Tuesday, September 6, 2016



I’m workin’ overtime, dedicated to you
Gonna cross that thin line
Hope you don’t disapprove
‘Cause I’m workin’ overtime
Got to make a new start
‘Cause I'm workin’ overtime
Workin’ hard

(From the title track to Diana Ross’ album Workin’ Overtime, 1989, composed by Nile Rodgers/C. Max)

 like to think of my four years at QVC as something like the seven years that Gladys Knight and the Pips spent at Motown -- they were a talented singing group who struggled for recognition, good songs, and good producers, while the Supremes were treated like royalty.  From 1991 to 1994, I was a host on what was a new channel for QVC, the Fashion Channel.  There I was a small fish in a big shopping world, struggling to be recognized.
“Welcome back to the QVC Fashion Channel.  My name is Dale Madison, and I have the honor of taking you through an hour of fashion formulas.”
            That was how I usually opened my shows, by saying “I am honored” or “I have the honor.”  I really was honored to be on daily television -- even if it was on a shopping network.
My good friend and storytelling buddy from Umoja SaSa!, John Hall, had seen an ad in the Baltimore City Paper that called for hosts for QVC’s new channel, a channel dedicated entirely to fashion. John was also an actor and a performer, but he felt the job would be perfect for me because of my experience in costume design. Acting, like sports and politics, is a cutthroat, competitive field, so I was grateful for the tip. The nationwide search was coming to Baltimore, so I sent in a standard headshot and emphasized my background in fashion.
A few days passed before I got a call from the head of talent for QVC, John Eastman.  He scheduled me for an audition and told me to prepare a six-minute selling presentation of a fashion item. “Sweet!” I thought.  “This will be a piece of cake.” At that time I was designing and making all of my clothes, as well as the costumes for my Umoja SaSa! Storytellers performance troupe. The influence of the Spike Lee film Do the Right Thing had the black fashion world in the midst of Afro-centric wear; it was all about kente prints and drummer pants, and I had a closet full of drummer pants.
By that time, auditions had become a way of life for me. The flexibility of my schedule with Umoja Sasa! allowed me to audition for movie roles, print ads, and television shows. Most auditions occurred in an agent’s office or in a business meeting room.  However, John Eastman told me that I would be meeting him in his hotel room.  This I did find strange, but I decided to go anyway. I arrived and noticed that food and dishes from the previous night were outside the room. When I knocked on the door, a huge 6’3” white man answered and introduced himself as Eastman.
“Come on in,” he said. “Sorry about the mess -- the maids haven’t picked up my dinner from last night.”
I stepped over the dirty dishes and gazed up at the deep-voiced Eastman. He sounded like a voice-over, projected through speakers. I thought I must have been the first audition of the day, as he was casually dressed and the room was a little in disarray.  He asked if I had any questions, then explained how hosting on a shopping channel works: the host gives an audience the basic information about a product, including price, measurements, and available quantities, then fills the remaining six to nine minutes with talk of the product’s features and benefits.

