Tuesday with Maury



7th Ave & W 33rd St, New York, NY 10119

Neighborhood: Midtown

The old lady thrust her flabby arms toward me and yelled, “She’s a man!” I fixated on the waddle of skin beneath her chin. With her arms flapping and her waddle shaking, she looked like a turkey.

“You’re sure Raven is a man?” Maury Povich cheerfully asked. I awaited gender judgment, posing in my seven-inch, black patent leather, come-fuck-me-but-please-don’t-make-me-walk-in-these heels, zebra-print floor-length gown, matching handbag and curly carrot colored wig. But grandma insisted. “She’s a man!” she cried again. The audience booed and chanted, “No, no, no!” She seemed desperate, which wasn’t surprising since money was at stake. Maury had promised to pay her $100 if she was correct and he taunted her by waving the bill in the air, just out of reach of her chubby hands.

Why the fuck did I agree to come on “The Maury Povich Show”, I wondered, as I prepared to reveal my true gender to the sweaty, screaming audience. Underneath my outfit, I was burning. It wasn’t just the glare of the TV studio lights or the way the netting of the wig clung to my scalp and kept any air from getting in. This was something else. I was pissed.

* * * *

About a week before, on a frozen February morning in 2000, I checked my answering machine from my lame day job selling theater tickets and found Anne’s message. The cadence of her voice suggested an exclamation point at the end of every sentence. “Hi! This is Anne! I’m a talent coordinator for the ‘The Maury Povich Show!’ We’re getting a group of gorgeous girls and boys together for a drag beauty pageant called ‘Glamour Girls or Sexy Studs!’ We’ve heard all about your act and we’d love for you to come in and—well— audition to be our female female impersonator!”

As a plus-sized, magenta-haired, tattooed Jew diva, I didn’t book a lot of gigs (hence my day job). In order to showcase my talents as an actress and singer, I had written and performed an autobiographical one-woman show called “How I Became A Drag Queen Trapped in a Woman’s Body.” I got decent reviews, except for the “New York Post,” whose critic dubbed me “offensive.” Apparently that verdict made me perfect for Maury.

Although I was bit apprehensive about appearing on a talk show, this wasn’t “Ricki Lake” or “The Richard Bey Show.” Maury seemed a few species up the talk show food chain—after all, he was married to Connie Chung—and I figured this was an ideal opportunity to reveal my divadom to the world. So I called Anne back and agreed to come in for an audition.

The next morning, I filled my bag with wigs, corsets, lashes, platforms, glitter and gowns and grabbed a cab to the midtown studio. Maury taped in the Hotel Pennsylvania, across from Penn Station, the same place where Sally Jessy Raphael shot her show. The building—once grand and opulent—now had a decaying glamour that made it the perfect venue for talk shows, a once lauded genre now punctuated by pompous hosts and exhibitionistic panelists. I was about to join their ranks.

As I strutted through the lobby, I lugged my drag bag behind me. I was dressed in my usual daywear: a low-cut black dress, beaded headband holding back my magenta hair, and comfy three-inch walking heels. When I arrived on the 11th floor, Anne was there to greet me. She looked exactly as I had imagined: shoulder-length, dirty blond hair, size four beige business suit, manicured nails and muted pink lips that clearly got a lot of exercise kissing ass.

“You must be Raaaven!” It sounded like she was speaking to a slightly slow child. “It’s looovely to meet you!” I noticed that she didn’t extend her hand. “Right this way!” she beckoned and I followed her down a hospital colored corridor. Every time we passed one of her colleagues, Anne would stop, smile, point to me and mouth, “This is her!” I felt like the drag messiah.

Finding traditional drag queens and transsexuals hadn’t been a problem, Anne explained, but she’d had a lot of trouble finding female drag queens: women who could pass as men passing as women. The girls she auditioned were never convincing. They weren’t big enough or over-the-top enough. She was hoping I would be.

“You can get dressed in here!” Anne said as we walked into what looked like a storage room. “We just want to see what you look like all—well—dragged up!” I nodded as I looked around, wondering how I would put on makeup without a mirror or sink. Then Anne left me alone so I could transform.

