The Rubi Girls keep the laughs coming for a cause.
By Val Beerbower
When some people decide to raise money to support a cause they host a bake sale. Others wash cars.
A select few sweat out under the intense heat of a beehive wig in the name of charity. In Dayton, this kind of fervent fundraising belongs to The Rubi Girls.
Bursting out of the attic in a house on Rubicon Street, The Rubi Girls have been performing in drag together since 1984. But when they put on a show to support the swim team competing in the 1994 Gay Games IV the men dressed as women discovered the unique power wielded by a leather bustier, and a new charitable organization was launched.
“We’re a comedy troupe and (if you’ve never been to a Rubi Girls show) you can expect lots of laughs and irreverent humor,” explains Josh Stucky, one of the Rubi’s founding members who takes the stage as Dana Sintell. “We like to use current events, politics, pop culture—we poke fun at a little bit of everything.”
“I was intrigued by the style of comedy,” says Jonathan McNeal, who portrays Ileasa Plymouth on stage. McNeal joined the troupe after spending lots of time with members filming and recording their thoughts and personal histories. McNeal’s documentary about The Rubi Girls not only took home awards from the Fire Island Film Video Festival and Atlanta’s Out on Film event, it raised the profile of The Rubi Girls and solidified the troupe as a cultural icon and fundraising powerhouse.
“The Dayton region has generally been more progressive than other places (in the Midwest),” McNeal says. “But that documentary really validated us and the press also took notice.”
Each year, The Rubi Girls, who are a bona fide 501(c)3 charitable organization themselves, select around 10 to 12 local charities to support with their raucous routines. Their longest-running fundraising partner started out as the Dayton Area AIDS Task Force and its AIDS Foundation Miami Valley, known today as Equitas Health. The group’s comedic performances have been instrumental in their ability to help raise more than $1.5 million for HIV/AIDS and other LGBTQ-related initiatives. “Laughter breaks down barriers,” McNeal says. “I think people connect to our characters and that makes them more willing to support our mission and give financially.”
It’s no small feat raising millions for worthy causes across the country. In a corset. And a wig. And four-inch spike heels. But for The Rubi Girls, it’s the mission that moves them. “What we’re doing is positive not just in (the Dayton) community but for LGBT people in general,” McNeal says. “It’s a mission I value as a person.”
OK, yes, it’s also a little bit about how much fun it is to do drag: “(Ileasa Plymouth) is my opportunity to be more flamboyant and outgoing than I tend to be naturally,” McNeal says.
“(Drag) keeps you young, vibrant and alive,” Stucky says. “You have to stay current in pop culture trends, politics—you have to stay relevant.”
The culture of drag itself has emerged from dark bars in rough neighborhoods to a place of prominence in pop. Television shows like RuPaul’s Drag Race churn out style icons and new performers with each season. For The Rubi Girls, drag’s proliferation is a double-edged sword. “What’s great is that (drag) is more accessible, but on the other hand that means it’s more accessible,” chides Stucky. “(Drag) used to be something kind of taboo, but when everyone’s doing it it kind of loses its edge. But then again, you have this incredibly supportive environment that makes people unafraid to try it.”
To clarify, one does not simply don a dress to do drag. Stucky points out that the entertainment value is a big part of the package. “Otherwise you’re just some guy in a dress.” The Rubis have built their celebrity on their comedic brand of entertainment, which echoes throughout their performance, from the songs they lip sync to the outrageous outfits.
The Rubis create their over-the-top attire based on the style of the performance itself. A Vegas-themed show at Masquerage in 2015 had the girls in matching Playboy bunny outfits, while a circus-themed performance at Dayton’s Pride festival in 2016 saw the ladies as freak-show artists with wild, even garish costumes.
Thrift stores are typically fertile hunting grounds for Rubis in search of the perfect outfit. Be sure to donate those horrifying outfits abandoned in closets of great aunts and rescued from basements of cousins who attempted Vaudeville revivals; they could be the staple of a future Rubi ensemble.
Routines are constantly evolving, as does the troupe itself. There are currently 13 Rubi Girls, and different combinations of performers, up to the whole cast, participate in events. Even though they’ve accomplished a lot for HIV/AIDS education and prevention, hunger, homelessness and a host of other causes, it’s not quite time to hang up the boas yet. “We’re still facing some weird times (politically),” Stucky says. “We can’t just rest on our laurels.”
The ensemble does change from time to time, and an opportunity for a fresh Rubi to emerge will take place in 2019 when the “Newbie Rubi” contest returns. Those who are simply curious to know what it’s like to squeeze into a rhinestone mini dress and bat impossibly long lashes glued to one’s face can bid on the “You Be Rubi” auction. The winner receives a Rubi Girls makeover and a photo shoot wearing different costumes. Stay tuned to the Rubi’s website and social media channels to keep up with the latest events.
The Rubi Girls will continue to find new reasons to smile and share a laugh. They are all about embracing different people and accepting them for who they are. “If you have an interest in drag or about becoming a Rubi Girl talk to us!” Stucky says. Rubis live by the words preached by the musical group Sister Sledge in its 1979 song “We are family”: “Here’s what we call our golden rule: Have faith in you and the things you do. You won’t go wrong, this is our family jewel. … We are family!”