My first pair of training heels were four inch stilettos. I teetered precariously, fearful for my life with each step. I was learning to walk as an eighteen-year-old biological man, and it terrified me. My drag name is Lucy Nguyen: Lucy for my idol Lucy Liu, Nguyen for my mother Ha grandmother Cuc aunt Hoa, and the countless strong Nguyens in my life. The two names form a half-American half-Vietnamese combination, just like me.
Doing drag has a magnetic pull for me. My first time going out in full face opened a new world that I never wanted to leave, pushing me to try more creative things and innovate further. This summer, my friend and photographer Danielle Trevino decided to push the envelope even further by planning a high fashion drag photoshoot while we were both in Texas for internships.
To challenge myself, I built my entire outfit for under $20. I bought a gorgeous gown ($8), a pair of daunting stilettos ($3), and a black clutch ($1.50) from a thrift store, but the look still lacked the edge of most high-fashion shoots. So, I decided to make my own accessory. I’d never made anything from scratch, nevertheless high fashion couture, but I’d just re-watched Beyoncé’s Diva music video and felt inspired by her show-stopping sunglasses. I didn’t have the metallurgy skills or budget to make the silver swinging lenses, but I could afford a spool of thick embroidery floss from a local craft store. My roommate looked at me like I was crazy, my friend said they looked like “droopy eyebrows,” yet I continued, confident in my own vision.
Ever since I was little, I’ve been fascinated by female figures and women’s fashion. I remember playing with my cousin’s Polly Pockets when I visited them, swapping dresses and accessorizing to come up with avant garde designs. I even stole a doll once, hiding it in my jacket and playing with it at night after my parents had tucked me in. My fascination with feminine design was something to be ashamed of; I longed to try on dresses and makeup and heels, but never did for fear of my family’s ire.
While I was designing this outrageous outfit, Danielle and I were planning our trip to Marfa, Texas for her 20th birthday. Marfa is a small town of under 2,000 people in the middle of the West Texas hill country. Why on Earth would we drive fourteen hours roundtrip to visit Marfa? Because of one man: Donald Judd. In the early 70s, Judd moved his family from their successful art studio in NYC to what must’ve seemed like the middle of nowhere. The expansive stretches of desert which provided Judd space to grow his minimalistic art must’ve engulfed the family in loneliness and culture shock, the constant noise and bustle of the Big Apple replaced with a town which essentially shuts down on Mondays and Tuesdays. For art, it was the big risk to end all big risks.
Against my will, I was forced to tell my parents about my first time in drag, to which my mom immediately responded “are you becoming a woman?” I told her no, my reasons for doing drag were far more personal. Ever since childhood I’ve struggled with my weight and appearance. My persistent acne and mild obesity were constantly pointed out and made fun of by relatives, my grandma dubbing herself the “Fat Police” and taking food off my plate she deemed I “didn’t need to be eating.” My own brother, one of my closest friends, called me a cow for six years despite repetitive requests to stop. I saw myself as formless, unattractive, worthless.
Through drag I began a journey towards finding self-love. After posing for photoshoots in drag, I would stare at my silhouette for hours, in shock that the glamazon onscreen was really and truly me. I see my face in makeup and am taken aback by my beauty, then am taken aback again to see that beauty retained once the product is washed off. Almost every time I’ve done drag or bought supplies I’ve faced homophobia and discrimination, from being refused access to changing rooms because I look like a man, to glares from strangers, to children asking “why is that guy wearing heels?” while their mother mutters “no eye contact.” Each time someone treats me with disrespect, my confidence conversely increases. The first dress I bought I threw down on the checkout counter like it burnt me, and the last one I calmly laid down while correcting the cashier saying “no this isn’t for my ‘girlfriend,’ this is for me.”
Once my entire outfit was assembled and our travel plans were finalized, Danielle and I came to the same conclusion, why not take our shoot on the road and stage our photos in Marfa? Prada Marfa, the art installation 35 miles from the town which stays permanently shut in a commentary on consumerism, would provide the perfect backdrop.
Pieces like Prada Marfa continued to pop up in Marfa as word of Judd’s amazing museums, the Judd Foundation and Chinati Foundation, came onto the world’s artistic radar. Major artists like Dan Flavin and Alexander Calder are exhibited in Marfa, and mainstream celebrities like Jake Gyllenhaal, Natalie Portman, and Beyoncé jet in by private plane.
Abandoning your thriving art career to start anew takes guts, like standing in stilettos and hoping your manly feet don’t snap the delicate point. However, the risk paid off in spades and created an unforgettable arts destination. Drag itself is as countercultural as an artistic Mecca in the middle of vast nothingness, so why shouldn’t I be modeling in women’s clothes in Marfa? Drag is all about taking risks in the name of art, and in these terms, Marfa is the city equivalent of drag.
All these experiences, this rejection and strength, brought me to Marfa. I rose with the sun to get my makeup and outfit prepared before it became too hot outside. As I jammed out to Madonna and got dressed in the bathroom, a lump formed in my throat that I immediately covered with extra product. Would I be judged by the citizens of Marfa for my outlandish clothes, my counterculture countenance?
Of course not; standing in my gigantic heels, ridiculous makeup, and DIY couture, I looked into the mirror and saw I now embodied the essence of Donald Judd.
Photography: Danielle Treviño
Hair, makeup, and styling: Alex Motter