* * * * *

By the time I turned six, I knew I’d never learn how to be a girl. I’d never be perky, or petite, or good at the parallel bars. It just wasn’t going to happen. So I decided to become a tomboy, but that didn’t work either. By the time I turned eight, I started developing breasts, and you don’t know what pain is until you’ve been hit directly in the nipple by a dodge ball. At ten, I got my period. Suddenly I was a woman, but I’d never been a little girl. Menstruation isn’t fun at any age, but it’s particularly awful in fifth grade. I got my third cycle ever just before gym class so I ended up being late. Since the teacher was pissed no one took gym seriously, he decided to make an example out of me and when I rushed in he forced me to stand in front of the class and explain why I couldn’t arrive on time.

“Because I was changing my Maxipad!” I said. After a 20-minute “Ewwww,” class ended and we went in the locker room to change. All the other girls kept whispering and giggling! Finally Jennifer, the most popular girl because she wore all purple, all the time, came up to me and told me that I “smell funny, like an adult bathroom.” And that’s when it hit me: I hated girls. They were evil, interchangeable, shallow creatures and I decided I would never be one of them.

At 12 I started going to see “The Rocky Horror Picture Show” regularly in the Village. That’s where I met my best friend, a 14-year-old drag queen named Andy Freeze. He introduced me to corsets, wigs, and false eyelashes, and on weekends we would dress up and go see the movie. One night afterwards, when we were both particularly decked out, Andy said, “C’mon, let me buy you a drink,” and he took me to a bar called The Monster. When we got to the door, the bouncer stopped us, and I assumed he was going to ask us for ID. Being a native New York teenager, of course I had a fake one. But instead he said, “Girls aren’t allowed inside.” Andy just smiled. “We’re not girls. We’re drag queens!” The bouncer stared at me for a minute, then waved us in. Seas of gay men parted as we strutted across the dance floor. We perched on the stools and placed our matching vintage gold lame purses on the bar. Everyone was looking at us. We were the most beautiful, the most fabulous, the most feminine creatures they had ever seen. That’s when I realized: I wanted to be a drag queen.

I costumed myself every day throughout high school and college: wigs, corsets, glitter lipstick, tiaras. I called myself a “drag queen trapped in a woman’s body” and started booking gigs as a drag queen. Andy and I knew another drag queen named Miss Understood who ran her own drag queen rental service. She sent us out to weddings, parties and corporate events. Once we even sang “The Time Warp” at a rich kid’s “Rocky Horror” themed bar mitzvah.

And now here I was, in a closet at “The Maury Povich Show,” about to prove what a fabulous drag queen I was. I broke out my tiny compact mirror and started to paint. Andy had taught me well: I began with heavy-duty derma as my base coat. He used it to cover stubble; I used it as a protective layer, a thin cosmetic mask between me and the world. Next, false eyelashes. I always put them on before eyeliner, mascara and shadow. Lastly, I added three types of glitter: a shiny powdering of silver all over my face, neck and cleavage, iridescent purple for my eyelids, and red sparkles for my lips held perfectly in place with false eyelash glue. Finally, I slipped on my silver lame evening gown and seven-inch stiletto heels.

When Anne returned, she looked pleased. She squealed, “You’re perfect!” and we went back to her office to go over the details. The show would shoot the next Tuesday, with a quick walk-through rehearsal the day before. They even wanted me to sing a number. “Actually, I have a suggestion!” Anne said proudly. “The Eurythmics’ ‘Would I Lie to You!’ Get it?!” she laughed. “Isn’t that cute?!”

As Anne blathered on, I looked around her claustrophobic office piled with papers and promotional materials. In addition to sunny smiling photos of her with cloned girlfriends, I spotted a framed college diploma hanging on the wall. She had gone to Bard. I had gone to Sarah Lawrence. We had both graduated the same year. We could have been the same, but we weren’t.

* * * * *

I met the other participants the day we taped. Of course, I ignored the “real girls” as Anne called us and immediately started chatting with the transsexuals. There was Gia, the Pamela Anderson-esque LA porno star; a curly haired Latina goddess named Darlene; a trio of Filipina immigrant girlfriends: sweet Mary Ann (inspired by “Gilligan’s Island”), chanteuse Alexa, and delicate Nympha, who designed all of their clothing; and an ex-schoolteacher named Mrs. Fox. But the one I really bonded with was Nomi: a skinny, bubbly, black transsexual. I asked her, “Did you take your name from Elizabeth Berkley’s character in Showgirls?” and when she said, “Yes!” I knew we were going to be great friends.

