by Steve Desroches
When Dina Jacobs was a growing up in Honolulu she would walk with her mother to Dykes Market, a small grocery store owned by a Japanese family. Attached was Dykes Tavern, a local bar that also had entertainment. One particular day a poster in the window advertising a show by Prince Hanalei, a flamboyant contortionist fire dancer, mesmerized Jacobs. With a full face of make up and teased hair Prince Hanalei was a popular act in pre-statehood 1950s Hawaii. Jacobs could not take her eyes off of the poster.
“I asked my mother ‘Is that a guy or a girl?’” says Jacobs. “And my mother turned and looked at me and said, ‘Yes.’ I didn’t ask any more questions. I just understood. Throughout my own life when people have asked me the same question, whether I was a boy or a girl, I just answered, ‘Yes.’”
That may have been the moment that Dina Jacobs life in drag began. And now, as she is just about to turn 70, Jacobs is celebrating 52 years as a drag entertainer. She started as just a junior in high school when she borrowed an older friend’s driver’s license. In those days, Hawaiian licenses didn’t have photos, just height and weight, and at the time she was a pretty close match. It got her into The Glades, a Honolulu gay bar famous for its female impersonation show, of which Jacobs soon became one of the star performers. It started her off on a career that would take her all around the world performing, including many summers in Provincetown, where she will return for a special engagement this week as part of Illusions, the drag revue extravaganza at the Crown and Anchor.
The tolerance within Polynesian culture and a supportive, loving family gave Jacobs the support she needed in her youth to follow her dreams and passions in life. Jacobs voice sparkles when speaking of native Hawaiian culture and the attempts to preserve and maintain it. Prior to the arrival of Christianity in Hawaii, same-sex relationships and gender fluidity were accepted parts of a human identity, something Jacobs says fills her with pride about her culture that is still strong and in some cases flourishing under a renaissance.
It wasn’t just Prince Hanalei that left an impression of inspiration on Jacobs, but also the women in her life as well as the women she saw on the screen. At a very young age Jacobs remember her family’s excitement about an upcoming Lena Horne concert on television. However, Jacobs misunderstood and thought it was her own beloved Aunt Lena who would be on television. Nevertheless, she was anything but disappointed. That night watching Horne perform she became transfixed. And to this day Horne remains one of Jacobs’ best impersonations and a hallmark of her shows.
“I thought it was going to be my aunt on The Ed Sullivan Show,” laughs Jacobs. “But I just fell in love with Lena Horne. I finally got to see her live, oh, I think in 1980, 1981, in Atlanta. I just started crying. She was an icon to me. I was seeing one of my icons in person. I’ll never forget that night as long as I live.”
In addition to her 50-plus years as an entertainer, Jacobs, who now lives in Houston, Texas, has a collection of crowns that might be unparalleled, as she has won numerous drag pageants. And on this particular day, she is smack in the middle of several days of the Miss Gay Texas US of A Pageant. Confident of her abilities, she fearlessly entered this pageant where most of the contestants are about 40 years younger. However, any nerves she did feel quickly dissipated when some of the contestants told her how much of a role model she was to them, with a few saying they were thinking of dropping out when she arrived because of her fierce reputation.
“All these girls are in their thirties and here comes Gramps,” laughs Jacobs. “Here comes the 70-year-old drag queen!”
Above all else, Jacobs says her life as a drag queen has been so full of love and blessings, in spite of all of the ups and downs. Whether it’s the relationships formed when competing in a drag pageant or the friends she has made from coast to coast on the American mainland, or in her native Hawaii, she keeps them all in her heart. One can only imagine the challenges, bigotry, and hatred experienced over the years, but Jacobs focuses on the light and on the love in her life, something that buoys her on a daily basis and energizes her on stage. The Provincetown engagement is a real treat and chance to see a true legend in action.
“I think you need to keep your friends in your heart, soul, and spirit,” says Jacobs. “That’s your family. Especially those friends that let you know when you aren’t doing so well, when you’re straying from the path. And you need to honor yourself. I’m a firm believer in love. It’s too important not to. You need to start with honoring yourself and your heart goes on from there.”
Dina Jacobs will be a special guest star in Illusions Saturday, August 27 through Tuesday, August 30 (show times vary) at the Cabaret at the Crown and Anchor, 247 Commercial St., Provincetown. For tickets ($25) and information, go to the box office, call 508.487.1430, or visit onlyatthecrown.com.