“Show me what you’ve got and keep it in between six and nine minutes,” he said.  I launched into my spiel.
“I’m sure you are wondering about the colorful pants I am wearing today. They are ‘drummer pants,’ sometimes called ‘parachute pants,’ and have become quite the must-have fashion statement. Popularized by entertainer MC Hammer, they are also known as ‘drop seat pants.’  They were originally worn by African drummers, musicians who must wear loose pants to accommodate the large jimbe drums they place in between their legs.  Most pants are made of cotton with an elastic waist, as I have here, or a waist made in a drawstring style. The pleats across the front and back allow for a flat waist design, with a broad sense of flowing fabric as the line of the pants moves downwards. When you are looking for comfort, you are not going to find anything that gives you the ease of style that a set of drummer pants gives you. A wonderful benefit I find is that I never have to worry about gaining or losing a few pounds, because drummer pants can be very forgiving.”
My ad-lib made Eastman laugh. He was a big man, and I could see that he related to waist sizes. He told me, “When I audition regular QVC hosts, I give them a pencil and have them sell it to me for the entire nine minutes.”
I was glad that I had my pants to sell, instead of a pencil. He was impressed when I told him I had made the pants I was wearing and that I specialized in making clothes for plus sized and petite women.  He confirmed what I had already suspected -- the Fashion Channel would have special hours dedicated to unique-sized fashions.
 I was so excited about the opportunity for a television-hosting gig that I never questioned why I would audition for a national television show in a hotel room. I was glad it did not turn out like the night I auditioned to be a roadie on the Jacksons’ Victory Tour in 1984.  At that time, I was still working as a front desk agent for the Hyatt Hotel, and the guy who claimed to be interviewing roadies for the tour had been a regular guest.  He told me he was a “marshal” of some sort and showed me a badge, then said we could talk about the job after I got off work.
He picked me up from the Hyatt and drove me out to a cheap Route 40 motel. He talked about the deal all night as he undressed, smoking a stinky cigar. I took off my clothes and imagined he was Jackie Jackson, the oldest brother of the Jackson 5, testing out the roadies before show time. I never saw him again.
However, this wasn’t like that -- John Eastman made no advances and I heard from him within a week.  He invited me to West Chester, Pennsylvania, for the next round of interviews with the human resources department. I took a train from Baltimore to West Chester and stayed in a hotel with all expenses paid, courtesy of QVC. I interviewed with two other people, and it was like a standard job interview. During the interview, the head of the human resources department asked, “If there was something you could change about yourself, what it would be and why?”
Having been asked this question before, I had a standard answer.  “If I could change one thing about myself, it would be my ears,” I said.  “I am the only one in my immediate family whose ears stick out.”
I was being totally honest with this answer.  I used to be extremely self-conscious about my ears.  Now I thank God for Will Smith because he has made big ears sexy. One cosmetic change I did end up making six weeks after that interview was closing a gap in my front teeth.  I thought it would look better on film.
I had never watched “shopping television” before, including QVC, which stands for “Quality, Value, and Convenience.”  Shopping channels never did anything for me because I like instant gratification and don’t buy things I can’t see, touch, and smell right in front of me.  From time to time I had run across the Home Shopping Network (HSN), QVC’s major competitor, on UHF TV late at night when everything else had gone off the air.  QVC was available only if you had cable, which suggested its viewers had more disposable income because they could afford the additional monthly cable bill. Eastman explained that QVC had higher-end products than HSN. I knew that HSN hosts were hard sellers; they urged you to pick up the phone “right now” and were constantly slashing prices on already cheap merchandise, sounding like sideshow salesmen selling water to people in a desert.
QVC had been in operation since 1987, their offices located in a West Chester office park. By January 31, 1988, the end of their first full fiscal year, the company had achieved $112.3 million in sales. QVC spent the next couple years strengthening its position in TV shopping through the acquisition of additional channels, property on which they built a call center, warehouses for inventory, and talent.  John Eastman had been one of those talent acquisitions. He was a former shopping host for HSN and was one of the first hosts for QVC.
            Eastman explained to me that QVC used a soft-sell approach. Hosts chatted with the audience, talked about themselves, and then worked the product into the conversation. No one ever said, “Act quickly -- while quantities last!” QVC strove to be the family of which viewers wanted to be a part.  It was fun and entertaining, and very personality driven. People called in and bought the products because they liked the hosts.  HSN hosts earned commissions, which made them eager to sell, while QVC hosts were salaried and did not make commissions on sales.  However, I later learned that QVC hosts received bonus checks twice a year, based on customer surveys and overall sales. I was excited about the potential of earning even more money, based on popularity.
About a month later, I got a call with good news. The QVC family was adopting me to be a part of their newly acquired offshoot, the Fashion Channel. I received a formal offer a week later. It would be the most money I had ever made, and I would receive a wardrobe allowance of $4,000 per year. I imagined all the drummer pants I could buy with that! Manicures and haircuts were reimbursable. QVC sent me tapes of previous shows and background information on the network. It would be the first time I would actually watch a QVC show. Up until that time, I did not have cable, and had not understood the difference between HSN and QVC.
 QVC hired a moving company to make my transition from Baltimore to West Chester a smooth one. I did not have to lift a finger, and that made me feel like a star. I wouldn’t learn until later on that my wardrobe allowance, haircuts, travel, and moving expenses would be added to my income at the end of the tax year and I would have to pay taxes on them.
 My lover at the time, Andre, was ecstatic.  He hated Baltimore.  He was approaching twenty years of working at Johns Hopkins Hospital and wanted to retire to try a new career. He could not draw retirement because he was not yet fifty, but he knew it would be waiting.  He looked forward to settling down in a new city where he could be a house-husband and take care of me.  We had a huge send off party with all our friends and family present before moving to West Chester into a cozy townhouse less than a mile from the QVC studio.
Andre kept a beautiful home for us. I barely remember cooking in those days, because he owned the kitchen and the rest of the house for that matter, complete with huge paintings and statues.  He banished my Diana Ross memorabilia to a single wall. I paid little attention to all that, because I was primarily concerned with establishing my television career.

