Tucson Salvage: Fabulous philanthropist

click to enlarge Chris Hall: “The accolades are the cherry on top.” - BRIAN SMITH
Brian Smith
Chris Hall: “The accolades are the cherry on top.”

Eyes on a comely drag queen gliding between tables and a trashy barroom cowboy in a rainbow-glam jacket with a room-filling laugh. There’s flat-screen football no one watches behind the bar and INXS’ “Need You Tonight” fills the house-lighted room like an aural wink to a Reagan-era gay disco.

Not an empty seat in the house once the DJ practically doubles the volume for an intro tune: Jimmy James’ couture-callout “Fashionista,” and a boy, maybe 10, holds his ears at his table, seated beside his mother. 

“No one ugly is allowed,” James chirps atop a dancefloor pop-wallop, and onto the final line, “Imitation of Christ, beauty has a price …”

Lucinda Holliday (aka Larry Moore), a reigning queen of Tucson Gay Pride, steps up on the tight stage—whose flowery backdrop reads “Nature At Night” in brilliant letters. He’s down-dressed this evening in ball cap and jean shorts, mic in hand. The song ends and he shouts, “Who here in this community could fill a room but Miss Nature!”  

Adrenaline rises on near-hysterical yelps when Miss Nature emerges from a back room, lip-syncing to “This is Me” (from The Greatest Showman), the uplifter LGBTQA+ outsider anthem. She saunters to the stage wearing an emerald taffeta ball gown and high, matching pumps. Well-endowed, heavy contours, blond corkscrew wig, and stately. In a blink of coquettish flare, she drops the gown to reveal a neck-to-floor mermaid-tight prom dress in glimmering rainbow colors and winged shoulders, and she suddenly transmutes from some kind of Weimar-era Marlene Dietrich into a kind designer-catwalk diva, a surging symbol of Tucson LGBTQA+ pride. She swans from the stage into the crowd, Broadway gesticulations intact, and reaches for tips from a dozen outstretched arms. It’s joy and spectacle.  

She’s all toney in a tabled crowd of mostly afternoon jeans and T-shirts—young, old, trans, non-binary, gay, married couples, some kids and teens, etc. It is a sold-out, mostly masked room of 70 or so at Bumstead’s, the karaoke-friendly bar, today taking on a decidedly dinner-theater vibe, on Stone Avenue in Tucson. It is still daylight, just after 5 p.m. on an October Sunday, such kid-friendly hours. The unity is in the rainbows, on dresses, shirts, hats, ties, shoes, and from lips. 

click to enlarge Miss Nature hosting "Nature at Night." - BRIAN SMITH
Brian Smith
Miss Nature hosting "Nature at Night."

In Miss Nature’s eyes I hunt for any mix of anxiety and calculation transmitting from her to the audience. But she is unapproachable there, so wholly attached to persona, performance and connection, into that rarified air where command and charisma is easily confused with arrogance, a place where a performer is absolutely inescapable. Squint hard and imagine glam-time Bowie hitting a ’74 Diamond Dogs stage; so far into camp, old-school vaudeville-weaned sexual tension it comes out the other end purely human, and fun. Miss Nature’s bigger-than-life character still feels like a real person beyond any staged plot parameters, and that makes her performance great, not played-out, why people pay to see her.

The performance ends and Miss Nature is back onstage with a mic, all comic relief (places a rainbow bowtie on a blushing man in honor of his first drag show) and LGBTQA+ and Tucson Pride activism (talks upcoming benefits and events), and it’s compact and sweet and she introduces the next performer, remarkable singer Jayy The Prodigy from Phoenix. 

The room’s collection of randy perfumed scents is as potent as the still-novel sense of being towed along by whatever colorful attractions materialized next, yet humming underneath is a sense of community, of action, and an empathy for others. 

It’s a mighty long way down the drag bars in the dark underbelly of downtown Phoenix where I’d sometimes hang years ago, often populated of alcoholic queens and tragic transgenders (and leering men with guts and bald spots) who by day were forced to lurk in city shadows, or hide in shame, or both. A false equivalence, but I found loner comfort there beyond easy fascinations of ancient Kabuki performances and 17th-century Shakespeare plays, the “pansy craze” and the New York Dolls.  

Drag was always infinitely more complex, from the dress to the psychology to societal homophobia and hate, than how it ever appeared. This event, Nature at Night, is G-rated, lots irreverence and fabulous shoes, any decadence merely hinted at, and mainstreamed long ago, partly on the back of RuPaul’s Drag Race. It is a different form. This provides a different comfort, one all-inclusive, drag as a performative commodity born of some spiritual portal and sometimes filled of decisive idealism. Also, drag as a means of turning rebellion into money, for others.

