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Making Lips Sensual...The woman who emerges seductively from Grisha's bedroom looks nothing like the man who went in just an hour before.

Mystery WomanA tight black mini-dress accentuates her impossibly slender hips and long, shapely legs. Her deep-set eyes are set off by thick, luxurious eyelashes and several hues of eyeshadow, and her lips are painted a provocative red. She tosses aside a unruly strand of the black hair that cascades down her back and moves toward the center of the room where, as she well knows, every eye is on her.

It was only a year ago that Grisha and his friends -- including 32-year-old Valera, his co-star for this evening's performance -- first started dressing up for their own private drag shows.

Kissing"We all sort of had the idea together," he says. "So we bought some clothes from secondhand shops and then put on our own little show. It is a lot of fun to dress up and just goof around, but that's all it is, really. Nobody takes it seriously."

"It takes a lot of energy to put on a show, so we don't do it very often," he says. "Getting everything ready, putting on the makeup -- it all takes time. And we don't want to do it just halfway." Instead, on quieter evenings, Grisha can just pop in one of several videos that he and his friends have made of themselves in drag during the past year.

SmokingIn the grand tradition of high camp, the videos are masterpieces of self-parody and whimsy: one starts with clips of Grisha and his friends wobbling drunkenly up and down the steps in his apartment building at 4 am, then cuts back and forth to CNN excerpts in which the world's top supermodels stroll up and down the Spanish steps in Rome. The supermodels may have the edge in terms of designerwear and venue, but it is the images of the graceful, tipsy men in the dimly-lit stairway that are difficult to forget.

In the Mirror"We only do this for ourselves," says Grisha. "I would never dance in a club, and have never even been to see a drag show. But once we did decide to go out on the street in drag," he continues with a laugh. "We decided to drive to another part of town, then argued about whether to just go out in our dresses, or carry them with us in the car. Finally, we decided to take the stuff with us, since I didn't want to be seen walking out of my apartment in a dress."

"That turned out to be a lucky decision, as the car ended up breaking down in an intersection on our way. Can you imagine if we had had to get out and push the car, wearing our dresses and high-heeled shoes?"

Since its first few appearances on the Moscow scene in the late 1980's, drag has slowly been making a comeback in Russia. In Moscow and St. Petersburg, clubs with regularly scheduled drag performances have been opened, and performers periodically rent out theaters for shows.

Cutting HairAs in most countries, drag here is a magnet for controversy. St. Petersburg's drag club, Mayak, is in a battle to remain open after repeated bomb threats phoned in to the club's management curtailed numbers at the club. And most performers, while no longer concealing the fact in stores that they are buying dresses for themselves, nevertheless keep a very low profile outside of their own circles, for fear of prejudice and attack.

On the CouchIn a country where polls just last year showed that 23 percent of the population believes homosexuals should be killed (down from 34 percent in a 1989 poll), a gay drag performer is well advised to trade in his spike heels for something a bit more masculine before venturing out.

But all this matters little to the woman in black as she vamps her way to the couch, mouthing the lyrics to an Annie Lennox song. She eases down to the cushions as the music swells around her, and crosses her legs in a slow, langourous motion. Her every movement demands to be noticed; she is almost aggressive in her sensuality.

As the song draws to a close, she holds her pose while the small audience in her living room watches, enraptured. Then she tosses her head back demurely and laughs, the too-deep voice at once surprising and familiar.

Gary Matoso and Lisa Dickey
© FocalPoint f/8, 1995

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