Training to be a host was fun.  We learned about the various products and how to “showcase” them, such as how to turn a jeweled ring and make it sparkle in the right light.  We rehearsed in front of the camera and took test on-air phone calls, learning how to get viewers to say wonderful things about our products. In addition, we also learned how to deal with on-air callers if they said something off-color:
“Hi, you’re speaking with Dale.  To whom am I speaking and where are you calling from?”
            “Hello, Dale -- this is Sally from Houston. I just bought that beautiful silk blouse you talked about in the last hour.”
            “That’s wonderful, Sally. Do you have a special occasion on which you plan to wear it?”
            “Other than rubbing the silk fabric against my breasts and feeling sexy, no special occasion I can think of.”
Immediately, the caller would be disconnected and the remarks edited out of the show, thanks to our five-second delay.  I would keep the flow of the show going by simply saying, “Thanks for calling in today, Sally,” and would not react or respond to her remark.  Hopefully, the camera would pan away from my face and to the product so that my face wouldn’t give me away!

The first day I arrived at QVC, I met all of the regular QVC hosts. They were all quite fun and different in their own way. Clarence Reynolds was one of them, and he was the only other black host on the network.  We became fast friends. He gave me a warm hug when we met and said, “Thank God -- I’m not the only black guy anymore. The pressure is off me!” We laughed and I knew that we would get along.

Clarence was one of my main champions while I was at QVC. He taught me how to get around the city, told me where to get a good haircut, and made helpful suggestions on my presentations. Clarence was always immaculate, tailored, and very conservative. He always wore a suit and tie, while I would wear earrings and a vest and jacket with lots of pastels.  I think I was the only male at QVC with pierced ears and the first male at QVC to wear earrings on the air.  I had to fight for that in 1992.  I could not comprehend a channel that sold jewelry but did not encourage male hosts with pierced ears to wear it.
Kathy Levine -- considered one of the most successful salespeople in the world -- was the prime-time diva at QVC. She sold more than $150 million worth of merchandise, annually. Kathy was named “Best Television Presenter” three years in a row by the Electronic Retailing Association, and was also named one of the “25 Most Influential People in Direct Marketing” by Direct Response TV magazine. She went on to publish two best-selling autobiographical books, It’s Better to Laugh: Life, Good Luck, Bad Hair Days & QVC and We Should Be So Lucky.

