I just went to my first drag show. I was on a research trip – no joke. Last fall I joined a “school of rock” band, and I’m the lead singer, which, as a classically trained cellist and a recovering church backup vocalist, has been a wrenching, exhilarating, and illuminating stretch for my musical self concept. So I am sincere when I say I was on a research trip, because while I was dinged at my church more than once for moving too much on the platform when I sang, my band teacher tells me I need to loosen up. So I went where I thought my concept of loose might reach a whole new dimension.
I met the cast before the show, briefly. My introduction was cut short by a performer’s Yorkshire terrier who threatened to rip my head (OK, ankle) off if I came any further into the dressing room. The irony hit me as I made my way back down the stairs that this dog considered me unacceptably strange – me, in my conservative pants and professional blouse – in a shared dressing room for half dressed drag queens.
There were four entertainers. I say entertainers because of the four, only one – the show’s hostess – actually sang. The rest lip synced. This bothered me for a moment until I realized that this is why I had come – for a study of stage presence. Of delivery. Of attitude. Panache. Chutzpah. Call it what you will. I am seeking to understand and emulate that special je ne sais quoi that separates folks whose nervous, self-conscious demeanor screams that they are not at home on stage from those who seem most alive – most real – on the platform. The drag queens were exactly what I needed, because most of them weren’t even singing. Their performances were in the most pure terms spectacles, something to behold. The dresses and makeup were stunning displays of artistry, and the efforts to shape their bodies to appear feminine were extreme. As I watched, I came face to face with the fact that most often the most effort – in costuming, makeup, body sculpting and seamless lip-syncing – almost always produced the best result. In other words, the greatest artifice appeared the most authentic. The more fabricated they were, the more genuinely feminine they appeared. Add to this the gesture, attitude and gyrations of a singing diva, and a few performances seemed sublimely real.
That’s a lot for a former church girl backup singer to swallow for all sorts of reasons. But that’s a subject for another blog entry someday. Maybe.
I was told that a drag queen had recently landed a reality TV show, and in response had spent $30,000 on her teeth and undergone a second boob job to make them even bigger. I was told that she exercises daily, and that no matter what she wears when she arrives on the platform, she always ends her performances in a bikini. The illusion is apparently so perfect that heterosexual men find themselves aroused. I’m told she is obsessed with her body. After a brief moment of awareness of the irony of such artifice going into a reality TV show, I stood for another brief moment in high indignation, even horror, at the lengths to which a man would go to appear to be what is my birthright – feminine.
Yet another moment later I remembered a trip to a cosmetic surgeon I took about a year ago. I went ostensibly to see if he could find a medically necessary reason to work on my rather generous nose. I have always said that it doesn’t seem fair that someone with such a big nose should have so much trouble breathing through it, and I wanted an insurance-funded reason for a nose job so I could get the cute nose I’d always wanted and not feel guilty about it – oh, and be able to breathe through it properly. I have also considered laser hair removal, and dermabrasion for the sun-damaged skin on my face. All of this was my reaction to turning 40 a few years ago, and my realization that although my identity had always been as the youngest in any room – first as a child, then as an adult – that identity was wearing thin. I no longer looked (nor was) the part. And it occurred to me, even as I contemplated a photo of this TV-blessed drag queen in a bikini, that I am really not a lot different than she is; it is just a matter of degree and of execution.
I didn’t go through with the nose job. I also didn’t do the laser hair removal or the dermabrasion for the same reason I once let my leg and underarm hair grow to its full potential; I no longer wished to be disgusted by anything short of excrement that my body might naturally produce. I am now committed to taking care of myself, but otherwise relaxing as gracefully as possible into the accumulation of years and their toll on my physique.
But the impulse and often the gesture still lies in me: to appear what I am not. I do it in ways both physical and non-physical. If I really am honest, I have to admit I dissimulate much of my day, and often wish I could pull it off more convincingly. I am not what I seem. Or at the very least I am often trying hard to present something that is not necessarily my reality.
The ironic flip side of this coin is that by acting “as if,” I can in fact become much of what I want to become: emotionally sober, patient, more loving, and even altruistic, among many other things. Maybe even a convincing lead singer. I just need to sing well enough, act the part, and get the costume together to match. And now I have a little better clue how to go about it.