The Two Faces of Adrian
Sacramento’s Grand Duchess has a royal transformation.
Adrian Klyne strides through the racks of formal wear at Macy’s with purpose, until a full-length, candy-apple red evening gown catches the eye of this practiced shopper.
Adrian holds it up in front, gazing at the reflection in the mirror. The length seems about right—a pleasant surprise for a consumer who has to work around a 6-foot-tall frame.
“Ooh, isn’t that nice?” Adrian says, pointing to another gown, this one a floor-length, backless black velvet number that shimmers in the store’s lights. Adrian notes that besides being sexy, backless dresses have the added benefit of allowing the wearer to dispense with the often problematic fit of sleeves. In Adrian’s case, sleeves on formal dresses have the habit of being too tight around the shoulders and often don’t extend to the bottom of the wrist.
Today, Adrian is window shopping, trying to get ideas for a black-tie affair being held in March. Adrian pours over the racks, making little tsk-tsk noises when coming across dresses that are deemed too prom-ish, too plain or too girl-next-door.
Although not on the menu for today’s outing, a short violet chiffon dress catches the eye. “Very hoochie,” Adrian says, eyebrows raised and grinning like a naughty school girl.
A closer inspection of this enthusiastic shopper reveals a lesson in bad gender assumptions. Adrian Klyne is very much at home in the woman’s section of Macy’s, but he is a man—albeit one that dresses in drag on the weekends. He adorns himself in women’s clothes to perform with the Downtown Divas Revue troupe. Klyne is also Sacramento’s reigning Grand Duchess with the Court of the Great Northwest Imperial Empire—a charitable fund-raising organization in the lesbian-gay-bisexual-transgendered community.
Klyne shows as great a knowledge about which fashions work for him and which ones don’t as any woman and, truth be told, he has a lot of fun doing it.
But about that man/woman thing and those assumptions—what, you might wonder, separates drag queens from cross-dressers, transvestites or transsexuals? Generally speaking, drag queens, cross-dressers and transvestites are men who dress up in women’s clothing. Drag queens, however, generally do so only when performing, while cross-dressers and transvestites often “try to pass” as women either in private or public situations—but still do not consider themselves to be women. Transsexuals, however, are men who are preparing for or who have gone through both hormone replacement therapy—to grow breasts, for example—and surgical procedures, such as removing the penis and/or getting breast implants. These men live and work as women.
Klyne, however, explains a finer distinction in his world: The Downtown Divas, he says, are different from other drag queens. In fact, although “drag” is an appropriate umbrella term for men who perform on stage dressed in women’s clothes, he and some of the other Divas consider the term “drag queen” to be somewhat of a misnomer, even though they, themselves, use the word “drag” as a kind of shorthand.
To Klyne, a drag queen is someone who dresses and performs as a woman to get laughs, as in the movies Priscilla, Queen of the Desert and To Wong Foo. Rather than play the fool, Klyne desires appreciation for his performances. The goal, he says, is to convey the “spirit” of the real-life divas he portrays on stage: Marilyn Monroe, Jennifer Lopez, Jessica Simpson and Janet Jackson.
“I mean, you don’t walk around with green eye shadow and big ol’ cotton candy hair, okay? I don’t either. So the Downtown Divas—we’re more female illusionists than drag queens.”
Klyne, like the other men in the Downtown Divas, does not get paid for performing—the money raised from each show goes to various charities throughout Sacramento. He works about 30 hours per week at JoAnn’s Fabric in Sacramento and is hoping to be hired by the MAC cosmetics line soon.
“Drag is a job for me,” Klyne continues. “[It] enables me to do the charity work, to do the dancing. And I do it the best that I know how. But when the show is over, I clock out. I want to put my boy clothes on, take my dog for a walk, hang out with my buddies, okay? I love being a man.”
That said, it’s time to try some gowns on—not normally a problem at Macy’s, Klyne says, although on this day a sales clerk politely explains that it would be too difficult to clear the women’s dressing room because of the busy lunch hour traffic.
Klyne shrugs, taking it in stride. “You know, I understand that. They treated me with respect, so that’s cool.” He chooses not to go downstairs to the men’s dressing rooms, saying he’ll just come back another day.
With attractive plus-size clothing enjoying a popularity never before seen, size 12–18 gowns are plentiful and make shopping a more enjoyable experience for the 223-pound Klyne. Not unlike a real woman, Klyne has his favorite stores, among them Macy’s, Frederick’s of Hollywood and Contempo. Furthermore, he especially likes these stores, he says, because the sales people are helpful and don’t “freak out” when they get requests from men trying on women’s clothing.
