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The ‘Real’ deal: An interview with Julia Lemigova of RHOM

Navratilova’s spouse on reality TV, her chickens and Martina’s art

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Julia Lemigova, who has been married to Martina Navratilova since 2014, is the first openly lesbian member of the ‘Real Housewives’ in the history of the series.

If you’ve managed to avoid watching even a single season of any of the “Real Housewives”shows, you now have a reason to watch. Julia Lemigova, who has been married to Martina Navratilova since 2014 is the first openly lesbian member of the cast in the history of the series. Initially introduced as a friend of “Real Housewives of Miami”cast member Adriana de Moura, the statuesque Lemigova towers over her castmates in more ways than one. She has a wonderful sense of humor, and her self-confidence is palatable. More than just a welcome addition to the cast, her presence is essential to making the show a well-rounded experience. Julia was gracious enough to answer a few questions.

BLADE: Julia, were you a fan of the Real Housewives franchise before you joined the cast of Real Housewives of Miami, now airing on Peacock?

JULIA LEMIGOVA: I had heard about the Real Housewives franchise. I always wanted to find time to watch, but life is busy with me farming or something else. I never watched the show until my dear friend Adriana called me and invited me to try to be her partner on the show. I was so thrilled because my real-life friendship with Adriana is like a show anyway [laughs], so it seemed like a natural fit.  That same day, I watched the first season; all the episodes in one day. Then the next day I watched the second season of “Real Housewives of Miami” and the third day I watched the third season, and that’s it [laughs]. I was convinced! I loved it! I became an instant fan. It was like a natural chemistry.

BLADE: I was touched by the story of how you met Martina, to whom you’ve been married since December 2014. Did you do anything special to celebrate your wedding anniversary?

LEMIGOVA: We were actually in the middle of moving houses. We literally moved on that day because everything was kind of going fast and we wanted to get the house to ready for our daughters. So, we haven’t really celebrated. We’re kind of making jokes to each other that here we are moving boxes and packing on our anniversary. But we did open a bottle of something and had dinner. Now that both of our daughters came back from being abroad, we are looking forward to celebrating it together with them. We had a rain check, and we’ll celebrate it all together; Christmas, wedding anniversary, all of it in the new house.

BLADE: Another fascinating detail is the way you talk about how you had been closeted, but that living in Miami has allowed you to be more of yourself. Can you please say a few words about that?

LEMIGOVA: I felt free from the second I stepped onto U.S. soil. Being so shy and introverted about my life while living in Paris and then the first time we went for a vacation to the U.S. in Aspen followed by Miami, it just felt right. We stayed in a small art deco hotel on the beach. I remember having breakfast and looking at people walking, Somehow, I found myself walking around Ocean Drive with Martina, and here I am holding hands with her. I was like, “Oh, my God!” It was something I never ever did in Paris. I love Miami even more for that [laugh]. I’m crazy about it. I said, “Let’s move here.” It was wishful thinking, because back then same-sex marriage was not legal. We had to plan ahead and overcome quite a few challenges.

BLADE: We’re very glad you like it here. You have the distinction of being the first openly lesbian cast member in the history of “Real Housewives.” What does that honor mean to you?

LEMIGOVA: I feel so proud, and I never use this word lightly. Being a visible part of our LGBT community is quite new to me. I would not even try to pretend I am a spokesperson for it, but I’m so happy to be a spokesperson for myself and for my family. I hope that as a family we represent our LGBT community well. I’m thrilled and honored to shine a light on how we live; on our family, and share it with the world, and especially with those who may need it.

BLADE: Episode three of the new seasonincludes scenes from Wynwood Pride. Living in South Florida as we both do, we have multiple Pride festivals, including Miami Beach Pride, Fort Lauderdale Pride, Stonewall Pride in Wilton Manors, Pride of the Palm Beaches, and Key West Pride. Have you been able to partake in the myriad Pride festivals?

