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Behind the scenes at Washington DC's "Drag Races"

The Washington Post
December 1, 2002

When properly adjusted, the platinum blond wig turns "Feather Dustings" into a dead ringer for a youthful, statuesque Carol Channing. One look at the sparkling wisps falling around the cheeks, one glance at the toothy, ecstatic smile, and you expect a 1,000-watt rendition of "Hello, Dolly!"

Now if Feather could only do something about that hairy chest.

Meet Matt Hoffman, a 38-year-old native New Zealander who, one night each fall, dons women's clothing and joins a pack of spike-heeled men running, prancing or walking down 17th Street NW in the District's annual "High Heel Race."

On this night, Hoffman is part of the "feather girls" posse, distinguished by their tall cowboy hats bedecked with downy plumes. But don't call them "drag queens" or "cross-dressers."

"A drag queen is almost a performer," Hoffman's friend "Red Hot Chili Pepper Feather" explains as the voice of Enrique Iglesias warbles over the pre-race chatter in a Dupont Circle condo. "We just do it for fun," he says, adjusting his candy-apple-red stilettos.

Hoffman discovered the gender-bending race soon after moving to D.C. from Upstate New York, where he earned a PhD in microbiology and immunology at the University of Rochester. "I'm a nerd," he says in his self-deprecating Kiwi twang, but a merry one. Tonight the biologist has broken out a pair of sparkly red-and-black size 11s from Payless for his ninth dash down 17th Street.

After a few group photos--"Ladies, start your engines!" a wag yells--it's time to decamp to the starting line. It's a perfect stay-at-home evening: cold, wet, the streets slick with leaves. But the feather girls are defying the weather.

And so off go the hundred-odd racers, a blur of campy poseurs moving down the damp street like brilliant birds of paradise. The feather girls aren't among the winners, but they loiter at the finish line afterward to celebrate their part in the spectacle.

"I did great," Red Hot Chili Pepper Feath-er reports, "but my feet are killing me."

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