Pearls Over Shanghai, a Link Martin and Richard “Scrumbly” Koldewyn musical about drugs, prostitution, and miscegenation in the Chinese port city circa 1930s, and first popularized 40 years ago by legendary San Francisco gender-bending hippie performance troupe The Cockettes, were a busy lot.
Some performers were still barefaced while others had on a coat of white foundation. Sitting before mirrors in the cramped bi-level dressing area, the actors were painting their eyes, applying lipstick, and putting on wigs. Featured female performer and makeup expert Kegel Kater was helping one new cast member affix her feathered eyelashes.
I wondered if the men in the group were hearing what I was hearing.
The voices I’m describing are the ones in your head that repeat every negative thing you’ve heard since childhood. Let’s face it, your family’s criticism after discovering you with, say, lipstick all over your face, or the verbal assaults from the kids at school when you arrive at a Halloween party made up as, say, Boy George, can stick with you far into adulthood.
It takes balls for men to face the world in makeup and heels. Not only do many guys still suffer punishing inner voices about how “real men” should behave, but also abusive comments from the “mean-nut” gallery. Sure, dudes in guy-liner may be socially acceptable these days, but men who go out in full makeup or drag are still objects of public derision.
As twentieth-century dandy and writer Quentin Crisp learned when he wore makeup and foppish clothing, and as Bowie in the ’70s, Boy George in the ’80s, RuPaul in the ’90s, American Idol star Adam Lambert, and Olympic figure skater Johnny Weir can all attest to – it’s hard out there for a pretty boy. Even in 2010.
I always felt that I could be one of these people if only I could let my inhibitions go. I set out to bring my drag fantasy to life, the voice in my head be damned.
After readying themselves for two hours, it was time for the Thrillpeddlers performance troupe to take the stage.
I sat in the audience, sucked in by the more elaborately festooned performers – some dragged out in Kabuki makeup, dark wigs accented with flowers, and ornate kimonos or vintage bustiers and camisoles – playing out the tale of U.S. servicemen and a virginal girl group who get in over their heads among Shanghai’s more socially relaxed brothels and drug dens.
It must have taken such bravery for original members of The Cockettes – Sylvester, Tomata duPlenty and Hibiscus – to perform their avant-garde theater, made up as psychedelic drag queens, back in the late 1960s and early ’70s.
With the story’s moral of dancing to your own beat fresh in my mind, I arranged an appointment with theatrical makeup artist and Pearls Over Shanghai cast member Kegel Kater so that I could recreate this Eastern look and be transformed into a Cockette for just one day.
We met at Retro Fit in the Mission, one of my favorite shops in the city, and one-stop-shop for vintage clothing, heat transfer T-shirts, wigs, and most importantly – makeup. It also happens to be the venue for Kater’s monthly makeup classes, “Pretty Pretty (Look at You!).”
Seating me on a barbershop chair, Kater asked which Cockette I’d like to base my look on. I chose the Chinese warlord Chang from Pearls Over Shanghai. She began applying a series of Kryolan products, many of which are available at Retro Fit or the Kryolan store in SOMA.
After brushing on a coat of Aquacolor high-pigment water-based face paints in white and blue, she explained how she first developed an interest in makeup, growing up in Arizona.
“I started experimenting with makeup ever since my mom let me buy it at age 14,” she said as she lined my eyes in black Aquacolor before adding purple around my eyes and under my cheekbones. “I learned by playing with stuff.” As a next step she applied satin powder in light gold and white using small powder brushes to highlight my cheeks and add color around my eyes.
“I realized that I wanted to do this because I liked the intimacy of working up close and touching [people],” she continued, as she outlined my lips in black pencil, then painted them with lilac Supracolor, highlighted them in a lighter-gold satin powder and topped them off with gold glitter.
“I like that with makeup you could do something outrageous and then wash it off. You could live out a different fantasy every day and really change how people perceive you.”
Moving to San Francisco, she formed the electro-group, Kegel Kater and the Electric Orifice Orchestra, named after Dr. Kegel, who is best known for developing vaginal strengthening exercises. In performances, Kater and her cohorts would use resistance-creating perineometers to exercise their vaginal and anal muscles, while making beautiful music together with each squeeze.
She entered the local drag world regularly attending Peaches Christ’s Midnight Mass movie series dressed in elaborate costumes. Soon she was doing props and backup dancing for Trannyshack performers.
In July 2009, Trannyshack alumnus Precious Moments (Chang in Pearls Over Shanghai) enlisted Kater to join the cast as one of the angels/whores. Kater explained her infatuation with drag as only a true artist would: “Drag is the physical manifestation of how gender is so performative.”
The one and a half hour makeup session was now coming to an end. For finishing touches, Kater applied more glitter, utilizing water-based spirit gum and Q-tips. For the final step she glued eyelashes and rhinestone strips to my face.
As much as I never wanted the session to end – because getting your makeup professionally done IS as relaxing as the most soothing of massages or acupuncture treatments – I was so excited to behold my transformation.
Kater told me to close my eyes while she brought over a hand mirror and placed it firmly in my grasp.
“OK, you can open them now,” she said. What I saw could best be described as pure magic. I could not make myself out in the reflection. Where had I gone? All of a sudden I was someone else. I was a Cockette.
With a borrowed kimono from Retro Fit owner Steven LeMay and an artificial flower placed in my hair, my look was complete. But it wasn’t merely a physical change.
I felt that something had taken over me and I no longer cared what the people outside thought or said anymore. Maybe it’s because when you’re that made up, you feel like a disguised reveler at a masquerade ball, with the anonymity to truly be yourself. It almost didn’t matter, because in true Cockette spirit, personal judgments were becoming less important. It was time to get out into the world and start my night.
If you want to find your own inner-Cockette, then head down to Retro Fit for one of Kater’s “Pretty Pretty (Look at You!)” makeover tutorials, which take place the last Saturday of every month. The next session is on April 24 from 3–5 p.m. Once you’re made up, buy some vintage threads and take your look SOMA-side to Pearls Over Shanghai, Fridays and Saturdays through June 26, and Saturdays and Sundays from July 10–August 1 at the Hypnodrome. For those who just can’t get enough, the Thrillpeddlers has added a second Cockettes musical Hot Greeks, which marries 1940s college football with Aristophanes’ Lysistrata, on Thursdays and Sundays from May 2–June 27.