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A really big shoe to fill: Key West's most famous drag queen is retiring

Gary Marion, also known as Sushi, descends into a crowd in a large red high heel. The drag diva had dropped for 25 years in a row.
Gary Marion, also known as Sushi, descends into a crowd in a large red high heel for one of Key West's most beloved New Year's Eve traditions.

Key West's most famous drag queen is retiring and she is leaving a big shoe to fill — literally.

Sushi has become one of the biggest stars in the island's dramatic countdown to midnight on New Year’s Eve. For 25 consecutive years Sushi — real name Gary Marion — has climbed into a giant red high heel shoe and basked in the cheers of thousands as it's lowered outside the Bourbon Street Pub on Duval Street. The quirky ritual has even been featured live on CNN.

More than an attraction, Marion is an institution in the town's gay community. He has mentored countless drag queens through his cabaret, fought for LGBTQ causes and provided a roof for down-on-their-luck locals kicked out of their homes.

But he has now given up the gig that made him famous. Sushi's last drop was to welcome in 2023.

"I never thought as a 10-year-old gay boy that I would become a drag queen in a shoe on this beautiful island... So I'm grateful, and astonished about who Sushi became," Marion, who started as a janitor in the club, tells WLRN.

The decision comes at a time when drag queen shows have come under attack by Gov. Ron DeSantis, local authorities and 'parental rights' groups in Florida.

"You know, if it's your child, and you don't want them to see a drag queen, fine. That's your prerogative," Marion says. "But don't demonize us because we're living our life to our true selves. And it's sad to see that we're taking a couple of steps back."

WLRN's Keys reporter Gwen Filosa sat down with Marion to find out why he's stepping out of the shoe, to talk about the future and to ponder what Sushi has meant to this island — and to Marion himself.

The following is an excerpt of their conversation, which has been edited for length and clarity.

WLRN: So 25 rides is enough? Why stop now?

MARION: I did it for the money (laughs). You know, it's a good way to make a living. I've never enjoyed being onstage or having everybody look at me. I'm just not that kind of a person. I'm more of an introvert. I thought: 25 years, silver anniversary - perfect timing. That's a quarter of a century. I can say I sat in a shoe for a quarter of a century. You know, that's just amazing to me.

Why is it a red high heel... or how did this shoe come about?

It has to do with the Wizard of Oz. The ruby slipper. I think it also ties in with [The Adventures of] Priscilla, Queen of the Desert, with a big silver heel. The owner [of Bourbon Street pub], Joey Schroeder decided to do this event. And at the time, I was still the janitor at the club. I was still mopping the floor seven days a week, doing drag once a week. And I said, "Sure, I'll sit in the shoe."

What does it feel like to drop on New Year’s Eve in the shoe?

It’s an amazing feeling because you see all these people and I'm dressed up to the hilt. But I still feel alone because I'm alone in the shoe, away from the crowd. And that's one of the things that I don't like about it.

But it's amazing to see the response from the audience, because some people it's the first time they've seen a drag queen. I've had kids come to the show and now they're like 30, and they're like, "Sushi, you were the first drag queen I ever saw. It was amazing. I really want to thank you for that, because it opened my eyes to the gay community."

"These feet hurt. I need a break. Twenty five years of doing this, experiencing it, and representing Key West has been amazing."
Gary Marion

Do you have a favorite dress?

I got some Chanel fabric the first time I went to Paris and it was this raised purple ribbon with green, lime green, hand-sewn petals on black lace and it was fabulous. It was one of my favorite dresses. One of my drag queens was dying. And she said, "When I die, I want to be buried in that dress." My favorite dress went to a drag queen named Destiny. She got cremated in it.

In 2015, you wore a white wedding gown. So you got married before the red shoe drop?

Yes, I got married. I made my wedding gown. And I was so happy because I told my husband of 20 years, I said, "I'm not getting married til it's legal all over the United States." And I said, "It's legal. Now. We have the lights, we have the sound, we have the crowd, all our friends are going to be there. So let's have our wedding." And so I had my wedding before I got in this shoe. It was an amazing moment. I will remember that for the rest of my life. And I had all my friends from around the country fly in for that. So it was amazing.

