Feature writing


‘My dad looks like Beyoncé’

The Times

December 2, 2012


It takes three, sometimes four, hours for James Ross to become his drag alter ego, Tyra Sanchez. “It’s a ritual,” the 24-yearold says. He puts on a CD by his heroine, Beyoncé. He shaves his face and eyebrows and applies Black Opal foundation, red lipstick and Tyra’s signature gold eyeshadow. On goes one of many wigs, home-made from real hair, and a tight, short dress to show off his fabulous legs. Golden eyebrows are drawn. He has large feet, a US women’s size 14. “I’d love to have fancy, expensive shoes, but can only find my size at Payless.”

The handsome, intelligent Ross performs in clubs as Tyra until around 4am. The next morning there is another dramatic transformation when drag queen morphs into dad. Tyra Sanchez is shrugged off and Ross is woken by his seven-year-old son, Jeremiah, usually demanding a bowl of cereal. A camera crew is currently filming Ross and his son for a documentary, Drag Dad, due to be released next year. Ross, as Tyra, knows all about what it’s like to be in front of the lens. In 2010, Tyra won the second season of a televised American talent show called RuPaul’s Drag Race. Imagine The X Factor for drag queens.

It’s a steamy day in Orlando, Florida. Ross is instantly striking: slim, with a gait like a nervous deer, a crew cut he often accessorises with a fake mohawk and lips as plump as fresh pillows. Wearing a T-shirt and red shorts, he is far from camp and speaks with no flourishes, in a cracked masculine monotone, like a gumshoe after a heavy night.

Jeremiah is unfazed by his father’s drag life. “He understands that it’s work,” Ross says. “He teases me. One time I had put my make-up on but not my wig, and he said, ‘You’re not going to put your hair on?’” He also questions his father’s frock choices. “He understands that it’s my job, but he doesn’t see it until it’s time to go to work,” he says firmly. “He knows everything; he’s very smart. He catches on to the littlest things. He knows I like guys. He’s met two of my friends before. But I won’t kiss men in front of him. It’s not because I want to hide it, but I just don’t think I should display it right now.”

Jeremiah is as beautiful as his father and as he talks in his sweet, sing-songy way, Rossgazes at him lovingly. It’s “kinda” good his dad dresses up as Tyra, Jeremiah says. “He looks like Beyoncé.” (Ross beams at this.) “We do fun things. We go to fun places. He’s a fun dad,” says Jeremiah. “He’s gonna take me to Disneyworld.” Which is his favourite Tyra dress? “A red one,” he replies. Jeremiah wants to be a firefighter when he grows up. He doesn’t mind if his dad, currently single, marries a man.

So far Jeremiah hasn’t faced any teasing about his dad’s career. “He has always been the popular one at school,” his father says. “He’s his own person – outgoing and sociable. I was never like that. He’s teaching me. I try to let Jeremiah make his own decisions but teach him about responsibility, without forcing it on him or lecturing him.” Jeremiah knows he can help himself to breakfast cereal in the morning if he wants to save his dad from a wake-up call. A friend once told Ross that to be a good father he must learn to see the world from his son’s point of view. “I said my parents hadn’t done that with me and my friend said, ‘Well, you’re going to start overand break tradition.’ I want to make a home for Jeremiah because I always want him to have somewhere to go.”

His determination comes from not feeling the same security in his own, more troubled childhood, the remnants of which play out poignantly in the time we spend together. Ross asks to meet at a house in a quiet but rough feeling neighbourhood. The houses are shabby looking, the sidewalks cracked. The woman who answers the door reveals she is his mother, Angela, but seems nervous. She says his aunt, who is inside the house, doesn’t want me there. Angela is apologetic but firm and sets out two chairs in the heat for us to wait for her son. “I never knew he had entered the show,” she says, looking back at his moment in the spotlight on television. “When I started watching I was rooting for him. He looked wonderful, beautiful.” Later she saw him perform on stage for the first time as Tyra. “He got it down pat. He’s very talented.”

Angela worked hard and raised three children – Ross has an older and a younger sister – as a single mother after their father walked out when James was 2, revealing he was gay. “I never felt bad about gay people after that,” she insists. “My husband messed up my life: if that was what he wanted, why didn’t he just live that way? He told me he had been confused and didn’t know. In the process he made my life a shambles. I forgive him. I still love him. He’s my husband, the father of my children.” They have never divorced.

She was strict about keeping her children from falling into bad company: they would go to school, then on to a local community centre, before coming home when she got back from work. She is a Christian churchgoer. How did she react to her son’s homosexuality? “I don’t have anything against my son being gay. It’s not right, but I don’t hate him. I don’t dislike what he does, but it’s not what God wants. He’s got to live by it, but he’s got to make his own bed. I don’t condemn what he does, but I don’t condone it, and I love my children.” When Ross told his mother he was gay, she told him that was his choice. “I still love my son. I would do anything for him.”

When Ross finally appears he barely speaks to Angela. “Do you mind walking to the store?” he asks me. His fingernails are painted black, the varnish chipped. “She would say, ‘I have some nail polish remover if you want to take that off,’” he says of his mother. “In my head, I’m saying, ‘I’m gay, accept it, let it go.’” He looks stricken suddenly. “Oh God, I forgot to draw my eyebrows on this morning. I don’t have any eyebrows.”

He and his family don’t get along and that saddens him. “My mother doesn’t like me doing drag. To her it ain’t right. It was OK when I was on TV. Now I’m not, it’s a problem.”

