I had the opportunity this week to meet a dynamic young person here in Philly. At just 31, Lea Aponte has lived enough for someone twice her age. Aponte is a producer, writer, fine arts painter, dancer, drag performer (as Mr. Cinderella), carpenter, pastry chef, interior designer and skincare creator. We met up at her performance space in North Philadelphia to talk about her multifaceted empire here in Philadelphia.
Where are you from?
I was born in Germantown Hospital, got moved to Delaware when I was about 8 years old and then all over from there. Over time, I lived in several foster homes and stayed at a group home. The group home was a bad experience. I was discriminated against inside the system because I was homosexual. I was only about 12 or 13. It was a terrible time.
What were the circumstances that led you into the system?
I was adopted as an infant, and the family I was adopted into became problematic after a while. It wasn’t a good situation. The family was very unbalanced, dysfunctional, and there was a lot of hate and anger inside of the family itself. It was a LOT, and I was being pulled and dragged within the family.
Did you ever meet your biological family?
I never met my biological family.
So you spent your teen years in the system.
Yes, and that was just as bad as where I’d left, so I then went to a group home. Luckily, around that time, I met someone at my school, a guy named Gary, and he became for me what I was missing in a mother. I was living in Delaware and was new at the group home. He helped me with anything I needed, food, clothes. He made sure I got my hair done when I needed it. He was like a parent.
Was he the same age as you?
No, we were in high school together, but he was two grades higher than me. We’re still good friends.
Was he also at the group home?
No, no, he was outside. I was into music and dance, and so was he, so we became friends. I was kind of popular at school because of my dancing, so a lot of people knew me, and he and I hung out. When he graduated, I didn’t want to stay at the group home anymore because they were discriminating against me, so the social service agency sent me to a foster home in Wilmington.
Was the discrimination because of being Black or gay or both? And how did it manifest?
Gay. Basically, the problem was just some individuals who were in power who did not agree with a homosexual lifestyle. They would threaten me and say, “You better not be touching no boys. You better not be doing any gay stuff.” They treated me like an animal.
Did the next foster home work out?
Not really. The foster home there wasn’t receiving the funds that they were supposed to be getting from the agency. So the guy who was fostering me wasn’t getting the help he was supposed to get for me, which meant I wasn’t getting it either. My [adoptive] mom came up there and there was a big fight, a big war… She got back involved in my life. Even when I went into foster care and was at the group home, she stayed in touch. She was going through some things and was just trying to get by herself.
She thought the group home would be better for me. Since it was funded by the government, they were able to provide a lot more for me. It was a better living arrangement, and they paid for dance classes and stuff like that. There are some benefits to being in foster care; it’s not all bad stuff. When you want to do things, they have the money available for what you need and want. But the homophobia was the downside, and once my mom realized that I was being treated badly, she told them, “You don’t need to buy him things, I’ll take care of him.” So she would buy me things to decorate my bedroom and made sure I was comfortable. She did her best to still be there for me. I give her credit for that. Considering all the things she went through herself, she did a great job.
Yeah, I didn’t understand until I got older that she had her own battles. She was dealing with a tough situation in the family herself. We have a good relationship now, and we talk often. I wish I’d known better when I was younger.
How’d you make your way to Philadelphia?
I ran away from the foster home in Wilmington and came to Philadelphia. I was 18 and legal, so there really wasn’t anything they could do about it. I didn’t have to stay in another bad situation. So I came to Philadelphia, met a gentleman named Salih Watts. He was conducting a survey that I took. I got paid for the survey, and after talking, we became friends. He realized that I was homeless and didn’t have food or many clothes or anything. He took me off the streets and became a mentor. I was trying to get on my feet, someway, somehow, and he was a big help.
Where were you staying before that?
I was homeless, so wherever I could. On the street, or if some guy liked me, I might sleep a night at his house, or with friends. I was young and dumb and going through that age between 21 and stupid, where you think you know it all, and you’re all grown, but I wasn’t. I made a lot of mistakes. I did some things that I regret. I’ve apologized to Salih for my mistakes, but I was young trying to be an adult. I had to be because of my circumstances. I didn’t take or have time to relax and learn from anyone. I just felt like I always had to keep things moving, keep moving, keep moving, figure out my next move. It was hard. A saving grace was that I never turned to drugs.
How did you get beyond all of that pain and hardship?
I started cooking when I was in Wilmington. I was making desserts and eventually got into school through Job Corps. Job Corps saved me. I highly recommend it for any homeless youth over 18. They take you in, offer you a dorm to stay in and food, teach you a trade, and you get paid. I had nothing — nothing, and they were my saving grace. After studying the culinary arts at Job Corps, I decided to go to West Virginia because I wanted to go as far away as I could to get a fresh start. I wanted a whole new beginning for myself.
That’s great. Sometimes we all want fresh starts.
Yeah, I started cooking and doing small events. I eventually moved to Atlanta and got involved in a big event there, “The Gentleman’s Ball.” I provided desserts for that event. There were some celebrities there, and some of them started contacting me to do private catering, and because of that, I became known as a celebrity chef.
