Remembering the ‘Wonder Woman’ of South Beach

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Photos courtesy of the Sexilia - Pagan Rivera Facebook fan page.

Late drag queen Sexilia loved performing as Wonder Woman. But to her friends and the local LGBT community it wasn’t a performance – she was a wonder woman.

Fourteen years ago this month in 2004, Sexilia, born Reynaldo Pagan Rivera, died of AIDS-related complications, extinguishing a light in the community that now shines in the hearts of those who loved her.

A native of Puerto Rico, Sexilia first arrived on the scene in the early 1990s. Known for her razor sharp wit and great comic timing, she eventually became the hostess of Karaoke Nights at Twist and also held a hosting gig at Club Liquid during its heyday.

Adora, born Danilo De la Torre, the grandmother of the Miami drag scene, said she met Sexilia around 1992.

“It’s a bit of a blur...but I know [Pagan] wasn’t doing drag yet,” Adora said. “He had just moved here from Puerto Rico. We clicked. He was funny.”

Adora said Sexilia used to hang out with a group of Puerto Ricans, who “were a hoot.” One night — Adora thinks it was Halloween — they all came out in drag.

“Fun, fun, fun. Pagan was in the group and already had a drag name,” Adora said. “To my ears, I heard ‘Cecilia.’ I think all of them went, ‘no, niña!’ They were all shouting at the same time...until Sexi took command and pulled me closer and explained, ‘Sexilia, chica. Como la de Almodóvar.’ I was so happy that it was not ‘Cecilia,’” Adora laughs.

“Well, I think the following Monday, she was doing a show at Barrio, a Mexican restaurant,” Adora continues. “It wasn’t open yet. Barrio was the place to be, the birthplace of many, many talented drag performers. I had the pleasure of introducing all this river of talent every Monday night, and Sexi got her debut and she was Puerto Rican — ball of fiery rica. I loved it. [The audience] loved her. After that night, she became a regular and part of the South Beach drag history.”

Adora added: “it was very sad seeing Pagan dying. It was horrible to see.”

“But even sick as a dog, she would volunteer for the W Party,” Adora said. “That night they had to call the rescue. She got sicker, wasn’t receiving much help from institutions she volunteered dearly — no questions asked, like all of us did. Fortunately, she had some good friends who could take care of stuff for her — and sadly, some not too helpful in the health department. We managed to give him a proper goodbye.”

Adora added, “it was a very special night, where we all came together to celebrate her life, our friendship with her and all the people around us. We walked her to the bay, followed by more than a hundred people holding candles. It was really special. She left with fireworks and all. I love her and miss her dearly.”

Estranged from his family for years, a fax had to be sent to Rivera’s parents in Puerto Rico, signed in front of a notary and faxed back to Miami in order for Rivera to be cremated, which were his wishes.

“Close friends of Sexilia's turned to me for help in organizing her memorial,” longtime Miami Beach promoter Edison Farrow said. “She was still not released from the hospital or cremated due to lack of funds.”

Farrow added, “I quickly realized that I could organize a fundraising event at Jade Lounge, where I was promoting a weekly gay Friday night event. I went to the funeral home with Adora and I wrote the check for the services. I, then, started organizing the memorial.”

Farrow purchased 300 tall white candles in glass for the room. Adora organized the drag queens, whom donated their performances for the event. Photographer Dale Stine donated his photographs of Sexilia to auction off. Amy Rivers volunteered to accept donations at the door.

“At the end, 300 guests all formed a processional, walking towards the shoreline in order to place Sexilia's remains into the water, which was her wish,” Farrow said. “After her closest friends said their final ‘goodbyes,’ they tossed her ashes into the ocean. At this point, a fireworks finale went soaring into the air above the scene. I kept this as a total surprise. In the dark of the night, you could see the flashes from the fireworks lighting up the faces of the onlookers with tears streaming down their faces. They stood in shock as they embraced one another.”

Farrow said this was one of the most memorable nights from his 23 years in Miami Beach. The community raised $5,793 that night, which paid for Sexilia's funeral, and $4,000 was donated to AIDS charities.

