Justin Johnson didn’t really fit in growing up in a small Texas town. So he found dance and learned how to be proud of standing out
JENNY BLOCK | Contributing Writer
Justin Dwayne Lee Johnson is a force. If his name is not familiar, perhaps you know him by his stage name, Alyssa Edwards.
Johnson — well, Alyssa — became something of a household name after appearances on RuPaul’s Drag Race Season 5, Drag Race All-Stars 2, America’s Got Talent, and his very own docuseries, Dancing Queen. But if there is anyone who doesn’t know who he is yet, the cross-country tour of his solo extravaganza Life, Love, and Lashes is about to change that.
The tour comes on the heels of his critically-acclaimed run at the Vaudeville Theatre in London’s historic West End last summer. The tour kicks off in Dallas at the House of Blues on Tuesday, May 10.
The show is all things Alyssa — revealing all things Justin along the way. It promises to be a most enthralling 90-minute stage production, with an explosion of energy emanating from this talented soul in so many different wigs.
Johnson is an entertainer, a choreographer, a television personality and the founder and director of his very own award-winning dance company called Beyond Belief. But, more than anything else, he is someone who followed his passions and refused to let anyone dim the glittery, disco-ball light that he seems to shine wherever he goes.
But it wasn’t an easy journey growing up in small town Texas. Luckily, Johnson found his way to the world of dance and, ultimately, to himself. I had the chance to speak with Johnson recently and ask him about his Texas roots and how they led him to the sparkly world in which he now lives.
Dallas Voice: Can you even attempt to hearken back to you as a little boy, and even imagine this life and this show and this tour at all? Were you the little boy who was like, “One day, this is going to be me,” or would the little boy in you, if you went back, be like, “Shut up! You don’t know what you’re talking about!” Justin Johnson: I think that I was a wild dreamer as a kid. I always had these creative ideas. I’m definitely like the Mad Hatter now, I will say that, living in this Wonderland. But I had these fantasy ideas. I had an imagination that could run wild. But I never thought this is what I would do. I truly was very shy.
You’ve got to remember, I grew up in a home that didn’t know how to navigate that. My family didn’t know where I stood in the world and how they could help. There were many questions and much uncertainty. My father comes from a very Southern, old-fashioned, “Boys wear blue; girls wear pink” world, and then there’s me, his first son with my mom.
And he didn’t know what to think.
So what did that mean for you as a kid? There was a time where my dad was like, “I’m afraid he doesn’t have social skills. He doesn’t know how to talk to other kids.” And the thing is, I didn’t because I was very shy. My dad was a very aggressive man in the way that he spoke to me. I was a kind kid, and my dad rode a Harley Davidson and had long hair, and he was a man’s man and was very confused when it came to me. I grew up in a very old-school home with very masculine father who believed that boys are supposed to be boys — and then there’s Justin.
Now I’m at an age where I can give grace and go, “Hey, he’s a product of how he grew up.” He just didn’t understand. At one point he was like, “I hated God for giving me a kid like you, a son like you. But now in hindsight, I missed so much of an opportunity, and I learned so much.”
I don’t think that I had dreams of being on stage. I will tell you, though, I remember being in the living room with my mom, and we would play Stevie Nicks. My mom was the only flower child. I’m so much like my mom.
Were there other family members who were better able to support your sparkle? My grandmother would let me put makeup on her and dress her up. And I moved in with her. They always just allowed me to be me. My mom, my granny. My dad was like, “Son, you’re not allowed to do that in the front yard. There’s no dancing,” and dah, dah, dah.
I think he was very ashamed, just because he didn’t know how to navigate it. He just didn’t know how to nurture — that’s the word — how to nurture a little kid like me. So I think along the way, maybe some of those dreams were suppressed. But I always believed. I always knew that Oz was real.
My grandmother told me, “You would play. You would run. You would pick flowers. You were a very kind soul.” Then when my other siblings — they’re almost one year apart, all of us — “They would all follow you,” my granny told me. She said, “You were just the leader. You would make up these games, and you were great. But then the older you got, obviously kids started noticing there was something different about you.”
So what happened once people starting noticing that difference? My grandmother said I went mute: “It looked like you wouldn’t talk. You were so scared of someone saying something ugly to you.” I did get called a faggot one time when I was 12. I remember this story. And, so, I go home, and I’m crying hysterically, and I’m like, “Oh, my God.” My mom was like, “Justin, calm down and tell me what happened.” And I said, “I was doing my jazz solo in Miranda’s front yard, and her cousin, who is from Maryland, is in town, and she called me a faggot. And Mom, the whole neighborhood thinks I’m a fatty now.”
I just associated that word with thinking I was fat, so I was like, “Everybody thinks I’m fat, because people started laughing.”
And my mother was furious. She was so mad.
Wait, you didn’t know that meant gay? I didn’t. How would I? I was 12. There was no internet. I thought I was fat. I was like, “The whole neighborhood is making fun of me.” And then my mom told me what that meant, and I was like, “Why would they say that to me though?” And, so, my mom was like, “Well this means when boys like boys, and girls like girls.” And I didn’t fully understand. I was like, “Okay, well what’s it got to do with me?
I just like, “Okay. Less is best,” And I blended in.
Seems like light years away from where you are now, doing anything but blending in. Have you made meaning from what you experienced and how you found your way back into the light? I think the beauty in all of that is [that] I found my voice in my dance classes. And that’s where the magic really happened. My grandmother said, “Justin has a gift of storytelling within him.
You can’t teach that.”
For tickets and more information, visit DragFans.com.