Lessons in the Multitude of Femininity From the World’s Foremost Purveyors of Butt Pads
Heather Radke on Drag, Spanx, and the Performance of Femme
On a hot July day in 2019, Vinnie Cuccia stood in front of his apartment building in Brighton Beach, a historically Russian neighborhood in Brooklyn where he lived with Alex Bartlett, his partner in life and business. An effervescent man in his fifties, he smoked a cigarette in the courtyard, wearing wraparound sunglasses, slim-cut jeans, and a yellow PFLAG T-shirt.
I approached the building as he finished his cigarette, and he told me about how much he loved living in this part of the city, an area where he and Bartlett could afford to live in a building with ocean views. Coney Island was a ten-minute stroll away, and the aquarium was even closer. “Our friends always ask us to go to Fire Island,” he told me. “But we don’t need to—here, we can go to the beach and come back home to go to the bathroom!”
Cuccia and I took the elevator up to the apartment where he and Bartlett lived and worked. When he opened the door, we were greeted by human-sized stacks of ivory-colored foam cut into the shape of enormous, corpulent commas. An entire room was dedicated to these foam chunks, but that didn’t stop them from spilling into the hallway.
These materials were the basis of the business Cuccia and Bartlett co-owned: they are perhaps the world’s foremost purveyors of butt and hip pads designed for use by drag queens, cross-dressers, and trans women. Several of the drag queens I had watched at Iconic used their product, as did contestants on RuPaul’s Drag Race and other well-known drag queens across the globe.
Bartlett soon appeared to welcome me. Dressed in cut-off shorts and flip-flops, he showed me the bedroom that the couple had transformed into a workshop. Two assistants, both young women planning to pursue a career in fashion, stopped to say hello before resuming their work shaping the foam with electric saws. A shelf near the ceiling held bolts of brightly colored fabric that Bartlett fashioned into costumes, both for himself (he performed in drag as “Pepper”) and for clients and friends who performed on Broadway and in clubs across the country.
When they opened the business—aptly named Planet Pepper—Bartlett had been doing drag for about twenty years. He had also been sewing costumes for himself and other drag queens out of his apartment. Cuccia didn’t know anything about sewing but wanted to start a small business and had access to $15,000 from the New York State Commission for the Blind, which was offering start-up money for people with visual impairments (Cuccia is legally blind). The couple decided to use the money to start a costume shop—Cuccia would handle the business side of things and Bartlett would take the creative lead. At first, Planet Pepper lost money—small fashion companies often run on thin margins and it is rare to turn a profit quickly—but soon the couple realized that there was an associated, and untapped, market: specialized padding for drag queens to wear under their elaborate outfits.
“I was making costumes for people that didn’t have a feminine body, and they wanted to present in a feminine way,” Bartlett explained. “They’d come in looking like dudes and we’d have to basically start with the body and then do the outfit. After a while I realized—there’s nobody doing this. No one is really making hip pads for drag queens and other people who want to present that way.”“You put these hips on and this butt on, everything changes dramatically. A lot of people say, ‘It changed my look, it changed my life.’”
Bartlett, who had grown up and then come of age as a drag queen in Virginia, had learned how to make and shape padding the way most drag queens had always learned: his drag mother had taught him how to cut up couch cushions, sculpt them into the desired shape, and stuff them strategically into pantyhose.
“You learn from the people you’re around,” Bartlett explained. “A friend of mine could see I wasn’t padding and was like, ‘It’s time to start thinking about padding because you look like a boy in a dress.’” The first time he stepped onstage in padding, he recalled, was a magical, life-changing moment. “For drag queens, there is this sort of switch that goes off when you figure out your shape. You become a different person. When you have a body and fingernails and boobs, you walk in a different way, move in a different way. You command space differently.”
In the eighties and nineties, the drag community, especially in New York City, dutifully reflected the fashion industry’s ideas of what it meant to be feminine and beautiful. While performers in Virginia often crafted their appearance after Mae West and Marilyn Monroe—a look that requires a full backside— Bartlett realized when he arrived in New York City in 1992 that the style was “very androgynous, very rock ’n’ roll,” and therefore less padded. “Everybody wanted to be a supermodel, size zero, look like a boy in a dress,” Cuccia added.
Even with his visual impairment, Cuccia says he could always tell when he was talking to a drag queen in those days. “I looked right at her hips. They didn’t move; they didn’t sway.” It took a while, but Planet Pepper eventually found a foothold in the community as styles and outlooks on drag began to evolve and change. “When people think about being a woman, it’s all about the breasts and hair and face,” Cuccia says. “But you put these hips on and this butt on, everything changes dramatically. A lot of people say, ‘It changed my look, it changed my life.’”
