How does one turn a square into a heart? Well, according to the art of drag, it involves contouring the top corners of the forehead, the sides of the nose and the line of the jaw. After that it is all about highlighting: under the eyebrows, the bridge of the nose, the cupid’s bow and of course those bags. Those bloody bags. Worst things I inherited from my father’s side.
Still I shouldn’t complain, I’d been quite lucky on the whole, some might even describe me as androgynous. But there was still a hell of a lot of work to do. My performance was in three hours so I was cutting it fine, but I’d got into a routine after a few months on the job, meaning it didn’t take as long. Thursdays were sometimes quiet, but I had friends in so I knew it wouldn’t be too bad.
In hindsight, I should’ve plucked my eyebrows. At least I’d remembered to shave. Stubble is a cardinal sin. When covered in foundation, it looks like a mass of raised beige spots. Spots that no amount of flattering lighting can conceal. It’s funny, people always told me that staring in the mirror for several hours a days would make me vain or self-obsessed. The opposite is true. It’s just more time to brood on what I could have had, how much easier the job could’ve been if I’d be born with something better to work with. The flip side is that I’ve always liked a challenge, plus half the beauty of make up is that it can turn you into someone else.
Image Matt Baume via Flickr.
With the base and contouring done, I turned my attention to the little pots of loose eyeshadow that had intensified my gaze countless times before. Did I want to smoulder in amethyst, or dazzle in emerald? Neither were tickling my fancy. I opted for a midnight blue I had never used before, raking off the shrink wrapped plastic with excitement. More is more, but it wouldn’t hurt to go a little sultry for once. You’d think after a few years in the game, I’d have learnt not to twitch as I penciled in my waterline, but still I had to clamp my eye open with my hand so that I didn’t sabotage my attempt at a winged line. My hooded eyes retreated further and further with each brushstroke and I sighed with relief. As I started mixing up some glue for my lashes, I heard a knock at the door.
“Honey? Honey have you heard from Jeremy yet?” coed a nasal voice from outside.
Jeremy was the venue’s technician, an unimposing sort of chap with long, greasy hair and the tendency to chew his bottom lip. God knows how he ended up in show business but he always managed to muddle through. I’d only ever seen him apologetically taping microphones onto divas before shuffling off behind the sound desk. Some would call him an unsung hero, a facilitator of theatre. I called him socially awkward.
“I haven’t no. Who is it?”
A ginger beehive poked its way around the corner of the door. What a wig. A pair of ruby, cat eye glasses materialized below the fringe.
“Don’t tell me you didn’t recognize my voice?” trilled my drag counterpart, before clearing her throat. Her voice re-emerged a full octave lower. “But seriously, Jeremy said we can’t go on, the lighting rig is fucked. They’ve started doing refunds already, ask him yourself.”
Emma Venom’s name fitted her so well. With a dry sense of sarcasm and a foul mouth, she was one queen you didn’t want to get on the wrong side of.
“Ladies don’t swear, Emma” I sighed, trying to blend my bronzer with my ring finger.
“Oh drop the niceties” she grunted back, rolling her eyes. “And while you’re at it, drop that wig. I’ve told you before peroxide brings out your crows feet.” By the time I’d turned around, she’d tottered out of the room with a cackle. Typical.
Surely they’d just postpone the performance? I hadn’t spent this long putting my face on, only to spend just as long taking it off. I looked at my half baked face in the mirror. Without my final layer of powder, my faced lacked softness. My eyes had disappeared without the falsies that were sat on my table, and my lips, lined but not filled in, had never looked more deflated. As I started to draw on a beauty spot, the tinny speaker linked to backstage screeched to a start in my room.
“Hello my beauties. I don’t know if you’ve all heard, but I’m afraid tonight is a no-go. We’ve done everything we can but without a specialist electrician, we won’t be up and running until tomorrow. Call time is seven as usual.”
The stage manager’s faux sympathy betrayed him. If he was making the announcement, then the decision was final – he wouldn’t have foregone a night’s earnings lightly. I felt a strange sense of stasis overcome me. I tentatively reached for the make up wipes, but my perfectly manicured hand wouldn’t let me grip the packet. It felt like defeat.