We all primped and preened backstage as the audience was let into the studio. Then Maury started his introduction: “They talk like girls, they walk like girls, but some of these beauties aren’t girls at all, and if you think you can tell the difference, wait, ‘cause have we got a surprise for you!” Whitney Houston’s “I’m Every Woman” started to play and Maury began calling our names. As each contestant emerged the audience screamed, “It’s a man! I can see his cock! That’s a man. That’s a man!!!”

But when I came out, everyone cried, “That’s a woman! Look at her tits! They sag, there’re stretch marks. That’s a woman! That’s a woman!” I crossed my arms and tried to push up my breasts. I looked over at Nomi. She was standing the same way.

Back in the dressing room, we hurriedly changed into our next outfits. I asked Nomi to lace my corset. As she tightened the cords, she asked, “Why did you come here?” “Because I like being mistaken for a trannie,” I said. “Well, I hate it,” Nomi said. “Anyway, your act didn’t work too well. Everyone clocked you as a girl.” “I know,” I said, disappointed. Then Nomi stopped tying and turned me around. “Can I ask you something?” she said. “How did they know you were a woman?”

“Because my tits sag. Because I’m ugly, and fat, and awkward, and flawed!”

I heard Maury call my name. “Now it’s time for our talent competition. Raven is here to sing The Eurythmics’ ‘Would I Lie to You’!” The audience cracked up and I ran onstage and started to sing. “Would I lie to you?” I walked through the audience, caressed their faces, sat on their laps. “Would I lie to you honey?” A fat man reached out and grabbed my breast. “Ha! I knew they were real!” he said. “Definitely a woman!” “Now would I say something that wasn’t true?”

The entire audience was hollering. I looked around for Maury and found him hiding in a corner. I ran over, grabbed his arm and dragged him onstage. I wagged my finger in his face and belted, “Tell you straight, no intervention, to your face, no deception, you’re the biggest fake that much is true, had all I can take, now I’m leaving you!” When I finished the audience was on its feet, cheering, screaming, “Go Raven! Go Raven! You go girl!” They loved me. And they all knew I was a woman.

Except for that one old woman who insisted, “She’s a man!” the audience booed and screamed, “No, no, no! It’s a woman! She’s a woman!” At least I convinced one person, I thought. “Why do you think she’s a man?” Maury asked her. “Because she’s so obviously a woman, she’s got to be a man,” the old biddy reasoned.

After 17 years of thinking of myself as a drag queen, my façade was cracking on national TV. “Raven,” Maury said. “Will you please reveal yourself.” All the anger and disappointment and confusion boiled up inside me as I defiantly tore off my wig. Unbeknownst to me, my necklace had become entangled in it, and as the wig left my head I exploded in a shower of beads all over the stage. “I’m a woman!” I declared. The audience—except for that old lady—cheered. I wondered how they had been so sure I was female when I had trouble believing it myself.

When I got home, I took off my corset, and my lashes, and my heels, and I washed off all my makeup and stared at myself in the mirror. I thought about the lyrics to the song. “You’re the biggest fake . . .” I wondered, “Am I the biggest fake?” All these years, what have I been trying to be? What am I, really?

* * * * *

So I’d like to tell you that in that moment I had an epiphany, embraced my womanhood and lived happily ever. But that’s total bullshit. I still have mornings when I get out of the shower and look at myself in the mirror and wonder, “Who is that creature and how do I destroy her?” But I no longer try to “pass” as a drag queen or trannie. I don’t wear corsets every day (just on the weekends). I don’t put on my glitter lipstick when I go around the corner to get a carton of milk. I don’t dismiss women the moment I meet them. I even sent a semi-polite note back to Anne after she e-mailed me to tell me what a “fabulous” guest I had been. And for me, this is progress. I figure by the time I am about 80, I will have finally learned to be a girl.

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