Here to begin?
That’s the big question, I hope you’ll agree.
You. Me. Where do any of us “begin”?
Face it. An ill-judged wink across a crowded dance floor invites a lifetime of school bills. An inebriated fumble in the dark, on the playing field, in the cloakroom, gets the same job done just as well.
Even you, hearing this, you might be the product of a case of mistaken identity that wound up in the maternity ward.
I’m not judging.
Judging is your job. You’ll have to reach a verdict after all the evidence in the case has been presented. That’s how it works.
Off we go; the pistol cracks, jump-starting a spirited, high-heeled lunge from the starting blocks as we jostle for position in the “Human Race”; digging in for the long haul; and what starts as a spirited marathon sprint, winds down over decades until it’s a hundred-meter medicated crawl to the finish line.
That’s what you’d say if you were trying to be clever, I suppose.
Lucky me, I don’t have to try. I’ve got the front stalls and balcony eating out of my handbag most nights. I can bat an eye, purse my lips, and bring the house down like a drone strike any night of the week.
“Tonight” happens to be a Wednesday. Like yours truly, it can go one way or the other on a Wednesday but the weather’s rotten outside, as my dripping, demoralized umbrella will confirm, and that’s generally enough to guarantee a packed hall from the orchestra pit to the gods and nosebleeds.
So, if you ask me, and on the clear understanding there’s nobody else here in the dressing room, you may as well take the plunge: It doesn’t matter where we begin, does it, babes?
When all’s said and done, we start off with nothing. You and me both, and all the rest. Hardly matters what happens in between; we arrive with nothing and we finish with nothing, am I right?
Zip. Zilch. Nada. Naught. Nil.
What better place to “commence my narrative” than here, with nothing at all?
At Ground Zero.
What makes me so certain I’ve got nothing? you may ask.
I can tell you it’s because I know for sure I’ve got nothing to lose.
If you’re already asking yourself, How long can she go on and on about nothing, settle in, I’ve only just gotten started.
Nothing is a blank canvas, you see. Nothing is a mirror waiting patiently for an anticipated reflection to show up. A lonely-looking glass in an Oscar Wilde fairy tale, aching for that special face to drift into view, bringing purpose to its blank existence.
Which returns me to me, unsurprisingly, looking in a glass like that one in the story Oscar forgot to write. Me and the wicked queen from Snow White.
Honestly, if I could sum up my whole life in one image, there’s a mirror on the wall and there’s me, looking in, or looking out, it’s hard to tell with mirrors.
If anyone ever asks, I describe myself as an artist, and an artist needs a carte blanche to get started.
This tabula rasa I call my face has, for quite a long time, been every bit as vacant as it gets: symmetrical, bland, uninhabited, you could say. A halfhearted sketch for a grand, abandoned project. Even these reluctantly accumulated lines and folds and cracks appear to me as if they’d much rather be somewhere else; livening up an Etruscan vase in a museum or adding texture to some moth-eaten rolled medieval tapestry.
Faced with that crumpled imprecision, the only reasonable response is to sanction a scorched-earth policy. Vietnam. The Gulf. Afghanistan. Agent Orange. Edit out the errors, blitz the flaws, illuminate the trenches with color and contour.
Let scarlet poppies bloom on the graveyard pillows of my lips, soldier dear!
Come to think of it, you could say I’ve been touching myself up my whole life if you wanted to lead with a blue note.
As if to prove my point, having prepped the canvas with Derma Shield, the foundation goes on first—and these days, I might as well layer it on with a trowel, or a bulldozer. My sponge has to work harder than a navvy spreading tarmac on a highway surface pitted with artillery potholes.
I dip two fingers in the pot to scoop up a generous cool blob of W5 Kryolan pancake base before rubbing my palms together nice and slow, so the emulsion squishes through my fingers in creamy prayer. Then, placing the tips either side of the bridge of my nose, I draw my digits down in a tribal chevron.
It’ll take as long as it always takes, time enough to say everything that needs to be said. If Luci LaBang is ready when it’s curtains up, everything else is secondary.
She’s on her way, floating up from the depths to the mirror’s surface to replace my vacant features, Narcissus in middle age, in all her airbrushed Hollywood splendor.
Soon, she’ll shatter the surface tension of the glass. She’ll float up through the bulrushes, like Lizzie Siddall doing Ophelia, and screen-print herself onto my skull.
No matter how smooth your skin is, how good your diet’s been, how “young you still look” for your age; no matter how much Botox you reluctantly forked out for three months ago, at Luda’s request; there’s no escaping fifty years of age. It’s that five-knuckle rap on the door you can’t put off answering. That sinister, long-anticipated stranger, sidling up to whisper a bedtime horror story you’d rather not hear, let alone live through. Until you’re left with no choice.
Mine is the character arc, mine the “journey,” no one would choose to take: hot young Drag Princess with a weekly show on TV to aging Pantomime Dame in the blink of a mascara-clotted false eyelash.
As for Luda, we’ll get back to that soon enough.
Some of you may require a sympathetic context for my howls of outrage, so allow me to digress briefly on the pantomime, an arcane form of art so coarse and lowbrow it wasn’t deemed fit to share a pigsty on Noah’s Ark, let alone passage to the Americas in the company of Charlie Chaplin and the first rollicking wave of music hall immigrants.
While the Little Fellow invented the idea of global stardom, pantomime elected to stay behind in the old country, determined to continue its backward Bedlam scuttle down the theatrical tree of life, aiming, you might think, for some simplified one-celled form of entertainment, and ultimately merciful oblivion.
The show began, historians insist, as commedia dell’arte, with Pierrot, Columbine, and Harlequin doing their three-way satirical ménage for libertines and proles alike. Soon, following some process of reverse evolution, commedia dell’arte turned tail and slithered back into ancestral swampland there to wind up squatting in the mangroves and limelight as pantomime, the lowest of the low arts. The performance equivalent of atavistic reversal.
The word itself was coined in 1717 for an ad in The Daily Courant, I looked it up. But it wasn’t until 1860 that anything we’d recognize as a traditional “pantomime” came along—that brash, shambling steam engine of profanity, song, and gender meltdown that runs year in, year out. Summer seasons in the resort towns, winter in the cities.
I was thirty-six when I did my first one. At a time when I needed something new in my so-called life, I spotted a niche.
You could say I identified a neglected area of the Arts where no one seemed to be experimenting or innovating. After the success I’d scored being the prettiest one in the Troupe—as we’d decided to call ourselves in that search for a post-ironic sweet spot between Warhol’s Factory, the Manson Family, and Monty Python—I could see my face becoming more angular and, quite frankly, more Cubist with every passing month.
Fresh creases put my red lips in ironic double parentheses every time I smiled. A murder of crow’s-feet trampled through the sooty ovals gathered round my eyes. These signs of time’s creepy crawl were not so much as to ruin the effect, especially when I was done with my kit, just enough to remind me of mortality and the no-longer-Romantic brevity of youth and beauty. As if anyone needs reminding.
Am I right?
I needed a new frame for this changing face; if TV’s hi-fidelity microscopic scrutiny was guaranteed to reveal way too much in the close-ups, I’d stage a retreat to the theater, where everything happened in longshot. I belonged in a house of ill repute where the men were girls and the girls were boys 24/7 and no one called the authorities.
Pantomime fit the bill.
Little did I know I was entering my prime, like Miss Jean Brodie. Pantomime was the crown and I was the jewels. I’d found my vocation.
Prime, it goes without saying, comes before a Fall.