King of the Queens
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."
He's been at the makeup table more than an hour. With brushes and paint, he has created a thin nose, sharp cheekbones, emphatic, staring raccoon eyes fringed with a hedgerow of sweeping fake lashes. Now he moves with a languid grace, glancing over his shoulder with a touch of sly parody. Even a voyeuristic reporter is getting a little bored, though, never having known even the vainest woman to take this long to apply makeup -- but simultaneously curious to learn how Palacious would go about concealing his gender behind or under "a little rhinestone."
"Just tape it back and pray to God," he explained later. "It'll gross you out if I give details." Pink Fuchsia, another queen, elaborated cryptically on another occasion: "It's called tucking, and it hurts!"
Kitty piles three orangutan-colored wigs onto his head and answers the phone. He looks like an explosion in a taxidermy shop. Into the phone he drawls, "I'm preparing myself in the presence of a heterosexual male with a pen.... I'll meet you at the club. Look for lots of red hair and hairy legs." He doesn't shave his legs, though he sometimes shaves his chest.
But seeing himself in the mirror again, he screeches: "Messy!" He stands up and rips off the three wigs, runs to the bathroom and scrubs off all the makeup. He hadn't been looking after his skin for a few days, he explains, disappointed in himself, and when he put on multiple layers of foundation, powder and paint, the whole edifice cracked and had to be demolished. "I'll put on a really eccentric-boy outfit instead," he says, emerging from the bathroom.
Why are we regular guys just a little uncomfortable around drag queens? We may have gay friends, go to unisex haircut shops, acknowledge that a certain amount of androgyny is built into the human condition and even be glad of it. But transvestites, cross-dressing, men made up as women? This isn't what's meant by the clothes making the man. Live and let live, of course. But after that, what?
Part of it is simple: Why? "Before, it was all people who wanted to be women," Palacious says. But not any more. While most drag queens are gay, only a few A like Palacious's friend Paloma, winner of the Miss Miami drag queen contest last year and currently equipped with breasts that don't quite match her five o'clock shadow A truly wish to be female. A small number of drag queens may even be straight, indulging themselves in something fetishistic about sexy women's clothes, like those cross-dressing husbands whose worried wives write to Ann Landers. And today there are people A gay and straight, perhaps A who, like Palacious, simply dress for the art of it, less to feel a reaction in themselves than to elicit one from others. Sometimes it's not much different from putting on a gorilla suit. And the sexual ambiguity, the androgyny, is just part of the fun.
So then what's all the edginess about? The answer may be found in those queasy old tales about the guy falling for a beautiful woman, arriving at an intimate moment with her, reaching down and A whoops! He'd have to wonder, wouldn't he: How was I fooled? Or was I, really? Maybe this is something I really wanted. Was it really the him in her I was attracted to, rather than the her applied to him? Yikes! I'm gay!
As a straight male friend says, "I've felt this perverse attraction A in the imagination A to highly madeup transvestites who look so fabulous. They come on, they aren't afraid. And you don't have to worry about lusting after someone who, in the gender wars, would be offended." Maybe we worry that this blameless lust would get out of hand. Is this what underlies the militancy of those who oppose gays in the military? Straight men are afraid somebody will check them out in the shower, maybe even come on to them, and they'll suddenly be frozen with forbidden desire, unable to say no? Yikes!
The anxieties of regular guys haven't prevented the drag scene from spreading. A few years ago drag was virtually nonexistent on South Beach; the nearest previous thing to it being the "knockers-up" burlesque of the Place Pigalle. Then Miami Vice, followed by South Beach's Deco revival and a wave of excruciating trendiness drew many, including gay men, whose exquisite sensibilities and taste for irony created a perfect audience for drag shows. When it became clear that drag would pay off, a scene became inevitable.
Half an hour later Kitty Meow strolls up Washington Avenue in his new outfit, muttering about "the most disastrous makeup event in dressing history." From the top down, he wears his bald head, chunky gold-hoop Mr. Clean earrings, gold lipstick, a black lace blouse whose puffy ruffles emerge from the chest of a square-shouldered, gold lame Eisenhower jacket with studs, the promised hairy legs, and motorcycle boots. And a cloud of Carolina Herrera cologne for men. ("I smell like a French whore, don't I?") Oh, and for pants? White Jockey shorts. Or what look like Jockey shorts, with a sort of built-in codpiece.
