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Thursday, Feb. 12, 2004 04:27 am

The queen of hearts

Mahogany Knight carries a torch for Springfield

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Cover photo by Nick Steinkamp

It's showtime at the Station House and Mahogany Knight is splendiferous in white satin hot pants and go-go boots, lip-synching to Shania Twain's hit "I'm Outta Here." Later, she appears in a bare-midriff gown constructed of glittery swatches held together by Mardi Gras beads. At closing time, she works the crowd into a froth with her high-octane interpretation of "Proud Mary" -- her fluorescent fringe mini-dress accenting every shimmy; her long hair flipping back and forth just like Tina Turner's.

As a grand finale, she turns a cartwheel all the way across the dance floor -- no easy feat for a 240-pound man wearing stilettos.

Mahogany is Springfield's reigning drag queen. It's a position she earned several different ways: by winning a closet full of crowns from regional beauty pageants, by coordinating and hosting monthly drag shows at bars like the Station House, and by being "little sister" and heir apparent to Krystal Knight, the legendary drag performer who retired and left Springfield in October.

By day, Mahogany is all man -- and a rather handsome one at that -- working in a social services office with elderly clients. The one hint that she has this other career is the fact that her eyebrows sometimes disappear. If there's a big pageant coming up, she shaves them off so she can paint them back on more artistically.

In a few weeks, she'll travel to Chicago to compete for the crown of Miss Continental Plus.

Whether you meet Mahogany as a "girl" or as a "boy," the personality is the same -- all sparkle and charm. Remember the head cheerleader in high school, so pretty and popular you wanted to despise her yet so sweet you liked her in spite of yourself? That's Mahogany. Even when she's taunting a pesky patron at the nightclub -- "Ooo no, I don't want your mouth anywhere near me! There are some things even Listerine can't kill!" -- she ends with a wink and a word of affection. "Love ya, baby!" And she sounds like she means it.

This talent pays off when she performs in drag shows. Fans and admirers beckon her to the edge of the dance floor so they can stuff currency in her cleavage and receive a kiss on the cheek in return. Mahogany has made up to $350 in tips on just a single show. There have even been nights when she has unpacked her cleavage and discovered a damp Ben Franklin among all the sweaty George Washingtons.

Brad Myers, who describes himself as president of Mahogany's fan club, tries to tuck the first dollar into Mahogany's costume each time she hits the stage. "She gets out there and really puts on a performance," he says. "Some of the others are just halfway into it, but she catches your eye and keeps your attention."

Of course, personality alone won't pay the bills. Drag fans expect a show, and the glitzier the better. Mahogany never disappoints. She has more than 50 numbers in her repertoire, each with its own hand-made costume accessorized with just the right hairpiece, the perfect footwear, tastefully garish jewelry, and a heaping helping of cosmetics.

"Drag is usually a bit over the top -- extra makeup, extra flashy costumes, big bold headdresses and all that," she says.

Acquiring these items is a bit of a trick for a big guy like Mahogany (he doesn't want us to reveal his real name). He has his competition gowns made by a seamstress in Ohio. Other costumes he makes himself. He often buys shoes online or in local stores that carry size 11s.

"The sales people sometimes say, 'Are you buying these for your girlfriend?' And I used to say yes," Mahogany says. "Now I just say no, or 'Does it matter who I'm buying them for?' I mean, I'm getting to the point in my life where it's like hey, I work for my money, I'll spend it where I want to spend it."

He also gets questions at the fabric store.

"They always ask me, 'What are you making? Why do you need this much material? It's awful pretty material! We don't get a lot of men buying this kind of material.' And I finally say well you know, sometimes you get the exception to the rule."

By now, Mahogany's accustomed to dealing with prying questions. It takes actual tolerance to throw him for a loop. Like the time he went shopping at Bergner's with a male friend who was helping him choose a swimsuit.

"We were low-key about everything, but they didn't have a certain size, so we asked, and the salesgirl said no. Then my friend said, 'Well, my girlfriend is a size

so-and-so . . .'

"And the salesgirl looked at both of us and said: 'Well if your girlfriend would like to take her swimsuit to the men's department and try it on, I'd be perfectly OK with that!'

"And we just died!" Mahogany says, laughing at the memory. "I have never been called out like that! We were speechless! Of course, she meant it in the nicest possible way."

