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Charlie Romero is a small, exotic island just off the east coast of Echo Park, nestled in a sea of tidy bungalows in East L.A.
"I'm a hot mess," Charlie confesses. He's wearing a candy-striped, polyester-blend tank top and capri pants.
The compact three-room home he occupies with his mother is a tightly appointed affair where Charlie has over the last 15 years Houdini'd himself into a Golden Girls-meets-Gary Glitter, glam-rock, gender-bending, multimedia musical performer.
"I do it because I'm dirty and I like to take a risk," Charlie explains. "I'm a 'get the people out of the comfort zone' kind of guy. I play anywhere: bathroom, back alley, underground clubs." Now 25, he has been gigging in Los Angeles for years, but he's never ventured out in the neighborhood in his signature sequins and mascara'd face paint -- until today.
Charlie's big inspiration, stylistically, is The Golden Girls. "Anything you would see in their closet you will see in my show, plus stuff that I make that lights up. Take a rave, glam rock from the '70s and theater, mesh them all into one on top of old-school '90s rap ... that's what you see at my shows."
The little space remaining in the front room of the house is dominated by a wire mannequin adorned with a Day-Glo airbrushed trench coat coiled in strips of tiny purple lights. Hung and strewn about are glittery, sparkly women's garments -- not belonging to his mother. A porcelain princess menagerie on a shelf keeps watch over a small mountain of individually wrapped wholesale candy and snacks, presumably for roadside resale.
"In the beginning I was the only one who had hair on my head," Charlie continues. "There were all these baldies with baggy pants with that whole gangster look. I never could do it. Well, actually, my mom never let me," Charlie says. He's now in a backroom, painting a black-and-silver mask on his face while looking into a mirror.
"Have you ever seen the movie Party Monster? I so identify with that. It's grungy, it's dirty, it's everything that I want to be and more. I love pop music, but they all look the same. Take a chance! Dress up and drench yourself in paint!"
Charlie puts on one of his glam-rock CDs and crawls across the floor. He's wearing a pair of black, high-waisted pants with stars and spirals made of small sequins and a tight, short-sleeved black top with large sequins. Bangs akimbo, he snarls and claws at the air like a cat, singing along to the CD: "It makes me hot when you give me what I ask for ..."
Next, Charlie rifles through his war chest of sparkly costumes and changes into a pair of silver spandex pants and a white fringe leather jacket, with his bare chest partially covered by a black fringe necklace. He pulls on big black boots, puts on another CD, picks up a hairbrush and lip-synchs with full performance. It's a sort of techno-pop, rap, rave, glam situation.
Dancing aggressively, whipping his head back and forth, he sings in a sort of deep-throated rave prose: "I'm in love with you, you, you, you, you and only you. I'm in love, I'm in love, I'm in love with you. So when I think of you, and you think of me, and you feel the beat of the drum, and my heart goes boom, boom."
It's a glam-inspired tribal war dance. Charlie's gearing himself up for a trip to the 99-cent store to buy makeup.
Soon he is strutting the block where he's been masquerading as a normal citizen for 15 years, venturing out in his neighborhood for the first time as himself. Until now, his essential glam persona has presented itself exclusively onstage and in clubs.
In fringe and spandex, sporting a shiny silver headband, Charlie takes a deep breath as a woman in her 50s shoots him disapproving daggers. A young couple in a car beeps and smiles as a group of gang style-influenced teenage boys gather to check him out. Charlie takes his cue, freestyling as the boys beat-box. A big cholo in a Toyota gives Charlie the thumbs up.
At the corner bodega, a pint-size hood rat with long Wassup Rockers hair says, "I'mma give 'em a tit twist," and giggles. A menacing gangster mad-dogs Charlie, then gives him the devil horns and an approving nod. A kindred spirit, Charlie returns the gesture.
Oddly, Charlie Romero doesn't seem out of place here at all. In fact, he fits right in. The entire neighborhood is a Central Casting cartoon of itself and Charlie's dirty glam-fag persona is decidedly well received.
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The end of an era for Charlie Romero. Once sequestered in a self-imposed polyester prison, held captive in unimaginable synthetic fabric blends, he is now properly emancipated.
"I have to go to war every night," he says. "I have to let people know that I'm here. I don't wanna get political. I just wanna get noticed."