The Leading Woman

Winter 2018
Mackenzie Possee

Lorelei, like many works of art, emerged at the hands of heartbreak and insecurity.

But she won’t shy away from speaking or singing about overcoming her struggles.

Lorelei’s one-woman show, “Lorelei: I’m Coming Out,” a comedy drag-show musical melange, brought her autobiography to center stage. Nothing – sexual history, body image issues, Grindr profile – was too personal to share.

Sashaying across the makeshift stage of Macgowan 101, a classroom transformed into a cabaret for the evening show at the end of January, the drag queen was in her element. Decked out in platform heels, a vintage purple pantsuit and a brown wig teased to the size of a small mammal, she opened the show with one of her go-to jokes.

“I’m so excited to be here. I’m feeling really good because I just had this new form of acupuncture today. Basically, they just prick you with a needle, and it relaxes your whole body,” she said. “I think they call it something like – heroin?”

Moving away from abrasive humor and insult comedy – “Oh, you’re a lesbian? Could you go fix that lightbulb with your teeth?” she said to one audience member – her narration took a more intimate turn.

After dealing with a rough breakup last year, Lorelei said she started going to nightclubs in Los Angeles – out of drag, initially. But being there among what she considered to be “a lot of really hot gay friends,” Lorelei grappled with feeling less-than.

“They’re the five-star burger and I’m the polite side salad,” said Cooper Reynolds, the second-year theater student behind the lashes and makeup, in an interview. “Nobody wants to eat the salad, and that’s how I felt when I went out to gay bars.”

But add makeup, hair and wardrobe, and suddenly Reynolds wasn’t fading into the background. During her show, Lorelei described one pivotal moment when she went out to TigerHeat in West Hollywood in drag. An established drag queen came up behind her and said she looked gorgeous. After telling the story, Lorelei began to lip-sync the aptly titled number “Gorgeous” from the musical “The Apple Tree” to illustrate her newfound confidence.

“I feel as though now (Lorelei is) an extension of who I am,” she said in closing at her show. “I’m happy knowing that even if I stopped doing drag for whatever reason – and I’m not planning to anytime soon – that doing drag would have made me a better person.”

I met Reynolds before I met Lorelei. He greeted me at 9 p.m. on a Saturday night in his Canyon Point dorm, apologizing for the mess as he waved his hand toward a spotless room. He wore grey sweats, striped socks and a taupe shirt. A regular college kid.

Mackenzie Possee
/ daily bruin

Reynolds had been up since 5 a.m. that day, moving back to campus and rehearsing all day for Bruins Care, a cabaret-style show produced by UCLA’s Act III Theatre Ensemble that he’d be hosting as Lorelei the weekend of Jan. 13.

After we sat down, Reynolds launched into an overview of where he was from – San Clemente, California, “a beach city for conservatives and retired people” – and why he initially chose to study in the directing track at the UCLA School of Theater, Film and Television. Although he also studies acting, he said he felt he had more artistic control in directing.

“(It’s) like putting the puzzle together instead of being a piece in the puzzle,” Reynolds said.

Lorelei is the latest incarnation of a persona Reynolds has been cultivating since the first time he performed in drag in eighth grade.

She has tested out a multitude of monikers – Priscilla Perfect, Arsenica Gold, Violet and Viper, to name a few. Lorelei was the name of a friend’s sister; it stuck because it was also the name of a siren, which are mythical maritime creatures that lead sailors to their deaths with their voices. Reynolds wanted his drag persona to have an edge to her, and Lorelei captured that vibe.

Reynolds appeared as Lorelei at Hedrick Hall’s drag show in 2017, which he helped organize with the hall’s resident government council. Lorelei has also performed at 340nightclub in Pomona, California, and more recently, at her one-woman show in Macgowan Hall.

Reynolds laughed when I asked him about his first drag performance.

Compared to Lorelei, Reynolds said, his first ever drag look in eighth grade was rough. He paired an unfussy black frock from Goodwill – the first dress he ever wore onstage – with purple eye shadow that went up to his eyebrows, bright red lipstick and a costume store plastic wig. He was performing in a scene study of the musical “Chicago” as Matron “Mama” Morton, a role traditionally played by an adult woman.

“I shaved my legs and I shaved my armpits; I was a real trooper about it,” Reynolds said. “I looked atrocious.”

Reynolds knew about drag at the time – he’d been watching “RuPaul’s Drag Race” since he was in middle school and, as early as preschool, he donned dresses to play with his friends.