Kathy had what was considered the prime time slot. She appeared live east coast time, from eight to midnight, and got the best products, the most promotion, and the most popular guests. Now don’t get me wrong -- just because the network treated her like royalty didn’t mean she let it go to her head. Kathy was not a bitch. She had paid her dues in the industry and had become a favorite among viewers. She was closely associated with Diamonique, the QVC brand of cubic zirconia, which was a fancy way of saying “fake diamonds.”  She was the undisputed star of the network. Funny, friendly, and warm, in real life she was the same person she showed to the audiences -- real and accessible.
Clarence came on at midnight after Kathy went off air. This made him a popular prime time host on the west coast.  Host Mike Rowe, another Baltimorean who had probably been at QVC about a year or two before I arrived, usually followed him.  Most of the original QVC hosts, including Bob Bowersox, Steve Bryant, Molly Daly, Paul Kelly, and Toni Price, were still there.
            During the launch of the QVC Fashion Channel, there were technical difficulties and a lack of product that scaled back the already scant twelve-hour programming and prevented some of the new hosts from going on-air the first week.  (Although QVC operated twenty-four hours a day live, the QVC Fashion Channel would be live only twelve hours a day, with taped repeats playing overnight.)  A beautiful black model/spokesperson named Sharon Swainson, hired out of Washington, D.C., only lasted with the Fashion Channel for five days.  Ironically, she and I had done a print advertisement together for Baltimore’s Mondawmin Mall earlier that year.  Her goal was to work for ESPN and she was more comfortable in sports.  She looked at the product we were supposed to peddle and told me, “Honey, I can’t sell this stuff. It’s polyester. I’m outta here.”  She quit and the search was on for new hosts.
Even though I knew that the channel wasn’t yet up to twelve hours of programming, I was uncomfortable with how management kept delaying my appearance, even after that first week.  I had been hired for my fashion expertise, but I soon began to feel like QVC was wavering in its confidence in me as a host. One day, John Eastman called me into his office and explained that I would be getting a unique opportunity.
            “Dale, we’re gonna give you a shot on the main channel. This will expose you to many more viewers than on the Fashion Channel.”
            “Does this mean I won’t be on the Fashion Channel at all?” I asked.
            “No -- it’s only temporary until all the programming is ready for the Fashion Channel. But I do need you to present a more conservative look. The types of things you’ll be selling won’t be fashion driven.  The experience will make you a more rounded host.”
I was appreciative of the opportunity, but I took his words as a subtle hint that I should change my image.  I had never tried to hide the fact that I was gay. I was proud that my gay fashion savvy had gotten me the job.
            I prepared myself to debut at three in the morning and be on-air for three hours until 6 a.m.  My days alternated with Mike Rowe, who also worked on a local real estate show in Baltimore.  Mike, who was a well liked “ladies’ man,” showed me a stack of erotic Polaroids women viewers had sent him. He never seemed to care what went on at QVC and seemed happy with the on-air schedule in the middle of the night where management seemed to leave him alone. I felt panicked because, with the skeleton crew that was present in the wee hours of the morning, I could not get advice as quickly as I needed it.  At first, I tried to convince myself that it would all be a good thing, because by being on QVC, my family would definitely be able to see me on television.  The QVC Fashion Channel was in limited markets so, even if my family had cable, there was no guarantee that they would have had access to the Fashion Channel.  Hosts on QVC were not to mention the Fashion Channel while they were on-air, for fear that it would frustrate or confuse viewers who did not get the Fashion Channel in their area.

