Just Trying To Be Tony; He's said goodbye to the dresses, the makeup, the wild living. But Baltimore DJ Tony Boston is still learning just where he and Miss Tony part company.

THE BALTIMORE SUN

When he decided, finally, that it was time to end the life of a woman he loved, Tony Boston knew the perfect place was church, in front of God and the whole congregation. It would be a gesture as big and dramatic as the woman herself.

After all, there was no hope of hiding his plan. Nearly everyone in Baltimore knew this woman, or at least had heard of her. She could walk into a room, all brassy, sassy 350-plus pounds of her, and bring you to your feet, singing, dancing, laughing. Or to your knees with a stabbing glare or an unkind word.

By night, she was a glitzy after-hours nightclub diva; by day, a raspy-voiced early-morning disc jockey for Baltimore's most-listened-to radio station.

Her name was Miss Tony, and he had indulged her excesses, her man-chasing, her wild ways most every day of his adult life.

For 12 years, they'd been closer than brother and sister. But he'd had enough. So here he was, standing at the front of this narrow brick church in Northeast Baltimore, awash in sweat and triumphant in her death. At his feet lay a heaping pile of her sparkling gowns, mink coats and short skirts -- a rumpled, glittering testament to Miss Tony's demise. He'd snatched them from a bedroom closet just hours before, determined he'd exorcise all traces of her.

He felt he had to explain, but as he spoke, his raspy voice betrayed no regret, no remorse, no desire to ever again be the man who, until just that day, had worn these clothes proudly. As he looked out at his newfound brothers and sisters in Christ, there was only fire in his words.

"Never again!" Tony Boston cried out, and the congregation, moved by this remarkable afternoon of death and rebirth, erupted into shouts of praise and song.

Looking back on that afternoon last April, Tony Boston should have known that killing off Miss Tony was not going to be that simple.

During his 12 years in drag, Miss Tony had brought him so much he had cherished -- fame, friends and a fair amount of money, things he likely never would have achieved without her. For a kid who'd grown up in Sandtown, this was the big time. As Miss Tony, people knew him, knew his name. He could say and be whatever he chose.

Miss Tony was about fun. Starting back in the late '80s, Miss Tony would come alive several nights a week, meeting her fans in after-hours nightclubs like Club Fantasy, Odell's and Paradox. Most likely you'd find her in the middle of the dance floor, vogueing, gyrating and singing amid flickering lights and bass-heavy, funky music.

Miss Tony danced like nobody else. She would fall on the floor and roll around. She loved to get dragged across the dance floor by anyone willing to be her stage prop, smiling and singing the whole time.

"It was almost like a circus act," says Deborah Whitaker, an old friend of Boston's who is an intake specialist for the Office of Public Defender. "Before I met him, people would say, 'Girl, you have to see Miss Tony!' I could never believe it until I saw it."

"Miss Tony was like a character," says Teddy Douglas, a dance music producer better known in Baltimore club circles as DJ Teddy D. "Everybody would come out and see Miss Tony, and he would be the life of the party. He had the outrageous outfits and hair."

Those who talk about Miss Tony sometimes say "he," sometimes "she." Cathy Hughes, his boss at 92Q-FM (WERQ), once tried "shim," combining "she" and "him."

But make no mistake, says Tony Boston. Miss Tony was a man, and there was never any plan to change that fact. Miss Tony was an all-out, unrepentant drag queen, a man who admired women and their ways and strove to be a souped-up, extra-feminine version of them.

Miss Tony was gay, too. Always had been, long before he thought of putting on the hair, nails and makeup. At times, Tony Boston will tell you, Miss Tony had an unquenchable lust for men. She favored thuggish types, so-called "yo boys." They were rough and tumble, sometimes on the wrong side of the law, and, by all appearances, straight. Miss Tony got a rush pursuing -- and attaining -- men who were not openly gay. It made her feel irresistible.

And friends and family say that more often than not, Miss Tony got her man.

"She was bold," remembers Jason Gilmor, a Baltimore clubgoer who saw Miss Tony on the prowl. "She would walk up to a guy, circle around him like he was prey, and give him the eye.

"Her eyes said it all, man. You knew what she wanted and -- I still don't believe it to this day -- the guys, big drug dealer-types, would be seen in the neighborhood with her later that week. ... You knew what had happened between the two of them."

