My 20-year adventure as a Seattle drag queen (pt. 1)
by Gaysha Starr -
Special to the SGN
When the opportunity to share my story with Seattle Gay News and its readers came up, I sat in front of my laptop, à la Carrie Bradshaw in Sex and the City, moving my cursor back and forth hesitantly, wondering how much to share.
Once I started seeing words turn into sentences, and then into paragraphs, I slowly began to realize what the first 41 years of my life, including the last 20 years as a drag queen and a member of the Seattle's LGBTQ community, have been. Some chapters of my life have been accomplished, successful, and blessed. Other chapters of my life have been lonely, selfish, and shameful.
Whenever I am asked about what it is like to be a drag queen, I try to explain that I was an ugly duckling that turned into a beautiful swan - it's just that my swan happened be a drag queen who looked like a glamorous woman while my ugly duckling was a shy and awkward boy.
A STRICT UPBRINGING
I was raised in a strict and overprotective first-generation Filipino Catholic home in Columbia City, long before it was Gay and fashionable to live there. My father, Primo, was a simple man, passive and honest, who led a quiet life. One of his proudest achievements was serving in the Army. He went on to work as a ship's cook for NOAA (the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration) so he was out at sea six to eight months of the year.
My mother, Luz, was an advocate for tough love and not afraid to discipline me physically. When I became older she would lock me out of the house, forcing me to spend the night in the garage or on the streets, if I missed curfew. She was a seamstress who had her own dress shop in the International District and later made seats for Boeing airplanes. She raised me in a strict home, leaving me with my 'Lola' most of the time while she worked. I remember once she told me she wanted me to be the 'perfect son' and those words always haunted me, even today.
When I was about eight I remember finding out I was adopted. At the time, I didn't understand what that meant. I have a biological family in the Philippines complete with brothers and a sister. When I asked - once - to reach out to them, my adopted mother made me feel as if I didn't want her to be my mother anymore, so I never brought it up again. I often think how lucky I am that I was the oldest and thus was chosen to be brought here to the United States.
At school I was always teased, all the way up to the summer before my senior year. I was effeminate and most of my friends were girls - sometimes people would even think I was a girl myself, as I looked very androgynous. I first remember having crushes on boys in elementary school and didn't think there was anything wrong with it.
I didn't know what 'Gay' meant as there were no Gay characters on television and I didn't know anyone who was Gay or Lesbian. For many years I thought maybe I was supposed to be a girl and I just happened to be born a boy. It wasn't the first time I wondered if I had Transgender issues.
As I entered puberty the bullying and teasing increased. People would call me 'SISSY!' 'FAG!' 'GIRL!' I didn't know what to do and there were many times I just cried and took it, not saying anything in my defense. I internalized a lot of it and I think now that is why I hate confrontation and would much rather avoid uncomfortable situations. By my junior year I learned how easy it was to skip school, and I never graduated. Instead when I turned 18 I got a full-time job in retail, selling clothes.
I was invited to my 10-year high school reunion, and I went the first night out of drag and the next night in full regalia, getting a lot of applause and support. Now I am even friends on Facebook with classmates and some have been to my shows. It does get better - it can just take a long time to get there.
'FREE TO BE ME'
I remember the first time I saw Gay men on the streets. Late one night in the fall of 1988, I was walking to catch my bus downtown from the Central District and ended on Pike Street and Broadway, passing Neighbours and what was then the Brass Connection (currently 95 Slide). Excited but also terrified, I hurried through, not making eye contact. I always remembered those two blocks, and the first weekend after I turned 21, on January 27, 1993, I returned.
When I came out in the fall before my 21st birthday, everyone said 'Duh.' I honestly thought coming out and meeting a husband was going to be easy. I still remember walking into Neighbours for the first time with the flashing lights, shirtless men on go-go boxes, and loud Madonna (circa Erotica) playing. Nervously I took my place in 'Chinatown' with all the other Asians and stood there afraid to dance, look at anyone, or enjoy myself. I learned fast how cruising worked and that you spent a lot of time staring at others back and forth. This was long before smartphones and Grindr.
About a month later I accidently ended up going to a drag show at the Brass Connection and saw my first-ever drag queen, Crystal Lane, on the microphone. She wore a cream suit and had the highest gold heels I had ever seen. She was commanding, powerful and in control of the room. I knew right then and there I had to do drag. It was as if all my experiences growing up - being teased and called a sissy, being effeminate - had a reason, and now I was free to be me.