Working on the QVC channel meant that I had to understand tools, home appliances, gym equipment, sports memorabilia, toys, games…just about anything. Entertainment Weekly, People, and most fashion magazines became reimbursable expenses. John Eastman told me, “As a QVC host, you will always be the life of any party. The seemingly useless trivia you will learn here will be perfect for most social occasions.”
The drill seemed simple enough. Hosts arrived about two hours before their segment aired to preview products lined up for each hour of their show.  A show block could be three or four hours.  Each hour had a different theme and one hour always included jewelry, which was QVC’s mainstay. My schedule required that I arrive at QVC around midnight, when most people were gone. My live shows were taped, and John Eastman critiqued them with me weekly.
I have to admit that I was bad my first few weeks on-air. I remember receiving comments from the bosses that I used the words “like” or “umm” too much. I tended to talk too fast, but quickly learned how to slow myself down by talking to the models and crewmembers on the set. As a live theater person, they gave me something to play off of.  I needed a sense of connection with the people around me, and not just with the camera.
Another thing that posed a challenge for me was that I hated the crap I had to sell.  A part of me wanted to tell my viewers, “You can find most of this stuff at your local K-mart.”  I was obviously uncomfortable selling anything related to sports. Because I hated sports so much, I refused to research the topic. The producers knew that and always tried to give me sports facts via the earpiece I wore. It was painful to come up with selling points on a basketball jersey when I hardly understood the sport of basketball. I often mispronounced the names of the athletes or the teams, or associated the wrong teams with the wrong city. I would look at the jerseys and my mind would draw a blank.  I wanted to say, “It’s a shirt. It’s somebody’s number. Buy it.”  The backstage crew found it so hilarious that I cared nothing about sports and did not even try to pretend otherwise. Those were the times when a six-minute sell felt like six hours.
I would get home around eight in the morning and feel completely beaten up.  If during the day I had to go to a vendor meeting, show host meeting, or do research on a new product, I might not get a decent sleep in before my shift.  Andre would make me a huge breakfast when I got in from work and would have a huge dinner waiting for me when I awoke. One day after an early morning shift, I came home and answered the phone.
“Hello,” I said.
A strange voice on the other end of the line whispered, “Are you Dale Madison, that new host on QVC?
“Yes, I am,” I replied.
“I didn’t know how easy it would be to get your telephone number. You have such a wonderful voice.”
“Why, thank you.”
“Every time you talk about fourteen karat gold, I stick my finger up my pussy. You make me cum.”
 I quickly hung up and had the phone put in Andre’s name the next day.  You may think that it would have turned me on, but it was the first obscene phone call I had ever gotten.  Frankly, it freaked me out.
Eventually, my work schedule made my sleep pattern crazy.  One time, after being off work for a few days, I had a dream that I forgot how to sell all the products I had already learned.  When I awoke, my heart was racing and I felt dizzy. I ended up in the emergency room, having a panic attack.  Also, the migraines I had been diagnosed with when I was eighteen got worse while working at QVC. On one occasion, they were so bad that I had to leave in the middle of a show. I thought it had to do with the studio lights. I took a series of medical tests and found out that peanut products were triggering them -- and peanut butter had been my comfort food to get me through the days at QVC.  Once I gave up peanut butter, my headaches decreased about ninety percent.

So much left to do and so little time
Just read the news to see today’s headlines
One idea can last forever
And here’s the only way that I can prove it…
I’m workin’ overtime

While working the late shift, I met Richard Simmons, one of many celebrity guests who appeared on the channel to sell a particular product. My body clock was still all off, due to the odd hours, and I was eating horribly. I had just shoved a handful of potato chips into my mouth when Richard walked up behind me and said, “Dale, I have two words to say to you -- Luther Vandross.”
I swallowed the chips and kept on going. The image of the overweight soul singer still sticks in my mind today, years after his death. High cholesterol runs in my family, and my father was already injecting insulin for diabetes.  My weight fluctuated a lot, as Luther’s did, while I was in my thirties. Before I joined QVC, I would start working out and then stop for months. I never exercised while working at QVC.  If anyone should have signed up for a Richard Simmons Deal-A-Meal plan it was me, but I did not.  However, Richard was always a pleasure to work with because he made every host on every shift feel like he enjoyed being on the air with them.
Joan Rivers, on the other hand, insisted on working or not working with certain hosts. Joan and Kathy Levine bonded quickly, and I think Kathy even used a plastic surgeon that Joan recommended. The producers were always running around to cater to Joan’s whims, using special lights on her face and allowing her tiny, yappy little dog to run all over the place.  Joan had to be lit just so, and it always left the studio hot and uncomfortable.

The oddest of the bunch of QVC hosts was Jeff Hewson.  He looked a bit like a short Tab Hunter, a movie heartthrob of the 50’s. His perfect hair, combined with his dazzling smile and clean-cut chiseled features, made him an instant favorite among the older ladies who shopped on QVC.  At my first QVC host meeting, he arrived wearing a pair of Daisy Duke hot pants, which someone referred to as tennis shorts. Imagine -- a grown man showing up to a staff meeting in tight-ass short shorts!  All I could think of was the old James Brown song that goes, “Hot pants…smokin’!” Rumors of his sexuality soon became fodder for backstage talk.  He had already caused the studio to become a flurry of excitement because he was engaged to host Judy Crowell, who was your typical girl next door.  I was not too concerned when I had heard staff people making remarks about Jeff’s questionable sexuality because, after all, I had married a woman a few years back and my wife had known I was gay. I just hoped that Judy knew about the rumors and was comfortable with what possibly lay ahead of her.  Of course, all of the viewers were caught up in the Jeff / Judy romance. Gifts poured in, as if Diana was getting married to Prince Charles. 

