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to Section One | to Arts & Entertainment
posted Friday, February 15, 2013 - Volume 41 Issue 7
Love yourself! - My 20-year adventure as a Seattle drag queen (pt. 2)
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Love yourself! - My 20-year adventure as a Seattle drag queen (pt. 2)

by Gaysha Starr - Special to the SGN

This is a continuation of the life story of Gaysha Starr from last week's SGN. When we left our heroine, she had overdosed on GHB (liquid ecstasy) and alcohol, and had been taken to a hospital to be resuscitated.

RECOVERY AND CHANGE
In September 2000, the same week I overdosed, I signed up to see a Gay therapist. For the first time I was honest and told him everything I am telling you now. Slowly my friendships and therapy healed me, but I wanted to act like nothing happened, so I went back to doing drag, attended afterhours, and partied - but stayed away from GHB. One night, sitting at a nightclub, staring at a disco ball, I decided I needed a new place to 'fit in,' so I went to AA and completed 90 days sober. I didn't have a problem with alcohol and drugs. I had a problem with poor self-esteem and finding a place where I belonged.

The following January, for my 29th birthday, I threw a big party at Ego Nightclub and raised $10,000 for Gay City. Shortly after that I was 'laid off due to budget cuts' (also known as 'let go because I was too much of a liability to the agency'). Only six months before, I had been one of three people featured on the cover of the Seattle Times Pride edition for my work at Gay City and for impressive community service.

I was recruited to sell advertising and write for another Gay paper and did very well until 9/11 happened. By December the newspaper went under like many small businesses, and I was out of a job. In April of 2002, I went back to the only other job I knew - retail sales and management - attempting to stay afloat.

I was still doing drag off and on, and by 2000, a new wave of Asian/Pacific Islander queens had arrived on the scene: Shaka Kwan, Teriyaki Temple, and Aleksa Manila. I was so used to being usually the only A/PI drag queen, I didn't know how to react. Part of me was threatened - they were younger, skinnier, and had quickly developed their own followings among their peers. The other part of me was nurturing (and a little condescending), and I eventually took them under my wing. It felt powerful to finally have younger queens look up to me, the way I had looked up to the older queens when I first started.

ENTER MAXIMUS
In September 2003, I impulsively bought a dachshund puppy from a litter in the back seat of a Toyota Celica at Pike Place Market and he forever changed my life. Maximus - such a big name for a small dog - gave me something other than myself to be responsible for. We were inseparable and because of him I ended up taking a break from doing drag every weekend to almost not at all, coming out only for larger events.

Being a pet owner inadvertently kept me focused on my career. I got several promotions and when I did go out I finally got validated for me, not my alter ego. I was able to have a conversation and actually talk about something other than Gaysha. In early 2004, I won an all-expense-paid trip to Hawaii as one of 12 top performing managers in my company, in a field of more than 50.

From the sidelines I watched the other drag queens and their success, and I slowly became envious. I remember seeing other queens advertised on poster events and at shows, quick to judge them. Slowly, like an addict reaching for their vice and against my better judgment, I went back in. The scene had changed and while I was able to keep up, it was more competitive than I remembered and I was more insecure, not being young anymore.

FROM RIVALRY TO FRIENDSHIP
I signed up to be a Co-Regent Empress for the Court of Seattle to see if the tall Empress Crown would give me the attention it used to - and, since it didn't, I dropped out by the middle of my year. Almost every time I went out I was being mistaken for Aleksa and while at first I found it humorous, I started to resent it. One day I just stopped talking to her without any explanation, glaring at her at the Broadway Grill as she waved to me. It wasn't her fault that people mistook us - sometimes on purpose - but it was easy for me to take it out on her.

After many sincere apologies and her forgiving me, we are able to have a friendship, co-announce the Seattle Pride Parade, and even find a way to make fun of being mistaken for one another. In some ways she helped me find my self-worth and I appreciate her for her own beauty and contributions to our community.

INCIDENT AT NEIGHBOURS
I have done just about everything in drag - perform, host, raise money, drive a car, go to straight bars, pick up men, party, been admitted into the hospital - and one Saturday night in the fall of 2005 I added being handcuffed and detained by the police to the list. I was sitting on top of the bar at Neighbours when I should have just gone home, but instead I sat there, not sure what I was doing. Two people standing at the bar next to me started to mock me and make fun of me, talking loud enough so I could hear them, looking at me and then looking away. I was instantly taken back to high school, insecure and hurt - but this time I fought back.

As they carried on and laughed at me, I watched them cross the bar and I grabbed the first thing at hand - a thick, heavy glass - and hurled it across the bar at them and it broke on the face of an acquaintance who had just acknowledged me moments before. Parts of the glass also hit other bar patrons, blood splashing on them - one of the people being Aleksa's partner at the time. In all the commotion I jumped off the bar and went into the kitchen where security kept me.

