A middle-class Mumbai family negotiates with resilience a nerve-wracking gender journey, as their son, an economics student and young drag queen, finds freedom in a performance art
In the bedroom, the window air-conditioner is fighting a raging battle against the October heat. And, while inside it might seem that machine is winning against nature, in the bathroom where Sheyenne Pepper has been standing since 5.30 pm (it's nearly 8 pm now), the equation seems slightly different.
Peering into the bathroom mirror, Pepper, who calls himself a 'baby queen', which is drag for newbie, has spent the hours shaving his beard, colour correcting it with red or orange, working on his skin tone, eyes, lips. He is at a friend's home. In a short while, he is expected to share his story at Tape A Tale at Bandra's The Cuckoo Club, an event where performers discuss personal journeys.
Friends help him with the rubber pipe skirt
The washing machine inside the the bathroom is strewn with make-up. There's a whole array, from base layers and foundations, to eye shadows and blushes. Pepper turns away from the mirror and lets a sigh of exasperation. He has been working on his eyes for 20 minutes and is not happy with how things are going. He pouts as he checks his profile to get the cheekbone details right. "I don't know what went wrong. I need to practice more... Let's see if I can fix it with this," he says, picking up a gold leaf, which he then places over his eyelid.
Sitting in a room at his home, in a pair of shorts and tee, Pepper in his "boy" avatar is a far cry from the sassy Sheyyene on stage. There, Pepper often introduces himself with: "I'm a drag queen. Which basically means I'm a more fabulous version of Poo from K3G, but with a d**k."
He works with press-on nails
His own name, says Pepper, came from his time abroad. "I used to cook a lot and would love my spices like any Indian person. I wanted a name that referenced India but not something that only Indians would understand, so I chose pepper," he smiles. He admits it's a bit stereotypical "but I thought it works and then I chanced upon the name Cheyenne in Wyoming and the city name stuck with me, but it sounded like a cool name, so I switched from cayenne pepper to Sheyenne Pepper." The change in the spelling, he says, is for no good reason.
But, drag is.
He stepped into the world, he says, after much thought. Abroad for an undergraduate course in economics, Pepper says he had issues with being happy. And, where the winters were long and gloomy, what ended up bringing some cheer was the pioneering reality television show, RuPaul's Drag Race. A show now in its 10th season, it has given drag queens in America a platform to showcase their skills: make-up, styling, designing costumes and performing. In fact, Pepper often argues that drag needs to be seen as a form of high art. After all, it has (if only not perceived through a gender lens) all the ingredients of one.
He thinks he needs practice with eye make-up and chooses to fix an imperfect attempt with gold leaf on the eyelids
Season 6 was when Pepper first watched RuPaul's show. Initially, he says, he wondered if his unhappiness was to do with gender expression and questioned if he may be trans. "That disturbed me. It is scary because being a transwoman is very difficult and suicide rates and depression are high.
When watching drag made me feel happy, I wondered 'do I want to be a woman?' Initially, I was afraid to do drag because I was afraid that if I did it, it would confirm my fear that I might actually be trans. And I didn't want to face the fear because if you are trans, you have to get surgeries, hormone treatment. There's a very challenging transition journey accompanied by a medical and psychological process. Later I asked myself, am I unhappy with my body? And I realised I am not. I don't want breasts, I don't even like the idea of a vagina," he laughs.
The audience at Kitty Su's Halloween party paid Rs 1,000 each to watch Pepper and other performers
It took him a couple of years, sleepless nights and conversations with friends to realise that gender is a spectrum and not a binary. "This is a prevailing idea within liberal circles, and I realised that I am a male with a feminine side. Through drag, I can express that side."
For his 22nd birthday, Pepper, still abroad, threw a drag-themed party. He called home a make-up artiste, bought outfits from thrift stores, and dressed up. "It was the best night of my life. We [including some straight male friends] did catwalks, lip sync and I didn't feel any different doing that. I had feared that I might think I might be trans, but that didn't precipitate. It was fun."
It's Monday evening, and the Halloween Party at Kitty Su, the club at The Lalit Hotels which has become a venue and promoter of drag performances across the country, is just a few days away. Pepper has landed a spot and prep has begun on full scale.
