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Bess Myerson’s ‘Ugly Daughter’ finds forgiveness onstage

Working through emotional dysfunction of early years

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‘Miss America’s Ugly Daughter: Bess Myerson and Me,’ starring Barra Grant, opens Feb. 8 at the Greenway Court Theatre, 544 N. Fairfax Ave., where performances continue through March 24.

Asked to describe her mother, actress and playwright Barra Grant marvels, “She was gorgeous!”

“She was 5’10, she had a beautifully sculpted face, and flowing black hair,” she continues, with a kind of awe.  “And she used her beauty, all throughout her life.”

Grant herself, in contrast, was a chubby child, with frizzy hair, buck teeth, and no immediately discernible talents. In other words, she was an “ugly duckling” – something to which many of us can relate.

What was different for her was that her mother was Bess Myerson.

Myerson was the first and only Jewish Miss America, reason enough for a claim to fame; but she was also an accomplished pianist, television personality, New York City’s first Commissioner of Consumer Affairs, an adviser to Mayor Ed Koch, a candidate for U.S. Senate, and a national spokesperson against anti-Semitism.  Then, in her sixties, she fell in love with Carl Andrew Capasso, a sewer contractor half her age with Mafia connections, and allegedly helped him to bribe a judge.  Though she was acquitted after a four-month trial, the highly-publicized scandal turned her fame to infamy.  She passed away in 2014 at the age of 90.

Growing up in the shadow of such a spectacular mother has its challenges, according to Barra Grant – who was Myerson’s only child, the product of her first marriage, to Allan Wayne, and who later adopted the surname of her stepfather, Arnold Grant.

“My mother always wanted me to be very pretty, so she could show me off,” she says.  “And I never was.”

“When you grow up,” she reflects, “even if you improve, you carry this picture of yourself as a little girl. I became OK looking, but the initial part of my spirit was very affected”

To help work through some of the lingering emotional dysfunction of those formative years with her famous mother, Grant – who is herself a veteran actress, producer, screenwriter, playwright and director – wrote “Miss America’s Ugly Daughter: Bess Myerson and Me,” which is now being remounted by director Eve Brandstein at Hollywood’s Greenway Court Theatre after a successful, sold-out run last summer in the Edye at the Broad Stage in Santa Monica.

In the show, Grant performs as herself, having a middle-of-the-night phone conversation with her mother, who is played by actress and stand-up, Monica Piper.  “We like to bill it as a one-woman show with two characters,” she says.

“I learned through a lot of people over the years,” she muses, “that their relationships with their mothers were not great.  They just don’t talk about it – it seems irreverent to do that.  But I found a way to talk about it through comedy – when you do that, it’s acceptable.”

“The two of us banter throughout the show,” she continues.  “It makes it way more interesting than just me standing there talking to myself.  It’s much more dramatic to have her enter my life, that way.”

Giving Myerson a presence in the play helps to ensure the audience will get the chance to connect with her side of the story, too; whatever difficulties may have arisen from being raised an iconic beauty queen, Grant has been able to find empathy for her mother’s struggles, too.

“She had a tough life,” she says.  “She was given her title during a time of anti-Semitism – people spit on her, there were signs saying, ‘No Jews No Dogs.’  She had a really tough experience, and after that she carried with her a kind of fighting mentality – which is great – but she didn’t really carry a sense of how to love, or how to parent.”

“And she was unlucky with men,” Grant continues.  “My real father drank too much, and he was an embarrassment.  My stepfather was extremely wealthy – but also an embarrassment.  And then she fell in love with the guy in the mafia – and that doesn’t help your life.”

“His friends were called ‘Manny the Fish’ and ‘Louie the Horse,’” she adds, chuckling.  “She was close to the Gambino crime family because she thought they were lovely people.”

To add perspective, Grant reminds us that, though her mother’s fame has faded from public consciousness in recent decades, at the height of her fame, Myerson was big news.

“People followed her scandal in the same way they followed Marilyn Monroe – it was so profound,” she says.  “Her whole world collapsed because her reputation was ruined.  Her life was changed drastically.”

Though Grant’s experience as the child of a famous icon might seem a bit specific for the rest of us to relate, she thinks it strikes a chord with anyone trying to measure up to the image presented by a role model.  By way of explanation, she tells a story about listening to a radio interview with filmmaker John Waters one day while she was driving.

