My short life as a drag king.
Herbie told me I was too tentative. "Use your shoulders, big arm movement. Women dance with their hips, men dance with their arms. Bring your chest up. You think you should hide your chest, but men have big chests and they show them." By this time the music had drawn my husband and daughter down to watch my performance. They were both wide-eyed and slack-jawed at my transformation.
After Herbie left and I washed off my beard, my daughter came to me, upset. She hated seeing me trying to be a man. I reassured her that I wasn't doing it because it came from a desire within me; it was an experiment for work, like being an actress. Then I brought her over to the computer and we looked up the drag photos of Rudy Giuliani. "Look, this man could be president of the United States," I told her as she stared, repelled, at the sight of Rudy looking like Dame Edna. My daughter was both appalled and somehow mollified.
But her reaction that I was a burglar was right, too. I was robbing her of her safe assumptions about who her mother was. Before I was turned in to social services, I turned to Carl Jung. He believed each person has within them elements of the opposite sex. For men, it's the anima; for women, the animus. To reach true maturity, one must accept and integrate these shadow parts. As he wrote, "Thus the animus is a psychopomp, a mediator between the conscious and unconscious … the animus gives to woman's consciousness a capacity for reflection, deliberation, and self-knowledge." I felt so much better knowing Johnson Manly wasn't just a little guy with a washcloth in his shorts, but my psychopomp.
It was time to take the subway to the show. I dressed at home—it was one time I was going somewhere special that I didn't have to worry about shaving my legs or underarms. I stuffed my washcloth in my jock strap but decided to put on my beard at the club.
At the club, Herbie supervised my beard application, then I started penciling in my eyebrows. I had a heavy hand and quickly went from Tom Jones to Groucho Marx before Herbie toned down my brows. A man (I think) who worked at the club kept passing by, and finally said to me, "Where are your sideburns?" I drew those on. That I now had a beard seemed less important than the fact that I was out in public without eye makeup. Surveying my drag colleagues' final results, I realized that though real bearded ladies are sad and pitiable, women with fake beards make attractive men—some more convincing than others. Ken, the troupe leader, exuded masculine energy as he surveyed his domain, moving around propelled by his broad shoulders.
It was showtime. Because of bad weather the crowd was sparse, down two-thirds from the usual 75 spectators. As I waited for my turn, I tried to rehearse my Tom moves, my pumping shoulders, my thrusting pelvis. I felt strangely calm—the song was exactly two minutes long, and I knew both the audience and I could last that long. Then the announcer said Johnson Manly was making his drag king debut, the music started, and I was onstage. I was trying to keep so many thoughts in my head: "Be a man," "You're the cock of the walk," "Johnson, you're Tom Jones, the ladies love you." But mostly I couldn't remember my choreography, and as I flailed my arms I felt less like a sex symbol than a flapping chicken (not even a rooster) with facial hair. The audience, as promised, was supportive, and they handed me dollar bills (seven of them!) during the show and cheered when I finished.
I came off the stage, and the other kings, like the girls they were, patted my back, gave me thumbs up, and said I was "awesome" and "fantastic." For a reality check, I went over to Andy Bouvé, Slate V's cameraman, who was there to capture the show. "So how was I?" I asked. In his blunt male way he looked at me quizzically and shrugged.
In her fascinating book Self-Made Man, journalist Norah Vincent describes her 18 months passing as a man. At the end of her experiment, Vincent checked herself into a locked psychiatric ward. I knew if my experiment went on any longer, someone in my family would need hospitalization. So my brief life as a man was over—it was time to say goodbye to Johnson. I came home, undressed, and unpacked. I put my jockstrap in my husband's closet, unrolled my washcloth, and tossed it in the hamper. I still have a thing for Tom Jones.