It is Miss Nature’s event (of her bi-weekly social Nature at Night), stacked with other worthy performers, and the self-proclaimed “Queen of Charity” absolutely owns the room.

***

When Miss Nature opens the door to her east side apartment, she is Christopher Hall, a bespectacled 32-year-old of slight build, could be Peter Parker. He wears a backwards ball cap and a rainbow Pride T-shirt whose right short sleeve half-conceals a Lucille Ball heart tattoo (his Ball fandom extends to tribute on a wall in his two-bedroom place), the other arm a formable tribute with bloody tears to the Pulse nightclub shooting.

click to enlarge Chris Hall is Miss Nature - BRIAN SMITH
Brian Smith
Chris Hall is Miss Nature

Hall was just on the phone talking next year’s Arizona Pride Tour, which he’s organizing, a drag vaudevillian escapade hitting small rural Arizona towns (Nogales, Casa Grande etc.) to benefit girls in the Southern Arizona branch of Girl Scouts where “all the money raised will be earmarked towards inclusion efforts, especially as it relates to being more accepting towards girls who are trans.”

This is the kind of work he does. But let’s backup.

No, it was not easy growing up in the shadow of the state prison complex in flat, dusty penal-town Florence, Arizona. A better visual metaphor could hardly be imagined for a gay kid coming to grips with his sexuality, his flattop-headed dad an actual prison guard. Imagine a dad so ashamed he’d make a teenage you stand away from him in public to avoid appearing associated. That sort of thing.  

Early aughts in prison-town Arizona, there was little for a brainy gay outsider to glom onto but then-pop-subversive Marylin Manson, not the music, the aesthetic. 

To appease his parents (“I would say, ‘I don’t believe in God,’ and they’d say, ‘Don’t say those things!’”), Hall met a church lady, a sister, and young Hall attended her Pentecostal church. When he came out, he remembers the sister condemning him to hell while sitting on his living room couch. That was the end of Hall’s church-going.

His parents divorced in 2020 and mom moved back to New York where Hall was born. He came out to mom over the phone, and she was more of an ally. Dad was another story. “He basically freaked.”

And the list of humiliations and hatreds goes on: hateful slurs, hurled Thirst Busters hitting him from cars, accusations of touching other students in group settings ... He could’ve gone one way, at least into depression or worse—gay teens in America are five times more likely to kill themselves—but found some high-school hallway reprisal, befriending the popular girls so the guys were forced to be respectful, and also academic intelligence; Hall graduated high school with national honors. He wore French-tipped nails and lip gloss to his Florence High School graduation, a courageous move that caused consternation among students and faculty. High school had been an outlet, he says, really the “extra-curricular stuff.” Hall was color guard, in the Spanish club, etc.

He knew there was something somewhere and constantly tallied things he had to “be grateful for.” He found solace and kinship with another gay kid in Florence. “In a place like Florence you find each other.” 

Hall’s dad shifted, his view of humanity turned, and he talks of taking him to his first Pride event, how he came to his first drag show at Apollo’s Lounge in Phoenix, and the many father-son, personal-history perceptions and misconceptions and understandings embraced and overcome, a learning experience for which Hall is grateful. 

“Now,” Hall says, “my dad is my biggest supporter.” He understands his father’s own internal struggles, and an ensuing empathy rose from unfettered love. “He went through a lot. And there’s a sense of what he was losing, too,” Hall says. “No grandkids,” for starters.  

Their differences are stark. “He was a Trump supporter and posts pictures of me in drag on his Facebook page! As it is with a lot of people, I just don’t talk religion or politics with him.”

Adds, “I’m very humbled now, realizing I have both my parents.”

***

Hall is seated at his little kitchen table in front of open laptop, a colorful and bright oil-on-canvas splash of flowers oversees the area in the otherwise tidy, brown-and-black trimmed apartment. A Victorian China cabinet, which matches a grandfather clock in his hallway, doubles as a display case of pictures and awards he’s earned from various organizations, including a recent Humanitarian of the Year plaque from widely read Arizonadrag.com (now Drag Confidential.)

click to enlarge Chris Hall grew up in the shadow of the state prison complex. - BRIAN SMITH
Brian Smith
Chris Hall grew up in the shadow of the state prison complex.