My first attempt at drag was a complete disaster. I wore liquid 'real girl' makeup, had my natural full eyebrows, and used the little applicator that came in the Maybelline eyeshadow pack. I rented a dress and a Halloween wig from a costume shop and went to Neighbours to compete in their lip-sync show. I did Madonna's 'Hanky Panky' and failed miserably. My name was just Gaysha (I wanted the most obvious Asian name) and I got the spelling of my drag name by accident because Maggie, the person who registered the contestants, wrote it that way instead of Geisha. It just seemed right and I never bothered to correct her.
A friend, Adam, I had met going out introduced me to Hiram Starr. He was a Native American drag queen who used his own long hair and when he did a Mariah Carey ballad he could make you cry. He did a lot of community work for POCAAN (People of Color Against AIDS Network) and other nonprofits. We met a few times for him to get to know me and he always instilled in me that drag was about more than dressing up. You could be a part of fundraisers and grass-roots events, volunteer, and have a purpose.
After a lot of insistence on Adam's part, Hiram put me in drag. He transformed me from the little boy in the wig to a drag queen who could look like a young woman. I competed at Brass Connection, this time to Mariah Carey's 'Can't Let Go,' and while I lost again, I started to feel the confidence and the power that an attractive person could have. I remember Crystal Lane sizing me up me and saying to Hiram, 'So you've got another daughter? She's beautiful.'
At that time the drag scene was full of tall, glamorous 'female impersonators' in beaded gowns and short, tight dresses. Toni James was Miss Gay Seattle, Kahlua Ice ran the city, and there were names like Boy Mike, Britney La Face, Coco Vaughn, Fendi, Hillary Scott Underwood, Jetta, Lavanda Dela Rosa, Larry Lefler, Madison Lane, Marcy Kraft, Mark Finley, Maybellina Fabulash, Morgan Ice, Penny Lane, Pill Munroe, Shelby Sapphire, Stacey Prince, Whitley Lexington, and Zora. I equated it to the popular girls in high school and I was the new girl wanting desperately to fit in.
I also found it strange that there were no Asian or Pacific Islander queens except for Smokee, who came out only occasionally; Pineapple Princess, who passed away right before I came out; and a Transsexual named Seneca. After a few months of paying my dues, I finally earned my last name of Starr and an entire drag family - Avonna, Bianca, Diana, Jasmine, Johnny, Marky, and Sable.
MISS NEIGHBOURS 1993
It was ironic that although I could never win the weekly lip-sync contests at Neighbours, I won my first title there - in August 1993 I became the first-ever Miss Neighbours. It was a stepping-stone title and after I won I was expected to run for Miss Gay Seattle in November. Being a stereotypically overachieving Asian, I wanted to win so badly. I lost by a handful of votes and was devastated. But I also learned about drag community politics and the Imperial Court of Seattle.
I started to make my own friends and was doing drag a lot. It was an expensive hobby and being 21, I didn't have a lot of money or stability. I was shuffling between my parents' home and couch-surfing, and started cocktailing at Neighbours at night in drag while working various jobs during the day.
Looking back, I can see I always had trouble with finances. I was that person who would buy new clothes to feel better about myself before paying my bills. That instant rush from buying something new and wearing it that night has helped me build my career 20 years later, but not my retirement account.
LA FEMME MAGNIFIQUE
In July of 1994, I ran for La Femme Magnifique Seattle, The Most Beautiful and Glamorous Female Impersonator in Seattle. I didn't know anything about it other than the theme was 'The Orient Express.' I won with the help of Hiram and a new group of queens who befriended me: Coco Vaughn, Kahlua Ice, LaVanda De la Rosa, Marcy Kraft, and Smokee.
When I got to Portland to compete in the International Pageant, I wasn't mentally prepared for how large the atrium of Montgomery Park is. It seats around 800 people and I was not as seasoned as the other contestants. I performed Tina Turner's 'Proud Mary' and got a standing ovation. By the end of the evening I was crowned the first winner from Seattle in the pageant's 13-year history.
Some might say this is when I 'arrived.' I started to notice a shift in the dynamics with the other queens. I am not sure how much of it was me or them, but now in reflection I think it was a combination of me gaining confidence and them becoming jealous. I also started writing a weekly column for Seattle Gay News about the community, drag events, and other social happenings. I noticed how people would invite me to be in shows or all of a sudden talk to me when they never had before.
After completing my year as La Femme Magnifique International 1994, I could tell I was growing apart from Hiram. I don't think she was prepared for me to become more into drag than her other daughters and to surpass what they had done. It also didn't help that people started to think I was her drag mother.
At the same time, I got to know the next biggest influences of my life - friends, mentors, confidants, and 'mothers' Kahlua and Coco, Rose Empress Cicely from Portland, and my drag 'husband,' Mitch.
