Bob Leahy: Hi Alphonso. Thank you for talking to PositiveLite.com. You’re no stranger of course, because you have your own column on our site but I’m really liking the chance to ask you a few questions and get to know you better. You really are an interesting person, with more than one story to tell. Right now for instance you have your music career as DJ Relentless and as a recording artist, your drag career as Jade Elektra and then, of course you happen to be HIV-positive and entirely out about that. I guess that prompts me to ask you - Why out? Wouldn’t it be easier to keep quiet?
Alphonso: Actually I have been officially out about my HIV status since 2009. I mean...I have always been out to my closest friends and family, but in 2009 I didn't want to be a hypocrite after hearing about Ongina coming out about her status. I just felt that everyone should be honest about being positive.
Bob: But you don’t make a big thing out of it. For example, in your column for PositiveLite.com it’s only mentioned in passing. Is that a conscious thing or is HIV not really a big part of your life anymore?
Alphonso: HIV is a big part of my life, but I don't let it rule my life. I have been positive for 23 years.
Bob: OK. Let’s get back to that HIV aspect in a minute. Tell me about your background. You weren’t born in Canada were you?
Alphonso: No, I was born and raised in Tampa, Florida.
Bob: So how did you end up in Toronto?
Alphonso: Well, my husband is from Toronto. We got married on April 30th, 2010. Our 2nd anniversary is almost here. At the time when we got married gay marriage had not been passed in New York. And I had been in New York City for 17 years at that time and I wanted to be with my husband. He wasn't going to move to the States. So, here I am....in love and happy.
Bob: Good! Let’s talk about drag. Tell me why you wanted to do drag in the first place. And was it hard to break in to the business?
Alphonso: Believe it or not, I never really wanted to do drag. I was entering a weekly talent show at a bar called Rene's doing impersonations of Michael Jackson & Prince. Huh....come to think of it, I was just a hop and step away from drag with those two. Anyway...I got tired of being beat by drag queens in the competition and decided that I couldn't do any worse than I was already doing. I wrote about it in my last blog. As far as it being difficult or hard to break into the business...no, it was a different time. This was 1985. Long before the internet and YouTube. In a way it forced you to work hard at being original and forced you to look to your elders for guidance.
Bob: Is there much infighting or do you gyrls all get along?
Alphonso: Child, I am too old be fighting with these young gyrls out on the scene now. The great thing about getting older is realizing what's important and what's not. The things that these kids are doing today are all old hash. They don't know or care about what the future holds. So, how do you fight someone who is blind?
Bob: Alphonso, you aren’t too keen on what RuPaul and his Drag Race have done for the business, are you?
Alphonso: In my opinion, RuPaul's Drag Race has lowered the art of female impersonation to the lowest common denominator. The show does not give an accurate look into what it takes to be a drag performer. All it shows is rewards for bad behavior and bad attitudes. And if folks knew all the stuff that goes on in the background with the producers of the show, they'd turn it off. And RuPaul should be ashamed of exploiting these gyrls to keep herself in the spotlight.
Bob. I see. Now you’re a big proponent of singing rather than lip syncing, aren’t you? Is this something every gyrl should strive for?
Alphonso: Not everyone can sing. And there's nothing wrong with laying a lip to song...especially if you do it well. I mean, lip syncing some Pop song that repeats itself over and over ain't talent. Do something with a monologue. That's talent. I lip sync too, but when I do it's a great song with character.
Bob: Alphonso, you said in one of your recent articles for us that “I always enjoyed at the end of the show taking all that stuff off and being Alphonso King Jr.” Are you more comfortable being Alphonso than Jade Elektra?
Alphonso: You know, I know a lot of queens who do drag because they are not happy with themselves as a man. Maybe they get more attention as a gyrl. Maybe they feel sexier or more attractive as a female. I have always loved being myself. I like doing drag and performing, but I love wearing a pair of jeans and a T-shirt with a Yankees baseball hat.
Bob: You said too “The drag world still fascinates me. What motivates a man to put on a dress and act like a woman?” So I’m going to ask you just that. What DOES motivate a man to put on a dress and act like a woman?
Alphonso: Some folks get uncomfortable when I talk about this, but I'm gonna say anyway. I was molested as a child by an uncle and even though it was a terrible thing to go through a part of me enjoyed acting like a gyrl for me. He recognized that I was gay when I was 7. He exploited it, but I think part of me healing was accepting the fact that I have a feminine side and that's okay. I use that side of me to create this woman for the stage.
Bob: But is it a blown-up version of a woman?
Alphonso: I am not like other drag queens. My mannerisms and even physical body transform. In my mind, I am not larger than life. I am a small, demure lady. I become the woman that I would like to see on the street.
Bob: You’ve also made a career as a DJ. Do the drag and the DJ-ing ever overlap or are these always two distinct gigs?
Alphonso: I rarely DJ in drag. Mainly because most establishments won't pay me to do both. I'm not opposed to it, but I have built a reputation as DJ Relentless and I don't feel that I need to DJ in drag. To me that's just a gimmick to get a gig. I want to DJ gig for my talent, not for what I look like. Which also goes for the new breed of gym-queen DJ's. I'm not DJ-ing with my shirt off either.
Bob: You probably hate this kind of question, but what gives you the biggest high – doing drag or DJ-ing?
Alphonso: They are very different. The rush of being on stage and having everyone's attention is very different than controlling a roomful of people with what music you play. Both are exciting and rewarding.
Bob: Can you make a career of being a DJ in Canada or do you have to move somewhere else to really make it happen?