He doesn’t talk how experiences and circumstances feel as much as he treats them with an it-is-what-it-is pragmatism; he catalogs things in his head—where he’s been, what he does, groups of people he can help, his work, his drag, like a spreadsheet of cogent human experiences and labors for an internal LLC. Not a brand, but a kind of personal institute. When he reveals things he’s like a walking TED talk, I did this, I learned that, here’s how I can do it better … what’s next

The man, who says he rarely, if ever, gets depressed, is quick; a keen self-assurance and intelligence keeps pace with what he calls a glaring ADHD. That’s not to say he exists without humor or sadness, spontaneous insight or self-takedowns—his Miss Nature act features all that, why audiences relate.  

“I always had this tendency to stay positive, I don’t know why.” 

Such traits speak to his fascinations beyond drag and into his work (“I enjoy systems and problem solving,” Hall says, flatly) and one can imagine such organization helped him scale whatever prison walls of sexuality closed in on him as a kid. 

Talk of Hall’s day job is mostly off-limits, client privacy and non-disclosure guidelines. He works for a government agency, eight years in, overseeing people with developmental disabilities, and conducts investigations into abuse, exploitation and neglect. He sees a lot and “works to improve lives.”

The career work fascinates him, its aims toward a greater good with a living wage. His drag benefit work and day-gig actions are similar; hunting for aid opportunities where problems exist. The rewards are basically the same: “Knowing you made a difference in that person’s life.” 

He adds: “Look, social justice has always been important to me, as long as I can remember.”

It has and others I’ve talked to confirm. One Crystal McCarthy, from the Arizona chapter of the national support group Free Mom Hugs, says he goes out of his way to help others, how performers are eager to sign up for his shows, or help the benefits, “and I think that says a lot.” She tells of a 7-year-old boy from a provincial community outside Tucson whose family is “very conservative.” How Miss Nature drove out in drag, as a favor, to a VFW hall for a birthday party and opened the boy’s eyes to bigger worlds with show and kindness. 

***

Just out of high school, Hall founded Central Arizona Rainbow Education (CARE), working with other groups and sponsors, like the national organization GLSEN, bringing heartbeats, faces and handshakes to misconceptions and intolerance. His mission was then, and pretty much still is, to see progress overcome cognitive biases, to work the less tolerant, rural Arizona towns, including high schools, to foster an understanding and empathy for LQBTQA+ folk and basic human rights.

His first event was a youth summit for students, parents and faculty at a Maricopa, Arizona high school. It went well, people showed, and fueled more events. They hit small towns including Coolidge, Apache Junction, Winkelman (“half the town came out, including the mayor’s wife!”) and others. Protestations rose for flying the rainbow flag within city limits, and it made national news. Hall was talked about on NPR. The town’s police chief later apologized. 

“Anyway,” Hall says, half-laughing. “I’m never worried. The worst that happens is I die. I’m not afraid to die.”

He finds beauty in the little dusty towns too, as well as hurting kids, and understands the need for some to move away to a place more accepting. “But there shouldn’t be,” Hall says. “People who are diverse need to stay to help make a change.”

Hall left CARE in 2012. Moved to Tucson for a relationship, but broke it off before leaving, so it was “my ego that brought me here. I already told people I was moving and I did not want it to appear that the gentleman got the best of me.”

He created a second skin that year, performance drag-persona Nadi Nature, and five years later grew his third, Miss Nature, when things turned more toward working with minors, public library settings etc.

“I always foresaw myself working with kids,” Hall says, and it’s true, all-age shows see kids ages 3 and 4, as well as folks in their 70s and 80s. It’s a beautiful idea, you can see it on children’s faces, this fueling of tender imaginations, the joy, inclusivity and diversity. 

Hall switches to third-person personae, “Nadi was arrogant and fun but she’s dead. Miss Nature is more my growth, more polished, more willing to listen to others. Miss Nature is confident, things Chris can’t be.” 

Crowds underscore Hall’s insecurity when he’s not in drag, says makeup “only gives us the confidence to be who we really are.” If Miss Nature was mean, he says, “Chris would be mean in his core. Anyway, I’m more confident now as my boy self,” Hall laughs. “So she should deserve some credit.”

In 2018, after years of volunteering and assisting at benefits, he began producing his own. With help from others, Hall raised $65,000 dollars so far, for non-profits, charities and for non-LGBTQA+ groups, hefty sums considering pandemic-era tight fists and working from a marginalized community. In all, the man does nearly 80 events a year, many of which he organizes, promotes, performs in, and a percentage of these are strictly benefits, aiding disparate groups, from Navajo Nation COVID relief to Black Lives Matter, Casa De Los Niños to Wings for Women. These shows sell out within 24 hours.