As I stared at my reflection, paralyzed, I remembered all those illicit transformations before I’d made a career for myself. I would sneak into my sister’s room, lock the door and get out all of her makeup. There I would experiment, following the grooves of my face; exploring all the colour palettes I could; creating a catalogue of alter egos for myself. The vampiric seductress. The vibrant bird of paradise. The smokey eyed feline. They were all fantastical and heightened of course. Yet I felt more myself in character than I ever did as plain old me. I’d often get halfway through a character, before hearing footsteps on the stairs, prompting me to dash to my room and erase my work in private. It was painful. Like raking away a masterpiece only minutes away from completion.
A tear rolled down my cheek, carrying with it traces of diluted sapphire from my tear ducts. As I went to dab it off, I smeared fresh mascara down the side of my nostril. What a mess. In an ugly panic, I threw my robe on the floor and stepped into the shower cubicle in the corner of the dressing room. The shower ran pink, blue, black and red. I’d never felt more naked.
* * *
“I’m not saying you need it, but have you ever thought about getting a nose job?” asked Emma as she clamped her gold eyelash curlers over her left eye. She’d had an unfortunate incident with some eyelash glue the night before and was trying to rally her natural lashes to bolster the newly clogged up fake ones. The question was far from speculative and I was in too good a mood for another siege on my self esteem.
“It’s just you’ve got such good cheek bones, it seems like a waste. It’d really help your profile. You could think of it as an investment, or as nipping a defect in the bud.”
As she landed the sting, I saw her eyes flick across the mirror to lock onto my reflection. She was gauging my reaction, looking for a chink in my armour. I resolved not to provide it. I’d only entered her bejeweled lair to borrow some hairspray, since my wigs never seemed to hold a good backcomb without it. Emma’s favourite things were herself and the Golden Age of Hollywood glamour, naturally, her room’s decor combined the two. An empty vintage perfume bottle complete with an atomizer and a powder puff from the fifties formed part of the organised clutter on her dressing table. They were somewhat cheapened by the surrounding landscape of Superdrug makeup, but without a death-wish, I had no intention of breaking that to her. Most would have framed photos of their icons, partners or relatives on the wall. Emma however, had a poster of a cabaret she had starred in about ten years ago. I could tell from the outdated and incredibly flattering headshot. It featured her, looking back over her shoulder, lips slightly parted, clutching a white fur stole. Knowing her, it would have been real, just for an extra dash of luxury. The poster stood, in a mirrored frame, which she had surrounded with fairy lights, casting an uncomfortably bright glow around the photo. The shrine was certainly striking, but abrasive on the eye if you stared at it too long. How fitting.
“If you want any help with the choreography, I’ll be in my dressing room.” I half sang in my best soprano as I cha cha cha’d out of the room. Tonight was the opening of our Burlesque season and I was craving the rush of performing. We’d only had two weeks of rehearsals but I wasn’t worried. I’d always thrived under pressure and was by far the best dancer, if I do say so myself. Emma’s recent cattiness was just a way for her to blow off steam. She’d always relied on her comedy since most of her experience was in stand up, so an all singing, all dancing cabaret was understandably daunting. I headed to to the costume rail set up at the side of the stage. We had so many quick changes that it made sense to get changed in the wings, instead of rushing down to our dressing rooms between numbers. I walked over to my personal rail and had a flick through my wardrobe.
Image Chris Tse via Flickr.
The first number was a Moulin Rouge medley with matching outfits. Mine consisted of a red lace corset, with a short black bustle that skimmed the back of my thighs. Fishnet stockings and black, thigh high, patent leather boots completed the bottom half. Our choreographer had wanted the Emcee to lead us onstage on leashes, each wearing personalized dog collars whilst slinking around on all fours. Naturally, we had objected. Aside from the risk of choking, or worse, laddering our tights, it was unashamedly degrading. If we hadn’t laid down some limits with the creative team, they’d have had us stripping before we knew it, which would provide a whole new array of logistical difficulties.
I slid the scantily clad hanger along the rail and turned my attention to my outfit for the act one finale. It was candy inspired and featured a pair of hot pants covered completely in fluffy pink wool to create the illusion of candy floss. The bodice was embellished entirely in sweets: gumdrops, bon-bons, mint humbugs, sherbet lemons – you name them, they were probably stuck somewhere, glazed with preservative. My ‘breasts’ were covered with strawberry laces, wrapped around themselves, like flattened, scarlet snail shells.
