Classical music has a problem with embodiment. Whether it’s sexist critics focusing more on a female artist’s outfit than her technique or scolds who expect an audience to sit in stillness and silence until after the final note has sounded, many people seem to view actual human bodies as an obstacle to the deepest experience of this music. Perhaps it’s the rhetoric of transcendence run amok—Shuffle off your mortal coil! Leave behind any ties to this earthy plane and listen to the music of the spheres!—but classical music seems particularly hostile to engaging with the realness of physicality.
Perhaps, then, it is hardly surprising that classical music as a field is rife with transphobia, given the linkage between transness and questions of physical form. To be sure, there are trans performers, composers, conductors, and critics working in the field, but often against stiff headwinds. Those with multiple talents frequently find other fields more welcoming places in which to build professional lives. This has certainly been the experience of Laurel Charleston (she/they), a rising young conductor who also makes astonishing works of makeup art that defy the contours of the faces and bodies she paints them on.
“I was blatantly discriminated against for using they/them pronouns when applying for graduate programs in conducting,” they said. “Everywhere I was allowed to identify as using those pronouns, I was denied at the application stage; but everywhere I was forced to identify as a ‘man,’ I made it through to the final round of in-person auditions.” Things weren’t always better in these next rounds. “At in-person auditions, every single time I would tell someone my pronouns, they would give me a dirty look, whether it was a look of confusion, disgust, or just complete dismissal,” they said. This ambient hostility meant prolonging the search for a school for an additional year, since, as she put it, “I’m not going to go back into the closet for a fucking grad program.”
Articles like this, straight to your inbox
Ultimately, Charleston earned a Professional Performance Certificate in Orchestral Conducting from Pennsylvania State University and secured a job with New York City’s Queer Urban Orchestra, a community ensemble dedicated to serving New York City’s LGBTQ community. Unfortunately, Charleston’s tenure began in January, 2020, immediately before the COVID lockdowns began. “That was a little disappointing,” she said, with a wry tinge in her voice. This past summer, low case rates and robust vaccination requirements meant that music-making with the group could resume.
Still, while the Queer Urban Orchestra provides a welcome haven after some of Charleston’s nastier experiences, in and of itself, it’s not enough to undo the transphobia they experienced in classical music. “Applying to grad programs was a huge turning point in my life for many reasons. It showed me that the only career that I can actually exist as a trans person in is makeup.”
Charleston first started doing makeup as a sophomore in college when they entered an annual student drag competition. “Before that, I really had not used any makeup at all, but my friends and I all went my freshman year, and we had so much fun, and they talked me into doing it the next year, and I worked really hard and wound up winning the whole thing,” they said. For some, that might have been a one-off college lark that led nowhere in particular, but for Charleston, it was something more. “I didn’t know it at the time, but I really needed that outlet. Even though I was studying music, there were many things I felt I couldn’t express outwardly in the world of classical music with my queerness and transness,” she said. “Makeup and drag were things I could always go to to take refuge in and express myself 100 percent without having to filter it for an audience or a teacher or anything like that.”
That expression soon exploded into looks you’d be unlikely to find at your average gay bar lip synch battle. In the past few years, Charleston’s work has been featured everywhere from the New York Times to Paper. The designs range from the playful to the dizzying, all seeming to defy the canvas of the human face they work on. Sometimes, they recreate iconic works of art—“The Scream” by Edvard Munch, say, or one of Picasso’s jumbled-up faces—or other recognizable images. In one, the island of Madagascar floats impossibly across the center of Charleston’s face, one shore crossing their right eye and the other coming down just to one side of the bridge of their nose. Other designs are more abstract: A whorl of electric yellow contour lines dances across a Pepto-Bismol pink background; a stark, radial design of black and white wedges cuts across circles of the opposite hue.
On Twitter and Instagram, Charleston posted a process video of making that last design, accompanied by the opening fanfares of John Adams’s “Hallelujah Junction.” It’s background music, but it also hints at a linkage between two worlds that, on the surface at least, seem alien to one another.
When I ask her about similarities here, she finds many to discuss. “These are both art forms that are meant to be experienced in person, but there’s also overlap in how they can be produced digitally to exist online,” Charleston told me. They point out that just as photos of models in magazines tend to be digitally retouched to remove wrinkles and otherwise smooth out the texture of skin, most professional orchestral recordings are stitched together from multiple takes, then digitally edited to add reverb and otherwise smooth out the sound. In both fields, records that a casual observer might assume to be objective turn out to be highly manipulated derivative artworks in their own right. “That’s part of the beauty of the craft. There’s always a little bit of rawness to it [in person]. You see the wrinkles on the person’s skin. You hear a little bit of intonation issues in the orchestra—it shows that we’re all human.”
That human element isn’t just evident in the final product; it’s part of the process of both crafts too. A conductor can’t make music by themself—they’re constantly collaborating with dozens, even hundreds of other artists to make a concert happen. Makeup artists don’t toil in creative isolation either. “When you see a model in [a photo shoot] in a magazine, you’re seeing a person in the entire life’s work of four to five people,” Charleston said. And just like with musical collaborations, the creative chemistry has to be right with makeup: “All of this is incredibly personal. When I work with a photographer, I’m putting a lot in that person’s hands. I’m creating this piece of art that I love and am putting so much work into, but it’s totally on the photographer to capture it.”
These records are important because in person, this art is so fleeting. An ensemble may spend hours and hours over the course of several weeks rehearsing a 20-minute piece of music they will play once and never touch again. A makeup artist may devote an entire day to painting a face that will be scrubbed totally clean before nightfall: “That exact performance and that exact work of makeup will never be done again.”
These parallels might seem like fertile ground for cross-pollination, a chance for classical music to learn from a field with a similar intensity of work ethic and common artistic concerns. But in Charleston’s experience, classical musicians haven’t exactly been open to this. “When I started doing makeup work, a lot of my peers would look down on me, even if they wouldn’t outright say, ‘You’re not serious enough about classical music.’ Meanwhile, I was getting ten times more performing experience as a drag artist than they have to this day as classical musicians. So I think that’s pretty iconic.”
I asked if a desire to prove the naysayers wrong by outclassing them was often on Charleston’s mind, and she did not hesitate. “My haters definitely motivate me,” they laughed. Then she walked it back: “Not even haters, necessarily. My dad is a great parent, and he’s always concerned about me being able to support myself. So we’ve had our spats and arguments about that, and that does motivate me to work harder to prove him wrong and have him shut up about it.”
Even with exemplars of individual success to point to, those who hate queer and trans people show no signs of going away. That’s why, despite their experiences with the classical music world more broadly, Charleston isn’t quite willing to abandon the Queer Urban Orchestra to solely pursue the success they’re finding in the makeup world. “These crafts are inherently very expressive, and for the people who are able to take refuge in them, it’s very powerful and very important to them,” they said. “The queer orchestra I conduct is a community of queer musicians that we can come to and be comfortable in. That wouldn’t be possible otherwise. And to speak from personal experience, I haven’t felt comfortable being myself, or even dressing as myself in other classical music spaces. So to have that community is really beautiful.” ¶