Lately I have been getting inquiries about what it's like to live in New York City. Many of my acquaintances and friends in the arts here in Toronto are all falling in love with the idea of moving to the Big Apple. I try to tell them that New York is magical and it will definitely cast a spell on you with all of it's legends and tales of success and stardom, but all that glitters isn't gold.
I remember my first trip to New York City. It was in late September of 1990. I was there to audition for a role of a drag queen who could pass as a woman and still play a young man.
It was all so exciting. I went in to some studio to do a reading on 36th street on the West Side. There were about 20 other guys there. I had never read for anything at this point and all I had was a few polaroids of my best drag. I had no theatrical training. I was just a wet-behind-the-ears female impersonator from Tampa, Florida.
The reading went terribly. The producers liked my look but I couldn't act for shit. And I was physically too tall for the role. So, of course….I didn't get the role. This would be the beginning of many rejections in the city that never sleeps. It turns out the role was of "Dill" in The Crying Game.
I was in town for five days. I was staying with my ex, Michael Parker Haines and his lover Steven. They took me around the city and showed me as much as they could in those days. I had never seen so many tall buildings. Back in Tampa in my art classes I would paint and draw extra buildings in the Tampa skyline to pretend we were a bigger city. I wrote slogans that boasted that I was Tampa's next rising star. I dreamed of so much more than what my hometown could offer. On this short visit, I had auditioned for a major film and even met Madonna at The Soundfactory as Junior Vasquez spun.
So, by the time it came to leave I was smitten. Bitten by the bug of all the dreams and hopes that walk the streets of that huge and frightening town. I knew that I would return one day, for it was all I had ever dreamed of and more. New York City had become a part of my being. Tampa would not contain me any longer. I was made for subways and all night delis.
It took me a couple of years to get back there. Circumstances would change my ability to work as a DJ in Tampa since I had spun at all of the venues that would have me. So, in 1992 I took a brave step and bought a round trip ticket to LaGuardia. I called up another ex named Michael who lived with his then girlfriend The Electrifying Grace. He gave me permission to stay with them, but had not talked it over with Grace at all. I had only spoken to her on the phone a few times. It was by her generous nature that she allowed me to come stay. By the time I arrived, she had put Michael out and I had come to stay with a complete stranger.
This is my New York Drag Mother, "The Electrifying Grace". My drag name is homage to her.
I figured that I would come up to look around for work for a couple of weeks and then take whatever I could get when I got back to Tampa. After all, my whole life was back there. I had an apartment I shared with my adopted brother, Anthony Evans and my lover Michael Gagne. I never believed that I would actually find work in such a huge city. I figured I would be rejected and laughed at as some country bumpkin from the south.
But the old saying "It's all in who you know" is actually true. Grace was one of the hostesses at Sally's which was mentioned in the documentary Paris Is Burning that I had just watched about six months before arriving. Grace had told the manager, Jimmy Peanuts that I was a DJ. I arrived in the evening on Wednesday, April 29th. On the next day I had my first interview and audition for a job in New York City.
I walked into Sally's around 2 PM in the afternoon to meet with Mr. Peanuts. He looked and sounded like Max from the 80's TV show, "Hart to Hart". He sat at an empty booth with a huge plate of spaghetti and a telephone. I introduced myself and quickly made my way over to the DJ equipment to start to impress him with my skills on the tables. I had brought with me about 20 records. I did my best mixes and tricks in my set. Jimmy seemed unimpressed. In fact, he was on the phone most of the time while I played. Afterwards he invited me to sit down at the table with him.
"So, tell me kid….do you know how to read?" he asked.
"You mean like…" and I began to snap my fingers in a "Z' formation as Blaine and Anton did on"In Living Color".
"No, no, no…not dat faggot shit! I mean as in - see spot run." Jimmy explained.
"Yeah, of course" I said a little confused.
"You're hired." Jimmy said as he continued eating. So, on Friday May 1st I started my new job.
Grace later explained to that evening that apparently Sally's had two DJ's, but neither of them could read. So, they had to pay someone else to sit with them to tell them what to play when the drag shows were on. Meaning that I got my first job in the Big Apple not because of my skills, but because I actually knew how to read. They could care less about what I played. And as they say….the rest was history. My life in the city had just begun. I was never returning to Tampa as a resident. I was extremely lucky. I had landed in the middle of the cast of Paris Is Burning and my education of life in the big city had begun.
"The Illusions" (Harmonica Sunbeam, Tyra Colbaire, myself and Sybil Barrington-the original group). Photo by Panja Jergens taken during rush hour in the middle of Times Square in 1994.
I would later form a drag troupe called The Illusions that would be the next generation of"The Pearl Box Revue" at The Cotton Club. I would appear on daytime talk shows like "The Richard Bey Show", "The Maury Povich Show" and "The Ricki Lake Show". I would eventually get roles in movies like Too Wong Foo…Thanks For Everything, Party Girl and Jane Doe. By the end of the 90's I would get my first shot at performing at Wigstock with the fabulous Lady Bunny. And eventually I would sign my first record deal with Progressive High Records to release my first single "Why Are You Gaggin'?" which I would be later screwed for by them selling my track overseas. And the beginning of my 12-year run as the resident Sunday night DJ at Escuelita began when Harmonica Sunbeam asked me to be a part of her team for the longest running T-Dance in New York City.
Of course I missed out on a lot of parts, but I kept at it and had an amazing time learning how the entertainment business is run. The highlights almost overshadow all the days I had only tuna sandwiches for dinner after paying my rent and bills. No one knew all the hard days when work was scarce and I was barely getting by. It wasn't glamorous. It was the real New York.
But then I got to thinking about some of the smaller projects that I was a part of. I used to live in the East Village. I entered the Priscilla Queen of The Desert lip sync contest at HMV on 86th and Lexington. I won and shared the title with a queen named "Chicklet". Little did I know that meeting would turn into a great friendship and a track into some underground films by a brilliant filmmaker called John Jabalaba. Even though the big movie projects helped me get my Screen Actors Guild card, the two films that I did with John were so much fun.
Crowned the winner of HMV's "Priscilla Queen of The Desert" along with Chicklet. If you look closely Robin Byrd was the MC and Michael Musto, Alicia Bridges, Paul Alexander and Girlina were the judges.
The first one I did was a short film called Lilly White. Chicklet was the star and the cast consisted of some of New York's legendary drag performers like Hedda Lettuce and Miss Understood. I played a drunk woman who answers her apartment door to find a nun collecting funds for a church. Chicklet's character awakes to find her memory is gone along with her identity.
My second role was that of "The Kept Girl" in another short called Dogs. In this one I was trying my hardest to give my best Marilyn Monroe / Ginger from Gilligan's Island. It's hard to say who was the star of this one. It definitely wasn't me. But the kidnapping of Pepe is a hilarious look at the blurred lines between the drag world and insanity.
I think the thing that I enjoyed the most was the work for the art that we were creating. No pay, but it was great to be a part of something that will never happen again. Jabalaba was our Andy Warhol meets John Waters and Chicklet was his Candy Darling meets Divine. I am still friends with both of them till this day. I highly recommend you look this extraordinary visionary up.
It also got me thinking about all the gay films (short and long) that are being lost in this age of the internet. Somethings are available on YouTube, but there is nothing like watching a movie in a theatre atmosphere. So, I recently started a gay movie night called "PINK CINEMA @ SLOUCH MEDIA". Our first selection was "PARIS IS BURNING" for Black History Month. The next feature will be on March 7th. Check out the our facebook page and vote on what our next movie will be. There are five choices on the home page. So, go vote!