So, are you still doing that Dolly thing?” Doug Andrews asked after I handed him his Maker’s Mark. Katrina held his arm and leaned forward slightly to hear my answer.
“Yep, still doing it,” I said with a grin. It’s always the same question when we get together with Julia’s friends. I’m uncomfortable talking about my act with outsiders, and I find myself being self-deprecating.
“He’s in a contest Saturday at the Shangri-La,” Julia told them.
“What’s the prize?” Doug asked.
“Five hundred dollars,” I said, “but the money’s really not the point. It’s just something fun to do, you know. Keep me out of trouble.”
“Don’t listen to him,” Julia said. “He’s really good. He’s a lot more serious than he lets on.” Julia doesn’t like me to talk down about my act. That day she’d driven me to the Shangri-La early to make sure I got on the list. They were taking only the first twenty, and if you were twenty-one, that was just tough titty.
I’ve been into this ever since I caught Zoe Ashwood’s Diana Ross at the Turquoise Lounge and knew instantly that was for me. If you’ve never seen Zoe perform, I can’t explain it. She is more Diana Ross than Diana Ross. It was a transformative experience for me. I’m not gay, which is a common misconception about TVs. I’m into women, probably more than most men. I appreciate them, which is why I settled on Dolly Parton. To me she is the embodiment of femininity.
“What I want to know about,” Katrina laughed, “is the boobs. How do you do those?”
I pantomimed holding a pair of double-d’s in front of my chest, and Doug and Katrina obliged me with a giggle. “Of course Dolly Parton has a pair of unusually large—” I paused “—hands,” and they laughed again. Julia rolled her eyes. She hates it when I make jokes like that. Of course, everyone wants to know about the boobs, which are important in their own way, but that’s the least of it, really. The hard part is the voice.
A lot of TV acts lip-synch, and there’s nothing wrong with that really, because what you’re after is only an illusion anyway. But for me, pretending to sing a song that’s coming out of the sound system just doesn’t cut it. Call me a purist, but if I’m going to be Dolly Parton, I want to be Dolly Parton. I work with a voice coach once a week honing my rendition of “I’ll Always Love You.” It is a really difficult song, particularly for a baritone. You not only have to reach the high notes but bend them in the way Dolly does to suggest that sacred love which offers everything and asks nothing, “I-hi-hi will alwa-hays love you-hoo-hoo.” It’s so moving to me, I’d start crying myself every time I sing it, but I need to keep control because it’s not about me, it’s about giving the audience a good show. It’s about Dolly.
The first time I ever performed, I made that mistake. I got to the part where Dolly speaks the lines, that perfect heart-breaking catch in her voice, “I will always love—you,” and the sadness of her predicament and purity of her emotion just overcame me. I tried to draw a breath, and instead took a deep ragged gasp, and the next thing I knew my face was wet with tears, and I began sobbing so hard, my hairpins came loose and my Dolly wig listed over one eye. Complete disaster. One day maybe I’ll be able to laugh about it.
Since then, I’ve learned that as in any art form the secret is preparation. Dolly’s like an iceberg; no matter what you see onstage, three quarters is below the surface. Hence the singing lessons. At first I was afraid to tell Julia I wanted to hire a voice coach, but as soon as I mentioned it, she said, “Of course you should do it.” The day of the contest, though, I don’t sing at all. You shouldn’t over-rehearse; always hold something back for the actual performance.
Julia lets me sleep late on performance days, and brings me breakfast in bed. Grapefruit, Cream of Wheat, and chai. I wear my angora robe. I’m not dressed up like Dolly, and Julia doesn’t call me Dolly, but it’s important for me to start getting into the role. I avoid looking down at my own body and concentrate on the feeling of angora against my neck. Then a moisturizing bubble bath, where I shave my legs. Later Julia will apply and pull off the wax squares to remove my chest hair, but Dolly shaves her own legs so I shave mine. I lift one calf and thigh above the white bubbles, and concentrate on pointing my toes as I slowly draw the razor over my lower leg and lovingly around the dimples in my kneecap.
Then I apply a moisturizer over my whole body. Then comes the waxing, which is something I never get used to no matter how many times I go through it. Julia applies the square, lets it adhere, and then, holding it by the gauze corners counts for me, “one, two—” To myself I always say, “I’ll always love—” so when Julia rips the pad off and tears sting my eyes, it’s on the “you.” That pain is something I use in my performance. A heavily padded bustier pulls my chest into a simulated cleavage. My sequined gown has extra padding as well. An old-fashioned corset with wire inserts that needs tightening from behind is the only garment capable of pinching me into something resembling Dolly’s wasp waist. Then I put my hair up in a stocking, and we begin applying the foundation, which not only goes over the face, but every piece of exposed skin including the hands. After the foundation my face in the mirror is just a beige canvas without dimension. Rouge, eye shadow, eyeliner, mascara, and lipstick bring Dolly’s features into relief.
Getting ready for the contest at the Shangri-La I looked at myself in the full-length mirror on the bedroom door. Dolly’s hair was on the wig stand, and my own dark hair tucked up under a stocking. I had on stockings, garters, panties, and not much else. Julia knelt behind me tightening my corset. She had persuaded Doug and Katrina to catch my act, and the thought of being seen by people who knew me outside of “showbiz” made me sullen. “Jesus,” I said. “Why the hell am I doing this?”
“Don’t sell yourself short,” Julia said. She jerked one of the stays tight and tied it off. “You’re good. This is something you need to do.”
