthy backbone of Vegas, known as ‘The Strip,’ is the reason why 37 million tourists make a pilgrimage to the city every year. Las Vegas Boulevard, to give ‘The Strip’ its official name, is home to no fewer than 12 of the world’s biggest hotels. They seemingly ooze grandeur and prestige – while simultaneously leaking a monstrous, monolithic mixture of sleaze and cheese.

Not satisfied with merely designing hotels, architects employed in Nevada’s gaming capital have chosen to recreate entire cities in a pristine, faux Disneyesque fashion, resembling nothing less than anodyne ideals of their originals.

In the Venetian Quarter, you can take a romantic ride on a gondola without having to endure the stale sewer smells and rain that vivacious Venice often conjures up. New York, New York offers towering views of Manhattan and the Statue Of Liberty without the Big Apple’s crippling pollution, attitude or ubiquitous gridlock. And who needs to deal with tout le monde crowding under the Eiffel Tower when Vegas can boast its own version in a complex of pools, restaurants and lap of luxury rooms?

Then there’s the elegant fountain displays outside the Bellagio that can douse even the finest of firework shows. Not to mention the the outrageously camp exploding Volcano in front of The Mirage – the hills are alive with the sound of that cheddar barrel being scraped.

Hotels on ‘The Strip’ make downtown Vegas more or less redundant, dominating the city and pulling in the tourist lifeblood that drinks, gambles and indulges in glitzy, risqué shows all night long. The hotels are clean, offer extreme luxury, serve up veritable oceans of food in incredible buffets, and are situated in faintly ridiculous if eye-catching OTT structures. They’re ever-running taps of joy in the middle of a harsh, desolate, desert, environment.

But the champion of Vegas ‘digs’ has to be the legendary Caesar’s Palace, now improved by a massive shopping centre called The Forum, with iconic, eccentric statues aplenty. At the Forum’s far end, there’s a neat restaurant called The Cheesecake Factory, but the first time I clapped eyes on it, part of the blazing red neon sign was blocked by a colossal statue of Atlantis, causing it to the read ‘The Cheese Factory.’ How apt.

It’s probably not much of a surprise to discover that precious little in Vegas is authentic, but what is real is the endless opportunity to part with your hard-earned cash in a fabulously futile attempt to win a fortune.

Roulette Wheels spin 24/7, mile upon mile of slots emanate annoying tunes (one night I heard Kylie Minogue’s I Should Be So Lucky, sorry readers) and the occasional ker-ching of a win-win-win-win winner, while the more serious gamblers head for Poker and Blackjack tables. But with the average visitor losing somewhere in the region of $750, very few people come out ahead of the casinos. And if you do, Andy Garcia may well track you down and give you what for, but that’s another story entirely…

Entertainment, entertainment, entertainment!  – unsurprisingly, it’s a massive, major feature of Las Vegas hotels on The Strip. Many people visit Las Vegas to experience the nightlife. And much of it is as camp, flamboyant or just plain over the top as any you’ll ever see. There are the all too obvious stripper shows, but also plenty of thinly disguised, risqué affairs to entice the mainstream couples.

LV is stuffed to the brim with dozens of glamorous nightclubs that are known the world over. Clubbing is fast becoming such an attraction that it may surpass gaming as a major source of revenue for the casino hotels before too long. During the American spring break, hoards of young people pour in from all around the world to party. Any night one can walk the strip and observe dozens of scantily dressed females scurrying off to places like Pure, Jet, Tryst or XS. Amorous horny hetero males pay hefty cover fees and outrageous bottle service in hopes of getting lucky. Have you ever wondered what happens to the tourists who prefer people of the same gender?

Las Vegas is not known to be a major US gay destination like San Francisco, Palm Springs or New York. Card flappers sadly do not have pictures of scantily clad muscle boys in seductive poses with offers to have them to your room in twenty minutes. The strip clubs, which Las Vegas is known for, may be somewhat of a disappointment for the gay traveller, as only a few feature male strippers. Often guys can be forbidden from even entering the male section of the strip clubs, so there is not much available for the gay tourist in terms of erotic entertainment. Male show revues such as Thunder From Down Under may be the epitome of hell for many as they are often full of drunk, screaming obnoxious ‘hen night’ type women. These performances are intended for females as the focus is solely on the muscular body of the performer. If the act was intended for the gay tourist the show would have to be much more erotic in nature.

All told, Las Vegas has about 15 gay bars, many of them clustered together in a small quadrant along Paradise Road just north of the airport and south of the gay-popular Hard Rock Hotel – an area often dubbed the “Fruit Loop.” A slightly less enticing little posse of neighborhood-y gay bars is situated in a large and rather bland shopping complex called the Commercial Center, a short drive east of the northern (icky) section of The Strip, and a bit southeast of downtown, which has traditionally been somewhat run-down but has been undergoing a resurgence of late, with much new and interesting development. The Commercial Center should be noted, however, for one wonderful asset – it’s home to one of the most legendary Thai restaurants in the West, Lotus of Siam, which also happens to be extremely homo-friendly.

