When I was a girl
Joe Brown’s drag metamorphosis
Thu, Feb 25, 2010 (midnight)
I had the craziest dream the other night. I was in a Las Vegas showroom watching a drag revue—and somehow I was a glamorous lady. In the dream, I drove home, blond hair flying in the breeze.
And then I woke up and saw that it had really happened. On the bedroom floor, a blonde wig was slumped over wadded-up pantyhose, and a deflated-looking floor-length black beaded gown. It’s all coming back to me now ...
Frank Marino, star of Divas Las Vegas at Imperial Palace and long-reigning queen of the Strip, had graciously invited me to witness his transformation from guy into showgirl—and to experience the metamorphosis myself. Marino told me to bring my own wig, hose and heel; his team of experts would do the rest.
After being laughed out of Serge’s Showgirl Wigs at Commercial Center (I told them my budget was $50), I was shooed over to the Wig Factory Outlet on the other side of the strip mall, where unflappable saleswoman Carol Fulfaro sized me up and instantly decided I was a blonde. With strawberry lowlights. A co-worker brought in a shopping bag full of open-toe kitten heels in my size, and I bought a pair of queen-size No Nonsense control-top pantyhose in nude, opaque.
Humidifiers were humming in Marino’s homey dressing room at Imperial Palace, lit with flattering lavender-tinted light. He was already in the chair, having privately performed the intimate, technical business of hiding his candy, and his fine-featured face was ghostly pale with foundation. Gregory Andrews, Marino’s longtime makeup artist, was just beginning to add color and character to Marino’s now-blank slate.
When I walked in, Andrews took one look at me and barked to an assistant, “Get some clown white on him, stat!” Clown white is the makeup equivalent of Wite-Out, with the consistency of spackle—I had shaved just before my appointment on the Strip, and my 5 o’clock shadow was already at 4:30.
While the white base warmed up in hideous stripes on my chin and cheeks, Andrews attacked my manly eyebrows with an everyday glue stick, making them vanish into my forehead. Then he worked in the foundation, from neck to hairline.
I turned to look at my Weekly colleagues—the art director, a photographer, a videographer—and I saw shock and fascination in their eyes as my face was obliterated, then reassembled. Arched eyebrows appeared, jowls and chins were camouflaged with strokes of blush.
While all this was going on, I was trying to interview Marino at the same time, and I had so many questions about what Andrews was doing to me. He kept shushing me, finally resorting to spraying me in the face with makeup fixative every time I piped up.
“Just don’t make him prettier than me!” Marino cracked. Everyone laughed.
When Andrews finally tugged on my wig and turned me around to face the mirror, the final effect was amazing, kind of Kabuki. Only a cinematic special-effects wizard could have made me more convincing. And while I wouldn’t fool anyone, I could have gone onstage right then as one of the wall-walkers in Ka.
Suddenly it was showtime. As Marino slipped into his first Bob Mackie gown of the evening, I struggled into pantyhose. No time for falsies, no need to “tuck”—my paunch made any other unladylike lumps beside the point. My furry chest, shoulders and arms were exposed in my black gown, which Marino told me had previously been worn by a Donna Summer impersonator.
Some hard-earned advice, should this ever happen to you:
• Don’t try to talk while your face is being applied.
• Take off your undershirt before your makeup and wig are in place.
• Pantyhose goes over jockey shorts. If there are going to be cameras involved, wear black underpants. And if you can swing it, snag a pair of Spanx.
• Check to see if your dress is see-through before you step out in public.
Walking into the showroom to watch Marino’s show from a primo booth was my Top Model moment. As I entered the showroom, all heads turned. Then they snapped right back.
I understood. I would have been scared of me, too. Looking rough, beard already busting through, I was one scary lady.
Since that night, I’ve often been asked if I was convincing as a woman. And to that I’d say, if you were stopped at a traffic light on Paradise late Tuesday night, and looked over and saw a busted blonde in a silver VW Beetle who looked like she had just come from a particularly grueling two-week shift in Pahrump, then yeah, I looked like a woman.
I have only one regret—the woman in the mirror was gone so fast, I never really got to know her. I didn’t even catch her name—was it Shalita Buffet? Tuesday Welder?