Lulu Luscious was ready for a night at the office.
On a Saturday in January, she'd painted her lips the brightest shade of red available in Walgreens lipstick and put on a tasteful little black dress. Her long, dark ringlets of hair draped over bare shoulders.
Lulu walked into a suburban home in the Clackamas County town of Sandy, where she would spend the next three hours selling sex toys.
"I'm Lulu," she said, greeting the guests. "I do hugs."
In the family living room, Lulu spread out her merchandise on a table: lubricant stored in a phallic-shaped plastic bottle, a vibrating cock ring and an app-connected vibrator.
She stood in the middle of the room and held up a vibrating dildo named Audrey.
Audrey—named after Hepburn—was the turquoise shade of a Tiffany's jewelry box. "I turn her on and she's ready to play," Lulu said, before noting the dildo is water-resistant and has a rechargeable battery that can last "up to eight hours" and has "seven preset modes."
Lulu Luscious is the drag-queen alter ego of James Luu, a 26-year-old son of Vietnamese immigrants.
For more than two years, Luu, who grew up in Portland, has donned drag to sell sex toys for a Las Vegas company called Passion Parties, which sent him merchandise and paid him on commission—like Mary Kay for dildos.
The work was never very lucrative. But like many contracting gigs, Passion Parties allowed Luu the freedom to work as the person he wanted to be.
Then, on Jan. 4, he spotted an email: Passion Parties had been purchased by a rival out of Cincinnati called Pure Romance.
When Luu called his new bosses to find out about the transition to the new company, he found out he was fired. Pure Romance refuses to let men sell its dildos.
The woman on the other end of the line read him a statement; the company provided WW with something similar.
"Although Passion Parties has allowed men to become consultants, Pure Romance was founded on a business model that focused solely on women consultants," said Jackie Reau, a spokeswoman for Pure Romance.
"The female-only environment has enabled open communication and sharing," the statement continued. "We believe that the opportunities we have provided women has made Pure Romance not just a company, but a movement to enhance the lives of women everywhere."
Luu listened to the statement. He hastily hung up the phone.
"I started to cry," Luu says. "I can't believe in 2016 there's still this gender discrimination."
Luu's job might seem unconventional. But in this country and particularly in this city, Luu's choice to strike out on his own is not uncommon.
Sex toys aside, he was a contractor—part of the "gig economy" in which workers make their own schedules, pursue their dreams, and work outside the confines of a dreary 9-to-5 job.
But what Luu soon came to realize was that with the creativity and flexibility came the darker side of being a contractor—a total lack of legal protections.
Employment laws were written to protect employees. For everybody else, it's fend for yourself.
In Portland, freelancing or working as an independent contractor, with the attendant lack of legal protections, is unusually common (see sidebar).
In this most progressive of American cities, Luu's desire to become who he really is has brought him squarely into legal battles over gender discrimination. In his attempt to run away from society's rules and expectations, he's found rules are exactly what he needs to protect him.
This week, Luu filed an employment complaint with the state of Oregon. He's hired the lawyer who won the fight to overturn Oregon's gay-marriage ban, and is starting a new legal battle at the cutting edge of employment law.
He's out to prove that workplace civil rights protections apply to him.
"I have one of those strong personalities," Luu says. "I don't play extra. I'm always a main character."
It takes James Luu an hour to transform into Lulu Luscious—a name he picked by turning his family name into the feminine Lulu and adding an alliterative adjective.
In the Gresham townhouse that Luu shares with his mother, he takes over the first-floor half-bathroom to do his makeup.
The first step is getting rid of his manly eyebrows, by attaching them to his skin with purple Elmer's glue stick (later he'll disguise the dark lines with eye makeup).
Luu shades what facial hair he has with a red base cover-up. The edges of his face and sides of his nose become dark brown; he's shading out his manlier features. He adds white around the eyes.
"If you don't look like a clown, you're not doing it right," he says.
He steals glances at himself, turning sideways, gripping the doorway as he stands back from the mirror, giving himself coyly feminine glances.
It's after the powder layer is applied that Luu starts to think his face has made the transition.
It's not that there's a moment when he becomes Lulu. "I feel like I'm Lulu all the time," Luu says.
Luu, a waifishly thin man, wears his long black hair back in a man bun at a temp job he started in January. The hair is a small hint of his drag-show alter ego.
