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Darius Harper is the brand-new star of the national tour of ‘Kinky Boots’
by Donalevan Maines

Darius Harper is “single and ready to mingle,” but dating poses a slight problem for the brand-new star of the national tour of the multi-Tony Award-winning musical Kinky Boots, which plays Houston this month.

I mean, it’s practically Valentine’s Day and Harper’s “looking girlish.” Awkward.

So many men on the winter prowl still sport facial hair from “Movember” and “Decembeard,” but not Harper—not when you’re playing Broadway’s reigning drag queen. “I have my nails done, I’m plucked and showered, and I meet a gentleman, and he doesn’t quite understand,” says Harper. “It’s definitely a conversation to be had. Does this mean I’m femme in bed? I have to explain about my job.”

Harper just took over the starring role of larger-than-life Lola, a British sister who teams with reluctant heir Charlie Price to save Price’s late father’s shoe factory in working-class Northampton, England.

As of January 27, fierce is spelled D-A-R-I-U-S in Des Moines, Iowa. But that bow by Harper was just a warm-up before headlining the show in Nashville, Tennessee, early this month, then booting into Houston to “raise you up,” in the words of the show’s biggest hit tune by Grammy Award-winning pop icon Cyndi Lauper. (A stop in Dallas will lag behind, beginning February 24.)

Harper stepped into Lola’s heels to replace a guy who’s subbing on Broadway for Billy Porter, who won the 2013 Tony Award for Best Leading Actor in a Musical. (Porter plans to wrangle the role from Harper when the tour plays Porter’s hometown of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, in August.) Kinky Boots also won Best Musical—plus Best Score for Lauper, Choreography for director Jerry Mitchell, Orchestrations and Sound Design, and the 2014 Grammy for Best Musical Album, along with other accolades.

Harvey Fierstein wrote the book, basing it on a 2005 movie that was inspired by the true story of Steve Pateman, who produced fetish footwear in Northampton. “I actually had not seen the movie,” says Harper, “but once I get involved in a project, I thoroughly immerse myself, so I watched it and it’s surprisingly entertaining. The musical follows the story line of the film very closely.”

Darius Harper
Darius Harper

“In need of some sturdy stilettos,” the show’s press material crows, “Lola turns out to be the one person who can help Charlie become the man he’s meant to be. As they work to turn the factory around, this unlikely pair finds that they have more in common than they ever dreamed possible.” They also discover that “when you change your mind about someone, you can change your whole world.”

Harper changed his own world before he hit rock bottom. “At my lowest point,” he says, “I left school—I didn’t finish, ya know—I was distracted by an unsavory crowd, my parents were not supportive, I felt hurt and so alone. I was not taking care of myself. But good friends from school, who will be lifelong friends now, helped me stand on my own two feet.”

Harper was born in Boston, but when he was about nine years old, his family moved to Nashua, New Hampshire—once voted the number-one place to raise a family, he says. “It was very different from the city, very quiet, mountainous,” he continues. “Oh Lord, I was an active kid. I was on the track team. I played sports, like lacrosse. I was busy. I was in theater and music throughout high school.

“Coming out was never an issue, not with my family,” says Harper. “It’s strange. I didn’t have to come out to them. When you’re comfortable with yourself, it’s not uncomfortable for other kids to accept you.

“Kids can be mean, but I was a confident kid. Oh boy, I don’t know, I’ve always been full out, 100 percent, and very sure of myself. It doesn’t matter what other people think.

“I think it was my mom who empowered me. She was a stay-at-home mom. My dad was the worker; he’s a chef. My mom is black; my dad is mixed—black and Irish; I call him ‘Mutt.’ Now, he calls me ‘Mutt,’” Harper laughs.

“My signature role in high school? I guess, looking back, I felt cheated,” he adds. “I was so upset because some people wrote an original show we did, instead of a known play. We were the last class before our high school split into two schools, so we did a show—I think it was called The Split. I had the lead role, but it was a revue, with obligatory songs like ‘There Is Nothing Like a Dame,’ a lot of classical musical theater, I remember that. It was an extremely fun experience. I think my character was Zach or something.”

At 17, Harper fled to Manhattan to study at the American Musical and Dramatic Academy. “At that point, I was sort of estranged from my parents. It was a time of brooding, dark, getting away,” he says. “My parents had split up. They were not involved in each other’s lives and subsequently were not involved in really being parents. As children do, I sort of acted out a little bit.”

However, Harper bounced back when he landed a gig working for The Walt Disney Company in Tokyo. “That is when I realized, ‘I can do this. This can be lucrative for me.’ It gave me a new lease on life. ‘I can financially take care of myself. I can stand on my own two feet as an actor and a singer and a dancer. All it takes is a little validation from someone else.’ Then there is a snowball effect.”

Returning to New York as his home base, Harper worked for Disney on a cruise line. “I’ve always been persistent,” he says. “I am true to myself and who I am, and I never try to sell myself as anything other than who I am. You’re not going to be for everyone. What is important is to show up and work hard.”

Harper auditioned for the national tour of Kinky Boots and was one of three finalists invited to a boot camp (no pun intended) that would culminate in auditioning for the show’s creative team, including Mitchell and Lauper. “The first day, we sang over and over,” he explains. “The next day, we did scenes. The third day, we danced. The fourth day, we put everything in order. And the fifth day was our final callback.

“So, I didn’t originally get the part.” But he did get picked to play one of the “Angels” who act as a sort of Greek chorus for Lola. He also assumed the role of understudy until last month, when tour headliner Kyle Taylor Parker was summoned to Broadway to relieve Porter during his leave of absence.

“I mean, playing Lola more is what I want to do,” says Harper. “Hopefully, I will get a company of my own, and it will be very successful.”

What: Kinky Boots
When: February 10–22
Where: Hobby Center, 800 Bagby
Tickets/info: 713.558.8887 or tuts.com
Details: TUTS is offering several special events in conjunction with the show, including a high-heeled race on February 10 and an [email protected] post-show cast party on February 12 that is co-sponsored by OutSmart (tuts.com/events).

Donalevan Maines also writes about Kenn McLaughlin in this issue of OutSmart magazine.

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Don Maines

Donalevan Maines is a regular contributor to OutSmart Magazine.
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