Music fans, meanwhile, have a choice of acts to watch, although the names on the posters of recent years have been as cheesy as the venues; Cher (OK), Celine Dion (ewww), Barry Manilow (lower than low), Elton John (Liberace is alive and not quite well), Tom Jones (not so unusual), Rod Stewart (why?), to name but a few. Having said that, Aussie man-band Human Nature are in residence too, for a whopping two year stint. In 2005 the gay fave quartet recorded a tribute album to Motown called “Reach Out” and it caught the attention of none other than label legend Smokey Robinson. They impressed him so much that he collaborated with them on their album “Get Ready”, and Robinson now introduces them via video screen five nights a week at The Venetian, backed by a sumptuous six-piece band. Covering classics by The Temptations, The Four Tops and even The Supremes, it was well worth the entry fee.

With many of the city’s top casinos presenting marquee shows and musicals, the city’s gay bars have plenty of competition. De rigueur among fans of drag, by the way, is Frank Marino’s Divas Las Vegas, in which world-class female-impersonator Marino portrays a scarily convincing Joan Rivers along with a huge cast of female-impersonator all-stars channeling everyone from Cher to Celine.

But I suppose that when the curtain comes down, Vegas is perhaps best known for its plethora of shotgun weddings. Most of the hotels offer ceremonies in stylishly decorated chapels. As with everything here, it’s dealt with quickly and free from emotion, but with a staggering 124,000 marriages blessed here every year, it has to be. These range from lavishly planned and massively expensive affairs to that spur-of-the-moment job drenched in kitsch novelty. Do the words ‘Britney’ and ‘Spears’ not ring a bell? Hell, she even plays in residence here as well.

Indeed, the sky is pretty much the limit for full-on cheddar gorge weddings, whether you want Elvis singing Love Me Tender, a hideous fire-breathing dragon as a witness, repeating vows in a chopper over The Strip, or plunging off an 18-storey building on a bungee jump straight after saying “I do!”

During the past few years, the casinos have grown wise to the fact that the gay population is a multi-billion dollar market. Caesars Corporation seems to pride itself on having the Paris hotel as their gay destination, thus advertising in many gay publications such as Out. Gay partnership ceremonies are a particular speciality here. The Paris offers same-sex commitment ceremonies, as do many other hotels such as the infamous Bellagio. Perhaps they have grown wise to the fact if a dollar can be made, then do it! MGM seems to be catching onto this trend, as they have a Sunday gay-themed pool party at the Luxor. But at the present time the ceremonies still lack comprehensive legal force either in Nevada or anywhere else, although since 2009 the state does offer legal unions for same-sex couples that offer varying subsets of the rights and responsibilities, gay marriage is officially and resolutely illegal in Nevada.

Regardless of sexuality, many couples are lured, bug-like and bushy tailed, by the bright lights and the knowledge that Vegas was the chosen venue for a congregation-load of celebs. After all, Bruce Willis and Demi Moore once got hitched here, as did Dennis Rodman and Carmen Electra – but then, as I mentioned earlier, so did Britney Spears and her childhood chum Jason Alexander. The alcohol-fueled union was quickly annulled 55 hours later.

Plenty of brides can be seen strolling down the strip, but only in ‘Sin City’ would they, within minutes of tying the knot, encounter migrant workers touting for prostitutes. Dozens of casual workers push the more sleazy side of Vegas as darkness falls, handing out calling cards to anybody who’ll take them.

“No obligation,” one declared. “If you don’t like her, send her back.” Another offered a special for $49, with two girls costing $80 and a foursome for $99. Bargain! The prospect of having happy hookers in your room “within 20 mins” shows that if you scratch beneath the effervescent plastic and the bubbly bright lights, you’ll find a murky world that’s far from glamorous.

What makes this smiley, happy city even more outrageous is that all major development has taken place within the space of a single human lifespan. In one century, LV has grown from a dusty ranch into a gargantuan, sprawling urban monster that has a loveable neon heart at its centre, pumping life into the drab, uninspiring suburbs. It’s a place where the casino hotels don’t ever put the clocks out (work that one out), and where their windows don’t open so debt-ridden gamblers can’t jump to their death. Everybody here has one thing in common: they’re on the lookout for fun and they’re determined to get it, even it does cost them a pretty packet.

As Elvis sang, “If I wind up broke, at least I’ll remember that I had a swinging time.” Viva Las Vegas indeed.

Steve Pafford