            Most of the QVC hosts attended Jeff and Judy’s wedding. The Fashion Channel hosts did not receive an invitation, since we had just arrived and obviously had no connection to the couple. When they returned from their honeymoon, there was definitely a different air around the studio. A huge public relations issue surfaced when their marriage fell apart as quickly as it had happened. Everyone wanted to know why the cable-shopping network sweethearts were breaking up.  The National Enquirer had already approached some hosts for stories as we walked to our cars, so extra security was hired. We had to take a course on how to answer questions from the media. It reminded me of the extra polishing that Motown artists went through in order to know how to properly deal with the public. It wasn’t the Maxine Powell etiquette class that the Supremes endured, (Maxine Powell was the etiquette consultant for Motown Records), it was the Jack Franchetti Speech and Media Training course and it was mandatory. A tip I will share that I learned from the course: if you are ever bombarded on the red carpet with questions from the media, questions you’d rather not answer, repeat their question back to them or ask them to explain it in a different way. This will give you a second to think of an appropriate answer, instead of saying the first thing that pops into your head.  For example:

Reporter: Which products would you rather not see sold on a home shopping program, products that really don’t meet your standards?

QVC Host: I don’t understand your question. Could you repeat it?

Reporter: Presumably, you sell whatever they give you to sell. You can’t possibly expect, by any stretch of the imagination, that everything you sell is a great product. Which things do you think are inferior and should not be for sale?

QVC Host: There are products that I would not use, but someone else might find them very useful.

Reporter: Would you not use them because they are inferior or just because they’re not your style?

QVC Host: QVC has a high standard of quality control and inspects everything.  I would never call an item inferior -- I would rather say something is not in my personal taste.

(See how I dodged having to say, “Hell, no, I wouldn’t buy any of that shit!”)
Right after the Jeff / Judy split, Jeff boycotted Judy’s show. He refused to do a walk-on, which is when a host drops by another host’s show to tell the audience what is coming up in their hour. Jeff would shoot his walk-on on a separate set, so that he would not have to be on the same set with Judy. He eventually left QVC, and Judy stayed. She gained sympathy from viewers, and her popularity increased. There were all kinds of rumors about Jeff’s erratic behavior and eventual disappearance. The stage crew often complained about how he spoke to them. When he moved from the area, people would joke about “Jeff sightings” in much the same way that people talk about seeing Elvis.
About two months passed before the QVC Fashion Channel finally expanded to its full twelve hours, and John Eastman told me I would have a nice noon to 4 p.m. time slot.  I was so relieved to be back in fashion where I could shine. I was also ecstatic that I would have a normal sleep pattern. The QVC Fashion Channel sold clothes, jewelry, makeup, and hair and beauty products. One of my first celebrity guests was the gracious and lovely queen of daytime drama, Susan Lucci.

Boy, you’ve got to think
What your priorities are really all about
It’s such a crazy world, we’re on the brink
There’ll be no turning back once we’ve set out….
I’m workin’ overtime

Friday, August 26, 2016



I can’t cover up my feelings

In the name of love

Or play it safe
For a while that was easy
And if living for myself
Is what I’m guilty of
Go on and sentence me
I’ll still be free

(Performed by Diana Ross, from the film soundtrack It’s My Turn, 1980,
 composed by Carole Bayer-Sager/ Michael Masser)

He literally swept me off my feet after seeing me in Skeletons, a play by Baltimore schoolteacher / playwright Wortham Tinsley, on February 11, 1989.  Tall, sexy, and bowlegged, Andre Johnson was seven years older than I was.  During our relationship, I was at my most creative, my most successful, and at my highest dollar earnings. I really worked hard during the seven years we were together, which is why I never stopped long enough to see that I wasn’t happy.
Andre reminded me of the gospel singer BeBe Winans.  He was 6’3” and had size 13 feet. He was extremely masculine and hairy, and I loved the secure way he made me feel whenever he put his arms around me.  However, there was one thing about him that really turned me off -- he had a front tooth adorned in gold.   I know that the “gold grill” is popular with rap culture today, but back in the day it was very much a Baltimore phenomenon. It signified wealth, and Andre was into showing off whatever wealth he had.

