Sin caballero, no hay dama :
How Transvestites May Save Femininity

by Claudia Meléndez
photos by Paul Myers


Karlota looks fabulous on stage in her glittering sequined dress. She loves the feel of her wild mane dancing on her shoulders to the tunes she belts out as the entire audience sings along. An adventurous fan jumps on stage to rob a kiss from the star and stash a couple of crumpled bills in Karlota’s cleavage.

“Will the salvadoreños in the house please stand up?” she asks at the end of her song, drawing wild hoots and squeals from the worked up audience at Arena, a night club in Hollywood. “How many michoacanos do we have?” And she runs down her list of Latin American countries and states, drawing more yells and screams in return.

In this largely immigrant Latino community, Karlota embodies dreams of palpable success and beguiling femininity. With her precise impersonations of Veronica Castro, Amanda Miguel and other well-known performers, Karlota brings her fans a slice of fame and glamour, the closest many of them get to meeting a celebrity. With her primped looks, this six-foot, slender transvestite embodies a model of femininity quickly becoming outdated in this era of emancipated, tough women.

To convince the audience that what they’re seeing is a real woman, Karlota employs every trick of the transvestite trade in her daily transformation from Carlos Madrigal, a lean gay boy, into the voluptuous and boisterous Karlota, Marquesa de Hollywood. Beginning with wax on his eyebrows to hide their thickness, continuing with foam pads strategically placed to add curves to his masculine body, and ending with Karlota’s high heels and a dab of perfume, Carlos is a master of transmogrification, and Karlota is a woman many women can only dream to be.

“I can’t understand why women don’t take care of themselves,” Carlos says as he brushes the wig he will use for the night’s show.

“It’d be so easy, con ese pelo tan chulo que tienes,” he says, trying to make a general comment that I know he’s aiming at me. Yes, my baggy pants and scruffy hair don’t make me look very feminine, but ... this story is not about me.

Unlike most artists in the world of female impersonation, Carlos relies purely on makeup, wigs and pads to become Karlota. He has shunned all kinds of hormonal treatments, and he would not consider having breast implants (they would be very hard to handle in his job as a mechanic). So except for the silicon cheeks that help him overcome party wrinkles, Carlos does not use permanent cosmetic enhancements to aid him with his gender transformation. Without hormones or implants, Carlos faces the daily challenge of becoming the glamorous queen of the night so acclaimed by her followers. But he’s an expert at it.

He begins his nightly ritual with a quick coat of polish to his well-trimmed nails and then he saunters to the bathroom, sanctuary of his two personalities. He fishes among the perfumes and colognes to find a round brush and begin straightening the vinyl locks of the wig he’ll use for the show. The electric hair rollers are ready for the long, reddish hair, and Carlos begins the wig’s coiffure.

After the hair is done, he continues with the face. Three coats of wax for the eyebrows, two coats of makeup on face and neck, face powder, eyeliner, eyeshadows, blush, lipstick and fake eyelashes. After 40 minutes of facial preparation, with less than ten minutes to go on stage, Carlos runs to grab his clothes. With pads held in place by three layers of pantyhose, Carlos hides his candy while adding sex appeal to his calves and hips. He finishes with a low-cut sequined dress, and two round foam pads on the chest. Ciao Carlos, hello Karlota.

“When I come home at the end of the night, I take off my makeup and clothes and say to myself, ‘Cómo me cansa esta pinche vieja’.”

It’s hard work being a woman.

In this age of hurried lives and short attention spans, emphasis on appearance has slipped a few notches on the scale of priorities. Schlep on a pair of scruffy shorts for the weekend and go shopping in your beachcombers. Sure, there are women who spend eternity in front of the oh-so-judgmental mirror. But for many a hurried woman, maybe some lipstick and a quick peinazo are enough. For female impersonators, attention to detail is crucial — it’s the line that divides a coarse performance from a palpable fantasy. The fantasy of the synthetic eyelashes, the five-inch heels and the rhinestone earrings.

“For me it’s a great source of pride to represent a woman in every sense of the word, and to look even better than a woman does,” Karlota says with a dash of defiance in her voice. “Of course, women can look better than we do, but they are lazy. Just because they’re married or because they’re women does not mean they should not take care of their appearance. That’s a mistake. Love enters through the eyes. If you see a clean, good-looking man you’ll feel attracted to him. But if you see a woman whose hair looks like the water heater just exploded in her face, you won’t even turn to see her,” she says.

