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Divas, Diamonds, and Dianas

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The master: Michael Kemper emcees Diana’s sixtieth anniversary awards show for the twenty-sixth time!

And the sixtieth Diana Awards gala.
by Marene Gustin

Divas, Diamonds, and Dianas, oh my! It’s time for the sixtieth annual Diana Foundation awards show. And that means the cocktails will flow along with the laughter come March 2 as the country’s oldest gay social organization raises money for local community charities. The black-tie event this year marks Michael Kemper’s twenty-sixth turn as master of ceremonies.

Many Houstonians know Kemper as the owner of his eponymous salon and day spa in Highland Village, or they may recognize him from his frequent television appearances commenting on beauty trends on shows like KHOU-TV’s Great Day Houston. But if you know anything about Houston’s LGBT community, you know him as a force of nature in the charity world.

Kemper’s salon, Michael Kemper Salon & Day Spa, is a 4,500-square-foot space in the heart of Highland Village. There are sixteen styling stations along with two facial and massage rooms, five manicure stations, three pedicure stations, and a makeup room, all dedicated to beautifying Houstonians and visiting celebs. Kemper himself has counted Isabella Rossellini, Ivana Trump, and Queen Noor among his clients in the past. In the 1970s he ran Sakowitz department stores’ hair and beauty salons, which were known as Michael Kemper at Sakowitz.

For fourteen years he also traveled the nation promoting beauty products and setting hairstyling trends across the country for Seligman and Latz, the largest salon owner in the world. In 1985, as their head of education, he was responsible for ten thousand hairdressers in nine hundred salons across the country. He was also one of only four individuals who consulted with Miss Clairol, and was the hairdresser for the company’s famous “only her hairdresser knows for sure” commercials. And he did all that while managing sixteen Houston salons.

Professionally, he’s slowed down some, running just the Highland Village salon he opened more than two decades ago. And while he now stands behind the chair only three days a week, he really doesn’t have any more time to spend with Michael Grover, his partner of forty years, his family, or his piano. That’s because he basically has a second job as president of the Diana Foundation.

A chorus line: dancers at Diana 30 in 1983 dazzle a sold-out audience at the Tower Theater. What treats will Diana 60 bring?

“I joined the Dianas back in 1981,” Kemper recalls. “But I had worked with them for several years. Back in those days you had to be a slave…wI mean a pledge, and work hard on the annual awards show before they would invite you to join. And, just like today, there are only one hundred members.”

The Dianas started as a social group for professional gays back in 1953 when David Moncrief bought a new TV and invited friends over for a fancy cocktail party to watch the first national telecast of the Academy Awards. He just happened to have a near-life-sized plaster statue of Diana, the Roman goddess of the hunt, in his home.

Despite the TV reception failing that night, the party was a hit and a core group of friends decided to repeat it year after year. Gag awards were given for some rather saucy roles, the party grew, it turned into a huge annual review and roast, and in 1976 it became the Diana Foundation, a nonprofit organization dedicated to raising seed money for local LGBT charities, many of which sprang up in the eighties during the worst of the AIDS crisis.

By 1988, when Kemper began emceeing the annual awards show, it was the social event of the season, attended by hundreds and even thousands, held in theaters and hotel ballrooms.

“In the early days, we didn’t have corporate sponsors,” says Kemper. “They didn’t want to be involved in the community. It was all individual donations, never more than one thousand dollars from someone. And yet we raised more than one million dollars to fund organizations. I am very proud that the Dianas were the very first organization to donate to AIDS organizations in Houston. Every organization in existence today got their seed money from the Dianas. The AIDS Foundation got its start in 1982 as KS AIDS of Houston. Many of the current organizations you see today—like Bering Omega, DIFFA, Pet Patrol, and Frost Eye Clinic—got started in someone’s home with the help of the Dianas.”

From its heyday in the late-eighties and nineties, the annual awards show has scaled down from its flashy theatrical productions and huge audiences to smaller events, but it’s still a highlight of the season, a glamorous black-tie event that is still fun, always saucy, and even a little bit bawdy.

The theme this year is the sixtieth anniversary of the founding. “Diamonds are the traditional sixtieth-anniversary gift, so we’re calling it Divas, Diamonds and Dianas!” says Kemper, who is president and master of ceremonies, and the event co-chairs are Ciro Flores and Brian Teichman. “We’ll have a big opening number, we have two hundred volunteers working on the production, and a thirty-minute show by Jimmy James.”

James, who performed at the fiftieth anniversary event, is a renowned vocal impersonator. “If he sings Judy Garland, you really believe it’s Judy Garland you’re listening to,” says Kemper.

And, of course, there will be awards: Best Actress for an unsuspecting gay man who pulled some outrageous stunt, Best Supported Actress for some young thing kept by a wealthy old queen.

“But it’s all in good fun,” explains Kemper.

Except when it’s not—like the times when awards went to Anita Bryant or a local gay man accused of pedophilia. “Don’t put a black eye on the gay community,” says Kemper, “because we will call you out on it.”

Kemper himself has won three Diana awards, but, he says, not for hairdressing skills. “Mostly for my used cars or the falling-down Montrose mansion I had!”

At press time, very few of the 250 tickets for this year’s bash had not been sold.

What: The 60th Annual Diana Awards
When: 7–11 p.m., Saturday, March 2
Where: Royal Sonesta Hotel, 2222 West Loop South
Tickets/info: Sallie Woodell at [email protected] or 832/877-2846.

Marene Gustin also writes about Man of LaMancha’s Eadie Scott in this issue of OutSmart magazine.

 

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Marene Gustin

Marene Gustin has written about Texas culture, food, fashion, the arts, and Lone Star politics and crime for television, magazines, the web and newspapers nationwide, and worked in Houston politics for six years. Her freelance work has appeared in the Austin Chronicle, Austin-American Statesman, Houston Chronicle, Houston Press, Texas Monthly, Dance International, Dance Magazine, the Advocate, Prime Living, InTown magazine, OutSmart magazine and web sites CultureMap Houston and Austin, Eater Houston and Gayot.com, among others.

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