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The Royal She

There are only a handful of people in the world who look good in tight, see-through dresses. A few Moscow men are among them.

It's 11:30 Sunday night, and Sergei is just sitting down to do his makeup. Outside his dressing room, the crowd is gathering in the top-floor cabaret of Moscow's newest gay club, Central Station. Pancake makeup already covering his long, tanned face, he picks out green glittery eye shadow and begins to dab it on.

Thus begins the nighttime transformation of Sergei, a member of a popular Moscow theater company, into Lora Kolli, director of an eponymous drag theater and the self-styled matriarch of Moscow's drag cabaret scene.

Twenty minutes later, Sergei emerges from the two-meter-square dressing room onto Central Station's tiny stage in a translucent azure lace dress, cutting a figure the handful of women in attendance could only envy and lip-syncing to the voice of his idol, Liza Minnelli.

His Sunday night routine, "Central Calling," a mock television talk show on which Lora Kolli offers bawdy advice to the lovelorn and grills "celebrity guests" (today it's Alla Pugachyova, played by Alexei Zolotov) about their sex lives, begins with a bit of philosophizing on the gay bar scene.

"Why is it that week in and week out, we go to the very same places, where we see the very same faces every time?" he asks his studio audience, scanning the room with eyes ringed with black and green glitter. "Because, I think," he continues, tossing a pink feather boa over his shoulder, "because in these places, we can, just maybe, be a little bit ourselves."

The audience bursts out laughing.

Gay clubs and drag shows are hardly new to the city, but in the last few months, three clubs -- Chameleon, Delfiny and Central Station -- have popped up, featuring drag shows as part of their repertoire.

"Gay Broadway," a musical revue, is set to run Saturdays at Central Station for the next few weeks, to be replaced later this month by a show called "The Collective Farm on the Hill." "Central Calling" runs every Sunday night.

Chameleon's thrice-weekly shows are led by Odessa-trained ballet master Zhenya Berezin, also known as Sara Iceberg, a self-described "frigid, middle-aged Jewish woman" who emcees the festivities at Chameleon.

"We just want to do something fun," Berezin says, "whether it's dressing up like women or dressing up like cows."

He cites five-hour daily rehearsals as evidence that his performers are serious artists.

"First of all, it's funny, but in addition, we try to combine the fun with the art of movement, with something new," he adds. Like the rest of the clubbing scene, drag shows in Russia date to early perestroika and a little bit before.

Homosexuality was forbidden by Soviet law, and any sort of gender deviance was met with extreme disfavor from the Soviet authorities, landing people in prison and psychiatric wards. Nevertheless, a few people put on small private drag shows to entertain their friends.

"It started out purely as a joke," Sergei says. "We used to get dressed up just for fun. Then we had some little house theaters." He says he was performing privately in drag as early as 1984. A few small above-ground venues popped up in the early 1990s.

The real breakthrough came in 1991, when a popular television talk show host took a risk and let Sergei and his partner, known collectively as the Kolibri sisters, sing a couple of cabaret numbers on his show.

These days, there are maybe 20 or 30 people in all of Moscow who perform in drag, Sergei says. One of the most popular is Pugachyova impersonator Zolotov.

Zolotov has Pugachyova pegged -- her gravely voice, her naive manner, her preference for towering heels and diaphanous dresses, her knock-kneed stance on stage, the way she inches forward toward the audience, hip thrust forward, shaking her wild red mane, eyes on fire as she belts into the microphone.

But Zolotov, who has been singing "Kings Can Do Anything" and other Pugachyova hits for the past seven years, objects to being categorized as a drag queen. For him, it's strictly a performance. "It's like an actor who comes to the theater and changes his clothes," he says.

He also denies that his show is directly connected to gay culture -- although he has many fans at Delfiny, where his show has become somewhat of a regular feature. Rather, he says, it's something all Russians can enjoy.

"I wear the image of a woman who is loved by everybody and accepted by everybody," he says.

He has taken his act on tour and has almost an entire album of photos of himself with fans in Bashkortostan.

Zolotov prefers to compare what he does to an American musical. It's not simply his resemblance to Pugachyova, but his musical talent and stage presence that make his show compelling.

While Zolotov says he has much to offer Russian pop culture in his own right -- without the help of wigs -- he is hesitant to embark on new projects: "I could go out there, but I don't want to become just one of the crowd."

Zolotov says his show is a symbol of admiration for Pugachyova. "It's all based on respect, love and professionalism," he says. "She is the people's singer."

"She takes up this place right here," he adds, pointing to his heart.

Lena Chuprakova, the manager of the real-life Pugachyova, said the star is not pleased with Zolotov's show. "It doesn't help, that's for sure," she sighed into her cellular phone.

But Chuprakova confirmed that the diva and her male impersonator have had consultations, during which, Zolotov says, Pugachyova never raised any objections to his work.

Contacted through her press service, Pugachyova declined to comment on Zolotov's work.

Sergei agrees with Zolotov's acting analogy and says his character exists only on stage.

"I have no wish to go through life in a woman's dress," Sergei says. Other drag queens, however, would love to walk around town in women's clothing.

"It's not that I don't want to," says a young man who goes by the name of Kira as he plasters pancake on his face backstage at Chameleon. "I just hate to waste makeup."

Melissa Akin and Sarah Karush
© The Moscow Times
July 3, 1998

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