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By Donalevan Maines
Photo by Andrew Kyle
The “second coming” of Tasha Kohl hearkens back to a time when Houston, on any given Sunday, was the center of the drag universe. The entertainer’s recent visits to special events in Houston are a link to the 1980s, when a Sunday-night drag show at The Copa nightclub was everything.
With blond hair jacked to Jesus, Kohl reigned as one of The Fabulous Four, a fierce weekly quartet that dominated the field of female impersonation. (Add a special guest to that lineup, and bam!)
The Fabulous Four consisted of Miss Gay America winners Hot Chocolate (’80), Tasha Kohl (’84), and Naomi Sims (’85) along with Donna Day, a former Miss Gay Texas who was a perennial Miss Congeniality and preliminary-talent winner at MGA.
Houston has two shots at this year’s MGA crown, with both Dessie Love Blake and Violet S’Arbleu squaring off with 51 other female impersonators October 7–11 at the Holiday Inn Airport Conference Center in Memphis, Tennessee.
Other Texas luminaries who have won the granddaddy of all national drag crowns include the late Michael Andrews, Jimi Dee, and Lady Shawn, as well as Patti Le Plae Safe, Charity Case, and Sally Sparkles of Dallas, former Houston resident Catia Lee Love, and current Houstonian Lauren Taylor.
Surely due in part to the success of RuPaul’s Drag Race on Logo, drag is suddenly everything again—and nowhere is that more evident than on Houston’s gay nightclub stages. For example, on Sunday, October 11, while the nation’s eyes turn to Memphis to see how Blake and S’Arbleu fare at MGA, Kohl will appear in another “Legends” show at Meteor, with emcee Bubba McNeely and drag stars Dina Jacobs, Kofi, and Lauren Taylor.
Kohl landed in Houston in 1982 as one of The Fantastic Five, and continued with the group as they went from five to four after the death of the legendary Tiffany Jones, and then from four to three when Hot Chocolate (Larry Edwards) ascended to a career-high turn in Las Vegas.
After Naomi Sims and Donna Day passed away in the ’90s, a heartbroken Kohl closed up shop. It wasn’t until Edwards wooed her back to perform on a Halloween cruise six years ago that Kohl returned to the limelight.
And boy, did she ever!
With abs for your nerves, Kohl hit the stage as “the body without a mind”—which might seem ironic, considering her reputation for creativity. Fans would have been perfectly happy for her to stand on stage like a Barbie doll and never break a sweat.
But Kohl had weirder, more creative things in mind. “To make people laugh or cry or cringe,” she laughs, “that connection, that feeling, for me there is no greater high, no better feeling.”
Kohl is the alter ego of Jery Faulkner, who was born in Big Spring, Texas, site of the mental institution where Leslie Jordan (as Earl “Brother Boy” Ingram in the 2005 movie Sordid Lives) has spent 23 years for his sins as a cross-dressing homosexual. “Big Spring, Texas. Those are my people,” laughs Faulkner. (Seems like Sordid Lives and/or its prequel TV series that began on Logo in 2008 are set in and around San Angelo, Texas, which isn’t far from Winters, Texas, where Sordid Lives author Del Shores grew up.)
When Faulkner was 12, his family moved to the Dallas-Fort Worth Metroplex, where Faulkner was Mansfield High School’s drum major, theater star, and newspaper writer. “It’s really weird, because I was so tiny,” he says. “When I was a freshman, I was only 3’11. I was 4’11 when I graduated.” (He was never diagnosed with a medical condition other than simply being slow to grow.) “The first time I even shaved, I was twenty-something. I did drag for six months with light hair under my arms: I was so excited to have it, I couldn’t bear to shave it.”
Faulkner debuted as Tasha Kohl at “a little dive” in Fort Worth called Aub’s Disco Steakhouse Mexican Food and Show Bar. “You can’t make this stuff up,” he says. “It was the ‘B’ group and older—not your leading entertainers. I looked terrible—well, I did. I was 21 and a junior in college at the University of Texas at Arlington, and I didn’t know there was such a thing as somebody who would look at you and tell you they were gay.”
At UTA, Faulkner says, fellow theater major Ellen Walser asked him if he was gay. “I said, ‘No,’” he recalls. “She said, ‘Oh, yes, honey, you are.’” Next thing he knew, Walser and Faulkner were traveling “all up and down” the East Coast in a Fred Cowan Puppets show with Faulkner as Raggedy Andy and Walser, a lesbian, as Raggedy Ann.
