First published in The Record, Feb. 15, 2018
The acrobatic, Amaz’n queen of drag
For 3 minutes and 28 seconds, Terry Lee King became the Legendary Amaz'n Grace and oh my goodness, was it joyous. Gone was his fear. Gone was his eternal question, “Can I trust this person?” and his eternal answer, “No.”
Instead there was the Legendary Amaz'n Grace, one of North Jersey’s longest-serving drag queens, sauntering into the basement recreation room of Hope Center, a home in the Bronx for people with HIV and AIDS. She wore a poofy Whitney Houston wig and a black ball gown with wide scalloped sequins. She placed her silver 6-inch heels at the center of the room and surveyed her audience of about 40 patients and nurses, including four people in wheelchairs and one wobbling against a cane.
The music started. She winked.
“All the shine of a thousand spotlights,” the recorded voice of the singer Loren Allred cried in a gathering crescendo, “all the stars we steal from the night sky, will never be enough. Never be enough!”
The Legendary Amaz'n Grace spun in a circle. She jumped a foot into the air. She swept low across the brown tiled floor and rose up into the arms of Marvin McEachia, who rested with withered legs on the thin padded seat of a four-wheeled walker.
She wrapped her arms around McEachia’s thin shoulders, which were clad in a gray sweatshirt. She lip-synced the words, “These hands could hold the world but it'll … never be enough. … For me!”
McEachia closed his eyes, flung back his head and threw his arms into the air.
“I love the Legendary Amaz'n Grace,” McEachia, 54, said after the show. “She’s funny as hell.”
A few days later King was asked how he could pull off such an athletic performance, with almost no rehearsal, at age 56, while in treatment for his own HIV.
“I did all that? I had no idea,” he said. “See, sometimes when I’m performing as Legendary Amaz'n Grace, I don’t know what I do.”
It is precisely this kind of abandon that, when he isn’t performing drag, King believes he cannot afford. His belief was forged in a different era, before "RuPaul’s Drag Race" earned three Emmys and a weekly audience of 1.2 million people, and drag entered the parlance of mainstream culture.
King grew up the 1960s and ’70s in the South Bronx, a place where gay men like him were called names, beat up, and worse. He knew he was gay before he turned 6, when two of his cousins started sexually molesting him, he said. The abuse lasted until he was 12.
That repeated horror, plus what even his mother described as his thin skin, helped shape King into the man he is now: exuberant onstage, wary everyplace else.
“When I’m Terry, I’m still holding something back," he said. "I don’t really trust people. When it comes to opening up and really letting people in, no. When I’m performing as the Legendary Amaz'n Grace, I’m everybody’s mom. And I’m more loving.”
Occasionally the sickness overrules him, and neither King nor the Legendary Amaz'n Grace can leave his apartment in Cliffside Park.
“There are some times my body will say, ‘All right Terry, no splits for you. No back bends for you today,’” he said.
Most days, though, he is healthy. As one of North Jersey’s longest-serving drag artists, King has taken his Amaz'n Grace persona to contests at Club Feathers in River Edge, charity shows at St. Paul’s Lutheran Church in Teaneck and hospice centers for people with HIV and AIDS.
He decided to shorten "Amazing" with an apostrophe out of respect for the famous hymn. The title “Legendary” is an honorific bestowed in 2011 at a drag ball in Paterson, where King wowed the crowd as both a performer and emcee.
“I didn’t choose to become legendary,” he said, “but if Paterson gave it to me, I’m taking it!"
His career might have been even longer, but King didn’t start until he was in his early 30s. That’s when he realized he could become a drag queen by channeling his mother.
But first he needed her permission.
Jewel Lopez King grew up in Puerto Rico and worked as a singer, dancer and actor. She quit performing to marry Alston Jordan Black, move to New York City and raise six children, but she retained her taste for spectacle.
“How Amaz'n Grace came to be is my mother was just fantastic,” King said. “At home she was just a basic housewife. But for a party I would see her transform into this beautiful, elegant head turner. That always stuck with me.”
He began performing at family events when he was 5, and at 7 he started organizing talent shows for birthdays and block parties. King remembers his neighborhood in the South Bronx as happy and safe, but only for kids who were heterosexual or good at faking it.
“At that time in the Bronx the drug dealers and the gang members looked out for the kids. The neighborhood was like a family. It was a lot of fun,” he said. “But gays, lesbians, transgenders were treated like trash. If you were gay, you hid it.”
He attended a performing arts high school in Manhattan, enlisted in the Army for six years, returned home and worked for community theaters, even though his mother disapproved.
“She didn’t want me going into show business because she thought I had thin skin and I took everything personally,” he said.
At 30, King wrote, produced and starred in a musical comedy about a male singing group that was accidentally booked by a nightclub to perform as women. Standing offstage, he heard his mother laughing in the audience.
“When she saw me do that character, something changed for her,” he said. “She thought that character could be my protection. I’m not really being me. I’m being somebody else.”
King incorporated his mother’s flair. Performing once at a NASCAR-themed bar somewhere in New Jersey, King ran out of costumes. He emerged from the bathroom wearing a turban, halter top and minidress fashioned from Bounty paper towels.
“I said, “Hello! I’m the quicker picker upper!” he said. “Those guys absolutely fell in love.”
In a subculture famous for its catty caricature of femininity, King also channels his mother’s love.
“People are used to seeing insults and nastiness. They think that’s what drag is supposed to be,” he said. “To me it never made sense. I think Grace embodies my mother and the women in my life. Whatever problems you’re having, she wants you to forget that for a while.”
Sometimes a drag performer likes to forget, too. After hugging Marvin McEachia, The Legendary Amaz'n Grace strutted to the center of the Hope Center’s drab rec room. She kicked off her heels, flung herself into four tight spins, jumped into the air, landed on her knees, bent backward and pressed her forehead to the floor. When she rose she flung her Whitney Houston wig to the ground, revealing a short blond wig underneath.
People in the audience raised their eyebrows in shock and delight. They clapped as hard as they could.
Three minutes and 28 seconds after commanding the stage, the Legendary Amaz'n Grace curtseyed.
“I don’t want to die holding on to something I could have shared,” King said later. “And Grace is more able to do that than Terry.”