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Don't drag me down 

Atascadero native Natasha Chamille made it big as a female impersonator, lost a leg, and then climbed back onstage again

It takes 2 1/2 hours to create Natasha Chamille.

First, there's the makeup: Heavy foundation to hide the beard line. Blush for a rosy look. Powder to set it all. Then comes the mouth. Then the eyes with the mascara, liner, shadow, and Tammy Faye eyelashes.

Next, the chest is strapped on. Then pantyhose. Then the blond wig, which needs to be teased just right. Lastly, he tugs a white, beaded, floor-length evening gown over his small, fit frame, and steps into a pair of heels.

The female impressionist is now ready for the stage.

click to enlarge CHRISTOPHER GARDNER
  • CHRISTOPHER GARDNER

#Natasha, who asked New Times to only use his stage name, grew up in Atascadero and got a start performing in San Luis Obispo as an 18-year-old with a fake ID, sneaking into bars to compete in Halloween "Elvira" contests. By the time he was in his early 20s, he was living in Dallas and performing at talent shows in a pair of six-inch red stilettos.

In the late 1990s Natasha was popular enough to make his living as an entertainer and was performing three to four drag shows a week in Fort Meyers, Fla. To this day, he remembers the night when he first felt a sudden, shooting pain in his right leg. The pain never went away, and since his doctors couldn't find a problem, Natasha kept performing.

He performed for another year and four months before a new doctor finally diagnosed the problem: a blood clot. But by then it was too late to save his leg.

Before he prepared for his performances on July 6 and 10 as part of this year's San Luis Obispo Pride festivities (see infobox), Natasha sat down and talked with New Times about his life.

 

When was the first time you did drag?

I was in high school, and one year, out of the blue, I dressed up and took my brother trick-or-treating. I thought, well, everyone either wears a mask or you can tell who they are. And because of having a theatrical background, I said, "I'm going to do something no one would ever expect me doing."

So what happened?

The general feeling was mortification. [Laughs]. I took my brother to a fund-raiser thing at the Pavilion [in Atascadero]; we walked about a mile to get there. And when we got there, about 80 percent of the people were from our church. So that was the mortification.

What about you? Were you excited by it?

The first time it was, "Oh my gosh, I'll never do this again." Because at that age I didn't even know who I was in my own life. So I knew we weren't going to repeat that performance. And basically I let it go for a while. I would do stints for Halloween at home. One year I went as Madonna in [the] "Lucky Star" [video]. Remember that? With her clothes and her hair all up? Everyone asked me to perform in our living room and they got the biggest kick out of it because I knew all the moves. And it was exciting - oh my gosh, all the attention.

Shortly after [my 21st] birthday I saw my first show in Dallas and thought, I can do this. I come from a musical background; I learned music from an early age. You'd see people doing lip sync and you'd think, this person is either epileptic or they're close to death because their face is not working the way it should. I thought, I can do this and I can get paid for it.

How about your first actual performance? How did that go?

I think the first [talent show] I did I was laughed offstage. I was bad. Very bad. I didn't have a wig so I used my own hair and it was really short. I think I used Cover Girl [brand makeup]. Later on my brother told me it was Cover Girl, not Cover Guy. Trying to cover your face with Cover Girl just does not work; as you get older your beard line starts showing. So there were a few years in there where there was some rocky application of makeup. I had to figure out, okay, who's using what?

My career really started in '92. And once I came back [to SLO County] it really blossomed. But it's always a work in progress.

How many SLO Pride festivals have you performed at?

This year will be my sixth. I took a year off when I lost my leg.

So let's talk about losing your leg.

January 2000. I was living in Florida and having a great time with my career. I was working in a club and doing shows and I started having problems with my right leg; I thought it was the years of being in these shoes. I'd perform until it would give me fits because my doctors told me there's nothing you can do because there's nothing wrong.

I came back to California; I'd won my title as Queen of Santa Barbara's Pride and it was one of the most challenging pageants I'd ever done. Basically, I did my last show in December [1999] and by the fourth or fifth [of January 2000], I wasn't getting any sleep and I couldn't walk. My doctor had me admitted to the hospital and they did tests and said it was an embolism, which is a blood clot. That night I was in surgery and they did what they could to save the leg but when I came to the next day, they told me I'd most likely lose my leg.

Three days later they scheduled me for an RBK amputation. That's a right-below-the-knee amputation.

How long did you wait after you lost your leg to perform again?

I actually did a surprise birthday party less than a month after the surgery. The stigma when someone goes through something like this is very shameful. People said, "Oh, Natasha should step down. She can't do her shows anymore." And I said, "They cut my leg off; they didn't cut my talent off. I still know how to perform."

How were those first performances with only one leg?

