Family Portraits: Emmanuel Ilarraza

Emmanuel Ilarraza, aka Alexis Cartier, wears many crowns — the most recent being Miss Philly Pride and Miss Philadelphia Black Gay Pride. A performer and designer extraordinaire, Miss Cartier will entertain at Henri David’s Halloween ball Oct. 31, a must-attend event for all Philadelphians.

PGN: Tell me about the fam. EI: My mom and dad are from Puerto Rico, but I was born and raised in New York — Queens, to be specific. My mother was always a stay-at-home mom and my father’s retired now, but he was an architect. They’ve been together forever.

PGN: I understand you’re very close to your mother. Tell me something about her. EI: She is literally my eyes: I see the world through her perspective. She’s a strong woman who was born and raised in the Pentecostal Church. She’s not a fanatic though. In fact, growing up, she would let us listen to secular music, learn the latest dances and go to parties. She figured that if we grew up and decided not to be part of the church, she didn’t want us out there with two left feet. She’s funny: She doesn’t smoke or drink, or dance, wear makeup or fancy clothes, but she loves to go to parties. She loves to just go and watch people have a good time. She’s a people person and really good at reading people. She’ll meet a new person and tell me, “Listen Manny, you should know this about them … ” I love her so much, the day that she’s no longer with me, I think I would die or go blind.

PGN: Any siblings? EI: Two older brothers, two younger sisters. One of my sisters is gay also.

PGN: Is your father religious? EI: That’s a funny story. My dad was originally my uncle’s best friend. When he met my mother and fell in love, my uncle told him that he could never marry his sister if he wasn’t a part of the church, so my dad joined the church. Once they got married, he left the church.

PGN: What was Queens like? EI: It was great. It’s diverse, but it’s all in different sections. Like the section I lived in, Forest Hills, was all Jewish. So basically it was me — the little Puerto Rican boy — and a million Jews. It was fun. I love Manhattan too, but what’s nice about Queens is that there’s a lot of greenery — tree-lined streets and beautiful parks.

PGN: Where did you go to school? EI: I went to a Catholic school, St. Paul’s of the Cross. I didn’t love it, but I didn’t hate it. I had one brother, Ray, who was really a terror so when I went to class, the teachers that had him first were always like, “You’re not anything like your brother!” I was a really good student.

PGN: When did you come to Philly? EI: My older brother and younger sister moved here a while back. My mom had gotten tired of New York, so she and my dad moved back to Puerto Rico, then they decided to move back, so they decided to give Philadelphia a try. About nine years ago, my dad had a stroke and, since I’m not married with kids, I was the best choice to help my mom take care of him, so I moved here too. I fell in love with the city.

PGN: And apparently Philly fell in love with you too, being named Miss Philadelphia Black Gay Pride. EI: I know, I’m super-blessed this year. I won that and I’m also Miss Philly Pride. It’s been quite a ride.

PGN: When did you come out? EI: Hmmn, I don’t know that I’ve ever “come out” per se. I know that my parents know, but we’ve never had a formal conversation about it. But one time way back when, my mom was arguing with one of my brothers and I took his side in the fight, and told her she was wrong. And she said, “Manny, don’t say that, I never say anything about your funny friends.” It was a riot, so I know she knows. It’s not anything that I hide, but I don’t necessarily broadcast it, I’m just me.

PGN: How did you get into drag? EI: A good friend of mine is a pretty well-known clothing designer and he made these Las Vegas-style showgirl dresses for Halloween. He had a falling out with his friend and so he had an extra costume. He talked me into wearing it and shaving, etc. — everything to make it work. It was so grand! I was 18 and skinny and people were going crazy over me. I fell in love with it and a drag queen was born that Halloween night.

PGN: What makes you good at it? EI: It’s been a long journey, but I think I’ve mastered the art of female impersonation. I’m good at lip-synching and I put on a whole show, dancing and performing. I do a lot of Latin music because there aren’t a lot of girls out there doing Latin stuff. When I get out there and do the merengue and salsa and shake my maracas, the crowd goes crazy and everyone starts to dance. I try to channel Iris Chacon, who is one of my idols. She’s super sexual, super sexy, the epitome of sensuality.

