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The Supreme Tommie Ross

July 12, 2017 5:00 am0 commentsViews: 6
Photo: TiosPhotography.com

Photo: TiosPhotography.com

by Steve Desroches

In 1978 Tommie Ross and several friends sat outside the Cove Disco in Houston for several nights before they had the courage to go in. It was one of the Texas city’s most popular gay nightclubs, and just seniors in high school, Ross and her friends didn’t have the nerve to go in until one Sunday night. And as luck, and destiny, would have it, Texas drag legend Donna Day was performing that night. Ross was filled with a sense of euphoria. Watching the drag show not only inspired her, but also gave her a sense of belonging, purpose, and drive. She was going to be what she saw on stage that night. And now Tommie Ross is an icon, a legend, and royalty in the world of drag performance.

As a performer Ross continues to tour the country, and as a competitor, she has won most every major national drag pageant title there is, including Miss Black America, Miss Continental, and Miss Gay USofA.  And now she’s returning to Provincetown this week for the first time in almost 30 years as she makes a special guest appearance in Illusions, the Crown and Anchor’s long running glamour drag revue. Provincetown audiences will once again get a chance to see why Ross has had a sterling reputation as a gold standard entertainer for nearly four decades.

“First and foremost I didn’t want to be perceived as a joke or something to be laughed at or mocked,” says Ross in regards to her longevity as a performer. “I always wanted to be received as someone with self-respect and receive it in return.”

Drag has certainly changed since 1978, perhaps most so by the influence of RuPaul’s Drag Race. The source material has changed to, as prior to music videos, drag performers created the looks, the choreography, and staging themselves. Now, many queens mimic what they see pop stars do, rather than present their own interpretation, says Ross. But they key to any good drag performer is a strong sense of self and a commitment to present yourself as an individual—the idea that there is no one else on the planet who is doing what you do, and how you do it and do it so well. That’s the secret of success, says Ross.

Not long after that night at the Cove Disco, Donna Day became a mentor to Ross, eventually introducing her to Tiffany Jones, Naomi Sims, Hot Chocolate, and Tasha Kohl, who along with Day, comprised the Fantastic Five at the famed Copa nightclub in Houston. Soon Ross began performing at the same venues, beginning by performing songs by her all-time favorite Diana Ross. Having those five legendary performers as drag gurus put Ross on her path to superstardom on the drag circuit and in pageantry, and she quickly developed her own performance style focusing on the meaning of each song she chose and delivering with an intensity that continues to make her a standout.

“I’m sort of like a silent film actress,” says Ross. “It’s more about communicating with people than just collecting dollars.”

Back in 1988 when Ross was the reigning Miss Gay USofA she came to Provincetown to help crown the new Miss Gay Massachusetts USofA, who ended up being one of her Illusions co-star Tisch DeWilliams. Ross says coming to town was like landing in another universe. She had never seen any place like it. She’s excited to come back to explore the town further and perform on stage here once again to be a part of a town with a nearly century-old drag culture. She’s always acutely aware that perhaps there is someone in the audience who will be as deeply touched by what they are seeing on stage as she was back when she watched Donna Day perform back in 1978.

While it is entertaining and fun, drag often carries with it a more important side, as it explores the concepts of personal identities of sexuality and gender. As we are the midst of a gender revolution in America, the history of drag performance is getting long overdue attention for the role it has had in the larger idea of LGBTQ identity and rights. Ross reminds that for many people drag is a way to take what’s on the inside and bring it out with artistry, and that can lead to a better understanding of oneself, a life dedicated to being one’s best self—be it on stage or in life in general—and to living the words of Shakespeare: “To thine own self be true.”

“Well, for me, I consider myself transgender now,” says Ross. “Back in 1978 I didn’t know about being transgender. Had I, I would have gone through with the reassignment and my life would have been very different. I associated myself with being gay back then. Now, I’m loving the fact people are allowed to express themselves and to be who they are and choose their own path in life. We have a long way to go, but still. I think it’s beautiful when I see a family with a seven or eight-year-old transgender child and they are allowing them to follow their own path. It’s all so beautiful.”

Tommie Ross appears as a special guest star in Illusions Thursday, July 13 through Saturday, July 15 at 10 p.m. and Monday, July 17 and Tuesday, July 18 at 7:30 p.m. at the Crown and Anchor, 247 Commercial St., Provincetown. Tickets ($25) are available at the box office and online at onlyatthecrown.com. For more information call 508.487.1430.