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

Cosmopolitan (UK) - - Contents - Pho­tographs SARAH BRIM­LEY

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.”

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