PGN: I heard David Letterman describe her as the “Dolly Parton of Puerto Rico.” What was your craziest mishap as Alexis? EI: The most recent one was when I forgot my boobs! I really like to look perfect, so there’s no stuffing tissue into a bra for me: I use real imitation breasts like the kind they use for women who have had breast cancer. They’re very realistic and have an authentic look and feel. Since I didn’t want to just stick a pair of socks in my shirt, I opted to go for this long wig with the hair in front covering my chest.

PGN: That would be funny conversation to overhear: “Help, I left my boobs on the dresser!” EI: I know. When I have them on, people really think I have breasts, and I’m like, “Nooo” and I’ll whip them out and show them. I don’t care.

PGN: Is that your best asset? EI: No, that would be my legs. I stop traffic with these babies. I get guys whistling and I laugh, “You don’t want me. I’m a boy.”

PGN: Crazy fans? EI: Uh, yes. More like obsessed, but I love it. It feels great, it’s like being a celebrity, but then I go home and remind myself, that was fun, but you are not a celebrity.

PGN: What’s the hardest part about being a woman? EI: The heels! I love ’em — the higher the better — but oh my God, it’s a sacrifice.

PGN: Do you speak Spanish? EI: Yes, fluently. But it’s interesting: There’s a big difference between people who are natives of Puerto Rico and Puerto Ricans who live in the U.S. — the attitude, the looks, the culture, everything. We’re supposed to be the same people, but it’s day and night.

PGN: I went there ages ago when I first came out. There were some great clubs. EI: Unfortunately, a lot of them closed. There’s starting to be a resurgence and they recently celebrated Pride Day, but it’s a very machismo type of place. The boys don’t play that. Well, maybe when no one’s looking.

PGN: Did your dad pressure you to be macho? EI: Not really, but he did try to make sure I was a “boy.” He made sure I kept my nails and hair short. He loved sports and all my brothers played Little League. They were all-star players and my father encouraged them to be first basemen, so they’d be right in the thick of the action. So when I had to play, I tried to get put in the outfield where the ball would not touch me. My dad came to practice and said to the coach, “Why is Manny in the outfield? Put him on first base!” The coach was really cool; I think he knew. He said to my dad, “He’s not like his brothers, Manny’s special.” My father was like, “What do you mean he’s special? Blah, blah, blah.” He didn’t push me to the point that I felt uncomfortable, but every once in a while, he’d try the boy thing.

PGN: Was that your only sport? EI: No, I played football and basketball too. I think basketball stretched me! I used to be short and chubby, then I started playing ball and got tall and skinny.

PGN: What’s your day job? EI: I’m a phone operator at the Kimmel Center and I design clothes.

PGN: How did you get into designing? EI: When I first went to Puerto Rico, I didn’t know anybody. My aunt was a seamstress, so I used to hang out with her. After observing her for a while, I started picking up, picking up, picking up. I started by cutting threads for her and little pieces. Then I asked her to cut out a shirt and let me put it together. When I got back to the States, a friend of mine, Gustavo Gustos, who is a well-known designer, let me work with him. Again, by observing, I was able to pick up the skills. Nowadays, I can do it in my sleep. I rarely even have to measure people, I can just look at them and tell what size they are and whip something up.

PGN: What do you mostly do? EI: In Philly, I do mostly dresses for a lot of the trans women and drag queens. I have a lot of clients from Bob and Barbara’s. I also have a lot of straight customers, especially in New York. I do prom dresses and wedding gowns.

PGN: Would you do “Project Runway”? EI: Everyone asks me that. Maybe if the show was different. There’s too much drama: It seems like they want a clown or the most outrageous/obnoxious person to get through. You could have someone on there who’s extremely talented, but the ones who’s acting like an evil bitch or whatever is the one that goes through to the next round. I’ve seen really talented people who are into the designing but not the drama get kicked off.

PGN: What’s the worst outfit you ever made? EI: Oh my God! If my cousin were here right now, he’d die laughing. I saw this material once, the fabric was covered with flowers and, for some reason, I thought I should make a jumpsuit out of it. I figured, I’d do all these little embellishments and hook it up. I tried it on in front of him and he fell on the floor laughing. It was ugly, it was like Celia Cruz meets rodeo clown.

