That was new. I mean, I’ve certainly been a performer for 37 of my 40 years, and I certainly have an exhibitionist streak, but let’s face it: under the glamour and makeup, there’s 257 lbs of ginger bear (at least, according to Weightwatchers this week.) And, well, at least there would be if my life as a drag queen didn’t mean that I’m never as furry as I could/would/should be.
The point is, many fat men have body issues, and I am certainly no exception. Getting onto a stage and bouncing around in relative nudity, in front of an audience, and getting paid to do it is never something that I would have imagined myself doing. Or is it?
I’m a drag queen. I’m one of the busiest non-professional drag queens I know, and as my reign as Empress of New York was wrapping down last year, I had two thoughts. The first was, “GOD, I’m tired.” The second was, “What’s Next?” The answer may be: burlesque.
Now, I’ll confess: despite being a lifelong performer, burlesque is a new thing to me. The creation of Witti Repartee was an ADDED layer, one which Michael could hide under/behind/underneath and play this aging, multi-husbanded, never-quite-made-it soubrette. The glamour of Witti and her life have allowed the fat unpopular boy underneath to have the A-List experiences, the spotlight, the friends and the access that I would never have thought possible..nor would have had any entre into. Over the last couple of years, whether at Folsom Street East, or at Leather Competitions, or with the Boys of Bearlesque, or even on her annual trip to Lexington, KY, where she hosts stripper shows at a downtown bar, she’s had the opportunity to tease and show a more sexual side, but still with the veneer of “Michael's under here, you can’t touch him.”
That all started to change last year when I attended Robin Byrd’s opening night at The Cutting Room. I’d met Robin years ago on Fire Island, and had bumped into her several times around town at events and such. Though Witti went as a private citizen, and not in any official capacity with the Imperial Court, there’s always an invisible crown on your head during your reign. My friend and I sat with columnist Michael Musto, and were pleasantly surprised by a shout-out from Robin during her act. One of her guest performers that night was Go-Go Harder, who I refer to as the King of Boylesque, and I was transfixed. Over the next few months, my partner and I went to another performance of Go-Go’s, one of Dita von Teese’s and started to get a taste for modern burlesque. Who could know that one Thursday night toward the end of my reign we’d be playing pool at The Stonewall Inn just before a performance of Homo Erectus was about to begin…we decided to go upstairs to the show, and the world got a little bigger.
Witti isn’t shy, but Michael can be. My amazing partner and I went upstairs, into a crowd where we barely knew a soul, and sat together watching the show. We were incognito, but were sensing a community here that knew each other, liked each other, applauded creativity and supported each other’s power and passion. Oh, and there were people taking their clothes off. So, I did what I do and introduced myself to a couple of folks, mostly because they were cute and I get flirty, but also because I was intrigued by what they were doing on stage. There’s a big difference between seeing someone on a stage at a venue like the Cutting Room or the Gramercy Theatre and seeing them onstage at Stonewall. It’s a question of accessibility. (Well, it’s also about the size of the cover charge and the paycheck, but that’s a different story.) Everyone onstage that night at Homo Erectus was engaged with the audience. Sure, there were varying levels of performance, but there was heart. Oh, and again, nudity. So, via quick introductions that night, and through some friendly Facebook over the next couple of days, I started chatting with that evening’s host (Scary Ben), the producer (Matt Knife), and some of the performers (Lucky Charming, Lewd Alfred Douglas). I visited Bushwick to see Scary Ben and his troupe, found some of these folks at political rallies and marches, and in a strange ‘worlds coming together’ moment, started seeing them and working with them at The Will Clark Show.
Okay, so now I had a pile of new friends who were all doing interesting, creative work, performing, enjoying themselves, building names and reputations, and fomenting a community throughout. And what a community: When everyone is focused on creative expression, and you’ve got a highly charged sexual atmosphere, you’d never expect to find what I did: male, female, trans, gay, straight, bi, those who wear labels like a beer bottle, and those who eschew them equally are cool with each other. Their lives, their choices, their lifestyles. I’m an old theatre queen: I’ve changed in dressing rooms with people for years, and as I said, a bit of an exhibitionist. But this world, where it was all ABOUT sexuality, was different. People were still changing next to each other, boobs out here, butts out there…and it was all okay. And it was all okay no matter HOW you were built: very skinny, stockier, some with big parts here, some with small parts there. There was a decided lack of judgement.
As I got to know this community, I wanted to test the waters and see if we had a shared world in common. I was working on the Leather Pride Night Committee and was tasked with helping to find entertainment: I immediately reached out to Matt Knife and Viktor Devonne (of NJ’s White Elephant Burlesque Society) and asked if they’d bring some of their respective troupes to perform. They said yes immediately. I hosted Will Clark’s Bad Boys on the Hudson cruise this year, and again got a chance to work with some of these amazing folks…and then it came. The first invitation.
