We’re all different things to different people. We’re not the same at work as we are at home. People view us in a variety of ways depending on how they know us. But what would it be like to have an actual second identity? It happens in the movies. Clark Kent steps into a phone booth and becomes Superman. This year, actress Glenn Close was nominated for an Oscar for portraying a woman disguised as a man in the film Albert Nobbs. What would it be like to have an alter ego, to live between two worlds in everyday life, doing your best to fit into both scenarios? The four Utahns interviewed for this story have been there. They’re about to tell the inside story of what it’s like to live two lives.
Don’t Call Her a Cross-Dresser:
Phoebe Berrey, Comb-Over Artist
Waking up with a comb-over hairstyle might be the worst day in any woman’s life—any woman except Phoebe Berrey. Several influences led to the semi-bald look she’s worn intermittently since a gay friend helped her create it in 2004. He said, “I don’t know of any man who would do this, let alone a woman.”
Despite assumptions of some people who encounter Berrey, she says her comb over has nothing to do with her sexuality. “It’s not about cross-dressing, either. I consider it a world within my mind—a different world that I can pull off. I’m an artist, and I love to have fun with people. Comb overs are funny like farts are funny.”
There are also life events involved, Berrey explains. “I’ve always been called out because I’m fat. I think I was born fat. Growing up as the fattest kid, I was judged harshly, sometimes brutally. It was natural that I would want to mirror that back to the people who I felt represented my oppressors.” As part of that process, Berrey wanted to challenge herself and take it to the next step. Wondering if there were a status that men experience that is equally impossible to hide, Berrey thought: baldness. “It was like my fat equated with the guys’ baldness. I wondered how they handle it. They go to a comb over or the ball cap.”
Berrey, 58, first shaved her head in 2000, an event she found liberating. “I got through being a prisoner of my hair, trying every style in the book. I thought, what the heck, why not try it out? Everyone should see what their head looks like bald. And when it starts growing in, it’s like carpet. When you rub it back and forth, it gives your head a sensation that you can’t describe.”
Describing things artistically is Berrey’s life’s work. After living in Salt Lake City since fourth grade, she moved to New York City for her art career. She freelanced for clients including Marvel Comics and Penthouse. She continues to freelance in Salt Lake City and works from her studio at her Avenues home. She found that men’s clothes were conducive to both her vocation and her plus-size physique. “I can’t fit into women’s clothes. And men’s clothes are cheaper.”
When she shaves her head for the comb over, she often maintains the character for several months. She’s a landlord and her current tenant—who is also bald, knows about the comb over. “He has a condition where he is completely bald with no eyelashes or eyebrows, and he knows I do the combover thing. He says people judge us bald people wrong.”
She shaves for special occasions or performances, such as in 2011, when Roseanne Barr came for the Pride festival. Berrey currently works on Roseanne Barr’s campaign art. (Barr is campaigning to become the Green Party candidate for president in 2012). Berrey also does illustrations for Barr’s boyfriend, Johnny Argent, who lives with Barr on a 40-acre macadamia nut farm on Hawaii’s Big Island.
The comb over is Berrey’s preferred style in warm weather. “I often shave it for the summer, because I’m not into hot flashes. The cooler you are on top, the better. I might as well be as undateable as possible. Sometimes I shave it every other day, and other times I go a month without shaving it and then shave it again.”
She’s created several YouTube characters—a spoof on the Old Spice guy, a doctor, a playboy and a cowboy. Berrey even appeared in a “separated at birth” shot on Dr. Phil in 2003. She submitted a tape to be considered for his Ultimate Weight Loss Challenge, telling him she was a good candidate, and adding, “Besides, I kind of look like you.”
If Berrey is perceived as just a “guy” in public, she’s basically ignored. “As a ‘fat old man,’ I notice that children don’t give me much eye contact, and women don’t really look at me either.” It gets fun for her when strangers must first make up their minds whether she is male or female. “If they decide I am a man with no funny business going on, I’m totally accepted as macho, straight and manly. But if they get a clue that something is not exactly right, some think perhaps I’m a very effeminate gay man, or, to them, more frightening. From them, I get a flash of what it feels like to be judged negatively by homophobic, confused or possibly frightened men or women.”
When folks realize she’s a woman, they want to know why she does this.
“Am I woman cross-dressing? Transitioning? Is it sexual? Am I a lesbian? A drag king?” Her answer: none of the above. “I do this for entertainment, artistic expression, greater awareness and something in my nature that makes me want to make people question their own identity.” She adds that many are delighted she was able to fool them and much laughter ensues.
Men, more than women, admire her courage. Bald guys and those with comb overs seem the most amused. “Men are more receptive to enjoying the deception although some are very, very repulsed. Women have a much harder time trying to figure out how I could betray my ‘femininity’ and not have any sexual or identity issues involved.”
Friends generally want to hang out with her to see how the whole thing plays out. “If you get it, it is hilarious fun. If you don’t, it really creeps you out. Most people don’t get it, but this does not deter me,” Berrey says. “I think I have invented a whole new Crying Game.” She’s also shamed a friend into losing his own comb over.
Chandler Burr’s entire left arm, shoulders, back and right arm to the elbow are inked with panoramic, full-color, highly detailed tattoos that reflect his life’s journey and defining moments. His visual adornments belie the reality that 38-year-old Burr is a lifelong and still-active Mormon, belonging to a faith that strongly discourages tattoos. The late LDS President Gordon B. Hinckley admonished the faithful in 2000, “... the time will come when [your tattoo] will be an embarrassment to you. Avoid it.”
Other members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints often assume there was a dark episode in his past that led to his skin art. “They will say something like, ‘We all make mistakes in life, and everybody goes through a hard time,’ thinking that it was a stage, and I regret it and have now come back to church,” says Burr, who served an LDS mission in Madrid and currently attends the LDS temple once a month. “I do get interesting looks in the temple. People will think my hand is dirty, and they do a double take.”
Despite growing up as “the perfect LDS child who was a leader in all my quorums and never drank or smoked,” Burr was fascinated with tattoos for years and had some of his designs drawn a year and half before the actual tattooing began. He researched tattooing and tattoo artists before sitting down with Mike J at Big Deluxe in Salt Lake City. “The day Mike did the first one, I was already deciding what else I wanted done,” Burr recalls.
The first tattoo Burr got was a skull on his right forearm—its veins are his five children’s names written in cursive. That tattoo extends down into his palm, culminating in a rendering of vertebrae. The final “bone” commemorates the date—Sept. 7, 2006—of his 10th wedding anniversary. “If you take our skin away and see a skeleton, you don’t know what color the person’s skin was or if they were male or female—it’s my way of saying that we are all the same.”