There is a certain seediness in leaving the bright sunshine of an early summer evening to disappear inside the whoosh of a door. From the hustle and squeal of traffic on Georges Street, into the icon that is Dublin’s oldest gay bar, The George.
Perhaps it is the darkness of a near empty bar which portrays a different world. The tassel of promise and the vague sense of the ethereal under the ideology of entering the taboo.
Or perhaps the impression that this is still, to many, the unknown.
Soon it is apparent that behind the fading glitz of times once adorned in glitter and sparkle, the shabbiness, like all places that lay in wait in the dark, is just around the corner.
The raw day filter of outside has been closed off by tatty black velvet curtains. Spontaneity in laughter rings hollow.
I walk with Karl through the parts that others see, the gaily lit glass block stairs, the overly darkened stage area, the plush seating which seems to say ‘come sit a while and ponder, but not while the lights are on’, for the illusion will be lost.
But backstage is raw.
The stairwell has suffered many steps. The walls show no evidence of ageing gracefully. No botox wielding magic has thought to stave off the rigors of time where spiders’ homes peep from tattered sills.
The make-up parlour, or preparation room, lacks the glamour one imagines.
The remnants of day, or perhaps days old drinks, adorn the windowsill. Some form butterflies of mould on the rims of much mouthed glasses.
Karl has been a drag queen for almost four years.
The room for makeup is overly lit. A harsh strip of light lies against a grubby window onto a shabby alleyway.
I wonder how anyone can achieve a metamorphosis among so many dust motes.
Adam, a slim smiling 26-year-old sits opposite Karl. He slowly unpacks his case, laying out pansticks in every colour and brushes of every size. “I’m only a drag queen 18 months, so I’m called a ‘Baby Queen’”, he tells me, a wink fitting the setting to perfection. “Karl is a full blown Queen, full blown of himself.” He laughs as he layers heavy pan stick across his jaw bone. “One day I will have my own show, but for now, I am a baby Queen.”
Karl draws my attention back to his side of the room. This photo shoot is all about Karl, and his journey from Karl to Sophia Heart.
Vodka is poured, and sipped greedily through a straw in an almost clean glass. Double, dash of cranberry. Karl chats as he assembles the magic. He tells me of his normalcy outside these hallowed walls, his other life, where he is simply Karl.
He laments those who used the work station last night, laughing over spilled powder. He is quick with the puns, but gentle as he castigates his ‘girls.’
Each tap of powder, each stroke of the brush eradicates another element of Karl. His shoulders are looser, his lips form pouts, he seems looser. The vodka helps, his chin lifts.
As the older Queens arrive and settle in, a new banter comes with them. I am the oddity, vaguely strange. And it remains so for quite some time, until they seem to forget I am there. For each move of the camera, they remain wary of me.
The older Queen Eddie looks like a kindly grandfather, indeed he may be, but as the others say: “Dolly has been a Queen since the Kamer Rouge, that’s why she has such rosy cheeks.”
The metamorphosis from Karl to Sophia is not just about physical appearance. The third layer of foundation has tempered through the octaves. His smile is less wary, his head tilts now, ever so.
The tone of voice too has changed. The warmth moving easily from eyes to lips, which now hold the cigarette and adopt a more feminine moue.
Without a fanfare of trumpeters or words, the arrival of Sophia has begun.
The room stinks of cigarettes, Sambuca, sweat, and makeup. A tiny room that whispers nostalgia, dreams, and something nameless, that feels like a spider thread on the hairs at the back of my neck.
Sophia needs flowers for her act but there are none in the shops locally. A member of staff returns from looking, some twenty minutes later.
A pretence at a forlorn defeat precedes a stage bow and the offer of a bunch of flowers which look to have been picked from a garden. My suggestion is bashed. “No gardens round here love” I am told. I smile, the reverence is for the queen who now has her flowers.
At the other mirror the group has extended and drinks are shared along with tales, some very tall, and whoops of admiration for new dresses.
Bitch files are opened and closed in rapid succession, and it seems strange to be viewed as an oddity among men dressing as women, and odder still that I feel they are doing it better than I.
It is almost time to leave this room with its false light and iridescent glitter. The room where dreams are made, yet they still appear to be unfilled. I find I am a little jealous that I will never see through this veil other than what my camera will be allowed shoot.
There is so much that has been shown, yet so much which can not be seen.
Karl is light, both in stature and attitude. He has made sure I feel included in this theatrical endeavour but it still feels better to hide behind the lens of the camera which seeks to capture that one moment.
And while the pictures may have a story, they only show it. They don’t express the intensity of emotions, both positive and downright bitchy, which cloak this world. They don’t catch the kindness in a gesture, the tenderness in a touch or the implicit instruction in what is not said.
The Queens, the big ones and the baby ones, and those who will come after, offer an illusion, or an ambition. But like all theatre, once the make up is wiped away, and the lights go on, the illusion, is just that.