Nick’s long ebony upper eyelashes with a hint of cerulean and gold flicker and wait with a sigh for lower eyelashes to be carefully attached with a thin layer of glue. His hazel eyes blink a few times, anticipating the possibility of being glued together and then look down at me as I carefully hand over a pair of black sequin boots with six inch heels. This scenario is anything but a wildly unbelievable dream; it has been my reality for the past seven and a half weeks dressing actors for The Legend of Georgia McBride, a play about drag shows. Night after night, a vast amount of long elegant lashes are applied to be a sign of dramatic feminine beauty, but I wonder, how can it be beautiful when you’re an actor carrying around the weight of a heavily padded fat suit, a dress with turquoise sequins that scratch at your arms, and platform boots in which you have walk with confidence? Plus, you can’t forget about the microphone decorated with pink foam and rhinestones to look like a penis that’s stuffed in the rear of your costume. It’s a constant reminder of the old adage, “Pain is beauty,” as you sit down with your ass against the microphone every night for layers of rose-colored blush, ice blue eye shadow, and magenta glittered lip powder to be applied. Is the exotic and exaggerated make-up what exemplifies the persona of a woman?
While such features would seem to be an obsession for women only, history in Ancient Egypt and India indicates otherwise. In both cultures, men used eye ointments for protection from bad spirits and weather conditions. Western culture shows us a different story as women exclusively focus on eyelashes with the popularity of mascara made from petroleum jelly and oils by Maybell laboratories in 1917. As I see countless vintage advertisements of silent movie star Ethel Clayton peering at the camera through her full thick lashes and large doe eyes and drawings of models with turquoise eyelids and feathering eyelashes, I can sense how alluring and mysterious they become. As I stare at my own reflection in the mirror, I wonder, is the mystique created by a streak of mascara all it takes to be a beautiful woman?
Much like my straight, thick dark hair, my eyelashes stick straight out without any sense of soft, gentle curves. I recall the first few times I attempted to enhance this feature with an eyelash curler and accidentally caught my eyelid causing tears to ruin my cautiously applied mascara. I’ve never been one to alter my appearance; a quick splash of water, a quarter-sized amount of foam face wash, a dry towel, and a thin layer of moisturizer is enough of a make-up routine for me. Still, my fascination and curiosity with make-up appears when I watch my sister diligently sitting in front of her mirror, effortlessly brushing mascara on her perfectly curled lashes. At Walgreen’s I slowly comb through the make-up aisle, intrigued and entertained by every brightly-colored eye shadow and tube of mascara with labels promising everything from “Volum’ Express” to “Full ‘N Soft” to “Illegal Length.” With so many possibilities at my fingertips, I want to grab every tube and begin to paint like an artist and transform my landscape into a masterpiece.
Physical transformations are a huge part of our society, with plastic surgery, various hair removal techniques, and injections to enhance many traits becoming acceptable in everyday life. Appearance is continually being revamped and altered, and backstage is no exception with an auburn wig in a slightly bouffant style curled at the ends that completes country singer Tammy Wynette and a long crimson beaded dress that creates the look of a sophisticated and demanding woman with expensive taste singing to Eartha Kitt. Neither look would be complete, however, without a set of glossy, thick eyelashes that are not unknown to the entertainment industry. False eyelashes were first used in the 1916 film “Intolerance” when D. W. Griffith wanted to enhance actress Seena Owen’s eyelashes. Fine gauze and fringe eyelashes were only used by the wealthy, but when false eyelashes were made from plastic materials, the popularity of false eyelashes boomed in the 1950s and 1960s. As I glance at photos of popular culture icons from British model Twiggy to current singer Lady Gaga, I see how the blank canvas of an everyday woman’s face can undergo complete metamorphoses as a set of large burnt sienna eyes pop with the addition of a fan of feathering lashes.
This preoccupation with changing appearance continues to follow me as Jamie pulls off her thick dark eyelashes spattered with gold and grabs a Kleenex wipe to clean off the blanket of rouge coloring on her cheeks. As she layers on fat padding for a beer belly, a blue sky tuxedo shirt sewn into a pair of navy tux pants closed up the front with a zipper, a matching jacket, and curly handlebar moustache, she quickly peeks in the mirror to pull off excess dry eyelash glue and complete her transformation into the character Eddie. The eyelashes are perfectly preserved in a plastic container and retrieved by a Hair and Make-up Assistant to be cleaned off and re-used for another show. Although reusable, numerous eyelashes have been thrown out and replaced by a new fresh set ready to undertake the task of creating a character onstage. It’s strange to think that such a small object could add so much to a larger portrait. In a sense the face becomes a backdrop to be painted on and the eyelashes the small brush strokes that add flecks of light to a dynamic landscape.
While such a work of art can be achieved with make-up, I still manage to leave my collection of eye shadows, mascaras, and lipsticks neatly tucked away in a plastic box. During the summer I purchased a start-up kit for Bare Minerals, but the lightweight foundation and powder everyone raves about is still neatly wrapped in its box. Another glance in the mirror and I see the acne scars lightly stained on my skin, the small wrinkles forming near the eyebrows I have neglected to pluck, and the dark shadows underneath my eyes. Perhaps what makes a woman’s persona so interesting is its imperfections; after all a blank canvas can be just as mysterious and complex as a colorful one. When you have a blank canvas, you can start from any place and transform it however it delights you. As the lead character, Casey, from The Legend of Georgia McBride explains about performing drag: “It’s beauty and music and fantasy. . . It makes everything Technicolor.” As I peer through my plastic box of unopened make-up, I think of the leftover eyelashes in their container, clean and ready to enhance the powerful woman within.
“The Legend of Georgia McBride”
Denver Center Theatre Company World Premiere 2014
Written by: Matthew Lopez
Directed by: Mike Donahue
With: Ben Huber, Matt McGrath, Nick Mills, Jamie Ann Romero
Costume Design by: Dane Laffrey
Wig Master: Diana Ben-Kiki