A leather-clad stud lounging at the corner by Mickey Rourke's gives Kitty a grin and cracks, "Wow, some bulge!"
"Hi!" Kitty replies, and enters Paragon, his place of employment. Here he greets people at the door, he circulates, he keeps customers happy, he recognizes VIPs and sees to it that they are properly guided, gushed over, and introduced around. Tonight is talent night. Hundreds of guys and two dozen drag queens are convened for the show. Kitty is suddenly a garish presence even in the bright-dark-noisy room, with a personality so much bigger than his body that it has to swell up and leap forth. ("I rip off my wig, I run on the bar, I walk on shoulders!") His job also requires discretion and middle-class manners, which he has, too. He drinks orange juice only and smokes his clove-scented cigarillos. His self-confidence is amazing, because although these are his people, so to speak, some can be very bitchy, and a few, by his own assessment, are so filled with envy, spite, and malice toward him that they take every opportunity to trash his persona. For example, when he disappeared from the job for a couple of days late last year, word went out immediately that he had been sacked from the club and was "now appearing at Dunkin' Donuts." He understood that it was funny, but it hurt. Tonight, though, friends laugh and gather around him, bending to hear his voice, a catlike husky purr.
Paragon is guys drinking, smiling, smooching, hugging, holding hands, dancing in the strobing, NASA-like light show under the spinning mirrored ball, the music so loud you can feel the rhythmic bass deep in your throat. Four muscular studs (the Charles Atlas Dancers?) hop around on pedestals in their underwear, stroking themselves, gazing down to admire their endowments and establish a proper mood of narcissistic appreciation for the male body. They look like a Calvin Klein ad, only they're wearing more clothes. All around are guys dressed in fashion grunge, gang colors and bandannas, guys in biker chains and Levi's jackets with cut-off sleeves, model-looking guys in stubble and leather and linen, guys in torso T-shirts and jeans, guys with sweaters over their shoulders or tied by the sleeves around their waists, guys in jeans with suspenders and no shirts, guys in Stanley Kowalski undershirts (only clean), some studs in Li'l Abner boots, a selection of off-duty preppies in khakis and Brooks Brothers button-downs and penny loafers, a guy in a beret, a Michael Jordan-size drag queen with orange sunburst hair that reads more like architecture than coif, a few carefully dressed older men, and many guys you would only notice on the street for their especially nice haircuts and a tastier-than-thou fashion sense. (Not everyone can be a "label whore" like Julian Bain, Palacious's roommate and partner, who professes to being able, the moment you enter a room, to name every designer represented in your outfit, and demonstrates by pointing at a reporter's shirt and saying, "Gap."
How can so many people of working age be out dancing at two on a Tuesday morning? Well, many of them are young. Some are models or actors or they wait tables or have other flextime jobs. And many, Kitty says, are "male escorts." Hustlers. "A lot of female impersonators are not the most appealing as men, so they tend to get the brushoff," he says. "So sometimes when you see a guy staring at you, you know he's a hustler." Male hustlers often prey -- for money -- on drag queens they think might be insecure about attracting a man.
"There's a difference between actual drag queens and popcorn drag, which is what I call what Shawn does," says Palacious's friend known as Denio, himself an occasional drag queen, who had gathered with other queens one Sunday afternoon at the Passport Cafe on Collins Avenue. "It's not realistic. Some actually want to be a woman, they feel like a woman -- I had a roommate like that. Or like Paloma. But popcorn drag is more theater than realistic."
Patrick, also known as Pink Fuchsia, nodded. "It's just to entertain people and make them laugh. It's like Halloween. I dress, of course, like a woman, but I'm not a woman, I don't wear breasts, I hate breasts. I like to be more like scary than pretty. It has to be pretty, but in a scary way." By scary, drag queens seem to mean startling and shocking. Palacious, for instance, had warned he would be "scary" before he put on the three red wigs, and he had been right.
