Christina Gonzalez wanted to finish her senior year at Lamar High School on a high note -- by going to the prom. She was so determined that she bought a ticket before she had a date or a dress. The latter was going to be the hard part. While some of her peers were spending upward of $600 on elaborate gowns, Gonzalez and her mom, a cashier, couldn't afford one. Gonzalez's parents divorced when she was four, and she couldn't hit up her father for the money.
Gonzalez worked as a waitress from Christmas until March to help out with family finances, finishing her homework at school and then working until 1 or 2 a.m. The long hours proved too much for her, cutting into study time as well as her student council and band activities -- she's played trumpet for six years.
But then Gonzalez saw a flyer at school for the Fairy Godmother Project, a local charity that gives away prom attire to students who can't afford to buy it. Gonzalez filled out the brief application, answering questions about her family's finances and her goals after high school.
Ellen Chang, a Rice University public relations officer who serves as president of the project, looked over the application and saw yet another responsible, hardworking kid who deserved to go to prom. She's fielded many such applications during this prom season.
"I think it's so important for them to have this opportunity to be glamorous and just enjoy themselves," she says. "I think every girl likes to dress up."
But some men like to dress up as well. In women's clothes.
And because any self-respecting drag queen can't wear a gown more than two or three times, who better to ask to donate to the Fairy Godmother Project?
Chang mentioned her charity to OutSmart publisher Greg Jeu, who in turn told editor Tim Brookover. He knew just who to call.
Enter the Houston chapter of the Royal Sovereign and Imperial Court of the Single Star, an international gay organization that raises funds for charities through drag shows. This year's emperor and empress of the RSICSS were not going to let their dresses go to waste.
Jason Cryer has about 50 gowns in his closet -- everything from ball gowns to what in the drag world is called a hoochie-mama dress. He's a size ten, of medium height, and has been known to fool sober straight men when he throws on a wig and mascara and slips into his other self, Sofonda St. John.
Cryer, 29, is a former Miss Houston Gay Pride and the current empress of the RSICSS. His emperor is Ronnie Siebert, 38, the current Mr. Gay Pride.
They rule over about 70 local RSICSS members, whose home base is Chances, a bar in Montrose. They are proud members of an organization founded by a San Francisco drag queen in the 1960s. Jose J. Sarria, who calls himself Jose I, the Empress of the United States, now leads over 60 kingdoms throughout the United States and Canada. Texas alone has seven chapters.
Cryer is slim, clean-shaven, with slicked-back black hair. He's the assistant director of development for the Assistance Fund, a Montrose agency that helps cover the cost of HIV medication. Siebert is a heavy-set interior decorator who sports a goatee and tousled brown hair and is prone to wearing cowboy hats. Together, this unlikely duo has collected about 20 dresses and ten tuxedos, plus an assortment of shoes, jewelry and makeup, for the Fairy Godmother Project.
Cryer has donated six dresses so far, gowns he can't wear anymore because, he says, people will talk. The people are those who donate money to RSICSS's pet charities, and people who like to see variety in their drag shows.
"They donate their money, yes, because it's a charity, but also because you're entertaining," Cryer says. "So if they see me out three weekends in a row wearing the same thing, it's not very entertaining. It just kind of loses that flair."
Cryer shops wherever he finds a sale, although he doesn't try on the dresses in the store.
As the emperor, Siebert doesn't do drag, but he has to throw on a dress for the organization's "turnabout" ceremonies twice a year, where the male and "female" courts switch gender roles. Those are painful for Siebert, who has trouble squeezing his size 12-and-a-half feet into high heels.
As the reigning pair of RSICSS for this year, Cryer and Siebert chose which charities their organization would sponsor. They chose many AIDS-related services, and it may seem trivial at first that they'd devote so much energy to help teenagers go to prom. After all, unlike their other charities, it's not a matter of life and death.
But Cryer and Siebert see it as important. After all, prom night is a night to remember. And both men recall their own.
Cryer, not then out of the closet, took two girls.
"Every straight man was jealous," he says. Although the evening did have its dark side. "I was a little pissed -- someone was wearing the same tux I was."
Siebert, the class president, took a lesbian friend to the prom. He also brought along his parents, who insisted on chaperoning. His school had a prom night tradition where students predicted the future of each student council member.
Siebert's was that, one day, he would walk like a man.
"I was so embarrassed," he laughs.
"The last thing they need, especially if it's their senior prom, is to feel like they can't go or that they should shun it off for any particular reason, and it's really because they just didn't have the clothes to go there," Cryer says. "That would be horrible."
Chiming in with his down-home accent, Siebert says, "And [if] a drag queen or a gay man can help -- hello?"
At the Lovett Inn bed and breakfast recently, Gonzalez and her mother sifted through hundreds of dresses and accessories. In the makeshift showroom for the Fairy Godmother Project, personal attendants helped dozens of high schoolers search the racks for the right outfit.
Gonzalez found hers right away: a sleeveless affair with a black velvet top, a high neck and a full silver skirt. It looked like something Audrey Hepburn, her favorite actress, might wear. The actress motif fits well for the prom's theme, "Hollywood Nights," where decked-out dates will saunter along a red carpet, between giant Oscar statues, and into the Houston Club.
"It reminded me of Breakfast at Tiffany's," she says of the dress. "I found the perfect one."
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With slight alterations, the dress fit like it was made for her. She also found matching shoes and a purse. A week later, she was invited to the prom.
So she'll be able to walk the red carpet and fit in with girls in $600 dresses and girls in gowns donated by drag queens. No one should be able to tell the difference.
Except maybe Cryer. Whoever gets one of his beloved gowns will be lucky.
"I bet she'll be the best-dressed girl there," he says. "If I knew where [my dress] was going, I'd send my number so I could do her makeup just right."