Holly Johnson: Stirring up success as a multi-tasking mom

’Tis the season to be jolly, filled with mistletoe and holly. Holly in this case would be Holly Johnson, co-owner of Stir Lounge here in Philadelphia (former Portrait Stacey Vey is the other owner). For those of you who don’t know Stir (and are bemoaning the demise of Sisters), you should know there is a bar we can go where, if everybody doesn’t know your name, they’re sure to introduce themselves. The Rittenhouse Square spot is a great little space with delectable drinks and a friendly staff. While not strictly lesbian, Stir is lesbian-owned and operated and there’s always a comfortable mix of people.


PGN: Wow, you’re a physical therapist, real-estate agent and a mom. Are you trying for a superwoman title?

HJ: [Laughs] Yeah, I’m doing all three, though I’ve cut down considerably on the real estate. I still have my license but I’m not actively practicing. Right now we live in New Jersey but we’re hoping to get back into Pennsylvania at some point, so I keep my license current in Pennsylvania. Especially since, once it expires, you have to take the test all over again and it wasn’t easy the first time. I’d rather not repeat that while taking care of twins!

PGN: That would be tough.

HJ: Yes. The physical-therapy field is great because I can work per diem. There’s always a need so I can pick and choose my schedule. So if I find someone to watch the kids — grandparents, etc. — I can call in for work. It’s great. A lot of people have to choose between their profession and being a stay-at-home mom, but this lets me do both and it gets me out of the house on occasion!

PGN: So, twins!

HJ: Yes, Finnegan and Fiona, born in October of 2012. My partner and I waited until the last possible minute — I was pregnant at 39, which is on the later spectrum of things — but I said to my wife, “Let’s just try to have one and see what happens.” Of course the gamble with IVF is that you don’t know how many you’re going to end up with. I remember getting the phone call saying, “We want to let you know, there’s more than one … ” and me leaving work to go into the parking lot to listen to the rest of the call. I was crying and asking, “Oh my gosh! How many are there?” Fortunately it was just the two. Looking back, it was a blessing once I got over the initial shock. We would have wanted a sibling and this kept us from having to go through the whole process again.

PGN: So I guess you’re not hitting the bar as often?

HJ: No, but we have a great staff and of course Stacy’s there; she’s awesome. I’m still very involved. I do a lot of our marketing, I do our event planning and all of the books from home. I’m used to always working so I fit it in wherever I can — after the kids have gone to bed or at naptime.

PGN: How are the kids handling the terrible twos?

HJ: They’re getting through them. My daughter is a biter and we’re trying to get that under control. The next big step will be potty training and I think that’s going to be a challenge, though I’m guessing it will be a little easier for Fiona than for Finn.

PGN: Those sound like Irish names.

HJ: They are Irish names. My wife’s last name is Mallon and she’s from Irish heritage. We wanted an Irish name and it was hard enough to pick one, so to have to come up with two was a challenge! We wanted names that would go together but weren’t too matchy.

PGN: Now that you’re a parent, do you find yourself saying the same things your parents did?

HJ: Well, they’re still pretty young so we haven’t quite gotten there yet. We’ll see when they hit their teenage years. My mom was pretty lenient; she let us get away with a lot of stuff. [Laughs] She’d tell us we were grounded but it never stuck; we’d be out again that Friday night. So we’ll see. Right now it’s all about just meeting their basic needs, letting them know that they’re loved.

PGN: My mother was the same, she wanted to do stuff with us so she’d say, “I know you’re grounded but we have tickets for ‘blank’ … we’ll start the grounding next week.”

HJ: Yeah, I’d get away with a lot: jumping out of my bedroom window to sneak out at night. The thought of my daughter doing that is dreadful, but hopefully I’ve got time before it starts keeping me up at night.

PGN: Though kids these days don’t seem to be as adventurous as we were. I used to get into all sorts of mischief; just last week I jokingly told my nephew he needed to get into more trouble. He’s too well-behaved.

HJ: Oh yeah, I had my first sip of alcohol in sixth grade. I shared a room with my sister and my bed was pushed up against the wall. I remember I’d cut a hole in the side of the mattress closest to the wall to hide stuff. We had little Tupperware containers of alcohol that we stole from my mom and dad’s liquor cabinet and other stupid stuff.

PGN: Ha. My friend Barbara and I had a container and we’d take just a little bit from each of my parent’s bottles so they wouldn’t notice anything was missing. It tasted like gasoline by the time we mixed Cointreau with vodka with gin with limoncello! Ah the good old days!

HJ: I know! I don’t see most kids today doing that sort of thing, at least not that early; we were in middle school!

PGN: What was your best Christmas as a kid?

HJ: I remember going to my grandparents’ house each year for Christmas and sleeping in the attic with my brother and my sister … my mom and my dad ringing the sleigh bells pretending Santa was there, coming down in the morning and seeing all the presents under the tree. Right now our son has started climbing out of his crib, so for now we’re having Christmas at our house. It’s easier to have them come here than trying to childproof someone else’s home, but eventually as soon as they’re old enough we’ll start taking them to the grandparents’ house for the holidays. I loved it and have great memories that I want them to have too.

PGN: Is it a pain or pleasure having a name like Holly over the holidays?

HJ: I do a lot of senior care with the physical therapy and it’s funny because when I introduce myself, they get all excited: “What a great name for the holiday!” It makes people smile so I don’t mind it, but I was actually born in July. I think my mom was going for an “H” theme. My sister is Heather and I’m Holly. Apparently they were popular names in the ’70s.

PGN: What were you like as a kid?

