In the middle of a fog of cigarette smoke, extra-hold hair spray and Elizabeth Arden Fifth Avenue perfume, Omar Reyes carefully transforms himself into a woman.

He starts with a layer of Dermablend foundation, a thick stage makeup, to hide stubble. Face pressed close to the mirror, he gently guides a dark liner under his eyes, draws his brows and curls his fake lashes.

Two pieces of padding, a tight "dancer's belt" for the crotch and some help from a friend reconstruct the bottom half of his 5-8, 140-pound frame. He needs seven pairs of thick pantyhose to cover his hairy legs and hold everything in place. Pushing aside shoe boxes, suitcases and hanging bags spilling over with sequined gowns, Reyes rummages for stockings without runs.

"No pain, no gain," he says, pulling on a pair. "We have to work harder because we don't have the natural shape."

With each passing moment, he waves his hands more delicately and purses his lips when talking. People rushing in and out of the cramped dressing room start to refer to "she" and "her."

In about an hour, Reyes becomes Linda Carrero. Then, stepping in front of a crowd of 300 at Ziegfeld's nightclub in Southeast Washington last Sunday, he hosts the 10th annual Miss Gay Hispanic pageant.

This night may seem out of the ordinary. Or not. RuPaul is a national celebrity. The annual high-heel race for men in Dupont Circle draws enthusiastic crowds. And this is Omar Reyes' American dream.

After leaving Nicaragua 16 years ago, Reyes worked as a janitor, house painter and clerk at the Maryland Motor Vehicle Administration. Now 32, he is the founder and president of one of just a handful of gay Latino drag pageants in the country.

But under the big-hair wig, size 8 gown and B-cup bra is a conservative man. He lives with his mother in Silver Spring. He attends Catholic Mass once a month. As an AIDS counselor for La Clinica del Pueblo health clinic in Columbia Heights, he preaches safe sex.

It is only onstage, he says, that he is Linda Carrero. "This is an illusion," Reyes says, staring hard as if he could will you to agreement. "This is not me.

"I don't want people to classify me as, 'Oh, I'm a gay man'--I'm a counselor. I'm a health promoter. I'm a very proud Latino man."

Road to Glory

As Reyes stepped out onstage, he saw the streets of Buenos Aires and smiled. Walking past a cantina, boutique and hotel, he lip-syncs "Hello, Buenos Aires," Madonna's exuberant song from "Evita" about Eva Peron's arrival in the big city.

When he finished the song, he dashed behind a red curtain at the hotel. He threw off his coat and reappeared.

Dressed in a beaded orange bodysuit, Reyes moved his arms and legs into a blur, salsaing to a fast Gloria Estefan number.

With that performance last year, Reyes became Miss Gay America, the most prestigious drag queen title in the country.

It had taken him five years.

Being the country's best drag queen is not an accomplishment many parents dream of for their children. But Reyes says the achievement is the point, even if the field of endeavor is a little different.

To Reyes, the art of female illusion is simply a form of acting. He likes to dress and perform for applause.

"It's like the gasoline under my foot," he says. "When you have the microphone, you have the power."

Every fall, more than 60 contestants face off in interview, evening gown, creative fashion and talent categories in a competition that dates back to 1973. The winner receives $6,000 and travels all expenses paid to perform at and oversee preliminary pageants around the country. The exposure is a career-booster: It means the difference between being paid $250 a night plus tips to perform in drag vs. $50 a night.

Reyes spent at least $7,000 a year for five years to pay for everything from his Frederico Leone shoes to sequined gowns from Stephen Yearick in New York, which also caters to Miss America contestants.

Three or four days a week, he would practice dance routines, lip-syncing to Janet Jackson and Taylor Dayne (best known for the 1988 dance-pop album "Tell It to My Heart").

Norman Jones, the first Miss Gay America winner, now owns and operates the pageant. He remembers Reyes was a good dancer the first year he competed, but still looked a little awkward. He suggested that Reyes might be more comfortable with Latin music.

But Reyes didn't want to try a Spanish-language song: "I thought this is Miss America, so I'm going to do American music."

The second year, Reyes finished third. The following year, he again made the top five. At the end of the night, he sat before the judges for a critique.

