Friday, April 11, 2014
Fabulous Friday with Heidi Cullinan
Writing The Queen
I forget the exact moment Chenco turned into a drag queen, but I know when the idea germinated: when Marie Sexton and I were with my sister at the real Club 33 in McAllen Texas, since renamed Aria. We were drinking in the coolness of the bar, enjoying Texas’s indoor smoking laws and the Valley’s reasonably-priced alcohol, dancing with strangers and ogling pretty boys in cages when the queen waltzed in.
I forget the name of the performer, but she was amazing. I couldn’t work out if she was singing or lip-synching, and after a few minutes I hardly cared. At Club 33 the dancing stage is like a fighter’s ring, an elevated area with rails around, so when she performed she could address any and everyone at once. Lights flashed, music pulsed, and the crowd cheered as she worked the stage.
As I got deep into the guts of writing a young man feeling rootless, disconnected and lost in an area of the country which has its own rudderless, foot-in-two-cultures identity, I realized what it meant to the LGBT population there to have drag stars perform. How often does the real JLo show up in the Valley? Even if she did, who could afford to go? The Rio Grande Valley is home to the two most poverty-stricken cities in the United States. It is one hundred miles from mainstream US city culture. It’s flanked by a border full of armed guards. When we visited my sister, she blithely drove us into neighborhoods which made Marie and I double check the locks on the doors of the car, but when we were touring the border fence and Border Patrol showed up, Hillari and her friend raced us out of there as if our lives were on the line. All we were doing was walking up to an impenetrable fence as US citizens with purses full of ID, looking like the whitest of white middle class soccer moms. Yet to my sister, the Border Patrol was more a danger than the third-world-level poverty she served as a TFA instructor.
I think Chenco wanted to be a drag queen for a lot of reasons, but the lure of all that glamor, power, and shining light were the greatest ones that propelled him from occasionally trying on shoes and dreaming about outfits to choreographing routines. He’d be the first to roll his eyes and say he has no idea why he wanted to put on a dress, and he’d be annoyed with anyone’s attempt to psychoanalyze, but I think the power is worth noting. I know him well enough to know he loves the idea of coming up stealth from underneath, of putting everyone off-balance and using something he loves to show people a different way to be.
Between the first and second drafts of this story, though, I had an experience of my own which radically altered how I perceived Caramela and Chenco: I did drag of my own. It started as a costume for a party at RT in Kansas City. I needed to come as a character or subgenre, but this was just as my chronic pain particularly in my legs and feet was becoming acute—this I would later solve with viciously cutting gluten from not just my food but all products applied to my body—and I panicked, because I had to host a party in costume, but my body dictated a costume with sensible shoes. Damon Suede’s partner suggested I go as a trucker, since that’s someone from my books.
Now, Geoff meant put on a cap and a plaid shirt to go with my jeans and shoes, but I’m a Virgo, and I thought, let’s add some detail. I wondered if I could pull off a little 5-o’clock shadow, so I gave it a try. I scrubbed my face, pulled back my hair, put it under a cap and donned my husband’s plaid shirt after plastering down my (not insignificantly sized) breasts. I shadowed my jawline, then stared in the mirror. I was a little taken aback.
I thought, actually, I looked pretty different, and a lot like a guy. I wondered if I was imagining it, so I sent a pic to Dan, Marie, Sary, and Damon. The reaction from everyone was holy shit. To drive that home, my daughter returned in the middle of this, and when I came downstairs in costume, she screamed because she thought a stranger was in the house.
My drag transformation was so good no one at the party knew who I was. Damon, who was in on the joke, would stand next to me and ask if anyone had seen Heidi. Marie watched me get dressed and freaked out because it felt like a man was in the room. I had to pick up a package at the hotel front desk, and the woman who’d seen me out of costume couldn’t get over it was really me.
