The Girls Can't Help It

Gripping the back of the folding chair at her small make-up table, China Chang lifts up one muscular, caramel-colored leg and forcefully pries her foot into the declivitous instep of a purple sequined pump. A few seconds later, a male dancer in a cropped tuxedo jacket and snug white Lycra leggings emerges from an adjoining dressing area to join China, hoisting a feathered headdress off her table and carefully fitting it over her rust-colored topknot.

Just then the stage manager appears, clapping his hands together and urging, "Let's go. Come on, it's time."

At 12:30 a.m., China adjusts her plumage, flashes a practiced smile, and spreads her arms under her sparkling cape to reveal a matching sequined decollete leotard underneath. Then she walks to the wings of the stage, where Mariloly, Debbie, and Erika -- three other stars of Midnight Follies -- already wait.

In front of the stage's red curtain, the spotlight is trained on a chorus boy, who gestures with painful intensity while lip-synching "I Am What I Am" from the musical A Chorus Line. An audience of approximately 60 people sits expectantly in the first rows of Little Havana's Teatro de Bellas Artes: middle-age Cuban couples -- some with their children -- elderly white-haired ladies, a cluster of beefy young men whose open shirts reveal glinting medallions on gold ropes, and a rowdy group of Argentine tourists.

As the song ends, the curtain rises on the stage, which earlier in the evening had resembled a Cuban courtyard plastered with prerevolutionary political posters, the setting for El Solar de Papaito, the sort of exile farce that typically plays in Little Havana theaters. Now a configuration of platforms with steps and stage lights arranged in decorative patterns give the theater a glitzy cabaret look that falls somewhere between the decor of Havana's Club Tropicana circa 1950 and the set of TV's Star Search.

The performers, who are all -- genetically speaking -- men, begin to move rhythmically about the stage, stepping and kicking in the kind of stage-show promenade that has marked the opening of the Bellas Artes' after-midnight musical-comedy drag revue every Saturday night for almost ten years. Se*ores y se*oras, ladies and gentlemen, welcome to la universidad del transformismo.

The mainstream media's current fascination with transvestites reflects the inevitable exploitation of drag's surprising mass appeal. Now male characters in the movies don't need pretexts such as child custody (Mrs. Doubtfire) or unemployment (Tootsie) to dress up. Riding on the success of last year's sleeper hit, The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert, Patrick Swayze and Wesley Snipes are currently promoting their roles as drag queens in the new movie To Wong Foo, Thanks for Everything! Julie Newmar by manfully revealing the painful secrets of "tucking" to reporters. And even though designers' attempts to put men in skirts blipped and died in the Eighties, the fashion world still seeks inspiration from the age-old art of transvestitism. In fact a stylishly subtle young drag queen wearing makeup and women's street clothes appears in designer Donna Karan's new magazine -ad campaign.

Here in Miami, drag queens are celebrities in their own right on South Beach, where any self-respecting dance club has some manner of cross-dresser posted at the door. Not surprisingly, when Lucky Cheng's, a New York City restaurant with waitresses in drag, opened a branch on Ocean Drive this summer, the local public response was more apathy than shock.

But back in 1986, South Beach was still the terrain of senior citizens and crack dealers, and Bellas Artes owner Mirella Gonzalez had never even seen a man in a dress. Gonzalez and her husband, Manuel, owned a hardware store on Flagler Street, but they had been infected with the theater bug by Reny, one of their four sons, who was a successful child actor at the time. They had bought the Bellas Artes -- located on SW Eighth Street at 22nd Avenue -- in 1983, producing in the space the conventional Spanish-language plays and exile comedies traditionally popular among the local Cuban community.

During the Christmas season of 1985, an actor in one of those plays asked if he could borrow the theater to make a video of a solo performance he was working on. When Mirella Gonzalez peeked inside, she saw the young man wearing a gown and makeup, lip-synching to a female voice.

