“Where are my lashes?”
Yuhua Ou stands in front of his dresser, a white-drawered construction covered on the top by makeup of all kinds—bright pink blush, tawny foundations, silver glitter, amber and white pearlescent eyeshadow, red lipstick, clown white panstick, and more. He tosses bottle after bottle aside, turning baskets of products upside down with a quiet clatter until the lashes appear. Thick, black, and fluttery, he peels one then another from their plastic resting place and attaches one to each eyelid.
Now fully made up, his painted pink lips pop, his eyes are swept with thick black liner, his cheeks are rosy with blush, and those lashes could really take out an eye. Rhinestones grace the inner corners of his eyes. A long wig of straight platinum blonde hair made edgier with black lowlights holds on, spirit gummed, to his head. He wears a ruffly, soft gold tube dress, his waist defined by a black corseted belt. Black-heeled knee boots cover his feet. The look is inspired by Toddlers and Tiaras, he says, laughing quietly. In an hour and a half, he has transformed from Yuhua Ou, a Business Management major at New York’s Pace University, into Yuhua Hamasaki, a brash and fabulous international showgirl.
In drag as Yuhua Hamasaki, a name he animatedly says he chose because it was “something fierce, killer, ready to kill you,” Ou is not the quiet, somewhat tired young man I met for coffee days before. Instead he, or rather she, is now full of attitude and sparkle, that kind of bewitching, magnetic energy that makes a drag queen a drag queen. In the basement of a male go-go bar in midtown Manhattan, he, now she, parades fiercely and elegantly across a tiny stage with arms outstretched, mouth forming the words to Lady Gaga’s “The Edge of Glory,” though no actual sounds come out. For those few brief minutes, one forgets she is not actually singing at all and, after a series of dramatic poses and even a split, she is offstage. An off-duty showgirl, she sits on a table next to a gentleman friend and holds his hand. Her legs dangle, childlike, off the table, blonde hair cascading down her back.
“I don’t represent the ‘quintessential’ man and I don’t really care,” Ou says. “Let someone else do it.” Ou, who is Chinese, was raised to believe that being a man meant “you had to make lots of money, get married, have children, play sports, lift heavy things, be smart…” and the list goes on. But he never felt comfortable doing any of those things, feeling like he was being asked to “portray a trait I wasn’t capable of doing 100%.” He continues, “I tried when I was younger but I was always so bad at it. Being myself was the opposite of what ‘being a good man’ was.” Ou speaks low-voiced but with an effeminate curl around his words, his fingers swirling with perfectly trimmed nails as he gesticulates. He slouches but holds his chin up elegantly, medium-length black hair twisted up into a messy bun at the top of his head. His eyes are heavy with what might be the lack of sleep typical for college students and even more typical for nightclub performers.
When Ou started doing drag, for the first time at 16, on a dare, he says, “I thought it was weird for a man to dress in women’s clothing.” Now, though, he has been doing drag more professionally for three years. He realized somewhere in the middle that “gender is [only] what society considers normal. Why can’t a man wear a dress?”
In reality, men have been wearing dresses for thousands of years. There’s even an early reference to cross-dressing in the Old Testament. True drag, though, was borne of the stage, when women were not allowed to perform so men took their places in any ridiculous frippery necessary to display some semblance of feminine qualities. Shakespeare was said to use the phrases “enter Dressed Resembling a Girl” or “enter Dressed As Girl” in his plays as notes for male actors, which later evolved into “drag.”
Being a drag queen, however, is different from simply doing drag. A drag queen is primarily a homosexual male who dresses in women’s clothing to entertain. Some sing, some dance, some do stand-up comedy. But a male in drag is not necessarily a drag queen—Milton Berle, Flip Wilson, and even Adam Sandler are all heterosexual males who have donned female attire for comedic effect, but did not do it as a career, as a drag queen does.
For a long time, drag was relegated to gay culture, but in the 1970s with gay liberation movement and the popularization of glam rock icons in outlandish makeup and gender-bendy costumes like David Bowie’s Ziggy Stardust, it experienced a move to the surface. In the 1990s and again in the 2000s, famed queen RuPaul took drag to even more audiences with her 1992 hit single “Cover Girl (You Better Work)” that launched her via channels like MTV and many others; and then again in 2009 with RuPaul’s Drag Race, a reality competition show where contestants compete to become America’s Next Drag Superstar.
