First off, thanks for speaking with GED Magazine and conDRAGulations on 40 years in show business. You began your career as a female impersonator July 4th weekend, 1976.  How did that first show come about for you and how did you decide to make female impersonation your career?

I remember it all very well looking back, I was 17, my family had gone to my grandmother’s farm in Slocumb, Alabama for a few weeks, and my step-father, in all of his infinite wisdom, convinced my mother that I was old enough to be allowed to remain at home in Orlando.  He left me the keys to his car and $200 and said have fun, but be careful, winked and smiled.  Saturday, July 2nd, a few friends and I decided to make the 1 hour drive over to Daytona Beach and spend the holiday weekend.  All my friends were over 18, which was the legal age at the time, so sneaking in to the local club, Damien’s Yum Yum Tree, was no big deal.  We met a couple of the queens from the show and they invited us back the next night to see the holiday spectacular and to stick around for their annual Miss Firecracker contest.  So the next night, July 3rd, after a day on the beach and copious amount of alcohol consisting of tequila sunrise’s, off we went to the club.  Suffice it to say that enough liquor had been consumed and it took on a life of its own when it was suggested that I enter the contest.  One of the queens offered to make me over and dress me.  The contest started at 11pm and I was the second one out of the gate, lip syncing to Bette Midler’s “Dr. Long John Blues.” An hour later, I was standing on the stage, sobering up and wondering just what I had gotten myself into, when I was announced as the winner by audience applause.  I was Miss Firecracker 1976.  And oddly enough, on Sunday, July 3rd, with the 3 hour time difference between California and Florida, I will celebrate my official 40th Drag-iversary TO THE HOUR!!!

In my senior year of high school, I used to rush home everyday to see my favorite TV show, The Merv Griffin Show.  One afternoon, Merv looked in to the camera and said that he had a surprise special guest… Bette Davis!  The curtain opened and out stepped “Bette Davis”, who did a comedy monologue that had the audience in an uproar of laughter.  Well my darling, that “Bette Davis” turned out to be Mr. Charles Pierce.  I sat there watching with my mother, in total and absolute awe.  I remember turning to her and saying, “That’s what I want to do.”  She looked at me and asked me if I thought I could do it.  I said “Yes, and I’m going to meet that man and ask him to help.”  She smiled and simply said, okay.

After that, I became a fixture at The Parliament House in Orlando and befriended all the queens.  I started performing, doing mostly comedy material. Several life altering situations brought me to California. Then in 1979, at the age of 20, friends took me to the Fairmont Hotel’s famed Venetian Room to see… yep, Charles Pierce!  I was mesmerized.  And in shock when after the show we went up to his hotel room to say hello.  Charles took my hand, he smiled, and he said, “I see it in you.  You have that ‘it’ that everyone wants but few have.”  He became my friend and my mentor.  He coached me, and after a couple of months, got me my audition at Finocchio’s. The rest, as they say… is history.

GGT-tommi-rose-toucansYou are certainly a well-respected entertainer and have given a lot back to the Palm Springs community.  How important do you think it is to give back to the community that embraced you? 

I come from a very large family that has always been accepting of not only me, and my profession, but they have always opened their hearts and home to so many others.  I was taught to help when you can, and sometimes, even when you can’t.  You just find a way to make it work.  We not only reached out to those in need, but also involved ourselves in our community. So community to us was the same as family.  We were taught that we reach out and take care of each other. If you can’t support the community, then there’s no community.  If we don’t stand together, then we stand alone, and that’s when we falter.  Especially in the gay community.  We have to unite and stand together. Another mentor and great friend for many years, Jose Sarria, who founded the Imperial Court System, had a very famous phrase that he coined many years ago, and it’s still relevant today… when gay men were being harassed in the bars in San Francisco back in the 1950’s, Jose would stand up on a table at the Black Cat and state, “United we stand, divided, they catch us one by one!”  So we, as a community, need to stand united, work together and give back to those that supported us.

Something our readers may not know, is you lived and worked in Aruba for several years. Tell us about that experience and how it was living on an island…

I was headlining a company of La Cage at the Imperial Palace Casino in Biloxi, Mississippi in 1998, for my friend and producer, Jimmy Emerson.  He was working in conjunction with Norbert Aleman who was producing La Cage at the Riviera Casino in Las Vegas, as well as the famed Jewel Box Revue in Aruba at the Royal Cabana Casino, which was the largest casino in the entire Caribbean.  Jimmy called me from Las Vegas in April of 1999 and said that the Biloxi show was not going to renew the contract, which was to be up the end of June.  However, Norbert needed a comedian to take over the comedy spot in the show in Aruba right away.  Jimmy said that if I was interested, it would be a minimum six month contract and he would let me out of my Biloxi commitment to go to Aruba, as that would allow me to continue working after that show had closed.  We negotiated my contract and off I went to Aruba.