I ended up putting drag back on for the Saturday night party for someone who had missed the fan event, and even before I left Kansas City I knew I was going to have to do it for GRL. By the time we got to October I’d fixed a lot of the foot issue, and I’d perfected my costume, getting a real binder suit, a prosthetic penis, and two costumes: cowboy and trucker. I had a stage name: Calvin Fine. I’d done a “gig” at a local gay bar, and at this point I’m trying to negotiate friends/readers/strangers’ interest in seeing me perform with my own desire, schedule, and need to promote as a recognizable female at events without driving other authors crazy for my antics.
The thing I learned about performing drag, which stayed with me as I redrafted, was how other people reacted to me as Calvin Fine vs. Heidi Cullinan. Universally gay men are mesmerized and usually confused: they often find me sexually attractive, yet everyone’s aware Mr. Softee can’t ever get it up and that big fat tits come out of my binder suit. Women drape themselves liberally over Calvin, demand kisses, and delight at being pushed against walls and fondled in a way they wouldn’t let a stranger do to them or even a familiar man they weren’t dating.
Calvin’s greatest superpower, though, is that he is ten thousand times freer than I am, and he makes a huge, safe space for his fans to enjoy. Anyone can flirt with Calvin, and it’s going to be okay. At GRL several readers declared Calvin their boyfriend and playfully “fought” over him. Sometimes readers project their favorite character of mine onto Calvin and live out a sliver of a few fantasies by being seen on his arm or grinding against him on the dance floor.
Calvin is, at his heart, and escape: for me, for the people he performs with and for. He is of me, but separate from me. He is very much a force that wants and needs to get out on occasion. I’ve been debating whether or not he should be at RT, but I view it as promotion and whether or not he’s a good idea. He says he wants to go out on Friday night because he wants to be with his people, wants to dance and be crazy in the Big Easy. In so many ways he’s a separate life, but he only gets to live slivers at a time. I can channel him, I can carry him, but every now and again he wants his moment in the spotlight.
I don’t know that this kind of identity and relationship is common for drag, but it’s what I gave to Chenco and Caramela. When I walk through the men’s section of a store, Cal picks out what he wants to wear. He’s excited for my upcoming surgery, because he wants me to lose some weight and get my energy up so he can get dressed and go introduce himself to the IC Kings, an Iowa City drag group. He wants to become a regular at the Blazing Saddle. He wants his own event with his own fans. He very, very much wants a pair of chaps. I think he’s going to have to be disappointed by a lack of a motorcycle, but hey. Who knows. Maybe that will work out too.
Honestly I think a lot of us have an inner king or queen. I think the magic of drag is none of us are solidly one gender or another. I think we all resent the rigid roles our cultures put on us, and it’s big fun to walk on the other side. People treat me differently as a drag king, whether or not they know I’m biologically female beneath my clothes. That’s fun. That’s powerful.
That’s what Caramela and Chenco play with, and what I did my best to represent in Tough Love. Writing a drag queen isn’t the same as seeing one perform, and sadly you can’t ever actually go to Caramela’s show. But she’d be the first one to tell you support your local queens. She says when you give them a tip, you’re still giving one to her.
And she reminds you she’s pretty fabulous, so make that tip a good one.
Book Three of the Special Delivery Series
It takes a strong man to be this fabulous.
Crescencio “Chenco” Ortiz pulled himself up by his garter straps after his father’s will yanked the financial rug from under his spank-me pumps. He doesn’t need anyone, yet when Steve Vance steps into his life, the prospect of having a sexy leather daddy on tap begins to take on a certain appeal.
There’s a hitch when he learns Steve is friends with Mitch Tedsoe—the half-brother Chenco never knew except through his father’s twisted lies. Despite his reservations, soon Chenco is living his dreams, including a performing gig in Vegas. Now if only he could get Steve to see him as more than just a boy in need of saving.
Steve’s attraction to Chenco is overshadowed by too many demons, ones he knows his would-be lover is too young to slay. Yet as he gets to know the bright, determined young man whose drag act redefines fierce, Steve’s inner sadist trembles with need. He begins to realize Chenco’s relentless tough love might be the only thing that will finally set him free.
Warning: This story contains glamorous drag queens, exhibitionist secondary characters, and no-holds-barred BDSM play, including watersports. Readers advised they may well leave this novel feeling uncharacteristically fierce.
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