Glitter and Guts

Glitter, eyelashes, wigs and sequins and size 12 heels were scattered everywhere. Watching my friends and colleagues transform into their alter egos before my eyes was the best kind of magic. Each performer could be anything they dared to imagine. The drag show, my first, was the ultimate platform of self-expression and body positivity and the line-up consisted of both professionals and amateurs.

Men, women, gender fluid people, drag kings, drag queens, trans musicians and burlesque dancers all crammed into the green room, which was a curtained off area with to ceiling shelves on either side of a wooden corridor. A wall in the middle divided the backstage area into make-up, mirror and wardrobe on one side and props and equipment on the other. Volunteers arrived at 6:00 p.m. to begin the evening’s festivities. Work started with unloading vehicle after vehicle of costumes and props.

“Hey Cheryl,” the pirate queen said, “so glad that you’re here to help.” She passed me a cardboard pirate ship and a feather boa. “I made this myself. You don’t think it’s too much?”

I smiled. Taking in the black marker on brown cardboard image. It was about four feet long and had a two-foot giant comic penis sticking out the end. I was both curious and awkward.

“Not at all. Can’t wait to see what you have planned for it.” I said.

Next came a mechanic’s rolling trolley loaded with a mirror, an additional less x-rated ship, a rainbow flag and a mermaid tail. I had no idea how each performance would tie together.

Tonight’s theme was Sugar and Spice, an Enchanted Evening. It wasn’t Halloween yet, but tonight’s show would give the audience a taste of what’s to come later in the month. Attendees were encouraged to dress up however they felt comfortable—those who went all out had the chance to win a cash prize and bragging rights until the next show. My personal favourite, and the evening’s winner was the Goblin King. I saw her enter and immediately was attracted to her/him. Never had I seen a more beautiful woman than this one before me dressed as David Bowie from the Labyrinth. She was the complete package, pun intended.

“Oh my God.” I said. “You look amazing. I can’t believe it. I hope you win!”

“Thank you.” she said. “It’s not too much?”

“It’s perfect. Tell them I think you should win.”

She winked at me, took her ticket stub, and disappeared behind the curtain. Other guests dressed as the tooth fairy—a young lady in a white leotard, tutu, glittery wings and a giant cardboard tooth hanging around her neck, a cupcake cowboy—a large muscular man dressed in a long leather coat, with scruffy facial hair, guy liner and cupcake print hot pants complete with cowboy boots, and variations on traditional drag queen blue eyeshadow, blonde wigs and excessive contouring.

Hanging back at the ticket booth in my security vest, my role for the night, I noted the diversity of not only the performers, but also the attendees. I was surprised to find that people had driven all the way from Victoria to see the show. A group of business women were out on the town, starting at the Firehouse Grill, stopping at the show until 11:30 p.m. and closing the Metro Lounge at the after party—they felt safe with a bunch of pretenders. Television and popular media had taught me that shows like this were hypersexualized and gaudy. Though there was certainly an adult theme in the humour, the authenticity and vulnerability of performers challenges my own self confidence and perception of others.

One performer dressed and performed as Disney’s live action Maleficent. Their make-up was exceptional. They must’ve spent hours creating the black clinging ensemble. It lacked nothing. Iconic horns attached to a black matte headdress that seamlessly transitioned into a body suit that covered nearly every inch of skin. Their make-up, professional quality, was breathtaking. For a moment, peaking through the curtains, I felt like I was watching a scene from the actual show. No one would know that this character was being portrayed by a traditionally masculine man. No one would guess that Maleficent’s name was Tyler. If an audience member were to run into this performer at their day job, they would have no idea of their identity or talent.

Many of the performers are my close friends. We work together on the Nanaimo Pride Society and meet for weekly events at a local coffee shop. I saw meek behind-the-scenes administrators turn into flamboyant champions of creativity. By day they are municipal government, B.C. Ferries staff, NDP campaigners, teachers, business class and at night they transformed into Pirates and Mermaids, fairies and villains, Icons and Pop Stars. The level of skill was nothing compared to the bravery.

Courage was the foundation the show was built on. This was the second show of its kind in Nanaimo in recent months. The last one sold out, so there were big shoes to fill. Many new performers had been added to the bill and the excited nervous energy backstage created an electricity. Stagehands, security (me), concession staff, announcers and performers were united in anticipation of the night’s events. The stage had been carefully decorated with mapper bag-covered candle holders, silver garland, and black lace masquerade masks. The scene set for the audience was dark, smoky and mysterious. No one knew what to expect, aside from laughs. I watched guests enter from behind the curtain, performers transform into their alter egos and the time get closer and closer to curtain call. I was little more than a scared rabbit. All that excitement and the uncertainty around the taboo nature of burlesque had me in a weird mixture of anticipation and wanting to bolt in case I be seen by my church friends.

It was difficult not to be intimidated in the crowd. Guests worked hard on their own costumes. David Bowie returned with their friend to get an extra ticket. It was interesting how sexually confused I was; I wasn’t sure of the gender of David Bowie under all that make-up. For some reason it unhinged me, not knowing which box to put someone in made me even more curious. My interpretation of the would thus far had been only in the binary heteronormative culture. I needed to be brave to experience this show.

Though I was raised in an Atheistic home that celebrated the differences of people, making sense of the loss of my infant son at age 18 led me to believe in God and Jesus Christ. In my conservative Christian circle, I could face potential relationship fall out and ostracism for being involved in something that church deemed sinful and overtly sexualized. Most the performers remained entirely clothed and made few, if any, adult references.

Making my rounds as security personnel, I was essentially invisible. This allowed me to experience parts of the show, and behind the scenes action simultaneously. My heart opened watching plus sized women perform burlesque pieces. I was challenged at my own body image issues, regarding my weight and low self-esteem, as I listened to the crowd cheer them on with thunderous applause. I had be taught by culture no one wants to see that, by religion that is immodest and unacceptable, by experience keep a low profile; I was challenged and encouraged, here no such rules applied. The only rules were love and inclusion. With hearts intending to celebrate diversity, there was no need to be afraid or insecure. I’m excited for the Christmas show. Won’t you come?

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