The Girls Can't Help It

Call it drag, call it nouveau vaudeville -- Little Havana's Teatro de Bellas Artes' Midnight Follies is all entertainment

As the show's opening number proceeds on-stage, Paloma prepares for her first solo appearance in the dressing area she shares with Mariloly. Paloma's boyfriend, Leo Alvarez, a dapper, diminutive man with a black pencil mustache who resembles filmmaker John Waters, arranges her long black hair in a roll on top of her head. Paloma guides a visitor's hand to her cheek with her taloned fingers. "Feel how soft that is," she coos, her puffy pink lips spreading into a shy smile.

Like China Chang, Paloma assumes her identity as a woman both on-stage and off -- the other cast members dress as men during the day and use their given male names. Paloma insists that she achieved her voluptuous breasts merely by taking female hormones, which also have had the effect of diminishing her body hair. "Look at my feet," she demands in a whispery low voice. "Those are not masculine feet. I was always feminine."

As a boy in Cuba, however, Paloma (who does not go by any other name) had trouble convincing his mother as much. "She took me to the doctor and had him give me male hormones so that I would be like other little boys," Paloma explains. The treatments gave him epileptic fits.

Paloma and Leo, who have been together for more than two decades, came to Miami as part of the Mariel boatlift in 1980, as did most of the cast members of Midnight Follies. The pair found work sewing for a clothing manufacturer, a trade they knew from Cuba. Once here Paloma had her prescription reversed and started taking female hormones. Although Paloma had worn women's clothes at private costume parties in Havana, she did not do so on the streets there for fear of being arrested. But here in Miami, in 1984, after the hormones had kicked in, she started dressing as a woman regularly. She also began performing at baby showers and bachelor parties and later at clubs such as Les Violins and in a show at Little Havana's Teatro Marti. Finally, two and a half years ago, she joined Midnight Follies, although she continues to perform at parties and banquet halls as well.

Because the garment company that Paloma and Leo worked for has moved its factory to the Dominican Republic, the two now make clothes for private clients in their southwest Miami home. They also design Paloma's stage wardrobe, including the red flamenco dress with a long train she wears when mimicking Spanish diva Isabel Pantoja, and the guaracha dress with the daring low neckline that she dons for her Gloria Estefan number.

But her first appearance tonight will be to the strains of "¨Y Que?," a heartrending ballad of a woman from the wrong side of the tracks sung by Tania Infante, for which Paloma wears a strapless brown sequined gown with black elbow-length gloves. Before leaving the dressing room to sing, she puts on a brown pageboy wig and pencils in a pair of inquisitive eyebrows.

On-stage the 43-year-old Paloma typically adopts a defiant stance in songs of love gone wrong sung by by seductive Latin stars such as Pantoja, Iris Chac centsn, and Lola Flores. She hurls herself around the stage in emotional displays of telenovela histrionics, throwing her hands up into the air, stomping her feet, and even falling on the floor in mock despair. "I exploit my body," Paloma declares. "My art is the art of mimicking, and I try to imitate women as decently as possible -- it's difficult because women are the supreme beings. I bring out the woman I have inside."

"'A gay show, forget it,'" frowns Pedro Herrera, waving his hand dismissively as he repeats the response he got from several local Latin theater veterans when he asked them if they'd consider directing Midnight Follies. That was back in the winter of 1986, after the show already had premiered. But Mirella Gonzalez thought the show lacked focus, so she asked her long-time Hialeah neighbor and friend Herrera if he could find a professional to help hone its presentation. Herrera, who had worked as a film critic and entertainment journalist for various local Spanish-language publications, got in touch with his showbiz contacts, but none of them wanted to be associated with a drag revue.

Gonzalez implored Herrera to do her a favor and help her out himself. If he would just work with the cast for a couple of months, she told him, she could take it from there. He agreed to take on the task -- and ended up staying ten years. "This is my principal diversion," enthuses Herrera, who receives no salary for his efforts. "I couldn't give it up."

When he first arrived at the Bellas Artes, the scene backstage was not exactly a model of showbiz professionalism. "There was a lot of chaos," recalls Herrera, whose smooth face, ink-black hair, and slim mustache suggests the dashing looks of his youth. "The tendency of these performers is to be very individualistic. Each one wanted to do things on their own and not as a team. There were tremendous fights that night [the first time he observed the revue from the wings]," he remembers, shaking his head and rolling his eyes toward the ceiling. "One of the performers had worn a white dress for the show and it was well received by the audience. So that week every one of them shows up in a white dress. I'm watching the stage and I see the seventh white dress come on. I turned to Mirella and said, 'What is going on here?'

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