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In the South Beach drag scene, where lip-synching is a talent and "dressing up" is murmured in the reverent tones you might employ to say "composing music" or "writing poetry," Shawn Palacious is on to something a little bit different.
"Some people don't have a grasp of what I'm interested in doing," Palacious says, swatting at his face with a sponge full of "suntan"-hued foundation and turning from the mirror to smile coyly over his bare shoulder. He had entered the messy bedroom a few minutes before, and he intended to stay there applying makeup and wigs and clothing and extra layers of personality until he had transformed himself (it would take an hour) into his alter ego, the legendary Kitty Meow A gender-illusionist nonpareil and South Beach's reigning king of the drag queens. People drive past the Paragon nightclub just to see what Kitty is wearing. He is paid "very handsomely," he says, to bring his inventively dressed-up body, outsized personality, glamour, camp wit, and sweet nature to the scene every Tuesday, Friday, and Saturday night, adding the scent of his clove-flavored cigarettes to the mix of music, drink, sweat, and sex.
"Kitty has raised the level of Miami drag," says one observer of what is invariably termed the "scene," as if this were all just a grand stage play A which it is. "He's a pied piper." Last year British television said that if you see Kitty Meow someplace in Miami, that's where the action is. And the following week Paragon, a gay club, filled up with guys speaking with English accents.
These days there are three preeminent South Beach drag queens: Adora, Damian DeVine, and Kitty Meow. DeVine's invented persona is "a freak, with a lot of blood and a loud voice and throwing stuff," another drag queen says. Adora "is cha-cha cartoon Marilyn Monroe with big hair." And Kitty? Not so easy to describe. With Kitty, says his friend known by the stage name Denio, himself an occasional dresser-up, the costume is the thing. One creation, Denio remembers, "was so big he had to fold it up to a point six feet above his head to get into the door of Paragon."
To look at Shawn Palacious, you'd think turning female wouldn't be an easy transformation (and in fact tonight it won't be). He's a six-foot, 165-pound, totally bald, 22-year-old black man with ramrod military posture wearing purple pipestem pants, motorcycle boots, an earring, and a $300 Moschino shirt. He has an oval face, clear, intelligent eyes, neat round ears. But he doesn't look like a girl.
Powder is flying everywhere now, so much of it in the air that the room looks like a bakery and smells like the cosmetics counter at Burdine's. There are big boxes of makeup on the floor, and piles of clothing: lace, velvet, leather, cotton, silk. There are jars of glitter, plastic boxes of eyelashes, squeeze bottles of glue, and piles of costume jewelry. He gets the stuff free from clubs, promoters, and designers. Palacious picks up a black pencil and draws eyebrows on his forehead so far above his own that he looks startled, as if someone had tugged sharply on his nipple ring. ("I got it so my chest wouldn't look so flat," he explains.)
He had already scrubbed his face, removed his shirt, shaved his face, neck, and head. A modest tattoo low on the back of his neck purrs, "Kitty Meow." A promoter gave him the name after trying out "Peppa Tomato" and "Kitty Thunderpussy." He had long nails then. Now they're only semilong.
Shawn Palacious, however, is not your garden-variety practicing transvestite. In fact, he seems a little surprised to be one at all. Looking through a collection of photos one recent afternoon, he picked up a picture showing a covey of queens and blurted, apparently astonished, "They look like women!" One thing Kitty Meow isn't (exactly) trying to do is to look like a woman. That's what ordinary drag queens do, and he's after something more. There may be a clue to that in the story he tells as he paints black outlines on his lips and fills them in with brown lipstick, to make his teeth look whiter.
"Once I was in a food-promotion show, there were 30 of us, 30 'starlets,'" A he grins around the lipstick A "and each one of us was supposed to do like a different food. There were hundreds of people." He glances into the mirror at his visitor with that surprised expression, as if he finds all of this just amazing. "I put on big hair and a priest's robe," he says, "and I had this like grail, and I came out on the runway and said, 'I'm modeling red wine, and everybody knows it goes best with dark meat.' And I flipped the priest's cloak off and I was completely naked! Nothing there but a little rhinestone! They were so shocked at first! And I just stood A they weren't sure of my sex. And then I walked and it's still concealed!" He puts down the lipstick and goes at his face with the powder brush. "They screamed, I'll tell you." He glances over, his face nearly made up now with what look like tribal warrior markings. "I like that shock, you know?" he says. "I need everyone to feel my energy."