The hardest thing to do is get a straight man in drag. The second hardest thing to do is get him to take off the damn dress!
For gay men, the easiest thing to do is get him into the dress, and when the night is over and the tips are counted, getting him out of the dress is the second easiest thing to do. Watch RuPaul’s Drag Race, and you will see how quickly the queens take off their wigs and makeup.
I admit it. I have done my share of drag over the years and as recently as six months ago. We had a party to celebrate Lucille Ball’s 100th birthday, and I went as the Here’s Lucy Marionette. It should not be a surprise that I skipped over Lucy Ricardo and Mrs. Carmichael; after all, I have never been like everyone else. There I was in a tuxedo jacket, ruffle shirt, white bow tie, top hat, red wig, full make-up, black stockings, six-inch stilettos, and NO PANTS. I walked down the street like that!
Upon seeing the photo, Lucie Arnaz told me I made her day – probably because she had seen her share of Lucys in the chocolate factory, doing the Vitameatavegamin commercial or fresh out of the grape vat. Did I just drop a name? Yes, I did. Even a Gay Jew in a Trailer Park knows a few celebrities personally. Puff, puff.
At the end of that evening, I made a decision. Well, to be honest, the mirror made a decision. Drag has three phases: Fierce, Amusing and Tragic. Up through age thirty, it can be fierce. Up to age forty-five, it can be amusing. The secret is recognizing when it becomes tragic, and honey, that night, I saw it clear is day.
In drag, I look like my maternal grandmother, Nana. All I need is a wig, a Kent cigarette, and a couple of Oh-my-Gods, and my brother will swear he is seeing a ghost. The sad part is that as I age, I continue to look like Nana – as she aged. All I needed that night was a fresh cup of instant Sanka and coke-bottle glasses, and the picture would have been complete.
For anyone who has ever worn drag, there is that first moment in his life when he puts on a dress. OK, you are about to be told something no one, not even my closest friends know. My first moment was age nine, and it was my slightly homophobic mother’s fault!
If she were alive today and knew what I did, it would kill her. If she is listening or reading this from wherever she is, this is going to be priceless!
In the house where I was raised, I only had the use of half my bedroom closet, as did my brother. My father kept half his clothes in his closet, and my mother, who never threw anything away, kept half her clothes in mine. Do you see where this is going?
When you are an oddball kid and spend a lot of time alone in your room living a fantasy life that is much better than reality, you have to find ways to entertain yourself, and that is what I did.
Not only did my mother keep half her clothes in my closet, but also she kept half her shoes, and even better, a complete wardrobe of hats, gloves and wigs. It was a future drag queen’s dream.
I didn’t have to shop for anything, which at age nine was a good thing, since I did not have a driver’s license, nor did I have a job.
When I was sent to my room, I was more than happy to oblige.
My mother was a fashonista in her time, so not only were the clothes plentiful, they were fabulous, and most were left over from the late fifties and early sixties, my favorite fashions of all time. She was tall, and I was tall for my age, so we were the perfect match, both size twelves. Today, a twelve is an eighteen. Every mother wants a daughter, so they can share clothes. I wonder if every gay boy wants a mother who’s into fashion?
There was a flower-print sundress with a sweetheart collar that I must say I looked fetching in, especially with the brown wig, multi-colored pumps and big straw hat. There was the blue knit dress with the big buttons down the center that went really well with the blue shoes with four-inch heels and open toes. My mother was a size ten shoe, and at age nine, I was a men’s nine, so I could squeeze into her shoes … for a while.
My favorite was the full green skirt, with shiny gold leaves etched into the fabric that went with an off the shoulder light green top and green shoes. I could not get over how good I looked in that one, and little did I know what I had done when I danced around in my room in that outfit.
But, the drag show was not to last very long. I continued to grow, and by age eleven, my feet were too big for the shoes (a sad day when that happened), and my waist too big for the skirts and capris (which with my yo-yoing weight was no surprise). My career was over.
When I was sixteen, my mother decided to clean out some of the clothes, and when she came upon the full green skirt with the shiny gold leaves etched into the fabric that went with the off-the-shoulder light green top and green shoes, she looked at them and said, “This is what I wore to your father’s and my wedding.”
OH MY GOD! I had on my mother’s wedding dress, and I didn’t even know it! It took everything in me not to laugh! How many boys can say they had on their mother’s wedding dress? OK, it wasn’t a white wedding dress, but my father was her third husband, so it still counts. All the pictures of their wedding were in black and white, so I never made the connection. Then, she pulled out the flowered sun dress, which I found out she wore on their honeymoon. Could this get any better?
By that point, I had not worn a dress nor heels in at least five years, and it would be almost a decade before I did again. I thought it was out of my system by that point.
When I first came out, most of my friends were drag queens and bar flies. Sadly, only two of my friends from that time are still alive. I loved them all and still miss them. One night, there was an AIDS charity event where I was volunteering, and I was asked if I would do drag to act as MC. At that point, I was twenty-five, six-four, and two-hundred-twenty pounds. I protested, saying I couldn’t do glam drag, but funny maybe.
This was before six-four RuPaul became a household name. I saw RuPaul in Atlanta before the polish we now know, and giirrrll, she was a hot mess!
They put me in a black suit dress that looked as if it came out of Maude’s closet, a black teased up wig with a flip, very heavy make-up, and at that moment Sylvia Rose was born. The year was 1988. Sylvia talked with a heavy New York accent, smoked Benson & Hedges and said the most awful things to people. I loved her. I found it amusing that after all those nights prancing around in every article of clothing my mother saved from the early years of her third marriage that this was the first time I did this in public.