The ensemble laid out for the finale was by far my favourite. It was made almost entirely from strings of pearls, covering my modesty and very little else. I’d have to make sure my tuck was secure with this one. A tiara made up of conches and periwinkles finished off the look and would complement my entrance in a giant shell. They were pulling out all the stops with my Aphrodite schtick, for which they had sourced smoke and bubble machines, as well as new turquoise lighting gels. The other queens had complained that I was receiving a disproportionate amount of the budget, but my conscience was clear. In the past, I’d provided plenty of my own outfits and as such, saved the costume team a ton of money. It was refreshing them to take the reigns for once and prepare my wardrobe.
On my way to the sound desk, I bumped into our Emcee, Fraser. He’d recently turned forty, but looked at least 5 years younger. He way greying at the sides, but still had full head of hair and the silver flecks only made him look more suave. As a co-owner of the club, he wasn’t exactly strapped for cash and enjoyed reminding everyone this was the case. He also controlled the budgets, which meant everyone was out to get on his good side. If Fraser had a high opinion of you, you were more likely to get the most expensive garments thrown at you. Strangely enough, I’d never bothered to flatter Fraser like the gaggle of sycophantic queens that so often bombarded him.
Image Amy Ross via Flickr
“What, don’t I even get a smile?” he purred, cocking his head to one side, and holding out his arms with mock incredulity. “Those outfits didn’t pay for themselves, kitten.”
Fraser loved basking in his own generosity, lauding every financial favour over you until you act suitably humble. I felt like rocking the boat.
“Thanks for buying the materials, darling. I have to say, the design team have really outdone themselves this year. Such great detailing and craftsmanship, you must remind me to write them a card at some point.”
This was a more pinpointed siege on Fraser’s ego than it might first appear. He had always been envious of creativity and being surrounded by artists had only exacerbated that. His coping mechanism, aside from putting himself in the shows as the host of our performances, was to assert entrepreneurial control over us all, to remind us what we did wouldn’t be possible if not for savvy, business minded people like him, who deal in the “real world”. He pursed his lips together, clearly wounded by my drawing focus to the flair and innovation of the costumiers, implying he was nothing more than a facilitator.
“Yes, well just bear in mind who keeps those people employed, not to mention this entire place running” he said with his best inscrutability.
I thought I’d twist the knife a little further. “Oh sweetie, I thought it went without saying, but I don’t know where I’d be without you. All that number crunching would make me dizzy. And yet you’re still such a natural onstage…” Now I was parodying the sickly compliments I’d heard thrown at him so often. Despite my hyperbolic delivery, his face softened.
“Well that means a lot coming from you. We have some of the press in this evening so make sure you dazzle like always. Maybe I’ll see you after the show?” he said, with a presumptuous grin. Before I could object, he patted me on the rear and strode off. Unbelievable. My efforts to mess with the man who was practically my boss had been taken as sexual advances. I knew that look, he’d probably slink into my dressing room later with a bouquet and pounce. I’d leave the insults to Emma in future.
* * *
Vocal and physical warm ups were over, but we were running ten minutes late. Some simpleton had thought it would be a good idea to buff and polish the stage for extra sheen. The result was a performance space that may as well have been an ice rink. Hedda Lettuce, a chorus girl known for her trademark green wigs, learned this the hard way when dashing across the stage to set some of her props, only to end up skidding into the band pit. Hysteria ensued, in which cast members maniacally raked their heels with various sharp instruments to give them grip and sprayed the soles with hairspray for last minute stick. Eventually a technical assistant was given the peculiar task of mopping the stage with cheap cola. Despite the chaos, I felt calm. Like most, I suffered from nerves before going on stage, but they tended to disappear within half an hour of performing. By this point, I rationalized, there is very little I can do if I don’t know the material and so may as well go onstage as collected as possible.
The beginners call was given and the six of us who opened the show took our places behind the curtain. I studied the nervous tics of the others. One of the newer queens rubbed the tips of her fingers together as if she was trying to start a fire, her rapid blinking a bid to fan the flames. Another rocked back and forth in her stilettos – a perilous habit if ever I saw one. I was just focusing on Emma chewing her lip as she tucked the odd stray hair under the back of her wig, when I heard the blast of a saxophone. The show was starting.