It was at the clubs that Miss Tony also met Frank Ski, a popular radio DJ who made appearances on weekends. In 1991, Miss Tony would begin a collaboration with him, becoming his chief cheerleader and dancer. It gave her a stage to perform some of the club music she'd recorded, songs about relationships and urban life such as "What's Up, What's Up" and "Pull Your Guns Out."

By 1994, Miss Tony had landed on the radio at Baltimore's 92Q-FM as an entertainment reporter. Soon, the role was expanded and she became a morning show co-host, first with Randy Dennis, then with Ski before he left for Atlanta last year.

From the tender age of 25, Miss Tony was a Baltimore icon, the city's most famous drag queen since Divine. Despite a voice peculiarly unsuited to radio, she had moved from the fringe world of clubs to the drive-time mainstream. She had earned Tony Boston the success, respect and adulation he had craved.

It should have made him happy. Somehow, it didn't.

"Everyone thinks because I lived the life of Miss Tony, it was all glamorous," says Tony Boston. "It wasn't."

On this particular morning, Boston is looking about as glamorous as a truck driver. It's a few minutes after the end of his 6 a.m.-10 a.m. radio show, and his eyes are dark and sleepy. He's wearing baggy pants and an untucked shirt, both black. He's got a skullcap on his head, hiding short tufts of hair.

"Long night," he says, explaining away his appearance with a shrug.

With no makeup, his skin is darker, rougher than Miss Tony ever would have allowed. There is a trail of hair running down each side of his face, meeting in a tangle of wisps beneath his fleshy chin. Still, he has a youthfulness about him that belies his 32 years.

In his sparse downtown office overlooking the back of the courthouse on St. Paul Street, he leans forward in his chair and twists his face into a grimace as he talks about life as Miss Tony. For all the wild times, for all the high moments, living the life of Miss Tony had been a burden, he says. Twelve long years of drinking, smoking dope and falling in and out of lust had made him feel empty, used up. At one point, he says, he considered suicide to get out from under her.

"I started to hate myself because I was gay," Boston says. He'd had one too many bad relationships, heard one too many bad remarks about being a drag queen. One too many moments, he says, reflecting on how life might be if he turned to God for solace instead of Miss Tony. "I wanted to check out."

For a moment, he seems shocked at his own candor, but then adds: "I'm not ashamed of my life. Let's make it real."

He's more animated now. The talk seems to be lifting the morning doldrums. "Making it real," he says, telling the truth whatever the cost, is how he wants to tell his story. Maybe it will help someone, he says, to know how far he has come.

Around his old West Baltimore stomping grounds, Tony Boston and Miss Tony are something of a local hero. Longtime residents love to talk about knowing both back when.

Boston's family -- nine brothers and sisters -- was too large to live on one paycheck under one roof. Some of his siblings lived with their grandmother, he and others with his mother.

Boston was a mischievous kid who struggled with the hyper-masculinity of the streets. Over the years, he fashioned himself a street tough who could shoulder assaults on his feminine mannerisms with a brash, in-your-face attitude.

"I was a bad-ass," Boston says matter-of-factly. "I used to curse teachers out. They would always have to call my mom."

Donald J. Taylor remembers picking on Boston when they were both pre-teens outside Gilmor Elementary School.

"He was so funny. He hung around all the girls, [would] carry his books to his chest, and walk by you and roll his eyes. Back then, me and my friends had to [taunt] him," says Taylor, who still lives on Gilmor Street. "He would curse you out and run away if you bothered him too much."

No one can really remember exactly when Boston began dressing as Miss Tony. One day he just showed up on the streets in women's clothing, and that was that. No one thought much of it, partly because he wasn't exactly a trailblazer in his neighborhood.

"There was this old drag queen, named Jose, that walked around the neighborhood," Boston says as he tools around the old neighborhood in his blue Chevy, the tape player blaring "Release Yourself," a new song he's recorded. "Ohhhh -- he had long hair and wore short dresses. He was a legendary queen."

Recalling such boldness, he chuckles.

"I was too young to know what he was," he says. "I didn't know what I was yet."

He's thumping his fingers to the music, listening to his voice strain to soar above the bass-heavy beat. "Release Yourself," he says, is his personal anthem:

Tired of being under pressure with the way you live your life

People will always say you should live another life

Take time for yourself and listen to your own mind

Listen to your heart and be free with yourself.

