Joie DiMercurio's eyes sweep over the chaotic backstage dressing room of the Miss Gay Missouri Pageant at the Faces nightclub in East St. Louis, and his lips slide into a slow, knowing smile.
He understands this pain, and he knows what they need.
"You all look lovely, ladies," he calls out with a South City drawl as smooth as thick, sweet cream, and silence drapes the room as the assurance-starved clusters, preparing for the "creative fashion" segment of the pageant, look up gratefully at him. Because Joie is a national titleholder, professional entertainer and award-winning choreographer and costumer, his words hold the weight of professorial praise. And the contestants bask in it. Briefly. Longingly. Until reality suddenly jabs at them like a cheap pair of stilettos.
"Seventeen minutes to creative fashion!" As the backstage manager, nose to clipboard, charges through the room, someone shrieks after backing into a lean-to of props, Gizmo howls and the frantic pursuit of the crown resumes.
Joie's eyes dart back to their prey, to the stray hairs, loose threads and unconcealed blemishes on the architectural wonder standing before him, 24-year-old Tajah Mahal, whose boy name is Greg Weckman. He is 120 pounds of layered, lacquered, powder-plastered perfection, but the slightest defect -- a crooked seam, a misarranged earring, a broken nail -- will mean the deduction of points as precious as they are expensive.
In their quest for the crown, contestants spend thousands of dollars on makeup, wigs, props, jewelry, shoes and designer evening gowns, which cost at least $5,000 apiece. During the course of a three-day pageant, the contestants will model several. This is no longer the world of bearded men stuffed into cheap dresses, waddling across the stage for a laugh. This is a high-stakes contest for which contestants sometimes spend years coming up with a strategy. "I've been watching this for two whole years now, and I just want to learn everything I can before I compete," says 21-year-old Kevin McMeekan, who has been stage-managing pageants to gain experience.
In addition to the evening gowns, each contestants must come up with a costume for the creative-fashion segment. Joie is now fitting just such a costume to Tajah's body with the precision of a draftsman. It is Joie's own design, an earth-goddess-meets-Vegas-showgirl spectacle of autumn leaves, tree branches, fake fur, a naked hoopskirt frame and a towering headpiece of leaves, berries, sticks, bunched grapes and Spanish moss. The costume took weeks to create, and, as Joie saunters slowly around the finished product, his eyes skim up and down every seam. He smiles sardonically and dubs the creation "Fall Eruption."
Joie stops and stands behind Kevin Little, a cosmetologist for Glamour Shots in Sunset Hills, who searches Tajah's face for cosmetic sins. Kevin is Tajah's "drag mom" -- the contestant's makeup artist, dresser and adviser -- which in turn makes Joie Tajah's drag grandmother. "And drag muffins are the people who carry all our stuff," Tajah says, fluttering his heavily lashed eyes at the crowded room.
Joie leans around Kevin and attaches another leaf to Tajah's face with a glue gun. He pulls back -- "Not so much" -- and winces. Joie sports a sage's smile: "Gotta take the pain, darlin'; gotta take the pain."
Joie understand the pain better than most. And he knows that its range is wide: Societal scorn. Skin ripped by duct tape. Sneers from store clerks when he buys size-11 women's shoes. If the drag queens were mainstream actors, their pain would be swaddled in sympathy, and, if they were women, more or less understood. But they're men acting as women, boys dressed as girls, so it's a test of will, nerve and duct-tape tolerance. Most can't take it for very long, and Joie's own list of accomplishments is not without scars.
"Five minutes to creative fashion!"
Joie's eyes jump from Tajah to Ineaida Cochtail (boy name: xxxx), his other charge this weekend, who stands waiting in a 4-foot-wide turn-of-the century hat and flowing black-and-white-striped dress that Joie has fashioned from 25 yards of upholstery fabric. He is My Fair Lady at the races, and in his crooked arm sits Gizmo, not yapping anymore, eyes bulging with satisfaction through a mop of hair. Ineada smiles back at Joie. Unlike Tajah, who's entered dozens of pageants, this is Ineada's first, and he's scared. But he considers Joie a drag deity, he says, and Joie's help with choreography, costuming and all-around advice allows Ineada an outward composure few other contestants display.