A NEW MENTOR
I owe my life to Kahlua in many ways. When I couldn't go home to my parents one night, she let me stay on her floor and what was supposed to be temporary ended up with us being roommates during my year as Miss Gay Washington 1996. Kahlua taught me a lot about drag, and also about being Gay. She supported me, taught me right from wrong, and was the Gay role model I never had growing up. She loved me unconditionally and while there were certain challenges to being her best friend, I could always tell her what was on my mind and because of that, our friendship eventually ended. Twice.
Coco and Cicely along with Kahlua were to me what I wanted my drag to be like. They were glamorous and looked like women, making an entrance and commanding a stage like no one else. It was as if my own Diana Ross, Shirley Bassey, and Whitney Houston were right in front of me. I emulated them in drag and sometimes blatantly stole their numbers, costuming ideas and looks, making it my own. In retrospect, now that others have copied me, I can't say it was the best thing to do. It did, however, inadvertently polish and prepare me for my year as Empress of Seattle in 1999.
There is the moment every drag queen in Seattle first sees the Empress Crown or the rhinestone 'Lampshade' and for a brief second dreams about wearing it. I first saw it on Empress Paula when she stepped down at my first Seattle Coronation in 1994. I wore a terrible dress and my own hair fell flat in the middle of the night.
I learned how to be an Empress by watching Coco when she was Empress three years prior to me and being mentored by Cicely long-distance. These two 'legends' took me under their wing - or I didn't give them a chance not to. Their motto was 'Go big or Go home!' I don't remember when the conversation started that I was to run for Empress, but I had an Emperor candidate lined up with Mitchell Boxx. At 27, if I were to win, I would have been the first Asian Pacific Islander Empress and the youngest one in Seattle's history.
By the time I was ready to campaign I had five major bars sponsoring me, a month of full-page ads in Seattle Gay News, 5-by-7-foot posters, T-shirts that had 'Rice Queen' on the back, and a grueling 14 days of drag in a row. There were rumors that people didn't want me to win, so I left nothing to chance. Little did I know that my campaign would cement me permanently as a part of Seattle's drag community and establish me further than I thought.
My reign with Mitchell was bittersweet. We were both young and very opinionated, wanting to do things our own way. We looked the part, and along with our court we raised over $10,000 for scholarships and other charity. But we stepped down barely speaking to each other - some of it was I needed his support in ways that I never asked for, and our other issue was that we were two people fighting for the spotlight, rather than sharing it.
Now, almost 15 years later, we have moved past it and grown up. He remains one of my best friends, and when I lip-sync 'I Will Always Love You' to him, it means something more.
JOINING GAY CITY
After I stepped down as Empress, I was an emotional mess. At 28, I didn't know what to do anymore. I had been reigning almost consecutively for almost seven years with six titles. I hadn't had a steady job, dated, or been in a serious relationship because the only 'relationship' I had was with Gaysha. I applied for and got a job at Gay City Health Project as a program director for the young men's program and threw myself into the work.
Having a job at a Gay nonprofit, being in the public eye, and being a drag queen, my entire life revolved around being Gay. I used to say, 'I am so Gay, my drag name starts with 'Gay.' Except back then, I didn't really know what it meant to be a Gay man - I just knew how to be a drag queen. I wanted to 'fit in' and the easiest people to fit in with were the ones who did drugs.
I had done drugs recreationally off and on, but in 2000 cocaine, crystal meth, ecstasy, 'special K,' GHB ('liquid ecstasy'), 'trail mix,' and afterhours parties were very fashionable and I was a pretty drag queen who was fun to be around. In my mind I had done more than my share of community service so it was my turn to not have responsibilities. I spent the whole summer partying and 'fitting in.'
DRUGS TAKE THEIR TOLL
On September 9, 2010, I overdosed in drag and was admitted to Virginia Mason on Capitol Hill for mixing GHB and alcohol. If my friend had not rushed me there in my little gray Honda, I probably would have died on Pike and Broadway outside what is now Nuemos. It was ironic that this was the same intersection where I first discovered Gay men, 12 years prior.
I woke up the morning after my overdose in a hospital room at Virginia Mason and the first thought I had was, 'Do I still have my face on?' IV's were plugged into my arms along with a catheter in case I wet myself. It was about 11 in the morning and I had to get to a Gay City event that afternoon I was partly in charge of. The nurse came in and asked me the basic questions: Did I know my name? What day is it? Do I remember what happened? Fortunately, I could answer these, but I was told they were going to keep me in the hospital the next few days to be monitored.
I learned that cardiopulmonary resuscitation with a paddle was performed to resuscitate me and I went numb. After being released with a plastic bag filled with my drag, I slowly had to face the shame. Word had obviously spread, and being a public figure it didn't take long for people to find out. But to this day, my parents still don't know.
Look for Part II of this essay in next week's SGN.
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