Family Portrait: Heather Coutts

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Heather Coutts looks like your all-American girl — but looks can be deceiving.

Starting with the fact that she’s not from the U.S. The former cheerleader hails from our neighbor up north. (I wonder if she could see Russia from her house?) A freckle-faced lovely, Coutts delights in flouting convention. When she’s not working at her day job or on her acting chops, Coutts has been known to don a mustache and a pair of work boots and woo the ladies, or cowgirl boots and pasties and treat you to an old-fashioned bump and grind. She cofounded and performs in Liberty City Kings. We had a chance to speak to Ms. Coutts on a cold winter afternoon.

PGN: Where are you originally from? HC: I was born in a small town, Nobleton, Ontario (population 3,513), which is about 30 minutes north of Toronto. I lived there for most of my life and then moved to Montréal before moving to Philadelphia. I’ve been here for six years.

PGN: You don’t say “aboot?” HC: No, I don’t. But I say “eh” a lot.

PGN: Are you an only child? HC: I’m the oldest of five. We go girl, boy, girl, boy, girl and the youngest is 10 years younger than me. It was great, though at times I got stuck babysitting when I didn’t want to. Also, with that many kids, nobody listens to you. You don’t get any respect just because you’re the oldest. But all in all it was very good. We were all really close and remain so to this day. The middle girl just had a baby, our first grandchild in the family.

PGN: What was life like in Nobleton? HC: Well, it was really nice. I went to Catholic school, though I no longer identify as Catholic. I now identify as Wiccan. We went to church every Sunday. I skied a lot. I was on the ski team, which was great because we had a lot of races on Sundays, which meant I didn’t have to go to church. It was a typical, small-town, middle-income family life. I had a dog and a cat. I did a lot of acting growing up, lots of plays. I was a cheerleader.

PGN: What was your favorite cheer? HC: Ice cream, ice cream, banana split. We think your team sucks like … shift to the left, shift to the right. Stand up, sit down, fight, fight, fight!

PGN: What was your first play? HC: I was in grade school and we did “Tom Sawyer.”

PGN: Did you play Becky? HC: No. But the first high-school play I did was “The Boyfriend” and I had the lead in that.

PGN: What was your craziest moment on stage? HC: I was doing a play in college and it was a big deal. We had a preview night and I forgot a line and called for it. “Line!” Of course, no one answered because you can’t do that during the actual run and the preview was counted as a real performance. About 10 or 15 seconds of dead air passed and then the other actor covered for me and saved the moment.

PGN: Where did you go for higher education? HC: I went to a small liberal-arts college about an hour-and-a-half east of Montréal called Bishop’s University, where I got my honors in theater and had a classics minor — a lot of Latin.

PGN: And what were you planning on doing with classics? HC: [Laughs.] Uh, yeah. Well, I continued to study. I went to the Montréal School of Performing Arts.

PGN: And what do you do currently? HC: I work with teenagers as a psych/health educator. I work at a youth center and when teens come in for medical or family-planning care they get to meet with a health educator. We explain sexual-health matters, condoms, other methods of birth control, sexually transmitted disease, HIV testing, and give counseling for all of that. If they are not sexually active, we encourage them to remain so; if they’re pregnant, we do options counseling.

PGN: Describe a case where you felt you made a difference. HC: I had a young girl come in to talk. She had other issues going on, and on top of them she’d also come out to her mom and it didn’t go very well. Her mother had a hard time dealing with it. She was there at the appointment when the girl came out to me. We talked about the other issues, because she thought they were related, but I also spoke to her at length about her kid being gay. I was able to give her a lot of information for both her and her daughter, contacts for PFLAG [Parents and Friends of Lesbians and Gays] and The Attic Youth Center, etc. I think really talking to her mom in a supportive way about how to go through it and especially how she could support her daughter made a sincere difference in their lives.

