PGN: Tell us a little about the family.
SN: I was born a poor black child ... which sounds like the start of a Steve Martin movie, but in my case it was true. I was born in Passaic, N.J. — for ambience comparison, think Newark, N.J. We lived in an apartment building with all sorts of characters. I vaguely remember the building super, who looked a little like Uncle Fester from “The Addams Family.” It was a walk-up but I remember that on occasion he’d let me ride the small elevator, which at 5 was just my size. I’ve since realized that I was riding the garbage dumbwaiter! Parents weren’t so safety-conscious back then and I guess I hadn’t developed much of a sense of smell.
SN: I have an older brother, Larry, and a younger brother, Michael.
PGN: What did the parents do?
SN: My father was in public relations. You know those annoying Colonial Penn ads, “If you know someone age 55 or older ...” He was responsible for those. He swears they work. Now he’s retired and likes to correct the grammar of news announcers. He’s given up on me. My mother does a lot of things, but she’s probably most recognizable to people as the host of a public-affairs show called “Profiles” that used to be on Channel 57 every morning for about 10 years. She concentrates mostly on her artwork now and is a member of the Dumpster Divers.
PGN: What were you like as a kid?
SN: I was a tomboy and very adventurous. My parents were strict as far as manners and basic good behavior were concerned, but outside of that they were pretty bohemian. When I was really young, my parents were known for their cocktail parties. I was in charge of running drinks back and forth and all the grownups would make a fuss over me: “Awww! You’re so cute — I want to take you home!” At the end of the night, I’d be standing by the door with an overnight bag that I kept permanently packed for just such occasions, saying, “OK, you wanted to take me home. Let’s go!” The poor adults would stammer, “Oh, but won’t your mommy miss you?” I’d say no and my mother would agree to let me go. Most of them were New York couples without kids, so they’d take me to Central Park and the zoo, everywhere they thought a kid would enjoy. [Laughs.] It was a great weekend gig!
PGN: How did you come to Pennsylvania?
SN: When I was in fourth grade, my father got a job here and we transferred from Passaic to Radnor.
PGN: That must have been different.
SN: Definitely. First, we did a Jeffersons’ “moving on up,” so we were in a big suburban house. There were no sidewalks in front, so I thought we were in Amish country. It was also very white and conservative. I remember being chased by some neighborhood kids who were using the N-word and yelling for us to go back to Africa. I yelled back, “But we’re from Jersey!” It didn’t last long, though: My mother put on a little backyard carnival for the kids we had made friends with and we had so much fun that soon the other kids wanted to join in. We were smart enough to know that they were just echoing things they’d heard, and some of them became really good friends in the long run.
PGN: What was a favorite class in school?
SN: Theater. I thought I’d go into acting. I enjoyed school, but hated doing any written work. I’d try to turn any book report or project into a presentation of some kind. I figured out later I have a sort of sideways dyslexia. I can read like a champ, but writing I get jumbled up and write letters backward or carry them over into other words. Thank goodness for the computer or I’d never be able to write my column!
SN: I went to Emerson in Boston, but didn’t last long there. I was too busy falling in love with my roommate and discovering the joys and heartbreaks of coming out. It was a fun time, but not good for my academic career.
PGN: Share one of those fun moments.
SN: Well, I have a bit of a damsel-in-distress complex and I was having a huge party in my dorm room. There was a girl who’d just come into our circle and she was the life of the party. Michelle was gorgeous and looked and acted like Angelina Jolie. She was a wild child. There was a fire in the building and, as everyone was evacuating, I remembered that a friend of hers had passed out on a bed, so I ran back upstairs and dragged her out. Michelle had been so worried about her friend, she decided that I was her superhero and from then on I had to be her personal safety guard. When we rode in a car, she’d sit in my lap so I could be her seatbelt. I was totally in the closet and although she was straight, she was the catalyst for me to come out. We were inseparable during college. Or at least the years I managed to attend!
PGN: And what do you do now?
SN: [Laughs.] On what day? Aside from “Family Portraits,” I have been hosting karaoke at Sisters every Thursday for the last 16 years. I also do film work and have a short film that did the festival circuit a few years ago, and I’m working on a documentary right now. I sometimes bartend on the weekends with my ex-girlfriend’s mother and currently I’m helping program films for QFest. And I’m the block captain on our block!
PGN: That is a lot! What’s the documentary about?
SN: Early signs that you were gay. It seems there were a lot with me, from trying to buy my second-grade teacher a negligee for Christmas to studiously reading my father’s Playboy when I was preschool-age. Hey, I was just reading it for the articles! I also interviewed a lot of other people, like Andre Richard Baldini, who told me how he used to make armbands and a tiara out of tinfoil and play Wonder Woman on the front steps.
PGN: What was coming out like for you?
SN: It was by accident! My mother was talking about my best friend, Tibet, and asked me if she was gay. I sort of said yes, so she asked me if my friend was happy and I said she seemed fine to me. Then she asked if she was comfortable with it. I again said yes and then she paused and asked if I was comfortable with it. Well, I figured my family already knew — all those signs and all — so it was racing through my head, Oh boy, I guess this is it, time to put it on the table, so I said, “Yes, I am and not because of Tibet. I’ve been out for a while.” My mother blanched a little and said, “Um, I just meant were you comfortable with your friend being gay.” I was ready to retract but it was already out there! After that it was fine. We had the usual conversation, “As long as you’re happy,” etc., and then she pretty much outed me to the whole family. I’d walk into a room and everyone would be there looking at me like, Awww, we still love you! and I’d say, “She just told you, didn’t she?” I was pretty lucky: There’s never been a bad reaction. When I told one of my aunts, her reaction was, “So you mean to tell me that all those ‘friends’ of yours that we’ve met over the years were your girlfriends? Oh, you need to talk to your brothers, because you have much better taste in women!”