LEMIGOVA: Because of COVID, and all the difficulties that come with it, I was not able to participate in that this year, unfortunately, in a lot of Prides that I would have wanted to. However, when I was pregnant with my daughter in 2001, I was there on the street [for Pride] in New York. That was a lot of fun. Then, with Martina, during some of our vacations, we participated in a lot of different LGBT events, and I was a part of Pride in Paris, which was so much fun. Actually, New York again just before COVID started, which was amazing. And then my first time in Miami Pride this year.

BLADE: In addition to living with Martina in Miami Beach, you also have a farm in Broward County. What do you like best about the goats and chickens and all that goes with the farm?

LEMIGOVA: I grew up in Moscow. Every summer my parents would send me to this Russian dacha. Being around animals, farm animals is part of my growing up. It’s who I am. Living in Europe, I could never make this dream happen. In Florida, when we decided to be in Miami, it was such a natural fit. Not only did I feel like I could be me here, be open about how I live, who I am, and my sexuality, but I also realized my second dream, which is to live among my four-legged and two-legged creatures. I have an unusual farm. It is a working farm — it keeps me working [laughs], but it’s more like a retreat. They each have their habitat and I am I am just living with them. I’m part of their life. I talk to them, all of them, even my multiple numbers of chickens. I love milking my goats. Right now, three of them are pregnant, so I’ll have a lot of milk. I cannot wait to start showing my cast-member friends how to make goat cheese. It gives me a sense of kind of belonging, tranquility. What makes it even funnier is that I jiggle between high-heeled shoes and chicken galoshes. I’m comfortable in both [laughs]. I’m at the beach house in high-heeled shoes and I have galoshes in my pickup truck for when I pick up my hay and feed for the animals. Then I join Martina later for some glamorous dinner in Miami Beach.

BLADE: Initially in the first couple of episodes of the new season, you are introduced in the new season of RHOM as “Adriana’s friend.” Having only seen the first couple of episodes, it’s obvious that Adriana is a little bit of a flirt. Do you think that’s an accurate description of your friend?

LEMIGOVA: It’s funny because at first people were saying that I was a flirt. I actually looked up flirtation when people were telling me, “Julia, you are little bit of a flirt.” I hadn’t heard that about Adriana. But now that you’re saying so, I’ll ask her if she was told that as well. When I looked in the dictionary for the exact definition of the word there are lots. The one I found more accurate to me and flirt is like a butterfly. You’re flying from flower to flower. That’s how I interact with people, in general. Men, women, my chickens. Flirt to me is just a way to say I enjoy talking to you. There is no sexual connotation to me at all. It’s just a happy exchange of energy.

BLADE: Well said! In the first couple of episodes, we also learn about Martina’s talent for painting. How important do you think it is for people to have a creative outlet for expression such as painting?

LEMIGOVA: I think it’s so important. Whether it’s painting or any kind of art or whatever other outlet they could have for their emotions, to balance how they feel. To turn the feelings, the avalanche of different emotions into something so beautiful like art or, in my case [laughs], interacting with the animals. After Martina finishes playing or commentating tennis, she spreads the canvas on the floor with paint and takes the tennis balls, smashing them all over my beautiful floor [laughs]. Creating with multi-colors, and me being grumpy because, “Oh, my God! How am I going to clean this?” An hour later, I come back, and those colors became a beautiful piece of art. I’m fascinated by how she can do that. Then she’s fascinated how I talk to my parrots and chickens and tortoises, and all of that.

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Frenchie Davis wows as Sofia in ‘The Color Purple’

D.C. native on healing power of playing the iconic role

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Frenchie Davis plays Sofia in ‘The Color Purple’ at Signature Theatre. (Photo courtesy of Signature Theatre)

‘The Color Purple’
Through Oct. 9
Signature Theatre
4200 Campbell Ave., Arlington, VA
$70-$108
Sigtheatre.org

D.C. likes to claim singer Frenchie Davis as its own. And now we can, again.

Davis has returned to the DMV to head the theater arts program at a new charter school as well as wow audiences in Signature Theatre’s production of “The Color Purple” directed by Timothy Douglas. Adapted from Alice Walker’s Pulitzer Prize-winning, coming-of-age novel about Celie (Nova Y. Payton), a victimized teen in deep Jim Crow South who through grit and courage grows up to find redemption. 

