Before he was notorious drag queen Alyssa Edwards, Justin Johnson was just a gay kid from Mesquite with a love of dance
J. DENTON BRICKER | Contributing Writer
When he thinks about it, Justin Johnson says it all started with Little League Baseball.
Growing up in Mesquite, Johnson played his heart out during games with the singular hope that, if he played well enough, his father would allow him to attend jazz-dance class as reward. Athletics was just a means to an end for the little gay boy.
“My dad was bound and determined to make me an all-American little boy,” says Johnson now. “My four sisters did drill team, and I would do their numbers on the sidelines. It humiliated him, but I wasn’t able to distinguish between a girl sport and a boy sport. Growing up in Mesquite, my parents were uneducated about a lot of things.”
Dance did eventually become a career for Johnson — especially once he donned a dress and renamed himself Alyssa Edwards, one of Dallas’ reigning queens and a contestant on last season’s Ru Paul’s Drag Race. (The new season launches Monday.)
Johnson (aka Edwards) attributed his grandmother as serving as his saving grace. She would whisk Johnson away to her house where he could be anything he wanted, including a pageant queen, dressed appropriately in a nightgown and high heels.
“I love that because, in a way, she made up for not being as attentive to my uncle when he was younger, who is also gay. Now my father is also getting to do the same thing through his relationship with my nephew, and it is a wonderful thing,” Johnson says.
Johnson’s relationship with his father became a flashpoint on his season on Drag Race; the two had become estranged, but during the filming, the senior Johnson surprised his son with a video stating how supportive he was, and proud to have a gay son. It became one of the most tearful moments in the history of the show.
It was a long-time coming, as Johnson has been in the arts since his earliest years. In his teens, Johnson began to teach and choreograph dance at a local studio with an old and ailing owner. The landlord approached him during a rehearsal break, said he had seen his interactions with the children, and asked if he would be interesting in picking up the lease. Before he could answer, a student’s mother answered for him.
“I said that there is no way this could even be an option, but she encouraged me,” he says. “[She pointed out] that the studio was already established and made an insistent offer to pay the first month’s rent. She paid it, and that is how Beyond Belief Dance Company came about.”
After showing a clip of the Trevor Project to a studio full of his students, Johnson decided he was going to choreograph a piece set to these videos and the effect was enthralling and uplifting.
“For a child to convey a story without words from someone else’s brain is difficult. The younger kids aren’t always intuitive enough to understand it all either,” he says.
Six years later, Johnson and a group of students from BBDC finished in the top 25 of America’s Got Talent, his studio was named one of the top 10 studios in the South, and his Trevor Project piece received high industry awards and acclaim. Johnson says his happiest days are spent teaching in the studio as evident by his company’s continued success.
“I think dance saved me, but drag has given me the opportunity to find who I really am,” he says.
After attending his first drag show at Station 4, Johnson found himself utterly fascinated by the glitz and glamour of the queens. Having some experience with makeup from working at Glamour Shots, he decided to transform into Alyssa (named after actress Milano) to compete at the Rose Room amateur night … and won.
“I had to come back the next week as a special entertainer after winning. I worked the show with the late, God bless her soul, Sahara Davenport, and we became sisters.
Within a few years, Alyssa Edwards rose through the ranks due to his looks, personality, wise drag “parents” and extraordinary dancing talent. Alyssa won crown after crown, including Miss Gay Texas America, Miss Gay USA, and eventually Miss Gay America (which, as any Drag Race watcher knows, he ultimately had to relinquish).
“This is when you know what you’re doing is what you’re supposed to be doing,” Johnson says.
Encouraged by drag daughter Shangela and friend Alexis Mateo to audition, Johnson thinks that his initial reluctance to talk about losing the Miss Gay America title cost him making the Season 4 cut beyond the top 20 on Drag Race. It was only when he finally opened up about the issue during the Season 5 auditions, he landed himself on the show across from Coco Montrese, the alternate queen who had stepped up to take the title.
“You have to have fun with it, and you just can’t take it all too seriously. You have to laugh a little at yourself,” he says. “That is something that I learned from Jinx Monsoon, that I don’t have to be perfect all the time.”
Johnson describes the long and intensive filming process and how producers pick through the day to glean plenty of “T and shade.”
“When you see someone on television in a series like Drag Race, you think you have an idea of what someone would be like. But it is very difficult to judge someone based from an hour of TV. We filmed 14 hours a day, and you to take into consideration that they’re making TV; they want the dish,” Johnson says.
Season 5 “revolutionized” reality television as it broke rating records with audience highs throughout the season. Though Alyssa Edwards only finished sixth, don’t count her out just yet. Squirrels were abuzz after Johnson appeared as RuPaul’s delicious date at the MTV Movie Awards, and Ru announced he was executive producer on an upcoming new television series featuring Alyssa Edwards.
“I can tell you this,” says Johnson conspiratorially, “expect the unexpected. It will be a dance reality series [focused on Johnson’s dance studio and his role as artistic director]. Think a combination of Dance Moms, Dancing with the Stars, So You Think You Can Dance, America’s Best Dance Group, and maybe a little bit of Honey Boo Boo a la Mesquite.”
This series would sashay into uncharted territory of dance and drag on reality television.
“We’ve filmed very little but that little is a lot.” He laughs.
This article appeared in the Dallas Voice print edition February 21, 2014.