They were very frustrating. A person gets so used to having two legs. I had come to a point in my career where working a stage was very familiar. I started out not being able to move very much because it was so frightening being onstage.

My mind was moving - going forward, getting close to the audience. But I wasn't able to do it. I was able to sit on a stool. And there were times when I'd prop myself up and stand on one leg and perform that way. Like a flamingo.

It doesn't sound like you had to prepare yourself mentally to go back onstage - you just did it.

I was in the hospital and a couple of the girls came to visit me and we were contemplating the next show while I'm laying there recuperating from an amputation. We laughed about it. We were just excited about doing the next show.

click to enlarge CHRISTOPHER GARDNER
  • CHRISTOPHER GARDNER

#It sounds like your family was really supportive as well.

Amazing. My mom has been to a couple of the pageants I've been in. She's the epitome of femininity to me. I was able to watch her growing up and the way she moved around. I did a lot of character study on her before I started doing shows. I didn't want to be a half-grade performer; I wanted to go into what I consider female impressionism. I'm an entertainer; Natasha's one character and I'm another character. My mom's really proud of what I've done.

What's your favorite movie about drag?

The one that really depicts the challenging part was "Connie and Carla." When I watch it, you see the challenge of two people who think they're performers but they couldn't do it in their real life. That's a parallel to my own life because of my musical background. I can sing, but it isn't something I think I could make a career out of, and I did better putting on a mask, so to speak, and portraying someone else onstage.

Why are female impersonators and drag queens always depicted as such tragic figures in movies?

They're portrayed that way because if someone had a wonderful life growing up, and they had all this positive reinforcement, like I did, and their family was supportive, like mine, then I don't think people would buy that. Tragedy sells and people can relate to it.

Is there any tragedy in your performances?

All my numbers have a story. I don't even have my shows set up for [Pride on the Plaza]. I basically have all this music that are possibilities, but they have to reach out and grab me. And then I'll say, okay, this is one I'm feeling. Because all my shows have a story. The beginning is my fun song, and the rest of the songs I do are a story. They're a reflection; that's how I'm able to put a lot of emotion into them - they mean a lot to me. I switch my personality off and let Natasha feel it.

Do you have a favorite song that you do in your shows?

That's a difficult question. It depends on my mood. Actually, if I were to choose one, it would be a song by Shirley Bassey, "This is My Life." It's old; they did it disco-y. "This is my life. And I don't give a damn for lost emotions. I've such a lot of love I've got to give." It's talking about a person's life. All songs have special meaning to them. "Funny how a lonely day can make a person say: What good is my life?" At the end of the song, it's still "This is my Life."

It's really upbeat; it's a booster song. One of the times I performed it, I had a garment malfunction. The clasp on my crinoline broke and it started sliding down. This was during Pride. I had to make the decision [to keep going], and so I stepped right out of it. Basically, I did a hop. And I was in my first [prosthetic] leg where I couldn't wear heels - I was in these Mary Janes.

Well, I ended up losing a shoe and the crinoline but I still had the gown on. So boom, I just kept going with the song. Because the end is, "This is my life. This is my life."

 


SLO Pride 2005

Thursday, July 7

• GALA Movie Night. "Saving Face," staring Joan Chen, plays at the Palm Theatre, 817 Palm St. in SLO. A wine reception for ticketholders is at 6:30 p.m.; the movie begins at 7 p.m. After the film, Big Sky Cafe, 1121 Broad St., hosts free appetizers and a no-host bar from 9 p.m. to midnight.

Friday, July 8

• Pride Week Headline Event: Margaret Cho, performing the last North American stop on her acclaimed Assassin Tour. Tickets: 756-2787. Location: San Luis Obispo Performing Arts Center at Cal Poly. Time: 8 to 9:30 p.m. The performance will be followed by live music at Corner View restaurant, 1141 Chorro St., from 10 p.m. until closing.

Saturday, July 9

• GALA Barbecue (5-7 p.m.), Country Western dance (7-9 p.m.), and Uniform Ball (9 p.m. until late). Location: Trinity Hall, 6565 Edna Rd. (Hwy 227 & Price Canyon Road, SLO). Order tickets at www.slopride.org.

Sunday, July 10

• Unitarian Universalist Sunday Pride Service, featuring David Robinson and presenting "Voices of Pride." Location: 232 Foothill Blvd., SLO. Time: 10:30 to 11:30 a.m. Info: www.kcbx.net/~uuslo.

• Pride in the Plaza. Music, food, vendors, drag show, kids' area, musicians, and performers. Location: Mission Plaza. Time: noon to 6 p.m. Followed by free DJ and dancing at Novo, 726 Higuera St., from 6 p.m. onward.


 

Staff Writer Abraham Hyatt can be reached at ahyatt@newtimesslo.com.

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