We struck our opening positions on the balcony at the back of the stage. Each of us was equipped with two large feather fans, which we used to playfully peek through, flashing our legs and décolletage with affected coyness. As the drum beat dropped, we threw our fans to the side of the stage and sashayed down the stairs. The crowd could have been more vocal, but it was only the first number, they’d warm up. Fraser introduced each of us to the crowd as always. After all, we were the headliners and had built up a solid fanbase.
Image mike krzeszak via Flickr
“She’s the flame haired firecracker you know and love. Hide your husbands ladies, here’s everyone’s favourite Welsh Dragon, Emma Venom!”. Emma twisted her top lip into a pantomime snarl, pawed at the audience with her hands twisted into claws and attempted to beckon one unfortunate man sat towards the front, onto the stage. Fraser cut her off.
“Not now Emma, you can go play after the show, okay?”
Emma folded her arms and rolled her eyes as she played up to conceding defeat, before glancing down at the man and mouthing “call me” as Fraser turned his back. Her comic timing was impeccable as always.
“Next up – pretty as a picture and don’t even get me started on those legs… She really is sugar, spice and everything nice, it’s Magda Sparkles!”
I pointed at myself, doe eyed and shy, as if to communicate “who me?” before bringing my hands to my mouth for a girlish giggle. As the crowd cheered, I skipped forwards and blew a shower of kisses. A man by the bar pretended to catch one and clutched it to his chest, to which I winked, twiddling a curl hanging by my ear.
“Isn’t she just adorable?” cooed Fraser with a deep chuckle as he tickled me under the chin. As I walked back to my place, I caught Emma gesturing with an exaggerated yawn, playing up to her role as bad girl. I thought about wagging my finger at her, shaking my head at the audience to get them on side, but decided instead to just curtsy and play it sweet.
The rest of the number went smoothly and by the end, the audience were eating out of our hands. As the applause washed over me, I felt euphoric. The drag community aren’t exactly strangers to rejection and there is something about a roomful of applause that breathes a feeling of acceptance and appreciation into you. It was undeniably therapeutic.
Image Marcelo Acosta via Flickr
I made my quick change in plenty of time, with only one minor wardrobe malfunction. Tightening the laces on the back of my candy covered corset had dislodged some of the Dollymix that were lining the outside edges, but some last minute superglue fixed that. I strode confidently onto the stage, coquettishly licking the edge of an oversized lollipop as instructed. It was a little salacious for my liking, but it fitted with the theme so I obliged. Unlike the dramatic spotlights of the opening number, which cast a good portion of the audience into silhouettes, we were now lit with a soft pink wash. As I stepped towards the floor mounted microphone downstage, I panned my eyes across the cabaret tables. One man was pulling his chair out from the table and heading towards the exit. He moved with an unusual sense of urgency. As he walked down the aisle, towards the bar, he turned back for a second. He had forgotten his coat and lunged forwards to peel it off the back of the chair. It was the first glimpse I’d seen of his face.
What first struck me as impossible became increasingly unmistakable. It was my Father.
My mind reeling, I stood frozen on the spot, deafened by my own disbelief. I hadn’t spoken to my Father in years. I’d never been as close with him as I was with my Mother, because he’d worked six days a week throughout my childhood. He had tried to dissuade me from pursuing “show-business” my whole life and though he knew I performed full time, he certainly didn’t realize I worked in drag. He would never approve, so I had avoided telling him. In fact, neither of my parents even knew Magda existed.
What was he doing here? Had he received an anonymous tip off? Judging by his sudden exit, he hadn’t anticipated me seeing him. I knew this couldn’t have been a coincidence and that he must have come here for a reason.
I heard a loud crack on the floor and took a sharp intake of breath. I hadn’t been singing and the conductor was looking up at me, incredulous at my silence. I looked down to realise I had dropped my lollipop, which laid shattered on the ground, broken into a series of frosted pink shards. I tried to fix my gaze once again on my Father, but he was nowhere to be seen. No trace of him at all, other than the door swinging at the back of the club. Had I imagined him? Before I could rationalise whether I may be dehydrated and the lights had dazzled my eyes, I found myself trotting down the steps at the side of the stage.
