In honor of PGN’s anniversary, we thought it would be nice to interview our very own Barbara Walters, Suzi Nash. Suzi came up with the idea for “Family Portrait” in 2005, and since then she has interviewed hundreds of diverse members of the LGBTQ community, from choreographers to car mechanics and directors to dentists. The columns are an important reminder that LGBTQ people are in every industry and come from every imaginable walk of life. And while everyone’s story is different, a common theme of the column is something we always need: hope and joy.
You’ve been doing the column for 16 years now. What do you think is the most meaningful part of doing this job and getting to talk to so many different people in the LGBTQ community?
It gives readers the chance to meet people they may have never heard about or never known, to discover people’s lives and the backstories of those who are unknown in the community. And for those who are higher profile, it gives people a chance to see a whole different side of them. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve interviewed a public figure in the community, and either their partner or people sitting around them say ‘I never knew that about you!’ I think it’s kind of fun for people to learn different aspects of people that they didn’t know about before.
It really shows that we all have different stories, and that people’s lives can take them to a similar place but with very different routes. After talking with so many different people, what have you learned about our community?
I’ve learned that a lot of our assumptions are wrong. Whether it’s an assumption that certain communities are not as accepting or that other people are better off than you. The assumptions we make are not always correct. For me it’s been great because I’ve met a lot of amazing people and made some great friends out of the column. One of my best friends is Noel Zayas, we’ve been good friends, he’s my semi-permanent valentine ever since I interviewed him in 2005.
Speaking of memorable portraits, does anyone else come to mind?
So many. My opinion is that everybody has a story and it’s just a matter of coaxing it out of them. I interviewed someone once and before we spoke they told me that they were kind of boring. They were right! So I really had to coax a lot out of them. When the column came out, they came to me and said “I don’t know how you did it, but you made me sound interesting!” Actually, he had great stories but didn’t want me to print them! I’ve also had the pleasure of doing a few celebrity interviews, Chaz Bono, Deborah Cox, Pam Grier, Alison Bechtel, and Carson Kressley. One of my favorite moments was with Pam Grier, as often happens with celebs, you are only allowed a brief amount of time with them. I was told that I only had 20 minutes to speak to her. I’d done a lot of research on her, so instead of asking her the questions that she usually gets about being a sex symbol, I asked her to talk to me about growing up on a farm and her family. She went from there into talking about the environment and about her family and the history of black folks out west. Two hours later, I was trying to get her off the phone! Not because I didn’t enjoy it, but because I knew I’d never be able to get all of it into the column. As it was, it was the first time we ever split the column into two weeks!
What do you think it takes to be a good interviewer?
First, listening to what they’re telling you, then following up on the questions and expanding the questions until you find something that jibes with them. For me, this column is all about elevating people and elevating the community. So I always tell people ‘Look, I’m not out to get you. I’m not out to embarrass you or find something juicy that you don’t want said. If you tell me something and realize you shouldn’t have said it, tell me. I’m not gonna put it in.’ It’s a matter of listening to people’s cues and respecting them.
Where do you think you get your skills for interviewing?
Well, my mother (Toni Nash) had a talk show for a number of years, and she was known as a good interviewer and also somebody who asks unusual questions, so I’m sure a lot of that rubbed off on me. People who’d done both shows told her they preferred her interviews to Oprah.
Along with your mother, are you close with the rest of your family?
Yeah, and extended family too. My father had eight kids in his family, so I have lots of cousins. And the Nashes, when we get together, we are a party. Any time, any place, we could be on a bus, train, come to the house. We used to have a party once a year that we’d call the Nash Bash, and it usually fell around my mother and my birthdays, which are three days apart. These parties would have everybody, my friends, my mother’s friends, old, young, rockabilly, heavy R&B, everybody and everything thrown together. People would talk about these parties because they’d meet people they wouldn’t normally have contact with. It was fun.
It sounds like you have had experience meeting a variety of interesting people.
Yes! As you know, I’m mixed, and we have a huge rainbow family so I feel comfortable in any crowd.
How was your family with your coming out?