Oscar Wilde’s Bachelor Party. I was asked to play Lady Bracknell and perform a number in the show. It wasn’t a burlesque number, but a foil to that: dressed in black velvet, mocking, judging and I loved every minute of it. But the scarier challenge was ahead: an actual burlesque performance. One where I had to take off my clothes and embrace the fat unpopular boy underneath.
It’s funny how the world works and changes. Getting to know the members of this community personally: hanging out with them in the rehearsal, visiting with them after each other’s shows, having drinks one-on-one, really makes you start to think, “If they can do this, why can’t I?” But it’s also in a true community where you feel the amazing love and support that gives you the strength to try. And I always love a new challenge, I love to surprise people, I love to bring elements into performances that are new for me, for my audience. When I pitched the idea for my very first number to Matt Knife, he was enthusiastic and embraced it, and now I faced the scariest piece of it: there was a date on the calendar and my name on a flyer. Like it or not, I had a job to do.
But WHAT to do? I’m a broadway baby, not a traditional burlesque bump-n-grinder, nor a modern burlesque camp queen. My stock in trade has been singing, not stripping…and what would it look like for Witti to strip? Bodysuit with tassles? Rhinestoned fishnets? And then it hit me: this was a number for both sides of my world. For years I’d been talking about wanting to do the song “A Little More Mascara” from La Cage aux Folles, which in the show takes Albin from depressed man through the application of makeup, hair and clothing into the fabulous Zaza. What if…? What if I reversed the song, and instead of being a tired man who only gets a thrill when he gets into drag I were a tired and jaded drag queen who wanted… needed… CRAVED…to be loved for the man underneath? And the number was born. I’d change a few lyrics and make the song about a little LESS Mascara, and instead of lines like “and then this ugly duckling is a swan” I’d sing “and then this little drag queen is a bear!” It was going to work.
Now, all I had to do was figure out how to turn a 4 minute and 47 second song into a full blown strip number.
The start: Complete coverage of my own body: if this were going to work, I wanted to preserve as much of Michael’s own body and body hair as possible. I entered in an evening gown with a shawl covering the top portion of my body. I started the number traditionally, pulling off one rhinestoned glove and then the other. I felt the audience anticipating something different, but when I got to the line, “So whenever I feel my place in the world is beginning to crash, I REMOVE one stroke of mascara with my rather thick upper lash” I slowly pulled of my left false eyelash.
I’ve always said, and most queens I know will agree with me, that there’s one piece of the transformation when it all clicks into place. For some it’s hair, for some, shoes, for others tits, but for me, it’s always been the lashes. I’m still Michael until they get glued on, and I’m Witti until they come off.
When the first one came off, I felt a wall of energy from the audience hit me: they loved it. They got it. And they started to wonder, “Where’s she going with this? OMG, is she?” And she did. Off came the second lash. As the first verse picked up speed, I picked up babywipes and a mirror, scrubbing at my face as I sang the next lines, saving my lipstick for last and the word “Beautiful.”
With the face off, the shoes followed, and then the wig, and then the shawl. It was time for the big moment, and the make-or-break for me. Our fabulous stage butler discreetly reached from behind the curtain, pulled down the zipper on the dress while I sang and I got to use that moment to prepare for the reveal: The line, “When Albin is tucked away and Zaza is here” became “When Witti is stripped away and Michael is here,” and I dropped the gown to the floor, revealing my bustier and a bright blue jockstrap.
Too late to turn back, the next lines got rid of the fake boobs and then teased the audience with my butt…ripping off the bustier and the earrings completed the transition, and there Michael was: no wig, no makeup, no dress, no jewelry, no shoes…nothing but a bear in a jockstrap. But the energy pouring onto the stage from the audience, who were with me the entire time, was phenomenal. I wasn’t a fat naked man on a stage. I was a bear in a jockstrap, owning my body, owning my soul and sharing the experience of emotionally and physically tearing away all the trappings until it was just me, telling a story.
I didn’t need the layers of Witti between me and my audience. Authenticity is all, and last night I honored myself with sheer honesty. I didn’t put makeup on blemishes, I didn’t go to the gym ten minutes before, it was the embodiment of Albin’s next song in La Cage: “I Am What I Am.” Michael may not have the glitz and glamour, but in truth, he IS Witti, and she is him. The personality is the same, just heightened. It’s like the difference between street and stage makeup: it enhances.
So, it’s true. I took my clothes off for a paying audience and left them wanting more. Which is great. But seeing pictures of me dancing in the finale as Michael make me realize that my decision to go to weightwatchers is also correct. I’m not happy with how heavy I am. But I don’t need to be thinner for anyone else but me. The audience last night gave me full approval to be exactly who I am, where I am and how I am.
And some days, that’ll be in a gown with a wig and lots of jewelry, because truth be told, Witti’s not going anywhere. But Michael doesn’t have to go anywhere either and that knowledge makes me stronger, makes her stronger and feels really, really good.