“We did eight or nine shows a day,” he says. “Kids would line up to take pictures with us for a dollar. That is how we made enough [money] to buy gas to go to the next show.”
The pair swung on a star for a year and a half, then returned to Texas just as drag fans were about to hit the biggest gusher in years.
Faulkner was “mesmerized” the first time he saw a big-time drag show; it was in Dallas, at The Landing, with MGA winners Michael Andrews, Jimi Dee, Lady Shawn, and Rachel Wells sharing the bill with the popular Kandi Delight, one of the first Texas entertainers to begin transitioning to female.
“Before I knew it,” says Faulkner, “I was working four nights a week in Fort Worth and Arlington. It was loads of fun.”
At someone’s suggestion, “Tasha Kohl” entered the Miss Fort Worth Pageant, placing second to Lindsey Love, then motoring to Dallas for the bigger city’s preliminary to Miss Gay Texas. “All I wanted was to get a booking in Dallas, and I ended up winning,” he says.
Faulkner also met Scott Fricke, who would become his partner and partner-in-crime as he quickly ascended to the thrones of Miss Gay Texas and Miss Gay America. “Scott was one of the guys who helped all the girls with hair and makeup,” says Kohl. “I think we were more in love with what we were doing. He was definitely instrumental in getting me started.”
Kohl placed twice as second runner-up at Miss Gay America before winning with her “crazy woman” number, a medley of Grace Slick’s “Dreams” and Millie Jackson’s “I Still Love You.”
“I was a hideous old macabre, sad lady in a wheelchair, with six or eight other people on stage, and two or three offstage doing special lights and fog,” she explains.
Kohl has never lived in Houston, but she became a welcome part of its drag lore when she was invited to join the initial Fabulous Four—Chocolate, Day, Sims, and the late Tiffany Jones—to comprise “the Fantastic Five.”
With Jones often appearing out of town due to her longstanding engagements in the gay summer mecca of Provincetown, Massachusetts, Kohl explains, “The Copa needed a talented white girl.”
“A lot of people say I replaced her, but I did not,” says Kohl, who also missed many Sunday shows at The Copa while traveling, first as Miss Gay Texas and then as Miss Gay America. In truth, the pair worked together “for a year or two,” Kohl recalls, before Jones died.
“Tiffany was an amazing individual who gave me so much inspiration,” says Kohl. “I credit her with helping me when so many people tried to stifle me into being this pretty little demure ‘ballad girl.’ She would also do this creative stuff, especially the comedy. She told me, ‘You have to define who you are and what your passion is.’”
While comedy might be Kohl’s passion, she also delivers the ballads, especially what she calls the “jerk a tear” songs including “Total Eclipse of the Heart,” Heart’s “Alone,” and “Don’t Cry Out Loud.”
Kohl followed up her victory at Miss Gay America by winning the crown, the title, and a car at National Entertainer of the Year in 1991.
She won preliminary talent honors with Julie Brown’s “The Homecoming Queen’s Got a Gun,” then sealed the deal with a revamped version of her “crazy woman” number at MGA.
The next year, Kohl crowned Houston’s Amazing Grace as National EOY 1992. Another former Miss Gay Houston, Coco, won in 1995.
As for Kohl’s fellow Fabulous Four “pageant girls,” she says:
• Naomi Sims: My best friend. I have never been the same since she left the planet. A one-of-a-kind fashionista and dancer. She embodied “free spirit” to me.
• Donna Day: Pure talent. She could do anything, from amazing ballads to dance and comedy.
• Hot Chocolate: Explosive! She is an absolute ball of firecracker energy. Every time she hits the stage, something is going to explode.
Faulkner had basically retired from drag and started working as the artistic director at Salon G in Dallas when he hit the high seas in 2009 to perform on a Gayribbean cruise. “That kinda brought me out of that darkness and made me remember how it feels to perform,” he explains. “I remembered my true love, and I was sharing it with Chocolate—ahhmaaazing. I am still doing that cruise as their show director every year for Halloween. This will be my seventh year.”
Kohl will depart from Galveston October 25 with fellow entertainers Kourtney Paige Van Wales and DeyJzah Opulent Mirage, plus out Olympian speed-skater Blake Skjellerup. For further information, visit gayribbeancruises.com.
Donalevan Maines is a regular contributor to OutSmart magazine.