Queen Me


A Tyus-Barnwell

Originally published in The Evergreen Review Issue 119 in August, 2009.

My alter-ego is Dahlia Manoz. The girls call her Queen D. And by girls I mean boys. My name is Leslie Jones, an androgynous moniker – that was the sign of my existence in high school. I am the first black woman to be crowned The Queen of Drag. It’s a shame I have to give a white man all the credit. Of course, I’m sure it isn’t the first time in history a white man has taken the credit for something a black girl has done. But he’s not really a white man. He’s me – a straight, high-yellow, Brooklynite girl.
A disco-themed Miss America blared and it began to rain confetti. The paper particles stuck in my curled black weave and crunched under the rhinestone crown the two plain-faced and appropriately bland assistants balanced on my copious up-do. Even I, a notorious attention whore, was nearly overwhelmed by the camera flashes and masculine shrieks of congratulation and envy. I was all ruffles and bright purples and perfect white teeth. I worked the runway in the confetti shower, a bouquet of multicolored roses cradled in one arm, the other free to flutter with mock modesty and wave thanks.
My parents might have been proud, if they’d found out then. But the possibility that they might be horrified that their daughter was the greatest drag queen in New York City, loomed over all my decisions. “Ugh!” They might think. “The disgrace!” So I never told them. They were happily divorced, better to maintain my upper hand of parental guilt than to reveal this Victor Victoria lie I was living.
But I knew it couldn’t go on forever. They would mistrust me for lying to them. Everyone would; the girls, my parents, the contest judges and their lawyers. Jeff, who knew me best, already thought I was a complete nutcase. The girls would call me an imposter. They’d both be right.
Of course I wasn’t feeling enough guilt to stop me from accepting the crown. No foresight. Not then, not later that night when we were dancing our asses off drunk and blown. Not up until the inevitable.
The greatest fraud in my life began as a quest for fame. I started at the bottom, never as a bottom (unless you consider a woman as the generalized bottom, another unfortunate genetic curse for us). I was one of the faceless mass of New Yorkers paying the required small fortune for rent and fashion, and broke because of it. I worked an assortment of odd jobs to keep a roof over my head and Posen on my back, but still leave me time for auditions. I was going to be an actress.
I was living with my head in the smoggy clouds, accidentally stepping in dog shit every now and then, and occasionally tripping over cracked curbs. I was going to be living with my mother again, if my bank accounts stayed the same. I imagined myself in some kind of fantasy world; in it Broadway was as glorious as the old days. I believed drama was coming into a new golden age, and I had to be a part of it.

Now I laughingly look back on my fantasy; silly that a girl like me would idealize “the old days,” a time when I would have had to pass for white to walk in the theater’s front door. That wouldn’t have been difficult, though- both of my parents are mixed so I came out somewhere between eggshell and peach, with dark brown hair that curled in finger-width rings. Hearing I was pretty too many times made me vain, and I went out for the pretty damsel roles, ignoring the facts that I was too tall and flat-chested to get them. Ah, the naïveté of youth!
Such was my existence: getting shot down at auditions during the day and bartending or waitressing at night. My confidant and witness to my many failures was Jeff. You’d expect a guy whose best friend is a failing theatrical actress to be a complete flamer, but Jeff was straight as an arrow. Well, I’d heard he had a bit of an upward curve, but couldn’t speak from personal experience. Point is, he was secure enough in his masculinity to sit in mostly empty auditoriums and hotel halls watching me and other bad actresses bomb, voluntarily making himself a member of the motley crew of emotional crutches that was common at most auditions. He was secure enough to accompany me to theater parties even if they had themes, and to protect his junk from drunkenly groping man-hands in the later hours of the aforementioned parties without getting all in a huff and using his fists.
The fraud was conceived at a Silver Screen party – translation for the non-savvy: an excuse for a bunch of gay men, a few very secure straight ones, and women of both persuasions who don’t mind being called hags by their fags all drag it up and drink Stolichnaya. I was fresh from my latest rejection only the day before, and dressed as Miss Chi-chi Rodriguez, of “To Wong Foo” fame.
“That director doesn’t know shit, you said so yourself.” Jeff’s consolations were familiar.
“Yeah,” I confirmed. Jeff usually told the truth, but he would lie to shield my feelings. In this case he wasn’t lying, I’d said so myself.
“But I’m a bit biased. I actually like me.” I said with a self-deprecating smile before taking a large sip of my vodka cranberry.
“Ay, we’d rather have Priscilla at this party than pity,” Ramon interrupted with a spray of spit from drunken over-emphasis. I tolerated this, dramatically wiping my face with my hand – we’d known each other since high school, and he just happened to be a sloppy drunk. He’d grown into a well-tanned twink with an exaggerated Spanish accent. As a twink, he’d preserved as much of his youthful look from high school as possible. He was still wearing the same size t-shirt, for instance. Thank goodness he was short and light, so when he leaned on me it wasn’t crushing.
“You’re too swarthy and mysterious to be this girl next door you keep going for, baby. Don’t you know” - Don chu nooooo - “the girl next door is white?” “Not where I grew up. Or you either Ramon.” I said with mock indignance.
Ramon ignored me completely and continued, “Not that you can’t pass baby girl, if you go all anorexic and lose that booty. But look at you! You’re not the girl who lives through the horror movie, ok?”
I laughed; he was right and I take my lumps. But I was still nearly broke and basically anonymous.
“Well what should I do? Go out for the hood-rat stereotype roles? Give up and go for the reality circuit?”
“Nah.” Ramon waved away my silly suggestions and the vodka scented breeze that had just come from his mouth. “You need to make yourself stand out. Change yourself up.”
“Play the light-skinned girl that you know you are in black movies.” Jeff benignly suggested. Always the optimist.
“What do you mean by black movies, exactly?” Ramon had his hand on his hip. None of us expected an answer.
“Well look at you now.”

— A Tyus-Barnwell