Spill some names!
[Laughing] I can’t! The only one I can give you is Mariahlynn from “Love & Hip-Hop.” She came from New York to Atlanta and did a private concert in my condo for her new single at the time. So I was doing some things in Atlanta. I brought that energy back to Philadelphia and have started making a name for myself here. I got an award at the Kimmel Center for a tribute I’d done for Haiti when they were hit with the earthquake. I’m a lover of the arts, so I enjoy dancing, cooking and music.
What kind of dance do you do?
I started taking lessons when I was at the group home, and I learned ballet, modern, jazz, tap, a little of everything. While there, I started a nonprofit called Off the Streets Entertainment, teaching free dance classes to other kids. Since I’ve been in Philadelphia, I’ve been getting sponsorships from groups like GALAEI for me to teach dance and other things and was honored as the Peer Educator of the Year for them as well. It was nice.
Why did you leave Atlanta?
I needed to get out there. I was beginning to feel like I was trapped. I wasn’t happy with myself at all. A little while ago, I went to the Flower Show with my mom, and we were talking, and I told her that I’d never really felt like I was gay. I’d always known inside that I identified as a woman. In Atlanta, I was building a name for myself as a man, Lee Aponte, and I was very unhappy about it because I knew it wasn’t really me. I knew I wanted to transition to Lea, and Lee was getting too strong as a public figure. I decided once again that I needed a clean break.
That’s definitely understandable. How is it in Philadelphia this time around?
It’s going great. I’ve found a beautiful man, Edward, who loves me for who I am and is here for the duration. He has been so supportive. He bought me my first bra and heels! When we first started dating, I was presenting as Lee, so I wasn’t sure how he was going to handle me transitioning. He’s always identified as a gay man, so it’s a shift in identity and perception for him too, but we love each other and are moving forward together. Love isn’t always easy, but he’s embraced me for me.
Definitely, and I’ve always told him: “If you’re unhappy, it’s OK. I walk with God holding my hand, so I’m never alone. So if for one second, this is too much for you, I understand. If this is not the life that you want, I’m not going to hate you for wanting to be happy. I would never blame you for walking the path you need to because I’m not going back. I’ve taken the shackles off, and I’m free now, but if being with Lea is not for you, I understand because Lea is a totally different person, not just physically, but spiritually and emotionally. Lee was raunchy, fast and open to a lot of things that Lea is not.” So a lot of changes, but happily we are going through them together.
And what’s on the horizon?
We have this great new space that we’re opening up that we’re really excited about. It’s 5,000 square feet, and we do special events and performances here. People have been renting the space for everything from birthdays to bachelor parties. Before the shutdown, we had Sip and Sing Sundays. We’ve done Black Gay Pride events, game nights, product openings and showcases. You name it. I’m still doing catering, and I have a cosmetic line, Lea’s Luscious Cosmetics, that I’m working on. Edward has his own skincare line, Black Diamond, that he’s putting out. I also want to do a talk show and a cooking show. We’re establishing our own little empire!
Yes, we have a cosmetics area and a space to showcase [Edward’s] skincare line. We have a performance space with a large dressing room. We have a game room; there’s going to be a video production room complete with a green screen, and, in front, there’s a big space for creating artwork. And the whole thing can be refigured to accommodate different events or programs.
OK, random questions. What’s your go-to karaoke song?
Maybe a Missy Elliot song. I don’t really sing, but what I will do is dance on stage while someone else is singing. Preferably modern dance. That’s my contribution to karaoke!
What’s something you’ve learned recently?
To appreciate things, to believe in yourself and to have purpose. Even though I’m transitioning, I’m still the same person in terms of morals and values. I’ve had people in my life to help me, but I’ve always had to find my own motivation. I try to wake up and live the day like tomorrow may not be here, especially in this time with the pandemic and everything else going on. I never take anything for granted. Even during arguments, I try to check myself and apologize before things go too far. I realize that you could walk down those stairs and be gone, that I could walk down the stairs and never have the chance to say, “I love you” again.
What was the last book you read?
“A Child Called It” by Dave Pelzer.
Miss Reed. She smelled like gingerbread and kindness. She just had an I’m-here-sweetheart gentleness about her. She reminded me of safety.
If you could do something dangerous with no risk, what would it be?
I’d fly on a glider into the grand canyon.
Who should play you in the miniseries of your life?
Oh wow. Well, for me before transitioning, I would want that Black guy who played in “Hairspray,” [Elijah Kelley or Clayton Prince]. He can sing and dance and act, so he’d be good. And for Lea, that girl that plays the warrior in “Black Panther!” [Danai Gurira]. Edward says I always feel like I have to be in control. He gives me a hard time about it, but I just think I’ve always been a strong woman. I have strong values and strong beliefs. I won’t let me being a woman change how I should be in the world. I’ve always been a powerful person, and I plan to stay that way.
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