There’s nothing I love more than pigging out on buffets, watching glitzy entertainment, and standing back as other people take gigantic gambles that could change their lives, which is why Atlantic City has long been one of my favorite destinations. The New Jersey resort town offers a stimulating array of hedonistic thrills, from taffy and 99-cent stores on the boardwalk to high-end restaurants and fancy shopping at various casinos. And whether you get rich or poor there — or come out exactly the same as you started — there’s no way to say you had a boring time.
Every year, I’m sent down to judge the Miss’d America beauty pageant, an AIDS benefit which, since 1991, has been a de rigueur evening of drag queens tucking, performing, and competing for the tiara. For gays, it’s more important than the actual Miss America pageant, which famously originated in Atlantic City and has helped define the place for decades. Held in various venues through the years, Miss’d America has provided laughs and cheers, while crowning such able gals as Drag Race evictee Victoria “Pork Chop” Parker, brassy Kitty Hiccups, and the current queen, New York glamour diva Sir Honey Davenport, who scored with a scatty lipsynch and a savvy Q&A.
I’ve also trekked to A.C. to see Liza Minnelli perform a dazzling act at Harrah’s (What could be gayer?) and to catch Lady Gaga at Boardwalk Hall, where she brought her ArtRave tour last year, using ramps set up throughout the arena to propel her parade of foofy fashion and gay-positive theatrics all over the place. If that isn’t gay enough, I’m also being shipped there in March to see motor mouth comic Kathy Griffin unleash her madcap opinions at the Borgata Event Center, where she will no doubt put the “vent” back in “event.”
Admittedly, the town has been hit with setbacks in the wake of increased competition and dampened expense accounts. Last year, the Atlantic Club, Showboat, Trump Plaza, and the glitzy new Revel all shuttered, and their absence has been felt, casting a pall on the air of celebration. But it’s not that easy to extinguish the fire known as Fun City. On entering its gates, you are still overcome with a clinking, clanking sound that proves the slot machines are finding customers, who look more feverish than ever. And once they’re clinking and clanking, they’re eating, drinking, applauding, and dancing too — and it’s not my fault if they clank their life savings away, lol.
On the main strip, the lively venues include Trump Taj Mahal (which is only second best to going to India, I swear), the Tropicana (which houses the Quarter, a splashy enclosed shopping/dining mall which you’ll never want to leave), and the Roman-flavored Caesars, which boasts the glossy, multi-floor Pier Shops that include must-visit outlets for Louis Vuitton, Gucci, Coach, and Armani Exchange.
You can gussy yourself up with all that merch, then go off the strip to the Borgata, the shiny, hipper casino, which has brought new life to the place since 2003, and also Harrah’s, where a stunning pool, studded with palm trees, awaits you under a gi-normous glass dome.
At the fab Nero restaurant at Caesars, I’ve dined with openly gay mayor Don Guardian, who’s as personable and fun as he is committed to the future of Atlantic City. And that means all of Atlantic City — from the legendary Steel Pier amusement park, where you play games and ride roller coasters, to the drag impersonation show at Harrah’s, where some of the performers are better than the stars they’re imitating.
Resorts hosted a gay bar called Prohibition for a while, though they were pretty coy about promoting it and the result fizzled out due to half heartedness all the way around. I hear there will be a new gay hangout this summer on a casino roof area, which is good — resorts based on gambling should dare to amp up the gay, rather than let it reside in subtexts and innuendos.
While they do that, I will go back again and again for the food, the spectacle, the bargains, and the camp value. After all, Atlantic City is where I saw Cher enter atop a papier mache camel, singing her various hits. It’s where I caught Rosie O’Donnell make her ribald return to comedy after being “the Queen of Nice” for so long. And it’s where host Carson Kressley laughed when I made my Miss’d America judge’s statement last year: “I’m exhausted because a hot hustler was banging on my hotel room door all last night — so I finally let him out!” Carson joked that he wanted that guy’s number. In the meantime, I’ve got A.C.’s number, and I’ll be calling next time I need a serious fix of fun and frolic.