Entering the men's locker room in San Ysidro's Border View YMCA on a Friday night, Ruby Gardenia draws all sorts of catcalls.
“Mamacita!” shouts one wrestler, pulling up his neon-fringed spandex pants, while another screams, “You, I would marry,” prompting laughter from people sitting near him.
These are all-too-familiar reactions for Gardenia, whose given name is fernando Covarrubias. He's dressed in simple black slacks, a midnight-blue polo shirt and work boots.
“Let's get out of here,” he says, picking up an oversize duffle bag and leading the way to the Y's family restroom. There, he locks the door and begins his transformation.
Generations deep in honor, valor and almost mythic tales of heroism, lucha libre has several niches: There's the “técnicos”—the good guys, the legendary “El Santo” among them; the Bollywood-esque “rudos,” aka the villains of the bunch who are often targets of insults, projectile ice cubes (and worse) thrown from the crowd; little people; furries; and the flamboyantly gender-bending “exóticos.”
Gardenia is a member of the latter cohort.
“At this point, I just let it slide right off,” he says, opening his pack. “It comes with the inner-peace that having seven karmas gives you. Most people only have one—yourself included. I've been studied by scientists from all over the world: Japan, Brazil, Germany, and they've all corroborated it.”
His metaphysical musings concluded, amid the rumble of hoards of people making their way into the building's auditorium, the metamorphosis begins.
“You must excuse me; I'm all woman,” he says, dropping his trousers, revealing a pair of frilly, flower-print panties. The shirt comes next, exposing swollen breast tissue—a remnant from his hormone use during a stint as a Selena impersonator at Mike's, the legendary Tijuana drag club.
Covarrubias' road to the ring was an uncommon one. Caught up in the excesses of his after-dark existence, he succumbed to drug abuse and lost himself along the way.
“I started off with pot, and then it was coke, ice and crystal,” the 35-year-old says.
“At my worse, I remember I didn't see the sun for a whole year.”
Tired of being held down by his partner—whom he blames for leading him down that path—he broke free and found solace in sports.
“Wrestling became my own version of rehab. I decided then that no cabrón would ever hold me back again.”
The fifth in a family of eight boys, that wasn't the only hurdle he's had to overcome.
“As an athlete and a Mexican man, I'm breaking taboos every single day, both on the ring and off,” he says, putting on a thick pair of nylons to smooth out his hairy legs and tucking in his penis—a practice left over from his female-impersonator days.
“It's like riding a horse,” he points out, adjusting his crotch. “You never forget.”
A 13-year veteran in the lucha circuit, he says that because of the exótico label, his journey has been a constant uphill battle.
“I'm challenging the norm,” Covarrubias says, searching through his cluttered makeup bag. “Sure, there are people out there only looking to be entertained who I can win over by just wearing something scandalous, twirling and fagging about, but there are also the older, hardcore fans that I have to prove myself to every single time.”
The one title he's not too fond of? “Gay icon.”
“I was recently invited to be part of a gay-pride march, and I said no. I'm a sportsman, not a showgirl,” he declares.
“I'm a trained Greco-Roman wrestler—I just happen to wear a feathered boa when I hop on the ring,” he says, having found his hot-pink lip liner. “But I could fight my way right into the Pan American Games if I wanted to.”
A beacon of testosterone-filled machismo idealism, professional hand-to-hand combat got its first dose of glam in the 1930s in the form of Wilbur Finrand, aka Lord Lansdowne. A decade later, a mid-level heterosexual wrestler named George Wagner took a page from an old wrestling buddy, Texas native Dizzy Davis, who'd traveled to Mexico, adopted the stage name Gardenia Davis and would enter the ring escorted by his personal valets, throwing his namesake flower to the confused crowd.
With the aid of a couple of Hungarian hairstylists, Wagner bleached and curled his hair, and “Gorgeous George” was born. Playing his new role to the to the hilt, word of his over-the-top persona and effeminate ways spread, and fans attended matches in droves just to get a chance to taunt and ridicule him.
From loud costumes featuring iridescent capes, public feuds and show-stopping entrance music, all grapplers— donning gayface or not—from Hogan to Cena, have Wagner to thank.
