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Women in entertainment have long been adopting over-the- top, bold personas. Many performers have a persona that emerges when they take the stage, but Dolly Parton, Lady Gaga, and Beyoncé have more in common with drag queens than they do with other actors or singers. They’ve created distinct female characters different from their everyday personas, sometimes with a completely different name and identity. Often they’ll use wigs, costuming, and makeup to construct this character. The character may have a distinctive voice and mannerisms that are more pronounced or exaggerated on stage.
Country singing superstar Dolly Parton may have kept her real name as her stage name but her signature look is borrowed from the town tramp. Born dirt poor and having to wear homemade feed-sack dresses in a small Tennessee town, Parton never idolized glamorous female movie stars because she never was exposed to them.
She never got to go to the movies or read fashion magazines. ‘The only pretty girls she saw were the models in the Sears & Roebuck catalogue. So it’s not surprising that Dolly was captivated by the local town prostitute, whom she described as “all glamour [with] the red nails, the red toenails, the high heels, the short skirt, the pretty legs, the big hair.”
Dolly remembered: “She was breathtaking to me. It was very striking. And that’s how I wanted to look.”6 As a young girl, Dolly felt unattractive and plain. She said the way the local prostitute looked reflected her innerself and gave her the courage to turn that into her stage persona. While she’s been nipped and tucked a bit over the years to hone her self-described “trashy” look, she loves the persona she has created.
“My image is over-the-top-my clothes are as tacky as Graceland, but it’s helped me to be recognized all over the world. I have no taste or style and nobody cares. I love it.” In fact, she admits that her look is so over-the-top that “it’s a good thing I was born a girl, otherwise I’d be a drag queen.”
In 2006, a twenty-one-year-old, 5’1″ singer-songwriter named Stefani Joanne Angelina Germanotta made a name for herself by creating the Lady Gaga persona, complete with crazy makeup, big wigs, wild costumes, and tall heels. She did this to conquer the misogynistic recording industry when she was first starting out. “What I went through in the business …. I was just a little girl from New York in a very male-dominated industry.
It’s very scary It was really intense. It changed me not in a good way. It made me hard, and it made me kind of vacant and insecure. That’s when I started to put on all of the wigs and put on all of the outfits, because it was through transformation that I was able to free myself of those insecurities. I was able to become somebody else.” In 2011, when Gaga lobbied President Obama to make bullying a hate crime, she had the chance to speak with the president in person at a fund-raiser later that year.
She knew she needed to exude real power; she was meeting with the leader of the free world, for Pete’s sake! After the meeting, President Obama joked to the press that he’d found Lady Gaga “intimidating” because “she was wearing sixteen-inch heels and was eight feet tall.”“ Well, maybe they weren’t exactly sixteen-inch heels, but we’re guessing they were high enough to make her taller than the president. Inhabiting her over-the-top persona, she brilliantly used her wardrobe to create a powerful impression and get her message across.
Beyonce Knowles may be a mega-pop star now, but she started out with her two best girlfriends performing for the ladies under the hair dryers at her mother’s beauty salon. The three girls called themselves Destiny’s Child, performed as teens in the talent show circuit, and eventually landed a recording deal with Sony.
“I always held back in Destiny’s Child, because I was comfortable in a group and felt that I didn’t have to do anything a hundred percent, because there were other people onstage with me. I would not lose myself or go all the way,” Knowles told Vanity Fair in 2005.
A Houston, Texas, native, Knowles was born into a religious household and grew up singing in the Methodist church. How did she go from a shy member of a young girl group to a bold solo diva singing about how she is the “female version of a [hustler]”?
She created a more sensual and outspoken persona, called Sasha Fierce, in order to be more confident and to perform sexy, aggressive songs outside her comfort zone. “I have someone else that takes over when it’s time for me to work and when I’m on stage, this alter ego that i’ve created that kind of protects me and who I really am.” Beyonce says the inspiration for Sasha Fierce came from the drag-house circuit in the United States, an unsung part of black American culture where working-class gay men channel ultra-glamour in mocked-up catwalk shows.”
What all of these female entertainers have in common-both on the stage and in life-with drag queens is the confidence their alter egos have given them. They have embraced the powerful feeling that comes from being someone different and the freedom and strength their onstage personas provide them.
~ Jackie Huba
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