Misty: “Not knowing the facts almost cost me six years of hell which almost cost me my life”

Misty, in our big gay community in Manchester I’m sure no introductions are needed, but for those, particularly our international readers and those who haven’t had the Misty Chance experience, can you please introduce yourself to our readers please? What is it that you do?

The simple answer to that is a 36 year-old Drag Artist.  Originally from Burnley, now living Manchester, and a Canal Street resident act for the past 12 years. Aside from my full-time Drag job, I am an Ambassador for the George House Trust and a Patron of the AXM Foundation.

I’m a big fan of how you have been able to implement your drag art in to what you enjoy in front of the TV. Not only are you a drag performer, but you love sci-fi, particularly Star Trek really and that interests me! As somebody that embraces fan culture, would you consider yourself to be a hardcore super fan?

I would say I’m ‘enthusiastic’ about Star Trek, but others might call me a superfan – even crazed!  The life of a full-time Drag Queen is predominantly taken up with work preparation, networking, designing and gigging, so it’s very important to have that one thing that takes you away from all of that once in a while. Watching Star Trek was always my escape, even before my Drag career started, and has somehow merged with my job along the way. The Trek community is close-knit like the LGBT one, and we often cross paths, sometimes hundreds of miles away from home, at conventions. It’s that sense of family and belonging that attracts people to it, as it did with me. Growing up gay and realising it at a very young age initially had me wanting to hide it, but Star Trek was telling me that even though I may not be accepted at that time, gay people be would be eventually, even if we have to wait for it to happen in the future.

Allow me to diverge briefly and tell you how I ended up getting into Star Trek in the first place. I was pretty flamboyant at school and the thugs used to remind me almost every day by throwing punches, stealing my books and throwing them over the school wall into the river and eating my packed lunch for me. I was pretty low in the pecking order, but on the bottom rung of the ladder was a small group of ‘Nerds’ that hung around behind the bin shed who all had Star Trek badges on and had even given themselves Starship Officer ranks! In an attempt to climb a little higher in the popularity stakes and ultimately avoid being picked on, I not only tried to deflect my attackers onto them, but joined in. I was a Star Trek bully! One evening I noticed my dad was watching Star Trek and I saw an opportunity to gather new insults for the nerds so I sat down to watch it prepared to pick it to pieces. The episode was about an android on the ship that didn’t fully understand emotions but was doing his best to emulate them so that he could fit in with the rest of the crew. The episode conclusion was that he was there amongst them and accepted BECAUSE he was different and unique. By the end of the show I had forgotten why I had sat down to watch it in the first place and in the morning assembly at school, I overheard and joined in the nerds’ conversation about last night’s episode and ended up joining their group permanently. We were stronger together and even brought more underdogs into the fold. Behind the bin shed became a bit of a strong hold at the school, and by God did we give those bullies the run around. I owe a lot to Star Trek.

PS: you should check out the HIV analogy episodes, it was very bold and progressive television for the early 90’s.

Misty back in 2014

You have built quite a name for yourself here in Manchester and we currently live in a generation where LGBT+ youth look up to drag performers. Would it be fair to say that not only do drag queens have the responsibility to put on a good show with so much competition out there, but would you agree that as a drag queen, you have a great influential platform to help and inspire LGBT+ youth?

It’s funny because I can stand backstage knowing I’m going out to a packed house and feel excited, confident and at peace but I suddenly woke up one day and realised that a responsibility of care had been placed on me that I had not asked for, and that scared me. On a yearly basis, the students return to Manchester.  They’re green, wet behind the ears and many of them are away from their parents for the first time in their lives. That scenario always reminds me of baby turtles popping up out of the sand making a dash for the ocean as vultures, gulls and jackals pick them off one by one! The ones that get through are the smart ones and the lucky ones. A Drag Queen can be seen as a Matriarch type figure, almost a replacement for their mothers: a guide, a mentor and a guardian angel at times.  I found myself begrudgingly taking on this role many times. I say begrudgingly only because it is not something I signed on for and it has even interfered with my job, but the longer I worked on Canal Street, the more amicable I became to the idea. I was seeing young, promising, intelligent people being led down the wrong path by the wrong people.  I have seen this youth discover sex, drugs, STIs, love, heartache and even death, and I have even been contacted by concerned parents before today. None of the above would I have ever expected to be in my job description – but seeing as it is, it would be irresponsible of me not to use it in a positive way. I am VERY aware of  a limited number of Drag Queens that use their position and gravitas to take advantage of the next generation in many unscrupulous ways and I find it deplorable, so to those ‘wolves in women’s clothing’, I am watching you!

