Sing with me! “It’s beginning to look a lot like Christmas!” OK, as much as I love the holidays, I do tend to cringe at seeing Christmas displays before I’ve had a chance to celebrate Halloween, but this holiday tradition is such a great event, we want to get the word out as soon as possible.
TOY is the Delaware Valley Legacy Fund’s annual holiday fundraising event that raises money to support organizations serving the LGBT community, while providing toys to benefit local children in need. It’s a night of dancing, heavy hors d’oeuvres, an open bar and charity-filled fun, with one ticket purchase and one unwrapped toy donation — a chance to support two good causes in one night! We spoke to one of this year’s organizers, social-media maven Chris Balbi, aka “Bowtie Boy.”
Balbi is a man on a mission, second only to Santa Claus. He wants to make this year’s TOY the biggest yet!
Though not a millennial, I managed to Facetime Balbi for our interview.
PGN: What’s your goal for TOY?
CB: We always get a great turnout for TOY but I think we can do better. I want to get more younger people involved and shake it up a little, bring some edge to the event. It’s a fantastic event already, I just want to add a shot of adrenaline.
PGN: Tell me about yourself.
CB: I was born in Quakertown and then moved to the Lehigh Valley. I went to college at Susquehanna University and, from there, straight to Philadelphia to work at the Walnut Street Theater. I’ve been here ever since.
PGN: What was your major at Susquehanna?
CB: I got a bachelor of arts and theater management and a bachelor of science in business human-resource management. I got my master’s degree in social-media management.
PGN: Wow, your future’s so bright you’re wearing shades for this interview.
CB: Ha! Sorry, it’s one of those overcast days that still manages to be so bright you have to squint. I didn’t want you to think I was frowning, but they say the eyes are the window to the soul so I’ll take them off. [Laughs] I want you to know that I’m not a soulless person!
PGN: You’re all good! Describe yourself as a kid. What was little Chris like?
CB: Oh God, little Chris was very outgoing and a little bit of a diva growing up.
PGN: [Laughs] Why does that not surprise me?
CB: I know, right! Yeah, I chose to express myself with the attitude and air of a diva. When I came out of the closet, my mother said that she had no doubt about it. She’d actually asked me if I was gay when I was in the eighth grade. I was the first person to come out in my high school, which was nerve-wracking. I dealt with a little bit of gay bashing, but it made me an even stronger diva. But little me was just a ball of energy. They used to say that I shined out so many smiles into the world that I shouldn’t have any left. But don’t worry, I still do. It would be weird for me not to smile; it’s just part of who I am.
PGN: When I was in college, I used to do work as a mascot so I was in a giant costume and people would want to take pictures with me. Whenever someone said “Cheese!” no matter how hard I tried, I could not, not smile even though no one could see me!
CB: That’s funny. My day job is selling Botox for Meesha Aesthetics and from 9 a.m.-7 p.m. I answer the phones for them: [In a chipper voice] “Hi! Thanks for calling Meesha Aesthetics! Chris speaking, how may I help you?” and I find that when I smile while I’m speaking it makes a difference. People can hear the smile in your voice even if they can’t see you.
PGN: Tell me about the family. Siblings?
CB: Yes! I have a younger sister; she’s 25 and I’m 27. She’s a school teacher and just got engaged. We get along now but it was tough at times growing up. When I came out, there was guilt by association and people used to ask her if she was gay too, which bothered her. We talk now almost every other day. Dad owns a car dealership, so he’s a used-car salesman. He’s actually owned the dealership for 27 years. He’s really good with people. I think that’s where I got my love of people. They call him “The Closer.” Mom actually owns the Botox empire I work for. She’s a national trainer in injections; people fly her around the country to teach her skills. So with her technical skills and my marketing skills, we’re a mother-son power team!
PGN: What’s a story Mom tells about you?
CB: In third grade, I went to school dressed as Oprah for Halloween and on the way there I got a run in my stocking. I was so upset about it that I made her pull over at the CVS so we could get nail polish. She was like, “How the hell do you know to use nail polish for stopping runs and I don’t?” I was like, “No worries, I got it covered.” Baby me was all about the heels and tights. I was a little drag queen.
PGN: Do you do drag now?
CB: No, there are so many talented people out there who do it so well, I’d just rather support them. And it’s a lot of work to get into face! I just do a little glitter beard and brows on occasion.
PGN: It sounds like support is something important to you.
CB: It really is. We get so caught up on Fakebook, which is what I call it. You have your keyboard warriors, who like to sit and act like they’re doing something tangible. But frankly, changing your profile picture is cute, and saying a prayer might get you into heaven but skipping your morning latte and donating that $5 to those in need will really make a difference. Or even better, step away from the keyboard and go volunteer at a shelter. If you’re just reposting things others have done, you’re just looking to get attention. And this is coming from a social-media maven. But you need to be doing more; for instance, I like to do craftwork. I make things and sell them and give that money to an organization in need. I have a day job, so they’re extra funds that can be put to good use. And it allows me to engage with people both in person and online. Social media allows us to connect in different ways.
PGN: How do you get that personal connection online? Most people of my generation think of social media as being isolating.