Needless to say, I was a hit. Who is going to argue with me, and the way everyone was drinking, who would remember?
For the next four years, Sylvia would come out to host an event on occasion, and then she retired. I never had to shop because the girls always had something for me to wear, most of which I suspect was stolen from their grandmother’s closets. The shoes, I bought myself from a drag queen shop in downtown Norfolk, Virginia, where they didn’t even blink while a six-four, former football player, walked around in heels to be sure the size seventeens fit. I need to re-visit that store some day.
Speaking of grandmothers. When Nana died, my mother donated all her wigs to Goodwill. I would kill to have those wigs today. They were real hair, professionally coiffured by Don’s Wigs of Newport News, teased to the heavens to be closer to God, and just magnificent. Uccchhh, when I think of the money I could have gotten for those on Drag eBay …
But, I digress …
When I moved to Florida, I decided to go as Bea Arthur one Halloween, and for the first time, I had to shop for my own dress. So, I did what any respectable drag queen would do, I went to the Hadassah Thrift Store. I figured it would be the closest to my childhood closet I could get. I pawed through the racks like Ethel Mertz in Gimble’s Basement, and I found the most perfect frock. It was pink satin with layers and layers of chiffon overlaying the dress and sleeves to hide my less than perfect figure – exactly what Bea would wear.
They sold it to me for $15. As I was leaving, one of the yeantas in the shop said to the clerk who rang me up, “How could you sell that dress to a man for $15?”
My friend, Stan, loved that dress, and when Halloween was just a memory, he asked to borrow it, and being the generous sort I am, I lent it to him.
Bitch cut off the sleeves! I could have killed him!
I told him he could keep the dress. I look like a member of the East Germany women’s swim team when I go sleeveless.
Over the years, I picked up a few other frocks. One from Sears – in the 1990s, they had a great big girls' department. That black dress lasted a few years, then I wanted to go as Endora one Halloween, so my friend Sandy, made me my first custom made dress – a multicolored shift that mimicked the one Endora called a Lilly Arlegge original in the “Jack and the Beanstalk” episode. Complete with wild red wig, purple shoes (I died a pair of my black ones) and perfect Endora make-up, I was really pleased with myself. So pleased, that I decided to go to the restaurant where I worked, in Delray Beach, to show off my costume.
The owner asked me to go up to a table of old Jewish women and ask them how their meal was. So, there I was, a six-ten Endora (the heels added six inches), standing next to the table, and I asked in my best Endora voice, “How is your dinner?”
And one of the ladies answered, “The fish is a little dry.”
No one even blinked. Seriously? This make-up took me three fucking hours, and all you can say is the fish is dry?!?
The owner asked me what they said, and I answered, “The fish is dry.” Then, I left for my party, where a few people thought I was Madge the Palmolive Lady.
Upon my arrival in DC, I finally had a chance to break Sylvia Rose out one more time, and Endora joined her for a Purim Party at Bet Mishpachah. I had to explain to one old queen who Endora was and the premise of Bewitched. I then asked for his gay card.
I think my best drag costume was Joan Crawford in the Mommie Dearest wire hanger scene. Everyone got that one. There I was hair in curlers, white band around my skull, bathrobe, night cream, a dress on a wire hanger in one hand, and a can of Bon Ami in the other. We had an acquaintance who fancied himself a movie buff, and he was the only one at the party who could not guess my costume. He said, “Are you Endora?”
I should have dressed as Madge the Palmolive Lady.
By then, I was approaching forty, and frankly, my feet couldn’t take the heels anymore. So, I retired my drag costumes until the Lucy party this past year, but I didn’t discard them until …
With limited closet space in the trailer, I decided it was time to let someone else enjoy my haute couture, so a couple of weekends ago, I donated all of my girlie stuff – all of it. However, I did keep the shoes. Hey, I can’t just quit cold turkey!
One day in 1985, Mother and I were out to lunch, when she said, “Don’t look, but that woman over there is wearing one of my mother’s dresses.” Of course, I looked. My first thought was why is this woman shopping at Goodwill?
This past Sunday, I was out shopping at Home Goods, the one my friend, Lydia, suggested in Gambrill, Maryland, and while I was wheeling my cart down the aisle, I just about screamed.
This woman, obviously fresh from church, was wearing my black fedora complete with zebra print hat band that I actually fashioned myself. It originally had no hat band, but I found a zebra-print scarf that I wrapped around the hat and let dangle off the back. At first I thought it was a coincidence, until I saw her dress. It was a black knit dress with a black and gray striped bodice, and a black and white striped knit jacket. She was even wearing two strings of pearls.
Bitch was wearing my dress! The hat was meant for a different outfit, but those were definitely my old clothes.
I couldn’t stop staring at her. I wanted to criticize her, but she was really pulling it off, and I was a little surprised I didn’t think of wearing that hat with that dress.
I wanted to say, “Excuse me, Lady, is that my dress?”
Instead, when she looked over, I said, “I really love your outfit.”
She smiled and said, “Thank you.”
And people make fun of my taste in clothes. If they are good enough for church … wait a minute. I wonder if she is on the committee to support a ban on gay marriage? And there she is, sitting in a meeting in the church basement wearing the clothes of a former drag queen!
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