He drives his mother's white Toyota Corolla with a car seat in back so he can babysit his nephew on a moment's notice. He's ambitious and high-energy, fueled by heavily sweetened or fruity drinks—Italian soda, RC Cola and, above all, Thai iced tea.
Luu's parents came to Portland from Vietnam in 1985. Growing up, he watched them strive for the American dream.
His dad worked three jobs for years. Later, the Luus ran a restaurant.
"I believe the reason James and I work so hard is my parents," says Tran Luu, 29, James' sister. "We grew up seeing my parents work so hard to earn every penny."
He speaks fluent Vietnamese because his parents wouldn't let him speak English at home in East Portland.
Luu was student body president at Parkrose High School. "When I saw him running in the hallways, he was a constant blur," recalls former schoolmate Artemas Karczag.
While pursuing a double major in marketing and communications in 2009, Luu became the first sophomore ever elected student body president at the University of Puget Sound in Tacoma, Wash.
During a drive home from college, Luu told his immigrant dad that he was gay.
"I'm just worried about your life because being gay is not something I've done before," his father told him. "If you were straight and you wanted to get married and have kids, I could help you with that."
Luu attended his first drag show at a gay bar in Washington, D.C.—he was uncomfortable with how "in your face" gay culture was, he says. He tried drag himself in college—wearing a red-and-black dress and hair bow stuck to his head and no makeup—but it was because others asked him to join the show.
After college, he started watching drag reality television.
"RuPaul's Drag Race was my go-to guilty pleasure," Luu says. "I loved watching the men make the transformation."
Gradually, he realized he wanted to become one of those men.
Luu had been coming home from college to attend Portland's Red Dress fundraiser. The city's biggest fundraising event for HIV/AIDS research requires everyone, men included, to wear a red dress, but not makeup or wigs. In Vancouver, B.C., when Luu had money, he'd go to the mall in search of yet another red dress, even though he'd already bought one for the fundraiser. Soon he had a closet full of red dresses.
The fourth year he attended the Red Dress party, he went in full makeup.
For two years after his 2011 graduation, Luu worked round-the-clock in Vancouver as a property and restaurant manager and contracts consultant. But then something snapped. He retreated home and moved back in with his parents. With it came an epiphany.
"Fuck corporate world," he remembers thinking. "I wasn't born to work and just pay bills."
But the drag world came with its own bills.
On a Sunday night in February, Lulu Luscious worked the room before a pageant at Darcelle XV Showplace in Old Town, clad in a black, slinky dress barely longer than a shirt.
Lulu lifted her dress to expose her undergarments to a couple she knows. "Look," she said, laughing. "I'm a Barbie."
There was nothing to see: Flat, nude bikini-style underwear was all that was visible, not even a bump of Ken-style flesh.
Before her last number on Darcelle's stage, before she stepped down as Portland's Miss HIV Awareness, Lulu made a passionate pitch for everyone to donate to the pageant's HIV charity. A small crowd of about 50 had opted against the Super Bowl to watch the pageant in the plush theater-style seats or from the tables around the edges of the room.
For her final number, dressed in a floor-length strapless gold evening gown completely covered in sequins, Lulu shimmered under the lights, her womanly curves giving no sign of Luu's gender.
"This is my fight song/ bring back my life song," Lulu lip-synched to Rachel Platten's "Fight Song," clutching her thigh.
The emcee, Poison Waters, whom Lulu counts as a friend, described Lulu in mock disgust as "terribly attractive and frustratingly thin."
Lulu Luscious appeared in her first Portland drag show in 2013. She was soon recognized as a standout on the scene—a WW review noted how her show incorporated a live albino python rented from Beaverton ("Lulu Luscious," WW, Sept. 23, 2014).
But the fun comes at a price. The clothes easily run into the thousands of dollars. For La Femme Magnifique, a premier Portland pageant that draws drag queens from all along the West Coast, Lulu says she spent at least $6,000 on clothes last year. (She won.)
To hand down her Miss HIV Awareness crown, Lulu strutted onstage in showgirl attire, nearly 200 pheasant feathers fanning out from her crown and rear. (The rental cost for the feathers alone: $200.)
Luu's sex-toy-sales day job helped pay the costs of drag and allowed him to work as Lulu.
"It just clicked," Luu says. "In my mind, I was like dildo party and drag queen—awesome."
Sex toys are a big market.
The sex-toys market is estimated at $15 billion in annual sales worldwide. The "adult industry" suffered a drop in porn sales in recent years, leading to a focus on female consumers.