Regardless of your age, you can be sensible, worldly and helpful, and some of the newer Drag Queens I can see are going to be instrumental in keeping that community feel to our Village alive.  But if you’ve just been watching too much Drag Race and look like a 6 year-old with your tiny feet drowning in your mum’s heels whilst playing dress-up, hold off on dishing out advice that could literally make or break a youngster.  Send them to your big sisters instead.

It was great to see you hosting the ‘Pitch To Enrich’ event for the AXM Foundation. Talking of the foundation, you also appeared in their new calendar, how did it go?

I’m having a bit of a rant in this interview and it’s getting long-winded, so here is a short answer for you. AMAZING! Everyone involved pulled it out of the bag; the charity is quickly finding its feet and its direction. It will never be railroaded by the Village politics, it will remain neutral, whilst being all-encompassing.   It will be donating more and more to the LGBT community and it will become more accessible to the people who can benefit from it. The Foundation has big plans for 2017.

Misty at the AXM Foundation’s ‘Pitch To Enrich’ event

You bring great comedy value to your drag art, can you tell me is this just a natural thing for you? I mean, part of this is that you do it so spontaneously which is a talent in itself, do you have any inspirations that inspire you to be more comedic in your drag act?

I often read comments on my posts like ‘you’re hilarious’ when my status update is about me feeding my toad (I actually have a toad, that’s not a euphemism!). It baffles me because generally, I’m just writing down my thoughts as they come to me. I think my ‘way with words’ comes from both my granddad and my mother. She can be telling me about a shopping trip to Morrisons and have me in stitches. My mother calls my granddad a ‘spinner’, meaning that he puts a spin on his stories or exaggerates. He told me once that he saw a carpet of rats under the bins outside his hotel in Cyprus and my grandma corrected him – “Norman, there were THREE rats!”.  So you see, a flare for the dramatic runs in the family. Creating a really visual and stimulating image for your gags and stories takes precedence over making your anecdotes totally accurate and that is certainly a skill that helps on stage. For the bits that don’t come naturally, I would say, do not be afraid to take inspiration from the greats. There really are no new gags, it’s all been done before, so if you can use something you’ve heard and can adapt it a little to suit your needs then do it! It is not copying, it’s emulating. It’s not plagiarism, it’s tribute. I am very old school when it comes to comedy and I adore the family-friendly styles of Phyllis Diller, Les Dawson and Stanley Baxter.

I’d like to know your general opinion on HIV stigma, where you think we’re at in Manchester and also generally as a global issue. Personally, still many people perceive HIV as it was years ago due to lack of education. Do you think these outdated views can get rectified if we just simply educated people?