One judge, a woman from North Carolina, complimented his appearance, but said he needed a lot more work on the interview segment. "If I were you," she said, "I would go back to school to learn English."

He wanted to call her a racist. He was proud of his Nicaraguan accent. But back in his hotel room, he kept replaying her comments in his mind. If that was the only thing keeping him from his goal, maybe he should go back to school.

For two years, he took English classes at Montgomery College. And Reyes started wondering whether Jones was right about doing a Latin number for the talent competition.

He changed his talent act, and in 1998 he astounded the packed crowd at the Discovery Theatre in Little Rock to win the crown.

"If she was Miss America, I can be Miss America," says Antonio Arostegui, a Nicaraguan and winner of the local 1995 Miss Gay Hispanic pageant, who wants to start competing for a national title. "She showed to us we can do it for our community.

"Now I believe you can have an accent and be Miss America."

The Royal Family

Reyes' urge to put on makeup started in second grade. One day in class, he carefully did his nails in black finger paint. His sister Norma, a teacher at the school, yanked him out by the ear, lectured him on proper behavior for boys and told his other siblings. Another sister gave him a beating.

Mostly, though, Reyes was pampered by his family. He grew up as the 11th of 12 brothers and sisters in a middle-class home in Managua. His father, an officer in the Somoza government army, and his mother, a teacher, separated when he was a toddler. Still, he was one of his mother's favorites, following her as she cooked and shopped. At holiday celebrations, everyone would ask Reyes to sing and dance, and then they would reward him with kisses.

They didn't know that he would also perform in his sisters' bedroom, alone, dressed in the girls' bras and heels.

In the early 1980s, the Nicaraguan civil war brought the Reyes family to Maryland. His sister Norma and her husband were the first to escape. Omar was next because he was 16 and eligible for the draft. While in Mexico on a school trip, he didn't return to the bus when it left to go back to Nicaragua.

Once in Silver Spring, Omar refused to go to school full time. He worked and saved money to help his sister bring over eight more family members, including his mother and younger brother Walter.

"To me, family is so important to have near me," he says. "The situation in Nicaragua was not good; it was terrible. I had to do what I had to do for my family."

In America, Reyes discovered a freedom that didn't exist back home, where a kiss between two men could result in arrest. Every weekend he would secretly go out to D.C.'s gay bars and clubs.

One night, Walter Reyes begged his brother to take him along and threatened to follow him if he didn't. Feeling he had no choice, Omar Reyes took his brother to a gay bar in Dupont Circle. As they went inside, he told his brother that this did not mean he was gay.

Later that night, Walter Reyes disobeyed his brother's orders to stay at the front of the bar and walked to a dark room in the back. There, he says, he saw his brother kissing another man.

Walter Reyes squeals with laughter, remembering the moment. When the brothers went home, he revealed that he, too, was gay. Later, Walter, too, began performing in drag.

Family members spied gowns and wigs in the brothers' closets, but didn't ask many questions. A.J. Reyes remembers that his uncles would tell him they were helping out with women's pageants.

"I knew they were gay," says A.J. Reyes, 21. "Nobody said anything."

Over the years, family members whispered, and friends of the family made snide remarks about whether the brothers were gay. One of Omar's brothers and some cousins would make slurs under their breath at gatherings. Omar and Walter stopped going to big family events, says Elena Reyes, their niece.

Rosa Reyes, a 73-year-old woman who says the rosary every night, never confronted her sons. Omar guesses that she hoped that if she didn't say the word "gay," then it wouldn't be true. She would often ask him, "When are you going to get married?"

Two years ago, while at home having tea and cookies with his mother, Reyes finally asked her how she felt about him and Walter. She fell silent.

He said it wasn't her fault that her last two sons were gay. He talked for a long time, telling her that the lack of a father figure in the household had nothing to do with their sexuality, that other drag queens he knew had parents who didn't divorce, that he had known he was gay since he was a little boy.

Since that moment, Reyes has introduced his partner Abrie to his relatives. (Abrie has not come out to his own family yet and asked that his last name not be printed.) Abrie now lives with Omar and his mother.

Some members of the family have accepted Reyes' lifestyle even though they don't approve. But they still do not talk openly about the subject. Reyes will not discuss his sexuality at home, especially in front of his mother.

