By LISA KATAYAMA
I always thought my friend Alex would look pretty as a girl.
He has huge doe eyes, fair skin, and a dimpled smile that can charm the pants off of anyone, male or female. The first time I saw him dress in drag was at InTouch, a now-defunct gay Asian bar in the Tenderloin. He was wearing a blond wig and a black dress; he did a little Sex and the City number with three other guys on stage. That evening, he went by the name Scary Bradshaw.
Now, four years later, Alex has found a more permanent identity as Estee Longah, a fabulous vintage queen and founder of a semi-professional all-Asian drag troupe called the Rice Rockettes. Once every month or two, they put on lavish, highly sexualized performances at party venues like The Endup and AsiaSF. And they're empowering a population of gay men to experiment with a mode of self-expression that is often taboo and sometimes even non-existent in their own cultures.
On the Thursday before San Francisco's gay pride weekend, Alex invites me over to his office to watch his transformation into Estee. Getting dolled up usually takes three hours and the show is slated to start at seven thirty, but when I get there a bit past five he is still in his wife-beater and stone-washed jeans, looking like a dude, screwing the spotlight in place at center stage.
"We're on drag Asian time," he jokes as he finally plops down at his desk and rolls out a dozen or so makeup brushes.
For women, makeup is often a tool to boost confidence in our outward appearance — a little bit of mascara and liner makes me feel slightly prettier than when I go barefaced to the gym. For drag queens, it's a full on transformation, the adoption of a whole other identity. "As Alex, I don't feel like I'm talented enough or creative enough. But as Estee, I can be whoever I want to be."
Alex's workspace is a little corner cubicle — nothing fancy, just a desktop computer, a phone, and an empty cup of iced coffee from the neighborhood deli. Alex is a Filipino from the island of Guam. Both cultures, he tells me, have the perception that gay men are just effeminate men who want to be women. "This all plays into the stereotype that gay people are second class citizens, mentally disturbed individuals, and sinners. Since the ideal of the masculine man is the norm, a man would have to be crazy to want to look like a woman or do womanly things." Even in the US, "it's hard to recruit drag queens in the community. There's a lot of stigma around it. A lot of Asian men already feel hyper emasculated."
Alex decided to become a drag queen because he wanted a creative outlet for self expression, but also because he wanted to send the message to other gay Asian and Pacific Islander men that it's okay to be feminine. "In Asia, drag performances tend to focus more on gender illusion — pretty girls posing and being perfectly beautiful on stage. It can be very magical and appealing, especially for straight men who might not understand the difference. In the US, we tend to take the art of drag and create our own way of expressing ourselves, whether it's through spoken word, song, activism, or just being a hot mess on stage."
I think I know what he means by being a hot mess on stage. Last Christmas, when I went to see the Rice Rockettes perform at Octavia Lounge on Market Street, a drag queen named Doncha Vishyuwuzme wore a ball gown made with pink Chinese restaurant plastic bags and waved her arms to a romantic number while making slutty faces at the audience. I'm pretty sure I saw glimpses of her boxer briefs, fake boobs, and a dildo during her performance.
Alex lays three paper towels neatly in front of his computer, pours brush cleaner into a small spray bottle, and dutifully spritzes each brush. Once he's done, he smoothes shimmery body lotion on his arms and chest. He slathers orange paste — "It's a camouflage crème, or simply known as beard cover" — onto his stubble. "It's temporary art," he says. "Like an installation almost, you enjoy it for what it is and then you wipe it off."
He puts a layer of red lipstick on his lips. He pats some powder on top to set it; then adds another layer. "The key is to do three layers," he says. To finish off the look, he draws a thick exaggerated line of dark brown liner into the shape of a deliberate pout. He puckers his lips at the mirror and tilts his head with satisfaction.
Alex's knowledge of makeup is really quite impressive. "I usually do three colors of blush," he says. "Nars has the best brushes. For lipstick, Mac is good too, but I really like Makeup Forever. The pencil and the color, it's just really good. I'm really happy with it." Many drag queens by day are makeup artists, working the Mac booth at Macy's or prettying up brides at weddings. When Alex isn't at his day job as the men's health coordinator for the API Wellness Center, he sometimes does makeup for weddings and special events.
A handsome guy named Maveric shows up about half an hour into the "birthing" of Estee Longah. Maveric's alter-ego is a hard core club-going whore named Lychee Minelli, a self-proclaimed high class prostitute. Lychee is Estee's drag daughter — about six months ago, when Estee first met Maveric, she took her under her wing, gave her a drag name, and taught her how to be a fabulous queen.
Maveric has high cheekbones and the smoothest skin I've ever seen on a dude. "I was working at a newspaper at a podunk town in California, and the queer in me was dying. It was terrible. Low pay, crazy ass hours." So Lychee moved to San Francisco, got a marketing job, and joined the Rice Rockettes in January. He just happened to be at one of their performances when Alex invited him on stage. Ever since then, he's been a regular member of the troupe, gracing the stage with his raunchy, exaggerated, and incredibly sexy hip gyrations that most ordinary women wish they could pull off.
Alex is doing Lychee's makeup tonight, but normally, he encourages all his Rockettes to watch drag makeup tutorials on YouTube and master the trade themselves. "It's fun, but it's also a lot of work. It's not something you want to do every day."
It's almost 8pm; an event staffer drops by Alex's cubicle to get a status check. "The crowd is getting antsy," he says. Alex draws two moles on his face, one under his right eye, one under his left lip. He douses his face with fixing spray: "It's like hairspray for the face. The one at Kryolan is really good. It doesn't smear."
To witness the emergence of Estee is like watching a magic show. Alex has drawn a series of bold brown lines across his cheeks and forehead; between that and the orange chin, for the first hour of the transformation process, he looks more like a tiger than a woman. But when he starts to blend the colors into his face, Estee appears out of thin air. The only sound we hear is his fingers stroking the contours of his face and the soundtrack to Mommy Dearest — his number for the night — playing quietly out of his computer speakers. As he strokes the different colors briskly with his fingers, Alex's face fades out of view and a fair-skinned, exaggeratedly feminine visage emerges. It truly feels like I'm watching the birth of an adult woman out of thin air. Alex pops on an auburn wig and squeezes into a black fake-hip-hugging knee-lengthed dress. She has arrived. Estee Longah, a gorgeous, slightly androgynous Joan Fontaine-esque vintage pin-up girl straight out of a 1940s movie poster.
In the background, a drag queen named Vi is singing a Beyonce song. Rice Rockette members Chi-Chi Kago, Lychee Minelli, Marijoy Tabatsoy, and Saigon Dione are also in the wings getting ready for their numbers. Estee smoothes out her dress and shuffles out of Alex's cubicle towards the evening's limelight.
Tita Aida, a legendary transgender activist whom Estee considers her "drag mother", steps up to the stage and gives a brief introduction. "She is a mover and shaker on Polk Street," she announces, referring to San Francisco's historical transvestite prostitution district. "She came out with her own line of cosmetics for the new Tenderloin woman. Please welcome... Estee Longah!!"
Photos: Joshua Lim