“He said, ‘Look, all I wanted was to be Bess Myerson when I was growing up – she was my hero, I wanted to look like her, I wanted to be her – but somebody else was her, so I couldn’t be.’”

Myerson’s name on the lips of one of America’s biggest queer icons speaks volumes about her appeal and relevance to a certain generation of gay men – who traditionally have embraced the stories of strong, powerful women who struggle to rise above the obstacles in their lives.

Still, “Miss America’s Ugly Daughter” is not the Bess Myerson story – rather, Grant says, it’s the story of how to grow up and move on.

“One of the themes is that it’s okay for your mother not to be your role model,” she says.  “You can pick someone else, like your kindergarten teacher or a sweet-looking lady on the subway.”

“And of course,” she hastens to add, “you have to try and forgive the trespasses that your mother may have inflicted on you – because she is your mother, and it’s healthier to love her.  It’s too hard to continue with a chip on your shoulder.”

“Underneath the struggle, unless you have it really bad, there is always love,” she stresses.  “You can’t help but love your mother – you just have to figure out how.”

Ultimately, though, Grant wants people to know that her show is, above all, “very funny.”

“It’s a chance to laugh at all this,” she says.  “That’s important, to try and step back and see things comedically.  People love to laugh, and what I love to do is to find that humor – that’s the essence of the show.”

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Belinda Carlisle brings a heavenly Christmas Bash December 16th

Her work evolves beyond the demands of the pop market while never losing its hooks and whimsy. it reflects Belinda’s evolving life

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Courtesy of Belinda Carlise

HOLLYWOOD – On December 16th, 7pm, the city of West Hollywood transforms into a piece of “Heaven on Earth.” An angelic supernatural deity from the sky won’t be delivering this gift, but rather an angel from iconic pop paradise.

That night, Belinda Carlisle makes a grand entrance and gives an eager audience the presence of a queen of pop, the most recent inductee to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame along with her group, The Go-Gos.

It will be on that night that Belinda Carlisle hosts THE party event of the season with co-host, drag superstar, Trixie Mattel. One sings, one throws comedic shade, and a packed room at the Abbey will be losing their collective minds.  Not that the party itself isn’t all the reason you would need to get it on your calendar, the evening benefits a fantastic charity, The Animal People Alliance (APA), that intertwines the love for animals with the salve to human suffering.

Courtesy of Trixie Mattel

APA’s charter reads: “To provide high quality and compassionate care, of the highest standards, to neglected street animals in India and Thailand. We train and employ vulnerable people from the community, and pay living wages that help them improve their standard of living.”   The organization, by employing people who would otherwise be stateless and/or in poverty, has treated over 16000 street animals since 2014. Their programs for animals include rabies vaccinations, sterilizations and other emergency health aid.

Belinda sat down with me this week on the podcast RATED LGBT RADIO to talk about her life, her amazing career, her party and the strength she has achieved in standing up to both inner and outer demons.

She survives. She fearlessly opens herself up, and if anyone scrutinizes her past… she will lead the way.  She happily tells of being a member of the most successful all-women pop bands in history.  They sang and wrote their own songs, they played their own instruments. They did it on their terms. No men were needed or required. She candidly shares about her struggles with eating disorders and drug addiction. 

Belinda shows profound compassion for those struggling with addiction and darkness, “Addiction is a sickness…it is a disease of perception, you can’t see your effect on other people… It is a trap you feel you can’t get out of. Every addict has a heart and a humanity that is obscured by addiction. It is a horrible, horrible thing for anyone to go through. It is hard to remember that there is a heart under all that, there is something divine under all that darkness.”

Her interest focuses more on what came after she embarked on recovery  “My life is much more exciting since sobriety, even more exciting than the hey day with the Go-Gos. For anyone out there who is worried about aging, or life being over at a certain point—it’s not. Life is just the most amazing miracle and privilege.”

Her significance for the LGBTQ community, impacts many of the most vulnerable.  She is the mom of a gay man, activist and writer, James Duke Mason. His birth made her examine the trajectory of fame, drugs, and rock & roll in which she was on, careening threateningly close to disaster and death.

She had settled comfortably into maternal nurturement when Duke came out to her at the age of 14. Belinda had been impressed with Duke’s ability to explain the situation to her. She found out that he had been online with PFLAG for weeks learning about how to present his news to her, information to give and educated about key talking points. 

