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

"If you had told me back in Cuba that I'd be making my living as a transvestite, I would have said you were nuts," Gonzalez chuckles. "I was gay, but I didn't dress up in women's clothes." Having reported for work this particular evening in a crisp Chanel-style suit and pumps, Gonzalez now shuffles around the dressing room wearing only fishnet stockings over skin-colored tights, revealing a slightly hairy bare chest. "Oh, excuse me," he says, laughing heartily, "I must be a sight." And with that he runs to put on a cotton robe with a Chinese motif.

On-stage, Gonzalez's Debbie is pretty and perky, his chin-length black wig lending him a passing resemblance to the actress Stockard Channing. Debbie's eyes get shiny when she performs her repertoire of teenage love songs and tender ballads. At one point in the show she appears in an elaborate satin wedding gown for "Voy a Casarme" ("I'm Going to Get Married"), whirling about the stage with the same virginal rapture Natalie Wood exuded in the "I Feel Pretty" scene from West Side Story. During that number, she ascends the stage's short platform and makes the sign of the cross in front of the decorative stage lights, her train flowing down the stairs. Julio, a bearded dancer who also does some lip-synching to songs by Latin male stars for the show, gazes rapt from the wings, whispering "She's beautiful."

During the show's fifteen-minute intermission, the audience crowds into the lobby's small cafeteria, while others poke their heads through the door to the adjacent office in hopes of greeting the stars. A woman stops one of the male dancers, marveling over the fact that he looks like the bad guy in a current telenovela. One white-haired regular goes into the office with a flan for the girls.

"They like to be recognized by the general public," remarks Herrera, who sits vigilantly by the dressing room door. "They like that so they can say to their neighbors, 'Come and see me at the theater.' This is a place where everyone knows that the owner is a married woman with four children, that her husband is here, and that one of her sons works here [Ronnie Gonzalez, who operates the lights].

"If you're performing in a disco, there's no real stage, and the public is doing something else," he adds peremptorily. "They're drinking, they're dancing, they're talking. Here, what the performers like is that the audience gives them their full attention, they contemplate them as artists.

"As they've matured, they've really learned, and the ones who have stayed have the ability to act," Herrera says proudly. "They now have a foundation in the theater. I tell them, 'Look, this transvestite thing isn't something you can do your whole life. You're going to get older, and it's going to start looking ridiculous and distasteful.' It's the same thing as an old woman doing it all made up with her chest hanging out. So I try to lead them into something else. Now almost all of them are actors.

"This is about making art," he continues. "I say, 'When you leave here, you can do what you want. But when I look on that stage, I don't want to see some queen dressed as a woman. I want to see a woman.'"

"That one's a girl," a middle-age man in the audience whispers authoritatively to his wife. Up on-stage, Erika, the show's ingenue, stands with her back to the audience in the shadow of the spotlight, which outlines her small waist and curvaceous hips to optimal advantage.

She turns around, revealing an elaborate arrangement of auburn hair and a clinging emerald-green satin dress with matching gloves and high heels. Erika resembles the young Rita Hayworth as she moves about the stage with a sophisticated slink, acting out Rocio Jurado's "Dejala Correr."

"The more you try to look glamorous, the more you look like a man," states Erika, who off-stage is a 23-year-old Cuban-American man named Eric Guzman. "I try to wear clothes and makeup that a real woman can wear, and I try to do it without affectation." Erika sits down to rest in a closet-size dressing room. Even close-up under a glaring light bulb, she is breathtakingly beautiful.

"I tell some of my hairdressing clients to come see me," notes Erika, who works as Eric in a Miami hair salon. "They come out of obligation but they think I'm going to look like a clown or something. They're really surprised."

Removing clip-on bangs that exactly match Eric's real hair, Erika proceeds to get changed, revealing some of her other illusory secrets. She undresses down to a long-line bra and custom-fitted padded undergarments that accentuate her curves. She lifts off one of her press-on fingernails, polished red with a band of white at the tips.

Eric has been dressing as Erika for only a year and a half. As is the case with most of the other cast members, he first did drag for a party, winning a contest. "People said I did it very well and looked really good, so I learned how to do it correctly," explains Erika, talking in the casual voice of any young man, although this young man checks his perfect eyeliner in the mirror as he speaks. "It used to take me three hours to get ready."

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