Eight o’clock. The house at Shangri-La was good. In the greenroom I could not only hear the ambient noise of the audience, but feel their warmth. Some of the other performers were only just then putting on their costumes. Loretta Lynn tore the too-small blouse she was trying to button over her chest, and laughed in a man’s voice, “Anybody got a safety pin?”
Watching from the wings once the show started I saw a surprising number of country music acts. Tammy Wynette nailed “Stand by Your Man,” just nailed it. It humbled me to hear that last refrain rise triumphantly over the footlights. “Stand by-hi yo-hor maa-haa-han.” You try to keep pure and not think of it as a competition, but you can’t help comparing yourself to others. I know I’m good, but could I ever be as good as that? But then the real revelation was Billie Holiday. Most of us go for show tunes, big numbers, rock or country swing, so the ballad took me and the audience off guard. I never really cared for Billie Holiday, frankly, her voice always struck me as mousy and contrived, but when she got to the line, “—My man ain’t true—” and there was a half-beat pause before she dropped a decibel to confess softly, “he beats me, too,” I got goose bumps I could feel right under my sequins. She finished, and there was just silence. Not even a handclap. The audience didn’t recover itself to applaud until she’d left the stage.
If I’d had to go next, I’d have been too much in awe to give my best. The next act, though, was Loretta Lynn. Really unbelievably bad. She sang “Coal Miner’s Daughter” in a deliberately deep baritone. The slit in her skirt revealed a leg visibly stubbled, and the spotlight picked out an absurd gold safety pin holding together the torn blouse. The worst of it was the way she mocked the accent. “Ah wuz borned a cole minur’s dawtur—” It’s a dumb song, but the beauty is it’s too innocent to know it’s dumb. Ridiculing it is like making fun of the handicapped. The audience loved it, though, and hooted and laughed throughout, rising to their feet to make her come out and give another bow.
I won’t tell you about my performance. I’m not being coy, but it’s too complicated explaining the subtle ways a singer listens to and responds to her audience. Knowing from a vibration of silence or expectation just how long to hold a note, how to change the phrasing on the spot to emphasize a word or line that only that moment seems to hold special significance. I caught the faces of Doug and Katrina sitting at a table with Julia, and I could tell they were impressed. I got good applause as I left, and I returned to the greenroom too drained to watch the rest of the acts.
After the last act all the girls came out for the prize ceremony. Ballots had been passed among the audience during the show, and the results quickly tabulated by the bar staff. Tammy, Billie, and I stood together, tacitly acknowledging ourselves as the front runners. I smelled Tammy’s jasmine perfume as she hugged me and whispered, “You were great.”
“That means so much coming from you,” I responded honestly, “but Billie Holiday, oh my god.”
There was a little preamble before the manager began the awards. He thanked us all, and asked the audience to give us one more round of applause. First place was out of the question for me. Second was up for grabs between me and Tammy. “In third place.” He paused. “Tammy Wynette!” There was loud applause, and Tammy and I hugged. She knew then I’d placed ahead of her, but I could see the happiness in her eyes for me I would have felt for her had the positions been reversed. Then I waited to get my second place trophy so I could acknowledge Billie’s brilliance.
“In second place—Billie Holiday!”
Clapping again, but I couldn’t applaud. I was thinking, “No, this isn’t right. She deserved first. No, she deserved worship!” At the same time, though, and I hate to admit this, there was a bubbling inside me, “I won,” I thought, “I won first!” Billie took her trophy and smiled and waved at her fans. “You should have won,” I whispered to her when she returned. “You were so great.”
The manager made a to-do before announcing the first-place winner, trying to build suspense, and then, “In first place—”
Righteous anger filled me as I composed the little speech I would make before handing over my first place trophy and the prize money to the real winner, Lady Day.
My jaw fell. The shock numbed me. Loretta clomped up, smirking, to clutch her prize, and bent the manager over backward to plant a wet kiss on his mouth. Loretta’s foundation left off at her jaw line, turning into darker tanned skin underneath. She looked like a transplant operation. It was like awarding first prize in a beauty contest to Frankenstein.
That’s when I lost it. A TV never, never breaks character, but I thought if I didn’t sceam, I would just—scream. I tore my wig off and threw it to the floor. At least that was the dramatic gesture I intended, but the hairpins held too securely, and I only pulled it to the left somewhat. “This is not a game show!” I shouted. The people in the bar reacted in various ways. Some laughed; a few, I thought, looked chagrined. I left, pushing my way between the tables. The tears were starting to come now.
Above the glow of streetlights, the sky hung black and starless. I began walking home. At least I didn’t have heels to contend with. A head taller than Dolly, I have to wear low rises. A couple talking near a fire hydrant, holding hands to form a little bridge between them, parted to let me through, not even troubling to hide their stares. I must have looked utterly ridiculous to them: a grown man sobbing in public.
I kept thinking about what Zoe Ashwood said to me one time when I met him backstage at the Turquoise. His wig was off, and he was removing pancake with a little white sponge. By day he’s an investment banker, and in fact my firm does business with him. Very few of us can make a living at what we love. “If you’re doing this for money or recognition,” he told me, “it’s going to make you mad or bitter. I know a lot of bitter transvestites, better ones than I am, who thought they never got the fame they deserve. And they probably didn’t.” He reached out to smooth the dark hair hanging on a wig stand. “But at the end of the day, it’s got to be about Diana.”
I looked up into the sky. My eyes were dry enough now that the glowing streetlights were no longer furry. A car slowed beside the curb. I looked and saw my beautiful wife leaning from the driver’s side across the passenger seat. She would take me home, and between her breasts I would finish drying my eyes and cool my heated face.
“I would have driven you,” Julia said, “if you’d waited two more minutes.”
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