Appreciating their real life help of a young person in need, Belinda vehemently supported PFLAG, the Trevor Project and others ever since. “I am so glad I have a gay son, I can’t even tell you,” she says.

Artistically, she also continues to thrive.  The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame finally inducted the Go-Gos this year.  It was an honor 15 years in the making.  It should have been an obvious choice to put them there.

As the first all-female group making it big, they sang, wrote every note and played every instruments. The Go-Go’s, a 2020 American/Irish/Canadian documentary film directed and produced by Alison Ellwood, cast attention on the Hall of Fame oversight, and essentially made the case for how special the group actually was.

Belinda also recently released a new single Get Together a cover of the 1967 Youngbloods hit. The Youngbloods sang it at Woodstock in 1969 to make a statement about the divisions of the Viet Nam era in America.

Belinda sings it now, her voice pure, mature and as an anthem making a plea, if not a motherly order, to reconsider the divisions we are experiencing today.  She says, “We live in this age of outrage.  This song is ‘ok people, CHILL OUT’. All this divisiveness is not going to get us anywhere. It’s timely.”

Beyond Get Together, Belinda works on more new music including singles and a new album.  She continues to produce with the top song creators of the industry including award winning song writer Diane Warren and Go-Gos dates at the end of the year.

Her work evolves beyond the demands of the pop market while never losing its hooks and whimsy. it reflects the channeling of Belinda’s evolving life.  When she lived in France, she released a French collection.

As she delved into spirituality and the culture of Thailand, she released the powerful Wilder Shores, which blended a spiritual mantra into pop hooks. “Chanting is a science, it has a super power. It is not airy fairy,” she states.

The fact is, Belinda Carlisle continues arriving and thrilling.  She does not need to prove herself to anyone.  She has defined the next thirty years of her life as philanthropy.  

“I just wing it as I go along. I learned what it is like to work from the heart. Work in a way where you don’t care about any kind of outcome. That is how I am working now. I am just having fun, and doing just what I want. I am really lucky that way,” she declares.

Her party on December 16th at the Abbey appears right on track to bear that out.

Love, humanity, care of animals and a major splash of fabulousness enveloping an enthused audience.

In other words, pure Belinda.

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Listen to the full interview:

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Rob Watson is the host of RATED LGBT RADIO, a national podcast and he’s one of the founders of the evolequals.com.

A gay dad, business man, community activist and a blogger/writer, Watson is a contributor to the Los Angeles Blade covering entertainment, film, television, and culture with occasional politics tossed in.

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Andy Grammer partners with Trans Chorus of Los Angeles

Celebrating how important it is to live your life, your authenticity, and to feel good about who you are

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Andy Grammer partnered with the Trans Chorus of Los Angeles (Screenshot via YouTube)

LOS ANGELES – In honor of Transgender Awareness Week, Andy Grammer partnered with the Trans Chorus of Los Angeles (America’s first Trans Chorus, embracing all members of the trans, non-binary and intersex communities) for a special live performance of “Damn It Feels Good To Be Me” – celebrating how important it is to live your life, your authenticity, and to feel good about who you are. What a special moment. In conjunction with the partnership a donation has been made by Andy to the TCLA.

A note from TCLA: “The Chorus really enjoyed the song and especially performing it with Andy around the piano. It was upbeat and expressed how important it is to live your life and your authenticity and to feel good about who you are. That is the thrust of our Chorus philosophy of moving from victim to victorious.”

Connect with the Trans Chorus of Los Angeles:https://transchorusla.org/

Andy Grammer – Damn It Feels Good To Be Me (featuring Trans Chorus of Los Angeles)

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Michael Kearns, the Godfather of LGBTQ+ authenticity

Michael’s work has been described as “collisions of sex and death, of eroticism and grief,” but he has truly dug to an even deeper level

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Michael Kearns by Keida Mascaro

HOLLYWOOD – The arc of LGBTQ+ history over the past 50 years has been one of constant upheaval and evolvement. From a period when it was both illegal and insane to be gay, through the achievement of being able to serve openly in the military, to marriage equality and the ability to create families to today’s fight against the tyranny against Trans people, the movement has not stopped to take a breath.

Michael Kearns, the first recognized “out” actor on the Hollywood landscape, has been a visible presence through it all. More importantly, he has always” been visible on the gay scene. In the seventies he epitomized the free love and erotic freedom that many gay men lived. He was featured in classic gay porn movies and did a PR stint as the face of the “happy hustler.”  