PGN: Any hobbies? EI: I love to sketch. I went to school for civil engineering.

PGN: Civil engineering? EI: Well, when I was a kid, as I said, I went to Catholic school, but all my cousins went to public school. I really wanted to go to school with them, so my father told me that if I got straight A’s, he’d let me switch. So I made sure I got all A’s that year. My cousin was taking drafting and I thought that was really cool. Since my dad was an architect I figured I’d follow in his steps, but the class I wanted was full, so civil engineering was the next best thing. I studied for a while at Polytechnic Institute of New York University but later on I had a falling out with my dad and changed my mind.

PGN: What happened? EI: Well, my mother was the enforcer in the house. With five kids, she didn’t hesitate to whack us to keep us in line. I’m not talking anything extreme, just mom justice. Then I had a falling out with my dad and he smacked me. It was like the end of the world to me, because my father never did anything like that. I got upset and dropped out of the civil-engineering track.

PGN: Did you ever see any of the buildings your father designed? EI: Yes, I saw a lot of them. It was really amazing. There’s one in particular in Puerto Rico in a little town named Luquillo. They literally built these two towers on top of a rock. Over the years, they’ve had hurricanes and storms and, at one point, had to tie one building to the other, but they’re still standing.

PGN: What’s the most you ever spent on a piece of clothing? EI: Not much. Maybe $100. Usually, I’ll look at something and think, hmm, I can make that. It has to be pretty amazing for me to spend money on it.

PGN: Do you think you had a past life? EI: I do, I really do. I think I was a woman in a past life. I think between that and being gay, it allows me to really relate to being a woman, which helps my act.

PGN: What was your favorite cartoon as a kid? EI: “The Flintstones.” I still watch them sometimes.

PGN: Pet peeve? EI: I love creativity — drawing or sewing or carpentry. I’m super-handy, and most of it is self-taught. So when I meet someone and they can’t even sew on a button, who doesn’t show any interest in learning any type of skills, that drives me insane.

PGN: What’s the most dramatic weather event you’ve been in? EI: A hurricane. I went to Puerto Rico to visit my mother. I wanted to surprise her so I didn’t tell her I was coming. When I showed up, she was like, “What are you doing here?” and I said, “What’s the matter, aren’t you happy to see me?” She said, “But there’s a hurricane coming,” and I told her, “Yeah, they say that all the time, it’ll never come.” It did come. It was amazing to witness Mother Nature’s force. I saw houses being ripped apart. The wind roared and made a loud whistling sound I’d never heard before. Being in the middle of a hurricane was the most amazing thing.

PGN: What’s your favorite conversation piece? EI: I have an octopus bracelet made from rhinestones. It’s big and the tentacles hang down the side. It’s so heavy, I rarely wear it, but when I do everyone wants to look at it.

PGN: Celebrity encounter? EI: Living in New York, they pop up everywhere. I’ve seen folks in elevators, shopping, etc. — Madonna, Cindy Crawford, even my hero Iris Chacon. I’ll be standing next to someone and just ignore them: Though I have to admit, inside I’m like, “Oh my God, it’s Madonna!”

PGN: My first crush? EI: I still have it! When I first went to P.R., I met this guy named John. He was really nice to me. I was wondering why he was being so friendly and then I found out he knew my brothers.

PGN: Favorite song at the moment? EI: “I Hope You Dance” by LeAnn Rimes.

PGN: What’s your favorite genre of books? EI: I just got finished reading a number of different vampire books; I love vampires. I’m bummed that “True Blood” ended for the season.

PGN: Any phobias? EI: I’m really claustrophobic. The longest flight I ever took was to Las Vegas and I could barely stand it. If I get on an elevator and too many other people get on, I have to get off at the first available floor and wait for the next one. When I go to New York to buy fabrics, if I’m on the subway and it gets too crowded, I get off, whatever stop it is, go out and get some air, and then go back to continue on my way. It’s crazy.

PGN: Who would be your dream client? EI: Well, a friend of mine and I designed a gown for Miss Universe 2006. She was Miss Puerto Rico at the time and we designed the national costume for her. But my dream client would be Jennifer Lopez; I would love to design something for her. For a guy, it would have to be David Schwimmer from “Friends.” What can I say, I love nerds. Tall, handsome nerds …

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