(photos courtesy of Crystal Jo)
July 1st 1994.
Crystal Jo Casino steps into a spot on a club floor. The distorted stringy harpsichord sound of Cher’s “I’ve Found Someone” pours from an unseen speaker. Leather jacket, French cut leotard, and fishnet tights. A sailor’s hat is perched upon a storm of luxuriant Reba Mccentire red hair. She is a pinup that came to life and walked out of a locker.
Even the way she holds her ankles is elegant. Clad in sparkling black boots, CJ glides from person to person in the bar. Gently taking dollars into one hand and the patron in her arm. A kiss on the cheek before she saunters over to the next friend.
There is a warmth in the way Crystal Jo holds the stage. In a time when so many found it repulsive to touch gay people, here is this brilliant drag queen in Memphis who’s embrace leaves a lasting mark on the spirit. In old tales, a fairy or an angel may kiss someone on the cheek to bestow upon them a blessing or a bit of fortune. I think Crystal Jo’s kisses may have buoyed the spirits of many who turned their eyes to the dance floor when the drag show began.
We are in the gay 90’s, but still in the fires of the AIDS Crisis and facing a slate of legislative action hostile to the queer imagination and body. The LGBT community is thriving through community events and the many clubs present. People still look back on this as a golden era for drag in Memphis. Many entertainers like Kirby Kinkade, Jo Ann, Vonna, Fantasia Bordeaux, Roxie Blue, Sofonda Peters, Amber Starr, Beverly Hillz, and many many more were creating culture and imagination through their expressive and varied drag styles.
Crystal Jo was the inventor of the Hot Cool Girl drag that is still popular in Memphis today. Without knowing it, entertainers like La Mixsi, an up-and-coming star, are part of a tradition of brave, soulful and kind drag artists that break the mold while maintaining the beauty.
Crystal Jo truly wrote the cookbook on how to wear a leather jacket and some red lipstick with intent to set the world on fire.
In her own words Crystal Jo recounted to me some of her favorite stories from a career steeped in beauty, mystery, and a lotta fun.
“I started doing drag in 1987. Climbing over the back fence to get into George’s. Melissa Mason, Evelyn Cooper, Sable Star, and Roxie Blue were all the main performers then and I loved, just loved it.”
Crystal Jo had originally found out about the many gay clubs of Memphis through the book clubs near the airport back in the day, a place where everyone would buy their magazines and sometimes exchange knowledge. After meeting a new friend there, young Crystal was escorted to an apartment where Beverly Hillz prepared for a drag show.
“Beverly Hillz was the first drag queen I’d ever met. That night we went to George’s and the girls had a kitty pool filled with chocolate pudding set up. They were wrestling and throwing pudding on everybody—it was a time!”
“Back then we didn’t have the makeup that y’all have today. Jo Ann would come in and her makeup would consist of baseline press powder that she used for foundation, eyeliner, and one shade of eyeshadow. She did a fabulous Diana Ross. All she had was eyeliner, lipstick, and a little eyeshadow and you would swear it was Diana. Then, she would take it all off and turn around and do Micheal Jackson for her next number.”
Crystal Jo is a history maker in the drag community. The first time a drag queen graced a mainstream stage in Memphis was during a KISS concert at the Mid-South Coliseum when Crystal and her friend Hatti McDaniels were scouted to appear on stage with the members of the band.
To think Crystal Jo could have been Gene Simmons’ wife in a different life.
“Gene Simmons scared the hell out of us. We didn’t know what to expect. We were young drag queens way out of our element. We were scared to death. They sent a limo to our house and gave us our own dressing room. When we were ready we came out to the side stage before the show. And Gene wants to take a picture with the three of us. And he has his arms around our waists. Right before we take the picture Gene Simmons picks Hatti up and kisses her and sits her down and then picks me up and kisses me and the picture was taken with our bewildered expressions. We didn’t know what to think!!!”
“And be sure to write that Gene Simmons kissed me. Now put that in your drag pipe and smoke it!”
“We also appeared in TV commercials. We did several commercials for a boutique that aired during Jerry Springer, my mama’s favorite show oh no.”
You can catch Crystal Jo Casino performing to this day at Dru’s Place and other venues across the Memphis area.