The Man Behind the Queen
An hour before doors open, music can already be heard flooding through Machine nightclub as preppy performers use the dance floor as rehearsal space for their big opening show next week. As rehearsal ends at 9, most of them pack up to go, except one who heads to his dressing room to prepare for a long night of lip-syncing, dancing, and entertainment. Dressed in a plain black tank-top and gym shorts, most of Machine’s usual guests would never recognize Matty Laurenza despite having their attention fixed on him every Friday and Monday night. With just an hour to go until the party begins, Matty heads upstairs to get ready.
The dressing room is simple: a rack full of boxes sits by the door, the walls are relatively plain, and there is a small light fixture on the wall opposite the door. Against one wall is a counter, covered in various containers of make-up, wigs, and shirts. Along another wall is a small table with a tall, thin mirror on top of it next to a larger table cluttered with more make-up, costumes, jewelry, and wigs. Sitting in front of the mirror is Abby, who is just finishing her make-up. She gets up and Matty takes a seat in front of the mirror, opens his laptop, and logs in to Facebook to see who’s coming tonight. After answering a few messages, he finds foundation among the mess on the table and begins his transformation for the night.
It’s a warm April night, and between the usual heat of the club and exhaustion after rehearsal, Matty sighs as he thinks through everything he’s about to put on. He can’t just step out and perform; he takes entertainment to the next level with enough make-up, wigs, and outfits to transform himself into a new person. The second his wig comes on, Matty becomes the loud, vulgar Liza Lott, a drag queen with attitude and no boundaries.
As Matty applies foundation and decides what look to go with for that night, he reflects on his past with theater and the birth of Liza. Theater has been his passion for years, performing professionally since high school with various theater groups and at local clubs. After being cast in shows in various female roles, Matty decided to try going a step further with drag. Since his friends jokingly called him Liza after doing a great Liza Minnelli impression, the name stuck and Liza Lott was born. However, despite having done theater for years, the transition was anything but natural; Matty admits to being scared when Liza first came about. The world of drag is still relatively new to him, but his veil of confidence covers up any potential doubt. He must ask for help getting ready, however, as Abby steps in to offer some quick tips. Comparing the two of them at this stage is astounding, as Abby sticks out with bold make-up and big hair, but Matty isn’t too far behind in the process. In just a couple of hours, he’ll be in the pool lounge dancing to Beyoncé with a crowd cheering him on, competing with other drag queens in a fierce lip-syncing competition.
But in many ways, Matty isn’t like other drag queens. While drag is usually all about the looks, he prefers focusing on the performance, and it absolutely has to be unique. “Why do something that’s been done so much?” he asks. “Do your own thing.” In the world of drag, look is everything; it’s all about making an impression at first sight. But Matty prefers to make his performance the primary goal. Drag queens are normally known for lip-syncing performances, which Matty does do, but he prefers to sing and does so whenever he is given the chance. Of course, that is not to say that Liza doesn’t have the looks to match her performance. The transformation from Matty to Liza isn’t easy and can take up to one or two hours that he doesn’t always have. Combining both Liza’s and Matty’s schedules, there is a lot to of work rehearsing to get done.
As a member of the Gold Dust Orphans theater company, rehearsals are an everyday commitment, especially when one of the year’s four shows is coming up. Since Liza puts on a one-woman show, she doesn’t need to rehearse quite as much, but she still needs three or four hours a couple days a week to perfect her performance. Matty also takes the time to write his own material, which is a big project. “I usually write a bit, then put it down for a day or two,” he explains. “Then I’ll pick it back up later on. I need time to think about my parodies.”
With so much time put into theater, acting and drag are front and center in Matty’s life. His work may be controversial, since doing drag isn’t accepted by all of society. But Matty doesn’t care. “When I look in the mirror, I know I look ridiculous. I’m making a joke of myself, so people can make fun of me.” Unfortunately, the life of a drag queen is often misunderstood. “I do this for entertainment. I’m not transgendered, and I’m very happy being a man,” he explains. “I support anyone that is, but I’m not….Outside of work, I still hang out with my guy friends and play basketball and everything.” Additionally, as the line between genders is blurred, more confusion ensues, led by the biggest question of all: he or she? “The pronouns are complicated, but I don’t even care. What’s a pronoun anyway?” The only time they become offensive is when Matty is in drag. “I hate when people call Liza ‘sir,’ clearly she’s a woman. It’s like they’re letting me know I’m not a real woman.” Despite such misunderstandings, Matty’s family has been very supportive, despite their conservative Italian background. His mother has been accepting from the beginning, but he did have some issues with his father. “He’s come around though,” Matty says, “and now we’re like best friends.” His family comes to some of his shows and love Liza. His nieces and nephews find his work entertaining, making him the “cool uncle.”