Initially, he wondered if he was trans. 'But then I asked myself, am I unhappy with my body? I realised I am not,' he says
The plan for the outfit is ready. And the skirt structure involves three hoops of different circumferences made of rubber pipes, held together and in shape by ribbons. Metal would have added more structure, but it would have made walking, moving through doors, sitting down, much harder. He shrugs, "It's all an experiment, I don't know what I am doing." The pipes, in the initial stages of the costume, are still in their original colour. Pepper plans to cover them with black tape. The finish of the tape is close to the black PVC material with which he plans to make the skirt. A pair of shorts that he previously sewed on his own is what he plans to cut into the shape of high-waist hot pants.
Pepper has a tiny sewing machine at home gifted by an older relative. This is where he has made the shorts and this is where he will stitch the Halloween skirt. It's a skill he has learnt only in the last one year that he has started doing drag. But his room is full of the necessary accessories. He pulls out hip pads, made from mattress foam bought on Hill Road. He shows how to place them and says they stay in place once you wear enough tights. Then, there are corsets to cinch in the waist.
Posing for pictures after an act at The Hive on Linking Road, Bandra
There are paper patterns for the shorts. YouTube has been a good teacher for everything from stitching and sewing to make-up and accessorising. While drag - which he says is merely an exaggeration of gender, perhaps even the rejection of gender - can allow for androgynous bodies, the ideal he says, is the Kardashain hour-glass figure.
We step out at Bandra's shopping mecca, Hill Road, around 6 pm, to start hunting for everything his costume still needs. There are a few items he doesn't know the word for, though he knows which shop to hunt for them at. "Fortunately here, everything is on show, so I don't flounder too much," he says as the shopkeeper hands him a waistband. Then, we hit Sona Bazaar where he asks if the PVC fabric is available. At Rs 450 a metre, he needs five metres. The first shop has run out of it, but waiting for another batch will mean a loss of 24 hours. He's lucky and finds the material next door.
Guests approach Pepper after the show
Le Bijou is where he finds a pair of stockings. Doesn't he get raised eyebrows when shopping for corsets, stockings and gloves? Mostly no, he says. And, on the off chance that someone has asked him why he is trying out a skirt, he says he is an actor. It seems plausible enough. After all, even the street hawker, though seeming to sell the finger rings to this writer (a female), didn't bat an eyelid, when Pepper (in non-drag avatar) picked up a few for himself.
With a suitcase full of drag 'stuff' and heels that only fit Pepper's size 42 feet, hiding drag is hardly possible. But, the confrontation of the issue happens when, for this article, Pepper reaches out to his family asking if they will be okay with him being in a newspaper.
He stiched the PVC bustier and hot pants on a personal sewing machine
His father is skeptical. "Your generation is okay with a lot of things, but if he goes out and gets a job... what if this comes in the way of his career?" On hearing the news, his father, we learn, had reached out to famed drag queen Rani Ko-He-Noor, aka Sushant Digvikar's parents to understand what the repercussions of the story might be. While Pepper wasn't privy to the entire exchange, he says, Digvikar's parents said that ultimately if drag is what makes their son happy, they are okay with it.
Sitting in Pepper's room, heading out to work a little late only to meet this writer, his father says that he knew of Pepper's drag shows even before his son showed him a video of his performance. "I won't tell you who showed it to me," he says, much to Pepper's chagrin. His parents don't want Pepper's real name in the paper. Nor any photos that might reveal his non-drag identity. His sister would prefer, Pepper says, if the article isn't published at all. "She knew that I was doing drag and she has seen some of my photos on Instagram, but she is skeptical about the article being out there."
Pepper prepares for the Tape A Tale performance backstage at The Cuckoo Club
Pepper's maternal aunt, whom he consults ahead of his Tape A Tale performance, also fears for his future. She adds that Pepper is an intelligent young man and capable of reaching heights in the field of economics. "You could get into the World Bank or IMF or the UN. Once you have achieved success, you can say I am gay, like the Prime Minister of Ireland, or that Scandinavian minister who has a female partner. You don't want to be discriminated against while climbing up the ladder." A medical practitioner, the aunt says she knows how deeply prejudiced the world can be. "It's not about them [a future employer] openly discriminating, but these ideas are so deeply entrenched, it's better not to be in your face. This is your personal life and no one's business, but why go and show a red flag to a future bull?"
