Night shift

This article is part of the series Night

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The moment night sets in, Istanbul’s drag queens and zennes, male belly dancers, begin to transform. Other characters, existing in the same bodies, come to life as darkness falls around them. This is Melisa, Reşat and Onur, three nightly performers, morphing into their stage personas.

Melisa – dancer/belly dancer

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“I went to the Mimar Sinan Conservatory in Istanbul and studied the viola for eight years. But I’ve stopped playing. I have long nails now; I can’t play the viola anymore.”

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“I always wanted to dance. The conservatory also has a ballet department, and I used to take the puants home and practice there.”

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“No one from my family has seen me perform except my sister. I performed during a Bob Sinclar concert once, she came with her friends. I was happy about that. Otherwise I wouldn’t have liked her watching me. My family would object as well. My mother supports me. She even helps with my costumes. I usually perform in oriental outfits and she helps me with the embellishments.”

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“My father’s side of the family would never accept what I do. Once I did an interview with a newspaper and received some really harsh criticism. It was a very hard time. That’s when I started to keep my work more secret.”

Reşat/Rush – drag queen/impersonator

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“I’ve been impersonating famous singers since I was 17.”

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“I also work at a children’s theatre, singing and doing vocals. At night I work as a drag queen and showman. That’s how I earn my money. I entertain children in the morning and adults during the weekend. Working at night is not about wearing a wig or masquerading as a woman. It’s about entertainment, about being on stage.”

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“My family told me for years to pick another job but I insisted on theatre. They support me a lot now. I have a nephew who is 18, he used to ask me what I was doing and I was scared to tell him. Now, he comes to my shows with his friends from university.”

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“My first performance ever was at Club Flipper in Bodrum. I was on a holiday and the people at the hotel asked if I could perform. I told them at first that I wouldn’t but then I tried it and everybody really liked it. They even offered me a job straight away.”

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“People think we walk around like this in our normal lives. When I worked as a host at [the gay bar] Barbahçe, a couple invited me and a friend for a glass of wine. I suggested we’d grab dinner instead. Then she asked me, ‘Do you really eat?’ I was shocked – what, we don’t eat, we don’t go to the bathroom? We have families, daily lives, normal lives.”

Onur/Nurtopu – drag queen/performer

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“I’ve always felt like I have two separate lives. It would’ve been the same even if I had worked in a bank, I wouldn’t have been the same person with my friends and the people around me. So I just have two lives like everyone else. I don’t think they, my normal self Onur and my stage persona Nurtopu, are similar. But when wearing my wig I embrace my other persona and give myself to the night.”

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“I had a kind of twenties depression: nothing was enough, everything was just boring. It was a really rough time and I quit my job. I had no money. One of my friends who worked at [the cabaret restaurant] Cahide told me they needed a showgirl. I went backstage that night and it was very colourful, charming and inviting. I loved the costumes, wigs and makeup.”

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“When you give birth, no one thinks of the baby as a human being. It’s always either a boy or a girl. If you give birth to a boy, the family will appreciate and accept him easily. You’ve hit the jackpot. If it’s a girl she always has to stay in the background.”

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“I like to mock the traditional saying Nurtopu gibi bir oǧlunuz oldu – ‘You had a boy who looks like a cherub.’ A cherub, is that a boy or a girl? You decide.”

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“The hardest part [of this job] is that you never know what’s going to happen. When alcohol and the night come together, you never know what people will do. They might pull my hair and then say ‘But you’re too beautiful.’ It’s as if they have a doll in front of them and they can do whatever they like with it.”

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