"It seemed like it had commercial possibilities," recalls the theater owner today. A small blond woman with a friendly but firm manner, the 57-year-old Gonzalez (five years younger than her husband) sits at a desk in an office sandwiched between the theater's dressing rooms and its cafeteria. "I thought we could do something like that for the Latin audience -- but with decency," she adds. "I didn't want to hurt the theater's reputation."

Gonzalez had heard of transvestites who performed late-night shows in area dance clubs. The most famous of these in the Latin milieu was Frankie Kein, who, along with another performer known professionally as Manuel Arte, started doing drag in Miami in the Seventies, and had even performed at one time at the Bellas Artes under its previous owner (Kein and Arte can still be seen at Les Violins on Biscayne Boulevard). But Kein mimicked Liza Minnelli, Barbra Streisand, and other popular American singers. Gonzalez's idea was to create a full-length show with songs in Spanish, a musical-comedy revue spiced with risque ethnic humor that was still appropriate for family viewing. "There was nothing like this for Latin audiences," she explains.

Unsure that she would get any response at all, Gonzalez announced an audition for a drag show. To her surprise, 70 men showed up. Gonzalez and a choreographer selected seven transvestite performers and four male dancers. The show, dubbed Midnight Follies, premiered on Valentine's Day 1986.

After almost ten years, the two-hour Midnight Follies attracts a steady weekend (Saturday night at midnight, Sunday night at 9:00) audience that fluctuates between sparser midsummer crowds of a few dozen people to full houses of 300 for the special expanded, three-hour extragavanzas staged every two months, for which Midnight Follies fanatics reserve seats weeks in advance, showing up with bouquets of flowers for the stars. Each performer seems to have her own coterie of local fans, but the theater also is a regular stop for visitors to Miami from Latin America, where the show has a reputation as the Spanish La Cage aux Folles. On Sunday at nine, at a repeat performance of the Saturday-night spectacular, Spanish-speaking senior citizens are bused to Bellas Artes from residences in Miami Beach. And the show has found a new following among recently arrived exiles who never had a chance to see a drag show in the antigay climate of Castro's Cuba, where such performances traditionally have been outlawed, although some drag shows have been permitted recently as the island has opened up to foreign tourists.

But when the Little Havana production premiered, the Latin community was wary of its content, and only a handful of people showed up for those first Saturday-night performances. Local Spanish-speaking journalists also seemed reluctant to review the show. "They thought it was something else," Gonzalez remembers. "People thought the performers were going to come out in their underwear or something."

Midnight Follies, which changes its repertoire and costumes every December but has maintained the same overall format throughout the years, has neither the cachet of an underground drag scene nor the sassy camp of a Nineties dance-club performance. Like other forms of entertainment in the theaters and restaurants along Calle Ocho, part of its attraction is nostalgia -- the performers offer audience members both the old-time glamour of Latin nightclub divas and large doses of evergreen ethnic humor.

Acting as unofficial mistresses of ceremonies, Mariloly and Julie provide comic relief to accompany the four other transvestites' more serious musical interpretations. Appearing on alternating weekends, Mariloly and Julie portray kitsch characters, parodying the stereotype of a lower-class Cuban woman with loose lips and a paunch under her tight cocktail dress.

Julie, whose given name is Jorge Cordero, dances to salsa music and lip-synchs to broken records, swishing about the stage in frayed clearance-sale dresses. She reels off ribald jokes about Cuba, tells self-depreciating stories ("Most transvestites use tape to keep their masculinity out of the way -- all I need is a Band-Aid"), and periodically takes one of her foam breasts out of her dress to scratch an itch.

Slightly more sophisticated is Mariloly, a consummate vaudevillian whose repertoire lately centers on the misadventures of balseros in Miami. With a face like a film noir henchman and a marvelously throaty Marlene Dietrich-like voice, she swaggers back and forth on Rockette legs in a fringed flapper dress, bantering with the men in the audience. Mariloly is also well known in Little Havana as a male actor named Danilo Dominguez, who performed zarzuela -- Spanish folkloric opera -- before debuting in that very first Midnight Follies show almost a decade ago.