"I don't want to hurt her feelings," he says. "I know where she comes from, her beliefs."

Making Things Happen

In a room at George Washington University Hospital in 1992, one of Omar Reyes' best friends lay dying of AIDS without anyone familiar at his side. Henry Adams had forbidden any loved ones to visit.

Reyes had found out just a few months before that Adams had AIDS. Adams wanted friends to remember him as a beautiful Puerto Rican version of actress Mimi Rogers, not a skinny, sickly man.

His friend's shame drove Reyes to promote AIDS prevention and finally, to be more open with his family.

"It really upset me a little bit that I didn't know," Reyes says. "I couldn't do anything for him. He was silent.

"Silence takes people away. Silence kills people. He was so afraid he was going to be rejected from his friends."

Reyes had met Adams when he volunteered at Salud Inc., a now-defunct D.C. clinic that treated Latino AIDS patients, where Adams was a case manager. Reyes said he had never known such a confident drag queen. Adams had long brown hair and loved to dress in slinky gowns. He was a drag "mother," who dished advice about makeup, dresses and relationships.

In 1991, Adams and Reyes organized the first Miss Gay Hispanic pageant at the Dupont Circle Hotel to bring gay Latinos together and promote awareness about AIDS. The next year, Adams suggested holding the event at the Washington Convention Center. But he died a few months before the event.

"He made me realize you can do anything in life," Reyes says. "He said you can do it, you can do anything. Don't you ever underestimate yourself."

Reyes hopes that Miss Gay Hispanic will become a national pageant. Right now, preliminaries are held around the District, with contestants vying for titles such as Miss Venezuela or Miss Mexico. Reyes says he's starting preliminaries in Houston and New York next year.

But more important, he wants to focus on going back to Montgomery College. He wants to earn a degree in social work and continue working with AIDS patients.

At shows, he encourages clubgoers to visit his office at La Clinica del Pueblo for a free AIDS test. When a gay organization needs a volunteer for Latino outreach, it turns to Reyes. He'll gather a few friends to perform and pass the hat for fund-raising at a club or he'll help organize AIDS awareness workshops.

"He never told me no," says Frank Yurrita, interim director of the mayor's office of Latino affairs. "He was always there, until late."

Family Support

Rosa Reyes sits at one of Ziegfeld's front tables for the Miss Gay Hispanic pageant, dressed in a green suit, her short black hair neatly curled. Surrounding her are granddaughter Elena Reyes, grandson A.J., nephew Lionel Pena and his wife, Marlene Davis.

"It's a miracle that she is here," whispers Davis, shaking her head.

As her sons dress upstairs, their mother clutches a black purse and draws her body in. She refuses a drink, explaining that she doesn't want to have to use the bathroom.

Rosa Reyes, reluctantly speaking in Spanish, says she wishes that Omar and Walter didn't dress up like women. Why did she come to the pageant? She shrugs and turns away, mumbling that Omar asked her to be there.

Around 10:30 p.m., Omar's voice booms over the loudspeaker to start the pageant. He appears in a long, orange and yellow taffeta gown, with a mane of curly hair. His mother smiles and claps.

Later, when Abrie, Omar's partner, appears and dances a non-drag number, she opens her mouth in surprise--she didn't know he was on the program. She fumbles through her purse for a dollar to tip him, as she saw other people in the audience do.

Midway through the pageant, Omar Reyes announces to the crowd that his mother is there. This is the first time, he says in Spanish, that she has come to the Miss Gay Hispanic pageant.

Rosa Reyes looks down as the crowd cheers, but her nephew pats her back and encourages her to stand up. As the spotlight shines on her, she rises and manages a slow, shy smile.

CAPTION: At Ziegfeld's in Southeast, Omar Reyes prepares to blossom into butterfly Linda Carrero, top; seated beside him is the 1997 winner.

CAPTION: Omar Reyes and his mother, Rosa, 73. "I know where she comes from, her beliefs," he says.

CAPTION: A performer warms up the crowd at Ziegfeld's in Southeast for the Miss Gay Hispanic Pageant.

CAPTION: Omar Reyes as Linda Carrero.