Within moments, five police officers in two cars and an ambulance arrived. I remember the manager of the club telling them not to handcuff me until I was down the alley because he couldn't stand seeing Gaysha Starr being handcuffed walking out of Neighbours. As I was escorted out, all dressed in black, Aleksa walked in, all dressed in white, rushing to her partner.

I sat in a holding room at the 12th and Pine precinct under the harsh fluorescent lighting, wondering what my fate would be. How would I pose for my mug shot? Would I spend the night in jail in drag? What if my beard grew in? After what seemed like hours - it was maybe only one, I was called for and they opened the garage door onto 12th Avenue, releasing me. I never again saw the person I hit on the face to apologize, and now - because of me - patrons at Neighbours drink from plastic cups. After that incident I immediately put myself on a time-out from doing drag and focused on my new job. I obviously still had issues, and being in drag only amplified them.

THE DIAGNOSIS
In the spring of 2006, I was diagnosed with HIV. I had tested a false positive previously and this time when it was confirmed I had no reaction to it. I think after being around it in the community for as long as I had and raising large amounts of money for HIV/AIDS, I already almost knew I would eventually contract it. I slept with enough people to try to validate myself, and sometimes that meant unprotected sex.

I told only a few people, slowly and very casually. I was never ashamed of it, but I didn't want to be a face for it or be judged. It's ironic how much harder it is to tell a prospective sexual partner that I am HIV-positive than to tell you the reader.

An old friend who is open about his HIV kept urging me to get on meds, and I started taking three pills every morning on my father's birthday, June 9, 2009. With the help of a great doctor and physician assistant, and routine check-ups every six months, I am currently undetectable.

I have always done a good job of looking 'put together' to the outside world and from the remainder of 2006 through 2008, I looked the best I had ever been. I was dating a fantastic guy in a long-distance relationship who was able to accept my drag, making the most money I have ever made at work, living in a beautiful apartment on Capitol Hill, and received a new addition to the family - a longhair Chihuahua, Nina - and I even had the ultimate driving accessory, a gunmetal BMW 325i complete with leather seats and a sunroof.

THINGS FALL APART
My private life was very different. The long-distance with my boyfriend proved to be too much for us and I eventually cheated on him. We both knew that we should have broken up after our first year, and ultimately two bottoms don't make a right. The recession had started and in my business of selling designer clothing the decline in sales began to take its toll on a small company. My rent went up, forcing me off the hill, and two pups were a handful. Even my BMW needed more maintenance than I had financially anticipated.

There comes a point in your life when you wonder about your parents and their health and eventually you can't ignore it. Being an only child, the burden and pressure becomes more than most people realize and once my father passed away, I all of sudden became the sole 'parent' of my then-76-year-old mother.

It was the Saturday morning of Labor Day weekend 2008, while I was at work, preparing to leave for the La Femme Magnifique International Pageant in Portland, that I received a call from the police. My mother and father were moving into a new rental home on Beacon Hill and after their first night there, my father had a heart attack on his way to the bathroom in the middle of the night. Their phone line hadn't even been installed yet, and they had to call me from the officer's cell phone.

I left work immediately and went to meet my mother. That afternoon, with the help of Shaka, Teriyaki, and Regina King, they comforted me and waited in anticipation to see how I would react. I wanted to cry but I couldn't - not yet, anyway.

I spent that night doing self-destructive things to myself trying to ease the shock, but was able to make it to Evergreen Washelli Funeral Home the next morning to help plan the funeral with my mother. We bickered through the entire appointment. His service was planned for the following weekend and since there was nothing left to do, Regina and I drove to Portland so I could still perform at the pageant and get my mind off of things. As usual, drag helped me ignore the real feelings in my life.

The week of my father's funeral I was promoted to divisional manager of my company, in charge of the overall operations and management of our six stores between Washington and California. It was the highlight of my career, but a bittersweet occasion just the same, as I had to help put my father to rest on Saturday. I cried delivering his eulogy and it finally hit me that I never said goodbye to him or told him I loved him.

RETURN TO NEIGHBOURS
During all of this time I was doing drag occasionally. I was 37, work was demanding, and I had gained weight so I was self-conscious that I was no longer the perfect size 6 that I was in my twenties. I performed at Neighbours during Gay Pride that June and was so rusty that it reminded me of my beginning years. After my performance I bumped into Steve Tracy, the club's general manager, who had given me my start.

Steve always believed in me and I adopted him as my Gay father. He has always put me on his stage when no one else would and has believed in me more than I believed in myself. One week later he called me to tell me he was back and wanted me to host the lip-sync contest that I got my start in 16 years before.