When you think of a man in a dress, maybe you think of Tootsie, Mrs. Doubtfire, or Some Like It Hot, or Flip Wilson or Milton Berle, or someone meticulously outfitted to caricature Tallulah Bankhead or Liza Minnelli. But for Palacious dressing isn't some solemn attempt to fool anybody, but only a lighthearted way to impress, shock, and amuse. It's on the fine line between art, theater, narcissism, and a spoiled child's cry for attention, any kind of attention. It shares that -- as well as the paradoxical act of concealment -- with the acting trade. Sometimes when Kitty puts on his makeup, he calls it "hiding."
When he goes out dressed, "it's like a show," he says. "It's more for fashion and creativity than impersonating or whatever. I may go in high heels, a bikini with no top, bald, and four yards of feathers and big eyelashes. Or palazzo pants and, like, combat boots. I'll dress up in a boy's suit and a full face of makeup, or a dress and earrings and still bald. Or I'm a Vegas showgirl nude from Parrot Jungle." The weirdest thing he ever wore? "It was this outfit that made my body look like it was on fire, it was a cross between fire and a bug, a big butterfly not completely formed A all golden like paper molded against my body, just amazing. God, just absurd, so hideous. But I was beautiful. People didn't know what to think: beautiful and grotesque at the same time."
alacious, a Bahamian, came to the U.S. in 1985 to attend military school at the Florida Air Academy in Melbourne, which may explain, if nothing else, his enviable posture. He attended a few years of college in Palm Beach, then transferred to the International Fine Arts College in Miami, where he majored in fashion marketing and merchandising and did his first work as a model A a boy model. "If you looked like a model, they told you to report to the audition and told you to walk," he recalls. He had never dressed up except on Halloween.
"When I first saw a drag queen, honestly, I was instantly repulsed," he says. "I didn't think that was appropriate. I never wanted anybody to say 'she' about me, or to be somebody's 'girlfriend.'" He refers to roommate Julian Bain as his partner, producer, and friend, and is cagey about his sexuality, declining to pronounce himself gay, bisexual, or straight. "If ever I were to fall in love," he says, a romantic lilt in his voice, "then that's who the person will be. Sex has nothing to do with love or who you are."
But at the Passport Cafe that recent afternoon, sitting around a table with a half-dozen friends, Palacious had seemed shaken A and a little amused A by something. His mother had phoned. His parents don't know their son is a drag queen. ("They know I model, I'm bald, I'm a little weird.") His mother told him that she had been visited in her sleep by his dead brother, Dwayne. And the dead never lie. "And he said you had a man for your lover," she told him. Her voice was trembling, Palacious recounted, and even though he ignored her implied question, she continued. "That can bring your death," she warned, her voice filled with fear for her son.
Palacious had glanced around the table at his friends, Denio, Robert, Patrick, drag queens all, and then smiled. "Watching Oprah Winfrey does not make you open-minded," he pronounced, and they all laughed, if perhaps a little nervously.
In Miami Palacious became a South Beach regular. When Tara Solomon held a Barbie and Ken party at one of the clubs, he came as black Barbie and a friend was Latino Ken. "It was the first time I'd appeared and was judged, and I won!" he exclaims. "The title was Diva of the House of Warsaw. From that I got hired to do a one-nighter in a club dressed up, and people came and took pictures."
He loved the attention. And though he felt like an imposter, he was pleased, too. "I'm dancing and people are being entertained. I felt big then." He smiles, then laughs out loud. "I'm cheating everybody and they still don't care!"
His parents own a Freeport tour company and restaurants and bars on other Bahamian islands. "My dad spends a lot of time in the bar yelling and screaming at people," Palacious says dryly. "They call him King Herod. My mother is very sweet, very religious A she gave all her money to Jim and Tammy Faye Bakker. I love them both. My parents do a lot for me. They pay my rent." His 25-year-old sister, Daria, also models in Miami. "She's just like me," he says, "but with breasts and not bald and a little bit lighter."
When Paragon auditioned dancers early last year, Palacious showed up. "They all danced but I just stood there." He was probably too slender to be a Charles Atlas dancer, who tend to be beef-packed stud muffins. Palacious lives on junk food, devours entire lemon meringue pies, and doesn't work out, though he claims to own a Thigh-Master. "I said, 'I'm here to be the host, the door person.'"
He got the job. The door is where he now stands three nights a week in full regalia, as admirers circle the block checking out his ensemble, and dim-witted rednecks rumble past yelling, "I'll kill you, faggot nigger!"
