“Draw who you want to be when you grow up,” my son’s kindergarten teacher instructed the class. All the boys turned in stick figures wielding baseball bats or riding atop fire trucks. Not Marcello. He painstakingly sketched a ’60s-style beehive hairdo and declared underneath: “I want to be a wig designer.”
OTHER MOM ESSAYS IN THIS SERIES:
- My Mom Had Me at 18 and When My Daughter Was 18, I Got It
- Why My Old Journals Make Me a Better Mom
- A Big Shout-Out to the Working Moms, Mine Especially
- Here Is a List of All the Ways I’ve Turned into My Mom
- Confessions of a Hypocrite Mom
- Mom to College Kid: Text Me, Maybe
- My Mom Was a Sex Therapist But Don’t Ask Me to Have the Talk
- What Mom Got Right—Even When She Messed Up
- Anger Management, Mom Edition
- And Now My Kids Are Moms
At my son’s Orthodox Jewish day school, this wasn’t exactly a sought-after profession. We had taken our kids to see Hairspray1 a few weeks earlier, and in typical Marcello fashion, he became obsessed, the same way he would routinely become fixated with taking apart toys and building robots from scratch.
1. I remember how crazy the wigs were, how they magically transformed each character and how one even contained an explosive. They looked more like head sculptures than hair, and I wanted to know how to make them.
When I picked up Marcello from school, his teacher pulled me aside and, in the sort of hushed tone reserved for a cancer diagnosis, asked: “Do you know what your son wants to be when he grows up?”
“Yeah,” I replied, without batting an eyelash. “A wig designer.”2
2. It wasn’t until I watched RuPaul’s Drag Race in high school that I thought, “That’s such a cool way to express oneself.” I knew I was gay at that point but wasn’t out yet. Drag allowed me to create imaginary characters that would manifest all my feelings without having to really expose myself, because it wasn’t me. It felt like a safety bubble or a coat of armor that helped me build the self-confidence I needed to come out.
I glanced at her sheitel (Orthodox woman’s wig), a mop of matte brown fibers that looked overdue for an upgrade, and added: “Wouldn’t it be your lucky day if he designed a wig for you?” I lifted Marcello into my arms and sashayed away from her and, eventually, that school.
Growing up in the ’70s, I had rejected gender stereotypes, so why would I adhere to them now, as a mother? Back then, as the only girl in a traditional Jewish family where everything revolved around “the boys,” I had hungered for a level playing field and been a tomboy. “Free to Be...You and Me” was my rebel yell: The Marlo Thomas album articulated my own feelings that I didn’t have to grow up to be my mother—a doctor’s wife, confined to a domestic role (and physically constrained in girdles). I vowed I’d never wear makeup or get married (oops on both counts). But one promise I did keep was not limiting my kids. My girl could have toy power tools, and my boys, dress-up costumes that didn’t skimp on sparkles.
So when Marcello began to bust out of gender conventions, I was thrilled he was comfortable in his own skin. I wanted my kids to be all and everything they wanted to be—not a glimmer less.
But it wasn’t until I noticed my missing makeup routinely resurfacing in Marcello’s bathroom that I decided to talk to him. I assured him we loved him unconditionally no matter what and were there with him. He finally told us he was gay. I wondered why it took him so long, but as I’ve come to realize, self-acceptance is a huge piece of coming out.3 There’s no undoing the toll of bullying on one’s self-esteem. You don’t want to vindicate those kids who called you a fag.
3. I turned to Instagram and became part of a thriving teen drag community. I met kids from all around the world, from New Zealand to Texas, who were like me. We even created our own drag competitions. Not everyone was good, but we all supported each other, even those we gave shade to.
Photo courtesy of Marisa Fox
By his senior year, Marcello was ready to come out as Obscura, a nod to his obsession with curiosities and cult figures, like the Haunted Mansion’s Corpse Bride and Laffing Sal, a freaky animatronic character from 1930s amusement parks. His coming out wasn’t a debutante ball but his high school prom4, where he showed up in 5-inch heels, a platinum Marilyn Monroe wig, a flouncy purple dress, fake nails that he literally made out of crystals and lashes for days.
4. A boy I knew my freshman year came over and said, “You’re very brave for doing this.” I said, “Thank you.” Many kids just stared. I went to a really competitive public high school where most went on to study engineering (my college major) or medicine or biophysics. Many were first-generation Americans and had never seen anything like me. I was a first for that prom.
I remember picking him up after the prom. He had the biggest smile on his face, but he immediately kicked off his heels. As he got into the car, he asked me to loosen his corset, which I did, eliciting the hugest sigh of relief. He’s become my mother, I thought, recalling her tortured relationship with shapewear.
Fast-forward to today. We literally eat, lounge and live surrounded by candy-colored wigs, from a mint-green hairpiece he’s sculpted into an updo to a lavender finger-wave creation befitting a flapper on acid. He designs these teased-up fantasies not only for himself but for drag fans all over the country who custom-order them. We couldn’t be prouder that he’s turned his passion into a side hustle while he’s in college.
I’ll admit, things aren’t always divine: I don’t like fishing wig tendrils out of my glass of rosé. But when I look at my 6-foot-7 (in towering platforms) Obscura, a glorious riot of shades and shade, I’m in awe. I know it hasn’t been easy for him. But he’s a shining example of how gender identity is as fundamental to one’s being as glitter is to drag. He knew what he wanted to do as a little boy. How many of us can claim we fulfilled our kindergarten dreams?