"Sometimes it's hard to be a woman," crooned country singer Tammy Wynette, little suspecting how true her words would ring in distant Moscow.
For the 15 competitors in Friday's Alternative Miss Moscow competition in the Ptyuch club, femininity was the name of the game, and it was not achieved without suffering.
"High heels take some getting used to," lamented Liz Taylor, also known as Sergei, a tour agent in Moscow.
"But I've got the knack now," he said, proving the point with a high kick.
The competitors, most of them amateurs, had taken a great deal of trouble to beautify themselves in the most extravagant way possible. Most chose to dress in '70s glam style, with giant white wigs, expansive enbonpoints and revealing split skirts. Nervous aspiring Miss Moscows with their sequined handbags and assorted cosmetics reportedly caused a traffic jam in the ladies' lavatory. On the dance floor, a temporary catwalk had been set up where the ladies strutted and posed while lip-synching to various gay anthems, such as Gloria Gaynor's "I Will Survive" and The Village People's "YMCA."
"We're doing it just for fun," said six-foot-three Ivan, who declined to give his age "because it's rude to ask a lady."
"I've been dressing up as a woman for 15 years now," said Ivan, resplendent in silver hair and a long, lacy dress of his own design. "Before, we had to do it on the quiet, in secret, but now we can be women as much as we like."
On stage, a trio of professional drag queens from the club Tri Obezyany (Three Monkeys) got the show swinging with spirited renditions of Marlene Dietrich songs, while a slightly bemused audience of club kids looked on and tried to avoid being pulled up on stage as involuntary participants.
"I'll tell you a secret," confided Ivan, leaning close in a haze of strong perfume. "I didn't have much time to make a dress for tonight, so I used my mother's tablecloth. She doesn't think it's strange to dress as a woman at all. She was young once, too."
With some of the transvestites you could tell by the way they used their walk they were a woman's man, no time to talk. Anton, for instance, a 32-year-old Panamanian doctor, found it hard to disguise his manly calves and baritone voice. He said that he planned on getting married, but was "too young." And even a lacy black dress and a green feather boa could not conceal the distinctly masculine brawny biceps and anvil jaw of Alexei, a postgraduate mathematics student at the Plekhanov Institute. But others were almost indistinguishable from the real thing.
"I had the operation in '92," whispered Christina huskily, whose low-cut lamé dress, dainty cigarette and demurely folded legs could be easily mistaken for those of a genuine femme fatale. "I feel much happier as a woman. It's better to be transsexual than to be a sexless man."
Christina was shy about recounting her experiences as a conscript in the army, but was frank about her political preferences. "I'm going to vote for Rybkin," she said, "because he's a real man."
The competition, part of the Ptyuch project to promote gay culture, didn't seem to end with any definite winner, with the participants apparently more interested in mingling with the trendy guests than in finding out who won. As champagne flowed, mascara began to trickle, poses became less poised and an abandoned pair of high heels was spotted by the bar. The general atmosphere, however, remained as camp as a row of tents.
"We must have another party like this," said Anton, the doctor, as the festivities drew to a close. "It was very fun. Very gay."