Like many women, I, too, have worn undergarments in an effort to change my silhouette, but unlike Cuccia and Bartlett, for whom the creation of feminine shapes is an act of acceptance, liberation, and rebellion, my attempts to shape my body using padding and spandex have almost always been an exercise in restriction.
The first time I used underwear to conform to predetermined ideals of femininity was in middle school. Before I had any breasts to speak of, I bought bras with a bit of bulk added to the underside of the cup. I tried to strike a balance between a change that might get me noticed and a change that was noticeably false: I wanted to look a touch more developed than I actually was but was terrified that my deception would be discovered.
A decade later, as a twenty-four-year-old bridesmaid, I discovered shapewear because I’d forgotten that I would need a slip to wear beneath a gossamer dress at the front of a church. As I steamed the bride’s wedding gown in a Sunday school classroom, another bridesmaid rushed to a nearby mall and returned brandishing a tan spandex tube with bra cups attached at the top. It was from Victoria’s Secret and was designed not only to prevent the congregation from seeing through my dress, but also to make me smaller. By the end of the night, my stomach ached—the price of creating a body that felt normal and feminine was an acidic feeling of constipation.
The desire to change the way my body looked was, for me, an attempt at coherence, an effort to match the outside of the body with the inside, to have the self that is seen in the world match some concept of the true self lurking beneath the surface. The padded bra and the body-constricting Spanx each offered an opportunity to more closely align with an ideal of the feminine, to put on a costume and perform a version of femme: I want bigness here and smallness there in order for the outside of my body to cohere to a gender template that I have inherited and internalized. I feel myself—or want to feel myself—as feminine, or adult, or poised. It is an ordering, of both the self and the world. For me, it is often a complicated, conflicting desire: I want to be seen on the outside as something close to who I feel myself to be on the inside, and yet I also want to be seen on the outside as normal, as feminine, as correct.
But femininity is not a singular experience, and the tools we have to communicate it are blunt. Simple, obvious signifiers—a big bosom, a full behind, a slimmed middle—create an illusion of gender that is uncomplicated and binary. A feminine outside suggests a tidy, feminine inside, even if the truth is much more fluid and complex. In many ways, this is the point: to make femininity simple, straightforward, and singular is a way to dodge its nuance.
After all, there was no bra that could have communicated the way, at thirteen, I longed for the freedom of being a little girl at the same moment that I craved what I imagined was the agency of womanhood. There was no constipating girdle or flouncy dress that could have made visible the multiple expressions of gender I felt within me as I stood at the front of the church on the day of my friend’s wedding. I was polished and lovely, and took pleasure in the fact that I seemed to be pulling off the poise of a cookie-cutter bridesmaid.
But I was also standing at the front of an evangelical church, trying to catch the eye of the beautiful butch woman who was my date to the ceremony, both of us squirming as we listened to the pastor assert that marriage was between one man and one woman. There was a betrayal in that moment: I was passing as a rom-com femme, but my gender and sexuality both remained disguised.
“One is not born, but rather becomes, woman,” Simone de Beauvoir famously tells us in The Second Sex. One of the places one becomes a woman is in the aisles of a lingerie store, where the fantasy of another body feels dimly within reach. Beauvoir’s sentiment echoes through the philosophy of gender in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries. We see it in the pages of Judith Butler’s Gender Trouble, which situates gender as a construction and a performance, rather than as a stable fact. We might wear the accessories associated with what has been deemed “female” or “male,” we may plump and pad and slim, but the internal self cannot be known by these external signifiers, and the contrast between the outside and the inside is often heightened by the performance.
There is, in fact, no real internal self at all, according to Butler. The fantasy of a genuine self, a stable notion of “femininity,” is an illusion. There is no normal, there is no feminine. Part of the reason why any singular expression of gender is discomfiting, why earnestly plumping myself up in the ultra-femme dress of the bridesmaid felt so hollow, is that it suggests singularity when there is really plurality. There is a tragedy in that discomfort, but also, maybe, an opportunity. Or, as RuPaul has said: “We’re all born naked, and the rest is drag.” The product offered by Cuccia and Bartlett at Planet Pepper provides a different way to think about creating a body than what I can find in the aisles of a lingerie store.
When I wear Spanx or make a futile attempt to fit into pants designed for Natasha Wagner’s body, I feel the echoes of those constraints. I’m trying to conform my body to another person’s notion of femininity, another person’s idea of normal.
And yet, Bartlett and Cuccia find freedom in versions of these same garments. For them it is all about the joyfulness of expressing multiple modes of the self. “At some point, it becomes this abstract idea of what is male and female,” says Bartlett. “We go back and forth over time. And for me, I was bored wearing jeans and black tees, and I wanted to wear fun, flashy clothes. I asked myself: Why can’t I wear fabulous dresses? I found a space where I could do that. For me there is a magic in dressing up. I become even more of myself.”
Excerpted from Butts: A Backstory by Heather Radke, available via Avid Reader Press.