“I’ve always been a little queer when it came to gender expression,” Reynolds said. “It wasn’t because I felt like a woman. ... I enjoyed the duality of gender, and being able to express both in a way that felt comfortable and healthy and fun.”

Reynolds identifies as gay and queer. He defines the latter as a way of seeing the world from an outsider’s perspective.

“I think drag is kind of like an embodiment of the queer imagination,” Reynolds said. “Drag queens exemplify an absurdism that queer people understand from functioning in a world that isn’t made for them.”

Reynolds reclined on top of a “The Nightmare Before Christmas” throw blanket lying on his bed. He fidgeted with a corner of it in his hand.

He pointed to a figurine of Jack Skellington sitting on his desk. Parts of Reynolds’ drag personae are inspired by the cartoon characters he watched as a child, and from Tim Burton movies that depict fantastical worlds.

“Jack Skellington is my queer icon, which is weird because he ends up with a woman at the end,” Reynolds said. “He was very career-driven, but he was also not restricted by any rules of masculinity. ... He was very flamboyant.”

But Lorelei has her real-life inspirations, too. Cyd Charisse and Ginger Rogers, vintage icons Reynolds watched in movies as a child, now serve as source materials for the tap and musical theater numbers Reynolds performs in drag.

Reynolds also draws inspiration from his mother, Beth Eagleson. She wears the pants in his house, and Reynolds has infused her strength and assertiveness into Lorelei.

“I think every drag queen’s persona is inspired by their mother, at least a little bit,” Reynolds said. “I’ve always been inspired by really powerful women.”

Eagleson helped him buy his first bra – a 32B from Target – and now gives him earrings and bracelets from her own collection. A gallon-sized plastic bag filled with her jewelry sits in one of his drawers. She even offered him her Bob Mackie wedding dress for Lorelei to wear in performance.

“I was like, ‘Let me put a hold on that,’” Reynolds said, laughing. “‘If you really want to give it to me later, I’ll take it.’”

Cooper Reynolds’ father, Jim Reynolds, took him to Goodwill to help him pick out his first black dress before his eighth grade “Chicago” performance. He was also partially responsible for getting his son started in theater to begin with.

MacKenzie Possee
/ daily bruin

When Cooper was about 10 years old, Jim forgot to sign him up for junior lifeguard, which was normally how he spent his summers.

While driving by their local playhouse, a sign-up for auditions for a summer youth theater workshop caught Jim’s attention.

“I looked at Cooper as we were driving by and I said, ‘Cooper, do you think that’s something you’d be interested in doing?’ And he said, ‘Yeah, I’ll try it.’”

Cooper attended the Orange County School of the Arts through high school. One of Jim Reynolds’ favorite pictures of his son is of him graduating, in cap and gown, wearing a pair of high heels.

Cooper said he recognizes how fortunate he’s been to have parents who support his pursuit of drag.

“I will not stop fighting for queer rights until every kid has the same privilege that I had growing up,” he said.

As Cooper’s interest in drag developed, Jim watched episodes of “RuPaul’s Drag Race” with his son, listening while Cooper explained what he loved about each of his favorite performers.

“One of the things that I learned is that there’s much more to it than simply a guy putting on a dress performing,” Jim said. “There’s an incredible amount of work that goes into creating your own character that you’re in, and how you make that character your own.”

For Reynolds, being a drag queen means working as a full-time designer, hairstylist, makeup artist and performer, all in one. The thrill of drag comes from this artistic autonomy. Performers decide how they want to bring together functionality, fashion and style to create their own personae.

Every drag queen’s aesthetic is different – Reynolds knows queens who will pour blood onto themselves onstage, and others who will coat their entire bodies with glitter.

“I consider myself a vintage clown,” Reynolds said. “I kind of like playing that housewife on the verge of a nervous breakdown.”

I watched Reynolds become Lorelei in the comfort of his dorm room before the closing night of Bruins Care 2018. Lorelei had been asked to host the show and run the auction for the annual musical revue, which took place at the Northwest Campus Auditorium on the Hill. The proceeds went to Broadway Cares/Equity Fights AIDS, a national nonprofit AIDS fundraising organization. The student producers of Bruins Care decided incorporating Lorelei would help bring the cause to the forefront.

“We thought it’d be really fun to expose people to drag performances; and it also came to mind that we wanted to represent queer voices,” said Nicolette Norgaard, a third-year theater student, co-director and co-producer for this year’s Bruins Care.

Norgaard had never seen Reynolds perform as Lorelei before, but she had seen him play the young playwright Con in a UCLA production of “Stupid F#@king Bird,” an adaptation of the Russian play “The Seagull” by Anton Chekhov. When Reynolds acts in male roles, he is generally typecast as a tortured artist or rebel.