The screech of chairs underscored my exit as I weaved through the maze of tables. About half of them were moved by spectators preempting my route and trying to avoid me, awkwardly scuffling themselves inwards. The rest were a result of my overzealous hip padding, which caused me to level furniture and customer alike. I heard the smash of glass as my heel snagged a table cloth and took it for a jog, dragging an entire tray full of cocktails onto the floor. The waiters looked at me in horror, as though I were some kind of rampaging bull and sensibly fled for cover behind the bar. By the time I’d reached the bouncers, I had a fair bit of momentum behind me. Getting hit at speed, by the breasts of a drag queen is as painful as it sounds and since they preferred their ribs unbroken, they made the wise decision of standing well clear of the doors. Stepping onto the pavement outside, I looked up and down the street, struggling to see much of anything. My impaired vision was a result of the rain, wind and a wig that by this point had crept half the way down my face. After some readjustment, I could make out a taxi being flagged down, about thirty metres away. Our eyes met for a couple of seconds. The figure was now unmistakable.
The shoes were off for this one. Slingbacks in hand, I sprinted as fast as I could towards the vehicle. If only it had been driving in my direction, I would have defiantly stood in the road. I’m sure my bedraggled state would have stunned the driver into braking. The door slammed just a couple of seconds before I reached it and I heard the click of the lock. Slamming my hands against the window I pleaded, “Dad, please, can we talk about this? Who told you I was here? Just stop. Stop the car.”
He looked hard into the back of the drivers head and cooly gave his address, as if I wasn’t even there.
“This is insane Dad, come on. Let me explain, at least give me a chance to…”
The revs of the taxi cut me off mid sentence as it pulled away from the curb. Desperately clutching at the handle, a profound sense of finality shot through me. I loosened my grip and the car slipped away. I couldn’t bring myself to wail or sob. All I managed was a tiny whisper.
“How could I tell you?”
* * *
“Don’t you understand Linda, it’s going to confuse him?” my Father snarled. His forearm was pressed against my neck, pinning me to the floor. With both my arms wrapped around his, I tried to alleviate the pressure on my throat, but had no leverage to do so.
With a feeble pound on his back, My Mother defended herself.
“Well I didn’t tell him to! You’re reading too much into it. He doesn’t know any better. You’re hurting him!”
“No. You are. Do you want him to be bullied? For God’s sake, at least give the boy a fighting chance of…” he trailed off shaking his head.
He turned to looks at me, his grey eyes full, not just of disappointment, but of bewilderment, as though I were an alien. With his other hand, my Father began to drag his palm down my face. The skin was rough, it felt as though layers of my skin were being taken off with every stroke. I squirmed around to little effect. Each time the hand panned over my eyes to start again at my forehead, it looked a little different. First, a pink glow manifested on the side of his thumb. Then a peacock blur shimmered just under the nail bed of his index finger. Next a smear of mascara along the base of his wrist. Ironically, the attempts to wipe the makeup off were only contaminating him with it.
“Makeup is for girls. You’re not a girl are you? No. And you never will be, so just forget about it.” With that, he stood up, rolled down his sleeves and stalked out of the room. As I tried to catch my breath, clutching the sides of my neck, I saw my Mother in all her indecision. She chewed her thumbnail, looking through the doorway, then down at me. Her face was tired. With a weary sigh, she followed my Father out of the room. I picked myself up, rolling my shoulders backwards and readjusting my watch. Walking over to the mirror above the coffee table, I reluctantly cast my eyes onto my reflection. I cringed.
The careful gradient of bronze and rouge I had worked into the apples of my cheeks now looked blotchy and grimy. It had taken me so long to find the right balance, that didn’t make me look sunburnt, or overpower my fair skin. The eyeshadow I had raided from my sisters vanity table had smudged downwards, blending the green with the bluish tone that already surrounded my eyes. But my lips looked the worst by far. It was the first time I’d ever tried lipstick and I’d opted for a deep scarlet, like the women on the red carpet wore. The colour had bled everywhere and had left my mouth looking like a character from one of my batman comics – the Joker. I looked clown like, the outline of my lips lost in a stain that seemed to make the corners of my mouth look permanently downturned. Carnivalesque wasn’t the look I was going for. As I tried wipe away one particularly pink spot, I felt a sharp sting and realised it was actually a graze from my Father’s hand.
I hadn’t expected him to be home early from work. He’d caught me running from the kitchen to the staircase, which required a dash past the front door. Mother had gone for a nap with a migraine so I thought I’d be able to take my time.
I thought about what he had said as I looked at my soiled artwork. What a mess. I made a promise to myself. I would never get caught again.