The lady looks fearless. That’s the first thing you notice when you see her staring from the new outdoor mural off Central Avenue in Plaza Midwood. Her jaw is set, her chin held high. Those who knew her in life would expect nothing less from Brandy Alexander, one of North Carolina’s most celebrated drag queens.
Check the details. Note the equality sign emblazoned across her cheek. Her arm breaking free of a shackle. The charm depicting a gender-neutral bathroom sign that hangs from her pearl necklace. Look at her earrings, which we’ll get to in a minute. The message could hardly be clearer. This mural takes a stand against House Bill 2.
That stand hadn’t been the original idea. At first, art activist J.P. Kennedy’s aim was to celebrate the LGBT community by featuring drag queens of the Queen City. He figured drag queen portraiture would be stunning. And the message would fit the Plaza Midwood neighborhood: Progressive, hip, inclusive.
His goal was to launch the project at a Plaza Midwood arts festival in early April. By late March, he still wasn’t sure it would happen. He’d found artists, but needed money and neighborhood support.
Then N.C. Gov. Pat McCrory signed HB2. The law killed Charlotte’s ordinance banning discrimination against LGBT people. It also prohibited transgender people from using public restrooms that match their gender identity.
Suddenly, Kennedy saw that a mural featuring a drag queen could make a larger statement – about protecting the civil rights of everyone in Charlotte. “The timing was perfect,” he says. “I knew we had to do it.”
A pioneering queen
Kennedy, who lives in Black Mountain, is a documentary film maker who also creates public art projects, but he’s no expert on Charlotte’s drag scene.
So to select an image for the mural, he sought out an expert – Shane Windmeyer, executive director of Campus Pride, a Charlotte-based national nonprofit that works to create a safer college environment for LGBT students. Windmeyer is also the reigning Miss Charlotte Pride, a drag queen who performs as Buff Faye, Tammy Faye’s lost sister.
Often, drag queens are male entertainers who dress like women. Many, like Windmeyer, are gay men who wear women’s clothes only when performing onstage. Depending on the context, friends may refer to them by their given name or drag name, by “he” or “she.” Drag queens can also be transgender women. Long before terms like “transgender” were widely known, and even today, Windmeyer says, drag has helped people find their true gender identity in a safe space.
These days, mainstream America is more familiar with drag, thanks to shows such as “RuPaul’s Drag Race.” Windmeyer liked Kennedy’s idea of using a drag queen on a mural to convey a message that people should be free to express themselves, to be who they are. And the performer they chose for the mural, Danny Leonard, embodied that idea.
Everything in that painting means something, without lecturing.
Leonard, known as Brandy Alexander, died of cancer two days before HB2 became law. In Charlotte, where Windmeyer estimates that 60 drag queens perform regularly, the drag community is close, like a family, or a sisterhood. “Brandy,” he says, “was almost the great-grandmother.”
Danny Leonard was 70, and he’d been been doing shows since he was 18, back when local ordinances required drag performers to wear several items of men’s clothing to avoid arrest. Like many performers in those days, he got around the requirement, friends say, by wearing two or three pairs of men’s undershorts.
Leonard came to Charlotte in the early 1970s, where he was a regular at Oleen’s, a now-defunct South Boulevard club. In 1979, he was crowned the first Miss Gay North Carolina America.
In the early 1980s, Leonard made a bold career move, relocating to Jacksonville, N.C., where he opened Friends Lounge, the only gay bar within 60 miles of Camp Lejeune, according to Randy Shilts’ 1993 book “Conduct Unbecoming: Gays and Lesbians in the U.S. Military, Vietnam to the Persian Gulf.”
Leonard became an unlikely hero for Marines at Camp Lejeune, Shilts wrote, “an entertainer who donned elaborate wigs, high heels, and sequined evening gowns to perform every weekend under the Christmas tree lights that twinkled over the small Friends stage.”
Growing up in North Carolina “as the town queer of Lexington,” Leonard understood what it was like to be an outcast, Shilts wrote. He decided to put out the word that service personnel “would be welcome – and safe – in his bar.”
When the U.S. Marine Corps declared the bar off limits, Leonard launched a shuttle service, picking up servicemen at a nearby shopping center, then ferrying them to the bar. “This impudent drag queen infuriated Marine officials,” Shilts wrote. In 1993, two firebombs were tossed into the bar, though they caused little damage. Later that year, an arsonist burned Leonard’s house.
In his early drag days, Leonard was also beaten and arrested multiple times. “She couldn’t keep her mouth shut. She’d stand up for her rights. Back then you just couldn’t do that,” says longtime friend Ricky Carter, who performs as Boom-Boom Latour.
He remembered his traumas as the town queer of Lexington and could only imagine what it must be like in a hostile environment like the Marine Corps. So he decorated his bar with the Marine Corps flag and insignia and put out the word that service personnel would be welcome – and safe – in his bar.
”Conduct Unbecoming” by Randy Shilts
But the violence and harassment “just made him stronger, his will to succeed and survive even stronger,” says Greg Brafford, who owns The Woodshed Lounge in west Charlotte. Fittingly, “I Did It My Way” became one of Brandy Alexander’s signature songs.
Humor in the earrings
As plans for the Plaza Midwood mural moved ahead, artist Nick Napoletano relied on old photos of Brandy to make initial sketches. Kennedy raised $5,000 to pay the mural’s three artists – Napoletano, Matt Hooker and Matt Moore. They found a suitable wall.
By mid-April, the mural was largely done, complete with details the artists added to “make it as relevant as possible,” Napoletano says.
Among them: Cameo earrings that display Gov. McCrory’s smiling face. Hooker did the first one as a lark, figuring he’d probably paint it over. But it looked so good – so much like the governor – that he painted a second. “When there’s conflict,” Hooker says, “I use humor to diffuse it, for better or worse.”
Says Kennedy: “Everything in that painting means something, without lecturing.”
The mural, located in a parking lot at the corner of Thomas and Central avenues, is partially visible from the street, but to see it well, you need to walk into the lot. It’s also being shared on social media, along with memories of the man that friends often called Brandy.
Leonard spent his life helping others, giving countless performances for charity, friends say, that raised hundreds of thousands of dollars over the years. Much went to AIDS-related causes.
“Brandy was a giver. Brandy was a server. That’s who she was,” says Justin Natvig, the reigning Miss Gay North Carolina America, who performs as Vivian Vaughn.
When Leonard’s longtime friend Carter suffered a major heart attack last year, Leonard visited nearly every day, never revealing that he himself was undergoing chemotherapy for cancer. He hadn’t wanted Carter to worry.
Carter says they were so close some people figured they were lovers. “But no, we were just best friends.”
Natvig lives in Carrboro, but when he was in Charlotte last month performing drag shows, he made a point of visiting the mural – and taking a selfie in front of it.
“I was proud. It represents all of us,” he says. “It’s almost like a message – band together. And we will. We always will.”
Pam Kelley: 704 358-5271
Want to know more?
The mural of Brandy Alexander is in a parking lot accessible from Thomas Avenue, just off Central Avenue. Notable details include:
▪ N.C. Gov. Pat McCrory’s face on her earrings.
▪ An equality symbol, applied war-paint style, on her cheek.
▪ A queen’s scepter topped with the hand of justice.
▪ A pearl necklace with a charm depicting the sign for a gender-neutral bathroom, where anyone is welcome.
You can still watch Brandy Alexander in action. The sound’s usually bad, the video may be out of focus, but there are several performances on Youtube, including one of Brandy’s signature songs, “I Did It My Way.”