“Beauty is pain”: my evening in drag
“My apartment is right here. Don’t mind the lights, ”he told me to reassure me.
I’m soon in a room with metal shelves full of mannequin heads, tied wigs, and unfinished dresses and skirts. There is a small table with black leather bags overflowing with makeup. Under the table is a neon blue fluffy rug with smudges of brown foundation or, optionally, mascara.
He changes in the bathroom as I sit on the dirty carpet. I was getting nervous at how comfortable he was with a stranger in his house. He became a woman. When he goes out, he only wears tights; his head covered with a hairnet; and has a face full of makeup. He became a woman.
“I just need to let you know that I’ve never done anyone else’s makeup before,” she told me as she sat down next to me on the floor. “I could fuck up, but you’re gonna be beautiful.”
– OK, I say shyly.
“You have to close your eyes,” she commands.
My heart begins to race, the thud of each pulse vibrating throughout my body as I force my eyes to stay closed. The powder and makeup are starting to burn my skin, and a pearl sweat on my forehead, but I try not to make a noise or flinch. She hums to herself and stops every now and then to swear under her breath. As soft brushes brush my face, I can only imagine what I look like. I have no notion of time.
After a long pause, longer than the others, she said, “You can open your eyes now.
I feel like they got covered in scabs, but that’s just the makeup stuck to my face. Even though my eyes are open, staring at the stranger who just spent the hour doing so, I still can’t see myself. She keeps saying how cute I am, although I can’t say if she compliments me or compliments herself on a job well done.
I get up from my place. My knees jump from sitting cross-legged for so long. As I move towards the mirror, part of me doesn’t want to see what I am. My eyes have been closed since I entered the apartment, but I tell myself that it only takes a moment to look. I need to see what this moment means. So I pull myself together and open my eyes.
In the wooden mirror in front of me, I see a beautiful woman staring at me. I can barely recognize her except for the curly brown hair we share. A smile begins to form on my face and my eyes refuse to blink.
An evening in Tokyo
As a 19 year old university student in Tokyo, I finally have the chance to start making my own decisions about who I am. I arrived in Tokyo about two years ago from Michigan. I haven’t been home since. I moved a month and a half after graduating from high school. I currently identify as a queer, non-binary person, but this journey has not been easy to understand. It started with my appearance, especially with the makeup. I had never embraced my feminine qualities until I met the drag performer Okini in Tokyo.
Okini, also known as Hayato Sato, and I met on a queer online dating app. Okini is originally from Hiroshima but came to Tokyo to study fashion design and work. We both arrived in town around the same time. Originally, I only met Sato, later finding out that he was also Okini through his Instagram account. We started talking just as the initial panic about the pandemic was mounting, leading to a state of emergency in April 2020. We had never met in person until the night he painted me the face in June. Sato and I have been in a relationship for almost a year. We started dating after he hooked me up.
“Wow, I can’t even see my old self,” I say to Okini. “You did such an amazing job – love it! “
Okini rejects my compliments with gracious humility. She says that’s the easy part. Then we have to get dressed and go out into the night.
Despite my nerves, there is an intimacy in this shared moment between us. No one else had to know. No one else could judge me. I was lucky that Okini was understanding and gentle. Going out in public was different.
I started the process by putting on a corset for the first time. I felt my ribs flex and my breathing shorten. I look at Okini.
“Beauty is pain,” she told me, with the passionate smile of a talented artist.
It’s okay, because I want the complete fantasy tonight. As we head for the door to leave, she stops me and hands me a pair of 7 inch black heels. I had never done makeup before, let alone heels. My fears of looking like a wounded baby deer come true.
The heels were also taller than my own feet. Okini is 178 centimeters tall, I am about 160. It looks like a mother and her daughter going out to take pictures.
My ankles start to ache as they bend and wobble in the heels. Okini pushes me to continue.
It’s 2 a.m. and the fluorescent lights in Okini’s apartment building are dim and flickering. It’s chilly outside, with a light mist hanging in the air from the rain a few hours earlier. The only noise is the buzz of the neon signs that adorn the Koenji neighborhood businesses. The advantage of a pandemic is that there are fewer people in what is usually a busy part of the city, even at night. The coronavirus has provided us with public privacy in which I feel very comforted as I limp around the streets.
The occasional silhouette changes from light to shade as we walk. There are closed izakaya. The only places open are two 24-hour grocery stores across from each other. I can hear echoes of drunken laughter in the distance as we find a parking lot to pose for some photos.
Okini helps me get into position, holding my shoulders as I move my heels. Then, from that same darkness, someone cries out: “Kawaii! Kawaii no!“
A man, who clings to his friend as he stumbles across the street, can’t help but stare at us. His friend shouts in English: “You are beautiful girls! We love it! “
A girl? What a strange feeling to be called a girl.
My authentic self
Part of the difficulty in accepting who I am comes from my fear of being judged by others. It starts with my family.
Explaining my sexuality and gender identity to my parents is something I never really did. I first came out as bisexual. After a few months, I realized that was not right and queer was more appropriate. However, the difficulty I had in simply explaining the concept of bisexuality discouraged me from bringing up the topic of queerness with them. On top of that, telling my parents that I feel somewhere between man and woman, someone who wants to look feminine while growing a beard, is not something I’m ready to do. I have been hesitant to delve into these ideas on my own – until now.
A week or so after my brief stint on the trail, I am returning home after a long day at work when I see a cardboard box of iHerb sitting on my doorstep. I suddenly feel the excitement like I’m a kid again – on my birthday morning with a present sitting at the table next to my favorite spot. My name is on the label. It’s mine.
I rush over and tear up the box. There, spilled onto my desk, is eyeliner, lip gloss, foundation, highlighter, and blush. My nerves start to get on my nerves again. This time it’s not about putting on makeup, but rather where I’m going to put it on. My desk, with dozens of books stacking high, is more of a shelf than a workplace.
I sit down on a chair. I pull out a small pocket mirror that I had bought a few days earlier, after having bought the makeup online. What would Okini do? Did she do my foundation before my highlighter? How much blush is too much? I am overwhelmed. Wait. Stop. Breathe… I still don’t know what to do.
I start with the eyeliner. I pull the skin of my face down to create a smooth area to draw on. My hand is starting to shake and I’m putting on too much.
“F—” I think.
Even though I want to do my makeup, I ignored the fact that I have to learn how to apply it. I pull out my phone and start watching tutorials on using the eyeliner, highlighter, blush, and concealer I had purchased.
Start, apply, fail.
I start to swear under my breath.
Repeat until you are satisfied. I try five times and luckily each one turns out better than the last. At the end, I put everything down and look at my desk. He’s covered in glitter and makeup. My books have a clear coating that wasn’t there before. There are lots of fabrics and cotton tips everywhere. I’m done.
As I did a week earlier in Okini’s apartment, I get up to go and look at myself in the bathroom mirror. This time I feel different – I did it myself. It was I who tried… and failed… and tried again. I look at myself completely and I feel confused. Another feeling that I have never felt before emerges, my heart opens and I cry. I experience for the first time the euphoria of gender, the feeling of authentically expressing your identity. I can’t let this moment pass. My tears are sincere and I am fully aware that this marks a new stage in my life; the one where I can start to become my real me.
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