Words: Kayla McIntosh & Hassina Obaidy
Photos: Deborah Svoboda
Edgar Lepe takes a tube of red lipstick and begins to dab the bottom half of his freshly shaven face. Using a white cosmetic sponge, he blends in the red marks to cover up his subtle dark chin hair. Like an artist, Edgar paints his face as if it were a canvas. After blending concealer and both cream and powder foundation on his face and neck, he waves a black, floral-printed Chinese plastic fan to air dry the makeup after each application. This is just the beginning of a long transformation from man to drag.
The makeup process alone takes Edgar about an hour and fifteen minutes, with the whole process lasting a total three to four hours to transform into full drag mode. This includes showering, shaving nearly his entire body, styling his hair, applying makeup, and putting on his often elaborate outfits.
Edgar transforms from a tall, Hispanic man with a five-o’clock shadow wearing jeans, a t-shirt, and black Converse tennis sneakers to a classy, feminine drag queen with fake red and black roses clipped in his dark black hair, chandelier earrings, and an extravagant dress for a performance. He’s not like the stereotype with his more understated take on drag.
Then, there are the over the top, va-va voom, super glamorous drag queens that take it to the next level with big hair, crazy vibrant makeup and bedazzled dresses.
The epicenter of the city’s drag scene is arguably the infamous Divas in the Tenderloin District. On a Saturday afternoon just as the bar opens, an outcry of drag queens erupts inside the small, dimly lit bar. The patrons outside pay the quarrel no mind as if this is something they are far too used to.
About five women, some in drag, gather around the bar’s counter as one drag queen screams at the bartender. Cursing and continuously barking, the drag queen’s attitude is cutting and harsh.
A unidentified and highly intoxicated young woman claims that there’s a “tranny fight” going on and it isn’t a good time for anyone to talk to them.
“They’re feminine, but not really,” she says as she begins to laugh.
To equate all folks dressed in drag with all those who identify as “trans” is to show a lack of understanding toward the two radically different communities. Drag queens and transgender people have two different identities. A drag queen is one who changes their physical appearance, usually for a performance, and is often characterized by an over the top costume and makeup. As this young woman alludes, many think that being a transwoman means to be unclassy and involved in lurid activities like prostitution. However, to be transgender simply means to have chosen to live your life as a different sex than the one you were biologically assigned. This can occur simply through dress or more drastic approaches like hormone therapy or surgery.
The classic drag queens like Donna Sachet are the opposite of what one may experience at Divas bar. Tall, blonde, and elegant Donna, dressed in a long, sequined red gown is well aware of her celebratory fame. As mentioned in the Winter 2011 issue of Xpress Magazine, Donna is the lead performer at Sunday’s A Drag show at Harry Denton’s Starlight Room at the Sir Francis Drake Hotel. After a decadent brunch and a magnificent show with four talented drag queen performers, Donna and the girls happily take photos with the guests. Once that is over, she is seated to the couch near the bar by Michael Pagan, the producer, and presented with a glass of champagne before the next performance.
“I don’t put drag on, I let it out,” she says.
Donna says her drag queen identity is a character she created and maintained for 20 years. During the day when she’s running errands, no one recognizes her.
“There’s this female character inside me and I always knew it was there,” she says. “I’d put a towel on my hair and lip sync to a hair brush.”
Similar to Donna, Edgar is unrecognizable to those who know his drag identity. A UCSF cancer researcher by day, Edgar also dances for the Peninsula Ballet Theatre on the side. Although his physical appearance drastically changes, his personality remains the same.
“I don’t feel like anybody else, I feel like myself,” he says. “I don’t go out faking my voice. I really don’t even try to fake it. The more you try to fake it, the more fake you look. I like to just keep it as natural as possible.”
Confident, humble, and sociable, Lepe began his drag queen life at the age of 18 with the help of his “drag mom”, Bianca Cruz.
According to Lepe, a “drag mom” is someone who helps an individual transform into a drag queen and they must take her last name.
“It’s like they’re giving birth to you,” he says.
Lepe goes by Paloma Cruz when he performs. He believes that one can’t be a drag queen if they can’t make people laugh.
“Out of many categories of drag queens, I think the successful ones are the pretty ones, but the pretty ones that don’t open their mouth,” he says. “And the ugly ones they can actually make people laugh because you’re either ugly and funny, or pretty and stupid.”
Lepe recounts a time when he was supposed to be a part of his his friend’s wedding in Sacramento, his hometown. When he went to get ready for the event at his aunt’s house, he walked in the door only to find his 91-year-old grandmother there as well. She had no idea that her grandson had two separate identities, and he had no intention of letting her find out.
“I said ‘Tia, why didn’t you tell me grandma was here?’” He eventually had to explain to his grandmother why he came back home from San Francisco with a bag full of makeup and an assortment of ladies’ clothing.
And to his surprise, she did not judge him. She even helped iron his dress for the event.
Before he erupted with the news to his grandmother his cousin took him to the side and asked him, “How do you want everybody else to accept you..if you’re not ready to show your face to the people who care for you?”
And from that moment on, he’s never let anyone stop him from being exactly who he wanted to be.