Aug. 31 2011 12:00 AM

Can a local drag queen rule the roost on VH1?


Justin Derke would be a standout in any crowd. The 6-foot-7-inch Lansing resident can’t help it.

“I see above everybody,” he said, relaxing in a booth at
Gone Wired Café. “When I shrink myself down to other people’s heights, I
want to be tall again. At concerts, I can be in the back and still see.
It has its advantages and disadvantages.”

Both came into play while the 22-year-old was taping
something else that is sure to get him noticed: the VH1 reality series,
“Ton of Cash,” which began airing earlier this month. Derke is one of 14
contestants racing to move $1 million in cash from Malibu to Las Vegas
by any means they can.

“I have long legs — I really do — and long arms, which are
good for picking up the money,” a smiling Derke said, in his mellow,
light voice, which provides a sharp contrast to his imposing figure.

Although the 2007 Bath High School graduate can’t say much
about the specifics of the program (he described it as “‘The Amazing
Race’ meets ‘The Real World,’ except that instead of going to the money,
we’re carrying it with us”) he happily provided the details of how he
became involved.

“My friend sent me a flier (about the
show) on Facebook and I sent the casting director my bio,” he said. “I
auditioned in Novi and did a Skype interview. Then, I did a couple more
interviews, and off I go to L.A.”

Everyone in the “Cash” race is dealing
with financial woes, and Derke, who graduated from Protégé Academy of
Cosmetology and spent a year and a half at Lansing Community College, is
no exception.

“I only have one credit card, but I have other charge cards,” he said. “I like to shop. A lot.”

How can he not? Derke is also a drag
queen — although you wouldn’t guess that from the casual flannel shirt
he wore to the interview, or his short, playfully styled red-brown hair
with a modest splash of blondness in the front, or the dark, closely
trimmed beard that framed his face. (“It’s a whatever thing — it
happens," he said, nonchalantly. "I can shave it off and make it look

“The hair, the makeup, the glitz, the
glamour: I love it all,” he gushed. He started out dressing in drag for
Halloween as a teenager, but “then I got very serious about it, with a
new wig, dress, makeup, all that.”

Last year, he entered Spiral Video and
Dance Bar’s Hot Drag Superstar contest last year, only to find himself
the first one eliminated. “This year, I was a lot more put-together and
ready for it,” he said: He took first place.

Asked if he has a chance to show off his style in “Ton of Cash,” Derke is cagey: “You’ve got to watch to find out.” 

He’s more forthcoming about his desire to
hit the road. “I’m a big-city person,” he said, who plans to land in
“Chicago, L.A., Miami, somewhere really big.”

After all, Derke continues to get bigger himself.

“I’m still growing,” he said, with a
sigh. “When I graduated from high school, I was six-feet-four. These
shoes are size 13, and they’re a little tight. But I drink a lot of
coffee, which I hope will stunt my growth.”