Cultural ideas of machismo in the Latino community and overall anti-gay sentiments make it hard to estimate how large the gay Latino community is in Los Angeles. Antonio Jiménez, case worker for the gay clinic Bienestar in Hollywood, says it’s easier to keep statistics about AIDS and HIV. But using available information — namely, that an estimated 10 percent of the population is gay — and that there are about 5 million Latinos in Los Angeles County, there must be about 500,000 gay Latinos in the City of Angels.

While many gay Latinos are second, third and fourth generation, quite a few are immigrants. Overall, these immigrants parallel the so-called straight community in terms of their reasons for coming to the United States: the majority have escaped adverse economic conditions in their native countries. Upon their arrival in the land of plenty, they have found not only more opportunities for financial advancement, but a community that shares their differences and accepts their lifestyle.

“Once they see that the gay environment is not heavy, people who had dreams of being transvestite reach their liberation here,” says Jiménez.

Jiménez estimates that in the gay population about 10 to 15 percent are transgendered: men or women who take more permanent steps toward changing their gender. Transvestites, a transgender woman says, only dress up for shows.

M ario Alberto de los Ríos, a gay boy who dons studded charro outfits to impersonate Alejandro Fernández and other ranchero stars, rejected his sexuality at first, afraid that being gay meant shedding his masculinity. Even referring to himself as “gay boy” reflects a desire to emphasize his looks — not feminine, not a queen, but male.

“I thought that you had to be feminine to be gay, and I didn’t want to be that way,” Mario Alberto says. “But I found el ambiente and saw that you don’t need to be feminine.” And even though he’s comfortable running around with transvestites and cuinas — drag queens — he never had the desire to put on a dress and makeup.

“Many of those who dress up as women say we’re afraid, but nothing stops me from doing it,” Mario Alberto says.

Accepting, like Carlos, that he can live a double life as a macho with boots and bigotazo, and as a glamorous starlette oozing femininity takes guts. But not everyone sees it that way.

“There have been occasions when people who find out that I’m gay want to take advantage of me. They believe that because I’m gay I’m not going to defend myself,” says Armando Salvatierra, a lanky gay boy. “But being gay has nothing to do with being a man. The only difference between a straight guy and me is that I like men.”

Not one to turn down a good fight, Armando has gotten in more than one scuffle with those who’ve harassed him upon discovering his sexual preference.

Armando began his career as a transvestite star ten years ago. With a collection of about 12 working wigs and 30 to 40 outfits, he brings the foreign element to an otherwise all-Spanish cast: It is his Whitney Houston, his Donna Summer and Tina Turner who round out the international flavor of Karlota’s show.

For the most part, gays like Armando and Carlos live in the bubble environment of the community, hardly ever running into conflict with the larger, straight world.

Ironically, Armando’s impersonations have inspired envy not from women, but from drag queens who can’t stand competition from their same sex. How dare a skinny gay boy, someone who wears dresses only to be on stage, pretend to be better looking than a cuina who wears boobs and hips day and night?

“If I wasn’t a good man, I could not be a good woman,” Armando says. “As a gay man, I’ve been on both sides of the coin, on the feminine side and on the masculine side. I’ve seen how men treat women and how women treat men. As a gentleman, I have to respect a lady and I have to project that respect when I’m on stage. I have to care about what women feel to be able to project that.”

The respect is mutual. When my friend Margarita needed to learn how to walk on high heels, it was the advice of Alex (stage name: Ineeda Richman) that saved her from staggering like a fumigated spider. Alex, a squeaky-voiced man, taught voluptuous Margarita how to walk like a woman.

Like Alex, Karlota and Alberto often dispense beauty tips to clueless women. But often, Carlos says, women ignore his advice, arguing that they would feel phony. Does Carlos feel phony? “No, quite the contrary,” he says. “I feel I’m up to the job.” Unlike Karlota, who wears her attire until the night is over, Armando strips off his femininity at the end of the show and tucks Whitney, Donna and Tina in his suitcase. He joins Alejandra, Laura, and Gabriela wearing a dark, two-piece suit, and they all offer a final bow before descending from the spotlight to mingle with the crowd. They are the most beautiful women among the sweaty club goers, and they know they’ll continue receiving attention even if the lights are not on them. Like any other celebrity, big or small, they owe their success to their fans, and they’re willing to share with them a slice of seductive, elusive glamour.

© 1999, 2000 El Andar Magazine