Debbie, Erika, China, and Paloma embody the kind of divas who are traditional icons of Latin culture. None of them chooses to imitate any particular star but rather creates composite characters, lip-synching to different singers whose voices fit their personalities and body types. Rocio Jurado, Sara Montiel, and Maggie Carles are favorites, and Mariloly recently has taken on Albita Rodriguez; additionally, Erika performs the occasional English number sung by Marilyn Monroe or Ella Fitzgerald. While their staging is certainly dramatic, it is not any more so than other forms of popular Latin entertainment, and their passionate affectations are merely as exaggerated as the female singers they emulate.

They seem to take themselves seriously, and so does the audience. While some people come to see Midnight Follies out of curiosity or simply because they enjoy drag, others -- particularly the Cuban audience members of more advanced years -- simply want to see good old-fashioned entertainment. They may not be comfortable at Gloria Estefan's stadium concerts or be able to pay the cover charges and drink minimums at Miami's top Latin nightclubs, but they can afford to buy a $15 ticket to the Midnight Follies, then settle in for two hours of singing, dancing, and comedy.

"Everything revolves around fantasy," explains Pedro Herrera, the show's artistic director. "There's nothing sad, nothing exaggerated. We're doing something that gives this a level of normalcy. This show is about good music and pretty clothes. There's nothing profound here; the songs are love songs, no protest songs and nothing political. That's the way the audience likes it. This is not a show for snobs or for musical erudites or for symphony supporters or for ballet lovers. It's reliable entertainment at a reasonable price for people who want to have a good time and a pleasant experience that is pleasing to the eye."

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?'

"I told her to give me two weeks and I could fix it," he continues. "I had to have approval over what everyone wore and what number they did. We can't just have one tango after another, bolero after bolero, that just doesn't do. Anarchy was just not going to work."

Back in prerevolutionary Cuba, Herrera had been an actor, director, and playwright, heading up a theater company that bore his name in his native province of Las Villas, located in the center of the island. Still, he was something of an odd choice to oversee a drag production. Most of Herrera's experience had been with religious plays, what he refers to as "mystic theater" -- theatrical presentations of biblical stories and dramas whose plots illustrate Christian morals, presented for and by members of church congregations. He also served as director of the Dramatic Cadre of the Presbyterian Church, writing and directing plays for followers of the Presbyterian denomination. All that changed with the revolution. Castro's government frowned on these dramatic representations of the precepts of Jesus Christ, claiming that they contributed to "the cult of personality." Herrera was enlisted by the new Ministry of Culture to direct plays that outlined the ideologies of the communist regime, but he chafed at his new role, and in 1968 he decided to emigrate to the United States.

Poster-size photos of Herrera in various roles as a stage actor adorn the bedroom of his garage apartment in a quiet Hialeah neighborhood. In one picture he is dressed as an Egyptian pharaoh sitting on a throne. In another he is a sheik, playing the title role in a production of The Great Ali; he was 23 years old and as handsome as Omar Sharif.

Herrera maneuvers his wheelchair over to his tidy desk to look for some old theater programs. Now 65, he contracted polio when he was ten and has been unable to walk since that time. As an actor he played his roles sitting down, he explains, and nobody was the wiser. When Herrera came to Miami, he took advantage of public vocational rehabilitation programs for the handicapped to learn to drive; additionally, he trained as a lab technician, a job he held for six years before retiring and collecting disability payments. But Herrera kept a hand in the theater by writing about local Latin entertainers for El Sol de Hialeah, Replica, Todo, and other Miami area Spanish publications, as well as occasionally directing community and church plays. In 1970, for example, his El Secreto de Ana was performed at the Interamerican Presbyterian Church on NW 29th Street. The program notes laud the director as a master of contemporary mystic theater.

Within this genre, Herrera was concerned with contemporizing basic religious messages. Accordingly he created comedies that could be performed in the church, plays with spiritual themes and present-day settings such as Milagro Junto al Lago (Miracle by the Lake). But his specialty was a sort of ecclesiastical vaudeville that employed the tried-and-true format of light stand-up comedy laced with musical numbers. He figured the same structure would work for Midnight Follies.

