Jason Johnson is giving himself a makeover. The short 42-year-old bald man with a bit of belly bulge is sitting in front of a dressing room mirror twice his size. His shirt is off. His chest is shaven and with quick, delicate motions he sets to work covering his entire face and chest with white theatrical makeup.
His crown, a dead ringer for Glinda’s sparkly tiara from The Wizard of Oz, rests just behind him in a satin pink carrying case. He sets to work drawing on black, inquisitive eyebrows, applying rouge and sparkling, pink eye shadow. It’s a 45-minute process that will transform him from Jason to Nova Kaine, empress of the Imperial Sovereign Court of Spokane.
Visually, the transformation is remarkable. In that short time the middle-aged man is painted, shaped and contoured with fake boobs and hip pads and feminized with the tuck of his penis.
(Duct tape and a jock strap of sorts are the secret.) The doe-eye brunette Nova Kaine is the epitome of grace, a classic beauty in an Elizabeth Taylor wig and a slinky, black sequined gown.
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Jason is a man. Nova is just a man in a dress. And sure, Nova drinks a little more, and dating a 22-year-old guy sounds oh-so-Liza-Minnelli fabulous, but whether in her full drag regalia or his jeans and a T-shirt, it’s the same charismatic, parental figure.
Last Saturday, she was getting ready at the Spotlight Lounge before the Gay Spokane Pageant — a local competition similar to the Miss America competition, minus all the quips about world peace. Behind the crowns and tiaras is a 38-year-old nonprofit organization that raises money for charity and, mostly comprised of drag queens, stands as the most visible and most controversial face of the gay community.
As empress, Nova refuses to allow the court to be ignored.
“Drag queens have historically been the spokesmen for the entire LGBT community,” Nova Kaine says. “Whether the LBGT community as a whole agrees with that or not. We’re the most visible, we’re the most vocal, whether you like it or not, we’re the ones that everybody sees.”
Nova Kaine is part of a strong group of enigmatic drag queens that is gaining visibility in Spokane. More than 30 queens perform downtown Wednesday through Saturday at Irv’s, the Spotlight and Dempsey’s and they look to Nova for guidance. She’s a stylish figure, a motherly matriarch. An empress to be exact, and queen B-I-T-C-H of the Imperial Sovereign Court of Spokane, which has long been at the center of the local gay rights movement.
"At first it was just a group of guys who got together,” says Queen Mother Dahleigh Divine Empress 3 of the Spokane court’s founding back in 1973. “We were more or less show-people who raised money for things like Toys for Tots and cancer research … but they didn’t always accept our donations.”
It wasn’t until 1975 that the organization received its 501(c)(3) status as a legitimate nonprofit organization and became an official member of the International Court System. The “progressive cities” like Seattle and Portland had established courts just two years prior.
Founded in 1965 in San Francisco, the International Court System now has 72 chapters in the United States, Mexico and Canada. The Spokane chapter currently includes parts of North Idaho and eastern and central Washington.
Nova Kaine says the system operates similarly to the United States government — equally as confusing and convoluted — in that each chapter is a sovereign court that looks to the international court for guidance.
As empress, Nova Kaine is the most powerful titleholder, followed in succession by emperor Joe Mirisciotta.
“We were actually young enough and stupid enough that we didn’t know what we were doing,” Divine says of those first years of the Spokane court. “We were just having a blast. Who knew it would grow into something like this? That it would last this long and grow nationwide?” The younger generation of queens is remarkably different, enthusiastic and unapologetic and because of that, Divine says, the court is headed in the right direction.
“We haven’t gotten the best representation in the past,” she says. “Society focused more on the bizarre rather than the good, and it labeled us freaks. But now the court is reaching back out into the community.”
Jason Johnson is a full-time drag queen with more than 22 years of experience under his garter belt. He performs and hosts drag shows as Nova Kaine at several local bars until 4 am multiple nights a week and sleeps until noon.
Even in Spokane, he’s a long way from his roots. Johnson grew up in a strict Episcopalian family on a ranch in Laramie, Wyo. While studying theater at the University of Wyoming, he performed drag in a “Dude Looks Like a Lady” contest in Fort Collins, Colo., and placed second.
“I knew nothing about drag,” he says. “I was just a theater jor from a little town. I mean, for Halloween, the football players wore dresses and it was funny, but I didn’t know anything about drag.”
Johnson doesn’t remember what he wore or even performed during the competition but he enjoyed it, and an influential drag queen in the city spotted his talent and became his drag mother and mentor.
“Mentoring always starts off with makeup because let’s face it, the first time a boy starts doing their makeup, they want to do their face like their mommies,” he says. “There are so many new things as a drag queen that you have to learn how to do.”
For his first real drag performance, Johnson performed “True Colors” by Cyndi Lauper. He came out as a homosexual for only two years while still in college but received flack from friends and a death threat from her father. Johnson retreated back into the closet.
After graduation he moved back to Laramie and was placed by his family in a seminary school to become an Episcopalian priest but never finished. In fear of isolation and making the wrong decision, he started dating women.
“I started dating a friend of mine who was in a lesbian relationship and going through the same thing at the time,” he says. “We got together and decided to make the conscious decision not to be homosexual. And for 10 years we tried very hard.
“On the surface we were the perfect family.” Johnson’s ex-wife and three children — ages 21, 19, and 17 — live in Salt Lake City. Over the years, and even while married, Johnson performed in drag and received master’s degrees in both theater and divinity. But it still wasn’t enough.
He moved to Spokane eight years ago at the urging of a fellow drag queen. A friend hid his plane ticket for weeks, fearing he would return to his former life, one scarred with a suicide attempt, a nervous breakdown and a diagnosis of Parkinson’s disease.
To this day Johnson doesn’t speak with his father but maintains a relationship with his mother and children. The Imperial Court and his 22-year-old skater boyfriend are his new family now.
my life fell apart, it was the drag community that rallied behind me
and showed me support,” he says. “I love that as empress I now have the
opportunity to give back.”
Nova Kaine and her emperor, Joe Mirisciotta, rule their realm with a soft fist. Their drag shows raise thousands of dollars for scholarships funds, holiday food baskets, Cancer Patient Care and disaster funds for community members of all walks of life.
But they also set the standard for what they want the gay community to accomplish. Most of all, they want Spokane’s gay community to be visible and to establish safe spaces for its youth.
Kaine and Mirisciotta created Spokane’s first-ever gay prom and they’re laying down the foundation to create an Imperial Youth Court. The court system is also involved with OutSpokane (Kaine alone is hosting 12 Pride Week events), the Odyssey Youth Center and the international organization the Trevor Project.
Increased visibility makes it easier to gain acceptance, Kaine says.
“Whether you like drag queens or not, we’re part of society now,” she says. “The stigma is going away and, because the lines are being grayed, it’s easier for us to walk out of a gay bar in full drag through the streets of downtown. We don’t have to hide in the shadows anymore.”
And that helps when you’re Nova Kaine, the Imperial Sovereign Majesty.
are times when I’m in Walmart buying a gallon of milk and I’m scrubbed
out and I haven’t shaven and I hear ‘Novaaaa!’” she says. “And I have to
smile and wave.”
Pride Week • Through Saturday, June 18 • Visit outspokane.org for full schedule of Pride events