They were very good. There wasn’t really any pushback directly to me. I found out later that behind the scenes some struggled with it, but no one said anything or made me feel uncomfortable. In fact, I was at an Aunt’s house once and my partner at the time was there with me. We were talking to her and my girlfriend got called away. I said to my aunt, “You know, she’s not my roommate, she’s actually my girlfriend.’ And my aunt said ‘wait, really? That’s your partner?’ I said yes. Then she said ‘so the person who visited with you before, that was a partner too, and the one before that?’ I said yes. Then, she said, ‘so if you’re saying all these women were past partners, you need to talk to your brothers, because you have much better taste in women than either of them!
Everyone’s coming out is different.
I’ve actually had a couple people use the article as a way of coming out to their families.
That’s amazing. Did it go well for them?
Yes, very much so. One of them was a bartender at Woody’s, he was a very popular bartender who I was shocked wasn’t out to his family. But he said to me, ‘I showed them the article and it let them know who I really was.’ So that was a really beautiful moment for me. A lot of the responses I’ve had, and Noel was one of them, was that the portraits really get to the heart of who they are, that it cut through not to the person they present to everybody, but to who they really are.
Family Portrait began in 2005, but when did you first start reading PGN?
I’d say probably the ‘80s. It was when Au Courant and PGN were the competing papers at the time.
Did you see it in a vending box or a location?
Sometimes a vending box but mostly at Giovanni’s Room.
Ahh, I love Giovanni’s Room. Do you have any memories there?
I remember Joe Beam being there and him being such a wonderful guy. I remember hitting on Rita Mae Brown when she was there for a book reading and she shut me down, little whippersnapper that I was. They had so much more than just books. You could go in there and say ‘I’m looking to join a team”, or ‘I need a gay friendly doctor,’ and they had an amazing book of resources that the clerks at the desk would pull out.
Speaking of books, titles like “Rubyfruit Jungle” and “Maurice” really impacted me in a good way in my coming out. What are some memorable books for you?
Definitely “Rubyfruit Jungle.” I also read a lot of mysteries, so there are a lot of lesbian mystery writers I enjoy. My favorite book of all time is “The Little Prince,” which I hate to admit since it’s a kid’s book, but then Barbara Walters said it’s her favorite book too.
It’s a truly moving story. I’m sure a lot of our younger readers might have seen the recent movie, but the book is also good too.
Generally movies are more of how I viewed the gay world. “Desert Hearts” was probably the first lesbian film that really got everybody all excited in my crowd. I remember I saw it with my friend Tibet, and I think my biggest memory of that film is Tibet shredding her napkin during the sex scene and saying ‘Oh no they didn’t, oh no they’re not, oh yes they are!’
Any other memorable films?
So many. That’s one of the reasons I’ve been part of the [QFlix] film festival for so long. It truly shows us how we’re not alone, and we can see what other people have to deal with across the world. I’m a pretty optimistic and positive person, and a good portion of it is because of seeing these films and saying ‘wow, I don’t have it bad, I have no reason to complain.’ Every morning, if I turn the faucet and there’s running water, I’m like ‘I’m doing better than a large portion of the world.’
Films have that power, for sure. I read that you also have produced a short animation film, “Uncle Mike.” Can you talk about that?
In 2005 I put out a record called “Rainbow Sprinkles.” The CD has songs for kids with alternative families. It had songs about having two moms and two dads, having a gay aunt (me!), etc. One of the songs was called “Uncle Mike” and it was about a little girl whose Uncle Mike is soon to become her Aunt Michelle, and she sings about figuring out how to deal with it. And the lyrics are “I had an uncle named Mike, he’s the kind of guy you’d really like, he wears women’s clothes and he powders his nose, and he wears high heels with a spike.” She talks about how her Uncle Mike is going to become her Aunt Michelle soon and how she’s not quite sure what it means, but she knows she’s going to love whoever he is. I went to the Art Institute and talked to their animation class and asked if they’d make it into a music video for me. They voted yes and when it was finished they were excited because the film was shown all over the world. I’d send them bulletins about the screenings. I’m still in touch with some of them.
Do you remember any country or city that had an especially good reaction?
