On February 8, 2012, my older brother, Stephen, turned 50. (Happy Birthday, Bro’!!!) I’m still having trouble grasping that concept; because it seems only yesterday that I was celebrating my PARENTS’ 50th birthdays in 1995, dancing my butt off with friends and family at the bar atop the Army Air Force Exchange Service’s World Headquarters in Dallas…and not long before that, I swear, that my sister Malia and I baked a chocolate cake in Honolulu one late August night in 1979 for my GRANDMOTHER’S 50th!! Time has zipped by at warp speed.
In 1962, the “Rainbow Tribe”, as my parents used to call their gaggle of 5 children, began. (Our mixed-race heritage manifested itself in a brood sporting both dark and light skin tones, straight and kinky hair textures, thin and broad noses…hence, our collective nickname.) Stephen Robert Lanakila Mahelona, my parents’ firstborn…and an amazing big brother to Malia, Kawika, Kelli and me…arrived in style. In celebration of his half-century mark this year, he and his wife, Stacie, decide to throw a big bash at their home in Dallas – a 1962 cocktail-lounge party. A perfect time setting, as that time period, the early- to mid-1960’s, is a time period that my siblings and I adore. It conjures a dramatically-changing, booming period in Hawaii’s history, when jet travel brought the masses to the islands, hotels and skyscrapers shot up in Waikiki, and tiki-bars and ultra-stylized, “Polynesian” architecture had their shining moments. Having had a somewhat avant-garde upbringing by my parents, I remember Martin Denny’s “exotica” music and Brazilian Bossa Nova grooves sexily emanating from our old record player, not the Top-40 sounds of the Beatles or Beach Boys. Stephen can attest to the parties hosted by our parents as the ultimate in COOL – evenings when our livingroom was aglow with candles dripping their wax down empty Chianti and sangria bottles, our lullabies consisting of drunken artist-musicians banging on bongos, tambourines, guitars and ukuleles, howling out Dylan and Baez ballads. (That is, when we kiddoes weren’t banging on tambourines along with everyone else!) My Dad can attest to his mischievous little rugrats tiptoeing, the mornings after, over passed-out bodies in our livingroom, sipping all the leftover cocktails. This is our “nostalgia”.
Stephen and Stacie bring it all back to life, brilliantly, in their mid-century home in East Dallas. A glowing, tiki/outer-space style bar, dirty martinis shaken non-stop, kitschy hors d’oeuvres on toothpicks, radiating, Sputnik-style, from whole pineapples…all of this amidst their 1960’s collection of furniture and artwork, against the lilting backdrop of the music of the age…send us back 50 years. Not to mention all the revelers in every shade of 1960’s dress – hippie, beachboy, go-go girl, beatnik, Twiggy wanna-be, Andy Warhol groupie, Vietnam soldier, girl-group singer…they are all here, dancing, laughing, conversing, noshing, sloshing, celebrating an amazing man, my brother.
When the Evite went out for the party with its call for costuming, there was NO question I was going to do this party in drag. It has been nearly 10 years since I held my last, annual Halloween costume party in Dallas. These were great parties, with glow-in-the-dark apple martinis, amazingly creative costumes, great conversation and laughter, and the mandatory, after-party trip down to Dallas’ annual gay Halloween street party on Cedar Springs Road. And the hostess, yours truly, unfailingly hosted the soiree in diva-drag. It’s been too long…
Drag. It’s such an interesting, fascinating, misunderstood thing. For gay men, it can be a rite of passage, part of our counter-culture. Not everyone partakes; but those gay men who have never once gone to a party in drag have missed a part of our evolution as gay men. (I also think every straight man should go out, at least once, in drag…it’ll give him insight into how much his female partner has to go through to present herself to the world…the shaving, moisturizing, painting, camouflaging, tucking, squeezing, pushing up, pulling in…all the manipulation of skin, muscle, body fat, hair and nail…the crunching compression of feet and toes and precarious balancing on stilts. The female body as construction site and daredevil act. Women are, no question, the stronger sex!) Contrary to popular belief, drag rarely ever means, “I wish I was born female”. It is, in fact, dressing up as something else…but to the nth degree; for the hardest thing a man can do convincingly is BE a woman, his exact, physical opposite. Dressing as a clown, a vampire or the Village People is hardly a stretch for a man; but gliding gracefully on 6-inch stilletos, in a corset that has squeezed his internal organs together with carbon-to-diamond pressure, while maintaining a natural smile that won’t crack the layers and layers of makeup – now that’s a challenge for a man…and Lord knows I like a challenge. Bring it!
Drag is also an act of rebellion, of daring, of pushing buttons, of usurping power. If I walk into a room in drag, I can instantly see, feel and recognize the whirlwind of emotions it creates…the fascination, the intrigue, the desire, the envy, the confusion, the discomfort, the fear, the repulsion. It is interesting to me how it is impossible not to be affected by, or react to, good or bad, the presence of a man in drag. There is no question that whoever is in command in the room at any given moment will instantly have their thunder stolen by the entree of the dreaded Drag Queen. For me, though, it was just plain fun to do once a year at Halloween. It’s silly; it’s a caricature; it’s an alter-ego that lets me do or say things I might ordinarily not. And anyone who knows me well knows how I LOVE to push people out of their comfort zones! (Evil Queen!)
So, that decision having been made, Ralph and I spend the days before the party running around Manhattan, rummaging through the cocktail dresses, skinny neckties and open-toed pumps of the Goodwill Store and Housing Works Thrift Store, the wigs and accessories of the Abacadabra costume store, the baubles and beads of all the cheap-import-costume-jewelry shops in the Garment District, and the makeup section of the Duane Reade drugstore, where we find the accoutrements necessary to bring to life his 1960’s college-student/young professional persona, and my 1960’s, Jackie-O-inspired, middle-aged-socialite persona. My dear friend, Anna (who, by the way, is constantly pushing ME out of MY comfort zone), double-dog-dares me to post photos of my physical transition to this drag persona in my blog. When she does, it gives me butterflies in my stomach. For some reason, posting this in my blog IS a stretch for me. I know right then and there it must be done. (Stay tuned, if you dare!)
The evening’s celebration was the party of the century…or half-century, at least! Having flown in from Honolulu as a surprise for Stephen, my younger brother, Kawika, completed the family gathering. It’s a rare occasion for all 5 of us siblings to be together…and when we are…it’s always a party! Hanging out with old friends, new friends, extended family, drink in hand, platters of food everywhere, we had a chance to let our hair down and reflect on our younger days. We danced in the livingroom and hung out in the “retro lounge”…and cameras went wild!
1962 was a pivotal time in American history. With the upcoming assassination of our President and our deadly plunge into Vietnam, America lost its innocence. A new generation shifted from the grip of its parents values and mores; and a uniquely American counter-culture was born. We would never be the same. But on this night, we reveled in our innocence, grooved and go-go’d…we laughed as we spilled our martinis. We posed for snapshots, emulated our mothers and fathers in their heyday, and strutted our stuff in their honor. Party on, Stephen….here’s to your next “fitty”!!
And now…the middle-aged-socialite-diva emerges…
Step 1: Nair for smoothing the legs, forearms and underarms and a thorough moisturizing of the entire body. Walk around hotel room in stilleto heels for a couple of hours to practice balance and grace. Iron black Liz Claiborne cocktail dress found at Goodwill for $9.99.