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Left Magazine: My Mother, Phyllis Curtin & Tessie

[Reproduced from Left Magazine March 2015]

[Reproduced from Left Magazine March 2015]

Mother’s Day has always held a very special place in my heart. As a child, I fondly remember celebrating my own mother with our annual family traditions: gorgeous flowers, her favorite chocolates, a new dress (or two or three) and brunch at the Four Seasons, of course. Still a vital part of my adult life, my dear mother continues to inspire me to consider what is really good and true about this iconically American holiday.

For me, Mother’s Day is a very broad celebration of womanhood, at its most epic hour. With ever-evolving concepts of gender roles in our society, designating a specific day to acknowledge and celebrate pure female power seems more cogent than ever. Whatever one’s personal experience with his or her biological mother, every one of us has inevitably been touched by the life of some strong woman who has influenced us in a positive way. We articulate this adoration culturally throughout our unabashed esteemed of such female luminaries as diverse as Eva Peron, Audrey Hepburn, Princess Diana, Jacqueline Kennedy, Oprah Winfrey and Angelina Jolie — iconic women whose legends and personal mystique inspire each of us to reach for our highest goals and to contribute genuinely to the betterment of a world in need. At a more intimate level, that strong woman may be a sister, a teacher, a colleague or a friend — someone who’s life example has shown others an enlightened path.

On Mother’s Day, we celebrate all women who have made a difference — great or small — in the quality of our lives. When I reflect upon the women who have most profoundly impacted my life, three beautiful ladies come to mind. First, of course, my dear mother herself. With her typical effortless aplomb, my mother fulfilled the role of provider for me from an early age — a gift for which I will always be grateful. She was my first music teacher, my most extreme critic and my greatest fan. But perhaps the greatest lesson learned from my mother was the value of cultivating an inquisitive mind. This capacity to grow and dream — when groomed by an exemplary education — is perhaps the greatest gift a mother can give to a child. This Mother’s Day, I am thrilled to welcome my mother to our beautiful San Francisco, where we will celebrate her special holiday together at my Martuni’s benefit show for the Tenderloin Tessie Holiday Dinners. I love you mama!


The second woman to touch my life in an indelible way was my beloved voice teacher, operatic soprano Phyllis Curtin. As a young singer I was mesmerized by the glamorous mystique of this legendary lady. But I now realize that what Phyllis taught me was actually much more than a solid vocal technique and artistic refinement: Phyllis taught me to take ownership of my unique inquisitive mind by “doing it my way.” So many singers want to be told what and how to do things — Phyllis had no interest in that. She was there with the strength of her own example to demonstrate that listening to one’s own artistic voice and instinct and following it is — ultimately — true freedom and the source of real joy in life. Thank you, Phyllis, for so elegantly granting me permission to become whoever and whatever I choose to be as an artist.

The third female icon that I must mention here is a lady who I actually never met, but someone who is directly responsible for the creation of my performing persona, Vanessa Bousay. Over 30 years ago a lady named Tessie started a tradition in San Francisco that we now know as the Tenderloin Tessie Holiday Dinners. In an effort to better the world and the community that she saw, Tessie reached out to those most in need, at a time of year when hearts are most often lonely — the holidays. Because of her work, thousands of bodies and souls have passed through the doors of the Tenderloin Tessie Holiday Dinners, where they have been served, fed and loved by the dedicated volunteers who still share Tessie’s beautiful, inclusive vision.


As a drag performer living and working in San Francisco, I am humbled to represent the Tenderloin Tessie Holiday Dinners in the spirit of Tessie herself. As I sing to my extended family each Thanksgiving, Christmas and Easter holiday — in my own voice, just like Tessie did — I realize a dream fulfilled by the ladies who have mattered the most to me. As Vanessa Bousay, I can share my inquisitive mind, my cultivated performing talents and my love of communicating with people in the most tangible and remarkable ways. I am so thankful to all the women who have influenced the person that I am…the person who allows me to make a difference where it matter most — in the hearts of those in need. So as I prepare for my upcoming “Ladies Night at Martuni’s” benefit for Tenderloin Tessie, I am immensely grateful for the examples of strength that I have been shown by the women in my life. It is my hope that Vanessa Bousay will continue to inspire others to live fully and to love with an ever open heart. For love is not really about gender — it is about giving. Let’s all give lots of love to the women who inspire us this Mother’s Day. And everybody come and celebrate at my Martuni’s show!


[Reproduced from Left Magazine, March 2015;]

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