Strong. Confident. Alyssa Edwards is the bold and the beautiful. But Alyssa is just a character, a kind of superhero alter ego I conjured out of pixie dust and Dynasty reruns. By night, I’m Alyssa—Miss Edwards, if you’re nasty—but by day, I’m Justin: dance-studio owner, choreographer, brother and uncle. Sometimes I see Miss Head Cheerleader when I look in the mirror, Miss Lady of the South. But even without all the makeup and the wigs and the high heels and the lashes, I love the man I see staring back.
That wasn’t always the case. Growing up in Mesquite, Texas, I always knew I was different. I had a wild imagination, a vibrant personality. “He’s a special little boy,” my granny always said. “A colorful kid.” As long as I can remember, I never understood the whole gender roles thing. I loved to dance and play with my sisters. My father was a masculine Southern man: boys wear blue, girls wear pink, and…there I was. He wanted me to be the all-American ball player, a rough little boy like my brothers. But I was lucky. I had my mother. She protected me and kept me safe and secure for as long as she could.
When I turned 13, different suddenly meant something, well, different. I didn’t want to be different from other boys. I didn’t want to be an outsider. I didn’t want to disappoint my mom. The minute I got to school, I cramped up. It was a difficult time for me. Children can be so tough on each other in middle school. I retreated into a shell. I stopped talking. I thought that if I didn’t call attention to myself, I would blend in. When people from my hometown see me on TV now, they can’t believe they’re looking at that shy, timid, scared little boy. Believe it! You see, I actually was the life of the party back in school. It’s just that all the parties were in my head and nobody was invited.
Every day after school, I’d watch Oprah with my mom. One day, when I was 16, I was late getting home from school. When I walked into the house, there mom was, watching an episode about something I didn’t see coming. They were talking about being gay. “Homosexuality.” It made me very uncomfortable. I wanted to tell her that I was the same as those people on TV, but I didn’t know how.
A few years later, we were sitting on the sun porch together. My mom turned to me and said, “My baby boy, before you took one breath or stepped one foot on this Earth, I had a relationship with you. There’s nothing you can’t share with me that will make me ever love you any different.” I sat there for a second and started to say, “Mom…” and she said, “Justin, I know you’re gay. And I’m going to love you, whoever you are and whoever you love.” Tears started running out of my eyes. Tears started running out of her eyes. “As I look at you now, I’m so proud of the man you’re growing into.” It was very easy with her behind me.
I didn’t want to be different. I didn’t want to be an outsider. I didn’t want to disappoint my mom.
But I didn’t always have my mom to back me up, not when I wasn’t at home. That’s where dance came in. Dance honestly saved my life. My gay uncle, who was my hero, took me to my very first jazz class. It became the safest place for me. I could express all the emotions I kept bottled up all day in school through the art of movement.
If dance saved my life, drag gave me nine more. I remember watching The Rocky Horror Picture Show at 17. I was wildly amused and intrigued, even though a part of it seemed severely wrong. I grew up in the Baptist church, and so there was a bit of a religious conflict going on. It wasn’t until I was 19 that I went to a gay bar for the first time. I’ll never forget it. There were homosexuals everywhere! It. Was. Amazing. That same year, I went to my first drag show. I just stood in the back and giggled and watched as the ladies of the Rose Room turned it out. I found it so compelling and campy—I had to see more. Maya Douglas. Whitney Paige. They had such stage presence and showmanship. They just owned the room.
A lot of these ladies became mentors to me. Whitney was larger than life. She was so tall—huge! Her personality was even larger. She just filled the room. Every show I went to felt like Alice in Wonderland, like I fell down a rabbit hole and went into this insanely creative realm. When I left, it felt like I’d woken up, like maybe it was all a dream. I had discovered a whole new world. What was going on here?
My very first gay friend, Alan—we’re still friends to this day—invited me over to his place not long after that. He was an amateur drag queen at the time and had a pair of thigh-high boots lying around. He said, “Justin? You’re a dancer. You should think about drag.” I thought to myself, I could never do that. But then I put on those boots on and never looked back. I entered an open-stage amateur night at the Rose Room. When I was up there on that stage, it felt like all the puzzle pieces had finally come together. Everything made sense in patent leather.
Seventeen years later, here I am. I always believed in destiny, but I never thought it would lead me here. I thought I would be a dance teacher in Mesquite for the rest of my life. That’s where I was born. That’s where I was raised. Going on RuPaul’s Drag Race really changed my life, allowing me to bring Alyssa all over the world. Now that I’m the compelling and campy lady in the spotlight, I try to give back everything the ladies of the Rose Room gave me, even if it’s just a smile. Sometimes, it’s extremely difficult to muster the strength to even think about laughing, much less giggle. I’m trying to give people a little bit of sunshine on a cloudy day—maybe even offer an umbrella.
Right now, that’s one of the most important things we can do for each other. We in the LGBTQ community and all of our friends and allies have to stay steadfast. We can’t go back into the closet. We must be proud of who we are. We have to keep moving forward. Even when times are tough, we have to keep pressing on. Keep pushing, keep resisting and continue the journey. There’s a scared little boy out there who’s counting on you.
Always and forever,
Justin Johnson (aka Alyssa Edwards)
Justin Johnson, aka Alyssa Edwards, appeared on the fifth season of RuPaul’s Drag Race and the second season of RuPaul’s Drag Race: All Stars. His dance company, Beyond Belief Dance Company, is based in Mesquite, Texas. A series based on Johnson and his studio, “Haus of Edwards,” is set to premiere later this year.
Read more essays from Playboy’s Pride series here.