“I never told the others, however, Sexilia and I were never friends,” Farrow said. “I first met her in 1995. I had just moved to Miami from New York. She was working the door for an after-hours party. She would not let me in.”

Farrow said he would later see Sexilia often when he was a bartender at Twist.

“I was very close with all of the performers. However, Sexilia would never look at me or say hello,” Farrow said. “Our relationship never improved. It is quite ironic that I would be the person paying for her funeral and organizing her memorial. However, I looked at it as our community coming together in order to help one another.”

DJ Power Infiniti, a drag entertainer who now lives in Central Florida but travels regularly to South Florida for work said “Sexilia was probably the most well-rounded performer” he’s ever known.

“While some of us specialize in one particular genre of performance art, she was devastatingly good at many,” Infiniti said. “Her shows ranged from camp drag and comical to high energy circuit type dance music. And she could move! She could give you a bizarre effect or a beautiful classic drag look. She could do it all.”

Infiniti knew Sexilia from 1994 until her death. During this time, he was the entertainment director for Salvation.

“So many, many times over the five years I worked there, I would hire her to perform both on her own and with me,” Infiniti said. “Did you know that in her final days she was working on a book? I don’t know if it was ever completed, but boy...it would have been a good read.”

If she was alive today, fellow drag entertainer of the day, Leslie Quick, believes Sexilia would still be performing.

“Yes, Pagan was a comedian. At the heart of it all, she loved to entertain...in and out of drag,” Quick said. “One of the first times I was booked in South Beach, Sexilia and I were both doing Wonder Woman on the same weekend. She went out of her way to make sure my look was correct. That's just an example of who she was. [She] always helped others, treated all the girls like her sisters.”

The following are more testimonials from members of the community who knew Sexilia — directly and indirectly:

Shelley Novak, a comic drag legend, who lives on Miami Beach and hosts Karaoke Circus Thursdays at Kill Your Idol:

“My biggest memory of Sexilia was towards the end. I didn’t even know that she was sick. She showed up for the Shelley Novak Awards at Crobar. I gave her the Lifetime Achievement Award. She asked me if there’s a place she can lay down before she goes on. I’ve done that myself. I thought maybe she was tired. We’ve all come to gigs after working all week, three weeks with hardly no sleep. She laid down before she went on and got her award. A week later, we did this Vegas night and she came and she turned it up. She did this Josephine Baker banana dance thing. You would’ve never known she was going to be dead a week later. But that was the kind of person she was. If she had a gig, she was going to do it. She was a force of nature.”

Michael M Rodriguez, musician, who now lives in New Jersey:

“Sexilia was fearless and had an amazing warped sense of humor. There was one time in 1997 when I released my first solo song, ‘Move Up’ and in my show tape, I had a part where the Wonder Woman theme song played. Sexi was dressed as Wonder Woman. Wonder woman was totally her thing. Anyway, she did a choreographed fight scene with my two dancers.”

Joval Valdivia, who works promotions, flyering events in Miami:

“What can I say...From her Wonder Woman performances to Eartha Kitt, Sexilia worked with legendary divas such as Cher, Gloria Estefan and many others. Sexi always said to me ‘you are a hard worker. You will shine one day.’ I miss you, Sexi. RIP.”

And more from Adora, a drag legend who still lives and performs in Miami, most notably for Señor Frog’s for their Sunday drag brunch:

“Sexilia was good and funny, camp funny. I remember one time she did her Iris Chacon‘s merengue, ‘Me Gusta, Me Gusta’ at Amnesia. She went crazy after finding an almost 30-inch ziplock bag full of ‘cocaine’ inside this huge suitcase she brought on stage. Euphoria took off until she found, I think, a 5x4 credit card and started to mix and make her six-feet-long lines. She collapsed at the end. The crowd went wild. That was really memorable. I remember rolling her in a garbage can inside a restaurant where we were doing a drag night. I introduced her and she came out in a Cat Woman outfit, singing live just like Eartha Kitt. She used to host an after-hours party on 21st Street. It was mobbed. There was a huge crowd trying to get in. I come outside to see what’s up. Sexilia was up on the electric pole that was right in front of the entrance....I mean, like somebody who knows how to climb coconut trees, but with a gown and a guest list in hand, cursing at everybody.”


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