“In my [kind of] drag we take the girl stuff and do so much with it it doesn’t seem like girl stuff anymore,” says Alex Heimberg, known for drag persona Miss Understood. Piling neon wigs upon neon wigs upon wigs for immense, almost-foreign hair; swiping the mouth with green lipstick; caking the face with white paint. For Heimberg it was less about being female than being outrageous in the glittery theatricality of the New York club scene in the 1980s and 1990s. “I like looking unlike myself. It’s completely artificial … I would have been bored with trying to look like some regular person,” he says.
This kind of creativity married well with Heimberg’s artistic nature. After graduating from the Fashion Institute of Technology in New York, he took a job in visual merchandising with Macy’s, but to this day, some 20 years later, it is the only “day job” he ever had. Post-Macy’s, Heimberg was able to make a career out of Miss Understood.
“I don’t really believe people should lead their lives by gender roles,” Heimberg says. “I don’t understand sports, but there’s different ways women are that I don’t understand either. I’m still very neutral. I’m a different animal … I feel cut off from ‘men’ and ‘women,’” Heimberg continues. “As a guy I’m not the most masculine guy, but I’m not the most feminine girl … I don’t feel particularly masculine or feminine.” Miss Understood is more about performance, he says, not about gender.
“There may be certain aspects that are particular [to masculinity], but there are so many exceptions there’s no reason to take it seriously. People should be encouraged to be whoever they are.”
Unfortunately, though, we’re spoon-fed an ideal of masculinity that doesn’t really exist. This, somehow, makes the drag queen seem less of a man, when in reality this is not the case.
And then there’s the man. Ah, yes, “the man.” The virile breadwinner, the logical and practical seducer of women, the Marlboro Man. And any man who is not him, or does not seek to exemplify his qualities must not be a man, or is not masculine enough. Any man who chooses musical theatre over finance, who emotes instead of playing lacrosse, who cannot grow a beard or chooses to wear a dress is simply not good enough, is too much like a woman to be worthy of the name “man.”
But, as Keith Levy, née a blonde Las Vegas sex kitten named Sherry Vine, points out, this is simply not true. Levy quotes the 1982 film Victor/Victoria, in which Julie Andrews plays Victoria Grant, a female singer who struggles until she finds a niche for herself as Count Victor Grazinski, a female impersonator, a drag queen. In order to keep her steady gigs, she maintains that she is a man. A wealthy cabaret owner, King Marchand, doubts her masculinity, but she simply replies, “Your problem, Mr. Marchand, is that you’re preoccupied with stereotypes. I think it’s as simple as you’re one kind of man, I’m another.”
The dialogue goes on:
Being a drag queen does not make for less of a man—it merely makes for a different kind of man, Levy says. As Sherry, Levy may have thick brown eyebrows and glossy red lips, but he’s still a man. This kind of man is different than the kind we are spoon-fed on a regular basis as the be-all, end-all of masculinity. Not everyone is “John Wayne.” John Wayne was probably not even “John Wayne” (his birth name was Marion Morrison, of all things). As renowned gender theorist Judith Butler wrote in her 1988 essay “Performative Acts and Gender Constitution: An Essay in Phenomenology and Feminist Theory,” gender is “a constructed identity, a performative accomplishment which the mundane social audience, including the actors themselves, come to believe and to perform in the mode of belief.” In short, gender identity only exists because people have created it, not because the attributes prescribed to each gender truly exist. Men don’t ooze semen and spit tobacco; women don’t vacuum the house wearing pearls. But we have seen these ideals represented so often in our culture that we have started to believe they are actually real, wherein the danger lies.
We begin to think that there are a set number of categories of men and women, that everything is black and white, when in reality life is one big grey area. Judith Butler continues to establish this point in “Performative Acts of Gender Constitution,” writing, “If the ground of gender identity is the stylized repetition of acts through time, and not a seemingly seamless identity, then the possibilities of gender transformation are to be found in the arbitrary relation between such acts …” If someone performs the acts prescribed to a particular gender, they can then begin to adopt the gender themselves, since the acts are unrelated to the sex with which one is born. Or, as RuPaul says, “You’re born naked and the rest is drag.” Machismo is an act. Girliness is an act. Nobody is 100% “masculine” or “feminine.” In fact, most of us lie somewhere in between (the Kinsey scale, anyone?)
