The Art of Being a Woman

By Yusimi Rodriguez  (Photos: Juan Suarez)


HAVANA TIMES — I first saw her at Havana’s Café Amor, or the Karabali, as many of us continue to call this nightclub. Others may be more theatrical, cleverer or have a more refined sense of humor, “but Chantal is the most beautiful of all,” my friend Alexandros had told me…and he was right. She takes your breath away when she comes on stage, and she needn’t do anything other than stand there and smile.

This same friend introduced me to her at Bar Esencia, a pub and restaurant where Chantal performs on Mondays. Exactly one week later, I went back to interview her. Like almost every other beautiful woman, she makes you wait, and it makes me nervous, became my photographer is in a hurry this time. He is the first to notice her, though he hasn’t seen her before. On seeing the door open and the heel of a red shoe (perhaps a little too big for the average woman) peek through, he says: “there she is.”

It can only be her, wearing an extravagant dress, a pair of red high-heels and a truly beautiful face. As though wearing the most casual clothes in the world, she goes through the door of the bar, heads to each of the table to greet each of the regulars and those who visit the venue of the “Night of Essential Diversity” for the first time. The pub opens every night, and, every night, they stage a different show. Monday’s is dedicated to diversity and the performers are cross-dressers. Chantal is the host.

The fact one knows those copious curly locks (or elegantly short hair, from time to time) are part of a wig, that the hips, legs and breasts are fake, doesn’t take one ounce of charm away from this woman. Perhaps it gives her more charm. Perhaps the magic lies precisely in knowing this is a man imitating a woman, to the point of having creating a nearly impossible woman.

Everyone who attends these performances on Monday knows that nothing about those heavily made-up women who go up to the stage to lip-sync famous songs is real. The only thing real is the desire to bring to life a special woman, for a few hours. They say that behind every great man stands a great woman. In this case, behind this great woman stands Leonardo Leon Reyes, a 39-year-old stylist. In the dressing room, conversing with him while he puts on the fake nails, changes wigs and shoes and fits the various pieces of his body on, I don’t know how to address him. He gives me a sensual smile. “I’m Chantal now.”

Even Almodovar

IMG_0477Chantal: I entered the world of cross-dressing out of curiosity. Because of my work as a stylist, I was always close to the art world, to cabarets and make-up. Many years ago, I went to a party, back when these things were forbidden, and I liked it. I put on make-up myself and showed up one day. I was 19 at the time. That’s when my character, Chantal, was born, twenty years ago.

HT: I know of a house in La Guinera, in Havana’s municipality of Arroyo Naranjo, where illegal cross-dressing shows were staged, and that you would perform there, because I have a friend who was also a cross-dresser at the time.

Chantal: Chantal was born in that house in La Guinera. Cross-dressing was against the law, and, like all things forbidden, it was very exciting. People would go there in search of the unknown. It was all done secretly, but it was very pretty.

HT: What do you mean it was forbidden? Would the police show up and take people away?

Chantal: It was illegal. If they caught you dressed up as a woman, you would go to jail. It was illegal to have gay get-togethers.

HT: Did you ever go to jail?

Chantal: No. I would cross-dress sporadically and they never caught me, but others did get arrested. Once, at Periquiton, a house in the neighborhood of Marianao where people staged cross-dressing shows, owned by another Leo, they got together. [Spanish film director] Almodovar was there and they went and took a bunch of people away, even Almodovar. I was there, but I managed to get away.

HT: Why did you continue to do it, if it was illegal and you could go to jail?

Chantal: People are drawn to the forbidden. I was also doing it artistically. I’m an artist in everything I do, what I do with my hands and the things I represent. I consider myself a self-taught actor. Why wouldn’t I do it, because society or the regime didn’t allow it? As an artist, I wanted to express myself this way. Why was I to restrict myself? I’ve always known what I want very clearly.

Chantal tells me she didn’t earn any money at La Guinera, that she started charging for performances in the home of Rogelio Conde, called the Bar de las Estrellas (“Star Bar”). She speaks very fondly of that time, and of Rogelio Conde in particular.

The Image of Cuban Cross Dressing

IMG_0237HT: What does the art of cross-dressing consist of?

Chantal: Imitating the female figure, the delicacy, to bring back the values of the vedette, the kind Rosita Fornes was. I had the pleasure of being her last stylist, during her last stage as a theater actor. I try to bring back that female beauty, the glamour, that way of communicating with the audience. I don’t want to be vulgar. Now, with reggaeton, everything’s changed.

HT: I’ve always been curious about men who aren’t attracted to women but are fascinated by the female form.

Chantal: I don’t like women sexually. I’m homosexual, but I admire female beauty. My work as a stylist consists in making women beautiful. As a cross-dresser, I was lucky nature gave me good cards. It’s no accident they call me the “image of Cuban cross-dressing.” It’s a name the public has given me, I didn’t make it up. I always try to do things as best I can, reaching for perfection. Of course, we all have defects.

Your face also allowed you to be a photography model, like Leo was, when you were around 17.

HT: What’s the hardest part of the job?

Chantal: The audience, perhaps. Not being accepted by an audience when you go on stage. If I get an applause as soon as I step on the stage, then it’s a cakewalk. Receiving people’s applause, being loved by the audience, is the greatest thing in the world. It would be very difficult for me to go on stage and not get an applause.

