For 20 years, a drag queen named Miss TiNea has basically lived on the stages of the Twin Cities gay club scene. He's known for possessing a rare trait among drag queens -- TiNea actually sings. Nothing could remove him from his beloved perch until a serious illness put him in the hospital last month.
"Everybody knows TiNea," said fellow queen Mary Brewster. "She's much more than a drag queen -- she's an entertainer. There's nobody else like her."
A singer's life of long nights, hard drinking and grueling travel has been hard on TiNea's health -- although until now it never stopped him from strapping on a pair of heels and hitting the stage in one of his 100 gowns. But when his kidneys failed in December, he spent Christmas and the ensuing weeks at Hennepin County Medical Center. TiNea (real name Terrell Hunter) has no health insurance. He must spend the next couple of months in a care center going through regular dialysis.
Now his friends -- whom he calls his only real family -- are coming to his aid with a series of benefits starting Saturday.
Many say it's usually TiNea offering the helping hand.
"TiNea is the type of person who would give the sequined jacket off her back to help support her brothers and sisters," said Brewster (real name Jason Kroll). "He's not the kind of person who would want a benefit."
Before going into the hospital, TiNea had performed a weekly R&B revue at Camp, a gay bar in downtown St. Paul. TiNea's first benefit will be held there on Saturday. Drag queens from Rochester to Superior, Wis., will provide the entertainment. On March 28, TiNea's friends at the Town House Bar in St. Paul will bring in their own armada of drag queens for what they're calling "TiNea Day." Proceeds from both parties will help with the mounting medical bills.
Since leaving the hospital in mid-January, TiNea has been at a care facility in the western suburbs. Sitting in his room last week, he flashed his familiar smile but his usual glitz and glamour had disappeared. Gone were the wigs and gobs of makeup. He wore a backward baseball cap, an oversized flannel shirt, hospital sweats and baby-blue socks. He had lost a good 25 pounds.
TiNea's voice usually booms with the vocal deliveries of his favorite singers, such as Barbra Streisand and Chaka Khan. But here he spoke softly. Only once in a while did he let out his signature laugh -- an eruption of diva glory. ("Bwah-haw-haw-haw-haw!")
In 30 years as a working drag queen, TiNea has seen many things and met a lot of people. His introduction to this niche career took place in Omaha, right after he graduated from high school in the late 1970s. He was living in Boys Town.
"It was a Saturday night at a gay bar called the Stage Door," TiNea remembered. "A drag queen got on stage and I thought he was a stripper because he was making all kinds of money. I was blown away."
Two weeks later, TiNea was on that same stage.
In the 1980s, he moved to the Twin Cities where he met his "drag mother," Cleo.
"She taught me how to do everything -- how to dress, how to put on makeup and how to stand up for myself," he said. TiNea spent the next decade criss-crossing the Midwest, commanding stages from Winnipeg to Wisconsin, and back to the Twin Cities. The past few years, he lived on a friend's chicken farm east of St. Paul. He'd often bring in fresh eggs for his fans at Camp.
In his room last week, I asked TiNea if he missed performing at the bar. He began to cry.
"I miss the people," he said. "I miss coming in every Friday and just making them happy. Making myself happy. It tears me apart. It hurts. It really hurts. It's very rough because you don't know what the outcome of this could be."
He was stunned to hear about the benefit parties his friends have put together. "God, it's so cheesy what I'm about to say, but I can't express how it feels."
He might not look the same, but TiNea said he feels as if his old self is slowly coming back.
"I finally let one of the managers here know what I do," TiNea said. "She said, 'We'll have to put on a show.'"
Right then, he let out a loud bellowing laugh, as only Miss TiNea can do.
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