For Herrera the fact that he would be helping to put together a show performed by transvestites instead of churchgoers was not an issue. His parents taught him early on that the Christian principle of tolerance applied to everyone. Besides, he stresses, as a person with a disability, he also grew up knowing what it's like to be different.

"I would say that at first it was a bit difficult for me to understand," Herrera admits now, but it became less so when he decided to look at drag in a theatrical light. Given that context, he prefers to use the Spanish word transformista (transformer) rather than travesti (transvestite) when referring to the Midnight Follies cast. "You have so many precedents of men performing as women -- Greek theater, Japanese theater, Shakespeare. Every actor is a transformer. In this case, they're just dressing up as women."

Herrera pauses to turn on a VCR and pop in a cassette of a Midnight Follies performance that was attended by Gloria and Emilio Estefan last year. "We established certain moral norms as well," he explains, as China Chang, dressed in a leatherette leotard, dances a merengue on the screen. "Never, never may the dressing room doors be closed. And everyone must be wearing at least the indispensable clothing [underwear] at all times. And they can't be congregating in the parking lot or anything like that. They know that the minute they do something like that, they can pack up their clothes and go. This isn't one of those places where everyone's running around screaming and doing who knows what.

"I've taught them about relating to the audience, I've taught them about pleasing the public, about what you can say and what you can't," Herrera continues. "If there are black people in the audience, you're not going to make a joke about black people A you don't want to alienate the audience. If I hear someone up there going in the wrong direction, I reprimand them from the wings.

"They've learned about this world of theater because before they didn't have that training. I say, 'Look, you're obligated in this profession -- like in the tradition of vaudeville -- to go on with the show. You have a headache, you go out on the stage smiling, and when you get off you can feel the pain. If the air conditioner's broken, you go out there cool as a cucumber. If someone in the audience says something inappropriate, no matter how insulting it was, smile first and think about a response. Don't blurt out the first dirty word you think of.'

"And absolutely no improper language," he intones sternly, his voice rising. "There are prohibited words here. We don't swear; it's vulgar. If you say a filthy word once, it's funny. But if you keep saying it, nobody's going to laugh any more."

On-stage, Mariloly, dressed in a black shift and black high heels, flirts with a Guantanamo refugee in the first row, who furiously chews a piece of gum and laughs nervously.

"These balseros are really fine," Mariloly says, working the crowd. "My friends and I are going to go out to Homestead Air Force Base and stand there with a sign that says 'Sisters to the Rescue.'. . . "

Mariloly asks her new friend to meet her in the parking lot after the show, then turns her attention to the right side of the theater. "Well, hello! Oh my God! It's my friend from Cuba, we used to play together when I was a little boy!" She paces back and forth, taking a poll of the nationalities of the audience members -- Colombian, Venezuelan, Puerto Rican, Argentine -- but after five people say "Cuban," she rolls her eyes and scoffs, "Yeah, so what else is new." Then she moves to the other side of the stage to tell a joke about a man with a long penis and a high voice -- the kind of dirty joke kids tell in elementary school. The audience roars in hysterics. On a roll, Mariloly launches into a story about three balseros waiting for the Metromover. A chubby Argentine man in a nylon print shirt laughs so hard he falls over into the aisle.

Next the comedian picks five men from the audience under the pretext of taking their picture. Instead, Mariloly enters them in a "doggy dance" contest, with each man wiggling his pelvis to a novelty merengue record called "El Perrito." As they gyrate, Mariloly goads them on, telling them to move as if they were "in a room in one of those hotels out by the airport." Tonight's contestants include two balseros and an Uruguayan tourist whose daughters scream with laughter from the third row. But the winner is a studly young Cuban (who came to Miami via Mexico seven years ago) in skintight black jeans and an unbuttoned vest, who has a cellular phone sticking out of his pocket.

