By Derrick Mathis
Alan Louis sits cross-legged in a cramped storage room wearing black fishnet panty hose and nothing else, peering into a mirror and studiously applying the last layer of Candy Apple No. 2 to his mouth. It used to take him an hour to get ready, he says. Now he can do it in 15 minutes. He smacks his lips loudly and squints his eyes like Marilyn Monroe. Perfect. Now it's on to the mascara.
While applying the last touch, he uses his free hand to adjust his bra, which is stuffed with foam cups. He then steps into white stiletto pumps and picks up his dress, which is draped across a chair. He eases himself in, taking care not to upset the foam cups. The last item to go on is the big brown curly wig a la Chaka Khan; crouching to see his head in the mirror, he gently tugs it on. Then he stretches to his full height of six-three and adjusts the legs of his panty hose, muttering about the tight fit. A club employee bounces into the room and announces it's show time.
It's Monday night at the Red Dog. Louis goes on as Ms. Alana at 11:30. From a side door near the bar she sweeps into the crowded room. Wearing a white ostrich-feather minidress and hat, she prances through the crowd in time with the thumping house music spun by a DJ in a booth overhead. Some patrons have never seen her before; they gawk. Others rush to her. "Oh, Alana, you look so good tonight. I love your dress, the feathers are great!" Ms. Alana reaches down to the fawning fan and caresses his cheek. Standing next to him is a wide-eyed club kid in lime green Pippi Longstocking ponytails and platform shoes who's been eagerly waiting with a photograph of Ms. Alana. Reaching for a pen from the bartender, Ms. Alana scribbles her name on the photo without even glancing at the kid. Then it happens. From somewhere in the crowd a male voice cries out, "Oh my god, it's RuPaul!" Ms. Alana freezes in her tracks, and the people surrounding her fall into a hush. She calmly turns to the offending party, a middle-aged man in a business suit whose broad grin is melting already, and informs him slowly and deliberately, as though speaking to a child, "I...am...not...RuPaul....I...am...Ms....Alana."
You can't help but feel sorry for the poor misguided fellow. But to Louis, the 29-year-old actor who transforms himself into Ms. Alana five nights a week, the comparison is, well, a bit of a drag.
"One of the greatest experiences that ever happened to me was when I was on a train on my way to work. Of course I wasn't in drag, you know, I was in street clothes on my way to a gig. Anyway, in the terminal was a team of hockey players, young boys, all of them about 14 or 15, and they were singing 'Supermodel. You betta work, work.' And I thought to myself, who the fuck is singing that? It sounds like a group of men! And I turn around and it's a bunch of hockey players. That's when I knew that RuPaul had made a major impact on American society. I really don't mind that much being compared to RuPaul; in fact, looking at how fabulous RuPaul is, it's kind of a compliment. But does every black man in a wig and a skirt these days have to be accused of doing an imitation of RuPaul? Am I going to be called Wesley Snipes next?"
Sunday night at the Crobar. Ms. Alana is working as a cocktail waitress. She coolly balances a tray in one gloved hand while proffering the other to an admirer for a kiss. In black tights and heels, an oversize leather jacket, and angular black-rimmed sunglasses, she is the spitting image of Grace Jones. A small black bellboy hat is cocked to the side of her head, a black scarf swooping around its top and tied under her chin. Tiptoeing through the crowded bar area exchanging "Hey there"s and cheek kisses, she expertly serves drinks, writes down orders, and shoves tips in her cleavage, pulling out bills for change when needed.
This is where Ms. Alana emerged professionally. Louis came to Chicago ten years ago to attend DePaul University's theater school. But he was unable to get work as an actor after graduating, so he found his theatrical outlet in the underground club scene. "Ever since I was in high school I was always into scenes, the rave scene, the punk scene. I grew up in Miami, and in Miami if everyone was wearing black, I was wearing black." In club-scene magazines like Face and I.D., Louis noticed that the people who were watched and photographed were those who dressed for shock value. He started experimenting with "gender fuck," a look he describes as a "combat boots and tutus kind of thing with a made-up face." From gender fuck he eased into full drag and started experimenting with "personas," first as a character named Severa Weathers. As he became more refined in his look and was educated by professional drag artists, Severa gradually became Ms. Alana.
Meanwhile, like other actors, he waited tables and worked for various catering companies to pay the bills. "My first job getting paid to do drag was when I started cocktailing at Crobar. They didn't tell me to come in drag, I just did, and it turned into something beyond my wildest imagination." Ms. Alana started to attract a following. Every week at Crobar dozens of people showed up looking for her, wanting her autograph. Some of them even kept tabs on what she wore. "I took advantage of the situation and I started doing performance pieces, lip-synching, choreographed dance, emceeing fashion shows."
By the end of her shift, Ms. Alana has stuffed more than $200 into her bra. She leaves the club around 4 AM and gets two hours of sleep. Louis gets up at seven the next morning to shoot a commercial for a department store. It's been exhausting lately, but it's starting to pay off. He's getting acting work in commercials and industrial films and finally finding work in theater, his first love. He snagged the role of Emmett Scott in Tazewell Thompson's Black Star Line, which opens next week at the Goodman. And Ms. Alana is starting to be noticed from beyond the underground as well. She recently appeared on The Oprah Winfrey Show, singing backup for Cyndi Lauper, and on Jenny Jones, talking about dressing in drag. She's also just recorded a house demo that's being shopped around record labels in Europe, and she spent the last couple months in Hollywood.
Louis says he hopes to bring his two lives together in a one-man/one-woman show in which he plays several characters, some in drag and some not. He's committed to combining the entertainment aspect of his drag persona with his theatrical training. Just, uh, don't call him RuPaul.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): Alan Louis photos by Randy Tunnell.