Palacious, by temperament, ignores all life's negativities. He says, "My mother, everything she told me I should not do, she was right. I have no major philosophy on life; I just do what I'm supposed to do. I don't take money, I work, I don't sleep around with a lot of people. When somebody asks me for my autograph, I shake hands and look them in the eyes -- that's more important. I've been made to feel little by somebody I looked up to, and I don't want to do that." He declines to elaborate.
Then he goes whizzing off around the club, greeting people, zipping upstairs to the dressing rooms where a topless black woman (yes, a true woman, unless those were implants) is having her face made up. Resting on a couch is a muscular white guy in an enormous blonde Tina Turner wig, a tonga bottom, and high-heeled shoes. "Where's Kitty?" he asks. "Oh, you're Kitty? You're wonderful, I see you in front all the time. I'm going to be in the talent show. I hope I can win the rent." He grins and turns around on his shapely, shaved legs to shake his pale, bare butt at Kitty.
Though it isn't a skill he needed just then, Palacious claims he can recognize a transvestite at a glance, no matter how well disguised. "You look at the feet," he hints. But inside the throbbing club, things are not so simple. Here's a pair of willowy six-foot model-types gesturing with their cigarettes. Lovely. The feet look fine A what can you tell in high-heeled sneakers? Slender ankles, nice long legs. The faces are smooth, no five o'clock shadow, makeup perfect, the brows serene, jawlines delicate, no noticeable Adam's apple (could that somehow be concealed with makeup, the way Palacious made his nose thinner?). The arms are long and lithe and not overly muscular, all the movements graceful, not effeminate but female. And yet, and yet...
And so, sidling up to Kitty Meow, who is smoking a clove cigarette and drinking a glass of orange juice with a clutch of friends, you nudge and subtly point, and whisper in his ear, "Okay, I give up A male or female?"
Kitty giggles knowingly: "Those are boys."
When the show starts, the fellow in the Tina Turner wig is first. He strips down to the tonga and heels, maintaining the illusion of sexy female quite well even without much in the way of breasts, then hunkers down, exchanges the high heels for clunky construction-worker boots, whips off the hairpiece, and is suddenly a swaggering tough. Unfortunately, he is far too eager to please in both roles, so the contrast between them is a little pale.
He is followed by a singer in his fifties, then by a lip-synching chunky drag queen in red velvet, then a short Latino singing a romantic ballad, and then the willowy pair of queens, who dance and show off their moves, smooth bellies, and boyish butts. A heavy-set drag queen shucks his robe and lip-synchs a song, getting many laughs at the fat body underneath.
That's when a certain discomfort sets in. On one level, all this is just lighthearted fun, and it's easy to make too much of political correctness. People have always dressed up, drawn lines on their faces, pretended, played roles. But the point of roles is that they have meaning. It's difficult to say what the existence of drag queens says about women, though it may be significant that there isn't a subculture of women who dress up exaggeratedly as John Wayne or Elvis Presley. Palacious says, "It's a glorification of the female." But the heavy-set fellow in the robe isn't glorifying anybody, and neither is the audience. There is something cruel in their laughter, something the hefty queen seems to encourage. Is it directed at the audience themselves and the human condition, as one would like to think? Or at the queen and his obesity? Or at women, women's bodies, the power they have over men A a power from which these men are immune? Some gay men have an unkind name for women. They call them fish.
Edmund White, the novelist and author of a recent biography of Jean Genet, says, "There's something very romantic and beautiful" about the drag scene. Though openly gay and highly intelligent, White doesn't say what that is, and few of those on the South Beach drag scene appear to have thought much about it. They're too busy having fun, and Palacious insists, "I think it's more of a glorification than a putdown."
Maybe it's just that boundaries have dropped, boundaries of gender and of taste. Definitions are more rubbery. Maleness? In men's magazines smelling of cologne, manliness is defined as men showing off their underwear to other men (a central service provided by Paragon). From there it's only a step or two across the gender line.
"Dressing up" is also part of the ancient shallowness of being, as the Kinks's song title has it, "a dedicated follower of fashion," of label whoredom, of taking one's identity from a style dictated by a self-appointed "designer" in a city miles away. The narcissism and self-absorption that's always been present in a portion of gay-male culture has spread widely. And in this, the drag queen is no mere follower, but the vanguard A a creator, adding to fashion a veneer of wit, irony, and true personal expression. If a few drag queens seem to be mocking women, perhaps it isn't all women but rather those who fall for the hype of fashion. Yet the queens have fallen for it, too. The Moschino label in Kitty Meow's shirt is important to him.
