American Beauties

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But being an imposter, in a way, was his greatest talent. This was a role, and he was an actor, and being an actor meant becoming somebody else -- being, for a slice of spotlit time, somebody else. So he slipped on the dress, glued on the eyelashes and became Tamarah Mahorning, a character far from his own.

Whereas Joie was quiet and reserved, Tamarah was haughty and totally out of reach. Joie loved the attention, but Tamarah cared less, and she sauntered across the stage as if bored. He felt the audience in a way he'd never felt them before, because Tamarah controlled what they saw, what they believed, what they felt. This was his script and his costume and his illusion.

He didn't win that night -- he was only second runner-up -- but he'd found a role that would challenge him for life.

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."


The stage lights go to pure white, and the first chords of Madonna's "Vogue" roll in waves from the stage. So far, the judges have seen routines with bells, whistles, sirens, flashing lights, disco lights, Christmas-tree lights, dancing waiters and hip-hop clowns. They watch the contestants. Take a few notes. Smile. Nod. But when three women appear in soaring white-powdered wigs and billowing gold-and-ivory 18th-century French ballgowns -- strike a pose -- and their handheld fans snap open in unison -- strike a pose -- the judges' eyes widen and their pens drop quietly to the table. Vogue, vogue, vogue.

Joie, in the shadows, leans against the announcer's podium and watches Ineada Cochtails talent performance unfold like a gilded patchwork quilt. He costumed and choreographed the piece, and he wanted it to be different. So far -- Come on, vogue -- he likes what he sees. The dancers' elegant stature and sharp, synchronized movements -- Let your body move to the music -- clash perfectly with the song's dance beat. Hey, hey, hey.

Like anything else connected with the pageant, though, it cost a lot of money and time. The material for the three dresses alone cost more than $1,000, and Ineada spent a month's worth of weekends perfecting every hand, head and foot movement in the routine. Even after all of the expense and preparation, though, Joie knows that winning will come down to one thing: control of nerve.

For one year after his first pageant, Joie searched for his nerve. He studied every detail of the trade -- what to wear, how to walk, when to smile. He learned that Max Factor makeup topped with layers and layers of powder conceals blotches, blemishes and beard shadow. He learned that to create convincing cleavage, he could wrap yards of duct tape tightly around his chest to pull the skin in and up. He learned that two pairs of pantyhose followed by one pair of dancer's tights followed by foam-rubber hip pads followed by 10 more pairs of pantyhose followed by a well-made evening gown created a smooth and convincing silhouette. Everything in drag, he learned, was exaggeration: longer lashes, bigger hips, taller hair.

Most important, though, he learned to deflect the leers. It wasn't easy, going into Wal-Mart to buy seven padded bras, 12 pairs of pantyhose, two sticks of Max Factor foundation and the essential little black dress, but clothing, he reminded himself, was just clothing. The word "drag" is a Shakespearean term meaning that a male actor is dressed as girl, and as late as the 18th century, men wore lace and makeup and wigs to work every day.

"You face a lot of discrimination," Joie says, "because everyone thinks you want to be a woman, and that's just not true. It's an illusion you're creating, a character; it's almost nothing more than a clown dressing up."

To stabilize his nerves onstage, Joie started performing as a female impersonator in local Springfield clubs. He created illusions of people who interested him, people who were characters despite themselves -- Cyndi Lauper, Boy George, Barbra Streisand -- and who could be recognized by such simple movements as the way they held a microphone or the way they licked their lips. When someone suggested he try Cher, he bought Cher posters, Cher albums and Cher videos. He visualized her posture, her walk and her smile. He purchased a long black wig and learned to go heavy on the mascara. He had his cheekbones enhanced with silicone.

Soon he was traveling to gay clubs in Missouri, Texas, Kansas and Arkansas on the weekends, and during the week he continued with school. To stay focused, he didn't drink, smoke or use drugs. He knew who he was and what he wanted, and he didn't have to stay out late in the bars to figure it out.

By the time Miss Gay Springfield rolled around again, Joie had found his nerve. Tamarah Mahorning was ready, and she won. She won again in 1989 as Miss Missouri Gay Rodeo, in '92 as Miss Gay Missouri, in '93 as Miss Gay Midwest, in '94 as Miss Heart of America, in "95 as Miss Midwest. From her first winning pageant on, Tamarah either won or placed in the top 10 of every pageant she entered.

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