Frederick’s of Hollywood is a great place to buy shoes because sizes go up to 13. For Klyne, who wears an 11 B, this is a boon. Additionally, many of the shoe designs in Frederick’s are unadorned, allowing him to add his own distinctive touches, such as rhinestones and glitter. He is especially drawn this day to a couple of strappy gold and silver lamé sandals. But please, no five-inch stilettos.
“I’m already tall; I don’t want to look like a hooker!” he says.
While there, Klyne is also drawn to an over-the-top costume jacket made of black velvet, with black feather boa running top to bottom on each lapel and around the cuffs of the sleeves. The jacket is studded with tiny mirrored hearts.
“Very Liberace,” he says, laughing.
It probably isn’t a stretch to say that the general public’s perception of drag queens is rooted in the belief that these men are confused—that they don’t know who they are or where they fit in. But it appears that for Klyne, the opposite is true: He’s grown to know exactly who he is and accept himself precisely because he found drag.
His decision to perform in drag, Klyne says, was a turning point for him. “It was about living my life according to what was true for me.”
Straight women, especially so-called “big girls,” could learn a thing or two about body appreciation from Klyne.
“Women don’t realize they have such an opportunity to do so much with their bodies and themselves if they would just take half a second,” he contends, explaining that everyone has assets they can play up, if they work at it.
“It’s not about looking like Britney Spears. Once I realized I can do whatever I want to do, nothing could stop me,” he says.
But that realization took time.
At 21, when he first went on stage as a woman, he was 270 pounds. Prior to that, he says, many people tried to discourage him, saying he was “too big” to do drag. With his success over the years, however, he says he hopes he’s shown others that it’s not a person’s size that matters, it’s what they have to offer as a package.
“You’re still a good person; you need to show them what you have,” Klyne says. “So when I hear someone say, ‘Oh, she’s too fat, she shouldn’t wear that dress,’ I say, ‘The hell with her.’ I’m gonna get up on that stage and kick ass. People [will] appreciate what I’ve done and not care about my weight.”
And there is more than a little diva in Klyne, even when he’s not in drag. During a recent interview in his home, interruptions by phone calls and unexpected knocks on the door would invariably elicit from Klyne an abrupt, “I am not here” and “Don’t they know I’m busy?!”—directed toward his roommate and diva-in-waiting, Ivy. In fact, one gets the impression that were it not for Ivy, Klyne couldn’t be as much of a diva as he is. It seems to be an accepted practice in this subculture for more experienced drag queens to mentor the beginners. And just as Klyne had a “drag mother,” so, too, does Klyne have a “drag daughter” in Ivy, whose real name is Robert Kleppe III. The 24-year-old Kleppe performs as an alternate in the Downtown Divas troupe and, under Klyne’s tutelage, is learning the ropes. In return, it seems, Kleppe acts as a willing assistant to Klyne, doing everything from screening Klyne’s calls, to answering the door, keeping track of his appointments and returning phone calls. Klyne readily admits that without Ivy’s assistance before a show, “I would completely lose it, okay?”
Klyne reiterates that a successful performance doesn’t hinge on his ability to duplicate the look of the superstars he emulates. His goal is achieved, he says, when the audience responds in a way that indicates they connect with the emotion he’s putting out in a particular song.
“If they clap in the middle of a ballad I’m doing and really feel the emotion, I know I’ve done my job,” he says.
A big part of that job—a facet that few people outside of this subculture realize—is raising money; lots of it. As a nonprofit organization, The Court of the Great Northwest Imperial Empire, known as CGNIE, Inc., raised $100,000 in Sacramento in 1999–00. Formed 27 years ago as part of the International Court System and as one of 70 chapters worldwide, CGNIE, Inc. has given millions of dollars to local charities.
According to Michael Johnston, reigning CGNIE Emperor, the organization has gone beyond contributing to the traditional AIDS charities in the last decade. Local beneficiaries, for example, now include the Samaritan Center, WEAVE, Avalon House (AIDS hospice), Alzheimer’s Society and Focus Foundation for Breast Cancer Research.
Johnston and others give Faces club owner Terry Sidie credit in the success of the CGNIE operation, noting that Sidie serves on the International Court’s board of directors, as well as the Sacramento chapter’s board, in addition to overseeing the community’s annual Rainbow Festival—CGNIE’s largest fund-raiser.