Davis plays Celie’s sometime champion, ballsy Sofia, a Black woman loath to buckle under (a part memorably portrayed by Oprah Winfrey on the screen). 

“I grew up in California but was born in D.C. when my parents were students as Howard University. And years later I came back to attend Howard, so artistically speaking I started my career here,” explains Davis, 43. “I began singing in old school gay clubs like Edge and Wet – that’s how I made extra money when I was in college. I owe a lot of who I am to D.C.” 

She made national headlines when — despite a big voice and vivacious personality — she was booted off the second season of “American Idol” in 2003 after some topless photos surfaced online, a “scandal” that reads quaint today. But that’s old news. Since then, Davis has performed on Broadway in “Rent,” done national tours of “Dreamgirls” and “Ain’t Misbehavin’,” and played Henri in “The View Upstairs,” an off-Broadway musical about the UpStairs Lounge arson attack that killed 32 patrons of a gay bar in New Orleans. Additionally, she performed at the Blade’s 50th anniversary gala in 2019 and numerous other LGBTQ events. 

“‘The Color Purple’ is a show I’ve long wanted to do, and performing with my old friend Nova, a beautiful soul and a real talent, makes it that much better,” she says. 

WASHINGTON BLADE: Sofia is incredibly strong. Do you relate? 

FRENCHIE DAVIS: There’s a beauty and vulnerability that the other characters miss at first glance because Sofia is so very strong. And I think that’s mirrored in my own life [she laughs]. Recently, I’ve had to stop being ‘the strong friend’ offstage – sometimes it’s too much to be just one thing. 

But strength is important. I like how Alice Walker created with this book — and it continues in the musical version — a beautiful story of sisterhood and the power women have to change their lives and world around them when they come together in support and love.  

BLADE: Walker is also an activist — civil rights, women’s rights, Palestinian self-determination to name but a few. Your coming out as bisexual could be described as political. Are you an activist?

DAVIS: I am an activist. Not a lot of Black women performers were out of the closet when I came out. I think it was just me, Tracy Chapman, and Meshell Ndegeocello.

Now, people are kicking the door open. I have a lot of pride. I was young. I was in love with my “ex-hersband” and wanted to honor that love and not be afraid about holding hands in public.  

My dad, a human rights activist, was terrified for my safety. I told him that if I have to lie then I’m not safe. Ultimately, he really surprised me. He treated my ex as another daughter. They went on hiking trips and all kinds of stuff without me. It kind of got on my nerves. [Laughs.] 

BLADE: Walker portrays so many relationships between women: sister, friend, lover. 

DAVIS: It’s very inclusive. For me, reading the book as a young person before it was dramatized was my first time seeing two black women in love. It was very impactful, especially because I identify as bi. 

Also, Walker draws a beautiful contrast between shy, plain Celie and glamorous blues singer Shug Avery [played here by Danielle J. Summons], showing both ends of the spectrum of women who survive sexual trauma. In their love for each other, both Celie and Shug find a healing middle ground. As a rape survivor, I didn’t miss that part of the story.

BLADE: Is doing the show all that you’d hoped for? 

DAVIS: That and more. I’m dreaming lyrics at night. I love singing composer Brenda Russell’s music. Sofia’s song, “Hell No,” morphs from anger to a plea for Celie to leave an abusive marriage with Mister.

It’s intense in different ways. After rehearsing the scene where Sofia gets beat up, I needed a session with my therapist. Signature is taking such good care of us, supplying intimacy coaches and advocating for selfcare. It’s a special production. 

There are parts of me as Frenchie that are healing by playing Sofia.

BLADE: Is there a happy ending for Sofia? 

DAVIS: In a way, but not necessarily the one I’d choose. In my mind the happy ending would be that she ends up with Harpo [played by out actor Solomon Parker III] and his girlfriend Squeak [played by nonbinary actor Tẹmídayọ Amay]. That’s my own personal bisexual happy ending.

