Under dim lighting, Nick Cavallaro takes out his Urban Decay eyeshadow palette.
He carefully paints on color for his signature, glitter cut-crease eye look — brown and gold are his favorite shades — before he slips into his hand-sewn leotard, stealing glimpses of himself in the mirror.
His look isn’t complete until the 23-year-old throws on a long, voluptuous wig and draws a beauty mark on his upper-right cheek.
He struts down the hall in 4-inch-high heels to a crowd of dozens behind Maude’s Side Car Bar, ready to perform.
But when Cavallaro reveals his two-hour transformation just before the two-hour show, he introduces himself as Nicki Mirage, a fierce plus-sized drag queen.
Cavallaro, a UF biological engineering masters student, is comfortable sharing both his real and drag name with anyone who asks. Despite the stigma he and the other performers still face because of their female personas, he said it’s an opportunity to rebel against society’s problematic gender and sexuality ideals that trapped Cavallaro for most of his life.
“I just spent so many years being closed off,” Cavallaro said. “I just feel like it’s time to be open with myself.”
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Even as a child, Cavallaro liked to put on a show.
Taking on the role of an officer in a middle-school play, he added an impromptu dance, making the audience laugh. But even as he embraced performance, Cavallaro said he often felt lost and alone in a family environment that frowned upon homosexuality.
When he was 13, he lied about his developing feelings toward other boys. Instead, he would tell others it was the prettiest girl in class who had his heart.
The differences between other sexual orientations, he said, didn’t have meaning until he met a gay student on the fourth floor of Trusler Hall his freshman year at UF.
Through getting to know the student, Cavallaro, who now identifies as gay, began accepting himself. With the help of friends, he said he learned to ignore the taunts he still faced about his weight and to accept his sexuality.
By the end of Spring 2012, all of his Gainesville friends knew he was gay. But Cavallaro still stressed over his parents’ discovery because he knew their religious leanings had led them to disagree with homosexuality.
To his own surprise, they ended up being very accepting and were just relieved he finally came out.
Unknown to Cavallaro, his parents already knew he was gay after snooping through his laptop and finding a class paper in which he spelled out his hidden sexuality.
“They still love me. It doesn’t change anything,” he said.
After his sexuality had been revealed, his mother accidentally found about his hobby when one of his friends shared a video of a Nicki Mirage performance on Facebook.
“I was thinking he needed a different wig and to practice walking in heels if he really wants to pull this off,” Nick’s mom, who asked not to be named, wrote in an email.
”I think I watched that first performance a 100 times,” she said.
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Nicki Visage and Nicki Mirage.
Those were the two final choices as Cavallaro sat with friends in his dorm room during Summer 2013, deliberating on the name that would define his stage presence.
The group settled on the latter because of what they saw as an obvious pun.
“I’m like a mirage,” he said, “From a distance I look like a beautiful woman, but up close I’m just a man.”
Mirage’s personality came naturally to him, he said. While Cavallaro can be reserved, Mirage is much more confident. Mirage can get right in the face of the audience, strutting under a spotlight for upward of 30 people.
Mirage made her debut at the Inter-Residence Hall Association’s pageant during Cavallaro’s junior year, when he was a residence assistant in Riker Hall. Mirage entered in the men’s competition, performing in drag with a sequined hat and a whip to Britney Spears’ song “Circus.” For the Q&A section, Cavallaro changed out of his drag clothes, opting for a suit. He walked away with a sash bearing “Mr. IRHA 2014.”
“I feel like I’ve made it,” he said. “At least in Gainesville.”
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Cavallaro separates his drag life and personal life — two Facebook pages, two names and two different faces. But if someone asks, he’s not afraid to share.
“It just wasn’t something that I don’t really put out there immediately,” Cavallaro said. “I’m so much more than just being gay.”
His “drag sister” and fellow director for Maude’s Downtown Drag shows, Marina Maroney, also known as Drew Aldrich, is also comfortable sharing his name, but he understands others who aren’t. A lot of guys and transgender women turn to drag because they don’t feel comfortable in their own skin, he said.
“Society has told us that we’re too gay or too feminine,” Aldrich, 23, said. “So I think drag is kind of a big F-you.”
Drag allows individuals in the LGBTQ+ community to make a little extra money off of the hyper-femininity that is normally atypical, Aldrich said. But the job comes with its own set of stigmas. Some assume all queens are gay and want to be women, or that they’re all stuck-up and self-absorbed, he said.
Not all drag queens are members of the LGBTQ+ community. Some are straight and some are cis-women, known as “faux-queens,” Cavallaro said. Even though transgender men and women are accepted into the drag community, most of them see drag as just a night job.
“I’m still a man outside the wig,” Aldrich said.
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Cavallaro will always be Nicki Mirage.
Lip-syncing to songs and dancing at Maude’s allowed Cavallaro to create something other than his research projects. He spends his day in labs, making technology to measure bacteria in food before spending his nights in drag.
But in finding Mirage, Cavallaro found a life outside of his future career.
Although he said he doesn’t foresee himself pursuing drag full-time, he wants to do it until his body gives out.
After college, Cavallaro said he sees himself continuing to break stereotypes. He’ll be anything but a boring engineer. And although he keeps his worlds separate, he’s grown in both.
“I’d prefer to not have to get rid of her,” he said. “I don’t think I ever will have to.”