Getting a little off track here, but I need to share this.  This whole time, I had been in constant contact with Charles Pierce, as he had been diagnosed with cancer a couple of years prior.  By this time, he was under 24 hour watch.  On the 29th, the day before I left the U.S., I called Charles to tell him how much I loved him and what an inspiration he had been in my life and I was off on another journey.  He was weak, but wished me well.  That would be the last time we spoke.  I flew out the next day, and opened that night, doing Mae West.  The energy in the room was electric and I was firing on all 8 cylinders!  I came off stage and went to my dressing room and saw a cast member, Bobby Ettienne, looking at me very forlorn.  He informed me that they had received word that Charles had died earlier that evening.  I’ll go to my grave believing that my success that opening night was because Charles was with me.

At the end of my six month “tour of duty,” I was ready to get off of that island!  Aruba is 12 x 7 miles.  There is nothing do do when you live there!  You’re sequestered on a rock of an island.  Regardless of what people may think, Aruba is NOT a tropical island -it’s a desert island.  Granted, the beaches are beautiful, but vegetation is somewhat nonexistent.  Fortunately, I’m also a certified PADI rescue SCUBA diver.  So I took up diving several days a week to help pass the time. But terms were discussed and I remained with the show, with a few breaks in between, for another 2 1/2 years. The saving grace for me was that I was offered a position with a local dive company during the day, conducting dive tours and giving SCUBA lessons. The running joke on the island was… there goes Tommi Rose… he wears fins by day and heels by night.  (In fact, another co-worker on the dive boat has since written a book  titled Does This Island Go To The Bottom?: The Adventures of a SCUBA Instructor in the Caribbean by Eric H. Paisley, available on Amazon.  And there is a chapter titled “Fins by Day, Heels by Night”, about me!  It’s actually very funny with real life things that happened.  As for the title of the book, well, you’ll have to buy it and read it for yourself.  And let me know when you do.  I’m sure you’ll find yourself both laughing and scratching your head at the same time.)  Aruba is a nice place to visit for 10 days, but that’s about it!

With the advent of RuPaul’s Drag Race and drag performers continuing to increase in popularity, do you feel that acceptance has helped your career/causes along the way?

Honestly, it’s a double edged sword.  What RuPaul has done in the way of bring drag to the forefront of mainstream is nothing short of miraculous.  I can only applaud and stand up and cheer for brining drag in to the light and out of the bars!  However, with that being said, I feel in a lot of ways it has hurt.  The saturation of the media has more or less brainwashed our society.  People are only interested in what they see on TV.  For years, drag performers spent years cultivating a career and a reputation, as well as a following.  Once you were known to the major players on the drag circuit, you could call up a club, tell them you were coming to their area, and you’d arrange a booking.  Now, if you haven’t been on TV and had major media exposure, the young kids in the club have no idea who you are, so they have no interest.  I don’t blame RuPaul or Drag Race or even the girls from the show.  I don’t know that there really is anyplace to put the blame, but much of it would fall on to social media. I commend RuPaul for giving drag artists a platform to help launch their careers, but for some, the instant fame has definitely gone to their heads. They’ve been given an amazing opportunity to make a difference in their communities, and sadly, we’ve seen little evidence of that being done.

What is it about Palm Springs that keeps you happy and content?