“I was never the leading man and I’ll probably never be the leading man,” Reynolds said. “What Lorelei gives me the opportunity to do is at least be the leading woman.”

When it comes to getting into character as Lorelei, Reynolds likes to take his time. He budgets about two hours to apply makeup, and another hour to get into costume.

Standing in his dorm bathroom in an oversized T-shirt and no pants, Reynolds patted on the initial layers of Lorelei’s makeup. He wore a blue baseball cap turned backwards to keep his mane of brown hair away from his face.

Reynolds spent a few minutes gushing over his go-to Kryolan foundation intended to prevent sweat from coming through during Lorelei’s performance. He packed powder onto his face and left it to set for 15 minutes. Beauty gurus call it “baking,” Reynolds explained.

He drew two arched creases over his eyelid with a Mac lip pencil in “Nightmoth,” a dark, vampy hue.

“People tell me you’re not supposed to put red by your eyes, but they’re not fucking doctors,” Reynolds said.

Layering on eye shadow, contour, eyebrow pencil and two intense black strokes of cat eyeliner, Reynolds assured me that his goal isn’t to transform completely into a woman.

Mackenzie Possee
/ daily bruin

“There’s this misconception that drag queens want to be women. ... That’s not true,” he said. “I think I look pretty in drag but I don’t look pretty as a woman. ... Like, I’m not fooling anybody.” After flicking on a double coat of mascara, Reynolds deemed his face complete, save for the false eyelashes he was waiting to apply until right before he went onstage. He paused a moment to admire his work, then sped out the door toward Northwest Campus Auditorium. He was already late for call time.

More often than not, when Reynolds applies Lorelei’s makeup, it is followed by a trip to one of his favorite venues: 340nightclub. In November, Lorelei won $1,000 at the club’s “DragConic” competition after performing a song from the musical “Heathers” and a vintage-inspired tap number to a mashup of “Candyman” and “Boogie Woogie Bugle Boy,” originally by Christina Aguilera and The Andrews Sisters, respectively. Katya Zamolodchikova, one of the biggest queens to emerge from “RuPaul’s Drag Race,” guest-judged the performance.

No one was surprised when Lorelei was announced as the winner, said Bryce Inman, who performs drag under the name Stacia. Lorelei’s numbers were carefully choreographed, and she’d even brought along backup dancers. Inman had one word to describe the winning performance: iconic.

“Lorelei is going to be a major star,” Inman said. “She beat some of the most well-known queens at that club, queens who have already won pageants.”

Inman remembers meeting Lorelei at 340nightclub in May 2017 on a night Stacia was performing. They’ve been friends ever since.

“I saw this gorgeous, tall drag queen. ... She was wearing tinfoil, pretty much just tinfoil on her nipples and nether regions,” Inman said. “I was like, ‘Dang, this girl is fierce.’ Like, I could never.”

Reynolds prepared several similarly daring outfits for Lorelei’s Bruins Care performance. The first, which Reynolds put on in the men’s bathroom when we arrived at the Northwest Campus Auditorium, consisted of a black catsuit and studded harness. Lorelei had once worn the same outfit to TigerHeat. She had painted her skin purple that night.

But for Bruins Care, Lorelei would be using the suit to perform in the show’s opening number, a rendition of “Time Warp” from “The Rocky Horror Picture Show.”

“I think I’m a little less approachable in drag,” Reynolds said, hiking the shiny black catsuit up over plastic prosthetic hips he’d made himself.

But when Lorelei is on stage, she’s all about connecting with her audience. Reynolds envisions Lorelei as eventually becoming the first drag queen late-night talk show host. The show would be called “Under the Influence with Lorelei.” A dream guest would be actress and transgender activist Shakina Nayfack, he said.

Mackenzie Possee
/ daily bruin

More than anything, Reynolds wants to keep performing drag to share what he feels the craft is all about – leaving fear and insecurity behind. Drag, he said, is uninhibited; it is present.

“No baby is born with insecurities, and that’s the message I want to state with drag,” he said. “With drag, you can let all that go.”

Reynolds proceeded to apply inchlong, bat wing-like lashes to each eye. Drag is all about proportion: The wide eyes and voluminous hair solidify the impression of femininity. The line between Reynolds and Lorelei lies in the lashes and the hair.

“The face looks smaller, everything just looks more womanly,” he said.

Reynolds spiked his hair into a foot-tall mohawk for the “Time Warp” number.

Lorelei smiled at her reflection in the mirror.

The look was complete.