Joie relishes the responsibility. He's spent almost two decades perfecting the art of illusion, and as a competitive beauty queen he's gone as far as he can go. But helping other contestants extends his patent on some of the most unusual drag routines in the country, and that in turn helps him search for more of himself.
Ineada glides towards the group that has gathered to admire Tajah.
"Unbelievable," someone whispers at Joie's creation.
Ineada, himself a star-spangled astonishment, shakes his head in reverence: "Oh my God!"
Joie smiles. "I know my drag," he says.
Theater hooked Joie from the start -- the basement skits in kindergarten, the Nativity plays in grade school, the drama classes, voice training and script-writing in high school. It coursed through his veins like a stimulant, and there was never, ever enough.
The descendant of Sicilians on both sides, he was born and raised on the Hill in South St. Louis, and his family, strict but unoppressive Roman Catholics, devoted themselves to Joie's drama. He was a quiet kid, but he loved being in front of people, making them laugh or cry, and it wasn't just the performance that ignited his ambition, it was the entire world of invention, of dramatization, of creating the convincing illusion. With props, he composed atmosphere; with scripts, he invented lives. With costumes and makeup, he brought people to be.
"I loved portraying the characters of different types of people," Joie says in the living room of his South St. Louis home. "The fun part of it was that I could be onstage and be myself playing somebody else." His voice is soft but not feminine, the syllables drawn out to classically trained lengths. Around him, long swaths of fabric drape couches, chairs and tables. Wigs hang from coat racks, and partially clad dress forms compose the majority of his accent pieces, because in addition to his full-time job as a floral and window designer, he creates costumes for plays, concerts and beauty pageants.
At 38 -- "Near death," he says, grimacing -- Joie is still slender and not at all concerned that the orange Kool-Aid and Imo's sausage pizza in front of him will challenge his onstage silhouette. He doesn't work out and he doesn't diet, and, over the course of the evening, he will add Doritos, Pop-Tarts and sweet tea to the menu.
"I mean, I never cared if I was a movie star," he says. "To me, that's not performing -- that's acting. Live theater is performing."
After high school, when he entered Southwest Missouri State University in Springfield, his concentration on musical theater was automatic. He took modern-dance classes and joined a show choir. He took classes in voice and directing and costuming. He learned how to breathe, how to move, how to surround himself with talent. No character was too challenging, because each one taught him who he could be, what he might say and why he might say it. He was still quiet and reserved, but onstage he could be loud or aggressive or threatening. It was a way of expressing emotions that he found difficult in his daily routine.
But it wasn't until 1990, when he volunteered to do hair and makeup for some friends who entered the Miss Gay Springfield pageant, that he became intrigued with the most daunting challenge -- portraying a woman. Physically and emotionally, she was so unlike him that he could barely comprehend her at first. She flirted with her eyes, toyed with her hair, gestured expressively with her hands. She had a completely different smile for opening doors, for nabbing cabs and for doling out praise to her children. She hid her insecurities under a mask of haughtiness. She was susceptible to sacrificial longings and water retention and mood swings and shyness. She knew what it felt like to wear clip-on earrings. She knew how it felt to be pregnant.
Biologically, he didn't want to be female. He didn't want breasts, and he didn't want to go out to restaurants dressed like a woman. But to be a man and play a woman was one of the most creative roles he could imagine. It was a challenge he couldn't refuse, and, two years later, when he was 24, Joie entered the Miss Gay America pageant system for the first time. "Going from plays to pageants wasn't difficult, but it was a change," he says. "In a play, you're playing a character; you're not yourself; you are 20 years old and playing an old man. But being a man who is trying to fool an audience into thinking he's a woman, it's like you come out of your body and go into somebody else's, only it's still you in there."