“That was my introduction to a lot of people,” Michael told me when we sat down for a chat on Rated LGBT Radio. “I kind of captured the zeitgeist of the times, the freewheeling seventies. We forget that there was that period of time when sexuality was joyful and exciting and thrilling.”

In the eighties he was visible in mainstream media as a gay man playing gay men characters. In 1983, Michael was cast in a minor role on the Cheers Emmy winning episode “the Boys in the Bar.”  He was instantly recognized for his gay sexual iconic status by LGBTQ audiences, even though the population at large did not know who he was. The casting director who fought for his casting was Stephen Kolzak, who would himself become a prominent AIDS activist before he died at 37 in 1990. Stephen casted Michael to make a statement. He wanted to signal to the LGBTQ community that Cheers had our backs. “He was one of the only ones that had the guts,” Michael remembers.

“There were a lot of stereotypes in television regarding gay portrayals. I was pegged and cast in some of those roles. I did play the stereotype, but rather than a straight guy playing those roles, I brought authenticity. I was real. Straight guys playing gay would always spoof the role. They were always ‘winking’ and signaling to the camera ‘I am not really that way.’  So, the performances are by in large horrible, even with some academy award winners. The actors were constantly saying that it was not who they were—if they weren’t making that clear on the talk shows, they were doing it in the performance itself.’ Michael says.

Michael soon morphed into an HIV positive man playing HIV positive characters, while off camera becoming a visible and vocal AIDS activist. “It was a new kind of cliché. They had to always make me look horrible. The ghastlier the better. They could not have an HIV character who looked normal—as I did when I arrived at the set. Finally, I had enough and refused to do that anymore.” Michael then immersed himself in theater where he found greater character honesty and truth.

 As gay men captured their identities in the 90s as husbands and fathers, Michael was there too—becoming one of the first gay men to adopt a child.  It is that role, as a father, that Michael has said is his greatest.

Today, Michael has been a driving force behind QueerWise, a multigenerational writing collective and performance group. Through QueerWise, Michael gives poetic voice to talent that would otherwise be voiceless. Its members include published poets, writers of fiction and non-fiction, playwrights, singers, musicians, social activists, dancers, actors artists and teachers. 

This weekend, on Sunday October 17th, QueerWise launches its latest work, The Ache for Home. 

“The Ache for Home is a video presentation of heartfelt stories from formerly homeless/unhoused individuals in and around West Hollywood. It was developed through a mentorship program facilitated by QueerWise members. The production represents citizens-turned-writers who share their inspirational stories from those glamorous streets and sidewalks, ranging from soaring self-acceptance to narratives of truth-telling defeats,” states Michael. The production can be seen on QueerWise’s YouTube Channel starting 5pm October 17.

The Ache for Home features a young cis male with a passion for music and art, who finds joy “when I can put a smile on someone’s face and give back”, a retired mixed race bisexual government worker who is a voracious reader and literacy advocate, two trans males share their experiences of living on the street, and a former resident playwright who was homeless for 44 days and nights in the city. “I am thrilled at our inclusion of transmen in this work,” Michael says. “It is a poorly represented community within a poorly represented community.”

On current controversies with media and transgender targeting, particularly the Dave Chappelle issue, Michael remarks, “I am glad it is generating passion. It is bringing up conversation on the plights of black trans women who are victimized at an alarming rate, we should not say victimized… we should say murdered. I am glad we are shedding light on that.”

Michael’s work has been described as “collisions of sex and death, of eroticism and grief,” but he has truly dug to an even deeper level. The Ache for Home takes its inspiration from the Maya Angelou quote, “The ache for home lives in all of us, the safe place where we can go as we are and not be questioned.” Michael Kearns work has always encouraged us to go, and live, “as we are.” He is the amalgamation of eroticism, grief, healing, and appreciating the richness of life itself.

He is the godfather of LGBT+ authenticity. In earlier days, he may have represented sex, he may have walked us through a period of darkness and death into the arms of the creation of the new family. He has now brought us home, and when we look at him, we see a new quality.

Wisdom.

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Rob Watson is the host of RATED LGBT RADIO, a national podcast and he’s one of the founders of the evolequals.com.

A gay dad, business man, community activist and a blogger/writer, Watson is a contributor to the Los Angeles Blade covering entertainment, film, television, and culture with occasional politics tossed in.

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Listen to the show here:

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