As a youngster living in Pearland, Marcus Pontello didn’t know the term “nonbinary” since the word hadn’t made it into the vernacular yet. At the time, Pontello simply called themself “androgynous.” But after they started exploring Houston and other parts of the country, the teenager realized there was a lot more to gender identity than meets the eye.
“I’ve never been satisfied existing on one side or the other of masculine or feminine,” says Pontello, a gender-nonconforming artist who uses they/their pronouns.
Houston’s suburban surroundings didn’t fit Pontello’s personality. Fortunately, their transgender sibling and her friends offered a glimpse into a fabulous world that would soon pique Pontello’s curiosity.
“I was visibly LGBTQ; I wasn’t hiding anything,” they recall. “But my older sister and a lot of her friends were really cool and alternative. I thought they were awesome. They had piercings and colored hair, and they went to The Rocky Horror Picture Show and Numbers nightclub. I realized there was a whole exciting world outside the bubble of Pearland, and it opened my eyes.”
“My drag aesthetic heavily uses lingerie and corsets, and I let that identity get more extreme over time. The persona is definitely sensual and erotic. I love projecting the presence of a dominatrix on stage.”[/perfectpullquote]
When Pontello transferred to the High School for the Performing and Visual Arts in Montrose to study theater, things really took off. After class, Montrose was their personal playground, and weekends were brimming with new areas to explore.
“Going to Montrose with my mom on the weekend and being exposed to the weird clothing boutiques and shops, it felt natural to me,” Pontello says. “Then I got exposed to The Rocky Horror Picture Show. It was a rite of passage.”
Guided by Rocky Horror’s stylistic cues, Pontello adjusted their outward appearance to match their feelings.
“In my teen years, I wasn’t trying to be femme; it was more of a punk rock, David Bowie look,” they add. “I was playing around and mixing these elements of style: fishnets, garter belts, and punk Rocky Horror makeup. That was the beginning of experimenting and having fun.”
After graduating high school, Pontello attended the California Institute for the Arts to study art and fashion.
“I continued my acting training, but I explored costume design, too. It was my dream school, because the program is centered on experimental theater and avant-garde arts. I was able to not only keep acting, but also explore my love of making clothes and design.
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”They later dabbled in drag under the name Marky DeSade, which became a fun outlet to blend their love of acting and fashion.
Pontello says acting is all about creating an identity and living it out on stage. Clothes, on the other hand, can be artistic and creative as well as technical and mathematical, which exercises a different part of one’s brain. “The marriage of fashion and acting, for me, has been in drag. It’s the combination of design, crafting it with my hands, tailoring it to my body, and living the fantasy on stage. It incorporates all the things that make me really happy.”
Pontello eventually returned to Texas, by way of New Orleans for a stint in wardrobing in the city’s burgeoning film industry. Now back in Houston, Pontello is looking to use their fashion experience to launch a clothing line that reflects their Marky DeSade drag persona.
“My drag aesthetic heavily uses lingerie and corsets, and I let that identity get more extreme over time,” Pontello explains. “The drag persona is definitely sensual and erotic. I love [projecting] the presence of a dominatrix on stage, even though that’s not how I identify outside of drag.”
The clothing line will be called DeSade, and they say the designs will fit under the umbrella of ’80s club fashion and fetish wear. Pontello cites Thierry Mugler as a source of inspiration because he loved a cinched waist, dramatic shapes, and fetish.
Pontello is also working on another labor of love, a film about Numbers nightclub in Montrose titled Friday I’m In Love, a reference to the ’80s song by The Cure.
“Since I moved back, I’ve been working on this film,” they said. “It’s almost done, and it’s in the hands of an editor. The main story is about the building. The club is 42 years old; the building is even older. Numbers used to be a hard-core gay disco in the ’70s, then a concert venue in ’80s and ’90s. Since 1991, Fridays have been the ’80s night at Numbers. That’s the night that made me fall in love with the venue. They’re iconic.”
Even though Los Angeles or New York City might afford more opportunities in fashion and the arts, Pontello sees Houston as the perfect place to flourish. “In other cities, I’m one of many people doing the same thing. In Houston, I have breathing room. Here, I can develop my style and aesthetic without being strangled out by everyone else around me.”