Presentation, poise, talent. These are the things that go into becoming Mr. Black Gay Philadelphia — and describe this week’s portrait, Shizz Elegance Smith. Currently on tour trying to “collect some more jewelry,” we spoke to Smith between engagements about how he won the crown and what it’s like being a celebrity hairstylist.
PGN: Since you won Mr. Black Gay Philadelphia 2011, are you from here? SES: Yes, I was born and raised in the Mt. Airy section — the last of nine kids! We were like “The Brady Bunch.” My parents each had kids from other marriages and I was the only child from the two of them.
PGN: As the baby of the family, did they spoil you? SES: Oh God, yes, and I loved it! My parents were older when they had me and there was a big age difference between me and my siblings, but we were all close.
PGN: What did your parents do? SES: My father had a trucking business but he also was a professional singer. He sang on tour with groups like The Temptations and Harold Melvin & The Blue Notes. My mother worked as an operator.
PGN: What was a good story you father told you about being a performer? SES: That would have to be the way he met my mother. He had a single out called “If I Could Turn Back the Hands of Time.” My mother had just moved here from South Carolina and was at his show. He picked her out of the audience and got down on one knee and sang the song to her. Something must have clicked and they talked after the show at great length. She must have shared with him that she was struggling because a week later he showed up at her house with two cases of diapers! They were together until he died.
PGN: What were you like as a kid? SES: Very ambitious. At 4 years old, I started making up hairstyles with toilet tissue. From the start, I knew what I wanted: At 12, when other kids would take their allowance and buy candy and toys, I would go buy curlers. I was very goal-oriented and determined to make it in this field.
PGN: Your favorite class in high school? SES: It would have to be history. I’m very interested in knowing what was here before I was here. What were people/things like? I find it helps me understand and accept more and be more open-minded.
PGN: And did you go to college? SES: Yes, I left Philadelphia when I was 17 to go to North Carolina to study at Dudley’s Beauty College. I didn’t know anyone there, but I knew it was one of the best schools for black hair care, so I up and went. PGN: Where do you work now? SES: I’m at Kut Tite Hair Salon on Spring Garden Street. I’m in the process of opening up my own salon, but in the meantime I love working there: We’re like a family.
PGN: What was the craziest “do” you’ve done? SES: Oh gosh, there are so many! I travel a lot and will get asked to be a guest stylist at different salons around the country. I was in Detroit and I don’t know if you’ve ever seen a Detroit hairdo — but child! This girl came into the salon and showed me a picture of what she wanted. It was about six hairstyles all on one head! I tried to talk her out of it but she was adamant. So I did this monstrosity with a cut in the back, fiber curls on one side, finger waves on the other, a twirl at the top coming out of a ponytail ... it was just really beyond.
PGN: Your biggest clothing disaster? SES: I’m only 29 but I’ve had some doozies. When I go back and look at old photos, it’s painful. [Laughs.] I just don’t know what I was thinking! I had one outfit in the mid-’90s that stands out. I used to wear cowboy hats and I had a red one that I wore with a black shirt and high-water black pants and thick red socks and a — oh God, I don’t even know if I should admit this — I wore it with a matching little red pocketbook! And I’d wear it to school!
PGN: So when did you come out? SES: When I was 13, I came home with a hickey on my neck. My mother saw it and asked me where I got it. I lied and told her it was from a girl at church. My mother started asking, “So when did this happen because she’s never been to our house and you’ve never been to hers?” I told her we made out in the church. My mother got up and said, “Well, I’m going to call her mother and tell her what y’all are doing at church!” I couldn’t let the girl get in trouble for something she hadn’t done, so I confessed that I didn’t get the hickey from her, but from a boy I knew. I’d heard so many terrible stories about people coming out and being rejected that I think I expected the worst, but my mother handled it very well. It took her a moment to take it all in of course, but she was great and is now my biggest supporter.
PGN: Tell me about Mr. Philadelphia Black Gay Pride. SES: That was amazing, my whole family came out. Since I went to school in North Carolina, my mother never got to come to my graduation, so she really got a kick out of this. She came up on stage and was hugging and kissing me and going crazy. It was the first time she was able to be there to see me honored, not just pictures of it. What touched me was that from the beginning, everyone — my siblings, cousins, nieces and nephews, aunts and uncles — were all willing to invest the time to learn about a part of me and my world that they didn’t know. One of the reasons the title is so important to me is that when I came out, I had to guide myself — I didn’t have a mentor or role model. I didn’t have someone I could go behind and say, “OK, there are people in this lifestyle who are in love and who want marriage and to create a family. That you can be gay and live a bountiful life.” So I went though a lot of mess-ups finding my way. That’s why it’s so important to me to reach out to young people.
PGN: What do you think got you the title? SES: I prepared. I reached back to my childhood and pulled out all those traits that I’ve always had. Drive, determination and dedication. I made the decision to go for it and I worked toward that goal. But I confess, at the end, I was really nervous. With all of my family there, some that I’d never even met before who came from South Carolina, all rooting me on, I was worried. I didn’t actually think I would win. I thought I would do my best and lay the groundwork to win next year.
PGN: What are you judged on? SES: Presentation, which could be anything: The person that won the previous year picks the presentation theme, talent and the Q&A, which takes place during the eveningwear portion. You are scored on a points system so all sorts of things can count for or against you. If you are late, that’s points off your score — points that you may need later to win. I made sure I was on time.
PGN: You are a celebrity hairstylist: Who was your favorite and who was the most difficult celebrity? SES: I’ve done Yolanda Adams, Robin S., I’ve done some work for Mary J. Blige and I work with a lot of celebs at New York Fashion Week. But one person is both a favorite and the most difficult: Miss Patti Labelle. I love her and she’s a sweetheart, but she’s a diva! She knows what she wants and she’s not getting out of your chair to spare your feelings. She’ll be like, “No baby, we’re going to take this wig off and you’re going to create another one, OK?” She’s difficult, but when you learn what she wants and who she is and deliver it, it’s a wrap.
PGN: So some random questions. What makes you blush? SES: I’m a romantic, and I blush at the thought of romance. A simple rose or a nice dinner. I grew up with two parents who loved each other to death. It’s kind of hard because I want what they had and it’s difficult to find. People get lazy: They think once they’re with someone they don’t have to work on it anymore but I was raised that as much work as you did to get the person, you need to do twice as much to keep them. Our house was filled with love expressed every day. I’m willing to put in the work to invest in that kind of relationship. I want to have a family and a good life, a summer home and nice things. I need someone who wants to work for the same things.
PGN: Your house is on fire: What do you take with you? SES: One thing. When I was 16, I moved out of my mother’s house. I lived in Philly for two years before going to school in North Carolina. When I moved, I took a trash bag full of pictures of me and my father. There was a flood in the basement of the house I was living in and all the pictures got ruined except for one. When I was born, my parents had been together for years and didn’t see a need to get married. But as I got older, I saw that all my friends’ parents were married and it bothered me that they weren’t, so they tied the knot in a big ceremony just for me. I have a picture of me with my father all dressed up at the wedding, just us together standing outside. If my house was ever on fire, I’m running in and snatching that off the wall.