The day Tony Boston first put on a dress and wig, he fell in love with himself.

He'd already accepted the fact that he was gay and was no longer closeted about it. But the clothes let him express his individuality, his comfort with living life as he saw fit, like never before.

He says a friend of his, a drag queen named TJ, got him into it. He remembers the details of that winter day 12 years ago as if it were yesterday.

"He said to me, 'Child, you need to get in drag and do a show with me!' So I did: white pantsuit with blue stirrups, gold blouse with sequins, makeup and wig." After a few years, he was dressing in drag 24 hours a day.

Life as a queen did have its low moments. Old pal Deborah Whitaker remembers an incident at a McDonald's on North Avenue. She and Miss Tony were eating there after leaving a dance club when a group of teen-age boys walked in. They started taunting Miss Tony, shouting out derogatory terms for gay men.

"It was bad," says Whitaker. "They threw things at us."

Miss Tony, never shy, put up a good front, threatening to go after the boys. "But he never would," Whitaker says. "He would look hurt by what had happened."

Friends and fans recall Boston drawing stares and laughter almost everywhere he went outside the clubs: in the mall, walking or driving down the street, even while working on the radio.

Randy Dennis, Miss Tony's partner on 92Q before Frank Ski, recalls one particularly ugly incident a few years back. A well-known comedian had stopped by the station to promote his act. On the air, he began to make brutal fun of Miss Tony, describing her as the "Schlitz Malt Liquor Bull," the huge, snorting, black bull on the drink's label.

"Oh, my God, I thought Miss Tony was going to slap him," says Dennis. "Miss Tony told him, 'I will take these here nails off and whip your [butt].' I told [the comedian] he was going to have to leave."

Tony Boston tries to shrug off such memories. If those moments hurt him, he doesn't like to show it. Instead, he gets quiet and, for a man who's lived his life in a short skirt onstage, strangely shy. But he'll admit, finally, that the taunts were one reason he decided that Miss Tony had to go.

Since that day last spring when Tony Boston marched into the Victory Center church to cast off Miss Tony, he has swathed himself in religion instead, looking to God as his deliverance from her wild life. Most of Sunday and evenings on Wednesdays he is in church. There, wearing a man's suit and praising God, Boston says he feels at home.

It took him a while, though, to find a church to call home.

"A lot of churches I went to said they don't want 'faggots,' " he says.

Victory Center was different. Minister Tony Smith described the congregation on a recent Sunday this way: "We had homosexuals, six former lesbians, five major drug dealers and a pastor who said God changed them all."

The church does not shy away from discussing Boston's past. Smith himself brings it up from time to time to illustrate that Tony Boston is, in fact, a new man, one who has left behind the days when he didn't "walk like a man."

To some of his former friends, Boston is a traitor. He was a role model, they say, and he shouldn't feel pressured into going straight.

But Boston says his decision was personal, not political. He says he has no religious agenda, doesn't mean to pressure anyone else. In fact, he says, he has the same respect for the gay community as he has always had. It's just no longer a life he wants to lead.

"I'm not saying the gay community is bad," he says. "Those are the people who love me and remember me."

And in or out of drag, Tony Boston wants you to remember him. While he has turned down the amps, he still loves the spotlight. One of his chief worries about putting Miss Tony to rest was what would happen to the recognition he'd enjoyed.

"In my mind, I was thinking, you are going to lose your fame and your fortune," he says as he drives around Baltimore one afternoon. "[But] if people love me like they say they love me, then they will understand my change."

It was never just about dressing up, he says; it was the attention it brought. The steady paycheck. The friends and respect. Most of all, it made people think about him, remember him. It didn't matter if they loved or hated him, they knew about Miss Tony.

She may be gone now, but that craving is not.

As he wheels his car into the parking lot of the district courthouse on Wabash Avenue, Boston is seething. He's in the middle of an identity crisis -- this time not of his own making.

One of his brothers, already on the lam from the law, was stopped by a Baltimore police officer for running a red light. His name, he told the officer, was Tony Boston, and gave his brother's old address. Court summonses began showing up there, but Boston knew nothing about the matter until his brother broke the news -- two days before his license was to be revoked.

So here he is, forced to hash things out with the court clerks, who no doubt have heard every excuse in the book.

