Worthie Paul Meacham may be able to travel anonymously among many of the younger members of our community. But to those in the know, Worthie is Momma – a larger-than-life drag presence who was not only on the front lines in the fight for equality, but a champion of the underdog. That Momma could now be the recipient of the very causes she supported is a twist nobody could have predicted.
The year was 1994. Worthie, a native of Hermosa Beach and member of a religious family, burst onto the scene at the long-lamented Dragstrip 66 in drag. Why? “To get over my fear of drag queens!” That night, he entered the amateur contest and won. When the host asked his name, Worthie laughed, saying, “I’m old enough to be your mother.” The character and the name stuck.
As Momma’s notoriety grew, so did Worthie’s desire to use his platform. “There is something deep in me that IS Momma. Momma is not a drag queen – she is a complete persona.” And that persona has a nurturing side. “I have enormous empathy. I’ve always identified most with people in need. So when I saw the attention Momma was getting, I thought why not use that to help causes and organizations I believe in? When I put on Momma’s outfits, people want to listen. It gave me a great platform, and I used it anyway I could.”
Prime among the organizations close to Momma’s heart is Project Angel Food. The Los Angeles-based charity was founded in 1989 by inspirational speaker (and brief presidential candidate) Marianne Williamson. The main purpose was to reach out to people with life-threatening illnesses, and the volunteers were committed to providing nutritious meals to members of our community who were primarily suffering from HIV/AIDS. Since then, the group has grown by leaps and bounds, and currently provides nutritious meals to over 2,000 people living with critical illness each and every day suffering from a variety of ailments. Two of the recent volunteers delivering food were Prince Harry and Meghan Markle.
Momma’s involvement began during those grassroots days. “I actually started volunteering for Project Angel Food in 1992. Lots of my friends were sick or dying of HIV, and the biggest problem was that they needed food. When I learned that Project Angel Food was stepping up and getting meals to people, I knew that was a perfect fit. Not only could I help my friends, but I could help even more people. You could see how much they depended on us – both for the food and the companionship. We made sure people didn’t feel forgotten.”
It’s ironic that Worthie now depends on Project Angel Food for sustenance during his current health crisis. “It’s a long, stupid story,” Meacham says with a sigh. “The short version is I got flesh eating bacteria on my foot in 2015. Totally random – I got a blister from walking all over the San Diego Zoo. It broke, and became infected with MRSA. We’ve tried lots of different treatments, but nothing’s worked because they’re resistant to drugs. I’ve even had numerous procedures, some of which have caused even more problems. But what can I do? I try to keep a good attitude. Yes, I may have one foot in the grave, but I’m doing what I can to keep the rest of me from joining it!”
Last year, Worthie downsized and sold most of his costumes. “25 years of drag and history! It was time to pass it on. I was amazed how many younger people came by – not even to buy anything, but to just say thank you and visit. It’s easy to feel sorry for yourself, but moments like that help more than people know.”
That’s another way the Project Angel Food can help. Volunteers actually fight for the opportunity to deliver food to Worthie. While Worthie was initially uncomfortable being the recipient of aid, he quickly changed his tune. “I gave everything I could to an organization that is now there for me. How lucky am I? There is no shame in needing help. I don’t believe in shame. Keeping secrets was the old me. Once Momma was born, I was free of any shame. I became a spokesperson for people who were brought up in shame. I’m Momma. And I’m Worthie. And, believe it or not, I am worthy of help. We all are.”
Richard Ayoub, executive director of Project Angel Food, said, “I have known Worthie for more than a decade. His generosity is legendary in LGBTQ circles. When I was on the Trevor Project Board of Directors, he hosted a Momma’s Day brunch for us, and at Project Angel Food, he was the bride in a Bob Mackie wedding dress at the end of the Divine Design Fashion Show. He’s graciously appeared at events whenever we asked. We are honored to give back to him the way he has selflessly given to the community.”
For many years, Momma was prominently featured on Project Angel Food’s float during the LA Pride parade. In many ways, she became their most visible volunteer and ambassador. Momma became even more visible. For seven consecutive years, the LA Pride show was co-hosted by Momma and me. We have a long history of performing together – primarily at charitable events. In fact, there is nobody I’d rather perform with. We’re a well-oiled machine. It just works. We like performing – we’re hams – but we also like giving back.
Being onstage with Momma in front of thousands of people at LA Pride took on special meaning in 2008.
That year, Momma received the Harvey Milk Humanitarian Award. Meachan said, “It is probably the most unbelievable thing I’ve ever received. I want my life to make a difference. I just want to make this world a happier place for everyone.” But a surprising thing happened – when Momma took the stage that year, the ovation moved her to tears. “I didn’t expect it. Well, that’s not completely true – I expected people to be nice. But the energy and love I felt from the audience that night…well, that was really special.”
Is Worthie as encouraged today as he was back then? “I don’t know. It’s a different time. We’ve come so far – and yet we have so far to go. The fact that we talk about things more openly now is a big difference. And the fact that places like Project Angel Food exist means those of us in need don’t have to suffer. I just wish people would just be kinder. I wish people would be more understanding. And, damn it, I wish people were having more fun.”