“The bottom line is that CGNIE and the court system would not exist without Terry,” Johnston says, simply. “He’s our largest benefactor.”
Johnston, together with Empress Do-Me Moore, Grand Duke Johnny O. and Grand Duchess Adrian Klyne, act as the reigning emissaries for the 2000–01 season.
“I love performing,” Klyne says, “but I do it because of the fund-raising. That’s what it is about for me, now. Raising money for people and being appreciated for what I do. I want all of us to be known for what we do—not just being drag queens.”
For both men and women, it’s no secret that American culture worships all that is thin. Any boy who’s ever had to endure the embarrassment of shopping in the “husky” section knows that size does matter—as much for boys as for girls. And heaven help you if you’ve also been stuck with a moniker that is perceived to be less-than-cool by your classmates.
So what if you’re 14, growing up in the Northgate area of Sacramento and pushing the scales at 200-plus pounds? And what if your name was Ernest Orozco? And, what if you were struggling against a Roman Catholic upbringing that told you that you would go to hell if you admitted, let alone acted upon, your burgeoning realization that you were gay?
Before he was Adrian Klyne he was Ernest Orozco, and those factors provided all the impetus he needed to begin a drug-induced dreamworld fueled by methamphetamines and cocaine. Down went the weight—Klyne plummeted to 135 pounds—up went the social life and the feeling that all was right with the world.
Chasing that feeling, however, nearly killed him, he says.
Coming out to family and friends at age 15 did nothing to quell the teen’s desire for drugs, nor his propensity for getting into fights—a habit that had previously gotten him thrown out of three different Sacramento-area elementary schools. His drug use escalating—Klyne today recalls having little interest in anything except getting high—he dropped out of Encina High School, re-enrolled in C.K. McClatchy High for a time, before going to La Vista Continuation School, in Orangevale where he eventually graduated in 1987.
It’s not a period of time Klyne likes to talk about. He credits his mother, Isabel Barrientos, for saving his life.
“She kept telling me that there was more to life than all [that] crap,” he says. “At the end, I couldn’t look at her and know I was killing her. I really think I would have been dead if it weren’t for [her]. I wanted to make her so proud of me.”
Klyne got clean at 19, and became more involved with dancing and choreographing, two long-time areas of interest. He says he was hooked the first time he saw his friend, Chelsea, perform as Madonna. “I was intrigued by her dancing; I knew I could do it,” he says, although it would be two years before he performed in front of an audience as a woman.
The next two years would be spent dancing as a male and choreographing numbers for Chelsea and other drag queens. Working with Chelsea, Klyne says, he was able to direct the energy and time he had previously put into his drug use and focus it on something positive and valuable.
But getting the bug meant that Klyne would eventually want to move beyond the role of “boy dancer” and into the spotlight himself. Yet, at 270 pounds, his desire to do drag wasn’t met with enthusiasm from many in the community, he says.
“There was some animosity here toward me in the early days,” he concedes. “Some people just shined me on when I told them I wanted to do drag. Everyone was like, ‘You’re too big to do drag.’ It hurt.”
There were pockets of encouragement, however, especially from his drag friends, Chelsea and Shondra, Sacramento’s past Grand Duchess and Empress.
“Shondra … always told me to follow my dreams, to go forward. ‘You can do it,’ she’d tell me.”
Like many young people who feel they can only blossom once they leave home, Klyne, too, felt he had to leave Sacramento to start his new life. His departure was abrupt, occurring one night after a show where he met visiting drag queens involved in Reno’s court structure. “They welcomed me with open arms and said, ‘Join us.’ So I did.” The 21-year-old packed and left the next day.
“I guess what made it happen is that I grew up being called certain names and one day, I just snapped,” he says. “I knew I was a good dancer and I decided I was just gonna do it. I needed to be me, for me.”
Klyne went to Reno and started his own pageant, King and Queen of All Bars, as part of that community’s court system, and changed his name from Ernest Orozco to Adrian Klyne. Six months later, he was invited back to Sacramento to perform a number in a pageant here. He was awarded “Best Out-of-Town Production” for his portrayal of Janet Jackson.
He was elated.
“And I said [to the doubters], ‘Don’t ever call me fat again, okay?’ ”_________________
Sixty minutes. That’s how long it takes for Klyne to transform himself from man to diva. Typically, he goes through this transformation twice on the weekend.