In some ways, Liza is even part of the family. Matty talks about her as if she’s another person, like a friend; or as he puts it, “taking care of Liza is like taking care of a child. I have to shop for her and everything.” As a matter of fact, Liza shops more than Matty, who hasn’t bought clothes for himself in months. Every time he’s out shopping, he’ll constantly say, “wouldn’t this look cute on Liza?” or “I should get this for Liza.” His family helps, of course: last Christmas, Liza got more presents than Matty did.
From first glance at Matty’s Facebook, it’s obvious that Liza plays a big role in his life: his name is listed as “Matty Liza Lott Laurenza,” a combination of his two sides. And Liza has taken over the account: there are clearly more pictures of her than Matty. So if they can share a Facebook account, how similar are they, really? Matty describes Liza as an embellishment of him; a combination of his vulgarity mixed with the women in his life: his sisters, the “ghetto girls” from high school, and, of course, Liza Minnelli. When one person becomes two, even if a line is drawn, Matty believes that it’s entirely possible to still “lose yourself.” Most drag queens do like to take breaks; Matty tries to spend as much time as he can as himself, trying to relax between long nights at work and hours of rehearsal. Abby agrees, explaining, “when the wigs come off and we leave the club, I tend to leave the work at work . . . during the day we are ourselves and prefer to wait until night to put all that make-up on.”
Once his face is done, Matty leaves the room to prepare for the final stages of the transformation: his outfit. Covered in a layer of padding, a drag queen will reshape her body to depict a more feminine physique, a step that makes her final look completely unrecognizable as a male. As he returns, Matty sifts through the piles of clothes on the counter as he attempts to recall what he wore the previous Friday, not wanting to show up in the same outfit. His look is just a bit different every week. Finally he remembers, and decides on this week’s outfit. Slipping on a pair of black tights, it’s already clear that Matty is beginning to disappear and Liza enters.
Tights are an easy choice, a common style for Liza. However, she has numerous outfits; a selection for the various theme nights, casual hangout clothes, and costumes, including various celebrities such as Adele and, of course, Liza Minnelli. But despite their reputation for fierce style and bold outfits, drag queens don’t need to go far to shop. According to Liza, “regular stores usually have something. I can just go to H&M for a lot of my clothes.” Tonight’s outfit is simple; Liza picks out a dark black sequined shirt, with just a little bit of sparkle.
After rummaging around on the counter again, Liza retrieves a pair of fake eyelashes and begins to talk lovingly about the coming summer. “I leave for Provincetown in June and come back in mid-September.” She participates in weekly events there as well; Monday nights are huge; anyone can perform, and every week is a competition with a panel of judges, including various celebrity guests. As they pass through town. Many of the performers do samples of their own shows, a sort of free advertisement. Throughout the summer, Liza gets involved with various types of shows, karaoke, and more. After going there every summer, she has even begun to gather a following. And what’s beyond Provincetown? “New York would be nice. It’s more my style, more cabaret.”
With every step of the process, Matty becomes less and less visible. After Liza puts on her eyelashes and begins to work on lipstick, he’s practically gone. But before he goes, Matty puts in one last word as he confesses to Liza’s downfalls. “I’m practically paid to drink; it’s not very healthy. Liza has had many sloppy nights . . . I also curse a lot more. I don’t have a day job, so there’s never any need for a filter.” Despite the perils in the life of a drag queen, Liza pushes forward and the wig comes on: curly, shiny red. Virtually unrecognizable as Matty, Liza is in full control. Jewelry completes the ensemble: a big black gem necklace with thin silver chains hanging off, and large earrings with a diamond-shaped collection of black beads. Almost forgetting to apply foundation to her chest, Liza stops to finish her make-up and is ready to begin the night.