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Whiskers on Kittens: Considering Drag

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Holly Northrop
Holly Northrop

I've been in drag only once: I was the proverbial second-understudy-who-goes-on (in "Two Ladies" in the National Tour of Cabaret). Those photos are buried deep inside Yucca Mountain.

I've worked with any number of drag performers in cabaret and traditional theater: (a) Charles Busch, (b) Varla Jean Merman and (c) Steven "Simply Barbra" Brinberg, just to name a few. Earlier this month I attended (d) Night of 1000 Gowns at the New York Hilton, where hundreds of men (and women) were in drag and various other forms of masquerade. Several of my adult films were helmed by (e) Chi Chi LaRue, and I was (f) RuPaul's leading man in Starrbooty.

What's the common thread linking this multifarious tally? Nothing! Or at least that's how it feels, sitting here in front of the ol' MacBook Pro, clawing the air to come up with a hook for this blog post.

Reading from top to bottom, the contradistinctive personae of the above can be thumbnailed as: (a) Grand Lady of the Theatre, (b) vaudeville hotsy-totsy, (c) celebrity illusionist, (d) denizens of a fantasy belle époque, (e) the bastard child of Cher, Sophie Tucker and Siegfried & Roy and, of course, (f) Supermodel of the World.

I've long had great admiration for drag queens; a burly man walks out of the house in chiffon and heels and he is making a statement. A guy in a dress is inherently political, regardless of the underlying intent of the habiliments.

I wanted to write something in celebration of drag, but because this is not a book-length treatise, the challenge was what aspect of the practice should be its focus.

The stage? Throughout history, many drag practitioners have been entertainers. I must confess, bitterly, that it sometimes seems that when a drag queen walks onstage, she has a leg up simply by being in female garb, a shortcut I can't get away with. (Trust me on this.) But what of the special-occasion cross-dresser? Or the fellow who just happens to prefer daily life clad as a female? I know one guy who gets up in lady duds only when he makes prison visits to his pen pals at a federal penitentiary.

My point being that without exhaustive study (and there are very few things I'll study to exhaustion) I can see no obvious common motivation among men who put on dresses.

Rather, in hopes of drawing a general from the specific, I thought I'd spotlight a sui generis case and -- lucky for us! -- there was a drag queen handy: Trixie Starr aka Rich Volo. Rich is a Wall Street IT person, but he is also the president of Hudson Pride Foundation (which I've written about previously) and has a side business as a cookie baker ("Trixiedoodles" being a personal favorite).

Trixie Starr was conceived as the authoress of a local blog Rich kept for a few years. "I felt I could be more fabulous, say more outrageous things, just get away with more as Trixie, even in print," he explains. "I mean, who wants to read another blog by some guy?" (Here, the author takes umbrage.) "But when I started working with Hudson Pride, I realized Trixie definitely generated more interest from the media than Rich. TV news will show up when I'm drag. Same with the cookie business. 'Trixie' is a brand as much as a personality -- y'know, cross-dressing as cross-promotion."

Even though Rich never intended for Trixie to have a stage career, being a public face has inevitably led to hosting pride events and guest starring in local entertainments. Trixie has a decidedly anti-theatrical presence, however. "I tend to lower my voice and be more masculine when I'm Trixie," says Rich. "I like the gender-fuck aspect of it. It's like performance art: 'Be on notice: The normal rules no longer apply here.' And I don't even pretend to be a great entertainer. I've never lipsynched in my life. When I host Gay Bingo, I read straight out of the Henny Youngman joke book. The crowds love it."

Trixie's look is sort of cocktail-waitress-crossed-with-your-really-cool-Aunt-Florence-from-Long-Island-whose-fashion-sense-screeched-to-a-halt-in-1977. Though there are lots of vinyl boots in Trixie's closet, it's chunky round sunglasses that are her trademark. ("Saves a lot of time getting made up.")

Rich doesn't get in costume unless it's for a Trixie Starr appearance; there are no nights out in drag or socializing en travesti. The two are basically separate entities. "I ran into a friend one day who went on and on about the great party I missed that Trixie had hosted the night before," he tells me. "He had no idea it was me."

Aha! Maybe that's the elusive it: Among the queens I know, the costume imbues a sense of authority and poise and even anonymity that everyday street clothes can't match. Might that be the common thread, then?

I asked Rich if being in drag gave him an exaggerated self-confidence that he doesn't have as a man. "Oh, sure," he says. "'Cause Trixie, she just don't care."


Photo: Holly Northrop