Becoming Johellen, Part 2
A young queen dives wig-first into the pool of Austin drag divas
By Jesse Mandell-McClinton,
10:00AM, Wed. Dec. 25, 2013
Josiah Brown, sleep-deprived from a late night of essaying for school, is hastily throwing back a couple of fried eggs in his kitchen before setting out on the day's errands.
It's the first time he's been able to slow down for a day or two, and he only can only do this for a second before his attention shifts to getting everything in order for a drag performance the following night. This leg of the karaoke competition at Castro's Warehouse is Disney-themed, and Brown has chosen to take a turn as Yzma, the gaunt and aged villainess from The Emperor's New Groove. In stark contrast to the outfit he wore to Castro's Day of the Dead drag show 12 days prior, Brown is leaving the house today in a grey long-sleeved shirt, green basketball shorts, and socked feet in a pair of oblong closed-toe sandals. With an extended period of three weeks to prepare for this show, there will be an emphasis on production values this time around. Today's to-do list is aimed at assembling all the aesthetic pieces necessary to meet those demands.
Brown arrives at Fine Stitch, a small alterations shop in Hyde Park managed by an older woman and her small white dog. After a moment's pause to make sure he's referring to the correct garment, the seamstress hands Brown a long purple dress plucked from a rack filled with letter jackets and wedding dresses. “I'm pleased with it,” he says from behind the dressing room curtain. The simple, sleeveless dress hugs the entirety of his tall, slender frame as he enters the shop's foyer to get sized for a few final tweaks. His drag persona Johellen Burns briefly surfaces as he twists and bends to test out the dress before giving it back for some quick final adjustments. “I feel like I look like her,” Brown says in reference to Yzma. A minute or two later the lady folds the dress, places it into a bag and cracks her first smile of the appointment. “You're going to have fun, huh?” she asks playfully as Brown takes the bag and heads onto his next stop. En route to Eastside wig shop, Quarter to Ten, he throws on his new Lady Gaga CD and begins to talk about Tori Amos, Debbie Harry, and other female vocalists that have inspired his love for singing.
That connection to singing goes back to his home in San Antonio, where he grew up performing in his church's choir. Raised in a religious and military family, Brown's sexual orientation began to hit, as he entered his teenage years, against the framework his upbringing had produced. “I was basically given my identity when I was younger through religion,” Brown says, remembering the difficulties he had when first confronting his homosexuality. “The discomforts I had with being gay made me paralyzed.” Though his sexual orientation wasn't encouraged at home, he still felt comfortable enough to discuss it at a fairly young age.
He first spoke about it with his mother Susan Brown, who had a difficult time reconciling her Christian beliefs with her son's sexuality early on and in some ways still does. “Josiah was raised in a way that would not stereotypically have a kid… I don't want to say 'turn out,' but necessarily choose the path that he's chosen.” Their relationship however is not antagonistic, and his mother even plans on attending one of his shows in the future. She says that she doesn't see a future in drag for Josiah, but for the understandably motherly reason that she doesn't know how he would support himself doing it. “It's not a vocation, it's an avocation,” she says, “I mean who's vocation is that except Ru Paul?”
Brown's mother remembers him as a smart, sensitive child who wanted to be a hair man and an artist when he four years old. As he grew up and began to talk with his mother about his sexuality, she had people come talk to him about those feelings at first before she began to accept them. After a difficult divorce three years ago, she says that Josiah has been very strong for her, and his sarcastic personality has helped her get through the process. “He's the only kid I have that can make fun of me without hurting my feelings,” she says.
Brown more or less told his mother that he was going to be involved in a drag competition, but did leave out a few details at first. “He told me he was doing a singing competition at a gay bar!” she said, and was first shown the Facebook page made for Johellen. “I had never heard of this person, never saw her,” she paused for a second before laughing,“She looks exactly like me!” Though at times Brown and his mother have had to overcome challenges born of the tension between religion and homosexuality, there's no doubt that a strong loving connection between the two exists where too often families can be torn apart by a web of morality, blame, and fear.
After trying on a few wigs as possibilities for a future show and paying for a pair of inch-long eyelashes and a set of purple press-on nails, Brown heads out of Quarter to Ten. Driving back home, he throws on “Snuff Out the Light,” the track he will be performing for the drag show. The song calls for him to do his best Eartha Kitt impersonation, an incredibly difficult choice for any vocalist. He will have to rest his voice before the show tomorrow, so his final vocal run-throughs have to be squeezed between car rides and homework assignments today. As Brown merges onto I-35, he turns up the music and begins to belt out the lyrics in the raspiest singing voice he has.
This is Part 2 of a 3-part feature. Part 1 ran Tuesday, Dec. 24 and Part 3 will appear tomorrow.
Read more Drag stories at austinchronicle.com/gay. The Gay Place’s 5 Days of Dragmas! runs online Monday-Friday, December 23-27.