The Moment I Knew I Wanted To Perform: Flamy Grant

by - June 04, 2024

Photo courtesy of Emily Tingley

She was my best friend, but that blonde bitch Katy M. at church had no business performing the role of Virgin Mary in the Sunday School nativity play in 1989. The part should have been mine.

I wanted to do drag before I knew what it was. My mom’s closet wasn’t particularly flashy - she was a bank teller the first few years of my life. But there were white pumps and a couple of netted hats and one green silk skirt that I was particularly drawn to. It was nearly floor-length when Mom wore it, so I had to pull the waistband up around my neck and let it drape down my entire body like an armless choir robe. It was fabulous.

Femme roles always called to me. When my sister and I would cosplay our favorite Disney cartoon, Chip ‘n Dale Rescue Rangers, I consistently commandeered the role of Gadget, a mouse mechanic and the show’s only female character. Hey, at least she spent her time working on engines - that butch realness had to count for something. My sister was relegated to the role of Dale, the more free-spirited half of the show’s titular duo. Every once in a while, she would beg me to let her be Gadget. Sorry kid: you were born second in command to an absolute nightmare of a diva who wouldn’t be caught dead in the Hawaiian button-up Dale wore.

Later on during my senior year of high school, I begged our drama teacher to choose Hello, Dolly! for the big spring musical. I attended a tiny, private Christian K-12 and with only 24 people in my class and three prior years of proving and honing my stage chops in Oliver!, The Sound of Music and Fiddler on the Roof, I was all but guaranteed the lead role in my final year. The Barbra Streisand/Walter Matthau masterpiece was and remains to this day my favorite musical, and I desperately wanted it to be part of my legacy. It wasn’t until my drama teacher asked, “Do you really want to play that cranky old Horace Vandergelder who only has one song?” that I realized the lead I actually wanted was an ambitious Jewish matchmaker in a low-cut golden gown belting “Before the Parade Passes By” with her full, heaving, perfectly lifted chest. My conservative teachers had already balked when I chose Gloria Steinem as the subject of a book report in sophomore history, and clutched their pearls when I spun Sheryl Crow’s “Hard to Make a Stand” in Bible class as part of a worldview assessment project, so I knew my chances of playing Dolly Levi were about as good as my sister’s chances of understudying the role of Gadget.

Thanks - or no thanks at all, really - to my deeply fundamentalist evangelical upbringing and the pressure to perform masculinity (my greatest role, 1996–2015), it would take me until the seasoned age of 37 before I would ever actually try my hand at drag. There’s a lot of religious shame to unpack when you grow up gay as hell in the Bible Belt, but I finally came around. I slid right down that slippery slope and into my first pair of six-inch pumps and haven’t looked back since.

But the inclination was clearly always there. And I can trace the moment I knew I wanted to perform back to that church nativity play when Katy M. was bestowed with Mary’s pure white robe and baby blue sash. It really was a travesty. As I mentioned, she was blonde. And if my deep brown, thick head of hair poking out from the hooded costume weren’t enough to qualify me to play this middle eastern mother of the Christ child, my singing voice should have sealed the deal. Katy M. was my best friend, but we both knew that when it came to singing, I was Sandy Patty and she was Twila Paris. Or, to put it in terms accessible to a secular audience, I was Christina and she was Britney.

Our casting director (one of the wise men’s moms? I don’t remember) clearly felt differently, however, and in a harrowing blow to my sensitive and still-developing psyche, assigned me the supporting role of Angel #2. The outright indignity.

I turned it out, of course. At least Angel #2 was an androgynous celestial creature and had a featured verse in “Hark, the Herald Angels Sing”. My tinsel halo hovering above my head and an oversized terry bathrobe draped about me, I took the congregation of Asheville Gospel Chapel on an emotional journey that would make Roma Downey herself hang up her wings.

But I will never forget how I stood off to stage left, mouthing along as Katy M. flatly recited the Virgin Mary’s lines and then offered a passable but hackneyed rendition of Silent Night. Even then, I knew the audience deserved so much more. And I could have given it to them.

The first song on the first album I recorded under my drag persona, “What Did You Drag Me Into?” is a rollicking, bluesy account of my journey into the art of genderfuckery performance. And it’s almost entirely true. The one bit of revisionist history it contains comes in the second verse, where I took the liberty to rewrite the story the way it should have gone:

Imagine this, it’s Christmas Eve
Time for the church nativity
Papa’s in the front row trying to see
Rubs his eyes, cause he can’t believe
Mary, Mary, mother mild
Is played by a familiar child
His son is walking down the aisle
To “a virgin shall conceive”

Eat your holy heart out, Verna Bloom. There’s a new virgin on stage, and her name is Flamy Goddamn Grant.

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