He says he “stayed in the house, didn’t go out, have any friends, never had a relationship with my mum” when he was growing up. “She’s my mum and I care for her. She worked hard for us, but we can’t joke, sit and have a conversation because I don’t feel comfortable with her. We don’t have a bond in the way a parent and child should. It’s the same with my dad: he’s always working, busy.” But he’s gay, you’re gay, I say. “My dad is stubborn and bougi [bourgeois]. He’s in the military. He doesn’t talk to us like his children; he doesn’t talk to his grandchildren. He put me out of the house when I was 16 and we didn’t talk again until after I won Drag Race. He didn’t want me to go further in my drag career.” Ross thinks his father is worried he will get involved with the “drugs and sex” of clubland life: “He doesn’t realise I’m smart enough not to go that way.”

Ross’s sadness, how tense he seems, is at odds with the story I was expecting: a gay drag performer pulling on his best frock as his proud son looks on, supportive family all around. He was homeless when filming Drag Race, also for periods in his late teens when he stayed in run-down hotels, at friends’ houses and with an uncle. “I get more love and attention from strangers than my family,” he says. “I haven’t been home for Christmas and Thanksgiving in two years. It took everything in me to come back here. I did not want to. Anyone can say anything about me, it doesn’t hurt me, but when family says it, it really hurts me.”

After Drag Race, Ross took over primary care of Jeremiah, although he hasn’t been woken in the morning by him lately. In July, Ross returned to Orlando from Atlanta, where he lived with Jeremiah, because he couldn’t find regular childcare. Angela and Jeremiah’s mother currently share taking care of Jeremiah, while Ross tries to get work and save for a home for himself and his son.

“This is just a bad moment. I’m hoping we’ll be settled before the year is out.” He lives across town; the bus journey to his mother’s house takes three hours. “It makes me feel bad. It makes me feel I’m not there for him,” Ross admits. “Sometimes I feel like I’m failing him as a parent. I don’t have anywhere for us to go. I’ve messed up. But if everything were perfect, how would he ever learn?

“I miss Atlanta: you’re free there to be whoever you want. My hair was yellow and long there. You can’t wear it like that here: people are close-minded and ignorant. You can’t walk down the street without someone saying something.”

Ross tried drag for the first time in 2007, inspired by Beyoncé. He assumed he had to be a drag queen “24 hours a day”, until he met someone who did it for work. He acquired a “drag mother”, an older drag queen who mentored him and showed him the rudiments of make-up. “The first time, she did it. The second time, I followed her. Then I was on my own.” He took hormone pills to “get my skin soft and pretty”. When he’s in drag, “I’m not myself. Drag is like therapy on stage. There are no problems, no worries, everything goes away. I don’t see the audience, I’m in my own world. It’s almost like a hallucination. It’s complete happiness, an out-of-body experience.” “Tyra” is Norse for “god of battle”, he says, and “Sanchez” means “holy”.

“I never wanted her to become my career. She was just a way to get by when I was homeless. Now I’m stuck: she has taken over my life – and provided a living for Jeremiah and me.” How did he become a dad? “I’ve always been attracted to women. I didn’t know what ‘gay’ was till I was 13,” he says, as we sit in a park. “Other people started calling me ‘gay’ – they teased me a lot from 12 to 18 – but I didn’t really pay attention to guys.”

The first time he kissed a boy was during a day skipping school; then again on his highschool graduation night. When Ross was 15, a man with a gun threatened to shoot him if he didn’t get into his car. He sexually abused Ross. “I didn’t tell anybody about it. I was scared because of the gun.”

During his school years Ross was sleeping with girls. “The condom broke, I guess,” is what he says with regard to the night when his son was conceived with Jeremiah’s mother, Cynithia. “I was happy but worried. I wanted her to have the baby, but didn’t want to be a parent that early.” He knew having a child “would change my life, but I’ve always worked hard”.

His tone is so downbeat: has he ever been depressed? He admits that he’s been suicidal in the past. “But I have a child who loves me unconditionally, so I won’t give up. I can’t.”

So Jeremiah gave him reason to live? “If Jeremiah were not here, I don’t think I would be here. I don’t think I would be here at all. I don’t want him to grow up without a dad.” Initially, he and Cynithia took care of Jeremiah, but they broke up – though not before marrying. “The marriage was a promise to Jeremiah,” he says. “I wonder what would happen if I should meet someone – but a promise is a promise.

“Jeremiah has taught me how to play and be a dad. I think being a dad is really easy. The only tough part is the financial situation.” When they get a home sorted out in Orlando they will move in together. “Jeremiah is nonnegotiable: he has to go with me,” says Ross.

What does he say to those who say being a drag queen is incompatible with fatherhood? “I ignore them. It’s not my place to, just as it’s not their place to say anything to me.” Does he want more children? “No, no, no, no.” He pauses. “I want a daughter but not right now.”

Ross is resolute about the future. “I want to get to the stage where James is the celebrity and where Tyra is the character he plays,” he says. “Right now Tyra’s winning. She has 156,000 followers on Facebook; I have 700-something. But I will win.” He imagines a nanny taking care of Jeremiah when he becomes a “Hollywood star. That’s my dream. Jeremiah wants his own show on the Disney Channel.” The pair have already appeared in a video by British band Spiritualized.

In the meantime, James Ross, aka Tyra Sanchez, has a new skill to learn. “Jeremiah loves soccer,” he says. “I didn’t play any of those games at school, so I guess I’m going to have to learn.”