"I can't believe the police didn't know, as famous as I am," Boston says, as a clerk looks over his case file. He looks off into the distance, not talking to anyone in particular, but wanting everyone within earshot to hear. "I can't have people thinking that I am in court," he complains. "It would be all over the news."

He's incredulous that a city cop couldn't remember his name. "How many parties have I done and they have been there for security?"

Behind her glass partition, the clerk's face begins to soften, and she nods her head in agreement. That's all the confirmation Tony Boston needs. This woman knows who he is. If there was even a moment of doubt that she wouldn't, he hadn't shown it.

In short order, the problem is cleared up. Boston walks out smiling, happy to have the mix-up behind him.

"She asked me if I wanted to take out a warrant" on his brother, he says. "I told her to let it go."

He pauses, then stands up straight, giddy with a sudden realization.

"Miss Tony," he says, sounding just like her, full of attitude and dramatic flair, "would have escorted the police over to my brother's house."

At Victory Center, Tony Boston has gone from queen to king.

"I'm trying to encourage people to call him 'King Tony,' " says Pastor Smith. "He has found his royalty and his place. He is king over himself."

That's what Boston keeps telling himself. But even with God, even with the Scriptures he can now quote, he knows that he alone has the power to stay the course. Every day, every hour, he has to choose to leave his old life behind.

Keeping Miss Tony bottled up is a struggle sometimes. It's not so much the urge to dress as a woman again, he says. But men still catch his eye. His desire to be with them romantically hasn't gone away, it's simply lessened.

When he feels his resolve wane, he goes to his church, talks to his minister, gets away from the old crowd and prays for strength. And he says there's even a woman he finds himself attracted to these days.

His rebirth has not come without other tests. Just last month, he suffered severe kidney failure, and now, three days a week for three-hour stints, he is on dialysis.

"As Miss Tony, I would have been depressed, but now I know that I have God and I don't get down about it," he says.

The bosses at 92Q are also testing his faith. Last April, Boston never told management at the radio station that he was retiring Miss Tony.

His contract was up for renewal earlier this month, yet no one at the station has talked to Boston about it. Consequently, he has been working without any security that his job at 92Q will be there in the morning.

Boston says that he is putting it all in God's hands. Yet, it is clear that he is fed up with what he feels is disrespect for his talent by the bosses.

"This business is so shoddy and shady," huffs Boston. "I'm the most popular person here. It will be their loss and my gain" if his contract is not renewed.

Boston points out proudly that the show is still No.1 in its slot, despite the departure of both Miss Tony and the popular Ski. (Since Miss Tony's demise, listeners who call in and refer to him as her on the air are promptly and firmly corrected.) Station managers admit missing Miss Tony.

"I do miss her a little bit," says 92Q program director Tom Calococci. "It's hard to put a finger on it, but there definitely has been a difference." As far as re-signing Boston, though, all Calococci will say is "it is still too early to tell." says

Away from church, away from the studio, Boston doesn't seem to have lost much of his fire, especially for music and dance. His Friday nights are still about after-hours clubs, singing, dancing and "getting the party started." Just his act has changed, he says. No cursing or wild stuff, just good, clean fun. Get on his last nerve and he will still tell you what to do with yourself, just more politely than Miss Tony might have.

He will say, though, that to all the doubters out there -- and there are many -- to hell with you. This is the last reincarnation of Tony Boston. While he may struggle with his new life, he says, it's less of a struggle to hold on to his sanity and his happiness than when he was Miss Tony 24 hours a day.

They are strong, confident words, the kind he spoke that day last April when he stood before the folks at Victory Center and declared Miss Tony had had her last dance.

But that was the public Tony Boston. Jermaine Boston, his 26-year-old brother and closest confidant, saw another Tony that day as he watched him sort through the dresses and skirts he was preparing to throw away.

Each outfit had a story to tell. That wild Halloween night. The evenings he would sit on the steps, smoke weed and then go to the Underground Club, where it was anything goes. The days he would go dressed to the nines to the courts on Greenmount Avenue to watch the guys play basketball.

Tony looked up at his brother. "I've done so many things in my life," he told Jermaine. "I'm grateful I have a second chance."

In another hour or so, he would be full of fire and flair, standing over the clothes in front of the cheering congregation. But now, in front of his brother, he was shaky, crying and mourning the loss of an old friend.

Pub Date: 01/31/99

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