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Austin’s Female Illusionists Becoming Socially, and Economically, Empowered

Filipa Rodrigues for KUT
Both Kimberly and Gisette Deseo identify as female illussionists. They are "drag sisters." While their transformations can cost a bundle, their spending also contributes to a growing, economically-empowered drag and trans community in Austin.

Traditional wisdom and cultural tropes might lead you to believe that women in Texas outspend their male counterparts when it comes to personal care items, clothing, and accessories.

That stereotype is mostly true, but in Austin there’s a growing group of men that might be bucking that trend: female illusionists. Some are transitioning into another gender. Others dress like females for fun or for show. 

People’s mental picture of a stereotypical Texas man might involve a cowboy hat or some boots, maybe even a horse, but shopping bags don’t typically fit into that frame.

They might think of someone like Mike Young.

“I'm an older gentleman," Young says. "I like to button my shirt at the collar."

The shirt is gingham plaid, complimented by his Wrangler jeans, a big belt buckle and square-toed boots. He's also, of course, wearing a cowboy hat.

But Austin men, predictably, gravitate to many different styles.

Tyriek Taylor describes his look as "dapper,” a look that typically incorporates bow ties and suspenders, he says.

Whether the look is dapper, metro, hipster -- or all styles in between -- nationwide, men only spend about a third of what women spend on personal care items, clothing, and accessories.

Except for female illusionists like Joseph Monroe.

A female illusionist is someone who was born as a man, but presents themselves as a woman.

Monroe can easily outspend the most fashion conscious of women.

"Think about it," he says, "You were born in this body, and you need to pay for another body that you weren't even born in."
Monroe is a performer, who transforms into Gissette Deseo for drag show performances. But, Monroe says, the transformation is pricey.

On the day Monroe and his drag sister, Kimberly Deseo, visited the KUT studios, Gisette was fully transformed.

"I'm wearing about $400 worth of hair extensions. [A] BCBG top in all black, it's a chiffon top and it runs about $324," Gisette says.

A complete look can run Monroe upwards of $1,000.

Dane Smith books some of the largest drag shows in town. He says some of the committed illusionists he knows spend upwards of half their income just on their image.

"[They] shave their legs every day and go get their backs waxed and their chests waxed and all of those things," he says.

That translates to big gains for some businesses catering to the growing drag and trans communities in Austin.

But Ceci Gratiaswith theAustin Gay and Lesbian Chamber of Commerce says the impact isn’t yet quantifiable, that there are no hard numbers at the moment because spending by those in the drag and trans communities isn’t measured.

"The Census doesn't really ask about sexuality or sexual orientation or gender identity or expression," Gratias says, adding that the Chamber has pulled data from some marketing firms that research the LGBT community.

They estimate about 10 percent of Austinites are LGBT and, Gratias says, that the chamber estimates their economic power to be about $3 billion.

How much of that is spent by the drag and trans communities, however, is harder to determine because someone who may dress in drag may not be gay.

Some businesses, like wig store Quarter to Ten, attribute part of their success to female illusionists.

Charity "Cherry" Denning works at Quarter to Ten. She says she had never really paid attention to how many men came in, until she noticed about one-third of the store's sales were credited to them.

Denning says she couldn’t ignore their purchasing power. The store recently moved to Southwest Austin. But Denning says, had the store not had any male patrons, it wouldn't have thrived like it did.

Bars are also benefiting from the growing number of female illusionists. The number of bars doing drag shows has grown dramatically in the past decade.

So, why are female illusionists on the rise in Austin?

Joseph Monroe and his drag sister Kimberly Deseo say it’s just another facet of Austin’s explosive growth.

"Austin is the place to be, right now," Kimberly Deseo says. Joseph Monroe says he's recently met transplants from New York, Las Vegas and San Francisco, even Mexico and Puerto Rico.

The City of Austin is taking notice, too. Earlier this year, the Austin City Council asked city manager Mark Ott to look for ways to capitalize on the city's allure, with the idea of promoting Austin as an LGBT destination.

Below you can view a video of one of Austin's most celebrated drag performers, Althea Trix, courtesy of The Daily Texan.

Texas Standard reporter Joy Diaz has amassed a lengthy and highly recognized body of work in public media reporting. Prior to joining Texas Standard, Joy was a reporter with Austin NPR station KUT on and off since 2005. There, she covered city news and politics, education, healthcare and immigration.
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