Monday, January 16, 2006

So, You Wanna Be a Drag Queen...

Often in my travels, people will ask me questions about drag... why is it done, what is the process, how do you learn to do it? Recently someone posted a thread on my Home Away From Home, Just Us Boys, asking if anybody did drag, and wondering how to get started or just how to go about experimenting with it... and as the resident expert I decided to give a lengthy disquisition on the topic.

And since I spent so much time thinking about it and writing about it, I decided that I should use it here at Mannersism and let a different audience know about it. But of course I am not going to steal the threads from the discussion board, so I edited the following to exclude sentences addressed directly to the person who asked the question in the first place, addressing them instead to the Universe and you, my lovely loyal reader.


How To Be A Drag Queen

Part I: Theory

Where do you start? How do you begin? Do I have to be nelly as a paper hat from birth in order to be a drag queen? Do I have to be a bottom? Do I have to wish I was a girl? What makes it all happen? In short, should I and how shall I be more like you, divine and oh-so-wise Marlénè?

I have three words for you: study, practice, commit.

You cannot do drag successfully unless you have studied either women or other drag queens for quite some time, and come up with a working theory on how and why they do what they do. And by "women" I don't mean your mother or your sister or your girlfriends (though these will no doubt be inspirational, they will not be useful for the theatricality drag requires)... I mean iconic women like actresses or models or opera-singers or ballerinas.

You have to study old glamour-goddess films from the thirties and forties; you have to also study the drag queens of more current drag classics like To Wong Foo and Priscilla Queen of the Desert and Girls Will Be Girls and Die Mommie Die! and Stonewall and Wigstock. You have to flip through issue after issue of Vogue and W and Bazaar. You have to go into fabulous boutiques and fondle the dainties.

And as you are studying the icons and artifacts of Glamorous Iconic Femininity, observe what turns you on in a woman or a drag-queen (not "turned on" like what makes your dick hard, because drag is not about hard dicks... I mean what lights you up inside like a showgirl's dressing-room mirror), and start mimicking for all you're worth. If you mimic bits and pieces of fabulousness picked up from your seniors for long enough, you will develop your own style.

Next, you must practice-practice-practice! You have to practice the mannerisms, you have to practice walking in heels, you have to practice putting on makeup; and if you're going to perform, you have to practice lip-synch (even if you sing live or do comedy, you have to know how to lip-synch in order to put the proper physical contribution into your act... anybody can sing and joke, but not everybody can sing and joke in drag and really sell it).

When you're practicing movement, this is where the studying comes in. I mean, you aren't going to be moving around the way real women move around... you're acting, essentially, adopting a body-language that conveys femininity. See, women don't have to convey femininity when they move, the way they're built does it for them... for a man to do it, there has to be an exaggeration. There is a put-on delicacy to your hand-movements that are meant to make your hands seem smaller and more pointed as women's are, you stretch your head high to make the neck slimmer like a woman's, there's an exaggerated swing to the hips that is meant to approximate the lower center of gravity that a woman's body has.

It's all about fluidity: remember that water is a universal symbol of female nature.

And finally, you have to make a commitment to the project. There are some short-cuts available, but for the most part the full drag experience takes a lot of time and energy... and money, too (this shit ain't cheap)! If all you want to do is experiment with some genderbending, play with some makeup and throw on a dress to see how it feels, then you can do so (but please do it in private). But if you want to be a drag-queen, however temporarily, you must commit your resources to it.

Here are some tips to getting started in your commitment.

1) Find the drag-queens in your area first, go to the shows, get involved in your local Imperial Court scene. I mean, you can read my advice all you want, but drag is a visual art and cannot be learned on the internet... you have to learn it in person. (Plus, if you can manage to befriend a drag-queen about your size, you might be able to borrow some of her stuff.)

2) Have a venue. Just putting on drag and walking around your daily life is weird and boring; doing it for Halloween is tired and trite. If you don't have a purpose for the drag, you'll have no focus in putting yourself together. Are you going to perform on stage, or as a character, or what? Getting involved with a group of drags will give you the necessary opportunities and venues, that's why I made that the first step.

3) Most importantly, decide what kind of queen you want to be. Are you going to be a tacky but fun drag-goon? Do you want to be RG (look like an actual woman)? Do you want to be avant-garde or traditional? Do you want to be sexy or untouchable? These are the bases of the character you create when you put on drag, and you cannot make any decisions until you make this one... unless you want to keep trying different kinds, but that's going to get pretty time-consuming.

Now, having done all of that, you're ready to get down to brass tacks.

Part II: Face, Girl!