Sushi, a drag queen portrayed by Gary Marion, drops outside the Bourbon Street Pub on Dec. 31, 2022 to welcome 2023 before a crowd of thousands on Duval Street in Key West. Marion said this was the final drop for Sushi for at least 25 years. A successor will be chosen.
Rob O'Neal
/
Monroe County Tourist Development Council
Sushi, a drag queen portrayed by Gary Marion, drops outside the Bourbon Street Pub on Dec. 31, 2022 to welcome 2023 before a crowd of thousands on Duval Street in Key West.

Do you have any fashion regrets?

I have worn three dresses off the rack. All the dresses that I bought off the rack, I regret. I should have taken the time to make a dress.

You have helped a lot of people in the LGBTQ community. You're very quiet about it. I know you've helped house people who need housing.

Most of my drag queens have come to live with me. I bought a house two years ago. My front room, I turned into the emergency room. So when people get kicked out of their apartments or houses or whatever they're renting, I have a room now. There's somebody staying there right now.

Drag has been under attack in Florida by far right groups, even Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis. What's it like to watch that happen?

I don't understand the kid thing. You know, if it's your child, and you don't want them to see a drag queen, fine. That's your prerogative. But don't demonize us because we're living our life to our true selves. And it's sad to see that we're taking a couple of steps back. But there's so much drag now on television, that it's amazing for me. They can't hide it. You know, it's all over the internet. The kids have phones, now they see it. So the only thing I can say is, I'm sorry, I'm living my life, but get off my back!

Do you see yourself as a political leader in the LGBTQ community?

I really never did see myself as a political figure. I thought, "I'm just a drag queen in a shoe." You know, I didn't realize how famous people thought I was, because I don't consider myself famous. I'm just some drag queen, living my life and trying to do my best to create a safe space for drag queens that work for me. I've had hundreds of drag queens come through my doors. So, no, I've never been really political. Maybe I should start? (laughs)

"I can't wait to get on with my life. Away from the red shoe. You know, just to celebrate in Paris [New Year's Eve] next year in front of the Eiffel Tower in drag — that's going to be fabulous."
Gary Marion

You’ve agreed to come back to do the 50th drop.

I'll come back for the 50th shoe drop. I'll be 80 years old, and then I'll retire. But every year from now on, I'm gonna travel somewhere special. Next year I already have about ten or fifteen friends of mine who are going to meet me in front of the Eiffel Tower in Paris. So then it's going to be Rome for the Colosseum, then the pyramids and you know, so you'll see Sushi but not in Key West.

Aside from possibly coming back in 25 years, for the 50th shoe drop, would you consider doing other drops on New Year’s Eve?

No, no, I've had 25 years. I'm 55 years old. [I was 17] the first time I did drag, I did drag and went to the Eurythmics concert in Portland, Oregon. But that's almost 40 years of drag. These feet hurt. I need a break.

I can't wait to get on with my life. Away from the red shoe. You know, just to celebrate in Paris next year in front of the Eiffel Tower in drag — that's going to be fabulous. Twenty five years of doing this, experiencing it, and representing Key West has been amazing.

Will you help choose the next person to drop in the red shoe?

I'm talking to the owner about how we're going to pick somebody to fill my shoes. In this climate, we have to do things responsibly and think about the LGBTQ community. So right now, we're thinking about doing a costume contest during gay pride in Key West. But I'm not sure exactly how we're going to do that contest.

What’s it like being Sushi today?

I never thought as a 10-year-old gay boy that I would become a drag queen in a shoe on this beautiful island. You know, it’s just an amazing place to live. So I'm grateful, and astonished about who Sushi became, you know? And I just want to thank everybody. Even the haters.

Gwen Filosa covers the Florida Keys for WLRN. She has been reporting from the island chain for over a decade, from Cuban landings and the workforce housing crisis, to the oddities and charms of the Keys.
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