HT: I never went to La Guinera during the nineties, but I did see cross-dressing shows back then, and I noticed performers would imitate a given artist. Now, it seems performers are more repetitive in their gestures and that they lip-sync different songs without really imitating any particular artist.

Chantal: It was a different time. When I started, I said to myself: “I have to look inside myself and find out who I really am.” I can imitate a singer at a given point, but I have my own character, Chantal. I look for songs I like and speak to me, the songs I can feel and express. Cross-dressers express what a song says with their hands, their gestures and their eyes. If you don’t feel it, then nothing comes across. There was a time I would imitate Talia, back when I started. But then I created my own character, and it doesn’t resemble anyone out there. Many cross-dressers have their own characters. You’ve got Imperio, Margot, Estrelita and others.

Natural Born Artist

IMG_0247Many readers may think they’re seeing Chantal for the first time, but this may not be the case. He was one of the cross-dressers who appeared in the Cuban sitcom Vivir del cuento (“Living by One’s Wits”), where he played two different transvestites. The other cross-dresser in the show was Jean Carlos, known in the business as “Gala.”

Chantal: I was on the show because they called me. Perhaps because I’d worked in Sonando en Cuba (“Cuban Sounds”) as a stylist. I was dressed as Leo, but I got to meet many artists. I guess word that I was a cross-dresser also got around, and they decided to call me. It was a huge surprise for me, it was all very spontaneous, a very wonderful experience.

HT: How did you feel among people in television, was there any sign of homophobia there?

Chantal: Quite the contrary. They opened their doors to us. They were surprised because, even though we are not proffesional actors, there was no need to reshoot any takes. I told him we are natural born artists, even though we didn’t have the opportunity to train for our work.

As a child, I wanted to study acting, but my mother didn’t let me, because of what people could say. Today, she regrets this. She says it’s her one regret in life. Those were the tabboos of the time.

HT: What did your dad say?

Chantal: He became ill when I was fifteen. He was ill when I decided what I would do with my life, and he was really supportive. It might have been hard for him, but, since I was his right hand…we had a good relationship.

Chantal has a hard time speaking of his late father.

Chantal: My mother is everything to me. She loves me and admires me for what I am.

HT: When Gala spoke about the show at the Cafe Amor, he said you feared, at one point, that the show would not be aire don television.

Chantal: There was quite a bit of confusion. First the Pope came to visit…

HT: They didn’t think it appropriate to air it while the Pope was visiting?

Chantal: I don’t know and I don’t want to speculate.

Gay Audiences Are More Demanding

IMG_0273HT: I’ve noticed you’re the center of attention at gay nightclubs. Wherever there’s a cross-dressing show, gay people seem to go.

Chantal: We’ve demonstrated that these shows can draw large crowds. But it’s not just gay people, we get mixed crowds, like we see her in Bar Esencia. On some Mondays, more heterosexuals come to see my show than gays do.

HT: What audience do you feel more comfortable with?

Chantal: Gay audiences are more demanding. Heterosexual audiences are more curious about the show. When they see us, they are captured by the extravagance of the costumes, by the fake vedette. We have a large heterosexual audience that follows us. I make no distinctions among members of the audience, I only differentiate between good and bad people. I don’t care about gender or sexual preference. The public wants to see art and that’s what we offer them.

HT: Do you believe discrimination against homosexuals continues to exist in Cuba?

Chantal: Yes. We’ve come a long way and Mariela Castro has helped us a lot, but homophobia still exists. I haven’t suffered it myself, because I’ve led my life without worrying whether society or my mother approves, but there’s still homophobia in our country. At any rate, we’ve made progress. We now celebrate the Day of Struggle against AIDS, on the first of December, and the Day Against Homophobia, on May 17. Who could have predicted one day we would be freely performing on stage?

Exactly one week later, Chantal welcomes me once again, not in her home (where she had no running water at the time) but at her neighbor’s, where she is seeing to a customer. She speaks with me while working. There, she tells me she first performed in Havana’s Astral and, later, at the Karl Marx venue.

Chantal: All of this has been possible thanks to Mariela Castro and the struggle against homophobia. At the Karl Marx, she wore a dress made of small mirrors and got a standing ovation. That dress was a dream of mine. We fixed bits of mirror to it. The designer and I put it together. When I ask about the fake breasts, she replies: they’re imported. They cost me 200 CUCs.

Though Chantal is proud that cross-dressers have made it to theaters, the fact of the matter is that artists aren’t paid for these performances, like they are at nightclubs. These venues do not have a payroll category for cross-dressers and describe their work as “eccentric musicals.”

Chantal also belongs to Havana’s Actuar acting agency, where he is registered as a stylist. “I work in all fashion events organized in Cuba. I’ve also been Rosa Fornes’ styist, like I told you, and I’ve worked with Beatriz Marquez, Laritza Bacallao…many figures of the art world.”

When I ask her what she prefers, being a stylist or a cross-dresser, she doesn’t think twice about it.A stylist. I enjoy making others beautiful, transforming them.” Though she enjoys working with men, she prefers styling women. “With men, you limit yourself to a haircut. With women, you have more of a chance to work your art, you see the transformation.”

Now, I converse with Leo: Chantal is “stuck in a suitcase.” Leo has never wanted to be a transvestite or a woman. “I’m happy the way I am and, if I were to be born again, I would like to be exactly the same.”

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