I learned to do makeup by reading women's magazines all my life, and picked up bits and tips from other drag queens and from the published works of various makeup gurus like the late great Kevin Aucoin. When I was little, my Grandmother (who was an Avon Lady for a while) ran through her entire spiel for me, to practice; when my mother got dressed up, I watched her closely, fascinated by the little rituals of eyeliner, mascara, and lipstick. I learned it by osmosis, is what I'm saying... but you can also learn through practice.

Regarding makeup, in general, I find most of what I need at the drug-store. When you get more comfortable with painting and powdering, you might want to graduate up to professional products. Do not get your makeup in a department store or chi-chi boutique, though... while these are generally very good products, they are not only prohibitively expensive but are usually too refined and delicate, too weak and light for drag. Christian Dior and MAC are the exceptions, they have dramatic colors and fantastic packaging (MAC in particular makes great eyeshadows, and their shaving-cream can't be beat), but the rest of their stuff is no better than Max Factor or L'Oreal or Revlon, and don't provide any better coverage... and when you're talking about drag makeup, coverage is the key factor.

So let's start with foundation. You may need to do some prosthetic work first, depending on the kind of face you have. I have a rather blank face, no features jump out at you as being especially masculine, so this isn't something I know a lot about. But I do know a bit.

If you have very thick or pronounced eyebrows, for example, you'll have to do something about that... but you won't want to pluck or wax, unless you're planning on looking feminine all the time. Instead, go to your local theatrical costume supply for prosthetic wax and cover them up! Cover the mound of wax with foundation, contour it lightly to reduce the appearance of projection, and shade it in (for an example of excellent drawn-on eyebrows, check out old movie stars of the thirties and forties; specific tips will also be in the following paragraph about eye-makeup).

For the base makeup, I always recommend Dermablend if it's available; it's expensive, but it really stays on and comes in a vast array of colors. Otherwise, the next-best thing is Max Factor Pan-Stik. Don't be stingy with it, either... slather the shit on and smooth it out! You want your face to be a blank canvas.

Set the foundation with a loose powder, patted on thickly with a puff and then left to set for at least five minutes; brush off the excess with the fattest sable brush you can find; it is preferable to use the same brand as your foundation so that the colors match, but in a pinch Coty Airspun Translucent Extra-Coverage works with everything (smells nifty, too).

And speaking of foundation color, don't try to match the color of your face... try to match the color of your neck or chest, or perhaps the underside of your arm. Paler is prettier, and it tends to bleach out the more masculine characteristics of a face.

Next comes contouring. Contouring is probably the most important part of the process, as it gives you the opportunity to create the necessary illusions. However, unlike standard stage-makeup contouring, your makeup has to look good from up-close as well as from a distance... so blend blend blend! Subtlety is the most important factor of a character illusion.

The standard contours you'll need for drag are the nose-bridge (narrow the bridge to make the face more delicate), the ridge of the brow (minimize this almost strictly masculine feature), the corners of the mouth (another feature of masculine musculature that must be minimized), and of course the cheekbones. I also like to contour the edges of the face (under the jaw, in front of the ears, over the temples) to give more attention to the face, like the frame of a picture.

Don't confuse contouring with blusher... these are entirely different things. You will most likely use a medium brownish blusher for contouring (I use warm brick tones), though depending on your coloring and the palette you choose, you might want something more taupe or orchid. Blush, on the other hand, is used to highlight certain areas and lend a healthy, realistic color to your makeup. Something bright and warm is needed for this (I like coral shades dusted lightly under the cheekbones and a tiny daub on the forehead, nose-tip and chin).

I always work on the eyes next. First the eyebrows, then the eyeshadow, then the eyeliner, then the mascara. If you're really into it, you can use false eyelashes; but I never learned how to put them on, since I have long enough eyelashes to do without. But this is where you really need to know other drag queens... because if you have short lashes or particularly small eyes or a particularly pronounced browbone, false lashes might be an imperative, and you will probably need help getting them on at first.

When grooming your eyebrows or putting on a new brow (especially if you've covered it up with wax), try to keep it natural. Put the brow just above your actual eyebrow, starting in the same place as your own eyebrows; eyebrows should arch at a point determined by taking a ruler (or use a long makeup brush) and placing one end at the outside corner of your nostril, line it up with the pupil of your eye; the end of the eyebrow is ruled from the nose to the outside corner of your eye, and end the line at the rule. Use pencil for this, and feather it out a little so that it looks more like hair. Coordinate the brow color to the color of your wig, this lends more to the illusion.

For the shadow, you want to do something really dramatic... some people go for stagy primary colors, which can look good... but I prefer more natural-looking neutral shades, and am quite fond of those prematched four-shade suites. Do a very dark shadow in the crease, fanning it out at the ends to blend with the eyebrow line; do a medium-dark color at the inside edge of the eye-area, defining the area away from the nose; then a medium-light color over above and below the crease; finally do the lightest color at the "points" of the eye, which are found the same way as the arch of your eyebrow... rule a line from the side of your nostril through the pupil of the eye.

