"That might be all fine and dandy but still have a lot more to learn before you become a full fledged Queen, my dear."
"Can't I just stay a princess, they're so much younger than Queens?"
Some new experiences take you back to old ones, and understanding the distance between the two is where we grow and transform. At a recent fundraiser dinner for a friend, I ended up in the posh part of town wearing my nicest comfy dress and I had actually done my makeup. In fact, I had been receiving compliments from my coworkers all day! Nevertheless, arriving in a fancy shopping plaza where nobody on this side of town makes less than $100K a year, I froze from nervousness and hesitated to even walk in the door. I even thought about turning around and going home. But from somewhere in the back of my quote library, I heard a thick Latin accent tell me "Get with the program mijas, no one is so rich as to through away a friend!" After all, I wasn't there for me, I was there to support another marketing sister. Then I decided to pull up my tights and I walked inside.
I was met by a group of women, blonde and mid-forties, with Pilates memberships, and sipping on white wine. As usual I felt out of my element, like the dark-haired, ghetto hoodrat, ready-to-cut-a-bitch woman that should have been there to deliver food and not eat it. My anxiety dissipated when more of my SMPS sisters began to arrive, and strengthened by my tribe, I was able to get through the night and have a good time. I realized that sisterhood is an important element of transformation; nobody does it alone. I had seen this story before, sisterhood and mentorship that helps a young drag princess to become utterly fabulous in the friendship comedy classic To Wong Foo, Thanks for Everything! Julie Newmar.
Vida Boheme and Noxeema Jackson have been newly crowned as New York's top drag queens, and have the opportunity to compete at the Drag Queen of America Ball in Hollywood. They befriend a young up-and-coming drag queen Chi-Chi Rodriguez that has big dreams of her own. They decide to take Chi-Chi with them on a road trip to Hollywood, along the way teaching her the proper steps to becoming a true drag queen. When a run-in with a dirty cop spooks them on the side of the road, and a car breakdown strands them in a backwater town in the middle of nowhere, the trio have to make the most of things while their car is fixed.
Culture clash is an understatement when the residents of the town encounter the three queens and their New York City finery. Vida forms a bond with one housewife in particular who has been suffering from years of marriage problems. The town residents and the trio learn from each other about love and acceptance, and they even spread a bit of fun and fabulous while they're waiting. When Noxeema and Vida discover the local beauty parlor they even organize a day with the girls. Their police problems aren't over though, as the disgraced county sheriff is hunting them town to regain his hurt pride. It's a fun film to watch with friends, and may even teach you a thing or two about confidence.
My friend calls it Impostor Syndrome. "Imposters suffer from chronic self-doubt and a sense of intellectual fraudulence that override any feelings of success or external proof of their competence." I had never heard of it until recently, but I can totally relate. Despite all of my career success in the past year, and milestones that I had dreamed about now coming true, I still struggle with feeling like the second-class citizen in my own group. I really identified with Chi-Chi's transformation from a drag princess into a drag queen, not unlike my career transformation from a marketing coordinator-in-training into a presenter and subject matter expert. Fortunately I had my own aunties in the form of guidance through SMPS members, and our local chapter's mentoring pathways program. Their advice was not unlike what Vida and Noxeema teach young Chi-Chi: think good thoughts, imagine your dreams and then make them happen, ignore adversity, abide by the rules, be honest, and true to yourself. In a pivotal scene Vida tells a discouraged and doubtful Chi-Chi "Yes you will start off a mere boy in a dress, but by the time we are done with this crusade your Auntie Vida and your Auntie Noxee will give you the outrageous outlook and indomitable spirit that it will take to make you a full-fledged Drag Queen."
Chi-Chi does all of this in four steps. To kickoff her queenly transformation, she recites her mantra "God me the serenity to accept being a boy in a dress, the courage to change with the fashions, and the wisdom to know the difference!" Declaring the journey is the first step to finishing it. Gathering the support of your tribe is the biggest resource to help on your way. Step two for Miss Chi-Chi comes when the trio needs a place to sleep for the night and comes across a modest hotel. Noxeema and Vida are aware of the adversity and potential discrimination that comes from their history, but Chi-Chi ignores this and storms into the hotel, where they are welcomed by a manager thinking they are part of a women's basketball league. Crisis averted and the ladies spend the night in comfort and luxury.
Step three is the toughest lesson for Chi Chi, as she learns to "always abide by the rules of love". To me this lesson is open to interpretation. She learns about being selfless, and her part in the "bigger picture". Chi-Chi has dreams of being loved, and finding her one true love, but sometimes this life lesson is the hardest thing for young people to learn. As the Rolling Stones said "You can't always get what you want." I think in marketing and career terms, it teaches us that sometimes your big dream may not come true, but it's okay to have more than one. Over a glass of wine and tears she tells the group "I've got a million dream lovers, alright. I've got a broken heart for every light on Broadway. And when one of them goes out, I just screw in another one, okay, hello, good-bye." If her dream lovers are the hopes and dreams for life and careers, one or maybe more may go out. You may get passed for a promotion, you may not land that dream job, or you may lose that proposal to someone else. It's okay to plug in a new goal and start again. It's the undying dreams that careers and successes are made of.
By the end of the film Chi-Chi learns step four: larger than life is just the right size. This is the most important lesson that we learn from our beloved trio of queens - and one that I have struggled with accepting for the last several years. Whether it's looking different, thinking outside the box, or working with what you've got in a system that doesn't understand you, being larger than anything around you can intimidate, single you out, present you as competition, or just flat out scare people. But if that's how you work and how you live your life, then owning it and accepting yourself is the only way to go.
Recently I submitted a proposal to present at the SMPS Pacific Regional Conference in Las Vegas. I was fortunate to have the support of my chapter, my board, my bosses and coworkers, and my friends and family in this endeavor, because I had no idea what I was doing. All I could do was what I knew, and that was design a program with its own brand, Vegas-style. Being an important opportunity for me, as well as competing against over 60 submittals, I had decided to stick with my gut instinct (and personal mantra) - Go Big or Go Home. A few of my marketing colleagues backed my decision and ultimately I was selected to present. I don't think any of that would have happened without the support of my colleagues prompting me to be myself, be unique, it's okay to stand out, because larger than life sometimes really is the right size.
All three of our ladies learn life lessons throughout the progression of the film, but for me, Chi-Chi's transformation with the support of her drag aunties is the easiest to relate to. I still don't see a lot of Hispanic women in marketing, but things in AEC are getting better. Most days I don't feel like a lot of lower economic upbringings are represented in our industry but the more I meet people the less disadvantaged I feel about my career. Some days it's easy to feel like the work horse at the bottom of the pyramid, but then I teach someone or inspire someone and I feel like I still have much more to contribute. Regardless of dark days and doubt, I have made major transformations and I have my SMPS sisterhood (and a few amazing supporting brothers as well) to thank for their mentoring, support, cheer, and wisdom. I don't know that I have reached full "queen" status in my career, but I am queen of my world and others will just have to accept that as good enough for now.
John Leguizamo gives a career changing performance as Chi-Chi Rodriguez, and he helped to create her character arc with a lot of real-life references to ethnic struggles. For a rare and in-depth look at the character, check out the Shout Factory clip below.