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.
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.
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)
—As told to Harron Walker
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.