Beyond that, being born male in an age of feminism might seem to some like the ultimate booby prize. Drag could be an escape from the responsibilities of drab, workaday maleness. Or maybe, as Palacious suggests, some men dress as women because they are unattractive as men. Perhaps it has to do with talent. Garland, Bankhead, Miranda, and Kitt are such powerfully magnetic icons that even their imitators, with smaller talent, can partake of a little. Isn't this why people lip-synch -- to reap the applause for another person's creation? Dressing up like a famous person feels like being famous. And there are no shy drag queens.
Popcorn drag, though, requires little such psychologizing. It is almost pure show business, growing as it does out of Divine and Alice Cooper and Boy George; and its intent, in that airy territory where acting and dressing merge, is merely to entertain and be noticed. Palacious doesn't want to be a drag queen forever; he wants to be an actor. "More mainstream," he says earnestly. "Not always costumed. Acting and singing under my real name A Shawn, not Kitty. And be really famous." He actually sighs. "If I broke into acting, I'd want my first role to be as a man, preferably a villain. Then my talent would come out, because that's definitely not my persona."
It isn't hard to imagine Palacious making it. He has what some would call class: He is the well-bred, well-spoken son of a well-off family, with financial support, an education, manners, a generous spirit, and the gift of presence. You can imagine him on Letterman, telling stories of his days as a drag queen -- hip but sincere, too. Even in a rather plain daily costume -- say, a bone-and-bead choker, shaved head, earring, and what looks like silk pajamas with the shirt open down the front, a fanny pack turned frontward with MOSCHINO on it in big gold letters -- people notice him, watch him, the way we do the best actors.
This gift may be the source of the jealousy and spite he sometimes feels directed at him. His friends confirm it exists. "The drag scene is like high school," says his friend Robert. "There's gossip and cliques, and drag queens are the cheerleaders. They fight over the top spots. They make fun of a person who's popular in order to make themselves more popular. It's jealousy and it's because they have nothing better to do."
Palacious shrugs it off. "I don't drink and I don't do drugs and I wasn't homeless," he says, "and they misrepresent that as being aloof." The shrug. Then: "I'm amazed! South Beach is so beautiful, sunny, bright. We're lucky! We should be sophisticated and over that."
So far his career has been limited. A local movie. Hosting private parties, for which he earns a few hundred dollars apiece. A trip to Rimini, Italy, where he and some friends created and headlined a drag show entitled "The Temple of Kitty Meow" A and so impressed his hosts that he has been invited back to do it again.
Palacious finds that many agents don't want to represent an actor who comes on equally strong as both man and woman. They want him to make up his mind. "And if a male agent is gay," he says, "he can get pretty catty if you're not, um, sharing an interest, you know?" So, he says, his agent is more likely to be "a lesbian or a real woman."
Meanwhile, his ambitions are satisfied at the club, where he lives an exciting life. He remembers New Year's Eve: people in fringed dresses, gigantic champagne glasses with mannequins in garter belts as in old Playboy magazine drawings, most of the lights off so everyone can see Kitty Meow. "I'm on the bar in a dress made of lights, these little light bulbs glowing all over me," he says. "I'm dancing and pouring champagne in everybody's mouth A when the battery pack caught on fire! I rip it off and I'm topless! And people's eyes are this big! Later that night I called my mother to wish her Happy New Year and said I was working at a party, and it was a Cotton Club theme, and she said, 'Oh, I know, don't tell me, you were Cab Calloway!' And I said, 'Oh yes, in a yellow zoot suit!' And she says, 'So handsome.' And I can tell she sees me as this dapper guy with a little goatee and glasses, saying," A and here he shifts to a dignified, elegant voice, deeper than his own, and says, "'Mother, how are you, dear?'"
Then he grins: "If she only knew I was almost electrocuted by my dress!"
Palacious turns quiet, looks away, and you remember he's only 22 years old. "No, they don't know," he says. "But if I ever achieve any real high level of success, it won't matter any more. Then I'll tell them, and they'll know I wasn't wasting my time.
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