PGN: When did you come out? HC: I started coming out in high school. I told a few people that I was bi, but I kept it quiet for the most part. One of our friends at school, a male, had come out as bi and a good friend of mine said, “If you ever told me that about you, I would never speak to you again.” So I didn’t come out to her. When I went to the university, I was out from the start. I was the president of the Pink Triangle Association, which was the gay student group on campus. I ran the gay and lesbian radio show for five years. I worked at the local youth center, I was out to my sorority. I was part of the fabric of the gay community, but I still wasn’t out to my family yet. Every time my family came to visit, I would have to de-queer the apartment. About five years after starting the coming-out process, I finally did come out to my brothers and sisters and then to my parents on a weekend trip home. My parents kind of didn’t believe it. They always knew I was a free spirit, and just figured it was another time in my life. But they were very clear that they loved me no matter what. Since then, things have only gotten better and better. They’re amazing parents. They’ve raised five well-adjusted adults, which is an amazing feat in and of itself these days.

PGN: What do they do? HC: My dad’s an accountant. He has his own firm, a small business that does mostly corporate accounts now. And my mother has been the postmaster for about 20 years.

PGN: Cool. Does she wear a uniform? HC: Yeah, she has a Canada postmaster’s uniform.

PGN: As a big sister, what’s the worst thing you did to a younger sibling? HC: On occasion, we got into physical confrontations where we took our frustrations out on each other. My brothers were more apt to be the ones doing something torturous. I remember my first big date, the guy brought me home and just as he was leaning in to kiss me goodnight, my brothers, who’d been hiding at the top of the stairs, started making kissy noises. It was mortifying. I think the worst sibling thing that we used to do was to tickle my sister until she peed her pants.

PGN: Aside from the torture, do you think being the oldest contributed to you being a teacher/nurturer? HC: Yes, very much. I’ve always been interested in jobs that gave me the opportunity to nurture somebody else’s growth. When I was in Montréal, I worked at an education and recreation facility for adults with disabilities. I worked doing personal care and education. Throughout my life, I’ve been involved with children too, whether it be babysitting or teaching. I’ve always kept a connection with kids. At the clinic where I work now, we get a lot of kids who need information or help and are not able to talk to their parents. I can be that ear for them to talk about their problems and concerns and then help give them reliable information and support.

PGN: Do you think the sexual/reproductive health industry has been affected by the current administration? I know that when we give money for health projects in other countries, it often comes with abstinence-only restrictions. HC: Fortunately, no. I don’t know the particulars, but I believe we have grants and Title 10 funding. Title 10 mandates that we give comprehensive sexual-health information, so we must include all forms of sexual-health information, from condoms to abstinence.

PGN: What brought you to Philadelphia? HC: Mountain Meadow. They are a camp for kids with nontraditional families. I read about them in a magazine and decided to volunteer. I would drive down from Quebec each summer. At the same time, I was looking for a graduate degree program and hadn’t found one in Canada that I liked. I was at a staff party at Mountain Meadow and one of the directors was talking about a program that he and his partner were doing. As soon as he described it, I knew it was exactly the program I was looking for. It was a program at Widener University on human sexuality. I started there in January of ’03 and got my masters in ’05 and I’m studying for my dissertation in January. It was the best decision I ever made. It’s funny: I can trace everything in my life that I have right now back to Lesbian Connection magazine. That’s where I saw the ad for Mountain Meadow, from there I met the woman that I co-parent with, because of that I also met the guys that taught the program that got me to Widener, and because of that, I now have the job that I do. Because of staying here, I’m now with Kelly. And it all started with reading that magazine. A true lesbian connection. Actually, lots of them.

PGN: How did you get into drag and burlesque? HC: There was an anti-Rick Santorum event and my former partner Nicola and I decided to do a number for the event. We’d been trying to come up with other people to form a troop but we started with just the two of us. I came up with the name LiCK, standing for Liberty City Kings, and we made a logo and did the one number. It was pretty bad, but we got other people interested in working with us and were able to get off the ground with LiCK. We now do shows all over town. We started off doing drag, but there were some people, myself included, who wanted to do burlesque, so we added that to our repertoire. There was a song that I wanted to sing with Nicola called “Texas Annie” by the Wet Spots and we needed a cowboy and a cowgirl; I’m good at coming up with names, so I came up with a character, Lascivious Jane, and it stuck. We now do about half and half in the show, with some of us doing both drag and burlesque. That can be a little challenging when you’re backstage: not only switching costumes, but switching genders on top of it!