I can without a doubt tell you that the stigma surrounding HIV has reduced in recent years, and I can tell you that from personal experience. Growing up in a small suburb town, I perceived HIV as a killer that was not present in my town at all. I would have sworn to that back then. Of course now I know that not only was it all around me, but many of my friends were positive and had kept it quiet for fear of persecution. Being so sheltered from it, when I left Burnely to live abroad, I was still very much naive about HIV and its transmission; all that I was told was to avoid it. I suffered an assault whilst living in Spain and that was to change everything for me – and it was made worse by me harbouring it as a secret for nearly two years. More than 20 months of panic, worry, nightmares and flashbacks led to severe depression that would literally floor me at times. Being abroad and not speaking the language, I was unsure of how to deal with it or who to talk to. I was convinced that my lack of energy and weight loss was because I must have caught HIV. Eventually, my boss at the time got to the bottom of what had occurred and was fluent in Spanish, so took me for a test. Even though the result was negative and the feeling of relief was comforting for a while, I had spent so long believing that I had contracted HIV I could not accept the result and so started compulsively testing, the negative result being a sort of drug to me. The clinic in Spain refused to test me anymore but even that did not stop me and I returned to the UK and began the same behaviour at a local clinic. On my first UK test without the language barrier I was able to explain what had happened to me and the nurse actually laughed at me when I told her. She explained to me that the incident didn’t really have a transmission risk in the first place. Unfortunately, the OCD was already very severe and I would suffer panic attacks if I did not get my results every week. It was Blackpool clinic which recognised that I had a mental issue and not a physical one, and unlike the Burnely, Preston and Manchester clinics who had asked me not to return until I had actually done something worthy of a test, they referred me a counsellor. The more educated about HIV that I got (even being given a meeting with a HIV doctor from London), the more my problem started to shift towards being a general germ and contamination fear. I was weaned off testing but replaced it with persistently gelling my hands and arms with alcohol rub. Physical contact with people was difficult, making any kind of relationship impossible which added to my depression. Over 3 years of cognitive behavioural therapy and hypnotherapy got me to a stage where I could feel comfortable at work and leave my gel at home.

I look back now that I am through the worst of it and I’m sort of proud of myself that I was able operate in public without anybody knowing what I was going through. I guess that sounds strange, but Misty just simply wouldn’t have worked if people felt that they couldn’t approach me and I hadn’t have been up-close, personal and familiar with everybody. So many times I had breakdowns and emergency appointments with clinics and therapist because someone had come to the DJ box and been too touchy-feely or grabbed me and given me a sloppy kiss! These days, if they do that, they get one back! I laugh at it all now but it was a very frightening time, and every now and again I see others using compulsive behaviour (it’s easy to identify when you’ve been through it yourself) and think ‘I wonder how bad it is for them?’ or ‘do they know it’s reversible?’.  It takes years for a mind to teach itself such drastic and harmful behaviour and just as many years for it to be helped out of those patterns and to use logic again. So, back to your question, would education help? Well, it would have certainly helped me; not knowing the facts caused me more than 6 years of hell which almost cost me my life. That being said, in current times, information is at the touch of your finger on a device in your pocket and is readily available. I know only too well the damage that fear can do and how it affects people’s perceptions and the decisions they make. We are programmed to be wary of things we are unsure about and the remedy to that sort of doubt is to learn all you can about it.

PS: If you’re reading this and OCD is seriously affecting your life, I still have some contacts that can help you!

Have you heard of the term undetectable? We think by spreading information, particularly on what an undetectable viral load is can help reduce HIV stigma, would you agree?

I am familiar with this term, yes. Being undetectable is a good indication that somebody is consistently taking care of themselves and taking their medication as prescribed. I don’t see it as a reason why somebody would be less or more prejudice towards a positive person though. The only time you should concern yourself with somebody’s HIV status is if you are becoming sexually involved with them, then you have a right to ask, and they have a responsibility to discuss it with you. If you are not planning sexual contact with a person then their status, undetectable or not, is zero risk to you, is of no concern of yours and should not be held against them with any form judgement. I know this is a stigma project and not a prevention one but as a side note, it is always worth reiterating that although being undetectable reduces the risk of passing on the virus by as much as 96%, HIV is still present in semen and vaginal fluid (and breast milk if that is relevant to you) and can still be transmitted.

Not only did we create this project to promote HIV education, we also created this project so we can help HIV+ people live a more comfortable life knowing that many of us are educated enough to know that not all of us will define them by their medical condition. We wanted to give the newly diagnosed a place of hope and reassurance where they can read through these stories and interviews and find comfort in knowing that we’re here to support them.  The newly diagnosed, particularly the most vulnerable, LGBT+ youth who may be left feeling depressed and confused are the people we would like to reach out to the most. In every interview we always ask what advice would you give to these people? To put this another way… If one of your friends were to approach you and disclose their new HIV+ status to you, would you offer them some words of reassurance? What would you say to them if they turned to you for comfort and guidance?

