Remembering Lisa Michaels

by Robin Beaudoin Ownby | scrapbook photos from Facebook

At 6’3” and always with a head of bright violet hair, Lisa Michaels was hard to miss and impossible to ignore. In November, at age 61, the beloved, self-described “Purple-Haired Tramazon,” left the Mid-South with a big hole in its heart.

Lisa was an active participant in life. Her energy brought warmth and light to any event where she performed her notoriously off-the- cuff comedy, sang in her band Midtown Queer, or emceed an event.

Michaels was an organizer and board member of Memphis Comedy Fest and served as an official for the Memphis Roller Derby. Her comedy and music made her a regular face at P&H Café, Crosstown Bar & Grill, Black Lodge, and D.R.U.S. Place, though she made people feel at home wherever she went. She had a knack for making transgender comedy accessible to everyone, drawing in audience members, and making them regulars at shows at Midtown Crossing. Zebra Lounge bartender Eileen Hogan remembers meeting Michaels early on. “I met Lisa at the P&H,” Hogan said, “and she always made me feel welcome. Pointed me out and checked on me.”

Traveling with her comedy and music acts around the South, Michaels served as an ambassador of Memphis. She lived here as a young adult and returned permanently in 2013 after visiting in 2012. She became a regular at D.R.U.S. bar, introducing herself through song to owner Tami Montgomery. Montgomery remembers, “I met Lisa when she was in the process of moving to Memphis. She came in and introduced herself then went back out to grab her guitar. She just hung out all afternoon and played. Of course, I booked her! We have been friends since that day. Lisa filled a room with energy. It didn’t matter if it was music, comedy, or promoting a cause she was passionate about. She will always be a part of my life and I hope to be half the woman she was before my time.”

In Focus’ Queer Movers & Shakers issue, Lisa described her role as a performer, “I love going into a facility either as a musician or as a comic and they’re all looking at me like ‘who the hell is that’ and by the time I get off stage I have a bunch of friends. I have become an unofficial trans ambassador.”

Perhaps beyond the scope of public view, she impacted close friends and family, constantly making connections, and networking with the people who needed each other most. Her sister-in-law, Pamela Hancock, valued that aspect of her friendship. “Lisa was my closest friend for years before she introduced me to her brother, John—who I subsequently fell madly in love with, married, and with whom I now have a beautiful child. She was closer than family and then we became family. She changed my whole world! We spent hours chatting and snuggling, and I feel so lost without her. She was always larger than life and I was sad when she moved. But after she told me how much of an impact she was making in Memphis—I knew she had made the right decision.”

Those friends and family include the trans community. She had been recognized during the November celebration of Trans Awareness Week just a week before her passing. Kayla Gore, Executive Director at My Sistah’s House and former Director of Transgender Services for OUTMemphis collaborated with Michaels for several events and assisted her with her official name change.

“I had the honor of meeting this kind person when she first moved to Memphis. I was a waitress at E’s (diner) on Union. Lisa and her entourage came in late one night. I recognized her from the cover of a magazine. She didn’t know me, and I didn’t know her, but unlike my usual customers, she was cool. Fast forward, years later we worked in community together to patch up relationships through both of our uniquely different but equally powerful work. I even got the pleasure of assisting her with dropping her last name and legally being Lisa Michaels!!! She always treated me as a human. You had to love her if you knew her and her foreign body!!!!”

In her down time were peaceful nature walks, sunsets on the rolling Mississippi River at Martyrs Park, her favorite. She called these times her “moments of Zen.” Bright and energetic as she was, peace and ease seemed to follow her closely. Lisa was memorialized by the Memphis Comedy Festival, a flattering article in the Memphis Commercial Appeal, and by countless Facebook posts left by family and friends. The entire community agrees she is gone too soon.

A special note from the Focus staff: “We are crushed and deeply saddened to hear of the passing of Lisa Michaels. What a loss to our community. Many of us at Focus got to know her well over the past several years; our Queer Movers & Shakers and Pure Memphis features would have been utterly incomplete without featuring her. She partnered with us often as well, always helping and pushing us to continue to support and lift up the LGBT community. Her laughter and light were infectious. She was part of our chosen family, and she will be greatly missed.”