Unisex fashions have never been a big hit with 22-year-old Whitney, an alluring blonde entertainer with a Marilyn Monroe pout. When she stalks the stage of the Queen Mary in four-inch heels and a black lace body stocking, Whitney's womanly charms come on thick as, well, mascara.
But things are not what they seem at this Studio City nightclub, where the performers' theme song goes: "We are what we are, and what we are is an illusion."
By most medical accounts, Whitney is a man.
If she wasn't, she couldn't work at the Ventura Boulevard nightspot, where female impersonation is the name of the game. In this twilight gender zone, trompe l'oeil is the only rule, and parameters are set by clever makeup, lighting and silicon.
At 22, the Queen Mary is the grand dowager of drag shows, and the only club of its kind in the San Fernando Valley. Citywide, its main competition is La Cage Aux Folles in West Hollywood, an ornate pink palace that opened six years ago. La Cage offers dinner and a more extravagant show but charges a stiffer cover, more than double the Queen Mary's fee of $5 a show.
Society's Changing Views
Since 1964, the Queen Mary has dished out a theatrically styled show in which performers decked out in feather boas and sequined gowns lip-sync musical hits and vamp before the audience. It has successfully weathered changing societal views toward female impersonators, starting with homophobia in the early days, followed by the sexual revolution, gay liberation, a brief cultural infatuation--thanks to Boy George and the French movie "La Cage Aux Folles"--and, more recently, the AIDS scare.
Owner Robert Juleff says fear of acquired immune deficiency syndrome hasn't affected business. "People realize that getting AIDS doesn't have much to do with eating and drinking at a nightclub," he said.
The Queen Mary's audience is largely heterosexual.
"My daughter went there for a bachelorette party, and she had a blast," said Jodell Hays, who is on the Studio City Chamber of Commerce board of directors.
The chamber has never received a complaint about the club or its activities, Hays said, and Juleff is "very community-minded, always donating to whatever project we have going."
According to Dr. Roger Peo, a Poughkeepsie, N.Y., psychologist who specializes in human sexuality, seeing men in drag "is unknown and scary for a lot of people. The club gives it a safe outlet by putting it on display as entertainment."
Over the years, depending on which female icon was in vogue, one could sip drinks there and ogle Mae or Liza or Aretha or Barbra. The club's most convincing current look-alike is one who bears an uncanny resemblance to Diana Ross.
Whitney is perfecting a Marilyn Monroe routine. She takes several hours of dance lessons each day, and practices standing over a hot-air grate in a flouncy dress, she says. On stage, Whitney oozes sex and vulnerability. Perhaps because of her own experiences, she is achingly believable when she sings about loneliness and love gone bad.
The performers can be gritty and humorous, or tragic and vulnerable, depending on who they impersonate. But often, the real drama doesn't start until they step offstage.
For some, like 28-year-old Scott, a slender man with delicate features and a ponytail, the Queen Mary is simply a job. He says he dresses as a woman for kicks and money.
"I got into drag as a joke," Scott said, pursing his lips to apply makeup before the show. He works quickly, amid the whir of electric razors, loud laughter and the footfalls of bare-breasted entertainers scurrying for hot curlers and taffeta dresses.
By contrast, Whitney, a Mississippi native and a self-described transsexual, says emphatically that she is not gay. "I consider myself a woman with a surgically correctable birth defect," she said.
It is a half-hour until show time, and Whitney sits at a vanity table examining her image in the bulb-lit mirror. The sight pleases her, and her lips part slightly in a smile. From the looking glass, a languorous woman with tumbled locks, ruby fingernails and china-doll features smiles back.
Like many who come to Los Angeles from far-off places, Whitney wants to be an actress in the movies. Although she lives like a woman 24 hours a day, she says, she has yet to cross the gender line by undergoing "the operation,"--surgery in which doctors construct female genitalia from the male sex organs. She wants to take that step eventually, Whitney says, but for now is content with her recent breast implant surgery and female hormones, which she takes daily.
Juleff says that most female impersonators are probably gay. Several of his entertainers have had sex change operations. He calls them "the girls."
Hasn't Been Fooled
Juleff says he can tell by looking at performers if they are men. "I don't think I've ever been fooled." However, he says, "I don't give people physicals."
Nor does he use real women in the show. "What would be the point of it?" he asked.