Overcoming great hardship to become the beautiful, benevolent legend of drag and community leadership that she is today, Jennifer Love Williams tells us the truth about the fullness of her life and what she’s learned along the way. [Cover Photo: GNote Entertainment]
Thotyssey: Hello Jennifer, thanks for talking with us today! So Valentines Day is almost upon us… yay or nay?
Jennifer Love Williams: Yes, Valentines day is this weekend; I’m looking forward to it!
How have you been doing with the lockdown?
Actually, the lockdown has been very eye-opening and has made me more aware, and extremely thankful for the blessings. I’ve always been thankful, but now I’m more thankful then ever. Plus, I’ve had to put on my thinking hat to service those who are less fortunate than myself.
Our community is very lucky to have you! Also, I just read a recent article about a new housing project for Trans people purchased by GLITS, and your legendary sis Jasmin Van Wales is in the cover photo! That’s another good thing to celebrate this year.
There’s a few organizations that are doing the work for our community. GLITS is one that has reached great heights for the Trans community! It’s a beautiful feeling to know that the Trans community will finally receive the needed help when it comes to housing; Trans housing and safety are often overlooked.
So we have lots to talk about, but first thing’s first: who is the original JLove, Jennifer Love Hewitt or Jennifer Love Williams!?
Before Hewitt, there was Jennifer Love Williams… the original, lol! Plus, I’m older!
You should’ve sued her! So where are you from originally, and what ultimately led you down the path of nightlife and pageantry?
I’m from South Carolina, but I was raised in Jersey City. Early on, I knew I was meant to be three things: a girl, a mother, and an entertainer. As I became aware of the Village (Christopher Street), I got to see what I was feeling right in front of me. I started off in ballroom as part of the House of Genesis.
A few years later, I still needed more… so at the age of 22, I stepped into the world of drag. At that time, everyone was shocked by the talent. But no one knew that during high school, I was singing and dancing. During college, I co-choreographed the varsity team’s halftime show. So for me, I was finally living my best life. Then, my mother of the life Princess Janae wanted me to step into pageantry. After my second title was won, I knew that it was time to start my transition and make Jennifer Love Williams permanent, 24/7. During the early days, my children came along; there’s eight loves now, so I even got to become a mother.
That is such a rich history! What are your thoughts on the current renewed interest in ballroom culture, thanks in part to shows like POSE and Legendary?
Actually I’m thankful, because it reminds me of my roots. Plus, ballroom is a huge part of LGBTQ culture. And now society gets to have a glimpse into our world: self-discovery, struggles, survival and talent!
Amen! Pageantry is also a rich part of our culture… what have been some of your favorite pageants that you’ve competed in?
Pageantry is indeed a huge part of LGBTQ culture; when I was younger, it was very separate from ballroom. But these days, it’s great to see that they are blending together: pageantry and ballroom! People think that being crowned is easy, but it takes a lot of money, talent, poise and determination.
One of my favorite pageants that I’ve won is Miss Atlantic City International. Some that I deem my personal favorite which I hopefully will compete in are Miss Continental, Miss Black Universe, Miss Black America and Miss USA. But I love competing, attending and working in pageantry.
Drag pageants are still followed worldwide, but nowadays lots of queens are bypassing that whole system with Drag Race as the final destination. That’s kind of a shame, right?
I won’t say it’s a shame, but it’s just not for me. However, I do love to watch Drag Race; it’s just different from everyday drag. But it does give the Racers an opportunity to catapult their careers to an international fan base. At the same time, it does make people assume that every drag entertainer is going to be like what they saw on any given Drag Race season.
Did you ever come across recent RuGirl and pageant veteran Tamisha Iman during your own pageant career?
I haven’t. But I learned about her in my earlier days, and I’ve always looked up to her and a few others because of their talents and their strengths. When I was first brought into pageantry, I was taken to Virginia for a weekend to be with my show family the Ova Kings, and I was shown videos of my grandmother Avantis Ova King, Tamisha Iman and Jasmine Bonet to pull inspiration from.
Have you ever struggled with the arguably duel reality of being a woman and a drag queen?
To be honest, I had that battle often. But I’ve had to realize that the only thing I can do in the situation is be the best me that I can be! The more woman I became, the less gigs I was offered. I’ve questioned that because I still pull a crowd and the venue still makes money off of me, and my performances get me bookings locally and across states. So I’ve learned to let go, and let God continue to bless me. I have to go where I’m appreciated and respected.
Our city absolutely needs more Jennifer! One venue where we will be able to see you this week: the new Headroom Lounge in Jersey City on Saturday, February 13th. This will be the spot to catch Harmonica Sunbeam’s annual Waiting to Exhale tribute show, which will star yourself and three other legendary ladies: the prior-mentioned Lady Jasmin, Octavia Anyae, Divinity Banks and Lady Keyante!
This is my first time being apart of the annual WtE tribute show, and I’m elated because the very first song I ever performed back in 1998 at Two Potato was a track from the WtE soundtrack; I will be doing that same song this Saturday night. The movie itself is a classic. When it comes to the characters, I can damn sure relate even today: dating and finding true love as a black transwoman is hard.
Anything else on the nightlife horizon for you?
Not at the moment. I’m currently working on budgets and dates for a few upcoming bookings, and as soon as those dates are set I’ll be sure to let everyone know.
Okay, so let’s talk about your amazing charity work, which is a big part of your life. One of our many fractured institutions in our country is the penal system. There are too many problematic elements to discuss here, but one is that prisoners are released with very little assistance in returning to normal life. And of course, LGBTQ ex-prisoners have that much more of a difficult time getting back on track. Enter the Jen Love Project.
Before the Jen Love Project started, I have to admit that I did almost six years in the NJ state prison system. Upon coming home, I had everything I needed due to family and love ones. I came home traumatized and broken due to being raped and beaten while incarcerated. So after some time with my therapist, I made the decision that I have to do my part to make sure that what happened to me never happens to anyone else. Plus, I need to make sure that the LGBTQ community coming home from prison or jail have help with reentry. Please be mindful that incarcerated people are still human.
I’m the foundress of the Jen Love Project, which provides “welcome home” packages to recently released and soon to be released LGBTQ people coming home from prisons or jails. Currently I only service New Jersey, New Jork and Massachusetts… hopefully to expand soon! Anyone who’s interested in donating to the project can do so at jenloveproject.org.
You are so incredibly brave and strong, and doing such wonderful work! So, here is the closing question: what might your best piece of advice be to a young person, or even an older person, who is ready to come out and live their life as a proud trans person in today’s not-always-kind society?
Please be safe, be aware, and be careful. Don’t allow anyone to tell you who you are, because only you have the answer and power to become the amazing adult the you’re meant to become. Always know that many before you fought and died for you to have the rights and comforts that you have. So make your mark, and make this crazy world even better for yourself and those coming up and out after you. It’s all about love!
Thanks so much Jennifer… for all that you do for our community!