Aug 25, 2011

To Drag or Not to Drag

A couple of my fans have asked me if I ever do drag which got me thinking, "Why don't I have any drag acts?" By "drag", Susan Sontag's theories on camp and convoluted academic theories aside, the street definition simply means dressing up as the opposite sex. There are quite a few burlesque performers who have drag acts dressed as a man. Drag done well is a transformation that I enjoy watching on stage. I admire it but I don't think I can or would ever be able to pull it off. I am too attached to my long hair to cut it, shave it, or wig it short. My figure is also too curve-y (34-27-34) to pull off the androgynous look that performers like Stormy Leather do so very well. But most importantly I would not feel pretty or powerful as a man or even dressed as a man in costume. When I was five years old, my family went away camping somewhere for the weekend and I didn't have enough underwear to wear. So my mom made me wear a pair of clean boy underwear that belonged to my older brother. I was mortified and felt so gross and not myself the whole day. I also had a really short hair cut as a child and for some reason I wanted to get a perm (I also insisted on owning a pair of white cowboy boots too). My mom obliged me but I ended up with a tight 'fro and whenever we went to the market, noisey vendors asked me if I was a boy or a girl! I wasn't a total girlie girl as a child and I was pretty hyperactive and bold. But I definitely resented being mistaken for a boy. I felt so embarrassed and couldn't wait for the perm to go away and my hair to grow long again. So why do other performers don drag with such aplomb and panache when I can't even imagine it? I asked some of my performer friends on their take, and I was surprised to find that most performers have quite the opposite reaction than I have.

Stormy Leather (below) who, in my opinion, does amazing drag has quite a few acts that either touch on her bisexuality or exist in the realm of role-play. In "I'm Your Man" (Leonard Cohen), "I hand out roses and strip out of my suit to reveal my breasts wrapped and men's undergarments.  And then I take a lady by the hand, twirl and dip her, and then lay a big kiss on her." She poignantly adds that this act is "a tribute to my bisexuality and the way I feel about women sometimes. That if I could be your man, I would. I really really would." 

 In "Daddy's Home", a controversial act that Stormy only performs at The Box, she starts out as a convincing looking man and end up as a broken woman who "puts a condom on a gun and aims it at her vagina." It's a piece created under The Box's creative direction and "many people I know have differing views on this piece. While some see it as a story about identity confusion or penis envy, others have been quite offended." But in the end, Stormy says, it's an act "about being unhappy with who you are." And that is relate-able on an universal level, how the trappings of gender, sexuality, and identity can succeed or fail to define who we are.
One of the things I admire about Stormy doing drag acts is the confidence she exudes as a pretend-man. She walks different, stands differently, and as she says, "When I dress in drag everything about me changes. My walk, the way I stand, how I smoke a cigarette, how I talk to women or men." One can see that transformation in her performance and I also think that her lithe physique goes a long way in being convincing. Ironically, her svelte figure (all muscle, no fat, all angles and lean lines) is what gay men are envious of, straight men obsessed with (I've witnessed it), and straight and gay women admire sometimes makes her feel self-conscious when she is not in drag. "When I'm in drag, I'm less self conscious about what my body looks like when I'm stripping. I'm not worried about looking too skinny or missing a spot with the moisturizer.  I don't have to wear makeup and I don't care what I look like without it when I'm a man."
Another performer Strawberry Fields, who is on hiatus, used to do a drag act at the first show I ever produced called "Dim Sum Burlesque" in 2009. Her song of choice is "Glory Box" by Portishead. She describes her act as being inspired by the lyrics (Give me a reason to love you...give me a reason to be a woman...I just want to be a woman) which "conjured up the imagery of being a man - in man's clothing, facial hair, masculine stance... all of the armor of man... and little by little stripping that away...peeling those layers reveal a hot sexy woman-goddess."
Strawberry Fields doing "Glory Box" at Dim Sum Burlesque, 2009


The word "armor" is an interesting choice of words. Whereas Stormy Leather revels in being a man for sexual-political reasons when she says, "As many women, even today I'm faced with the double standard between the sexes.  And it drives me bat shit crazy.  Sometimes I wonder how much more I could accomplish if I simply had that extra appendage.  It is a little bit of penis envy for me I guess. Not that I want to really have one, but that I can see where it would be beneficial", Strawberry Fields has a spiritual explanation for how she feels when she is in drag. "It is empowering to act/feel/embody a man... the masculine energy I put out in drag is very different than my playful feminine energy... it feels very different... I tense my muscles in my arms, face, brow." Strawberry then adds that she does "imagine having a penis (a big dominating one) and it fuels a male confidence that feels completely different that my feminine goddess energy confidence."

