Ten things I learned as a drag queen
- Trying on dresses is less fun than in the movies
My boyfriend Kirk and I planned to do drag together for Pride weekend and the first thing we needed were dresses. Although we had some inspirations in mind, the makeup, wigs, accessories and overall personalities of our queens would come easier once we purchased our outfits.
“Why are you doing this again?” my mother asked over dinner. I couldn’t simply answer that we’d been binge watching RuPaul’s Drag Race, although the transformation of the show’s contestants from regular guys to Amazonian goddesses preyed on my mind.
“I want to look in the mirror and not recognize myself,” I explained. “And, for once in my life, I would like to feel the power of glamour.”
“The power of glamour…” my feminist mother repeated to herself, sceptically.
Kirk had never worn a dress before. While I had never performed in drag, I did wear women’s clothes for every Halloween of my undergraduate years, so compared to him I was a veteran. Our first stop was a vintage clothing store in Kensington Market. With a Janet Jackson video in mind, Kirk was on the lookout for a sleek green gown. I was open to whatever fit.
I swiftly learned the changing room mirror was not my friend. Maybe because I kept reaching for structured, sequined dresses from the 1960s and 1970s, there was always some problem—the waist was too tight, the length was all wrong, the straps wouldn’t fit over my suddenly-gigantic shoulders.
Rationally, I knew the dresses weren’t designed for my body, but you inevitably feel insecure when nothing fits properly. I even snapped at my sweet boyfriend when he pulled back the curtain and stepped in to help.
“Okay, we need to set up some changing room rules!” I exclaimed, like I was a teenager and he was my mom.
Kirk wisely asked for help from the woman who worked at the store. I’ll call her Hazel. She found him a shiny, pale green gown, half way between an Oscar gown and a prom dress. He called me into the changing room to see it on. It fit perfectly, hugging his frame in just the way to suggest female curves.
It was the very first dress he tried on. He bought it.
- Bearded drag queens are a thing
After that, Kirk became Hazel’s favourite. She pulled him over to the mirror and picked out different styles of wigs for him, cooing about his elegant bone structure. He chose a wavy auburn wig, styled in a Rita Hayworth, Old Hollywood way. After one stop, Kirk already had most of his ensemble.
To her credit, Hazel did find some dresses for me, delicately suggesting that I needed stretchy fabric. She found me a black, sequined shift with long sleeves. It fit perfectly, but lacked a certain pizzazz. If I were doing drag, I wanted to go all out.
So we took a break from dresses while Hazel found me some wigs. I particularly liked a short, 1920s-style bob that made me look like Velma Kelly from Chicago (if Catherine Zeta-Jones had dark facial hair).
“Oh, are you keeping your beard?” Hazel asked.
“No, I’m going to shave it off.”
“Oh! But you should keep it!”
“It’s just, not the look I’m going for…”
“But the drag queens are doing it now,”
“…like that Eurovision star. What’s her name?”
“I know, but if I keep the beard, I’ll still look like myself.”
“She looks amazing. Here, I’ll Google search her…”
“Okay. Are you keeping your eyebrows?”
“I was going to cover them.”
“Oh, but you shouldn’t…”
After not finding the perfect wig, I tried on the black dress again and the zipper broke. I took it as a sign from the goddesses.
- With the right dress, you’ll know
As always happens, in the very last store we tried I found three dresses I liked.
One was a boxy, short dress with pink and white stripes. One was red, with a flapper-style drop waist. The last was short, with long sleeves, and a dramatic pattern of tropical flowers. The first one made me look like a circus tent, the second, Miss Hannigan from Annie. But the third—well, let’s just say that as soon as it was on, I called Kirk into the changing room.
“Is this the dress?” he asked, with a smile.
- Pick your name with care
Afterwards, we discussed our names over iced coffees. Our drag names would have to match our dresses. Kirk was playing with the word “kiki”, which is not only a name but a drag expression describing a party at which you indulge in bitchy gossip.
My dress had me thinking about California. The dress, I decided, was the kind of thing a Hollywood housewife would wear around the patio, pretending to be casual, but really trying to seduce the pool boy. Very Real Housewives of LA. I began to list Hollywood-type names.
“I like Lorna,” Kirk said.
“Yeah, it’s very Rodeo Drive,” I agreed.
“Fits with my dress.”
“Wait—I meant Lorna for me.”
“Did you? Weren’t you suggesting names for me?”
Before it became a full-fledged thing, we settled it. I would be Lorna Lamont, inspired by Judy Garland’s other daughter and the squeaky-voiced character from Singin’ in the Rain. Kirk would be Kiki Sapphire, because it’s simply a killer drag queen name.
- When it comes to wigs, blondes have more fun
The next weekend, we bought high heeled shoes at the local Goodwill. You never realize how big and masculine your feet are until you try shoving them into pumps, as perturbed female customers watch you with furrowed brow. Heels were essential to both our looks, but we wisely chose chunky heels over stilettos.
For my hair, we took a suggestion from a drag queen I have on Facebook and went to a serious outlet—not a costume store but a one stop shop for wigs, weaves and extensions, where black women made a day of trying on different looks while their kids played in the aisles.
At first, I felt a bit inhibited. We were the only men there and I didn’t want the women to think I was treating the shop like some sort of joke. But when I tried on different wigs, and no one batted an eyelash at us, I began to have fun.
