Memorial services often begin with a prayer or a holy invocation. So did Bianca Paige's ... sort of.

"Paging Mr. Tail! Mr. COCK Tail!" bellowed female impersonator Carmella Marcella Garcia at the podium down front. Across the crowded ballroom at the Loews Vanderbilt Plaza, in the neon-blue gleam of the video projector, hundreds of wine flutes and cocktail glasses glinted at once in the light. It was a signature toast Bianca Paige had raised a thousand times, and tonight it made her absence acutely felt.

In June, Bianca Paige, the Pantomime Rage, succumbed to lymphoma after a two-decade reign as Nashville's pre-eminent drag queen. It was the last transformation left for Mark Middleton, a kid from Paducah, Ky., who reinvented himself as a slinky diva with a gloriously filthy aside for every occasion. Last Friday night, several hundred friends — along with a veritable convention of drag performers — gathered at the Vanderbilt Plaza for the best kind of memorial service: one with a cash bar, a men's choir singing "Over the Rainbow," and a pair of Tammy Wynette's amber tortoiseshell sunglasses up for auction in the lobby.

"She grew up next door to my second ex-husband in Paducah," recalls one Miss Kitty Kincaid in a nicotine rasp, standing among Paige's mourners beside an autographed photo of Carol Burnett. (Like other donated items and pieces of memorabilia, including Paige's sequin-studded eyepatch, it was being auctioned off for her charity foundation.) "When I knew her in Paducah, she was the butchest little man I ever laid eyes on."

But in Nashville, she became an out-and-proud icon in a city where, just a couple decades before, gay men were routinely rousted by police and fired if their sexuality were discovered. Even at Juanita's, the 1960s Commerce Street nightspot often acknowledged as Nashville's first gay bar, patrons were rapped with a stick if they so much as held hands below the bar.

Bianca Paige, on the other hand, could not be contained.

"She made people feel comfortable with who they are," says David Taylor, one of the entrepreneurs behind Church Street's booming gay club district. "She was the first drag queen a lot of people ever saw." Among them was Brent Davis, who saw her the first time he ever visited a gay bar: the old downtown Connection, in 1992. The diva later accepted his nervously offered dinner invitation — they went to Red Lobster — and Davis remembers going to her house for yearly Halloween parties "so crowded you couldn't swing a pubic hair."

When Paige learned she was HIV-positive, she put her force-of-nature stage presence and sandpapery voice to use as an activist, reportedly raising more than $1 million for AIDS-related charities. "When she found out she had HIV, she didn't run away from it, she ran toward a microphone," says Michael Fox, waiting in the congested lobby for the ballroom doors to open.

Once the ballroom began admitting people, the mood turned to pure celebration. Drag performer Kimmie Satin (Carmella Marcella, approvingly: "That bitch is the devil incarnate!") took the stage in a full moon of spotlight and a shimmering white gown that parted to unfurl Bianca's likeness. The illusion was only mildly ruffled when Satin interrupted her pantomime to bark "Turn it up!" in an R. Lee Ermey voice. Outside, at the silent auction, nobody wanted to be seen bidding on the donated vibrator, although one drag queen mischievously threatened to scribble the name of a rival who didn't show up.

The evening's honoree, somewhat eerily, was visible all evening on video, both as subdued Mark Middleton and as Bianca, pulling off a dynamite pantomime to Shirley MacLaine's full-tilt tantrum from The Turning Point. But her presence was felt more keenly offscreen. Everywhere you looked, there were men in foot-high Mohawks, gay cowboys in tight white shirts and butt-hugging jeans, and drag queens in full peacock splendor. Even before the gathering adjourned to a midnight block party that cordoned off part of Church Street, it was clear that Bianca Paige had bent the city to her will.

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