The struggle of finding that mythical liminality state that encompasses both masculine and feminine is perhaps what motivates and inspires my fellow performers to do drag. I am less evolved in my exploration of sensuality than they are, because I can't embrace, or rather I refuse to investigate the masculine in me. If there is a masculine energy in me it must express itself in other facets of my life, perhaps through my ambition and ball-busting. On stage as a persona, I just can't muster it because I don't find myself "sexy" when I look man-ish, boy-ish, masculine. So what it comes down to, for me, at least, is that I perform for myself. I perform what I think is seductive, sexy, erotic - it is narcissistic but art is self-indulgent... at least I'm not writing an autobiography! Not yet, at least. Oh like having a blog is any better. :)

Echoing my sentiment is what performer Dame Cuchifrita says about why she does drag acts. "I also happen to believe when it comes to my personal view on what is sexy, it is always about attaining a balance between the male and female energy. Androgyny would be the ideal form of beauty  in my eye. I don’t usually find anything that is too female or too male as sexy, but a combination of both when found in one person is utterly irresistible," she says. In her drag acts/personalities, she will often depict what she calls "warrior" qualities through figures such as a bullfighter, a Chinese emperor, Hitler to Galliano. I've worked with Dame a lot and I can attest to her penchant for dressing as a man. When we modeled for Dr. Sketchy's for "Peking Opera" she would not stop playing with and idolizing her fake beard! However her motivation is not trying to be convincing as a man (a big thing in drag culture achieving "realness") or to complete the transformation process. She revels in existing in that in-between space that I discussed earlier, straddling that strange and at times mesmerizing figure that appears female (she is also curve-y) but the movements and gestures suggest otherwise. When asked if she feels differently when she is in drag, she says, "In my spirit resides a warrior, strong male energy that I find very sexy when combined with my womanly figure. Perhaps because being physically big and strong is something I could never attain, therefore the yearning becomes almost erotic." 
Dame Cuchifrita at Dr. Sketchy's. Photo by Justin Lussier.
Dame Cuchifrita (right). Photo by Adrian Buckmaster.

I thought it would be interesting to get the opinion from the opposite side and asked our Number One burlesque fan and supporter who everyone knows: Caprice Bellefleur. Caprice is a burlesque staple. You will often see her out in the audience dressed to the nines and sporting a short bob, sometimes it is blonde and lately it's been a black bob. She must be out every single night and she has probably attended every single regular burlesque show in NYC. She describes herself on her blog as "a 62 year old retiree enjoying life in the Big Apple. I'm a mixed-gender male-bodied person. This makes me a transgender person, trans for short. If you call me a crossdresser, I won't object, but crossdressing is just an activity I do to express part of my identity." I have never seen Caprice as non-Caprice and I honestly don't think I would recognize her as him. So why the crossdressing or "en femme"-ing? She started very young at the age of 9 trying on her sister's and mother's clothes. She recalls, "when I was in summer day camp at age 9, and they had 'Backwards Day.' Most of us just put on our camp T-shirts backwards, but one boy came in a dress. I couldn't take my eyes off him. I wanted to be wearing that dress so badly." The desire to express both masculine and feminine aspects of her personality amplified through the years until her 40s' when putting on one of two items in private no longer fulfilled and "the desire to be seen as a woman by others began to grow. By then the internet existed, and I began corresponding with other crossdressers. I bought more clothes, some make-up and jewelry, and the items I needed to give the appearance of having a female figure. On November 11, 1998 I bought a wig (I never had one before) and attended my first crossdressers' club meeting."
Reina Terror (left), Caprice (center), Bambi Galore (right) at Burlesque Hall of Fame 2011.
Women can often feel bolder and more confident when dressed as a man, so what does Caprice feel when presenting herself as a woman? Does she feel less ballsy (excuse the pun), soft-spoken, timid, or less confident? Interestingly she says, "I think I'm less shy when presenting as a woman. I don't know why. Is it because I'm hiding behind an alternate, invented identity, with an alternate appearance, that I can shed when it's convenient? I'll let the shrinks debate that."


  1. Great post Calamity. I'd love to see what you'd come up with if and when you do.

  2. I have a lesbian friend who used to wear street drag (as opposed to performance drag) a lot. Now that she's a working professional I don't think she does it as much. In her case, I think its just that she's always felt very masculine and likes to express that side of her personality.

    Most of the woman I know besides her are very girly girls, they tend to avoid clothes that have even a hint of masculinity.

    In my case, I would feel like I was a mockery of the female form if I wore drag, so I've never though of it even as a Halloween costume.