Make-up and dress prep for the Chiang Mai Cabaret Show begins at 6 p.m., about two hours before the performers hit the stage.
The “kathoeys,” or “ladyboys,” trim their beards, bobby pin wigs on their heads and carefully apply lip liner and thick layers of foundation.
Some can make themselves glamorous in just a few minutes, but those who haven’t had medical procedures take a little longer to stuff their chests and tuck away anything that reveals they are a man.
With feathery headdresses and crowns topping their sensual female frames, they strut onto tables that served as stages to shimmy and twirl for a roomful of tourists.
“They dance to everything from Beyonce to salsa,” said photographer Rachel Dennis. She noticed that those who looked the least like women were the best dancers.
“You could tell some dancers were there because they looked more feminine,” she said. “They had a really good boob job and weren’t as good.”
The Chiang Mai Cabaret show is the only drag cabaret in the city of the same name in northern Thailand. Dennis said it was always packed with a mix of male and female tourists, but she never saw Thai people there.
Dennis stayed in a Chiang Mai market district for about five weeks as a part of the associate’s communications degree program with Youth with a Mission, a Christian volunteer program that sends participants all over the globe to do mission work.
Decked-out ladyboys advertising the cabaret at the market persuaded her and a friend to visit. She went to the show about 10 times and befriended some of the performers.
She met a few kathoeys whose families rejected their lifestyles, but generally, Thai people were very accepting of what they called the “third gender.”
After discovering 10% of the student population identified as transgender, one high school in rural Thailand even built a third designated bathroom for them. Dennis never saw this but had heard about it.
Sometimes a Buddhist monk tells parents their child is a female spirit living in a male body, and the parents raise the child as a girl, Dennis said. Parents will also on occasion raise a more feminine-looking boy as a female.
The performers flirt with their “female spirits” and physiologically male bodies. During one memorable performance, a dancer transforms from Marilyn Monroe to a man.
“It looks like it’s going to be a strip tease, and then he’s a man at the end,” Dennis said.
Many of the cabaret performers are also singers and actresses, though at the cabaret they lip sync to the songs.
In the case of performer Natalie, the female persona also brings talk of female insecurities about her body. Natalie is a porn star in Italy who makes appearances at the cabaret when visiting her family.
“It’s really interesting because she’s gorgeous and paid because she’s hot, but she was always talking about how she was too old or too fat,” Dennis said. ”She would sit on these guys’ laps and get a huge reaction.”
- Lauren Russell, CNN