CB: I just saw a great political cartoon that had a picture at the top which read, “These people are being anti-social” and it was a photo of a group of people with their heads down reading books and underneath, it had the caption, “These people are being social” and had a picture of a bunch of people on their cell phones. You could see on their screens that they were sending instant messages to people and commenting on Facebook posts and playing multi-user games. I think what we have to remember is that being social in the early ’80s or ’90s meant going to a roller-skating rink or bowling, but being social in 2017 means communicating on Facebook, watching a TV program with 4.1-million people and all commenting on it on Twitter. Growing up, our mothers would always tell us, “Don’t talk to strangers,” but now I use Uber to get into a stranger’s car, I use social media to talk to strangers every day. As much as you want to say that something like Facebook is not a person-to-person connection, it really is. When I put content out there, I get a response; I’m able to effect things. For example, I put up a post saying how easy it would be to give up your morning coffee for one day and donate that money to the food bank in Houston. I did nothing but type in a few keystrokes on my computer and in under a minute I raised $100. If I’d gone door-to-door canvasing, it would have taken me hours to raise that money.
PGN: There are definitely positive aspects to it. Though I had to laugh when a person I know casually made it a point to ignore me when I bumped into them and tried to say hello on the street and then sent me a friend request.
CB: Be my digital friend, just don’t talk to me. It’s so weird. It gives people who might not have the balls to say something to your face the power to say it online. But in the same breath, people who might not have the balls to compliment you might be empowered to say it digitally.
PGN: It’s all good, I have a very small digital footprint. My general rule of thumb is that you have to have been to my house or I have to have been to yours in order to friend someone. But back to you …
CB: Oh my God, me? Talk about myself? I could never …
PGN: [Laughs] I know it’s hard but try to persevere. How did you become the social-media maven that you are?
CB: It’s the story of the bowtie. I was about 150 pounds overweight. When I decided to lose it, part of the motivation and gratification was posting before and after pictures on social media. I posted that for every pound I lost I would buy another bowtie and I began sharing my journey with thousands of people via Facebook, Instagram and Twitter. It was really empowering. I became known as Bowtie Boy and I was getting write-ups in local papers for performing acts of charity and my random adventures around Philadelphia. I realized that social media was something that I was good at, so I started expanding my knowledge of the field and within two years I had accrued over 15 certifications. I started doing freelance work, first for Meesha Aesthetics, then a haunted house and a bakery and it’s been growing ever since. I did work for OurNightOut and from there I was asked to do social-media work for DVLF and Toy.
PGN: Before your weight loss, did you face any bullying because of it?
CB: I weighed 160 pounds in sixth grade. It’s cliché, but I was always the one to make fun of myself before others could. I wrote a fake doctor’s note saying, “Please excuse Chris from gym class because he’s fat” and shared it with everyone, making myself the butt of the joke. If I’d been the quiet, fat kid, would they have made fun of me? Probably, I’ll never know. I got more flack for being gay than heavy. As an adult, I’ve never encountered any negative reception on social media. It’s been very encouraging and positive.
PGN: What’s encouraging and positive with the plans for TOY?
CB: Oh, we’re ramping up to make this the best year ever. I’ve gone every year and this year we’re bringing sexy back. I’m looking to have slutty elves, drag queens and some new things to get people to loosen their ties a little. Instead of the same photo booth, I want to have a photo backdrop with a real Christmas tree and presents and make it feel like a living room. The event is non-denominational, but we try to include lots of different holiday favorites. The colors are blue and white so I’ll be rocking a blue and white bowtie. And of course we’ll still have fabulous food and drinks and music!
PGN: I’d love to have some kids there, maybe kids from CHOP or a local choir.
CB: That’s a great idea! I really want to start engaging young people; the price can be off-putting for some, but early-bird tickets are only $50 until Nov. 10. You’d pay that for a night out with dinner and drinks, and here you have all that plus music and entertainment and support two good causes, DVLF and Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia! Last year we donated over 150 toys. We’re already in the process of collecting donations for the silent auction for anyone out there who wants to participate. Last year people donated massages, gift baskets, artwork, a lot of great things. Do your gift shopping at the silent auction and everybody wins!
PGN: Tell me about your home life.
CB: I’ve been together with my boyfriend Frankie for four years. We just adopted a little fluff named Maggie. We met at a library; he was reading my favorite book, “The Giver” by Lois Lowry. I was like, OMG, this feels like a movie moment. I have to go talk to him and just hope that he’s gay. I did and he was. We’re both really into helping young people. I just did a show at the Fringe Festival that was young-adult theater for queer teens. We actually had someone come out to their parent as a result of seeing the show.
PGN: Ever been gay-bashed?
CB: I was doing marketing for an auto dealer and the manager thought I’d done something to block his social media. He pulled me out of my chair and said, “What did you do to my accounts, faggot?” I hadn’t done anything — Facebook kicked him out for using inappropriate language — but he blamed me. I quit that day, but it was the worst experience of my life.
PGN: Yikes. Let’s do some fun questions: Three people whose social media you’d love to take over.
CB: Just one: I’d love to handle Donald J. Trump’s Twitter and do some good for a hot minute.
PGN: What was the most embarrassing thing you have done while on a date?
CB: I busted my butt while ice skating and tried to play it cool by standing back up, but I ended up running over my date’s finger. It was a hot bloody mess.
PGN: If you were to travel back in time, what modern invention would you take with you to impress people?
CB: A lighter! I think a cellphone would be too complicated to explain and, let’s be honest, the reception would suck!
PGN: Three scents that make you stop and reflect?
CB: Thick red sauce, flashbacks to my grandmother’s. Wax crayons always make me think of elementary school and crisp air makes me tingle because I know fall is coming!
TOY event will take place at 7 p.m. Dec. 9 at Sky Philadelphia (formerly Top of the Tower). Tickets are now on sale for $50 in advance and will increase to $75 after Nov. 10. For more information about TOY, visit https://www.dvlf.org/toy.
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