Pride. Passion. Punany.
These are some of the things you’ll find at the Southern New Jersey LGBTQ Pride festival, 2-6 p.m. Sept. 13 at the beautiful Cooper River Park, just across the Ben Franklin Bridge. The day full of celebration and fun will feature entertainment from music pioneers The Girlfriends, the comedy of Michelle Tomko, motivational speaker D.H. DaHitwryter and others, such as this week’s profile, drag king Rasta Boi Punany, who will be crowned Mr. Southern New Jersey LGBTQ Pride 2016. There will be vendors of all sorts and a variety of organizations with information of interest to LGBT communities on both sides of the Delaware. And if all that pride and love under blue skies gets you feeling romantic, New Age Ever Afters will be there to officiate onsite weddings!
We took a moment to speak with Rasta Boi’s alter ego, Rochelle Johnson.
PGN: So, we have something in common: Both of us started our lesbian yearnings with a camp-counselor crush.
RJ: [Laughs] Wow! How did you know about that?
PGN: I have my sources. Mine was a counselor named Kendal and she looked like Vanessa Williams. Do you remember that song from the Jackson 5, “I Found That Girl”? I used to sing that in my head while she pushed me on the swings.
RJ: Oh my God, that’s funny. I can’t remember the name of my camp counselor but she was Caucasian with curly hair. She was beautiful and I remember always wanting to be next to her. It was a church camp so we would always sit around and sing church songs, uplifting and happy songs. I remember one time we were supposed to go on a field trip and she wasn’t going so I hid in the bathroom until everyone left so I could stay behind with her. It was pretty intense. I wish I could remember her name! But I can still clearly see her face. So how did you know about it?
PGN: I read a piece you wrote on coming out, I’m not sure where it was. But speaking of, in the piece you said you continued that crush until you were 11 and, after that, you began to date boys just because it seemed like it was what you were supposed to do until ...
RJ: I turned 15. Then I met this woman who was a friend of my best friend’s big sister. One night we were all together at my best friend’s house and they all decided to go out to a club. The woman, who shall remain nameless, wasn’t feeling well and stayed home and I decided to stay with her. She went to lie down and I was watching her sleep. I don’t know what possessed me but I reached out and touched her arm. She woke up and took my hand and …
PGN: The rest is history!
RJ: [Laughs] Yup!
PGN: She was in college and you were still in high school. These days it could be problematic!
RJ: Right? Thank God that didn’t happen. For me it was a good thing. It opened up my eyes.
PGN: [Laughs] I have a friend who was quite the lothario in high school and apparently had encounters with a number of the teachers. I always think, Man, I wish one of my hot teachers had tried something on me! I always heard rumors about the gym teachers having affairs with different players. We actually had one of our teachers take a student to the prom. It caused a huge scandal. They got married and years later I saw them on a talk show about student-teacher relations. It was 15 years later and they were still married with three kids!
RJ: Yeah, we never went anywhere with it. We just became good friends and I’m still in touch with her today.
PGN: Cool. So where do you hail from?
RJ: I’m from East Orange, N.J.
PGN: Big family? Small family?
RJ: Very big family. On my father’s side, his mother and father had 11 kids and one of her sisters had nine, and I think some of the other siblings had a bunch too. On my mom’s side her mother had five kids.
PGN: What about your immediate family?
RJ: I am my mother’s only child. My father had another daughter who lives in California.
PGN: So you pretty much grew up as an only child?
RJ: Yes, well no. I’m my mom’s only child but I grew up in a household that held 19 people. From my great-great grandfather to cousins, uncles, great aunts, you name it. So I didn’t grow up like an only child. When people hear that I’m an only child they immediately say, “You must be spoiled!” And I’m like, “Not really.” I got everything I needed and most of what I wanted but I was also taught the word “no.”
PGN: What did your mom do?
RJ: She worked as a secretary in the Catholic school system and in the personnel and HR departments. I think she had an associate’s degree in that. Then she went on to work for the archdiocese of New York. She just retired after working for them for about 48 years.
PGN: Did you grow up Catholic?
RJ: Nooo, heck no. I grew up mostly Baptist, some Islam, but I don’t really follow any particular religion. I am spiritual though, and believe in a higher power. No, at the diocese she was the only woman of color there, but she had a child to raise so once she got the job, she stayed. But I was not raised in any sense or fashion as a Catholic. I was raised in a very open-minded family. My mom’s best friend was Catholic and she took me to a service one time so I did get to experience it but there was too much moving around for me! Stand up! Sit down! Now kneel down! Oh, no, too much for me. Thank God my family never forced any religion on me. My father’s father was a Baptist minister but I was taught to believe however I choose to believe.
PGN: So what was coming out like for you?
RJ: After that first experience at 15, I went back to boys but it didn’t feel comfortable. I went back and spoke to her because she had been out and was more experienced. She suggested that I pick a nice guy that I liked and give it one more chance and see if I still felt the same. Unfortunately for him, the guy took me to an alternative club in New York. I was surrounded by gay people and when he tried to kiss me I was like, nope, sorry and there was no looking back. I came out to myself, then my best friends and then family. I had two best friends, one male and one female, and at first she wasn’t having any of it, but we later became lovers for a minute so I guess she got with the program! During that first year, I did research and prepared myself to tell my mom. I remember starting off as if I was in an AA meeting saying, “My name is Rochelle and I’m gay.” My mom said, “Well, that’s fine with me. I love you and you are still my daughter. However, everyone will not be as accepting, so I want you to be careful and not to flaunt it in public.” I didn’t tell my dad until I was in college, even though I knew he would accept me. That went really easy. One day my dad just said, “Chelle, are you dating girls?” I said, “Yes, Dad.” He said, “Well, that’s cool,” and we laughed and hugged. Once my family knew, I didn’t worry about anyone else.