The categories for the local contest in Springfield were evening gown, sportswear, talent and interview. Even though he didn't have a drag mom to show him the ropes, he plunged into the project as if getting ready to audition for a Broadway play. He bought blue satin from Wal-Mart and designed his own evening gown, and for sportswear, he designed an 18th-century pink blouse and skirt. For the talent category, he learned to lip-sync the disco version of "I Am What I Am" from La Cage aux Folles and took his drag name -- Tamarah Mahorning -- from a character in a friend's play.
On the night of the pageant, the venue -- Springfield nightclub Reflections -- was packed. There were six contestants, and, as Joie watched them get ready, he realized that he didn't have a clue about what he was doing. He didn't know how to put on makeup correctly. He didn't understand the padding or the cinching or the tight wrapping of duct tape around the chest to create cleavage. He felt like an imposter.
But being an imposter, in a way, was his greatest talent. This was a role, and he was an actor, and being an actor meant becoming somebody else -- being, for a slice of spotlit time, somebody else. So he slipped on the dress, glued on the eyelashes and became Tamarah Mahorning, a character far from his own.
Whereas Joie was quiet and reserved, Tamarah was haughty and totally out of reach. Joie loved the attention, but Tamarah cared less, and she sauntered across the stage as if bored. He felt the audience in a way he'd never felt them before, because Tamarah controlled what they saw, what they believed, what they felt. This was his script and his costume and his illusion.
He didn't win that night -- he was only second runner-up -- but he'd found a role that would challenge him for life.
The stage lights go to pure white, and the first chords of Madonna's "Vogue" roll in waves from the stage. So far, the judges have seen routines with bells, whistles, sirens, flashing lights, disco lights, Christmas-tree lights, dancing waiters and hip-hop clowns. They watch the contestants. Take a few notes. Smile. Nod. But when three women appear in soaring white-powdered wigs and billowing gold-and-ivory 18th-century French ballgowns -- strike a pose -- and their handheld fans snap open in unison -- strike a pose -- the judges' eyes widen and their pens drop quietly to the table. Vogue, vogue, vogue.
Joie, in the shadows, leans against the announcer's podium and watches Ineada Cochtails talent performance unfold like a gilded patchwork quilt. He costumed and choreographed the piece, and he wanted it to be different. So far -- Come on, vogue -- he likes what he sees. The dancers' elegant stature and sharp, synchronized movements -- Let your body move to the music -- clash perfectly with the song's dance beat. Hey, hey, hey.
Like anything else connected with the pageant, though, it cost a lot of money and time. The material for the three dresses alone cost more than $1,000, and Ineada spent a month's worth of weekends perfecting every hand, head and foot movement in the routine. Even after all of the expense and preparation, though, Joie knows that winning will come down to one thing: control of nerve.
For one year after his first pageant, Joie searched for his nerve. He studied every detail of the trade -- what to wear, how to walk, when to smile. He learned that Max Factor makeup topped with layers and layers of powder conceals blotches, blemishes and beard shadow. He learned that to create convincing cleavage, he could wrap yards of duct tape tightly around his chest to pull the skin in and up. He learned that two pairs of pantyhose followed by one pair of dancer's tights followed by foam-rubber hip pads followed by 10 more pairs of pantyhose followed by a well-made evening gown created a smooth and convincing silhouette. Everything in drag, he learned, was exaggeration: longer lashes, bigger hips, taller hair.
Most important, though, he learned to deflect the leers. It wasn't easy, going into Wal-Mart to buy seven padded bras, 12 pairs of pantyhose, two sticks of Max Factor foundation and the essential little black dress, but clothing, he reminded himself, was just clothing. The word "drag" is a Shakespearean term meaning that a male actor is dressed as girl, and as late as the 18th century, men wore lace and makeup and wigs to work every day.
"You face a lot of discrimination," Joie says, "because everyone thinks you want to be a woman, and that's just not true. It's an illusion you're creating, a character; it's almost nothing more than a clown dressing up."
To stabilize his nerves onstage, Joie started performing as a female impersonator in local Springfield clubs. He created illusions of people who interested him, people who were characters despite themselves -- Cyndi Lauper, Boy George, Barbra Streisand -- and who could be recognized by such simple movements as the way they held a microphone or the way they licked their lips. When someone suggested he try Cher, he bought Cher posters, Cher albums and Cher videos. He visualized her posture, her walk and her smile. He purchased a long black wig and learned to go heavy on the mascara. He had his cheekbones enhanced with silicone.
