On Sunday, April 3rd, in honor of her work at Broward House, the often crowned Nikki Adams was named a “Community Star of the Year” at the Pride Center’s annual “Stars of the Rainbow” awards ceremony held at the Hyatt Regency. A new title, well deserved. I recently sat down with the spellbinding Nikki as she told me her story. After adjusting the chronology and discarding any repetitions, it was clear that she would be best presented in her own uninterrupted and unflaggingly cheery voice.
“I was born in little Jennerstown, Pennsylvania in 1958. My childhood was really very typical. A brother, two parents, a nice nuclear family. My father, a car dealership sales manager. My mother, a housewife. Truly, I had no childhood trauma, although after 6th grade, my classmates recognized I was gay long before I did. I loved the school part of school, but hated the social aspect of it. In high school, the sport of the season was what you had to play. We had to walk over a loose stone road to get to the football field. On the way to and from that field, I would get stoned literally. In my sophomore year, in wrestling class, someone broke my clavicle and did me the biggest favor of my life because I was able to sit out gym class from that day on.
“I knew I was different from the time I was very small. I just didn’t know what it was. Probably around 13, I realized what gay was and that I was one. I dreamed of becoming Mrs. Davy Jones. After high school, I started waiting table. A cocktail waitress friend who was returning to Fort Lauderdale wanted a traveling companion. So I packed my bags at the age of 18. It was 1977. I wanted to study art. I moved in with my cousins in Sarasota. After less than a month, I came home to find all my things packed and placed outside on the porch. They peeked through the door to explain that I was just not right. I headed to Fort Lauderdale. When I unpacked, I found that those cousins had inserted a book called ‘Straight’. Needless to say, I never read it. I burned it.
“I got a job selling encyclopedias. I lasted literally one day. Then I became a cocktail waiter at Merendola’s in Pompano where Neill Martin, a singer, took me under his wing and turned me on to some of the clubs and shows. The first one I saw was Dana Manchester and I knew then that was what I was born to do. Dana has passed. She was one of my dearest friends. As is my drag mother, Tiny Tina.
“My first show ever was at a little bar on Dixie Highway called TB which stood for Thunderbuns. Needless to say, it was a dive. My first performance was ‘Ring Them Bells’ by Liza Minnelli. I wore a dreadful black pyramid dress from a flea market. The stage was a tiny triangle in the corner with a big column in the middle so you had to work one side or the other. In 1977, I entered the very first Miss Fort Lauderdale contest, and I won, and that was against some heavy hitters. It really wasn’t much of a crown. More a tiara. I no longer have it. I do have several other crowns.
“Tiny Tina got me into a review called the ‘Ted Larson’s Foxy Follies’, in Hallandale Beach. That is where I started in character illusion. I worked up a Streisand. I wasn’t so hot, but I tried. When the show closed, I moved into the Windward Hotel in Miami Beach in a show called ‘The Hottest Ticket in Town’. That was my drag college. We were 14 girls in that show. All of us lived on the property. On call 24/7 for rehearsals and whatever. My salary was $125 a week. That is where I developed my Shirley MacLaine character that I still do today. We did three shows on Friday and Saturday, and two shows Tuesday through Sunday.
“Romance? Nothing steady. I always thought I was destined to find the love of my life, but it never really happened. People talk about soul mates, but in a world of 6 billion, that’s not so easy to find.”
“The Windward had a fire that started in our dressing rooms. In an instant, a few years of costumes and accessories were all gone. The owner made us pad the insurance claim. He made us do a show after the fire. We did our ‘Mahogany’ number in remnants of burnt gowns. The Miss Miami Beach pageant had been scheduled for the Windward but had to be relocated. We were told that any Windward cast member who entered it would be fired. I entered and won. Next morning, I walked into the owner’s office with my crown on and asked how we were going to proceed with the insurance claims. He threw me out.”
“The following year I won Miss Florida. That is when my career truly took off. I traveled all over the states performing. Then Dana Manchester and I started to do shows together with two hot gay men from Atlanta, Ryan Wilcox and Chuck Blair. Ryan made costumes. Those were some of the best times of my life. Fond memories.”
“All along I had a solo career. I’ve played Panama, and one Halloween, I played a straight club called Snappers in Aruba. It was full of Dutch sailors, and all of a sudden those sailors were carrying me all over the club and when I sailed by the manager, he yanked me back into the dressing room and said “That is soooo not safe.”
“How did I start working at Broward House? I was shooting a series of commercials for Georgie’s Alibi when my friend Terry DeCarlo came up and said they just lost the person who was helping them put on an event and they were desperate. A little light went on, and I said perhaps you could throw my name in the hat. The Executive Director of Broward House just happened by Georgie’s for a drink at that moment. They hired me as Community Liaison, and that was two years ago. I’ve helped produce the annual gala. This year the theme will be “The Cotton Club – The End of Prohibition”. I am also in charge of our donor club, the “Spirit of Hope” society. I also do “Broward Bares It.” My job is to raise money for Broward House, and to build awareness about HIV.”
“It’s very hard to put me in a box. I don’t like categories. My life is full of color, not black or white. People ask me ‘Are you a transsexual or what?’ I say I don’t want a label. I’m just living every day as a woman. I like that you say I am not what you expected. See? You put me in a box! Was I ever tempted to have ‘the surgery’? No. No implants. I did go on hormones once, but they made me crazy. I guess I’m just too normal.”
“My life is an art form. I have an aversion to the word ‘drag’ because my predecessors built the field that was always known as female impersonation. Yes, we called it drag among ourselves, but I would much rather be called a female impersonator. I think ‘drag queen’ is demeaning. God knows I’ve worked condos, rest homes, theaters, straight and gay clubs, and all kinds of crowds, but the common factor - the artistry – is the convincing illusion. It isn’t just moving your mouth. It’s emoting. Today, it’s just flash and the more sequins the better, but back then, Dana could come out in a JC Penney’s outfit and still you were mesmerized because it came from deep within.
“I’ve been in Fort Lauderdale for 34 years. No big plans for change. I have my shows. My life is quite full right now. I got this job. I don’t plan for the future. That’s been my life. I’ve never truly had a plan. I throw things out to the universe and leave it open so that things can happen, and they do. They always have. And when something good comes along, I’ll take it.”