When I met Andre, he was living in the same house as his ex-lover. They had spent several years there and had built a wall to divide the house in two.  Ironically, Andre, like Tim, had lived across the street from me, and yet I never knew it.  That very first basement apartment I endured in 1976 had been across the street from Andre’s beautiful two-story home, yet I never saw him during those days.  He and his lover were too busy to be out and about; they were working hard to provide all the luxuries they desired.  I, on the other hand, was running back and forth to The Garage, The Clubhouse, The Nickel Bar, Odell’s, The Hippo, and any other hot, gay club that I could find. The reason Andre did not move out of his home when he and his lover broke up was because he did not want to give up the things he had there.  He loved material possessions, such as chandeliers, statues, and huge paintings.  Inside their home, on their respective sides of the wall that they had built, each held on to his treasures and neither wanted to leave.

Andre had most of his things crowded into the upstairs of the home.  It was all so ornate.  I felt like I was in a museum and could break anything at any moment.  He seemed oblivious to the cramped space and moved about his articles like a gentle, graceful giant.  I told him I was uncomfortable seeing him in that environment.  The message I was really sending was, “I’m not coming to visit you in this house with your ex-lover living right downstairs.”  Within three months, he moved out of that home, took up residence with me, and was trying to run the show.  I had a roommate at that time, and Andre decided that the gentleman needed to move out and be on his own. 

Instead of my friend leaving the apartment, Andre and I ended up moving into another unit in the same building.  As some of the items I had in my apartment didn’t fit with Andre’s design scheme for our new place, I sold the things to my ex-roommate.   Not being able to afford everything up front, my ex-roommate promised to pay me back on a payment plan.  Whenever he was late with the money, Andre would show up at his door, like he was the bodyguard of a loan shark.  He could be intimidating that way. I found it sweet, at first.

As I mentioned before, Andre liked a lot of material things and did not mind working for them. He was holding down two jobs when I met him. His main job was as a research technician at Johns Hopkins Hospital, where they tested the HIV virus on monkeys. I never visited him at that job and he seldom spoke of it.  He loved animals, and I knew he hated what the virus did to those monkeys.  His second job was at a ladies’ retail store, as a security guard.  He used to bring me all kinds of gifts from that boutique, like t-shirts, jewelry, and funky little fashion accessory items.

I had taken my first HIV test shortly before meeting Andre.  Because of the way my life had been, I was pretty sure that my number was up. I had lived with an intravenous drug user and had engaged in unprotected sex with random men, in places I shudder to mention.  The day I took my test, I was told that I had to wait two weeks for the results.  During those two weeks, I went on a shopping spree.  I charged up a ton of clothes, bought my first leather jacket and lots of shoes. I figured that since I was going to die, at least I could go out in style.  I assumed that I would not have to pay the charge account, because I would probably be dead before the bill collectors came after me for payment.  Fortunately for me, but unfortunately for my credit rating, life threw me a twist of fate. I tested negative, so I was stuck paying off those clothing expenses for years to come.  There is a strange sense of guilt and relief that comes from testing negative for HIV, when you have so many friends who have died from the AIDS disease.  To AIDS we lost a talented director in Wortham Tinsley, who had introduced me to Andre.  I was grateful for this introduction, because Andre would provide me with the longest stable relationship of my life.