His philosophy is simple: “Many of my events are based on what’s not happening.” 

Hall’s non-benefit drag shows paid for him to return to school, and he’s closing in on his Masters, after a six-year break, in Organizational Leadership from NAU, weekly accelerated classes at home. “And I mention that in my shows, it’s being honest with people. And if I don’t invest in myself, I can’t expect an audience or community to care about me and what I do.”   

This last Arizona Pride Tour, the second in what’s now a yearly event, included stops in Bisbee, Flagstaff and Yuma, monies raised benefited Arizona Pride organizations. It kicks off again in February ’22, hitting mostly small-town hotels and casinos.  

There’s meta -inclusivity too, Hall welcomes newcomers to showcase their art at his events. “If you want to be with the in-crowd, you won’t get invites. I’m not going to say you’re not good enough for me.” He is loathe to badmouth others (“too negative”), at least in my presence, but praises many. 

“I do believe if, say, you want to be on RuPaul’s [Drag Race], you have to be bitchy and catty, the drama for TV. But that’s not me. What’s missing in that kind of competition is, I think, an ability to connect with people.” 

On the flip side he hears disparaging shit directed at him. “It hurts. I don’t understand the backlash. I walk away from any that when it happens.” 

The man with zero impulse to avoid any subject other than nuances of his day job, runs his fingers over his line-free forehead and discloses recent cosmetic injections. It could be pure vanity, or what he laughs, “preventive measures. Each person does drag for different reasons,” he says. “If there’s a degree of narcissism in what I do, it’s not my initial intent. I can’t say it doesn’t feel good to get acknowledged, like, for instance, the Humanitarian of the Year award. I don’t know if you could call feeling good about an event that helps others narcissism. The accolades are the cherry on top, but not the intent.”

He continues, “I post most everything about my life [on social media], and that makes more vulnerable. I want to be able to live as freely and openly as possible.” He laughs, adds, “Anyway, that way no one can blackmail you.” 

Between his day gig, school and Miss Nature, Hall logs well north of 80 hours a week and it’s his sleep that suffers.  Hence, his life borders the monastic, too many non-companion tasks. Oh, there are always certain dating apps, which leave him disgusted. 

He shrugs, “My standards are so high, if you’re not aspiring for something, I’ve no interest. A lot of people demand of my time. But,” he adds, “I would love to get married one day.”

***

click to enlarge Hall at home. - BRIAN SMITH
Brian Smith
Hall at home.

There is one room in Hall’s apartment to which he closes the door, kind of his drag dressing room. “It’s a total mess in there.” Instead he shows his travels, borne of curiosity, a U.S. map above the fireplace shows he’s been to all 50 states and is surrounded by gleaming mementos from each, including a Green Bay Packers insignia. (“I was a Brett Farve fan, is all.”) It is difficult to pinpoint exact qualities of Hall’s alacrity, or where it comes from. He’ll say he arrived here in life by working hard at human connections. Not many clues elsewhere. He doesn’t eat animals because he loves them. He hits the gym twice a week, and likes “all genres of music.” OK, so does half the population.

Halls says he doesn’t play into sexual tension at his shows, he wouldn’t “mainly because of the kids. Part of my niche really is about changing the face of drag. I want people to have better understanding of drag, more than the sex, drugs and alcohol. A lot of my audience is heterosexual I want people to leave feeling entertained and those who have a bad idea of who the community is to have a positive image of us.” 

After a pause, he adds, “And you have to have a sense of honesty. If I’m getting dressed there needs to be a purpose … If you don’t have a mission you lose your spark. If I watch a performer and they’re not into it, I’m not either.”

This outsider kid from a prison-town learned long ago it takes a persistent living of life to ward off inertia, what he earnestly calls looking “for a rainbow in every situation. I want the world to be in a better place than when I got into it, it’s that simple. I mean, that’s why we do all-age shows.” 

Later, Hall lifts his shirt to reveal an orange orangutan face tat below his right shoulder. “The orangutan is my favorite animal because of my dad, he called me his ‘little orangutan’ when I was young. They’re smart, intelligent, you can sense what they are feeling.”

For more info on Miss Nature and upcoming shows go to his Facebook page.

***

Brian Smith's collection of essays and stories,
Tucson Salvage: Tales and Recollections of La Frontera, based on this column, is available now on Eyewear Press UK. Buy the collection in Tucson at Antigone Books, 411 N. Fourth Ave.

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