Words cannot describe the fierceness of this Manhattan showgirl and Christopher Street Historian. Gigging everywhere and creating her own showcases with her production company, she is a legendary nightlife force to be reckoned with. All Hail Lady Jasmin Van Wales!
Thotyssey: Lady Jasmin, hello! Thanks so much for talking to us today! So, we’re already in the last stretch of the summer… how did the season treat you this year?
Jasmin Van Wales: This has been the best season for me! I had some amazing times, I got reacquainted with a lot of people I have not seen in years… oh, also I was booked all season, thank God!
So, you have been an entertainer and queen of the scene here for-evuh! Is NYC your hometown?
Always. You can never forget where you came from.
Well, I was born and raised in Brooklyn. But now I reside in the Boogie Down Bronx, for 19 years.
It must have been challenging growing up as a trans girl in the city at that time. Were you quick to find other people like you, or did that take some time?
Actually, it was challenging. I was mostly keeping to myself all the time, because I was hiding from my truth… until I met two other people like myself, and that’s when I started coming into my true being.
How did you discover nightlife in this city?
Wow! Well, my best friend at that time asked if I been to the Village, and I was like, “What’s that?” And she laughed and took me down to West 4th, and she said, “this is the Village, a place where you can come and be yourself.” And she showed me the Pier. At that time, we were just getting our civil rights with the march on Stonewall.
The Christopher Street Pier is such an important part of our history. I feel like you still kinda rule all of the wayward children who congregate there.
I wouldn’t say “rule.” It’s teaching the children their history. A lot of them respect me for being a historian.
That’s very important; children who don’t know their history are doomed to repeat it. What were your earliest hot spots, as far as bars and clubs?
So, how did you become a performer in this scene?
Well, I was a professional dancer at first. And one day I was walking down Christopher Street, and I ran into two fellow dancers – and they were in drag. I gagged and asked “why y’all dressed like that?” They took me into Two Potato, and I saw my first drag show. I was amazed at what I’d seen, and after the show I asked how I could be a part of it. Of course, I had to do their talent show that they had once a month in order to get a booking… so I said “okay, I’ll do it.”
The two fellow dancers I mentioned were Victoria Lace and Lorraine Collins, and that night I met Princess Brittany. Brittany asked me, “so if you do this, who would you do?” And right off the top I said Patti LaBelle. Brittany said, “oh girl, are you sure? Doing Patti is a serious situation.” So Lorraine said, “Well, I’ll let you borrow one of my Patti gowns and shoes.”
So, fast forward: it’s the day of the contest. It was 14 people, and I was contestant #11. I still remember ‘til this day! After I did my number, the manager at that time–Billy–was so amazed at my performance, he booked me right on the spot. And of course I won that night, and since then Vicky, Brittany and Lorraine took me under their wings and groomed to be one of, if not the only, best performer i can be.
So it all started with Patti. She’s definitely your signature diva to this day. What about her speaks to you so strongly?
Patti to me is a motivator in song, and she’s a realistic human being. Actually, one of her songs got me my GED: “Winner in You.” And a lot of her songs just get me through whatever I’m going through.
Did you see her perform on the Pier this past Pride?
I couldn’t; I was booked. But I sent flowers. Whenever I can’t make it to a Patti show, I send flowers.
I love that! So, what’s your history with New York Ball Culture?
Oooooh, yes. Well, I just received my Ballroom Icon Award! I’ve been in ballroom for years. My first house was the House of Leviticus. And then it was the House of Essence, then the House of Mizrahi, then the House of Christian Bazaar, then the House of Chanel International… and now I’m overall Godmother Escada.
Wow, that’s quite a career! What made you want to switch Houses so much?
When you join a House, you look for that unity, and that family. And when there is none, you move on until you find that.
Houses can be places of love, but it’s also safe to say that the Shade there can be quite real, right?
I hear that. FYI, I still think those thigh-high, leather strappy/studded boots you wear are like the sickest thing I’ve seen on any queen. Style is an important quality to have when you are coming up in the Houses.
Oh, most definitely. And in the entertainment world.
Two Potato and so many other bars and clubs in the city that were nightlife homes to black gay and trans people are now gone. In Manhattan, only the Hangar is left. Do you think gay nightlife has become more integrated, or are black queer people being neglected in NYC?
I feel like certain places… yeah, we feel some kind of neglect. But I don’t let that stop me. It’s their loss.
Last year you had a weekly show at Rockbar with Misty Meaner. You two were an unlikely pair to co-host a show, but I can tell you really had love for each other.
Yes, she actually got me in at Boots & Saddle as well. Two different generations and styles of performance. It was Old School meets New School, and for some odd reason it worked – which to this day, I don’t understand why the show stopped.
Hopefully it returns in some fashion! You’re very active in St. John’s Lutheran Church on Christopher, and perform for a lot of their seasonal Inspirational Showcases there. Is faith a big part of your identity?
But of course! I was raised in church, and I was taught if you don’t have faith in what your doing, no matter what it is, then it’s worthless. I always say, take God wherever you go… and if can’t bring Him, then don’t go.
Preach! Do you know when the next showcase at the church?
I believe it’s next month… I don’t know the date. I think it’s the 9th?
We’ll check back! So let’s talk about Marsha P. Johnson for a sec, the amazing trans activist who helped ignite the Stonewall riot, which brought about civil rights for queer people. I feel like she is maybe finally getting the respect and honor she deserves these days. Did you ever have the opportunity to meet her before her tragic and mysterious death in ‘92?
Actually, I have met her, like, twice: once at Two Potato, and once on the Pier. She said I was a great dancer. And also, I understand that they’ve reopened her case.
I hope that some sort of justice or peace comes out of it.
Well, until that happens… Black Pride is coming to us this week, and you’ll be performing in a featured event for the occasion: “Songs for Marsha,” in Ms. Johnson’s honor, at the Helen Mills Theater on Thursday, August 17th. Do you know what we can expect from that night?
Lots and lots of raw talent, fun and laughter.
Do you know what number you’re gonna do, or is that a spoiler?
PATTI…. and I’m in the opening act.
Okay, anything else coming up for you?
Well actually, yeah! I’m performing at the Black Pride Beach Party on Sunday…
I’m also getting things together for the Two Potato Reunion Show I’m producing at my theater (the WOW Cafe theater) on September 16th. Oh yeah, I have my very own production company! I’ve been producing there for three years now.
On RuPaul’s Drag Race this past season, our NYC sis Peppermint talked about how her trans identity and her drag identity were hard to balance, because people from each of those worlds told her she couldn’t be both. Did you ever feel that conflict – that being a fully-realized trans woman meant that you shouldn’t also be a drag queen?
At one point, yes. But before I became trans, I was a drag performer… and now that I am trans, I’m still performing in the drag world. My thing is, “trans” is who I am and “drag” is what I do. We are no longer considered drag performers… we are identified as “showgirls.”
That’s an important distinction! By the way, your drag daughter Zarria is really coming up and turning out great performances all over the city. Is Mama proud?
Oh, most definitely! Whenever I see her perform, she reminds me of myself. That’s why she’s my protege, and I am so proud of her in all that she’s doing. #proudmama
So my last question for you is: what advice would you give to a new, young trans showgirl wanting to perform in NYC today?
My advice to them is this: just keep the faith in all that you do, continue to live in your truth… and never, ever let anyone stop you for being who you are. Because when one door closes, several other doors will open.
Much wisdom from the Grand Showgirl Historian of NYC! Thank you Lady Jasmin, and enjoy the rest of your summer!