HJ: I was a tomboy for sure. I was always outside climbing trees and getting dirty. I didn’t like getting dressed up. One Christmas my dad got us an ATC [all-terrain cycle], one of those three-wheeler motorbikes. Of course my first time on it I went flying around the corner and hit a tree, got hurdled through the air and bent the frame. We did a lot of hiking and camping growing up, which I plan to do with my kids. In high school I got into sports, playing basketball, softball and field hockey, which was my main sport. I played my freshman year in college, but there was so much traveling that I didn’t have enough time for studying and didn’t want to jeopardize my degree. You have to take a lot of science classes for PT and it’s hard to make up lab work on your own.

PGN: I read it was a seven-year master’s program in physical therapy. Wow!

HJ: Yeah, I went to Shippensburg for undergrad and Shenandoah University for grad school. I graduated at 25, came out of the closet and had a good time celebrating between 25-35. I worked hard and partied hard and have some great memories to show for it. Stacy was my first girlfriend.

PGN: Tell me about your coming-out process.

HJ: I dated guys all through school and after graduation moved to Ohio with a boyfriend. I found out he was cheating on me and called my dad to come and get me. A week later I was home. My parents were divorced at the time because — I don’t know if you know this, Suzi — but my mom is gay, so is my sister. Before I moved to Cincinnati, I’d started hanging around with some gay women and had begun questioning myself. So, fast-forward, I moved back in with my dad and my sister and mother invited me to go to Women’s Week in PTown with them, just to get away and not think about the ex-boyfriend. Well, things just blew up there. I had such a good time, my mom and my sister were like, “What’s going on with her?” I was dancing with everyone and having a ball. When I got back to Philly I started hanging at the clubs, Sisters and Tavern, met Stacy and I never looked back. Now I have a wife and kids.

PGN: How did your mom come out?

HJ: The day I graduated from undergrad she sat me down and told me. She said, “I want you to know I’m leaving your father.” I had been away from home, so I didn’t know there was anything going on and was pretty surprised but, bottom line, I wanted her to be happy. I realized that she had sacrificed and waited literally until the day I graduated to find her own happiness. She didn’t want to distract me from school because she knew how hard I was working. It still touches me that she put her life on hold for me. She’s been with her partner now for 20 years and my dad’s happily remarried.

PGN: Fascinating story! Who came out first, your mother or your sister?

HJ: My mother. She had a lot of gay friends around when we were growing up. We’d have pool parties and I remember a lot of lesbian couples but never thought anything of it. I think she was just waiting for the right time.

PGN: And your dad was cool with it?

HJ: It was tough for him at first of course — they were married for 25 years — but he’s come a long way. He’s an awesome person. When I told him at 25 that I was gay, I was excited to let him know. I wasn’t embarrassed or concerned, I didn’t think anything of it. He loves my wife and is an active part of our lives.

PGN: What did they do?

HJ: My mom worked for Johnson & Johnson in the child-care center and my dad was a high-school math teacher, which came in handy when doing my homework. I’m going to struggle when it comes to helping our kids! Math isn’t either of our strong points.

PGN: Tell me about your wife, Amy.

HJ: She’s the associate head coach of women’s basketball at Drexel University. We met 10 years ago and have been married for three-and-a-half years. We got married in Hawaii, though at the time it wasn’t legal there or in New Jersey. But we did a nice ceremony with 40 friends and family who flew over. We’ve since then gotten legally married in New Jersey.

PGN: So back to the bar, how did Stir come about?

HJ: I’d taken a little break from physical therapy and was doing real-estate full time in Philly. Stacey was working at Tavern on Camac and was always talking about her dream of owning a bar. So I said, “OK, I’ll find you a bar!” The old Post bar came on the market and I showed it to her. We were sitting down having drinks and she said, “I’d love to but I really need a partner.” I told her that she needed to think about that; partnerships are difficult, you really need to have someone you trust and someone you can get along with. Fast-forward to two martinis later and I was her partner. That’s how that went! I have a problem saying no. It was a spur-of-the-moment decision but one that I don’t regret.

PGN: Three things you love about being a bar owner.

HJ: I love our staff. We’ve been very lucky and have people who’ve been with us since the beginning. It’s been a blessing to have people who we can trust who do a good job. It’s also been nice being able to give back to the community. We try to do a lot of charitable events and help where we can. And it’s great to meet so many different people. We have a motto: “One person at a time.” If someone comes into the bar either with a group or by themselves, we make it a point to introduce ourselves. We’ll take time to talk to you, our staff will talk to you. We want to make people feel welcome.

PGN: I think people forget that we have a great women-owned gay bar here in Philly.

HJ: Yes, I think they do. Stacy and I have been open for seven years now and even though the people who go there regularly know it, I don’t think a lot of other people do. And it’s a shame because, although we don’t have a dance floor per se, we have great music and a DJ most nights. We have great drinks and a friendly staff.

PGN: I interviewed Angela Bibey a while back and she was a blast. What’s coming up at the bar?

HJ: We’re open seven days a week so there’s always something going on. We have fabulous happy hours and have been voted the “Best Bar to Get Unreasonably Drunk on a Weeknight” by Philadelphia Weekly. We’re excited to be starting a once-a-month women’s party in January. We’ll be partnering with The Pulse events and it’s going to be exciting. We also rent out the back room for private parties and events.

PGN: OK: Two random questions. What’s your favorite Christmas song?

HJ: “Silent Night” by Wilson Phillips.

PGN: If you were on a reality TV show, which would it be?

HJ: That’s easy. Hands down, “Survivor.” I just watched the finale last night. I’ve watched every season and they’re going into the 30th, so that shows you how obsessed I am. I actually stood in line for two hours to try out for the show. The producer contacted me and asked for more information, and I was so excited because I thought I was in but I never heard from them. Maybe I’ll try again when the kids are a little older …

PGN: The tribe has spoken.

For more information, visit stirphilly.com.

To suggest a community member for Family Portrait, email [email protected].