Soon he was traveling to gay clubs in Missouri, Texas, Kansas and Arkansas on the weekends, and during the week he continued with school. To stay focused, he didn't drink, smoke or use drugs. He knew who he was and what he wanted, and he didn't have to stay out late in the bars to figure it out.
By the time Miss Gay Springfield rolled around again, Joie had found his nerve. Tamarah Mahorning was ready, and she won. She won again in 1989 as Miss Missouri Gay Rodeo, in '92 as Miss Gay Missouri, in '93 as Miss Gay Midwest, in '94 as Miss Heart of America, in "95 as Miss Midwest. From her first winning pageant on, Tamarah either won or placed in the top 10 of every pageant she entered.
She did not, however, win any national titles. She came close, placing in the top five for Miss Gay America three years in a row, but never wore the crown.
It makes no difference if you're black or white, if you're a boy or a girl/If the music's pumping it will give you new life, you're a superstar, yes, that's what you are, you know it.... Ineada and her two dancers waltz in a circle with their right hands joined in the center above their powdered heads. As the routine promenades to its close, white light from the stage falls onto Joie's face. It show not the look of a drag matron watching one of his protégé's best performances ever but the blank look of a detached emcee watching just another contestant. Joie must assume this face because, as a result of his status as a Miss Gay Missouri board member and as one of this year's hosts, the slightest display of preference could incite shrieks of protest from the other contestants.
But there will probably be no accusations of favoritism tonight. Ineada's performance is, so far, flawless. Even Kevin Little, Tajah Mahal's drag mom, leans against the back wall, admiring the routine. Oooh, you've got to just, let your body go with the flow, Oooh, you've got to...Vogue, Vogue, Vogue. The last three beats of the song bring the audience to their feet. Kevin shakes his head deferentially: "Everything Joie touches turns golden."
By 1999, Joie had a master's degree in theater performance and was working days as a floral designer in St. Louis and performing nights as Tamarah Mahorning at Faces. In between, he continued designing costumes and choreographing talent routines for up-and-coming pageant contestants, even as he continued his own quest for a national title.
But he realized that in order to win the highest competition, he couldn't depend solely on hard-earned stage composure. As Norman Jones, president of the national Miss Gay America Pageant, notes, the judges are professionals who look for contestants who are professionals. "Back in 1972, when I first competed, we just put on our makeup, went onstage and did our things," Jones says. "Nowadays, you have to be an artist. You have to be an artist who creates the perfect illusion."
Joie decided that he would enter the Miss Continental Plus Pageant in 2000. It would be the biggest challenge of his professional career, because, unlike the Miss Gay America system, Miss Continental allows contestants to augment their bodies below the neck. Good drag depends on exaggeration, and Miss Continental allows contestants to take it as far as they can.
The pageant was held in Chicago at the Park West and the Baton Lounge, and Joie's costumes, props, helpers and dancers filled two vans and a car. For the past year, he'd concentrated on his talent pieces, because he had to somehow grab the judges' attention and he knew it would take more than faster songs, bigger wigs and more glitter. Because theater was his specialty, he chose songs that told stories, stories on which he could create the perfect illusion, and he designed costumes that went beyond anything he'd created before.
He'd have to stand out right away, so Joie took a chance. The judges, he knew, expected to see Cher or Donna Summer or Judy Garland and to hear disco or big band or recognizable tunes from Broadway. But when Tamarah Mahorning took the stage on preliminary night, the judges heard the song "Zombie" by the Cranberries and saw something onstage that more closely resembled a swamp monster than a beauty-pageant contestant. This, Joie wanted to tell them, was not just another drag queen.
Although the song is Top 40, it is dark in both its rhythm and lyrics, which describe man's inhumanity toward man: With their tanks and their bombs and their bombs and their guns, in your head, in your head, they are crying. Tamarah materialized as a zombie clad in ripped burlap and straw while, around her, eight dancers encased in white body bags rose slowly from the stage floor. Their movements were eerie, slow and jerky, making it seem as if they were trying to claw their way out of their body bags as the zombie, feet barely moving, swayed back and forth as if in pain.