I love my life in the desert.  I don’t have a lot of friends.  On the other hand, I have a plethora of acquaintances and fans for which I’m eternally grateful.  My circle of friends is very small, but they’re devoted.  I know that many people think I’m stand-offish, or that I’m aloof, and have even been accused of being stuck-up because I’m not a big social butterfly and I don’t show up at every event from the opening of an envelope to a $500 a plate dinner. First of all, I can’t afford a $500 a plate dinner!  And I’m not stuck-up.  It comes from my early days of training from doing theater and my early career days at Finocchio’s. Mr. Finocchio stressed to me that when people who are your fans get to know you and become your friends, they cease to be fans because they see you differently. And in show business, that spells disaster. But for me, there is a more distinctive problem that I know most of your readers won’t understand, let alone believe, but it’s the truth… I suffer from social phobia. It’s not agoraphobia or even anthrophobia, which are similar; but just plain social phobia.  I always have, even as a child.  I’m extremely shy and hate being in places where I don’t know everyone in the room.  It’s actually the main reason I don’t go out. I’m pretty much a loner and a prisoner in my own home. Now I can have 20 people to my home for a party and be perfectly comfortable, but if those same 20 people were at another person’s home, I wouldn’t go. I’m extremely uncomfortable. Which is why me, and so many others, have found solace in performing and being on stage.  When I’m in drag and on stage, I command the room. It’s my alter ego. But off stage, I’m a total wall flower. I know that over the years that has cost me in many ways, on many levels… professionally,  personally and financially.  But it’s something I’ve never been able to overcome.  There have been times when it has been crippling.  And I have to say, this is honestly the first time I’ve ever shared this outside of my circle of friends that really know me.  So to those of you who think that I’ve dissed you or ignored you when I’ve been out, I sincerely apologize.  But, I’m earnestly working on doing better.  Which is why I’m actually proud of myself for doing the Queen of the Desert competition.  It took a lot for me to get in the car and drive myself to that hotel and not just call and cancel.  You can ask JP at the DAP.  I notified him that I was pulling out just weeks before the competition and he and Ethylina Canne talked me in off the ledge.  It’s been quite crippling at times, but I’m learning to handle it better.  So please forgive me and bear with me.

As for keeping content, I have an amazing housemate, which I’m so thankful for, and anyone who follows me on FB will attest, I’ve had a few real winners!  (Laughs.)  Also my dogs, Bentley and Jasper, and fabulous lunches with close friends, especially my BFF here in the desert, Michele, help keep me content.

GGT-1IMG_0329Having just been crowned the 2016 Queen of the Desert, how was it to compete against many of your friends?

I’ve done lots of competing in my life, for pageants and even organizations like the Imperial Court System, where I was elected Empress twice in two different cities.  But in all honesty, I’ve never thought of any of that as competing against friends.  For me, I’ve always believed that I’m competing against me and challenging myself.  I’m my only competition.  Especially now that I’ve publicly disclosed about my phobia.  I’m honored and thrilled to have won the crown, but for me, that fact that I actually went through with doing it, that was the end game for me.

And, of course Desert AIDS Project, the beneficiary of Queen of the Desert, is only one of the great charities that you assist in fundraising efforts throughout a given year.  Tell us about some the charities that are dear to your heart…

Any charity involving children.  I’ve always believed that the children are the most innocent and need help to ease their pain and suffering.  Several years ago, I helped found an organization called Babies With AIDS.  What most people don’t realize is that when a child is born with HIV/AIDS, insurance companies will rarely cover the cost of medical care.  But those infants still require baby formula, diapers, blankets, and of course, medication.  So we fought the fight to get government funding but due to a lack of education of these needs, we were unable to make any headway.  Sadly, we had to cease operations, but we garnered enough attention that most other AIDS organizations stepped up to the plate regarding infant care.

The other charity is breast cancer.  I lost my best friend to breast cancer on April 22, 1990.  Just a month earlier, on March 13, my mother celebrated her 49th birthday.  To see someone so vital and active, become a withered reflection of the life they lived is heart breaking.  But my mother never complained, never cried, and always kept a smile, even while lying in bed in agonizing pain.  My mom gave me life and also gave me the best friendship that anyone could have.  26 years later, I still miss her and cry.

Our readers can find you every Sunday Night at 8pm at Toucans Tiki Lounge (2100 N. Palm Canyon Drive, Palm Springs, CA) for Tommi Rose and The Playgirls. And you will be celebrating your 40th year anniversary at Toucans on July 3rd! I am sure there will be plenty of suprises in store! What other projects can we look for you in, and how can we follow you on social media?

After my 40th Drag-iversary show on July 3rd, Tommi Rose & The Playgirls celebrate its 14th Anniversary on August 21st, starting our 15th year. This makes it THE longest continuous running show in the HISTORY of Palm Springs!  Regardless of what another show in town would like to claim. The Follies did run for 26 years, but only seasonally.  And the other show has only been in town for a few years, and intermittently.  So.. there’s that!  (Laughs.)  The Playgirls will also be heading to San Luis Obispo Gay Pride on July 8th and will be headlining Santa Barbara Gay Pride on August 27th.

As for other projects, you’ll just have to follow me on that dreaded social media.  Which I need help with, if there’s anyone out there that would like to help monitor and keep the pages updated, let me know.

On the book of Face…   <https://www.facebook.com/TommiRose>

Or my website…   <http://www.tommiroselive.com>

Twitter…   @TheDivaRose

Instagram…   TheDivaRose

 

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