“There’s a whole spectrum of men and people put too much emphasis on one or the other,” says Levy. “Most people see [gender] as two or three categories when really there’s like a hundred.” Out of drag, Levy is, as he says, “just a guy,” in t-shirts and jeans with no interest in fashion, but turns into “a sexy glamorous lady at night.” People are sometimes surprised he does drag, sometimes not: “Some people might look at me and see such a faggot, such a queen. Some people wouldn’t. I haven’t thought about how I fall into the masculine spectrum, I just am. I love rock and roll, the Ramones, not Barbra Streisand even though I do drag.” Sherry Vine is not a real person, he says, and makes no pretense of making her real beyond staged performances. “This is a character and this all comes off. People say, ‘oh my God, you’re such a guy!’ And I just say, yes!”
Levy started doing drag as part of a project while working on his Acting MFA at the University of Southern California. Students had to perform three types of people, and one of Levy’s choices was a drag queen. Though he initially had no desire to perform in drag, Levy later created Sherry and enjoyed performing her so much that he made her his full-time career. “It’s acting, and I’m performing a character, in the same sense that Elvira or Pee Wee Herman is a character. I’m a different person when I’m Sherry. I’ve gotten to play different characters, run a theatre company. It’s very fulfilling as an actor.”
Levy goes on to explain, “It’s definitely fun but I don’t sit in the house and get in drag just for fun. It’s an art form; it’s a costume, it’s a character … not in a fetish way.” Often drag queens are confused for transvestites, though the latter is entirely different. A transvestite, according to Webster’s, is “a person and especially a male who adopts the dress and often the behavior typical of the opposite sex especially for purposes of emotional or sexual gratification.” A drag queen adopts the dress of the opposite sex merely for entertainment purposes. It is a way to funnel creative energy and flights of fancy; it is, as Sherry says, a costume that performers take off at the end of the day. “I don’t think of Sherry as being a woman,” Levy says. “I’m certainly not fooling anyone. I look like a drag queen. It’s pretty obvious. I’m not trying to look like a real woman.”
Drag queens are able to see the fluidity of gender itself, that with a couple hours’ work they too can “become” women. And if it’s so easy, then the boundaries society places on gender must be mere lines drawn in sand, easily rearranged by the wind or well-placed feet.
Peppermint has amber-hued locks that bounce and catch the light, casting a shimmer over her cocoa skin. “How y’all doin’ tonight??” she says to the crowd of Therapy, a gay bar in Manhattan’s Hell’s Kitchen neighborhood. A rush of resounding cheers like “WOOOOOO!” and “GET IT!” and “WERKKKK!” come up from the audience, made of mostly well-dressed males with the occasional female. She smiles in response, her strong cheekbones shimmering and white teeth sparkling. In a clean, clear, eloquent speaking voice peppered with sassy slang and the occasional pursing of the lips or snapping of the fingers, she emcees the evening’s show, Cattle Call, in which amateur drag artistes compete for a cash prize. She is bright and exuberant, her energy catching and powerful. The crowd is hers immediately.
Peppermint, who prefers to only go by her drag name because she likes “to keep Peppermint mysterious,” says that there is a power in being a drag queen that neither males nor females naturally have. “There’s a certain dominance over people of both sexes,” she says. “Certain women … see a man mastering his idea of what a woman should be, and women want to know about that … It gives [drag queens] a goddess-like power over [some] women because they look at you sometimes as the ultimate woman, not that you by any means are better than them. The look, the confidence, the sass [of drag queens], those are qualities a lot of women would like to present without consequence.” The drag queen actually does exhibit those qualities without consequence, seeing directly into a man’s head and giving the vision to women, and therein the dominance over both lies.
While the public typically ascribes weakness to men who exhibit feminine qualities, even more so feminine clothing, drag proves this ascription incorrect. In her seminal 1968 drag analysis “Mother Camp”, sociologist Esther Newton writes that, traditionally, “Masculinity depends crucially on differentiation from and dominance over women.” But, if the drag queen differentiates from women on an obvious level and still dominates over them by inspiring with their powers of brazen sass, then they too must be masculine by definition, despite what the general public might like to think. Not only that but, as drag queens are often homosexual, biological males in female attire, Newton writes, “A common homosexual assertion is that it is more masculine to dominate another man than it is to dominate a woman.” The drag queen must then have a layer of masculinity that the average male out of drag, gay or straight, does not have. A queen has the ideas of “traditional” male and female strength combined, if put in terms of sexuality, to be assertive but withholding, which are magnified onstage.
Even so, while drag queens are men, they don’t necessarily identify as “male” or “masculine,” because again, those labels have such rigidly defined boxes and boundaries. “I don’t necessarily identify as a manly type of man,” Peppermint says. “I happen to feel like I am a person. I don’t necessarily identify 100% as male or female. Because I do drag, it’s opened my eyes to the idea of being able to shift between genders at any time.” She continues, “I’m trying to get away from what is a man, what is a woman. The definition of what is a man, what is a woman is changing.”
