Sister Helen Holy previews her Mother’s Day Sermon.
By Don Maines
Put on your Sunday best—and don’t forget your hat. Sister Helen Holy is coming back to Houston for Sunday brunch and sermonizing.
On the menu is Sunday roast, as in “The library is open.”
“Sister Helen is a 50-ish church woman who likes to think she is a better Christian than you are, and she delights in pointing out your foibles,” says Dallas performer Paul J. Williams. “She usually wears a simple pink box suit, always with a hat and cat-eye glasses. What makes Helen especially funny is these old, old orthopedic shoes.”
Williams’ pharisaical character was such a hit during the Montrose Center’s Mother’s Day fundraiser for its seniors housing project in 2017 that, before he left the dais, he was asked to mark his calendar for the organization’s 40th-anniversary celebration this year.
In March, Sister Helen’s surprise appearance at the 65th annual Diana Awards also nabbed her a gig at the Father’s Day Sunday brunch at Hamburger Mary’s in June, Williams adds.
The Montrose Center bills Sister Helen as “a snooty, judgmental Baptist lady with a shaming Bible verse for every occasion.”
“It’s gotten to where I can think as her,” says Williams, a 1983 graduate of Baylor University who was performing singing telegrams when someone asked him if he could imitate Dana Carvey’s pious, prudish Church Lady from Saturday Night Live.
“I thought, ‘Well, I guess,’” recalls Williams. “For a couple of years, I was intentionally doing Church Lady, [reciting] his lines like, ‘Well, isn’t that spe-cial?!’ But after a while, I stopped. I thought, ‘I don’t want to steal from Dana Carvey. This is his baby.’ I made Sister Helen part of my standup act, where I would talk about my upbringing in the Southern Baptist Church.”
Williams grew up in San Antonio, where he graduated from Robert E. Lee High School in 1979. “I was a triple-crown queer—I was in band, choir, and drama. Principally, I was a band nerd; my instrument was French horn. My senior year, I joined the choir and made All-State. We did The Sound of Music and Amahl and the Night Visitors, which was my favorite” (He played Rolf in the musical and King Kaspar in the popular one-act Christmas opera.)
At Baylor, Williams majored in marketing while playing in the band and choir. “I also studied German. I got fascinated by the language.”
From Waco, Williams moved to the Dallas gayborhood of Oak Lawn “to start my career in retail,” he says. But by 1986, after the Texas economy had tanked, “I thought, ‘Dang it, if I’m going to be unemployed, I’m going to do what makes me happy.’”
After Dallas, the actor, singer, and comedian’s career included six “moderately successful” years in New York City. “I played every comedy club in New York, but I never got a Broadway show,” he says.
Williams also performed six years with a Dallas comedy/improv group called “Less Miserable,” along with a continuing run as a featured entertainer on cruises for RSVP Vacations.
As Sister Helen Holy, he’s a weekly contributor to www.hesaidmag.com with a column, “The 701 Club,” that voices Sister Helen’s “Christian perspective on the news.” For example, Sister recently praised Dick’s Sporting Goods for refusing to sell assault-style weapons—and the sale of any gun to persons under the age of 21. “I praise God for Dicks,” she wrote. “I know that many of you have enjoyed Dicks over the years, and now I find myself on my knees for Dicks in an attitude of thanksgiving.”
At Aspen Gay Ski Week events, Williams has appeared as Sister Helen alongside several performers from RuPaul’s Drag Race, but he considers Sister Helen a comedic character rather than a drag queen. “I think it’s drag-lite,” Williams says. “I use base, blush, and lipstick, but it’s a comedy part.”
Sister Helen will be joined by “a gaggle of other queens” who will entertain at the Montrose Center’s Mother’s Day brunch. There will be a champagne and cocktail open bar, plus games and magnum prizes.
What: Sunday Brunch with Sister Helen Holy
When: VIP reception at 11 a.m., main event from 11:30 a.m. to 1:30 p.m., May 13
Where: Buffalo Soldiers Museum, 3816 Caroline St.
Tickets and more info: tinyurl.com/MontroseCenterBrunch
This article appears in the May 2018 edition of OutSmart magazine.