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."

Aug 1, 2011

Dances of Vice: Shanghai Foxtrot, Gettin "Gansta", Scary Natural Lighting

Well, my parents were right yet again. There would come a time in my adult life when I "return" to my roots and embrace my Chinese background via the arts. They've been telling me this since I was a teenager growing up in Texas but I always pupu-plattered their notion in favor of Madonna, James Dean, River Phoenix, and going to the mall. Come on, it's Texas. It's the land of conformity and blonde, buxom cowgirl babes. A Chinese girl did not fit in. I was always extremely self-conscious when the family went out to eat at any non-Asian restaurants in Texas. And it didn't help that we would go to trucker diners off the side of the interstate highway cause that was what we could afford. We would be the only non-white people dining there, and I'm not being paranoid when I say there were sideways glances thrown our way many a times. They weren't hostile or anything, but it wasn't just benign curiosity either. Definitely not a friendly vibe. It trained us to speak Chinese quietly so we didn't garner any more unwanted attention to the fact that we were not like everyone else. Ninety percent of my friends from high school were Vietnamese. There is a huge Vietnamese population in DFW. Anyway not to be all Joy Luck Club-y, this was why I left Texas as soon as high school was over. So when my parents (one from a family of medicine and nursing background, and the other literature and Chinese history background) would predict my eventual return to my background, I naturally rejected them. Mind you, this is before every white guy wants to date an Asian. This was before YM Magazine gave you tips on what foundation color to use for any skin type past pale or dark. This was before feng shui is thrown around the household vocabulary. This was a time when the Wal-Mart intercom still announced, "Lost three year old Oriental Boy is looking for his mom". But this past weekend proved to me again that my parents know me better than I know myself.

Saturday night I performed for Shien Lee's Dances of Vice: Shanghai Foxtrot show at Le Poisson Rouge. Everyone knows who Shien is. If you don't, you can not call yourself a nightlife performer in NYC. She's one of the biggest party event promoters creating such magnificently themed parties such as Dada Revue, Tango del Diablo, Liberty Belle, Le Sacre du Printemps, the list goes on. Her events are widely covered by the press, and she was also voted as one of the Most Stylish New Yorkers by Time Out NY. Can you tell how much I admire her and her aesthetic vision yet? I was thrilled to be asked to be in her Shanghai Foxtrot show, because in the last couple of years, I've become obsessed with old Shanghai culture and with the history of early Chinese nightclub performers in San Francisco such as Noel Toy and other figures from the documentary "Forbidden City, USA". I already have a few burlesque acts to old Chinese and/or Japanese music from the 20s-40s so Shien's show was the perfect fit. I did one of my oldest acts, the black fan dance to the Japanese cover of "St. Louis Blues" and a newer act to "Quizas, Quizas, Quizas" from Wong Kar Wai's "In the Mood of Love" soundtrack. I also had the pleasure to meet Maggie Moon a superb tap dancer and a pair of very sexy and talented male tango dancers, Anton and Jody. Everyone were a pleasure to be around backstage and funny stories were shared. What I loved most about her show is that her fans make an effort to dress up according to the theme. Many people in the audience had on era-specific attire. Men had on tails, suspenders, hats. Women wore fascinators, jewels, gloves. One tall woman had on this gorgeous ivory-colored silk gown with her hair slicked back complete with dark eye-makeup and red lips. Even Caprice, our resident-in-house burlesque friend, who is usually a blonde had transformed her do to a short black bob. The lighting was beautiful creating an atmosphere that was worlds apart from the collegiate gibberish outside on Bleecker street. Shien's 6-piece band accompanied her as she sang two sets of Old Shanghai Chinese classics from 1920s, 30s and 40s. I own many of the original songs and I subject Michael to listening to them at home. Many of these songs I remember hearing at my grandparent's house in Taiwan. Some of them are just a lingering faint memory at the tip of your tongue. To hear these classics live and sung with skill, talent, and authentic gestures true to how the Chinese sirens of the time performed them was a truly transcendental and sublime experience. "Happy" is not enough. I was elated. You can find out more about Shien's Shanghai Foxtrot event and music at:

If you interested in learning even more about early Chinese cabaret/burlesque performers in SF, check out Calvin Fong's incredible scrapbook here!

Sunday morning I had an early call time to be in a music video for Kyle Rapp's song with Talib Kweli. I wish I could tell you more, but I don't really know much more! The shoot was on the basketball courts near Pier i Cafe on 68th Street and Riverside. They wanted the gritty basketball court as background cause it looked gansta. Hahaha. Kyle casted for an Asian or Black burlesque dancer, and my friend Jewel Elizabeth recommended me. Kyle's goal is to cross-pollinate burlesque and hiphop. I brought a few options for his partner Megan to pick from. Megan is the bassist of the very popular all-girl tribute band Lez Zepplin There was no place to change so I borrowed the bike rental guy's trailer to change into a red corset ensemble. It was fun walking through the basketball courtyard in that outfit! I used my fans in the clip. The song is called "International Traveler" which will be out in a couple of months, I was told. I am #69. Be on the lookout!

I jettied home after the video shoot to meet Sara Howe, a British photographer who is in town working on a new series of burlesque performers at home. I met her through Joe the Shark who recommended me. I couldn't say no to her project because it was at home and I was already in costume and makeup. She's a tiny little thing. Very nice and easy to work with. We shot in the living room using natural light which was more intimidating for me. We shot my red Dusk til Dawn costume and my "Black Lodge" costume from Twin Peaks. It was terribly hot Sunday but Sara knocked it out like a pro.

I'm going to Toronto for the weekend + a few days and I'm so excited! Michael is taking me to Kitchener Blues Festival and show me around his hometown Toronto. I'll be meeting up with Minx Arcana and hopefully Chris Mysterion will have a show or two for me to check out while I'm up in the great north. I can't wait to have this little break...

Tonight I'm at Mary Cyn's "Original Cyn" Show at Lucky13 Saloon in Park Slope doing my Hello Kitty act for the local metal heads! Show is at 10pm. I hope to see some of my friends who live near there! Oh, the show is free because real metal is free.

And a little vintage Chinese clip to share with you via my blogger friend Durian Dave's Soft Film blog. This clip features Diana Chang, quite the voluptuous babe! There are more vintage Chinese clips on the hosting site.