PGN: What was your worst job?
SN: Oh my. I’ve been pretty lucky. It’s been more bad moments on good jobs. I used to drive a horse and carriage downtown years ago. One day I was tired and cranky and not giving the best tours. I decided I wasn’t being fair to people here for a good experience so I told myself I was going to be über-friendly on the next tour. The next people that got on booked a one-hour tour. About 10 minutes into it, I mentioned one of the first ladies being rumored to have a sexual disease. The guy laughed and said, “Yeah, she probably got it from some nigger!” Well that was it! I was so angry and tired I couldn’t even decide what to say, so I turned around and didn’t say a single word for the rest of the hour tour. They knew they’d made a big faux pas and gave me a huge tip at the end. It was pretty funny. But other than that it was a cool job. I love Philly and loved showing it off.
PGN: Andy Warhol said everyone has 15 minutes of fame. What was yours?
SN: I was on the “Bozo the Clown” show for several years. If you saw the Philadelphia version in the late ’80s, early ’90s, that was me in the red coat and tight black pants. I was the Ringmaster. We’d thought of calling me the Ringmistress, but thought that “Bozo’s mistress” didn’t sound quite right! At the same time, I was on a kids’ morning show, I was bartending at Hepburn’s, which was the forerunner of Sisters. I was also still driving the horse and carriage on occasion. People would stop me in the street and say, “You look so familiar! Where do I know you from?” I’d say, “Do you have a kid who watches TV, are you a tourist or are you a lesbian?” It was fun, especially in the club. People would come up and say, “This is crazy, but you look just like the girl on the ‘Bozo’ show!” One time this young guy started screaming to his friends, “Oh my God, I watch her every day! I love that show! And she’s a lessssssbian! Hooray!”
PGN: What was a crazy moment on the show?
SN: We had a lot. We were pretty radical on the show. We were on the air five days a week, so we were constantly coming up with new games. One of my favorites was the presidential mudslinging game, where I had one kid in a Reagan mask and another in a Bush Sr. mask and we gave them big vats of pudding to sling at their opponents! My producer was Wiccan and we used to sneak in pagan rituals whenever we could! Since I can run camera, one time we went out of the studio to a pumpkin patch and she put on a cape and explained the true pagan origins of Halloween. We were very educational! We also used to do “Suzi’s Book Corner” and I’m proud to say that in one of the segments we featured “Heather Has Two Mommies” and invited mothers from a group called CALM [Custodial Action for Lesbian Mothers] to be our guests. “Sesame Street” hasn’t even gone that far yet and this was back in the ’90s. Surprisingly, though, we got about 200 letters each week; we didn’t get a single complaint about that. We’d draw the most ire from doing something stupid like Bozo’s Marshmallow Mumble, where we’d have the kids stuff a parent’s mouth until they couldn’t say the slogan of the day, and then we’d get letters about the dangers of choking on marshmallows!
PGN: Random questions ... If you could get one thing back that was lost or destroyed, what would it be?
SN: My high-school yearbook. I had everyone sign it, plus those old high-school photos are good for blackmail.
PGN: What was your favorite childhood snack or candy?
SN: I apparently ate raw garlic, and somehow was never sent to a foster home.
PGN: I was once mistaken for ...
SN: Latoya Jackson. Don’t ask. But it got me into Live Aid.
PGN: I understand you met another famous member of the Jackson family ...
SN: Yes, I got to go horseback riding with Michael Jackson.
PGN: How did that happen?
SN: A friend of my father’s was working on his album when he was recording with the Jacksons at Sigma Sound here in Philly [in the late ’70s]. They had a day off and wanted something to do, so he called my father and asked if he could bring them out to hang with us. Uh, yes! MJ loved animals and we had two horses. So we borrowed some more from a friend with a farm and went for a ride in Valley Forge Park. He had a blast and was a really nice guy. He was so polite, he kind of got on my nerves and I told him so. It was probably the best thing I could have done. He was a little shocked at first and then he loosened up. By the end of the day, he told his friends it was one of the best times he’d ever had. We didn’t become good friends, but I got to see him on and off over the years. It was odd, but for the most part, the stranger he looked, the more in control he was. I didn’t see him in the last years.
PGN: Someone you envy?
SN: Republicans and religious fanatics: It must be wonderful to be so righteous and right without letting facts or fairness get in the way.
PGN: I still can’t believe I once ...
SN: Was bitten by Stevie Wonder. We were doing a PSA for UNCF [the college fund] and I mentioned to him that I was a fellow Taurus. He said, “Yummmm, I love Tauruses!” and bent over and bit my cheek! Thank goodness it didn’t happen recently, considering what just happened in Miami!
PGN: Any famous relatives?
SN: Well, my great-grandfather ran and conducted one of the first “negro symphonies.” They lived in Chicago and were very formal. My father said that they dressed in gowns and tuxedos for dinner. My big brother was the spokesmodel for Modern Black Male magazine for a while. We used to tease him when he got us mad and threaten to vandalize his billboards — black out teeth, etc. I mentioned my mother’s TV show and I have an aunt who started the first modeling agency for people of color. Half the family did some modeling. And they also had a travel magazine for people of color to steer them to safe places to stay [called] Travelguide. The motto was “Vacation & Recreation Without Humiliation.” We have a big extended family — my father had seven siblings and I have over 20 cousins — but the nice thing is, when we get together, we’re all superstars!
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