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Finding strength in a diva-like alter ego

Performing drag requires more than just stage presence

December 6, 2012 | 12:00 a.m. CST

With lyrics from a Britney Spears song tattooed on his left breast, Reeves begins the final stage of becoming Houston-Boheme. Those lyrics became a motto of his. Photograph by KEVIN DUBOUIS

Paul Reeves hadn’t been on stage for five months when he arrives at the SoCo Club on a Friday afternoon. He carries a large white handbag and uses his other hand to hold a small rolling suitcase full of his persona’s accessories. His gestures convey his growing excitement. Reeves isn’t sure yet what he’ll be wearing for the show, but he has five hours to figure it out. His eyebrows are already covered with glue stick — just the first step in the long process of putting on his disguise.

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Reeves walks in and greets the staff members he knows. “He is a performer,” the host says to the man who is standing by the large wooden door. “Let him in.”

The light is pale, and the music’s on. A young man seated at the counter chats with the bartender. A few people relax on the dark brown sofas in the lounge area and sip on cocktails. Two men toy with the audio levels and the stage lights from the tiny control room.

The backstage area is plastered with wall-sized mirrors surrounded by a huge array of dim light bulbs. Six lush bar stools face the mirrors.

Reeves slides into his life as a performer as easily as one slips into a favorite pair of jeans. He’s comfortable and in touch with who he is; he exudes confidence.

Reeves opened the closet doors that held him in when he came out five years ago at age 16. He has since learned how to stand as a man who just happens to be gay. Reeves has embraced his identity. Nonetheless, there are emotional scars left from a lengthy battle with internal homophobia and a continuing war with an eating disorder.

Reeves grew up in Burlington, Kan. He decided to write a coming-out piece for his high school newspaper during his junior year. Robin Fogel, the paper’s co-editor, was surprised Reeves wanted to be so forward about it. It wasn’t easy for him, but he wanted to go all-in. The teacher who ran the newspaper thought it was too controversial to publish, and she explained to Reeves that he would regret his decision later.

“I want to write about it in a unique way,” Reeves told her.

He came back with an editorial piece articulated around a metaphor of LGBTQ “friends of Dorothy.” When the paper was delivered to school, Reeves was overwhelmed with emotion. After a couple of hours, most of the students and teachers had read the article.

The story read, “For the last couple of years, I have held a deep secret about myself. … Now, I have come to terms with myself and am ready to shout it out the world: I love the Wizard of Oz! …”

Reeves was free. He knew that coming out was the start of a new struggle, but he no longer had to pretend.

When he came to MU in 2009 to pursue a double major in communications and women and gender studies, he became involved with several campus organizations that promote diversity.

Columbia offered Reeves a safe haven where he could be himself. During his freshman year, his curiosity prompted him to visit the SoCo Club, home of amateur female impersonators. He realized right away it was just a matter of time before he performed.

Reeves empties his cosmetic stash backstage at the SoCo Club while he continues his transformation. Five hours later, he struts the stage as his diva-like alter ego. Photograph by KEVIN DUBOUIS

For his first show under the stage name Britney Houston-Boheme, he wore a blond bob wig that he purchased last-minute after ruining one he tried to customize. He put on a blue sequin leotard, a ringleader coat, a top hat and a pair of knee-high boots. During the performance, Reeves wasn’t thinking about anything. He was just there; he let go of all his inhibitions and performed to “Circus” by Britney Spears.

He knew the performance wasn’t good, but the audience liked it. Feeling the exhilaration of performing in front of a crowd for the first time, he shook as he left the stage. He held nothing back.

On stage, he is himself and much more. Reeves has been performing for more than two years. He has developed a naïve, crazy and sassy female persona. When he talks about Houston-Boheme, he compares her to famous songstresses such as Britney Spears. However, imitating his models is a lengthy process.

The transformation into Houston-Boheme requires several hours of meticulous makeup preparation. Reeves tries never to wear the same makeup twice; Houston-Boheme changes constantly.

After pulling back the hair from his face, he covers his skin and neck with a pan stick to make the complexion perfectly even. He then smears some powder foundation to recreate a flesh tone and uses a powder puff to soften his features. The cheekbones suddenly appear more feminine after he swipes on pink blush. The trickiest part is to work on the face’s shadows and demasculinize the nose. Reeves uses black eyeliner to accentuate the eyes and arch the eyebrows. He works every imperfection with a brush and tweaks the makeup.

After three hours of preparation, Houston-Boheme looks at herself in the mirror. She still needs to work on her chest and enhance her cleavage. Lyrics from a Britney Spears song are tattooed above her left nipple, “People can take everything away from you, but they can never take away your truth.”

Those lyrics echo Reeves’ high school years when he was teased by his peers and began the fight with binge eating. During his sophomore year, he started consuming more food than he needed. His weight increased to 190 pounds, and people ridiculed him. After coming out, he stopped eating at restaurants, cut down on soda and became obsessed with exercising. He lost around 25 pounds in a month and became hypoglycemic.

When he moved to college, Reeves continued to restrict his diet. During his freshman year, his weight fluctuated. He weighed about 150 pounds but reached a low weight of 125 pounds. He didn’t realize it at first, but he found out that his behavior was considered anorexic.

He dated a man during his sophomore year of college, which helped him leave his anorexic phase. He was happy with his body image; someone loved him for who he was. He remembers showing off his body in skimpy boxer shorts for Halloween. But he started eating excessively again and exercising up to three hours a day.

“I turn to food because food is consistent,” he says, brushing his hair frenetically with his hands. “You cannot say that of people. People change.”

The fear of gaining weight and being less attractive haunts him every day. Last February, after he lost 15 pounds in three weeks, Reeves finally realized that he needed help. He had read about anorexia and binge eating before, but he had never acknowledged his personal disorder. His body was able to ignore hunger and skip meals up to two days.

Today, Reeves stays away from the scale at home. Some days, he’s content with his body, but on others, he tries on a T-shirt that doesn’t fit, and it ruins his day. He’s afraid of reverting, so he doesn’t exercise anymore. He tries to remember to eat, but he doesn’t eat more than two meals a day — sometimes just breakfast and a late lunch.

Performing in drag has helped him through his eating disorder experience. It’s his way to express himself and escape social norms. He’s an activist who bends the gender roles.

Paul Reeves applies layers of foundation and detailed makeup to encompass Britney Houston-Boheme's sass. Photograph by KEVIN DUBOUIS

An hour before the show, the gender illusionists are rushing around backstage. Houston-Boheme puts on a corset top and several layers of tights before slipping into pantyhose. She uses foam to emphasize her hips, and she tapes her chest up to create cleavage. She then slips on a large bra and fills it with pantyhose full of rice.

Houston-Boheme is sipping her amaretto sour at the bar when she realizes she forgot to put on perfume. She rushes backstage, where five other gender illusionists are fixing their makeup, and douses herself in cherry vanilla body mist. Pinning back her dark wig with blue highlights, she quickly puts on fake nails. After five hours of preparation, she’s finally ready for the night to begin.

Reeves doesn’t think about his future when he’s Houston-Boheme. He enjoys the stage and his relationship with the audience. After five months offstage and an eating disorder that still haunts him, Reeves relishes the night as a well-deserved break.

After the performance, Houston-Boheme gets off stage and meets with friends on the rooftop. “It was a good one,” she thinks to herself, sipping another cocktail. At the stroke of midnight, Houston-Boheme knows she doesn’t have to rush home like Cinderella. Because society is becoming more welcoming of her lifestyle, she knows the magic she has onstage could follow her offstage. Plus, she gets to keep the shoes.

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