The eyeliner is difficult... it takes a steady hand. I use a liquid pen eyeliner, Almay Amazing I to be exact (though I would recommend Maybelline Eye Express for beginners), it gives me the most control. But only use liquid on the upper lid, and only use the darkest black; start from a tiny point at the inner corner of the eye and swelling out to the "point" of the eye, then taper back into a tiny (preferably up-curved) tip pointing to the end of the eyebrow.

Use pencil or powder on the lower lid, and a light natural color (I use taupe, just dark enough for definition but not an obvious mark), for a soft thin suggestion of a line... too thick a line on the lower lid makes you look coarse and stoned. For extra drama, use a soft black pencil on the inner upper lid, just under the eyelashes... but this is advanced makeup, and you're liable to put out an eye if you don't have a gentle touch.

Mascara takes a bit of practice, too. Brands don't really matter, they're pretty much all alike, in my experience. Remember to apply it to the top of your upper lashes as well as the underside, wiggling the wand back-and-forth as you sweep from the root to the tip to fill in the sides as well. The lower lashes just take the merest little touch, only at the outside end of the eye, otherwise you might smear and look like a raccoon. Comb out the clumps with a lash-comb. You might want to use a lash-curler, too, to give that starry-eyed look... but I don't like them.

Now you're ready to put on the lips. Use a pencil lipliner in a dark red color for the best outline. Follow the outline of your own lips, coloring just outside the line to make your lips bigger; if your own lips don't look quite feminine enough, play with the shape a little... but don't go too far away from your own lipline, or you'll end up with flat space that looks like clown-paint. Finally gloss over with a nice shiny dramatic color. Basic red works for most people, but that all depends on your coloring, the color of your wig, and color of your clothes, your teeth, etc. I like L'Oreal best for lipsticks, most brands are too flimsy, and Revlon tends to soak into the skin of the lip so you look bruised the next day.

Hey, you're done! Just go over the surface with a light translucent pressed powder, tuck it and a spare lipstick and a mascara for touch-ups in your purse, and you're ready to go! De-Gorgeous!

Part III: The Rest of You

Wigs are the crossover between your makeup and your outfit... it's neither, and it's both, if you see what I mean. The wig you choose will have a major impact on your face's look, as well as on your outfit's success, so you want to pay special attention to it. And choosing your wig will bring you back to Commitment #3: What kind of drag-queen are you? I am the RG type, so I go for very natural-looking shake-and-go wigs. But you might want something loftier, or something more artificial, or something more costumey... it all depends on you.

Whatever kind of wig you choose, go for a natural look. Even if you're going for one of those towering creations, or a not-found-in-nature color, you want to blend the edges softly around your face as much as possible and muss the outside surface of the wig just enough that it doesn't look plastic. It's all about illusion, remember. If you naturally have dark hair, do not wear blond wigs (unless you really know what you're doing)... stick to brown, black, and auburn. And finally, go big... not just high, but wide as well, front and back and sides. It makes your head and shoulders look smaller and more feminine if your hair is huge.

When I'm getting dressed, I always leave the wig until the very last, after getting dressed and getting my jewelry on. The wig is my second-least-favorite aspect of drag, worse than the heels but not as bad as the corset. I have found through trial-and-error that the best way to keep your wig on while you're moving around is to tie your own hair into little tufts all over your head, creating a sort of field of knobs for the mesh of the wig to cling to.

Some people swear by wig-caps, but I always thought they just make things slipperier. I know bald or shaven-headed men who use two-sided tape. A few well-placed bobby-pins are good, too, but don't get all wrapped up in pinning the thing so firmly in place that you can't get it off easily; some people sew tiny combs into the edges of the wig to keep it in place. But in general, wigs don't come off as easily as you think they will, so don't get in a panic about it.

Re clothing... go for coverage if you can, that way you don't have to shave anything you don't want to. Long sleeves and high necks cover a multitude of masculinity. I shave my upper body because I have very slopey shoulders and undefined arms, and can get away with strapless gowns. But even if you have a feminine form, for the first time around, you might want to be more covered up.

When choosing a dress, keep in mind your figure. If you are trying to carry off an illusion of femininity, but you have a particularly masculine shape, you are going to have to make special efforts. I'm pretty much shaped like a woman, my hips are wider than my ribcage and I am fairly well undefined, so I can wear just about anything. But you might be different!