Luu found his home at Passion Parties, a Las Vegas sex-toys company that welcomed his vision of a drag-queen saleswoman. The company, like Mary Kay, sold its wares through a network of salespeople, mostly women, who sold the products at home parties.
Passion Parties was organized as a multilevel marketing company, so sales consultants earn commissions partly based on other consultants they bring into the company. (Pure Romance has a similar business model, but employs only women as sales consultants. The Cincinnati family business, which posted $138 million in sales in 2014, acquired another competitor a couple years ago, as well.)
Luu ran across Passion Parties on Facebook.
"Lulu found me online on YouTube. I got a voice mail that was really lengthy," says Katarina Gomez, 28, of Cameron Park, Calif., who has brought in, by her count, 140 saleswomen and -men to Passion Parties.
Men, gay and straight, had joined Gomez's team before, but they weren't successful. However, Luu became one of her top sellers, she says.
"Lulu just has a lot of charisma," Gomez says. "She's very approachable. She's super-friendly. She will compliment you all over the place. She makes friends with women very easily."
Luu sold more than $25,000 worth of dildos and other merchandise in more than two years of parties, he estimates, receiving less than 40 percent of that total in commissions.
Back at the party in Sandy, Lulu wore her favorite black dress with a fluffy skirt, which meant she didn't have to put on fake hips, and she didn't have to "tuck my dick," she explained beforehand. When she noticed she hadn't shaved her armpits, she decided it wasn't noticeable and ignored it. She drove to the house in Crocs, and went barefoot when her hosts weren't wearing shoes. This was as close to girl-next-door as a drag queen gets.
"Let me pamper you guys by taking you through a mini spa day," Lulu said to open her sales pitch.
For the first activity, she asked the guests to put a hand on the leg of the person next to them; everyone did. "We're going to give each other hand jobs," she said. "Kidding."
With guests gathered on couches and in chairs set in a semicircle around the living room, Lulu held her audience rapt with a sales pitch that was a mix of sex education and jokes, reviewing the lotions, scrubs, gels and lubricants for an hour before the dildos even made their appearance.
"Let's say you're having sex in the position of doggy style," Lulu said, as Audrey thumped away on the table. "A lot of times men like to use a toy to reach over and stimulate their partner. All of these products that I'm sharing with you is not replacing the real thing. I'm just showing you different creative ideas to enhance what you do in the bedroom with your partner—or with yourself."
Lulu handed the vibrator to guests to play with.
"Oh, my God, I love it," said a woman, hamming it up, as she held the vibrator against her hand.
Lulu says she did well at the party, for the same reason girls like a gay best friend: He made the ladies feel comfortable.
But Lulu was trying to sell merchandise quickly. She estimates she was left with $3,000 in dildos and lube after Pure Romance said she was out of a job.
After calling the company and learning he was out, Luu moped for a while, then got dressed in drag. Lulu recorded a message for her Facebook followers about what had happened. Some of her Facebook friends suggested a lawyer.
"It's patently and on its face discriminatory based on gender," says Lake Perriguey, the lawyer who's assisting Luu and who filed the lawsuit in 2013 in federal court that overturned Oregon's ban on gay marriage.
On Monday, Feb. 29, Luu filed a complaint with the Oregon Bureau of Labor and Industries, which regulates workplace protections.
The laws that provide basic protections for employees—such as the minimum wage, overtime, whistleblowing about unsafe conditions, and civil rights—don't necessarily apply to contractors, Perriguey noted. "Basically there are a lot less protections," he says.
Reau, the company spokeswoman, defended the hiring policy as legal.
"Pure Romance believes that it is in compliance with all applicable laws," she says.
Whether the state will investigate will depend in part on whether Luu can be considered an employee of the company.
It will not hinge on new definitions of gender. "I identify currently as a very proud gay male," Luu says. "I just happen to be really good at drag and really good at being a female impersonator."
Luu may be an unlikely campaigner for men's rights, but he wants other men not to face similar discrimination, even though he's not sure he wants to work for the sex-toys company.
"I love being a catalyst for social change," he says. "I'm so passionate about this, but I don't know how to do it."
Luu is focused on crusading to protect other freelancers and contractors from similar discrimination. "The rules are outdated," he says.
For now, Luu, who was raised Buddhist, is hoping for good karma.
"I try to do good things," he says. "I don't do bad things. I believe the answer will present itself. I hope it just comes back in a giant-ass bag of glitter and sparkles."