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Arts & Entertainment

Team Rayceen Productions celebrates 8th anniversary

Group members, supporters reflect on the past and look to future

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Rayceen Pendarvis is the self-described ‘Queen of The Shameless Plug, the Empress of Pride and The Goddess of D.C.’ (Blade photo by Michael Key)

Team Rayceen Productions — which helps facilitate an array of local LGBTQ-centered programming, including live events, performances and partnerships from collaborators and Pride celebrations — is commemorating its eighth anniversary this month. Rayceen Pendarvis, the self-described “Queen of The Shameless Plug, the Empress of Pride and The Goddess of DC,” is a veteran emcee and lifelong Washingtonian. The team’s other members are Zar, creative director, producer and founder, Niqui, booking agent and brand manager, and Krylios, event host and co-emcee. 

In honor of the group’s August anniversary, the Blade sat down with Team Rayceen Productions and some of its frequent collaborators to discuss the group’s history, significance, and future.

The central members of Team Rayceen Productions met its namesake at different times and places, and the group’s members have shifted over time before the current “core four” assembled. According to Pendarvis, the team’s mission arose from the queer spaces where its members made their introductions, since “we all met each other in wonderful safe spaces and safe places, and out of that rose that need to uplift, motivate and inspire the community on the next level.”

Niqui, who came to the team from “The Ask Rayceen Show,” said that working on the monthly event “was life changing and empowering for me personally, because seeing Rayceen living not just truthfully, but sharing wholeheartedly what makes her who she is, really helped to free my soul and my spirit.”

Krylios, the youngest member of Team Rayceen Productions, said that while he was not there for the group’s founding, its clear sense of purpose and familial warmth drew him in. 

“One of the greatest core concepts of Team Rayceen is community, is family,” Krylios said. “As someone who was trying to find their way in not only a new space and a new community, but specifically the queer community in D.C., going to ‘The Ask Rayceen Show’ and becoming involved in Team Rayceen Productions was very important to me.”

For GiGi Holliday, a burlesque performer and regular guest on “The Ask Rayceen Show,” appearing at the event was a kind of “rite of passage” that quickly turned into an annual tradition.

“I felt like every year, I had to, in the sense of ‘I need to come home,’” Holliday said. “You have to have a family reunion once a year, right? That’s why I have always done it once a year and will continue to do so.”

Sylver Logan Sharp, a singer and longtime collaborator with Team Rayceen Production, emphasized Rayceen’s unique ability to foster people’s talents.

“The things I’m good at were nurtured, and they were cultivated, and they were honed, and they are still right now. Rayceen [does] that for the community — you and your entire team do the very same thing — you give people a platform. And nothing is more important right now than a safe place,” Sharp said. “You create that, and you also initiate inspiration in people that otherwise might not have it.”

Over and over, collaborators remarked on the group’s blend of familial warmth and comfort with the challenge to grow.

“Our gifts are called upon. When you join the family of Team Rayceen, you’re going to get called on, but whatever your gifts might be — whether people know about them or not — it’s a really great chance to just step up to the plate,” singer-songwriter Desiree Jordan said. “You become a better person as a result of being within this family and within this community.”

According to its members, the future of Team Rayceen Productions is bright. While the pandemic halted live performances and moved content creation online, Niqui shared that it was also an opportunity for the team to plan its next steps. 

“Oddly enough, the pandemic caused us to really focus and think. When you’re doing, doing, doing, you don’t really have an opportunity to future-cast, and so those two years were a turbo boost for us because they forced us to have to say ‘Okay, how do we want to focus our energy, what changes do we want to see in the world?’ And the world was changing at the exact same time.”

Although “The Ask Rayceen Show” recently wrapped its 10th and final season, Zar said that the team’s horizons have always been broader than that monthly event.

“What we have done and continue to do is create safe spaces. We create spaces for healing and celebration… we create spaces for voter registration, for community organizations and entrepreneurs; we create intergenerational spaces,” Zar said. “We create diverse spaces which honor and respect Black LGBTQ people who have been centered in so much of what we’ve done from the beginning — so I think we’ve done a good job of both expanding our base and not forgetting how we got here.”