Alphonso: I am already making a career as DJ in Canada. I had already spun in Canada a few times before moving here. In fact, I have travelled to London, Athens and Amsterdam. So, I am sure I could have a DJ career anywhere. Even though technology can practically make anyone into a DJ, nothing can replace experience and music knowledge. You can download any song you want, but if you don't know the history of the song you might as well be an iPod.
Bob: Now of course you have a musical career in your own right. Do you want to talk about that and where you would like to see it go?
Alphonso: Well, if you check iTunes you can find Jade Elektra and DJ Relentless. I have been a vocalist and also a producer. Jade was originally known as a Bitch Track artist with tracks like "Bitch You Look Fierce" and "How Do I Look?", but when the Proud Mary album was released she showed her vocal chops. And as DJ Relentless I have done back-up vocals and produced house tracks like "House Is Alive" with the UK's Loop Da Funk.
Bob: Your musical idols are?
Alphonso: Billie Holiday, George Benson, Dinah Washington, Al Green, Tina Turner and Al Jarreau.
Bob: OK, now I want to go back to the HIV thing. I don’t think you’ve ever talked to us about how and when you were diagnosed. Do you want to fill us in?
Alphonso: I was diagnosed in 1990, but became positive in 1989. A condom broke and that was that. I knew the guy. We were dating and he had no idea he was positive. I remember telling him and him completely falling apart. After about 6 months after being told the news, I accepted it. There was nothing I could do to change it. And I guess it was my destiny. You see, if I had not found out I might have stayed in Tampa and lived a completely different life. My diagnosis prompted me to get up and do the things I always wanted to do. Which is how I ended up in New York City in 1992. My movie, television and music career as Jade would have never happened. My DJ name of "Relentless" would not have been given to me by a customer at The Works on the upper east side.
Bob: Did you deal with it well when you got the news you were positive, or not?
Alphonso: Believe it or not, I assumed I was going to die. So, I planned to take out a huge loan and do all the things I had dreamed of. But after a few months, I woke up and thought "You'll probably borrow all this money and end up healthy and in debt." So, I decided to work towards my goals instead.
Bob: So has being HIV-positive complicated your career at all, either in the drag world or the music world?
Alphonso: Not really. Being positive has had nothing to do with my work. I have been pretty healthy except for my diabetes. That's probably been more of a problem than my HIV. My status has probably caused more problems in my dating life. Deciding when to disclose was a problem at first and then I just started telling on the first date to avoid wasting theirs and my time.
Bob: Are there many poz drag performers who are out? I’m guessing quite a few of them are not talking, right?
Alphonso: I am sure there are more than most people think, but not everyone is out about their status. I know a few, but unfortunately not everyone handles the news well. So, many choose not to tell their families and with the fear of being rejected they choose not to tell boyfriends or casual partners.
Bob: How have advances in HIV treatment affected you personally. I’m going to guess that you are on treatment with an undetectable viral load. Am I right?
Alphonso: When I was first diagnosed, AZT was the only treatment. I watched a lot of my friends die on that stuff. So, I refused to take it. It wasn't until 2005 that I started treatment and have been undetectable ever since.
Bob: What would your message be for someone who is newly diagnosed – and worried about just about everything?
Alphonso: It's funny that you should ask. A drag friend of mine just got diagnosed and I told her something very important. Don't do anything that you don't want to do. If you don't feel like you need to be on the meds or that you are not ready yet don't start. Find out as much as you can about what you are about to take. Don't take your doctor's word for everything. And learn to be honest with yourself. Learn to forgive yourself. And most of all...stay stress free.
Bob: Excellent advice. One more question. Sorry if it sounds a bit Miss America-ish. Everybody has a dream. What’s yours?
Alphonso: I dream of leaving my mark. I hope that my life and experiences can be used to teach someone in the future to live their lives to the fullest.
Bob: Alphonso, you’ve been a great sport. I hope we didn’t intrude too much. Thank you so much for talking to us like this and we look forward to hearing more of your story as it unfolds on our site.
Alphonso King Jr writes as DJ Relentless on his PosiitiveLite.com blog. Find him to on his own website www.djrelentless.com.
Post script from Alphonso . . .
I thought I should share some of my material and performances with you. I recorded a live album at Statler's last summer. I'm still working on it being remastered and working out the distribution part. There are a couple of clips from that show.
THIS IS A CLIP FROM MY GAME SHOW featuring my other character, PAPRIKA JONES http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=tQLZ_O_pZks
THIS IS THE PILOT FOR MY TV SHOW Called "SHOWGIRL 101" (filmed before Drag Race even started) http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=AiVFMtpxDKM&feature=related
THIS IS A CLIP FROM THE WEEKLY VARIETY SHOW I USED TO DO at CREWS & TANGOS http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=aeGrT7h3PdQ
You should google me. I've done movies, television and traveled the world. I had a weekly variety show at Crews & Tangos (Toronto) but I had a crappy time slot (7 PM to 9 PM on Saturdays). It was very difficult to get people to come out that early so they cancelled it. I keep hoping to find another spot to do the show. It was a lot of fun. I featured all types of entertainment. I had live singers, comedians and of course female impersonators.
Plus, I wrote and recorded a song for AIDS awareness called "H-I-Vogue".
So, there's a lot more to my story (as you can see). I have opened for Cyndi Lauper. I performed with Beyonce at the Roxy in NYC. I am currently one of the resident DJ's at Crews & Tangos (Mondays, Wednesdays & Fridays). "DIrty Mondays" "Night Skool Wednesdays" and "CLUB LITE Fridays".
(Editor's note: Here's an interview with FAB.)