A drag queen is born

We talk with Taj Mahal about life as an entertainer

Tom Rumpke’s drag coming-of-age story is pretty typical.

He did it for the first time for Halloween, like so many do.

“I just bought some women’s clothes and a curly red wig. I am glad there are no pictures,” he said of that night in 1991 at 1470 West night club in Kettering. “I am sure I looked like a hot mess.”

Rumpke tried to straighten that wig.

“It melted,” Rumpke recalled. “I wanted long and straight hair. Every drag queen thinks they should have long and straight hair.”

A drag queen is born

His alter ego’s birth became complete in 1997 at the now closed Jessie’s Celebrity Club on Main Street in Dayton.

“I was watching people, and I was like, ‘I can do better’,” Rumpke said with a laugh. “I felt like I had something to say. Artistically I didn’t see what I wanted to see, so I had to create it.”

Celebrity was a good place for Taj Mahal — actually just “Taj” for the first six months of her bold life — to spend those formative years.

“It was probably like a drag boot camp for a lot of girls,” Rumpke said. “To perform there, they had standards you had to live up to. They made no bones about it. They told you the minute you got off stage if they didn’t like what you did. They would say ‘no, never do that again on my stage’.”

Rumpke was born in North Carolina and raised in Springfield after his dad, a Springfield native, retired from the Navy. The stage was nothing new.

Rumpke performed on stage during many high school and Springfield Arts Council Summer Arts Festival productions.

He went to college in Columbus on a vocal scholarship. But realizing he did not want to be a music teacher and seeing that as the only option, he left after a year.

The hairdresser’s life

Rumpke moved to Dayton because he liked the scene around 1470. Dayton seemed authentic, whereas Columbus felt artificial, he said.

“I didn’t like Columbus,” he said. “Dayton actually felt like a small town. It wasn’t trying to be bigger than it actually it. It is what it is and accepts it.

The hairdresser’s life seemed the life for him.

Rumpke enrolled in Continental Beauty Academy, a small cosmetology school in Springfield.

“I was hanging out with a lot of hairdressers that summer, and quite honestly, they partied a lot and it looked like a fun lifestyle. They got up at noon. They went into the salon. They cut hair until 6 or 7 and then they went to dinner and then out for drinks drinks,” Rumpke said.

After more than 20 years in the business, Rumpke says he knows his glasses were rose-colored.

To a successful hairdresser, you have to put the hours in and “WORK,” Rumpke said.

“Looking back, they probably were not as successful as I envisioned them with that schedule,” he said with a chuckle. Rumpke now works at SalonEXP in Centerville.

Child of Divine

Taj Mahal was molded after legendary drag queen Divine, featured in all the very best John Waters movies.

Rumpke aims for comedy and glamour complete with rhinestones, makeup and buckets of glitter when he put on Taj Mahal.

“I tried to take the Divine element and polish it so it was prettier and still subversive,” he said. “We can all be pretty.”

He picked the name Taj because it seemed larger than life and had an exotic sound. There is no connection to India, where the other Taj Mahal was built between 1632 and 1653.

“I like Indian food,” he said.

The Mahal was added to Rumpke’s stage name after “Taj Mahal”was called to the stage at a Springfield club six months after she started in drag.

Taj Mahal and popcorn

Since then, Taj Mahal has performed countless times including once with the Lady Chablis — who had a larger-than-life role in the movie "Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil." She's been a member of the Rubi Girls the last few years.

“I like the camaraderie with the Rubi Girls,” Rumpke said. “We have as lot of fun together, and we raise money for good causes.”

The troupe has raised more than a million dollars for AIDS and gay-related issues. That figure includes the more than $20,000 it collected at a Thanksgiving weekend show in downtown Dayton benefiting AIDS Resource Center Ohio.

Rumpke has enjoyed the ride.

“Sometimes you have to do something with popcorn you would never think you would do,” Rumpke said in reference to a routine at that show involving a ear of corn, bouncing, the Bee Gees, and popcorn flying from Taj Mahal’s boobs.

“The Rubi Girls have always liked to do non-traditional performances,” Rumpke said.

Drag has changed dramatically since Rumpke created Taj Mahal. One of the biggest changes has been how easy it is to get clothing. Where Rumpke had to search stores for women’s size 14 shoes when he started, now all it takes is a computer.

He’s taken advantage of the change. Rumpke has 425 wigs and 75 pairs of shoes in his 100-year-old house in Dayton’s Walnut Hills neighborhood and the Rubi Girls clubhouse on Wayne Avenue.

“I have a slight shopping problem. I have heels I have never worn because I haven’t found a dress to go with them,” he said. “It is a very expense hobby.”

Rumpke guesses he spent $5,000 the year Taj Mahal got her start.

But he says it is worth it to see his fan’s eyes light up during shows.

“I love my fans,” Rumpke said. “You can feel like a celebrity. When I am in drag, I am Kim Kardashian.”

Those who don’t get drag should lighten up, Rumpke said.

“We all live in a circus, and I just happen to be the clown,” he said.

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