In the future, Team Rayceen Productions is looking to increase the scale and ambition of its creative projects and to reach a wider international audience. However, as they ramp up operations, Rayceen re-emphasized the team’s commitment to its community, even when that means taking a pay cut.

“In my 40 plus years getting here, I have done so much stuff free I should be a millionaire,” Pendarvis said. “But my riches come from the community, come from people when they say thank you, when people hug me … those things that are priceless, that money can’t buy.”

“We know that, yes, we should be paid a lot more money than what we get. But when people come to us with a small budget or large budget, we take those lemons and make lemonade … creating an experience that you will never forget. When you see or hear Team Rayceen mentioned, whispered or read about, you will know that experience is unforgettable.”

For Team Rayceen Productions, this ambition for growth comes from the desire for representation. As a platform and safe space for LGBTQ people — especially Black LGBTQ people — the group reiterated the importance of telling these stories in the face of an increasingly regressive political climate.

“You know how important representation is — being able to see oneself represented, to see similar stories represented in different, unique ways that have not been done before. Because as things continue to change and things continue to evolve, sometimes things also regress,” Krylios said. “It’s important to have certain stories still being represented and being put to the front, and new stories, different stories, being done in that way, so that we keep the importance and we keep the visibility of how certain decisions being made affect people in real life.”

Rayceen Pendarvis (Washington Blade photo by Michael Key)
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Gay journalist Chuck Colbert dies

Long-time reporter covered Catholic clergy sexual abuse

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National LGBTQ Task Force Communications Director Cathy Renna, left, with Chuck Colbert (Photo courtesy of Cathy Renna)

Chuck Colbert had a touch of old Cary Grant in him — dashing and debonair in his tuxedo at swank LGBTQ events. But he was also deeply humble and bursting with joy from his lifelong devotion to the core beliefs of the Catholic Church.

His journalistic discipline controlling his personal anguish over the proclamations about homosexuality enabled him as an out gay man to report professionally on the sex abuse scandals that rocked the Catholic Church in the early 2000s.

As a regular freelance contributor to the National Catholic Reporter and other media outlets, Chuck debunked tirades against gays and often underscored how girls and young women had been raped and abused by priests and church officials, too. 

I thought about this a lot when I heard that Chuck had died on June 30. He was 67. 

I was shocked by his sudden passing and how long it took to find out he had died. I met him decades ago through the National Gay and Lesbian Journalists Association. Why did it take a month and a half for news of his passing to spread? 

Chuck’s friend Karen Allshouse posted news on his Facebook page:  “I’ve learned that while visiting in Johnstown [Pa.] he developed a serious medical issue (involving his esophagus reportedly) and he needed to be transferred to a higher level of medical care and was transferred to a Pittsburgh hospital. Respiratory complications developed and he died. For those who are concerned about his mom — a former high school teacher of his (English) accompanied his mom to the cemetery for the committal service.”

I considered Chuck a loving friend and a journalistic colleague but I realized I actually knew little about him. Our friendship ranged from email exchanges to quick chats at events to deep conversations about religion, including the influence of Thomas à Kempis’ “The Imitation of Christ.”

If anyone sought to imitate Christ, it was Chuck Colbert. He was kind without thinking about it. He walked the walk and scolded those who didn’t but claimed to have created the path. 

On March 17, 2002, two months after the Boston Globe exposed the sexual child abuse by priests rotting the foundation of the Boston archdiocese (depicted in the movie “Spotlight,”) Chuck wrote an op-ed in the Boston Herald entitled Leaders of Catholic Church Must Listen to All the Faithful.”  

“Clearly, the Catholic Church in Boston is in crisis. Some blame ‘militant homosexuals’ among the clergy, branding them ‘a true plague on the priesthood.’ Is the crisis, in fact, rooted there? Let me offer another perspective — one based on more than 25 years of faith life as a convert. First, I have failed, somehow, to encounter any Catholic Church culture characterized by ‘priestly homosexuals run amok with no fear of condemnation.’ The reality is significantly more boring,” Chuck wrote. 

