If beauty comes in many forms, so do photography studios. Riding the nondescript compound lift up to Mingyi Studio feels about as glamorous as a hairy man's leg in sheer tights. While it’s a pleasant apartment building, after seeing the scantily-clad (and convincing) lovelies fawning for the camera on Mingyi’s Baidu site, we’re expecting something a little slicker.
It quickly becomes apparent that this is no average flat. The living room has been commandeered by lighting equipment, wires and pull-down backdrops, including a beach scene and a pagoda. In the corner is a shelf of mannequin heads holding blonde, brunette and even blue wigs, and a drawer is stuffed with disposable razors. Upstairs, the entire top floor has become a giant dressing up box with some 1,500 outfits, from extra-large qipaos to cosplay costumes to lacy bras with extra padding.
Mingyi is one of a handful of cross-dressing photo studios in Shanghai, where clients – men and women, gay and straight – come to play at being the opposite sex for a few hours. The half-day sessions include a make-over (hair and make-up, which usually takes well over an hour), numerous costume changes, and a set of professional photographs. Owner Mingyi, who’s in his 20s, founded the studio seven years ago after requests from friends wanting to dress in drag for parties. Today the studio has people visiting daily, with the age of clients ranging from 17 to 70.
Mingyi explains that the studio isn’t just a place for drag lovers to let loose, but a way for first-timers to dabble. ‘A 17 year-old boy was brought here once by his mother,’ he says. ‘I’m not too sure of the exact situation, since I don’t ask too many questions of the customers, but I think he’d come out to his mother. She was quite young and understood, so she brought him here to try it out.’
Cross-dressing is far from just a gay activity, though. ‘A lot of guys simply like to have the feeling of being a girl,’ says Mingyi. ‘Everyone has different tastes and requirements. Foreigners and foreign-born Chinese like the Chinese style, especially the old-style outfits such as qipaos. Cosplay and sexy office lady photos are very popular, too.
‘We also have a lot of girls who come here, but they have slightly different reasons to the guys – a lot of them are just tomboys trying it out. They’re quite small usually, so finding clothes can be a bit tricky.’
Most importantly, the process – which normally includes a home-cooked lunch – is meant to be fun. Make-up artist Kitty, 28, who has worked at the studio for a year, says: ‘I like connecting men to their feminine side. When they’re a boy they’re distant, but when they become a girl they become really cute, really sexy. I like the feeling of helping them get there.’
For Mingyi, who has been dressing as a girl since he was a teenager, it’s just a hobby. ‘I don’t have much of a beard, my Adam’s apple isn’t too big and my feet are quite small, so I make a fairly good girl,’ he says. ‘I don’t wear women’s clothes every day – I’m not happier as either a boy or a girl, and sometimes it’s not very convenient to dress as a girl. It depends on the situation and the mood I’m in, really. Sometimes, I just want to be a boy – like I want to shovel my food down and that’s not very feminine, so wearing women’s clothes can be a bit inconvenient.’
‘We get a lot of fat customers,’ Kitty, the make-up artist, tells me as we climb the stairs to the attic where Mingyi Studio keep their costumes, ‘so we should have something to fit you.’ Noticing my expression as she casually flicks through cat costumes and nurses outfits, she adds, ‘I mean because you’re quite tall.’ She asks me what style I want to dress in, something which I hadn’t really given much thought to, and I decide to go with a qipao. ‘Yeah, that’s what a lot of Westerners go for,’ she says, clearly unimpressed. After a year of doing this, she tells me that when she sees a man she thinks first about what kind of girl they would make. So what am I? ‘I saw you more as a cutesy girl, like a Barbie doll,’ she says.
Possessing a distinctly non-Barbie-like body causes a few problems as I put a hole in a pair of tights, get given elbow-length gloves to cover my hairy arms and try to squeeze into the biggest pair of heels they have, but with the studio’s help I just about get there. Once I’ve got the hang of my fake breasts, the make-up takes almost two hours as Kitty tries to obliterate my bushy eyebrows and stubble (still surviving despite going through several razors). As she smothers my face in milky foundation and sculpts cheekbones with bronzer and a blusher brush, I look like one of the bald witches from Roald Dahl’s The Witches.
When I’m finally ready for the shoot, the photographer tries to coach me to look more effeminate as I pose with a fan (positioned to cover the scraggly chest hair poking out from the bra) and a pipa. Ultimately, I feel like I make a pretty unattractive girl (something I probably already knew), but have fun getting there.
Sitting like a man is tricky, as it turns out. It takes three tries before I get the correct stance – legs ajar and toes pointing outwards – and then I have to master a masculine facial expression, which is apparently my best ‘angry’ face – equally tricky as I’m cracking up. All the while I’m trying to hunch my shoulders to disguise the fact I have boobs, while cocking a gun at the camera. Not a natural.
Kitty does a much better job with the make up. As she swathes my face in orange foundation, she explains that my nose is too pointy and it will look more masculine flatter – something she achieves with grey eyeshadow. Similarly, my eyebrows give me away, so soon they’re bushy. We tie my hair back, don a wig and reach for the gun.
I'd envisioned a transformation akin to Gwyenth Paltrow in Shakespeare in Love, but I end up looking more like Jessie from Toy Story 2. This is partly my fault for dressing like a cowboy, but mainly because I suspect it's easier to make boys look girly than vice versa – you can easily add chicken fillets, but it's hard to take hips away.
Mingyi Studio Room 1001, Tenth Floor Building 5, 163 Puhuitang Lu, near Yishan Lu, Xuhui district See Mingyi Studio address details.