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It takes Sterling, Va. cosmetics salesman Charles McWilliams under an hour in a Crystal City basement to turn into a woman. Beneath Freddie’s Beach Bar, alongside the Kosher salt, lime juice, and nacho cheese, McWilliams sweats and smokes his way into Ophelia Bottoms, the drag persona he’s perfected over the past decade.
McWilliams got into a drag as a 21-year-old college student, when he performed as Chuckatea Banana between classes in Virginia Beach. “When I first started, it was all about the ‘real-girl’ look,” he says. “I would try to look as much like a real woman as possible. . . . and I was very successful.” Now, McWilliams performs a more theatrical female persona, but he has an even tougher time shaking his feminine side. “Dating sucks when you’re a drag queen,” says McWilliams, who has become too recognizable in the local gay scene to pass as just-a-boy anymore. “I can’t go on a date to a gay bar if I don’t want the person to know,” he says. McWilliams’ secret usually comes out pretty quickly, though. “You know, you take someone home, and there are the wigs everywhere, the piles of crowns, the trophies. . . . the 8-by-10 picture of myself in full drag sitting over the television. At that point, it’s pretty obvious.”
The finer secrets of McWilliams’ trade, however, don’t come so easily. McWilliams agreed to let City Paper into the basement to learn exactly how to paint and pad your way into womanhood. “Every man has the potential to look good in drag,” says McWilliams. “Sometimes, the ugliest men become the most beautiful women.”
FACE. After McWilliams’ second facial shave of the day—-everything goes, from beard to sideburns—-he smears a layer of foundation over his face and sets it with a vigorous powdering. The make-up base begins the process of feminizing McWilliam’s face—-changing the contour of the nose, cheek, and hairline. It also helps shield the performance from the elements. McWilliams’ routine was tested at this year’s Pride Parade, when a steady rainfall threatened to melt the facade. At the end of the
two-hour gauntlet, McWilliams’ gown, wig, and crown were sopping wet. “But my face didn’t move an inch,” he says.
CHEEKS. “You can tell what drag family you’re from based on the cheek,” he says. McWilliams’ personal blush routine, a full-contour look which sweeps from nostril to earlobe, is known as “The Ophelia cheek.” Naturally, McWilliams is protective of the technique. “Some other queens use this style that—-I’m sorry, but it looks like a strip of bacon,” he says. McWilliams has a name for the line of blush which only
reaches halfway down the face—-“the racing stripe.” Ophelia’s cheek inspires a more iconic sports comparison: “Mine is like the Nike swoosh.”
EYES. Ask McWilliams which colors look best on him, and he’ll run through the rainbow—-“yellow, blues, greens, purples, reds,” he says. “Most of them.” The trick is being able to pull them all off at once. One of McWilliams’ elaborate eyeshadow techniques, known as the “Tequila Sunrise,” creates an entire skyline between the lid and brow: “you do the red faded to yellow faded to white with all the oranges in between,” he says. McWilliams’ favorite color scheme to layer above the lashes is the “Rainbow Pheasant”—-“it’s basically making sure every color is in my eyes,” he says. McWilliams tops the shadow off with a lush fake eyelash set he applies with bondage glue. Then, he applies a final coat of mascara to blend his real eyelashes intto the fake ones. “You wouldn’t want someone to get too close and see the double set,” he says.
EYEBROWS. McWilliams has his eyebrows thinned and arched with regular waxings, then preps them for performances with dark liner. Other girls prefer to pencil in the whole thing. “Some people, that’s how I’ve always known them—-they’ve never had eyebrows,” says McWilliams. “But the first time a girl shaves the eyebrows, it’s scary. It’s like, What the hell happened to you?” he says. “She’ll say she slipped. But she always did it on purpose.”
BODY. “The first thing you learn when you become a drag queen is not to scratch your face,” says McWilliams. The second thing? “How to tuck without making it hurt.” Some girls use duct tape. Some use “really tight underwear.” Others use the “reach around and pull.” McWilliams’ genital control comes courtesy of his “drag body”—-three pieces of underthings which have him covered from crotch to chest. “It looks like a black bathing suit,” he says of the support group. The extensive body control is hardly a quick fix. “I’m sweating like a whore in church,” he says, letting his tongue hang out as he shimmies the thing on. “The smaller girls don’t need all the midsection shrinkage,” he laments. “They get to just wear a normal pair of panties.”
LEGS. McWilliams pulls on four pairs of pantyhose to spare him a regular leg waxing. “Drag queens are like onions, they have a lot of layers,” McWilliams says. He likes to pull them all on at the same time. “I keep my legs as a unit,” he says of the thick nylon coverings, which stretch from his toes up to his chest. “The bottom layer has a lot of wholes in it.” Come laundry day, the hose have to separate. “The package only lasts maybe a week—-but in the summer, you really should wash them more often.”
HIPS. McWilliams pads his feminine figure with the help of some household materials. “Sealy Posturpedics and JoAnn couch foam” are both common supports for naturally non-child-bearing hips. McWilliams’ pair, two pillow-sized foam cutlets, carve out a more modest hourglass than McWilliams boasted in his youth. “This is my third set of hips,” he says. “The first looked like the state of Texas. I’ve lost some weight as a boy since then, though, so my girl hips had to be downgraded as well.” McWilliams’ backside requires an additional four pads. “I double up, because I don’t have a butt.” The padding slips right into the pantyhose, where it stays put throughout the show—-and in case of emergency. “It’s super helpful if you ever get into a car accident,” he says.
BREASTS. “I’ve had these breasts for five years,” he says of his silicone chest supports. “They’ve been through hell and back.” The old standbys are “heavy as hell, and they make a great weapon,” McWilliams says. Other queens opt for less serious artillery—-foam, birdseed, or rice. The edible option has its charms—-“drag queens sweat a lot, so the rice will expand and your tits will get bigger”—-but basmati breasts can also lead to some unwelcome drag drama. “The rice can leave starch on the chest area, which is right on the heart, and when you sweat, it can seep in and give you a little mini heart attack,” McWilliams says.
HAIR. Life as a drag queen requires fastidious removal of the real stuff—-and serious investment in the fake. On performance days, McWilliams shaves his face twice—-and also takes the razor to his chest if he’s opting for a more revealing outfit. McWilliams’ flip-side requires some more serious consideration. “I’m a hairy monkey, so I have to get my back waxed,” he says. When McWilliams isn’t getting hairless, he’s faking volume. McWilliams amps up his naturally thick ponytail with a selection of wigs—-different hairpieces can take him from a Wynonna Judd to a “fat Madonna.” The hair, too, requires padding—-a “bumper” that sits on the top of his head. McWilliams’ best bumper is assembled from another small wig, turned inside out and pinned into a ball. McWilliams’ bigger headdresses require a bump up. For the most fabulous hair-dos, he swears by a full-size bleach bottle with the handle cut off. Grocery bags and newspapers work in a pinch.
FASHION. McWilliams is performing ABBA‘s Dancing Queen tonight, so he’s traded his “boy clothes”—-jersey shorts, HRC t-shirt, and tennis shoes—-for some white go-go boots, a shiny silver belt, and a wing-armed lime green dress which falls slightly below his well-tucked crotch. Plus: accessories! “The bigger the girl, the bigger the boobs, the bigger the rocks,” McWilliams says. This time, McWilliams completes his disco ensemble with bangles, teardrop earrings, and an oversize ring. The bling varies based on the routine. “I’m most known for my ‘Erotica,'” says McWilliams. “I have a signature vibrating glove that I wear with that number.”
Photos by Darrow Montgomery.