The drag landscape had changed yet again. I knew I had one shot to establish myself to a new, younger audience that was technically savvy with Facebook and camera/video phones. There were drag shows at Julia's, Rebar, R-Place and off the Hill. The music that queens were performing to was a different, younger sound that I was used to: Beyonce, Katy Perry, Ke$ha, P!nk, Pussy Cat Dolls, Lady Gaga, and Rihanna. I started in a time when you handed in your music on a cassette tape.

Through 'paying my dues' hosting Wednesday nights I was introduced back onto the scene. Like an athlete retraining and conditioning herself, I slowly began to find my pace and hit my stride, all the way through 2010. My three biggest coaches were Coco, Steve, and Shaun Knittel.

Shaun was new to Seattle, moving here from Las Vegas as a writer for Seattle Gay News. He arrived right around the same time I reemerged. He was in culture shock and needed someone to teach him about Seattle's LGBTQ community and its nuances. We hit it off immediately, meeting about projects and fundraisers, and our working relationship evolved into friendship. I am proud that in May I will be his Best Man/Queen at his wedding to his partner, Yee-Shin.

IT'S STILL A STRUGGLE
In February 2010 I was laid off from my company and decided to take the entire year off, living on unemployment and the earnings I made from doing drag. Getting paid to do drag in Seattle is hard and I have to negotiate almost every time to get what I want. Only a handful of queens make the money we deserve - most of us have a day job to pay for our night one.

I will do most charity events for free or for a very reduced rate, but I have a difficult time taking a pay cut from a bar or nightclub. I can often guesstimate how much revenue stands before me, between admission covers and drink sales. Most attendees have paid $10 to get in and have had at least two drinks. Sometimes while I stand there hosting I think to myself '$10, $20, $30, $40, $50, $60,' etc. You can do the math.

Everyone wants glamorous hair and costuming - especially with the expectation of Gaysha Starr - but people often don't realize how much it costs queens to provide that, especially in a world of social media. Once a photo is snapped of me in an outfit and sent out into the universe, I put the outfit in the back of my closet. We all know the Gays will be the first to say, 'She's wearing that, AGAIN?'

Most don't realize or care that we queens that have day jobs get up as early as 6:45 a.m. After working a full 9+ hour day, I hurry home, let my dogs out, and then rush to get in face - and it's not just the artistry, but the mental preparation of 'being on.' Sometimes I have to haul all of my things to the event, get ready there, and make arrangements for the dogs to be taken care of. If I get home at midnight, I end up clocking in a minimum of a 17+ hour day and have to be up for work again within hours. After all of this effort, to make less than what my wardrobe for the evening cost is hard to accept.

A REMARKABLE LIFE
Somehow, through hard work, personal sacrifice and a lot of help, 2011 and 2012 were my best years in drag to date. I was very fortunate to receive the type of bookings, exposure, and income offered to me. Despite the successes, at the end of each night out as 'Miss Starr' I take a long, hard look in the bathroom mirror as my makeup comes off. My face becomes streaked and greasy with each wipe of my cloth. My eyes are bloodshot, both from the cocktails and from trying to rub the eyeliner off.

I replay the evening's events wondering what I could have done better, and often feel like I am going abruptly from 90 mph to zero. The audience's cheers and applause have suddenly been replaced by the sound of the lukewarm water running into the sink. Lately, I have started to notice the wrinkles around my eyes and small age spots on my cheeks. There are red marks on my waist from the layers of Spanx and control-top pantyhose that I have to wear now that I am 41. My feet finally get to spread and eventually I'm able to feel them again. The swan has morphed back to the duck.

Once it is all off and I just see me, I admit I am not always proud of myself and my decisions. I don't know if I ever will be, but so far I have lived a remarkable life that I refuse to regret. Some of my experiences - good, bad, or indifferent - others will never imagine, much less get to have.

MOVING ON
I look forward to my life's next chapter - moving to Aspen, Colorado, next month to manage the Gucci store. There is no openly Gay community there, not even a Gay bar. I am choosing to leave my familiar life here in Seattle, my family, friends, and a community that has generously allowed me to be a part of it.

I am feeling nervous and vulnerable but excited to see what the future has in store for me. It reminds me of the feeling I had when I first heard host Nicole introduce me as Gaysha at Neighbours, 20 years ago.

I sincerely appreciate you for letting me share my life with you and I hope that you have gotten to know me for more than what I have allowed you to see on stage or passing by you, leaving my trail of perfume behind.

I end every show I host by saying these words, and in this moment, I might finally understand them and even believe them: 'Before you love anyone else, always remember to love yourself.'

Editor's note: Last week's installment gave the wrong date for Starr's overdose. It was September 9, 2000, not 2010.

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