He’s just nutty for a cause
by Marene Gustin
You know the joke about Post Cereal’s Grape-Nuts? Why do they call it that when it has no grapes or nuts?
Well, meet Houston’s own Grape Nut. He is grape-colored, and he’s also nuts. But it’s all for a great cause.
Steven David Johnson, a professional photographer known as Steven David, first volunteered his services to the Snowdrop Foundation, which raises funds for pediatric cancer research and scholarships for cancer patients at Texas Children’s Cancer Center. Then in 2009, they asked him to join one of their fundraising runs. Being a good sport, David went out and bought some running shoes and hit the trails at Memorial Park.
“I’d never run before,” David admits. “And I weighed 225 pounds back then. But I thought I’d give it a try.”
But that first time out, he injured his knee and could barely walk the next morning. So he decided against the run. He thought he could just pay the foundation the $200 that sponsors had pledged for him. No big deal. But then Snowdrop’s executive director Trish Kline got the idea to have David wear a purple Lycra body suit if people would donate $1,000. And they did.
“She chose purple because that’s the color you get if you mix the pink and blue baby colors,” David says. “I was surprised that the money came in, but then we just tried to keep it going.”
So then it became that if so much money was raised, David would wear the Lycra suit and a tutu. By race day he couldn’t afford to match the donations that had come in, so he had to run—in a purple suit, a tutu, a tiara, bunny ears, and wings.
“The tutu started falling down as I ran,” he remembers. Obviously he didn’t win any awards that day. But he did make people laugh. One runner said he was purple, like a grape, and that he was nuts. And so Grape Nut was born.
Today, David trots out his Grape Nut persona for cancer runs, hospital visits, and public appearances like the Houston Hot Sauce Festival in September. He has raised more than $15,000 for pediatric cancer foundations, lost 45 pounds, and gained a huge following on Twitter, Facebook and YouTube, which led to an audition for ABC’s Wipeout, an extreme endurance game show.
And what was that like?
“What is hell like?” he laughs. “Actually it was a great experience, but I just laid in the hotel bed for two days after that.”
He didn’t make the cut, but he did appear in promos where they called ➝ him “the purple Easter chicken.” If he had made it, and won, he would have given the $50,000 prize to the Snowdrop Foundation.
“I’m hoping to get on an all-star edition of the show,” he says, “and maybe on Ellen.”
In the meantime, David keeps on raising money for charity and visiting the kids. “They are so inspiring,” he says. “When you talk to them, they are as strong as they can be. They don’t whine. Adults are wimps, but these kids are so strong.”
The kids ask for his autograph and join his Facebook page. He’s received donations for runs from as far away as Canada and Alaska. Grape Nut has become a force for good, but it’s not always good for David himself.
“I’ve been single for 12 years,” David says. “I don’t go to the gay bars. I have two cats and I like to sip wine at wine bars and I have two remote model helicopters I like to fly. But it’s hard to meet men, and when I do, they tend to disappear when they see pictures of Grape Nut. What? Don’t people like spandex?”
David, originally from Florida, has been in Houston for 21 years. He came out to his family when he was 25. He says his father was fine with it but his mother was a little upset, although she’s moved past that now and even helped him create a purple suit with 200 mirrors on it that he has worn for public appearances—and his 30th high school reunion.
“I look like a human disco ball,” he says.
“I’m just a nut,” David says. “But as long as I can keep raising money and awareness for pediatric cancer, I’ll keep running. I can’t tell you all the technical things about cancer. I’m just trying to make people laugh.”
And he does.
Marene Gustin is a regular contributor to OutSmart magazine.