Pepper, during a different conversation, expresses why he will pursue drag, 'despite seeing how it's such a challenge for my parents, family and society'. For him now, drag has become a way to express his gender identity "while at the same time not living the lifestyle of a gender queer person in everyday life". "It's a place where I can express a different side to my gender while still compartmentalising it."
About any possibility of revelation through the article, he says staying silent about drag for another 20 years will eat into his happiness. A life of fear will plunge him into the darkness he has hauled himself out of. "If it comes out, it comes out [the truth]. I don't want to work in a company where they might discriminate, anyway." He knows that while drag will continue to be his passion, the chance of earning from it is low. Plus, economics - his thesis involves studying India's Public Distribution System and its effect on health - allows him to interact with the world in a way that even fashion might not be able to. "If I were to design, I'd end up just making clothes for rich people."
Privilege is an important subject for Pepper. He is aware of his own privilege. His own drag journey, for instance. It began last October at Kitty Su. They were bringing down a RuPaul winner, Alaska 5000, to India to perform. Pepper wanted to meet her. Not as a mere fan, but in drag. This, he hoped, would allow him a better chance. "I told my mom about Alaska and how I was a big fan and that it was a big deal. I needed money to attend this. She was unsure, but said okay."
The family wasn't meant to see anything. But at the last minute, Pepper's make-up help cancelled. The next option was to use his sister's stash and because he couldn't take it out of the house, he had to step out of his home, his face fully made up. "My sister was upset by how much of her make-up I had used. Everyone in the family saw." He changed costumes in the cab. His first night out in India in drag and, he says, he experienced nothing but positivity. He has changed and worn make-up in autos, cabs, men's loos, and in one instance, even in the general compartment of a local train. Aside from Kitty Su, he has also performed as a stand-up comic in drag.
"No one has ever said anything negative. People have come up to me, asked for photos and congratulated and thanked me." And then, he speaks of a drag queen whose parents found out and threw a fit. To calm them, she had to keep her drag clothes at a friend's place. "I have not seen her in drag since."
Pepper says heading to Kitty Su regularly in drag helped. "They saw what I was doing was good and so gave me a chance to perform." He tested his open mic skills at venues across the city. A perennial joke is "Chembur" is not his crowd. "Western suburbs are more like it".
It's Halloween evening at the club, and after several hours of waiting, even as the floor gets filled with drag queens and Valak The Nun who, sends shivers down the spine, there's finally some sign that the performance may start.
Pepper opens the show. Turns out, at the last minute, he was handed the job of hosting the show. After a brief lip-sync and dance (which he didn't choreograph but admits later is a skill he needs to work on), he does a stand-up act. The crowd has gathered around the stage, making getting anywhere close a near impossibility.
If the Pepper at Tape A Tale was struggling a bit to find his feet, the Pepper at Kitty Su owns the stage. The accent is more pronounced (friends who've known him from school and had come to support him said so later in the green room). The make-up is on point. And with high heels, an already tall Pepper cuts an impressive, almost intimidating figure. But, his smile is brilliant and puts everyone at ease. Revellers who've paid to watch, approach him for photographs. And he obliges. His only concern - tag his Instagram handle @desidragdiva when they upload it on social media. And the dress?
A little background first. Pepper is also a gifted artist. An elaborate painting in his room catches our eye. But Pepper, who gave up a degree in fine arts to pursue economics, feels otherwise. He points at places where more work needs to be done. His eye for detail has indeed been trained.
The outfit is impeccably turned out. The taped-over pipes seem true to his vision. His hour-glass figure makes the woman in this writer feel frumpy, and like all women, he too complains that the heels hurt.
On the Tape A Tale stage, Pepper shares lines about drag he rehearsed before us: "I slowly got used to the aesthetic, and began to appreciate the art and meaning behind drag. Why can't a man wear a skirt? What is drag? Drag is a performance art. Drag is the exaggeration of gender, it is the rejection of gender, it is a caricature of gender, it is subversive and it is political, it is thrilling and most of all it's fun. To be honest I can't really define drag, but what I associate it most with, is, freedom."
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