American Beauties

Don we now our gay apparel

"Unbelievable," someone whispers at Joie's creation.

Ineada, himself a star-spangled astonishment, shakes his head in reverence: "Oh my God!"

Joie smiles. "I know my drag," he says.

Joie's design for Ineda Cochtael's "Vogue" dance routine: "Everything Joie touches turns golden."
Jennifer Silverberg
Joie's design for Ineda Cochtael's "Vogue" dance routine: "Everything Joie touches turns golden."

Theater hooked Joie from the start -- the basement skits in kindergarten, the Nativity plays in grade school, the drama classes, voice training and script-writing in high school. It coursed through his veins like a stimulant, and there was never, ever enough.

The descendant of Sicilians on both sides, he was born and raised on the Hill in South St. Louis, and his family, strict but unoppressive Roman Catholics, devoted themselves to Joie's drama. He was a quiet kid, but he loved being in front of people, making them laugh or cry, and it wasn't just the performance that ignited his ambition, it was the entire world of invention, of dramatization, of creating the convincing illusion. With props, he composed atmosphere; with scripts, he invented lives. With costumes and makeup, he brought people to be.

"I loved portraying the characters of different types of people," Joie says in the living room of his South St. Louis home. "The fun part of it was that I could be onstage and be myself playing somebody else." His voice is soft but not feminine, the syllables drawn out to classically trained lengths. Around him, long swaths of fabric drape couches, chairs and tables. Wigs hang from coat racks, and partially clad dress forms compose the majority of his accent pieces, because in addition to his full-time job as a floral and window designer, he creates costumes for plays, concerts and beauty pageants.

At 38 -- "Near death," he says, grimacing -- Joie is still slender and not at all concerned that the orange Kool-Aid and Imo's sausage pizza in front of him will challenge his onstage silhouette. He doesn't work out and he doesn't diet, and, over the course of the evening, he will add Doritos, Pop-Tarts and sweet tea to the menu.

"I mean, I never cared if I was a movie star," he says. "To me, that's not performing -- that's acting. Live theater is performing."

After high school, when he entered Southwest Missouri State University in Springfield, his concentration on musical theater was automatic. He took modern-dance classes and joined a show choir. He took classes in voice and directing and costuming. He learned how to breathe, how to move, how to surround himself with talent. No character was too challenging, because each one taught him who he could be, what he might say and why he might say it. He was still quiet and reserved, but onstage he could be loud or aggressive or threatening. It was a way of expressing emotions that he found difficult in his daily routine.

But it wasn't until 1990, when he volunteered to do hair and makeup for some friends who entered the Miss Gay Springfield pageant, that he became intrigued with the most daunting challenge -- portraying a woman. Physically and emotionally, she was so unlike him that he could barely comprehend her at first. She flirted with her eyes, toyed with her hair, gestured expressively with her hands. She had a completely different smile for opening doors, for nabbing cabs and for doling out praise to her children. She hid her insecurities under a mask of haughtiness. She was susceptible to sacrificial longings and water retention and mood swings and shyness. She knew what it felt like to wear clip-on earrings. She knew how it felt to be pregnant.

Biologically, he didn't want to be female. He didn't want breasts, and he didn't want to go out to restaurants dressed like a woman. But to be a man and play a woman was one of the most creative roles he could imagine. It was a challenge he couldn't refuse, and, two years later, when he was 24, Joie entered the Miss Gay America pageant system for the first time. "Going from plays to pageants wasn't difficult, but it was a change," he says. "In a play, you're playing a character; you're not yourself; you are 20 years old and playing an old man. But being a man who is trying to fool an audience into thinking he's a woman, it's like you come out of your body and go into somebody else's, only it's still you in there."

The categories for the local contest in Springfield were evening gown, sportswear, talent and interview. Even though he didn't have a drag mom to show him the ropes, he plunged into the project as if getting ready to audition for a Broadway play. He bought blue satin from Wal-Mart and designed his own evening gown, and for sportswear, he designed an 18th-century pink blouse and skirt. For the talent category, he learned to lip-sync the disco version of "I Am What I Am" from La Cage aux Folles and took his drag name -- Tamarah Mahorning -- from a character in a friend's play.

On the night of the pageant, the venue -- Springfield nightclub Reflections -- was packed. There were six contestants, and, as Joie watched them get ready, he realized that he didn't have a clue about what he was doing. He didn't know how to put on makeup correctly. He didn't understand the padding or the cinching or the tight wrapping of duct tape around the chest to create cleavage. He felt like an imposter.

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