By Lee Landor
[Note: This article and its accompanying photos — coming soon! — originally appeared in the Queens Tribune in the summer of 2007. This content is the rightful property of the Queens Tribune.]
It was the typical frenetic pre-performance prep: curling irons, wigs, makeup cases overflowing with 10 shades of lipstick, blush and mascara, jewelry boxes lined with sparkling trinkets, gowns and costumes hanging from clothing racks, loud music and last-minute routine rehearsals. New to the scene were duct tape, falsies and razors.
It was a humid Friday night in Jackson Heights at the Club Atlantis on Roosevelt Avenue and Lorena Saint Cartier’s 15th Anniversary as Queens’ legendary Diva. She and her fellow female impersonators, who she trained and inspired, were preparing for their show in the basement of the club at 2 a.m.
The 40-year-old Lorena, born Lemuel Lopez in the Dominican Republic, was celebrating her lengthy career as what is more commonly known as a drag queen – a career she unexpectedly fell into a decade and a half ago. Lorena was a renowned dancer and choreographer, teaching Afro-Caribbean dance and classical ballet to students in Harlem, throughout the five boroughs, in Long Island and New Jersey. Her work in the Puerto Rican Traveling Theatre earned her a glamorous reputation in the gay community and elsewhere. And, despite her distance from the gay bar scene, it was widely known that she was a gay man.
She never imagined that her identity as a shy, gay, male accounting student from the DR would transform as it rapidly did: Lemuel became a woman, an artist, an entertainer – a Diva.
On New Year’s Day in 1992, Lorena shed her inhibitions and worries of potential shame. She dressed in drag, got on stage and performed as a woman for the first time. She has since come to know herself as that – a woman.
Prior to that night, and following much hesitation, trepidation and indecision, Lorena was essentially inducted into a community that would become her new family – the female impersonators of New York City.
She would later earn the title of Queen of the Country after winning the national drag queen beauty pageant in 2002.
Not Always Easy
But unlike life on the stage, reality wasn’t all glitz and glam – it was fraught with struggle confusion, rejection and pain.
As her fame in the gay community grew and her talent was sought after by every gay bar owner in the City, Lorena increasingly lost sleep and lived less of her own life. “I was living for the audience,” she said recently in a small café on Roosevelt Avenue. “I felt like a stewardess – all my life is in a suitcase.”
Lorena became nocturnal, hosting events and performing shows in the early morning hours, sometimes returning home after 5 a.m. She’d shower, then head out again for grocery shopping at 24-hour supermarkets, watch late-night soap operas and fall asleep mid-morning. Waking up at around 5 p.m., Lorena would begin her day with breakfast prepared for her by the many friends and diva trainees that constantly paraded in and out of her Woodhaven apartment. Then, the nightlife would begin again.
For 10 years she lived this way, performing six nights a week, taking no vacations and barely seeing her family. “My life was doing the show, going to sleep and preparing for the show,” she said.
Though Lorena loves her job, she knew this was no way to subsist. She retired for six months and took some time to find herself again. She ate and slept at normal hours, visited with family, regained a social life and “learned to live again,” she said.
The gay bar scene beckoned for her. Calls and bookings kept coming her way and she decided to return to the Queen lifestyle – this time in moderation. She now performs between three and four shows a week, shows for which she feels better prepared and which she can more easily enjoy. She has also learned how to say no to the desperate pleas of yearning fans.
Coming Of Age
Not only has Lorena learned self-respect, she’s obtained it from society. In recent years, the drag scene has gained some credibility, according to Lorena. “Before, if I was walking at seven o’clock at night [down Roosevelt Avenue, people thought] I was a prostitute,” she said. “Now I got the chance that I can walk and people say hi to me. People see us and they see that we’re nice people, we just have a different way to express ourselves.”
Feeling embraced and accepted has aided Lorena’s career, she said, as it has helped open doors for her and present her with opportunities. More importantly, it has ended her lifelong struggle with self-identity. “We’re wonderful human beings, we’re helpful, we are creative people, we like beautiful things,” she said. Finally, Lorena added, the straight community realized this and began welcoming the divas.
The diminished discrimination has lifted the drag and gay scene spirit and this is what Lorena is most happy about. “We’re changing,” she said, “and people are seeing that, especially here in the Spanish community.”
Luckily, Lorena’s family has always been supportive of her lifestyle. Though her parents had high hopes of medical or law school for their son, they’ve come to terms with his choice to live as a performer and as a woman.
Except for a heart-breaking and utterly painful rift between Lorena and one of her siblings, which began when she started doing drag and lasted five years, she has always been close with the members of her large family, particularly with her nieces and nephews. According to the Queen, it is her mother, now 81, who she aims to please most.
Lorena’s skinny frame, bashful eyes and husky voice are nowhere near as dead a giveaway as would be expected from a drag queen. This has played to her benefit throughout the last 15 years: she’s avoided all plastic surgery, with the exception of silicone implants in her cheeks.
Narrow-shouldered (and even more narrow-hipped) and at a height of no more than 5-foot-6, Lorena could pass for a woman with relative ease. Her own long, dark curls frame her face and pouting lips soften her jaw line, but it’s not enough: times have changed and plastic surgery is in. Now, according to Lorena, is it more difficult than ever to recognize that hiding beneath the pounds of makeup, heavy wigs and feathered gowns is a male body.
Competing with the younger and newer queens, who’ve been implanted everywhere from their foreheads and breasts to their hips and calves, has become a challenge for Lorena. She’s debated the decision to undergo plastic surgery for several years now and has yet to find her stance on the issue. It is, after all, to permanently live as a woman.
On the inside Lorena is a woman, and to her that is all that matters.