Covarrubias says the exotic renaissance came to Mexico in the mid 1980s, when the first openly gay wrestlers emerged.
“Trailblazers like Pimpinela Escarlata, Adorable Rubí and May Flowers were all publicly reprimanded,” he says. “There was a huge divide within the community between straight and gay exóticos. A full-out war in costumes and technique ensued, and they had to show that they were more than a just punch line.”
So, the moniker “Ruby Gardenia” is a combination of Adorable Rubí and Gardenia Davis.
“It wasn't so much an homage; I just thought, together, they made for a fucking badass-sounding name.”
Her star on the rise, Gardenia often gets introduced as “the Barbie of wrestling” or “the Lady Gaga of lucha.”
Her face nearly complete, Gardenia sends air kisses to her reflection in the restroom mirror.
“I like myself a lot, as you can see,” she swoons.
Outside, the mood is less grandiloquent.
A treat for locals who want to avoid the hassle of crossing the border into Tijuana to witness a live match there or whose irregular migratory status doesn't allow it, this event has drawn 650 bloodthirsty spectators.
Some might argue that the spectacle is rehearsed to precision, but the red backs resulting from foldable-chair beatings and brawls that managed to spill onto the first couple of rows that night, almost injuring an attendee or two, proved otherwise.
Earlier, Gardenia shared her long laundry list of injuries, starting with her toes and working her way up to her cheekbones.
Four weathered, fuchsia carpet squares—one on each support post—serve as the ring's only shock absorber, and the louder the falls on the echoey plywood-topped space, the more effusive the crowd reaction gets.
In lucha, heckling has morphed into an art all its own.
“Instead of water, he got baptized with battery acid!” one spectator yells, pointing at the bald-headed referee. Comments directed at “Famous B,” the lone African-American in the bill, are far less kind.
“Obama! Obama!” some start chanting.
“Abuse him as if he were a minor, Kalimba!” another man hollers, alluding to recent statutory-rape accusations against Mexico's lone Afromestizo pop star.
Gringos peering through windows from the building's second-floor gym into the makeshift arena appear gob-smacked.
Gardenia, however, takes it all in stride.
“I pinpoint the loudest one, go up to him and plant one right on his lips,” she says, still backstage, patiently waiting for her eyelash glue to dry. “That usually shuts them up.”
The only topic that rattles her otherwise impermeable demeanor is her family's nonexistent support.
“I'm in a great mood today, but if I wasn't, I'd probably start crying,” she says, still backstage, reaching for the finishing touch of her persona—a silver and black-colored headdress. “Ruby Gardenia doesn't have a family, but fernando Covarrubias does. All these years in the business, and having my family come see me wrestle is still my biggest dream.”
Covarrubias' mother was elated when she heard her son was going into the uber-masculine sport, but that pride turned to shame when she found out her son would continue to dress in women's clothes.
“‘You'll still be wearing the feathers and the makeup!' she said to me in a disproving tone. ‘Yes,' I answered, ‘but this time I'll be respected for it.'” He says his brothers once beat him so severely that it landed him in the hospital.
“They did it because they love me,” Covarrubias sighs.
Regaining her composure after a “10-second prayer ritual,” Gardenia—now in full regalia— enters the main stage to the late Celia Cruz's accidental gay-pride anthem “La Vida es un Carnaval.”
Strutting her stuff and faithful to her philosophy, she hand-picks the rowdiest, loudest, most offensive spectator, pulls him up to the ring and, egged on by a roar from the audience, gives him an impromptu lap dance and seals it with a kiss.
She instantly has the crowd in the palm of her calloused hand.
Unbeknownst to her before the event, the three other wrestlers in her tag-team match are real women, and she and her punk-rock partner, “Buggy,” lose on a technicality.
At the end of the event, after two more matches, the rusty ring is dismantled, ready to be whisked to its next destination, and the wrestlers come out and greet fans who've forked over an extra $5 for the “VIP Experience.”
“Did you hear them all exclaim my name?” Gardenia asks me, beaming as she signs an autograph. “For me, that alone is the greatest victory.
“Not to mention, I got to kiss at least four guys.”