PGN: Where did you go to college?
RJ: Rutgers in New Brunswick. At first I wanted to be an OB/GYN but quickly realized that math and science were not my strong points. I took a psychology class and felt that it fit me so I now have a bachelor’s degree in psychology and I’m a licensed social worker.
PGN: Nice. So how did you end up in drag?
RJ: My lovely wife was responsible. We went to a show that was featuring drag kings and queens. I was familiar with drag queens but was like, “What’s a drag king?” She explained it to me and said, “You know what? You’d be great at it.” I didn’t think so but later that year she took me to a drag-king show in Philadelphia and they had an audience competition. She and her friends urged me up onto the stage. I’m usually a shy person but I got up on stage and flexed my muscles. The crowd was going crazy and I won the audience award! That following year, she entered me into the regular competition. She did everything: She picked out my name — Rasta Boi Punany — and my music and my clothes. Together we worked on the questions and I competed and won my first title. Since then I’ve won a number, from Mr. Philadelphia Gay Pride 2011 to Mr. Gay Pennsylvania United States M.I. First Alternate 2014-2015. PGN readers voted me Best Drag King 2011 and this weekend I’ll be crowned Mr. Southern New Jersey LGBTQ Pride 2016.
PGN: Since you were so shy, what do you think your wife saw in you that would make you a great drag king?
RJ: I guess it’s because I have androgynous mannerisms. I don’t really know. When she picked out my clothes for that first competition, I don’t think she ever expected it could go this far. [Laughs] I think she’s kind of tired of it now!
PGN: [Laughs] She created a monster!
RJ: Exactly! But it is what it is. She definitely brought out something I didn’t know was in me and I love doing it.
PGN: So what makes a good drag king?
RJ: Being confident and comfortable in the way that you are presenting yourself. You have to be an illusionist. I am changing from one person to another, from female to male, and I have to make it believable. Looking like you’re having fun and actually having fun with it. It’s not a job, it’s … well not a hobby because I do it too much but I always make sure I’m having fun and then the audience has fun too. Make sure you have all your gear right; your outfit, your clothes should match your persona and your performance. And flirting … that’s a big part of it.
PGN: [Laughs] Is that the part the wife is tired of?
RJ: Probably! At first when she created Rasta Boi she told me that he was a single guy but after me declaring — as Rasta Boi — to the women that I was single, she finally said, “Maybe we need to stop that.” No problem. He and I now are both happily married.
PGN: What’s been your worst onstage mishap?
RJ: I really try to prepare and have everything together to avoid mishaps, but I do remember one time when I was on stage and my lips got stuck! I had to turn around with my back to the audience and unstick them.
PGN: Was that from spirit gum on a mustache?
RJ: No! I still get really nervous right before I perform and my lips were really dry! My lip got stuck on my top gum and I was like, Are you serious!? What’s happening? People keep telling me I need to start doing what the pageant queens do and put Vaseline on my lips but I think I’ll just hydrate better.
PGN: That’s hysterical. So how long have you been involved with Southern New Jersey LGBTQ Pride?
RJ: I think this is my fourth year. I’m a member of the Elegance Family, which is a group of performers, and we did a show for South Jersey Pride. I’ve been volunteering with them since. I really like being involved and I’ve sponsored a table each year, in addition to performing. I pass out Rasta Boi buttons and T-shirts just to raise awareness of and advocate for drag kings and get my name out there. I’ve been asked to perform each year and I asked founder and CEO DeAnn Cox if there was any way I could help, so this year I’m also the entertainment and outreach director. I love it!
PGN: Speaking of love, tell me a little about your wife.
RJ: She was actually my high-school sweetheart at one time, then we separated but remained friends. She graduated a year before me and we lost contact. Then one of my friends who is in Texas now wanted me to go online to see a picture of her dog that she’d posted on a website for our high school. As I was scrolling through the pictures I saw my wife’s picture and said, “Wow! She still looks good! I wonder if she remembers me.” I contacted her and she responded, “Are you kidding me? Do I remember you? I’ve been trying to find you!” She’d been searching for me on different websites and had even paid someone to try to find me. [Laughs] It was like, wow, flattering and kind of spooky at the same time. But we started talking on the phone and then we met in person at a fair in East Brunswick. A year later, I proposed to her on the same date and we used that day to get married. So now we go back to the fair each year to celebrate our anniversary.
PGN: So I guess the smell of funnel cakes makes you romantic!
RJ: Ha. Yes, it sure does. We’ve been happily married for seven years.
PGN: There was just a piece on rekindled romances on one of the news programs and they said that it’s one of the strongest, happiest relationships to have.
RJ: It works for us! She was my first girlfriend/relationship and the last.
PGN: OK, a few random questions. What traits do you deplore in others?
PGN: Two celebrities, one male and one female, who you’d like to see in drag.
RJ: Prince. I’d love to see him in a dress, all done up. And Deborah Harry from Blondie. I’d like to see her as a dude.
PGN: The last book I read …
RJ: I’m reading about four books right now, but the last one I completed was “The Four Musketeers.” I’m trying to go back and read a lot of the classics.
PGN: Last time you cried?
RJ: When my dad died last March. He went through a lot so it was more of a relief that he’s in a better place now. He’s free. It’s weird though because I don’t mourn him because I still feel him with me. [Laughs] And I look like him, so every time I look in the mirror he’s right there! n
For more information on Southern New Jersey LGBTQ Pride, visit www.SNJGayPride.org.