Joie wanted the judges to be sucked into the drama of the piece, to see the ghostly figures and feel the haunting rhythm and hear the prophetic words: It's the same old theme since 1916, in your head, in your head, they're still fighting.... The zombie and the phantoms pivoted and swirled on bent legs and rotating hips in perfect unison. Threatening. Menacing. Searching, digging, clawing for a way out of the grave. When the song ended, the audience sat in stunned silence. Then, as if suddenly awakened, they erupted into a standing ovation.
Tamarah made it to the Top 10 the next night, and, after another round of interviews, plus rounds for evening gowns, swimsuits and talent, he was crowned Miss Continental Plus 2000.
"Zombie" was so effective that Joie decides later in the year to "loan" the routine to Tajah Mahal to use at the Miss Gay Missouri Pageant.
On the contest's final night, there is standing room only at the Holiday Inn Select ballroom in downtown St. Louis. During the first two nights of preliminaries at Faces, the audience was made up predominately of regular patrons of the nightclub. Tonight, though, there are more than 300 parents, photographers, friends, wide-eyed gawkers and men in various stages of drag attending the event.
Both Tajah Mahal and Ineda Cochtael have made it to the top 10, and as the lights dim for Tajah's talent routine, a former Miss Gay Missouri who saw Tamarah Mahorning perform "Zombie" leans across the table and whispers, "You won't believe what you're about to see."
Joie's boy reflection gazes back at him, looking like an unpainted canvas. Before him are five tubes of eyeliner, five tubes of mascara, two tubs of loose powder, three sponges, two pots of lip gloss, a plastic box of false fingernails, seven large brushes, one tub of baby wipes, three cans of hairspray, one can of Static Guard, three hairbrushes, one hair pick, one comb and a stack of eyeshadows, all of which he will use during the three hours it will take him to finish the work.
First he plasters Max Factor foundation across his clean-shaven face, neck and chest, then a layer of powder. Next, with a surgeon's steady hand, he applies black liquid eyeliner to his top and bottom lids, followed by a blanket layer of white eyeshadow, followed by black shadow swiped into the crease. He leans away from the mirror, looks at his profile, then leans back in again. He brushes orange rouge along the tops of his cheekbones, then sweeps more white eyeshadow on his lids. Then more black. Dark rouge in the hollows of his cheeks. A touch of black shadow at the outer corners of his eyes. More white shadow near his nose. Extra orange rouge to blend in with the dark below. Another layer of powder. More white eyeshadow. More dark rouge.
As carefully as he lined his lids, he glues on false eyelashes at least a half-inch long, then applies fingernails that are longer still. Next he applies heavier black eyeliner over the lashes. More black eyeshadow. More dark rouge. Then come the lips, limned with a heavy, dark line and filled in with a lighter shade of plum. Now he applies more orange rouge. He glues a tiny silver sequin onto the corner of his left eye, then applies one to his right eye. More powder. More white eyeshadow. More dark rouge.
He stands and starts pulling on his pantyhose. The first 10 pairs are topped with dancer's tights, which are topped with large, foam-rubber hips pads, which are topped off with two more pairs of pantyhose and a binding black bodyshaper. Then he takes a strip of duct tape and straps it on under his chest to bring the skin together to form cleavage. Then he adds the bra, stuffed with falsies. Then the dress. Then the wig. Then the shoes.
He sits down in front of the mirror again -- "I can't breathe" -- and adheres 4-inch rhinestone earrings to his lobes with fingernail glue, then shapes the wig with a pick, hairspray and Static Guard. He leans closer to the mirror and applies the last layer of lipstick, then leans back, considers his profile, smacks his lips and smiles. Tonight, Tamarah is hosting the final evening of the Miss Gay Missouri contest, a contest his protégé Ineada Cochtale will win.
But now, as he looks at herself in the mirror, he wonders what he could have done better.