The Man Who Would be a Woman Act Six, Scene One: The Transformation

Previously: After Shi Pei Pu’s People Magazine interview, Daniel and I debate the questions that stubbornly linger. New to the story? Catch up from the beginning here.

The day after Shi’s interview, I walked down the Champs Élysées to Maxim’s bar. It was a stunning summer afternoon, and the glory and monumental beauty of Paris called out to me from all sides. The bar at Maxim’s has the same quietly luxurious tone that the world-famous restaurant has. The art deco wooden bar is itself a graceful reminder of a bygone era. And as I was early for my meeting, I stopped at the bar for a quick espresso both to soak in the beauty of the room, and to fortify myself for what was to follow.

After my coffee, I climbed the carpeted stairway to the mezzanine floor and found the door of Shi Pei Pu’s dressing room. I took a deep breath—maybe two—then knocked.

I shall never, ever forget what I saw when I entered. Our diva was deeply involved in applying his makeup- his “maquillage.” He was looking away from me into a three-panel, well-lighted mirror, but he could see my reflection by merely shifting his gaze. In front of him, on the dressing table, were dozens and dozens of bottles and tubes of makeup products, and he was partway through the process of turning his aging male face into that of a young woman. The man who would be a woman was actually becoming one before my very eyes.

On the dressing table, over to one side, was a forty-year-old color photograph of Shi Pei Pu as a very young opera star in full female makeup, costumed and glorious in a bejeweled, silken gown. He turned his eyes to the photo every fifteen or twenty seconds, looking for direction—and hoping for progress. But the ravages of forty years—the hardships and deprivations of the Cultural Revolution, the ordeals of immigration, the tribulations of the treason trial, the harshness of imprisonment, and the cruelty of the public humiliation—had all taken their toll. Shi Pei Pu could make himself into a woman, that was clear, but he could no longer come anywhere close to making himself into the exquisite young princess who gazed back at him from the picture.

Never one to quit, Shi Pei Pu redoubled his efforts and continued to apply an ever thickening layer of cosmetics. But while he put up an admirable fight for at least another five minutes, there came a point at which he finally surrendered. I heard a quiet, mournful sigh that echoed the sadness in his eyes, and then he just pushed the tubes and bottles away.

The aging princess rose to put on her sequined costume, followed by the final step in the dressing process: the donning of a complex hairpiece and hat that connoted her regal presence. She then stood, drew herself up to her full height, and took my arm to be escorted to the stage. But first, perhaps unwisely, she took a moment to glance back at herself in the looking glass. As the years pass, each of us returns an increasingly disappointed look back at a mirror, but the princess’ disapproval of what she saw that day was clearly of an altogether different magnitude.

It was only as we took our first steps toward the door that I noticed for the first time the tailoring on Shi Pei Pu’s costume. Long rectangular panels of new material had been inserted at regular intervals to allow the original royal robing to envelope a quite significantly expanded princess. Despite the tailor’s noble efforts, however, the coloring of these strips didn’t quite match the faded hues of the original silk, and, in fact, they somewhat clashed in tone. Worse still, the original silk was almost in tatters, having fed a great many moths over a great many years. Overall, the gown’s hoary condition exaggerated and drew attention to the worn-out look of the princess who wore it; one could only hope for dim lighting. 

Joyce Wadler appeared at the door just as I opened it. She announced that the film crews were ready, and that the invited audience was seated and becoming anxious. She asked me to confirm with Shi Pei Pu that he intended to explain to the audience the operatic setting for the arias he was going to sing, and the general sense of each libretto. She asked me if I would translate these introductory remarks, and with that she was gone.

At that point, the princess dropped my arm, closed her eyes, and was perfectly still for a good fifteen seconds. She then drew in a long, deep breath, exhaled ever so slowly, and took my arm again. Regardless of how she looked, she was clearly one hundred percent committed to the international ethic of all performers: the show must go on.

Up next: Shi Pei Pu takes the stage. New to the story? Catch up from the beginning here.