He went on to describe his scholarly and theological journey from the University of Notre Dame to Georgetown University, Harvard University and Weston Jesuit School of Theology, receiving degrees at each stop. 

“Still, it was not until I arrived in Cambridge 15 years ago that my spiritual desolation over the conflict between my sexual identity and my religious conviction found its positive counterpart: consolation,” Chuck wrote in the Boston Herald. “The catalyst for that life-saving, personal transformation began when a bright and theologically astute Jesuit priest became my spiritual director.

“He listened,” Chuck continued. “Over time, I broke the silence of my anguished pilgrim journey and its struggle with homosexuality. He understood that I carried with me the heavy baggage of church teaching, those deeply wounding, soul-shaming words from the Catechism, ‘objective disorder’ and ‘intrinsic evil,’ that pathologize (and objectify) same-gender love and its sexual expression. Through the respectful, nonjudgmental listening and guidance of spiritual direction and through richer encounters of God’s grace in the sacraments, therapy, and prayer, I came to experience God’s unconditional love. I now feel, to the core of my being, that God loves me (I suspect you) along with all my quirky postmodern, American, but very human, strengths and vulnerabilities.”

Chuck became an expert reporter covering the Catholic Church sex abuse scandal. During a May 7, 2002, appearance on CNN, Chuck responded to a question about the culpability of Cardinal Bernard Law, Archbishop of Boston. 

“I think the question raises a very interesting question, or point,” Chuck said. “And it is not just the personality of the cardinal. Other bishops who were auxiliary bishops at the time [of  Fr. John Geoghan’s arrest for child molestation and release] and are now bishops in other places, as the [Father Paul] Shanley documents have been revealed, these show higher levels of involvement of knowledge. And so it is systemic — but it is also the leadership, the broad leadership that Cardinal Law mustered to either handle or mishandle this scandal, and I think that we will see more of that come out in court.”

Chuck’s expertise was invaluable to the LGBTQ community, as National LGBTQ Task Force Communications Director Cathy Renna told the Windy City Times.

“Chuck was a friend and colleague — one who was extraordinarily principled and helpful, especially when addressing issues related to the LGBTQ community and the Catholic Church. He was instrumental in helping us frame and address the abuse scandal when church leaders scapegoated gay priests, as a person of faith and an intellectual,” Renna said. “[W]orking with him was a vital part of my work taking on the Catholic Church hierarchy while at GLAAD, along with other queer and allied groups. But he was also a pleasure to be friends with, who found joy in life and our community, and was one of the people I most looked forward to seeing at the NLGJA convention and other events. He will be greatly missed.”

Chuck caused some ripples in my life after an interview we did for the online LGBTQ press trade newsletter Press Pass Q in 2016 about my being laid off as news editor by my longtime publisher Frontiers Newsmagazine.

Chuck had interviewed Bobby Blair, chief executive officer of Multimedia Platforms Worldwide, and the new publisher of Frontiers.

“Unfortunately, Karen fell where we realized we were moving toward a digital and Millennial audience, and we wanted to give the generation of Millennials a real shot at creating our content,” Blair told Chuck. “Did you get that on tape?” I asked him. 

Chuck Colbert summed up his philosophy via a quote from Leo Tolstoy’s “War and Peace:”

“Life is everything. Life is God. Everything shifts and moves, and this movement is God. And while there is life, there is delight in the self-awareness of the divinity. To love life is to love God. The hardest and most blissful thing is to love this life in one’s suffering, in the guiltlessness of suffering.”  

********************

Karen Ocamb an award winning veteran journalist and the former editor of the Los Angeles Blade, has chronicled the lives of LGBTQ+ people in Southern California for over 30 plus years.

She is currently the Director of Media Relations for Public Justice.

She lives in West Hollywood with her two beloved furry ‘kids’ and writes occasional commentary on issues of concern for the greater LGBTQ+ community.

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