Due to my colouring, the first wigs I tried on were dark. But I became more and more interested in lighter shades. I realized it made no sense to talk of colouring—with the makeup I’d have a completely new skin tone, not to mention a completely new face.
We grabbed a long, straight wig with blonde tresses but dark roots. The ombre nature of it made it look like real hair. After a couple of looks in the mirror, I knew Lorna was meant to be blonde.
- Drag is cathartic
That evening, for practice, Kirk and I donned our whole ensembles and clomped around the house, I’m sure to the annoyance of the tenant downstairs. Despite the lack of makeup and the presence of facial hair, for the first time we inhabited our characters.
As we got drunk watching Sex and the City, we sassed each other. Something about being in the outfits gave us the freedom to make bitchy comments back and forth, and laugh them off. It led me to a new business venture idea: Drag queen couples therapy, in which both people get dressed up in wigs and heels, blow off steam and go back to normal ones the outfits come off. Patent pending.
- Don’t skimp on makeup
I consulted both drag queens and makeup artists. Nobody offered to do our makeup for free. I booked an appointment at MAC Makeup.
“I believe you have an hour-long option for $55,” I said to the woman on the phone.
“For drag makeup, it’s an hour and a half, and it costs $110,” she replied.
In my head I said, ‘Girl, you don’t know how pretty we are!’
It was more money than we planned on but, after talking it over with Kirk, we decided it was a once in a lifetime experience we’d remember forever.
It poured rain the day of our appointment. Our plan was to go to an outside drag event featuring Bianca del Rio, among other famous queens, and we didn’t know whether it’d be cancelled. I considered calling off the whole thing off, but we’d invested too much time and money to drop out now.
We brought our friend Dervla to MAC to take pictures of the metamorphosis. Kirk had a young female makeup artist with dark lipstick and the wide-set blue eyes of a 60s model. I had a male makeup artist who had done drag himself and was an expert at covering up eyebrows.
My eyebrows took the longest amount of time. He covered them with some kind of sticky paste, then blanketed them with foundation. Although we sat facing the same direction, I continually glanced at Kirk, who was always one step ahead of me. While his makeup artist gave him glamorous eyes that made him resemble Lieutenant Uhura from the original Star Trek, with my big forehead and invisible eyebrows I resembled Uncle Fester from the Addams Family.
Eventually my makeup artist drew me new eyebrows, highly arched and Hollywood. His expert contouring he gave me cheekbones.
“Can you contour my nose as well?” I asked. “I want a new nose.” Just as with my beard and eyebrows, if I kept the same nose I worried I’d still look like myself.
It felt real when the makeup artists referred to our faces as “her”, as in, “I’m going to give her pink eye shadow.” They did a thorough job and enjoyed themselves. At least, I hope they did, because the session that was meant to take an hour and a half lasted almost three.
- Not recognizing yourself in the mirror is the strangest thing
At some point, Kirk decided to not look at himself in the mirror until the look was finished. When he did, he exclaimed, “Wow, I’m beautiful!” And he was, pretty enough to pass but, remarkably, still looked like himself.
Being of a less patient nature, I glanced sideways at the mirror the whole time, as I transformed from Uncle Fester to someone a lot prettier. So it came as a shock when I put the wig on, looked in the mirror and everything snapped into focus—‘Who is that?’
Starring back at me wasn’t Max, but a blonde woman approaching middle age, with pouty lips and aggressive brows. I turned to the others.
“Whoa!” Dervla exclaimed. “Even though I know it’s you, it sounds like you and I saw the makeup going on, I don’t actually know who this person is. It’s freaking me out a bit.” She seemed poised to take a step back, as though actually afraid.
I couldn’t stop looking at it in the mirror. I was like Narcissus, in danger of losing myself in the reflection.
- Drag queens are both celebrities and anonymous
Despite the pouring rain, we put on our dresses and hustled down to the show, held at a converted parking lot in the gay village. I’m not going to lie to you—the constant rain was a pain in the ass. And it was freezing cold, which was tough on our bare legs. But our umbrellas made fabulous props.
During the performances, random people would come up, tell us how beautiful we looked and ask for pictures with us. Kirk in particular was good at responded gracefully, like a professional drag queen: “Oh, that’s very kind of you. Of course!”
But, at the same time, people we knew didn’t recognize us. A friend walked right by and didn’t make the connection until Kirk chased her down and explained who we were.
There’s a certain odd and intimidating power to losing yourself in a beautiful façade.
- It’s easy to forget how you look
After I traded my heels for flip flops (“You’ll never get the shoes back on,” Dervla warned), after we left the event, wet and shivering, and even after picked up fried chicken, I still wasn’t ready to take off the makeup. Although it had been a long day, I didn’t want to stop being Lorna. As the time for the cold cream approached, I took a flotilla of selfies to capture her in the best light.
I realized what the problem was—everyone else spent the evening looking at my new face, but I hadn’t! It sounds nuts, but I didn’t realize I wouldn’t see myself the whole time. It didn’t occur to me that, when the queens of RuPaul’s Drag Race look like goddesses, they can’t actually see themselves as they perform. They have to remember what they look like in order to summon the matching attitude.
It wasn’t enough to get a radical makeover. I had to believe the makeup was there to be a drag queen. Perhaps that’s why we’re so enamoured with selfies: they’re pieces of evidence of who we are and how people see us. I was Lorna on the outside, but it will take more practice for me to embrace the drag queen within.