How a Real-Life Lola Became the Star of Kinky Boots on Broadway

Playbill Pride   How a Real-Life Lola Became the Star of Kinky Boots on Broadway For J. Harrison Ghee, Kinky Boots marks a Broadway debut. But as Crystal Demure, drag is nothing new.
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J. Harrison Ghee as Lola in Kinky Boots, J. Harrison Ghee, and Crystal Demure Matthew Murphy, Joseph Marzullo, Instagram/@crystaldemure

When J. Harrison Ghee stepped into his audition for Kinky Boots, he had some sequined tricks up his sleeve—and a wig in his bag.

“I showed up, and pulled out a red sequin leotard, and I had this blonde Beyoncé hair,” Ghee recalls, laughing. “Jerry Mitchell and [Telsey + Company’s casting director] Justin Huff were like, ‘Where did you get that?’ And I was like, ‘It was in my closet—literally, in my closet.’”

Ghee, who makes his Broadway debut in the starring role of Lola—a drag queen who helps revitalize a failing shoe factory—was no stranger to the drag scene prior to being cast as a swing and Lola understudy in the show's 2014 national tour launch.

Years before he stomped into the Land of Lola, Ghee was known throughout New York City—appearing regularly as his drag alter-ego Crystal Demure. Unlike any of his predecessors in the role, Ghee is the first established drag artist to star as Lola in Kinky Boots on Broadway.

His road to starring in Kinky Boots on Broadway actually began with an audition for another musical. Ghee originally went in to audition for Motown, and seized the opportunity to present the casting directors (who also happened to cast Kinky Boots) with a headshot, résumé, and cover letter detailing his history with drag and personal connection to Lola.

“My drag definitely helped show them that this person knows what they’re doing,” Ghee says. “It piqued their interest and got the ball rolling.”

In rehearsals, Ghee had a decisive leg up: “I just connected in a different way that no one else did. Jerry Mitchell was always joking that I was the ‘captain of makeup.’ He was like, ‘Make sure all these girls look good and check on them.’”

WATCH BRENDON URIE AND J. HARRISON GHEE BELT OUT TUNES FROM KINKY BOOTS

Ghee was first exposed to drag while watching The RuPaul Show on VH1 in the mid-late ‘90s; but it wasn’t until college that he tried drag himself, as part of a drama showcase in which he played a female wrestler. Upon graduating, Ghee continued to experiment with drag while working at Tokyo Disney Resort where his co-workers encouraged him to explore it further. Soon after, Crystal Demure was born.

A post shared by Crystal Demure (@crystaldemure) on

While Ghee had an advantage stepping into Lola’s heels, finding the person behind the “beat” presented a unique challenge: Where does Crystal end and Lola begin? “Lola is not Crystal, but Lola is informed by Crystal,” Ghee explains. “Lola is an entity in and of herself, and I’ve learned a lot by living that life eight times a week. Now, Crystal is informed by Lola. The tables have turned.”

Crystal is informed not just by Lola, but by the entire Kinky Boots experience. While on tour, Ghee learned how to set and maintain wigs, and to stone and mend costumes—trades necessary for both musical theatre and gay bar stages.

From the dawn of Harlem ballroom culture in the ‘60s to the Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence, to the representation celebrated on RuPaul’s Drag Race, drag has always been an inherently political LGBTQ art form. And as a modern production of Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar sparks protest and outrage and Paula Vogel’s Indecent explores the necessity of provoking works on Broadway, theatre remains an outlet for political and social expression. To Ghee, Kinky Boots represents the power of both.

“Even here on Broadway, you see the husband who’s been dragged here by his wife, but by the end of the show, he’s up and dancing and singing and clapping along because he’s found a way to connect with someone on this stage,” Ghee observes. “You get put through all of these feelings and see that this is just another human being with the same kind of issues and feelings.”

Read: ON RUPAUL'S DRAG RACE SEASON 9, ALEXIS MICHELLE BRINGS BROADWAY FLAIR TO THE COMPETITION

Gender plays no part in Ghee’s list of dream roles; C.C. and Curtis of Dreamgirls are up there alongside Motormouth Maybelle from Hairspray. Ghee also says that he would like to see Crystal Demure compete on RuPaul’s Drag Race in the future. Ghee has auditioned for the reality competition before, but admits he wasn’t ready for it at the time. After conquering Kinky Boots on Broadway, Crystal is ready to take it to the runway.

Producers, take note: “If nothing else, it’s a story line.”

To purchase tickets to KInky Boots, also starring Panic! At the Disco's Brendon Urie, click here. For discount tickets on select performances, click here.

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