We have touched upon some of this stuff in a previous question so I’m going to focus on the final sentence of this one. I have indeed had friends that have confided in me about being diagnosed and I have to say that any conversations with them that have followed are in the style of two people in a friendship and certainly not stuff I would be able to say officially or publicly. Some of the nurses and health care workers that have listened to talks I have done at GHT headquarters and beyond often find that important issues like HIV feel less threatening when discussed using ‘real life’ language, but alas in this PC world there is a fine line between ‘real’ and ‘offensive’. I would like to see this relaxed because it seems to me that the topic of HIV is literally the only thing that is out of bounds when it comes to talking in the pub or telling a joke. Burying something only makes it taboo and makes people nervous at the very mention of it. Of course there is a time and a place, but some of my positive friends have a wicked time using their sense of humour and status to make people squirm in social situations, and I get a real kick out that.

At the moment I am in constant contact with a close friend who was diagnosed last year and his main cause for concern was that it would put people off dating him. Now whether you’re positive or not, the same shallow, judgemental gay dating rules apply and it pains me to say it, but the harsh reality is that most issues can be overlooked for a pretty face. If Zack Efron was HIV positive, I dare say more people would still wish to jump into bed with him over, say, Martin Sheen! Suddenly HIV would be less of an issue because, well, you know, he’s gorgeous. I think the best bit of advice I gave to my newly-diagnosed friend was not to judge people back for judging him and to be totally realistic. Avoiding illness and disease is human nature and rightly so. You could eat an apple with a worm in it and it do you no harm whatsoever, but if there is an apple beside it without a worm, of course you’re going to pick up that apple instead. There may be people out there that have made a decision to have a zero risk sex life meaning they only wish to sleep with a negative people and to use protection at all times, and who are we to label them prejudice? All we can ask them to do is to have every single available fact before they make a decision like that, and also to keep an open mind because although instinct and human nature is strong, love can be even stronger.

If you had asked me 15 year ago if I would have dated a positive person, I would have said no. if you had asked me 12 years ago, I would have hesitated, and then said no. If you would have asked me 5 years ago, I would have said it depends and if you asked me right now, I would say that it’s irrelevant. I am armed with all the information I need to protect myself, I have 20 years of dating experience under my belt and I am prepared for my next relationship to be unexpected, unpredictable and non judgemental. Things are really improving out there for people to be as open as they wish to be and I know that even the most stubborn people can have their minds changed on any manner of things, I know that because mine was!

One thing I absolutely have to thank you for is encouraging me to march with the George House Trust two years ago in our pride parade which I again repeated this year. You yourself are a GHT ambassador, that must feel pretty great! I know for sure in the parade especially the warmth and loving support that came our way from the crowds was personally breathtaking and touching for me. Can you tell us more about your pride experience this year and also touch on GHT? We have a lot of respect for GHT and they’re right at the top for us.

Becoming an Ambassador for the GHT was one of the great side-effects to being a Manchester Drag Queen as opposed to one that works in broken-up gay scenes elsewhere. Our two streets are a cross between Coronation Street and Balamory! We pop to our neighbours’ to borrow the equivalent of a cup of sugar, usually a bottle of CO² for the cellar or a case Alcopops, and every now and again we’ll hold an event and all break into song together. Susie from the GHT saw a great opportunity when she recruited several figures from all different walks of life and sub-groups from within the Village to represent the GHT as Ambassadors. We were to become a sort of safety grid that would be there to pick up the people that might be in need of GHT services but either don’t  know how to access them or feel more comfortable making initial contact with someone more familiar and less daunting. I have ushered many individuals into the hands of the GHT and it is write ups like this one that gets the word out there that the Ambassadors are present, so thank you.  Manchester Pride is one of the busiest times for me so I don’t get to be on a float in the parade every year, but when I am, it’s almost always for the GHT.