PGN: Where do you perform? HC: We’ve been teachers and dancers at Pousse Café and we’re scheduled to model and do a couple of numbers for the Dr. Sketchy’s event at Fleisher Art Memorial in February for the Bloody Valentine night. We love to do that event, it’s kind of an anti-art-school event. We have a couple of workshops coming up where we teach drag and burlesque. We’re also hosting Mr. Drag Philadelphia in January at the William Way Center. We’re still looking for contestants for that, so people can e-mail us if they’d like to compete. Our e-mail address is [email protected] or they can find us at myspace.com/libertycitykings.

PGN: What do you teach in the workshops? HC: We show people costuming techniques, different ways of walking for drag and different ways of moving for burlesque. We teach the shimmy and the bump and grind, and binding and packing, making realistic-looking facial hair, all sorts of things. Coming up with a name.

PGN: Do you have a drag name? HC: I do. I have several characters, both drag and burlesque. My first character is Dick Reliant, who’s a red-necked, blue-collared, white-bellied all-American guy. He’s been a truck driver, a miner, done all sorts of manual labor. A little rough around the edges, he likes his beer and his women and occasionally his guys. My other drag character is Hank E. Panky. He’s a soft-spoken cowboy, a little bit shy. My main burlesque character is Lascivious Jane. She’s a country girl who is a little wild. She’s sexy in a slutty way. And then there’s Anastasia Beaverhausen, who is a European aristocrat who looks high-class but is actually a tramp.

PGN: What is the magic of burlesque? HC: It’s not about stripping, which is an art form in and of itself, which is fine, but burlesque is about the performance. It’s about the costumes and the tease, it’s about the fantasy of the character. And for me, it feeds the performance hunger that I haven’t fed for five years. I also like the creative aspect of the costume and staging. We also look to push boundaries. Our troop does a lot of raunchy humor, we mix sexual and sensual content. Most troops don’t do as much of that as we try to incorporate. I do a song called “The Pussycat Song” and one called “I’ll Come for You.”

PGN: I understand you have a calendar out? HC: Yes, we were trying to think of ways to promote ourselves and we came up with this idea. We were very lucky because we got the photographer Leah MacDonald to do the pictures for us. She’s incredible. She does traditional commercial work as well as her own artistic photos. She has a process she uses called encaustic painting where you encase the photos in wax and then draw or sketch on top of them. It gives a dreamlike quality to the photos. She was actually on “Martha Stewart” in May showing the technique. She spent several days over the course of six months working on our calendar. She photographed us in many locations in different costumes. She shot so many wonderful images it was hard to pare down to just 12 photos. The calendar is available at Giovanni’s Room and at both Passional stores. Passional has been a sponsor and they’ve been very generous. They’ve given us space to rehearse in, which is invaluable, and have just been supportive overall.

PGN: What are you proud of? HC: I’m a legally married lesbian. I got married to a woman in Canada and we’re in the process of getting a divorce, but as good lesbians, we’re working on maintaining our friendship. I have a girlfriend, Kelly Burkhardt, who is the head of TLA Releasing. I live my life as authentically as I can. I’m completely open about everything I do as much as I possibly can. My parents know I do burlesque. In fact, my mother wants me to teach her how to twirl.

PGN: You can twirl? HC: I can. In both directions. In fact, I can make them go one at a time …

PGN: Oddities? HC: I do a lot of things that people wouldn’t necessarily think go together. I’m training to be an amateur boxer. I do burlesque, I do drag, I am a sorority girl — Alpha Delta Pi, the first and the finest. I am a parent: I co-parent a child with two other women. When I moved here, I met two women who became my family here. For the past six years, we’ve been raising a child. I get to see her almost every morning for breakfast and on Friday afternoons I take the afternoon off and we spend time together, just her and me. It’s an incredible experience.

PGN: What’s your most unusual possession? HC: I have two corsets. One of them is a blush pink and black leather corset, which probably is the most expensive thing I’ve ever purchased. I got to wear it recently in “Tremble and Spark,” which is a movie that my partner Kelly wrote and directed.

PGN: Favorite toy as a kid? HC: I loved Barbies. I collected them until I was 13 or 14. My Barbies had sex all the time. I had one knock-off Barbie who I’d gotten second-hand. I didn’t have any boy Barbies, so I cut off all her hair and made her real butch, though I told people she was a Ken doll.

PGN: What’s the farthest you’ve traveled? HC: Africa. I had an amazing trip there where I got to go to South Africa, Botswana, Namibia and Zimbabwe. I can’t wait to go back.

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