Original Dempsey's diva Miss Mylar Black hosts a reunion show for Spokane Pride

click to enlarge Original Dempsey's diva Miss Mylar Black hosts a reunion show for Spokane Pride
Courtesy photos
Miss Mylar Black is returning to the stage for Spokane Pride's Dempsey's reunion show on June 8.

Miss Mylar Black will be the first to say she hasn't always enjoyed the limelight.

Born in 1974, Mylar (aka Joe Sullivan) grew up on the South Hill, the introverted only child of a single parent. It wasn't until attending Ferris High School that she got a taste for theater while performing with the orchestra during a musical.

She auditioned for the school's next musical and fell in love with performing. Still, she avoided the full glow of the spotlight.

"I'm definitely more of a background person," she says. "I've often been called the perfect chorus boy because I give emotion and I react, but I don't draw focus."

After graduation, Mylar performed in community theater. It was during a 1997 show with Spokane Civic Theatre that she and cast members supported a fellow actor performing in a drag show at Pumps 2, located near where Fast Eddie's Bar and Grill stands today. Mylar and the crew ended up performing a number from the show, a performance watched by Monty Danner, who was co-owner of Dempsey's Brass Rail and wanted to host a drag show there with live singing.

"[Dempsey's general manager] Michael Fietsam asked me, 'Hey, do you want to do this for a while, try it out?' I agreed, and it snowballed from there," she says.

Mylar performed twice a week, often renting costumes from the Civic. She wasn't a fashionista and pieced together outfits as best she could.

click to enlarge Original Dempsey's diva Miss Mylar Black hosts a reunion show for Spokane Pride
Miss Mylar Black

"'Miss Mylar' is because I'm cheap, shiny and durable," she says. "If they can't be held together with hot glue and safety pins and a stitch here and there, I ain't f---ing interested."

Mylar Ribbòn became Mylar Black after performer Christina Black, mother of the Black drag queen household, took Mylar under her wing, teaching her about makeup and telling the other queens to let Mylar be as she performed high-concept numbers.

When not performing, Mylar worked with SAN (formerly Spokane AIDS Network) on a program called Friend to Friend, which encouraged open conversations about safe sex. She worked with SAN around the time azidothymidine and highly active antiretroviral therapies were being used to treat HIV/AIDS, but still recalls months when she attended multiple funerals for friends.

"We were losing a lot of people still back then," she says. "But I was very fortunate to have gotten to know a lot of the families and houses here in Spokane. A lot of them are gone now."

Along with her schedule at Dempsey's and Pumps 2, Mylar also performed at local colleges and in small towns. In her first and only year competing, she was crowned Miss Gay Washington 2002.

In 2004, Mylar moved to Portland to work at the Oregon Zoo. Just five weeks later, however, she was laid off due to an investigation into misappropriation of funds by the zoo. Still, she stayed in the city for 16 years, working for the Cascade AIDS Project and hosting Sunday shows at the Silverado until 2009. She took home the Miss Gay Oregon title in 2005.

After a career spent helping others, Mylar's priorities changed when she was diagnosed with testicular cancer in 2019. After localized radiation she thought she was in the clear, but as the pandemic hit, Mylar began to feel sick, her 6-foot-4 frame dropping from 230 to 129 pounds. Not wanting to take up space in the hospital, Mylar kept to herself until the day she physically couldn't get out of bed.

An MRI revealed five tumors, including one on her spine that required a drain, leading to a six-month hospital stay. When surgeons removed the drain, something was nicked and she was left paralyzed.

Mylar considered suing the hospital but was told it would be difficult to prove malpractice and that she would be buried in paperwork for years, a process that would likely be as expensive as any cash payout she might receive. After being released from the hospital, she moved back to Eastern Washington to start physical therapy. She marked her return to the Spokane scene with a performance at a Dempsey's reunion show in March.

As could be expected, she did things her way.

"I was like, this is really the first time anybody's ever seen me perform in my wheelchair. I'm going to do the Bette Midler thing and put on a mermaid tail, because that's hilarious," she says. "What song can you do with a mermaid tail in a wheelchair? The effervescent stylings of Enya's 'Orinoco Flow.' That's not something I would normally do, but for that performance, that's f---ing funny."

This weekend, Mylar is announcing at Spokane's Pride parade and co-hosting another Dempsey's reunion on Saturday at 6:30 pm in Riverfront Park. She's grateful for a warm welcome upon returning to Spokane and is excited the local drag scene has become more open to members of the LGBTQ+ community. She doesn't get to many shows these days, but likes what she's seeing from younger performers and is proud of them for continuing to volunteer for worthy causes.

Mylar says community drag is very different from what's shown on TV, and she's excited for audiences at the reunion show — and the young performers themselves — to learn from the previous generations. Drag is more than costumes and catchphrases, she says — it's guttural, visceral and should make people feel things.

"That is basically all I hope for the younger generations is that they don't get too lost in dressing up," she says. "That's not what makes a queen." ♦

Spokane Art School Faculty and Student Show @ Spokane Art School

Mondays-Fridays, 10 a.m.-5 p.m. Continues through June 28
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