How to be a woman, by the men who really know…
What can you learn about being a woman from the men who choose to dress up as them? Cosmopolitan’s Jennifer Savin lets you in on a few secrets
Six years ago, I sat alone, peeling the label from a bottle of beer, when I saw a boy I recognised out on the decking. I was at a toga-themed party in Brighton, surrounded by hordes of students who had piled into an unkempt garden, clutching white paper cups while wrapped in Argos bedsheets. The boy was throwing his head back, engulfed in laughter, ensuring all eyes were on him, while twirling around a girl with pink hair, who was shrieking with delight. His name was Ollie and immediately I knew I wanted to be in his orbit. We got chatting, and by the end of the evening, had made plans to go out with some of his friends – to a drag night. You know how they say that one moment can change your life? I hadn’t realised it then, but I now know that was my moment.
The next Saturday, I tentatively knocked on his door. Ollie opened it with one hand placed delicately on his hip. A towering black beehive secured with plastic cherry clips had replaced his brunette bowl cut and the toga was now a pencil skirt and a lace shirt, unbuttoned to reveal a daring flash of red bra. It was Amy Winehouse, but not as I knew her. “Alright, darling, get inside and grab yourself a rumka – my vodka-and-rum mix. The house special.” Sprawled on his sofas were some of the most mesmerising people I’d ever seen – a mix of gay men, straight women and drag queens. Like me, they were also in their late teens and early twenties – and yet they appeared as though they came from another world. Emitting the odd dry laugh while discussing how ‘nihilism is the only true religion’ was Jack (or Crystal Waters, depending on the day of the week), resplendent in a blonde-bob wig, suspenders and tea dress. He was (and still is) one of the most physically perfect specimens I’ve ever split a cab with. Leaning out of the window smoking duty-free cigarettes was Jack’s then-boyfriend, Jesse (known as Diana Carcrash), who towered above everyone in platform heels and a snakeskin bodycon dress. He bounced over like a puppy on stilts and began softly stroking my hair: “Living for this colour, babe!” One of the girls scribbled a moustache on me with black eyeliner and off we headed to a club, where drag queens in trench coats performed an All Saints tribute on stage. There were many, many other nights after that. While their personalities dazzled, it was the way Ollie, Jesse and Jack presented themselves to the world that bewitched me. Some nights Ollie would fix a tiny crown or piece of doll’s house furniture into whatever wig he’d bought that week. Or Jack would experiment with a skirt made entirely from bananas. All the versions of myself that I’d tried on in the past – indie groupie, goth, rap artist (let’s not go there) – started to melt away. All those years I’d spent trying to work out who I was, as a woman and as an adult, began to knit themselves together on those sticky dance floors – I’d stopped trying to be anyone else and just was. Soon, I spent more time sleeping on Ollie’s couch than I did in my own bed, and eventually I moved in. I loved sitting in Jack and Jesse’s bedroom with our group of misfits, watching as the boys frantically smeared Pritt Stick over their eyebrows (in preparation for foundation to be trowelled on top). Make-up littered every surface. My own lip liners were permanently blunt and my highlighter sticks now had chest hair stuck to them.
One of our favourite things to do as housemates was to squash into the lounge, order pizza and drink vodka cokes from novelty mugs, while watching RuPaul’s Drag Race. For the uninitiated, it comprises 12 drag queens competing against one another in a series of challenges until one is crowned ‘America’s Next Drag Superstar.’ Back then, we never could have imagined our favourite TV show infiltrating the mainstream in the way it has now. For us, drag was simply fun, and a means of getting away with more debauchery than those in plain clothes.
Before I moved into that house, I’d spent years craving an urban family of females, like I’d seen on the TV – my own Charlotte, Samantha and Miranda – but had never found a group that I clicked with long-term. Instead, I found ‘girl gangs’ where one of us always had to be out of favour with the ringleader, usually for an entirely pitiful reason: “She left the night out early, so let’s ignore her for a week”. I left the group chats, and it felt good. I had female friends, sure, but they were all so separate from each other. I yearned for a group, which everyone else already seemed to have. But with Ollie, Jack and Jesse, I found just that and more – even if ‘more’ sometimes meant going to put my heels on, only to find they’d been stretched out by a pair of size-11 feet.