This is another place where studying women's magazines is very helpful... they are always giving advice on how to minimize "figure flaws"... a thick waist, short legs, big shoulders, whatever. The late great designer Adrian created the big shoulder-pad to make Joan Crawford's square frame look more waspish; thick-ankled Mae West always wore full-length gowns. There are a multitude of little tricks of costume to get around your figure.

Be realistic about your bosom. So many boys start off with these impossibly vast knockers! But unless you're doing a burlesque character, the false bosom needs only be big enough to balance out your shoulders and make the dress hang correctly. A B-cup with a flat-folded sock in it is usually quite enough. Some queens will tell you to use birdseed or some equally ridiculous substance in a tied-off stocking, which will make the boob more realistic... but really, who the hell is going to impressed with a realistic boob? Any woman can tell you that weight and movement are a curse.

Your undergarments are very important. Even if you're thin enough to get away with very little construction, I find that lingerie is part of the character. A nice satin corset just feels more feminine. I like Maidenform Flex-Eez (which you can get at Sears) for undergarments: a backless bra, a waist-cincher, and a panty-girdle worn together are fairly comfortable and go under just about anything you might want to wear. For more construction, a Frederick's of Hollywood Dream Corset is great (I have a bunch of those); and if you're getting a little doughy around the middle or have a muscular waist, you might have to go for something stronger and steel-boned; you can find such things on eBay or any fetish store.

When buying bras or corsets, use an accurate chest measurement... a 38B means that your chest is 38 inches around under the B-sized boob. Never ever ever wear anything too tight around your chest, in inhibits your breathing and can lead to pneumonia and other nasty pulmonary infections if you keep it on for very long. With girdles, you will want to use your accurate hip measurement... if that's too tight, it will press on your testes, and you definitely don't want that!

As far as your jock goes, wear tight men's underwear (briefs or a jockstrap) underneath your panty-hose and girdle... women's undergarments won't cup your goodies and keep them in place. Some will suggest "tucking" (lifting the testicles into the pubic bone and tucking the penis tightly underneath the perineum) or wearing a dance-belt, but it's hideously uncomfortable, so I don't do it... I just wear dresses that are loose around the hips so I don't have to.

Wear tights rather than sheer hose, even if you do shave your legs or have naturally hairless legs... they smooth out the knee and ankles, which are naturally knobbier on men than on women. I like to wear one layer of dark brown tights under a layer of cream-color tights, then a pair of sheer pantyhose over the top; you might find flesh-color dance-tights that could do it in one layer. And do not under any circumstances wear fishnets! I think they're tacky, but more importantly they accentuate every knob and cut in your legs, which are simply not feminine. They don't do the soles of your feet any good either. I have never understood the allure of fishnet stockings.

Be realistic when starting off in heels. I started walking around in Grandmother's old 50s stiletto heels when I was six, and got so good at it that I taught my sister and step-sisters how to walk in them when they got to the prom-going age. But even though I know how to walk in really high heels, it's dangerous and pointless... three inches of heel is really quite enough to be starting with, and two is a lot more comfy. Now, if you have really big feet or short lets, you might want to try to work your way up to platform stilettos, which are amazingly uncomfortable but which do feminize your leg; but avoid it if you can.

Hands are often an illusion-killer. Opera gloves are a good expedient, but they constrain what else you can wear... you can't wear opera-gloves with a day dress, you know. False fingernails are also good, if your hands are small enough to fit them; or if you're willing to make even more of a commitment, you can have custom acrylics installed. If, however, you have flat nail-beds, don't bother with fake nails... long flat nails just look weird. Either stick to gloves or learn to make more feminized gestures.

Let's see, what else? I guess the rest really is a matter of personal taste. It all depends on what kind of a drag-queen you've decided to be. But in general, go for sparkle rather than flash, softness and drape, and stick to small-waisted things (unconstructed dresses look very blockish on men, just look at Bea Arthur).

Part IV: Final Thoughts

This really relates to the first section of studying women, but I want to express this again because it's really important: your feelings for women will show through your drag character. If you don't have an immense respect for women, you will not be successful as a drag queen... or at least not the kind of drag queen who appeals to a large audience that might include women. I have huge respect for women, and that makes my illusion hold better... but I'm also a little afraid of female sexuality, which is why Marlénè is a largely sexless creature, more matronly than nubile, a nurturer rather than a seductress.

Any issues you have with the women in your life, any problem you have with femininity, will be writ large on the character you create. So if you don't love and respect women, just don't do drag.


So anyway, if you've made it this far, you're ready to be a drag queen! I hope that was interesting to you, and if you'd like more specific advice, send along pictures of yourself and we can discuss some options. Maybe I can someday work this into a business, mentoring amateurs of drag... though I fear that all I'd do is make little clones of Marlénè to run rampant in the world. And then I would no longer be the only me!


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