In the shower, he shaves his chest—but rarely his legs and never his arms. (Four pairs of pantyhose serve as cover for the hair on his legs. He says he’s unconcerned about his arms.) Once out of the shower, he changes into a black tank top and pajama bottoms and begins the transformation. He shaves off his facial hair in five minutes, throws in a tape of Selena and begins to apply foundation—Max Factor No. 147 to be exact. He also uses cosmetics by MAC and Ben Nye—a theatrical make-up that expertly covers any remaining shadow from his beard.
“It’s not the makeup you buy, it’s the way you apply it,” he says, when an observer comments on the dozens of lipsticks, eye pencils, shadows, powders and highlighters contained in Klyne’s makeup chest.
Klyne applies it all with expert strokes many women strain to master. He knows how and where to use bronzer; he uses highlighter powder around his T-zone (bridge of the nose and brow) for a more “sensuous” look; he knows how to shave his eyebrows so the arc is just so. (He never tweezes.) “The thinner the brow, the prettier the girl,” he comments.
Then comes the gold shimmer over the eyelid as a base. Two shades of shadow on one brush saves time, says Klyne, swooshing purple over the crease of the lid, then flipping the brush over and applying wine for the color. The result is an airbrushed look for the eyes.
“You’re gonna see all my secrets and not buy my book!” he laughs at mid-point.
Final touches include wine lip liner applied under the lower eye lashes and a white pencil applied on the top; brown lip liner goes over the wine liner on his lips. False eye lashes and a dab of lip gloss, then, voilà! The face is done.
While Ivy makes sure his wig is prepped and ready, Klyne begins the task of dressing. Four pairs of stockings, hip pads, fake breasts and a bra later, he’s ready for his gown.
Klyne remembers the feeling of excitement when he first put on women’s clothes to perform 10 years ago. “It didn’t feel weird,” he says. “But I didn’t feel I was pretty enough. I was just so excited about getting to perform, though, that it didn’t matter.”
His ensemble this afternoon is, well, stunning. A liquid silver lamé dance caftan covers a black bandeau top and silver lamé tap pants. A pair of gauntlets (think: arm-length gloves, but without the hands) and an elaborate silver, beaded and jeweled headdress—one that lights up, no less—completes the number.
“Are my titties straight?” Klyne asks, then answers himself, “Yeah, they are.”
On a recent Sunday night at Faces, a nightclub in Midtown, Sacramento, the video bar is pulsating with the sounds of the real divas: Patti LaBelle, Cher and Mariah Carey. A crowd has begun to gather, anticipating the start of the Downtown Divas Revue. A Soul Train line dance video takes many attendees back in time as others wade into the bar for drinks and dollar bills.
Backstage, pre-performance jitters grip Klyne. Behind-the-curtain thoughts like, “Are they gonna like this? Will they clap? Are they gonna appreciate what I have to offer today?” mix in equal parts with the adrenaline he feels.
Forty-five minutes after the show should have begun (we’re running on diva time here), Adrian Klyne takes the stage. The transformation from man to diva is complete—even to the point where the divas themselves refer to one another as “she” or, affectionately, as “girl” as each one enters and exits the stage. Wearing a silver, sparkling, sleeveless dress, Klyne’s face is one of angelic peace as she flawlessly lip-syncs the words to Jessica Simpson’s wildly popular ballad, “I Will Love Again.” The crowd of mostly gay men and women begin to approach the stage, offering dollar bills, one by one, like so many subjects offering tokens of their affection to a benevolent queen, or in this case, duchess. These tips are the only compensation any of the divas receive for their performances.
Midway through the number, the crowd breaks out in applause, which causes Adrian Klyne to turn up her already megawatt smile. Some time later, Klyne returns, this time performing a duet with long-time performer and friend, Ashley Harwood. The pair brings the house down at the end of the number with a mixture of camp and emotion-filled lyrics.
Backstage, Adrian will credit Ashley with being her inspiration, years ago, when Adrian first began to perform.
“Really, she was everything I thought a drag queen should be. I remember one show in Redding … she brought me up on stage [to perform] and whispered to me, ‘Look who’s in the spotlight now.’ She was fantastic,” Klyne says.
Many numbers later, Klyne the diva is back on stage, this time doing Jennifer Lopez’s “Love Don’t Cost a Thing.” It’s a pumped-up dance number and Klyne, dressed simply in a white denim jacket and jeans with a black bandeau top underneath, delivers in spades. By this time, the crowd is hollering and whooping their appreciation.
Tonight, the crowd feels her emotion. Klyne has achieved his goal.