These men masquerading as women totally accepted me, and we spent our
“We spent our early twenties trying on new identities”
early twenties trying on new identities together, until one stuck. Here are all the brilliant, worldly, transformative lessons I learned about being a woman from my male drag family…
REINVENTION IS POWER
“Remember that day you wore a Tupac bandana to a features meeting?!”; “Is that fringe real or clip-on?”; “Love those leopard-print flares!” That’d be my colleagues taking stock of the different guises I’ve graced the office with over the past few years. Sartorial experimentation is a trait I picked up from being part of a sisterhood where going out with an actual miniature chair on your head, while wearing a puffball navy prom dress, is entirely acceptable. Drag is about doing the opposite of what’s expected of you, having fun with the rules of vanity and defying norms. It quite literally laughs in the face of the ‘I woke up like this’ notion of beauty, and instead says,‘Actually, it’s OK to paint on a new identity and wear a mask sometimes, if that’s what makes
you feel the most premium version of yourself.’ Drag is an exquisite reminder that the ‘perfection’ we often strive for is really just an illusion. Simply put, in the words of RuPaul,“We’re all born naked and the rest is drag.”
STAND OUT WITHOUT APOLOGY
Few will tell you to strive for difference, except drag queens. As women, we’re constantly apologising or softening our language, but a drag queen would never apologise for being themselves. Rebelling against the status quo doesn’t have to mean painting your eyebrows on so high they transcend your hairline – it can be as small as telling a colleague that, actually, those jokes he makes in which women are the permanent punchline? Not that funny. By building a network of people around me who were so willing to put themselves out there, I started doing the same. The more risks you take, the more innate they become. Jack once told me that wearing the most ridiculous outfit in the room was his biggest confidence boost: “Going out in a dress I made in 10 minutes from bin bags removes a lot of self-consciousness. We’re bombarded with messages about how women and men should look, think and behave – it’s liberating doing the exact opposite.”
LAUGHTER IS THE BEST WEAPON
…But with those risks can come backlash, and when it does, do as any drag queen would do and respond with wit. “It’s like, OK, I can handle homophobia, just don’t insult my make-up skills,” was common breakfast chat in our house. Ditto “Someone called me disgusting last night and I just thought,‘Thank God they understood my look!’” Humour is the deadliest weapon you can have in your arsenal – as soon as you show real anger, you’ve lost the game. Living with drag queens taught me that in spades. Even now if I’m in an awkward situation – say I’m interviewing a celebrity who isn’t warming to me, or I’m on a first date frostier than popular recording artist Anastacia after she was ‘Left Outside
Alone’ – the easiest way to break down someone’s barriers is with a quick joke. Usually at my own expense (a dash of vulnerability soon has people opening up). This also works when you’re being cat-called. Cat-calling is grostesque, we know this – an act which is fundamentally about another person attempting to exert power over you. Guess who’s great at dealing with it? Men carrying clutch bags, that’s who. (There’s a reason feminist icon Camille Paglia subscribes to something she calls ‘drag queen feminism.’) I’m not saying that retaliating with classics such as,‘Oh, do f*ck off, darling, I’d rather suck on a dirty cotton bud than you,’ is necessarily the path to equality but... there’s a happy medium out there for all of us.
THERE IS NO ‘ONE SIZE FITS ALL’
I grew up hearing ‘Real women have curves!’ which, although intended to be inspiring, actually made me feel inadequate – championing, as it does, one version of womanhood over another (and not the box that I ticked). One of my favourite things about the
drag community is that it celebrates such a diverse range of body shapes. For years, I was a size 6 and, despite living on a diet of Strongbow and Chicago Town pizzas, just couldn’t gain weight. In the drag world, you’ll be cheered on just as hard for wearing a rhinestone bikini and lip-syncing to Madonna if you’re a size 20, as you would at a size 0. So long as you love it.
OWN YOUR SEXUALITY
As well as paying homage to strong women, drag queens often portray overly sexualized versions of femininity, and through them, I became braver in doing so myself. I was miserable about having zero cleavage until I realised I could just
draw it on. For years, my boobs were actually just bronzer and eyeshadow brushed on in the appropriate shapes (until I finally woke up last year and all of a sudden they were there for real). So yes, sometimes I’ll celebrate them now and wear swimsuits with leather trousers on a night out. It’s my body to do whatever I like with. I know there are corners online where women berate drag queens for mocking femininity from a position of male privilege but, honestly, my response to that is very limited. So limited, in fact, it comprises just two words. The world is on fire right now – Syria, Trump, NHS cuts – and you’re bashing your tiny, angry fists against a keyboard because a man wants to wear fishnets and sing show tunes? Have a day off.
Although their drag alter egos have almost all but been retired now (Jack lost a competition and is currently on a rage-induced hiatus, Jesse moved back to his native Australia and works as a model and make-up artist, and Ollie only brings Lady Eatit Piaf out at Halloween), I realise that my ‘drag family’ learnt something from me, too. As Jack once said, after falling down a set of stairs while breaking in a new pair of heels: “Well, thank f*ck I have you filthy b*tches and this cheap padding to act as an airbag! Being a woman requires far more physical – and emotional – endurance than I ever thought possible.”