John Epperson, who performs in drag as Lypsinka, stated simply, in an email, “I think of myself as a male actor playing a female role. That’s all. It’s just that simple. Well, simple to me!”
Lypsinka is a throwback to the glamazons of the 1930s, ‘40s, and ‘50s, bodices of gowns slim around the waist and flowing over the hips. Epperson’s mouth forms exaggerated, dramatic shapes as he lip synchs a meticulously assembled collection of spoken word pieces, film clips and songs rearranged to tell a new story. The audience forgets there are no actual words exiting his mouth. Lypsinka is not only visual, but aural—whatever Epperson lip synchs has been purposely constructed to exhibit the character of Lypsinka, which is not often the case for many drag performers. It is because of this, though, that Epperson has been able to forge a thriving career as Lypsinka, including but not limited to Drama Desk Nominations and off-Broadway revivals for Lypsinka shows, a music video for George Michael, fashion shows for the likes of Thierry Mugler, Valentino and Pauline Trigere, and national advertising campaigns for Gap, LA Eyeworks, and Ilford Film, among many other accolades.
Despite Epperson’s success, somehow, the general public does not recognize this as “masculinity” in the traditional sense of the idea. “Growing up, of course, the world was telling me that masculine was what I should be,” Epperson wrote in an email. “I wanted to please, wanted to fit in, but I never achieved masculinity. At some point in the ‘70s I realized that androgyny was okay, and desirable to some, and there were role models such as David Bowie. When I moved to New York in the late 70s, the clone look – a kind of Marlboro Man – was one of the ideals. I was attracted to this kind of man – still am – but it was an impossible look/attitude for me to achieve.
“Professionally, I don’t relate much to masculinity, except for the masculine men I see in the audience,” Epperson continues. “I do poke fun at gender and masculinity vs. femininity in my shows. For instance, in ‘Lypsinka! The Boxed Set’ there is a popular sequence where I answer imaginary telephones and mime a soundbyte from a movie or a recording. I pick up the invisible phone receiver and lip-synch Bette Davis singing the words, ‘I’m not a man.’ (Yes, Bette Davis singing.) That gets a laugh. Then the next line into the adjacent imaginary phone is, ‘Not me, not anymore,’ spoken by Joan Crawford. It all takes on added layers if the audience member knows the two voices are the legendary gay icons Davis and Crawford.”
Epperson is an artist whose medium is drag. For him, that’s all there is to it.
Steck is best known as Pandora Boxx, one of the most-loved competitors on the second season of RuPaul’s Drag Race. Pandora is a bubbly blonde funny lady, inspired by the likes of Goldie Hawn, Carol Burnett, Lily Tomlin, and Madeline Kahn. She bats her lashes and wears wild ensembles like bodysuits covered in little toy cars, lipsynching to funny lady songs by the likes of Sarah Silverman or doing her own standup comedy. “Pandora was always something inside of me, someone I wanted to be,” Steck says. “Through drag I was able to be a little more outgoing … I didn’t have to worry about being effeminate. There’s such a stigma against effeminate men.”
Michael, who is also blond, speaks with a sweet, delicate voice, one that is quieter and much more reserved than Pandora.
“Society dictates that men are supposed to be masculine, have a non-feeling, tough guy image and I think it’s totally wrong and horrible,” Steck says. “You don’t have to be a total wimp to have feelings and emotions.” He goes on, “The whole super-macho masculine thing is just as much of an act as [drag] because the amount of effort [men] have to put in to maintain it is ridiculous.” The machismo, Steck says, is not what being a good man is. “Being a man is more about being a person. It’s more about being a decent person in society and helping people whatever way you can.”
“It’s about not lying, treating people nicely and fairly and with respect,” says Keith Levy, Sherry Vine.
Peppermint says a good man is “open-minded and honest and fair and playful.” She continues, saying a man should be “gentle yet strong and courageous, willing to step up to the plate. But these are qualities every person male or female should portray.”
Perhaps the first step in being a “good man” is to forget that one is a man altogether; to see yourself by your humanity first and your sex second. To realize that there are no real categories, and to see that because someone does not fit into an idea does not make them any less of a person. On the contrary, it’s important to acknowledge that because a person doesn’t fit into a box they are actually that much more powerful, original and, well, fabulous.
—Photos are of Yuhua Ou/Yuhua Hamasaki, taken by the author.