Having first step foot in our gay village in 2004 and seeing how far we have come over the past 12 years in terms social acceptance is great. I think particularly with trans rights at the moment, we’ve seemed to have come together a lot more and I’m so happy to see that more and more support is now being given to the trans community, they absolutely need it and they still need it, more work is to be done but I’m confident that we’re becoming more united with the trans community than we were 10 years ago. What is your general stance on Trans rights and do you see us moving forward together?

I have often said that Sparkle is my favourite time of the year in the Village.  It is something that we should be really proud of and I believe it is now the biggest Trans celebration in Europe. I spend half of my life being referred to as a “tranny” even though I am not, and I got tired of correcting people so now I just let it ride. Last year there was a campaign (by a non-Trans person) to stop the use of the word ‘tranny’ but I have to say, all the Trans people I know use it to describe themselves as do most of the Drag Queens now. It’s become a colloquial term that seems to have stuck, but I’m not entirely sure if it’s the same as two black people being able to use the N word to each other without being branded racists, or if it’s okay for ‘outsiders’ to use it. Either way, I say let’s take it back and use it, just as we did with the word Queer!

When I first moved to Manchester you rarely saw Trans people out in the city center, but now I see so many of those girls shopping in the Arndale and no one bats an eyelid! It’s wonderful and I think it’s festivals like Sparkle and the Gay Village’s prominence in general that makes Manchester so accepting. You say we have more work to do and yes that is true, even the most deep rooted opinions can be changed, but let’s also acknowledge that there is a tiny element of society that enjoy their bigotry and simply have no desire to change. On the odd occasion that I’ve been called a ‘fag’ or ‘bender’ or whatever from across the street, I do not feel anger towards them, I pity them. I am 100% happy in my skin, with who I am and where I am going, but perhaps they’re not and project onto others to mask it.  If people like that can’t show tolerance, then it’s down to us to demonstrate how. It’s either that or kick their ass, and violence does no one any good.

As we’re coming to a close in our interview, it would be unfair of me if I wasn’t to ask about our beloved Nana. How’s she doing?

Haha, this made me chuckle. I get asked this all the time despite me and Nana not regularly working together for over 4 years now. We were thrust together in I think 2008 to do AXM’s Blankey Blank. She tells me all the time that her first impression of me was ‘who’s this young upstart on my patch’, but it only took until literally the end of our first show together for the dynamic to click. I wasn’t there to be the lead or to upstage her, I very much saw instantly that by working alongside her, with her being the Morcombe to my Wise or the French to my Saunders, that Blankey Blank could be fun for us and the audience. The show ran for 5 years and ever since, we have never managed to shake that ‘Misty and Nana’ label, and nor do I want to. Nana will always be very much loved because her way of working is very honest and true, it is something that you just cannot fake. She plays up to the fiery old bird image.  Last week I was covering for Divina at AXM and I got to work with Nana again, and there was a coat left on the stage. Nana started climbing over the stage railings whilst doing a 5 second countdown which, on completion,  the owner of the coat would get  into trouble – or as Nana put it ‘’I’ll stand on your f*cking neck’’. It’s going to be hard for me now to argue that she has a heart of gold after that story, but she genuinely does. She is experienced, real, very funny (not always intentionally) and supports the Village and its causes absolutely. I have to admit, sometimes I’m in conflict as to whether she is a genius or just bonkers, but it matters not either way. I’m glad to say that she is doing very well at the moment, long live Nana!

Iconic Manchester duo – Misty and Nana!

Finally I would like to ask, is there anything else you would like to say to our readers?

Only thank you to Manchester and it’s LGBT community for a very interesting and educational 12 years. I am in a prime location to have witnessed all that has been achieved so far, and I can only see more improvements on the horizon. I’ll leave you with this little pearl of wisdom from Captain Jean Luc Picard:

‘’No being is so important that he can usurp the rights of another’’

Want to take part in our #STIGMAWARRIOR campaign? Have your say on HIV stigma and get in touch: stigmawarrior@destigmatizehiv.com