Absolutely. As I mentioned, the album had songs about all different types of queer scenarios and the students decided to pick a song that was about a trans person. The class was mostly straight boys and they really took it seriously. One even videotaped himself walking in high heels so that he could get the gait right. In 2009 I screened the film in Seoul, South Korea and I did a panel discussion afterwards. Because the song was about a trans person, suddenly I became the trans authority, which I’m not whatsoever since I’m not a member of the trans community. I had to do some research as quickly as I could to try to be the best spokesperson that I could at the time. Trans issues weren’t really on the radar then. And in fact, the trans community found itself often at odds with the gay community. It’s a little better now so I think people forget that there was a time when the trans community was really given a hard time by the LGB community. One of the interviews I did when I first started was with the straight police captain who was the liaison to the LGBT community. I asked him what was the most surprising thing he learned working with the gay community, and he said it was how much they hated trans people. And I was taken aback. It was heartbreaking that we were so polarized. So to suddenly become thought of as a “spokesperson” was an interesting thing and something I’m proud of.
Let’s do a lightning round. Favorite toy as a kid?
Being a good budding lesbian, I hated dolls. But I somehow found this abandoned doll that I loved. It was a 60’s Mod Squad hippy looking doll with big glasses. I called her, “Chug Chug” because at one time it was a talking doll, but when I found it all it would do was make a “chug, chug, chug” sound when you pulled the cord. Until one day when I was riding on a pony and had the doll with me. I absently pulled the string, out of the blue it said, “Groovy!” and I almost fell off the horse!
I was the co-host on the “Bozo the Clown” show – Suzi, the Ringmaster. I can legally say that I used to work with a bunch of clowns and mean it!
If you had a magic lamp, what would your three wishes be?
First, for more wishes. I would love to have a lot of money just so I could give it out. You know the guy who plays the secret santa giving out hundreds of dollars, that would be my dream job. I would just love to do that, just to see people’s faces. I’ve been trying to get somebody to sponsor me so I could go around on buses and reward everybody who is wearing their mask properly, even if it’s just a dollar or two, as a way to encourage people to wear their masks. Third one, it would be to erase the past four years.
Minnie Riperton, who is Maya Rudolph’s mom. Her most famous song is “Loving You,” which gets roasted for being really corny. But if you know her history and her personality, it was really heartfelt. Her songs are, for the most part, very uplifting, very positive songs. She has a song called “Simple Things.” It’s all about appreciating what you have. “The sky’s fantastic blue or grey, and here we are alive today.” That’s kind of me.
What column makes your heart smile?
I did a profile on Ray Duval, he was house manager at the Prince Theater. One of those people who you would see often, and revel in his friendly greeting as he ushered you into the theater, but never got to know. I did his portrait and he was so honored, he actually had it bronzed! And of course the time someone read my profile of Charita Powell – owner of Amazulu in the Reading terminal – decided that Charita sounded interesting and went down to the market to ask her out. Shortly after, they invited me to the wedding! Oh, and one more, I met two guys from the military, David Christopher Keener and Bryan Worthen. They were asking people to sign a petition to allow LGBT people to serve. David had been discharged without benefits after serving for 10 years when it was found out that he was gay, Bryan was a straight soldier who had served under him and wanted to support his commander. He told me, “David said that he was going to a gay Pride event, to let people know what happened to him and other gay soldiers, I told him that I wanted to help out. PGN: Is this your first time at Pride? BW: This is my first time at any gay event. It’s been fun.” That was heartwarming.
I did a column about an openly gay priest. A while later, I read that though his congregation was supportive, he’d been fired from his teaching position at Chestnut Hill College because “his lifestyle as an openly gay priest did not adhere to the Roman Catholic standards that Chestnut Hill College abides by.” Another regret is that I always wanted to, but never did an interview with Donna Mae Stemmer. She used to wear these fun and sparkly outfits to events all over the city and was another one of those people who I’d see all the time but knew nothing about.
I asked Ettore Mastroddi for the best and worst things about being an identical twin. He said the worst thing is when men would say, “Ooooh twins, sexy!” and he would respond, “That’s sick! That’s my brother!” and then one night he was at an event with two modeling brothers and the first thing that popped in his head was, “Oooh, twins!”
Something people don’t know?
Before the pandemic, I did a lot of the actual portraits for the column. And I’ve seen the pictures that I took pop up all over the place. A friend gave me a business card to get in touch with someone and the business card they handed me had a picture that I’d taken for someone I’d interviewed a few years before!
Anything else you’d like to mention?
One thing that moves me are the columns that I’ve done with people who have passed, folks like Dante Austin, Desiree Hines, Gloria Casarez, Les Harrison, and Donald Carter. A few years ago the William Way Archives started to put together a collection of my columns. I still have the audio from a lot of my interviews which I will organize one of these days. It will be nice to hear their voices again.