American Beauties

Don we now our gay apparel

Drag is pain, in more ways than one, and as a flurry of well-wishers, photographers and managers maneuver around towering hatboxes, overloaded costume racks and frazzled queens encircled by nervous, hovering courtiers, one small caged Pekingese named Gizmo yaps in a corner for attention.

Joie DiMercurio's eyes sweep over the chaotic backstage dressing room of the Miss Gay Missouri Pageant at the Faces nightclub in East St. Louis, and his lips slide into a slow, knowing smile.

He understands this pain, and he knows what they need.

Joie DiMercurio as Tumara Mahorning: "Everyone thinks you want to be a woman, and that's just not true. It's an illusion you're creating, a character."
Joie DiMercurio as Tumara Mahorning: "Everyone thinks you want to be a woman, and that's just not true. It's an illusion you're creating, a character."
Joie DiMercurio as Tumara Mahorning: "Everyone thinks you want to be a woman, and that's just not true. It's an illusion you're creating, a character."
Jennifer Silverberg
Joie DiMercurio as Tumara Mahorning: "Everyone thinks you want to be a woman, and that's just not true. It's an illusion you're creating, a character."

"You all look lovely, ladies," he calls out with a South City drawl as smooth as thick, sweet cream, and silence drapes the room as the assurance-starved clusters, preparing for the "creative fashion" segment of the pageant, look up gratefully at him. Because Joie is a national titleholder, professional entertainer and award-winning choreographer and costumer, his words hold the weight of professorial praise. And the contestants bask in it. Briefly. Longingly. Until reality suddenly jabs at them like a cheap pair of stilettos.

"Seventeen minutes to creative fashion!" As the backstage manager, nose to clipboard, charges through the room, someone shrieks after backing into a lean-to of props, Gizmo howls and the frantic pursuit of the crown resumes.

Joie's eyes dart back to their prey, to the stray hairs, loose threads and unconcealed blemishes on the architectural wonder standing before him, 24-year-old Tajah Mahal, whose boy name is Greg Weckman. He is 120 pounds of layered, lacquered, powder-plastered perfection, but the slightest defect -- a crooked seam, a misarranged earring, a broken nail -- will mean the deduction of points as precious as they are expensive.

In their quest for the crown, contestants spend thousands of dollars on makeup, wigs, props, jewelry, shoes and designer evening gowns, which cost at least $5,000 apiece. During the course of a three-day pageant, the contestants will model several. This is no longer the world of bearded men stuffed into cheap dresses, waddling across the stage for a laugh. This is a high-stakes contest for which contestants sometimes spend years coming up with a strategy. "I've been watching this for two whole years now, and I just want to learn everything I can before I compete," says 21-year-old Kevin McMeekan, who has been stage-managing pageants to gain experience.

In addition to the evening gowns, each contestants must come up with a costume for the creative-fashion segment. Joie is now fitting just such a costume to Tajah's body with the precision of a draftsman. It is Joie's own design, an earth-goddess-meets-Vegas-showgirl spectacle of autumn leaves, tree branches, fake fur, a naked hoopskirt frame and a towering headpiece of leaves, berries, sticks, bunched grapes and Spanish moss. The costume took weeks to create, and, as Joie saunters slowly around the finished product, his eyes skim up and down every seam. He smiles sardonically and dubs the creation "Fall Eruption."

Joie stops and stands behind Kevin Little, a cosmetologist for Glamour Shots in Sunset Hills, who searches Tajah's face for cosmetic sins. Kevin is Tajah's "drag mom" -- the contestant's makeup artist, dresser and adviser -- which in turn makes Joie Tajah's drag grandmother. "And drag muffins are the people who carry all our stuff," Tajah says, fluttering his heavily lashed eyes at the crowded room.

Joie leans around Kevin and attaches another leaf to Tajah's face with a glue gun. He pulls back -- "Not so much" -- and winces. Joie sports a sage's smile: "Gotta take the pain, darlin'; gotta take the pain."

Joie understand the pain better than most. And he knows that its range is wide: Societal scorn. Skin ripped by duct tape. Sneers from store clerks when he buys size-11 women's shoes. If the drag queens were mainstream actors, their pain would be swaddled in sympathy, and, if they were women, more or less understood. But they're men acting as women, boys dressed as girls, so it's a test of will, nerve and duct-tape tolerance. Most can't take it for very long, and Joie's own list of accomplishments is not without scars.

"Five minutes to creative fashion!"

Joie's eyes jump from Tajah to Ineaida Cochtail (boy name: xxxx), his other charge this weekend, who stands waiting in a 4-foot-wide turn-of-the century hat and flowing black-and-white-striped dress that Joie has fashioned from 25 yards of upholstery fabric. He is My Fair Lady at the races, and in his crooked arm sits Gizmo, not yapping anymore, eyes bulging with satisfaction through a mop of hair. Ineada smiles back at Joie. Unlike Tajah, who's entered dozens of pageants, this is Ineada's first, and he's scared. But he considers Joie a drag deity, he says, and Joie's help with choreography, costuming and all-around advice allows Ineada an outward composure few other contestants display.

Joie relishes the responsibility. He's spent almost two decades perfecting the art of illusion, and as a competitive beauty queen he's gone as far as he can go. But helping other contestants extends his patent on some of the most unusual drag routines in the country, and that in turn helps him search for more of himself.

Ineada glides towards the group that has gathered to admire Tajah.

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