It’s uncanny how well this once-outré topic lends itself to a coffee-table format typically associated with Amish barns, endangered landscapes, and “Days in the Life of [insert country of your choice].” Echoing perfectly the style of all those dust-gathering tomes, photographer Rosamond Norbury turns a determinedly celebratory lens on drag queens’ edgy posing. Under her eye, the rippled sahara of Adrien’s muscled torso and Steven’s exotic Marie Antoinette getup are like the sights in a tourist guide—hardly unexpected, but fun to look at anyway.
In a sense, the drag world’s inhabitants are tourists themselves. They’re vacationers in the feminine realm, and their appeal emanates from their deliberate and often highly successful attempt to pass as native. In Guy to Goddess, this goes beyond gender to cross-cultural dabbling; after the inevitable sequin-gowned diva, the most popular personas in these photos are Scheherazades, Brazilian showgirls, and Indian maidens.
Norbury knows that the illusion of femininity is compulsively watchable, and she focuses as much on the process of transformation as its result. Her photos illuminate the mysteries of padding and tucking, the alchemy required to secure wigs and nails. The queens’ beauty secrets are fascinating, not to mention useful: rub baby oil on itchy shaved spots, use nail glue to secure clip-on earrings. To avoid smudging lipstick, drink beer through a straw, and never, never wear blue eyeshadow—it’s “unforgivably tacky.”
Like most travelogues, Guy to Goddess doesn’t show much behind the natives’ grins. Writer Bill Richardson digs for the meaning behind the makeup, but the queens rebuff him with sarcastic hauteur. He compensates by examining his own drag-related anxieties, remembering how he used to dress up in his mother’s clothes before he learned it wasn’t cool. These recollections convince him that women’s clothes must have a widespread lure. “If it were permissible for men to wear dresses and heels, they would surely do so in greater numbers than is now the case,” he decides. But would they? If there was nothing racy about the notion of men in wigs and spikes, surely drag would lose much of its present allure. Minus the heady charge of going where few men have gone before, the experience would be less like a trek to Tibet or Katmandu and more like a weekend jaunt to Bermuda. Judging from Guy to Goddess, it’s already becoming a shorter trip.