So did he try on the suit in the men's dressing room?

"Oh no, we just bought it and giggled all the way home. Oh, that was a priceless moment."

Mahogany started performing in drag at age 21, soon after he moved here from Jacksonville. Now 35, with a dozen years' experience, Mahogany has transformation down to a two-hour process.

When he lived in an apartment complex populated by gays, the process started with putting makeup on at home.

"That made it so much easier. There was never any question. The only question was: hey, what time does the show start?" he laughs. But these days, he generally arrives at the club in his manly persona and leaves as a woman. "I have such nosy neighbors now, but I know they're all in bed when I come home at 3 o'clock."

Applying makeup takes a solid hour "if I'm not gabbing, like I tend to do," he says. Next he has to "put on my body" -- foam hip pads smoothed over by three or four pairs of black tights, four to six pairs of control top pantyhose plus a panty girdle, and, costume permitting, a waist-trimming corset.

"That's what I hate about this. That's the worst part," Mahogany says. "But beauty knows no pain. That's our motto!"

After the lower body is shaped, he puts on prosthetic breasts. Next comes the wig, the false eyelashes and fake fingernails, then the gaudy gown and jewelry.

So once he's in his drag queen get-up, which bathroom does Mahogany use?

That was a trick question. The answer is neither. It's simply not possible.

Think about it: There's no such thing as fly-front pantyhose. And with the long fingernails . . . "You take a chance of seriating yourself," he says.

Despite all that effort, there are shortcuts Mahogany refuses to use. Many drag queens who compete at his level -- especially in pageants with swimsuit competitions, like Miss Continental Plus -- undergo surgery to permanently augment their hips and breasts. But not Mahogany.

"I would never do that. Noooooo way," he says. "Some of these guys get caught up in the thrill of it all. As soon as they turn 21, they go get all this stuff done, not realizing that they're not going to be drag queens forever. I mean, what's going to happen when they turn 40 and 50 and they're stuck in this?"

He recognizes that they won't feel "stuck" if they're actually more comfortable looking female, but Mahogany considers himself a real man.

"I am very much a boy," he says. "I like boy things. I like to play basketball, I like to run, I like to play tennis. This is just a character I created for the stage. I have no desire to be a woman."

That statement actually sounds logical in the Station House, where people lucky enough to reside comfortably at one of the sexual norms -- male or female -- are in the minority. Station House, and other gay bars like it, attract people whose sexual identity may lie somewhere along the broad spectrum between the two poles. Frequently uncomfortable with (if not outright rejected by) their families, they turn to the club scene to find a surrogate family.

When Mahogany emcees a drag show, she often ends with the Sister Sledge classic, "We Are Family." It never fails to fill the dance floor.

"In essence, we are just one big happy gay and lesbian family," Mahogany says.

In drag, the relationship becomes more formalized with performers sharing family names. Mahogany is considered the "little sister" of the "grand-ma-ma" of Springfield drag, Krystal Knight.

Krystal, whose top title was 1995 Miss Gay Classic USA, taught Mahogany not only the finer points of dressing in drag, but also a certain style and a set of family values. "She saw how I conducted myself and she conducts herself pretty much the same way -- always professional, always courteous, always respectful," Krystal says.

Mahogany now has a half-dozen drag offspring, and there are many others she has turned down. "They have to have talent, a good personality, and a genuine love for the art form. We don't want anybody who will reflect badly on the family name," she says. "We're looking for the all-around good girls."

Mahogany and Krystal also draw the same line when it comes to the question of surgery. "I am strictly boy," Krystal says. "Foam rubber hips and fake titties from Frederick's of Hollywood.

"Actually," Krystal adds, "when I was performing, it wouldn't be unusual to see me take out a breast and pat my face with it or throw it at somebody in the audience."

For the talent portion of Miss Continental Plus, Mahogany plans to wear a $3,000 gown, perform to a custom-mixed music track, and have seven back-up dancers hoist her bountiful physique into the air as though she was light as a feather.

For the interview segment, she will rely upon her prep work (regularly watching the evening news) along with the considerable charms of her pearly smile and her mellifluous baritone.

For the swimsuit category, she's at a slight disadvantage, but even that doesn't shake her confidence.

"I am going to win this pageant," she says, "and I'm going to win it as a boy!"

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