"We've gotten better and better over the years," muses Herrera, watching another video back in his apartment, this one of last year's summer special, which featured a fashion show of fantasy bridal wear. "So many performers say that Midnight Follies is the Transvestite University. If you perform in the Midnight Follies, you have a degree in transvestitism. People from other countries, like Puerto Rico, come here and they ask to be in the show just once. They don't want money, they just want a certificate saying that they performed in the Midnight Follies."

Over the years, Midnight Follies cast members have come and gone. Some have left to pursue solo careers in clubs, which can be more financially lucrative. (Midnight Follies performers are paid a percentage of the door, awarded according to seniority.) One dropped out to marry a woman. Another fell ill with AIDS. Still others have had what Herrera refers to euphemistically as "personal problems," unable to adhere to the show's decorous rules or maintain its strict performance schedule. Not everyone can hack it, and the requirements to get into the cast in the first place are strict.

"First they have to lip-synch well," Herrera points out. "They should be able to do their own hair and makeup -- most of those who aren't already hairstylists take a six-month course to learn. They should also have some notion of dancing and singing -- this isn't just about posing on stage."

Jesus Gonzalez, known to Midnight Follies audiences as Debbie, had plenty of experience in that area. He was a dancer at the Tropicana in Cuba. But even with his elite nightclub experience, Gonzalez couldn't land a job when he arrived in Miami in 1980 as part of the Mariel exodus. "Dancing here is different than in Cuba," Gonzalez says. "There aren't many jobs for male nightclub dancers." Gonzalez's luck changed when he entered a drag contest one night and generated a lot of applause. "I saw there were more opportunities to do drag here than dance as man," he notes. "I like the theater, so I decided to work in that," eventually signing on as a founding member of the Midnight Follies. However, he soon abandoned the show to work in clubs, but returned to the cast a few years ago.

"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."

The youngest of the Follies performers and the only who speaks fluent English, Erika joined the cast a year ago. "It's not an easy thing to get into the regular cast," she says. "It was a major thing for me A this is like the Spanish La Cage. There are things that I can do here that I can't do at a club. I can be glamorous without being campy, I don't need camp makeup and big hair. The audience here isn't a gay audience. They just see it as a show like any other. That's why it's different. I think that people who come here see us as actors, which we are, because for me this doesn't have any purpose beside entertainment.

"I'm not a woman trapped in a man's body, I'm happy as a male. I do this because I think I'm an actor, and to me this is acting," Erika contends. "I'm a hairdresser. This is my hobby. Some people build model airplanes, I collect dresses."

Erika owns over 30 beaded gowns, which can cost between three and four thousand dollars each. Eric's boyfriend, a young bank vice president who asked to remain anonymous, helps him out with expenses. As Erika's "producer," he accompanies her to the Teatro de Bellas Artes, as well as when she performs in clubs on South Beach and clubs in Jacksonville, Orlando, and Tampa.

Looking in the mirror, Erika smiles and lifts her bare shoulders in a subtle shrug. "I'm very shy as Eric, but not so much so as Erika," she says. "I dress like a woman, and I'm not, and I get more attention this way."

At 2:30 a.m., the performers take the stage for the show's finale. China and Paloma come out in their usual gowns, but Mariloly, Debbie, and Erika are dressed in tuxedos, with their backs to the audience. They turn around and pull off their wigs. Danilo Dominguez's black hair is gathered in a ponytail that reaches the middle of his back, and Jesus Gonzalez is still wearing makeup with pants that strain at the waist. Eric Guzman, without makeup, looks like a fresh-faced college student. The cast stands with their arms outstretched as Julio, the bearded dancer, mimes "A Mi Manera," the Spanish version of Paul Anka's "My Way."

"It's been hard for me to really understand this phenomenon, but I think it's a very beautiful thing," says Pedro Herrera, looking on. "They're human beings, and they know that here we treat them with respect, caring, and love. They recognize that, so they treat us with the same respect. They're a great bunch of guys.


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