Andre was very supportive of my career as an actor.  He truly believed in me, but was also very vocal in his disapproval of some of my friends.  If they were not helping to advance my career, he saw no use for them.  He frequently warned me, “They are only trying to suck the life out of you and use you up.”  He often spoke horribly of my friend John Hall, who was part of a storytelling group I had formed called Umoja SaSa!  He compared John to the Eve Harrington character from the movie All About Eve, saying that John was trying too much to be like me and plotted to take everything I had worked so hard to achieve. This was so not true.  John was my right hand in Umoja SaSa! and was more loyal to me than any of my friends around me at that time.

On one of our first dates, Andre and I went to a party and he got so drunk that he started nodding off in the car on the way home.  At the time, I was at the peak of my work with my other performance troupe, Actors Against Drugs (AAD), and I took my job very seriously.  I feared and respected alcohol.  Far too many times, I had seen what its abuse did to people, and I could not afford any drama to mess up my substance abuse work.  I thought about the drugs that Frizell had done and immediately took control of the situation.  In no uncertain terms, I informed Andre that there would be no drinking if he expected to stay in a relationship with me.  From then on, during the remainder of our years together, Andre never drank more than one glass of wine or one mixed drink at social occasions.

Andre truly valued having a relationship with me.   I used to tell him that, although I felt he loved having a relationship, I did not think he liked me.  I just happened to be the person attached to the relationship.  One of the reasons I doubted our compatibility was the fact that we had very little in common.  Most of his friends were lesbians, while most of mine were gay men. I liked to sleep with the television on, he liked to snore in silence. He loved church and gospel music, I did not.   He loved huge, ornate furniture, and I liked simple throw pillows and furniture that people could lay all over.  Even when it came to porn, he preferred to watch it alone and I liked watching it with a partner.

Sex was always awkward. Andre did not know how to initiate sex in a romantic way. More than likely, neither did I.  He did not make me feel desired.  We never discussed what we liked, or shared what turned us on. We quickly turned into an old married couple, just comfortable with occasional sex because it was expected. And when we did it, there were often more “misses” than “hits.”  We got to a point where we seldom even spoke of it.  There were times when one of us would walk in on the other taking care of his own needs in the bathroom.  Life became too busy for me to even focus on sex, as I was doing two, sometimes three shows a day between Umoja SaSa! and AAD.  But all my friends thought I had a wonderful life with my big, strong, hard working, dedicated “husband.”

After a year, we moved out of our apartment and found a co-op in east Baltimore.  It was a huge four bedroom, spilt-level townhouse, right in the middle of Fulton Avenue.   Like an oasis in the middle of a desert, it was located on the only renovated block in the area.  Everywhere around it was a ghetto. We had alarms on every window and the backyard had a gated fence.  Inside, Andre had the entire place carpeted in white.  He bought even more chandeliers, and furniture that was so beautiful, people feared to sit on it. Our living room was sunken and housed a larger than life portrait of the two of us posing together.  We had two aquariums and, although I loved our two Oscar fish, “George” and “Martha,” I hated cleaning the tank.

Our years together seemed to go by in fast forward. We worked. We shopped and bought a lot of things. I owned two sewing machines and a steam press, and designed and created most of Andre’s clothes.  I had to admit -- he did look great in them.  He had the height and build to carry off a lot of styles. He loved the attention he got when we went out to concerts and to social functions. We spent holidays with our families and, although my family adored Andre, I always felt like a polite stranger when we visited his.  Andre was the oldest child of a large family, and his parents were still married. His father and his youngest brother were heavy drinkers, and there was always some kind of commotion whenever they got together and liquor was around.  His mother made me feel even more uncomfortable on one occasion, when we visited his family’s home in Baltimore after moving to West Chester, Pennsylvania.  Although we had lived together at least four years by then, and although several of his family members had stayed in our home over the years, his mom told him that she preferred we sleep in separate rooms. I was so insulted that I vowed never to stay with his family again. 

Andre had a way of answering the phone that irked my friends -- he always asked them to identify themselves, even when he recognized their voices.  It did not bother me.   The few times my father called, he would refuse to give his name, so Andre would refuse him the privilege of speaking to me.  I found that hilarious.  He was a great buffer between my father and I, since I preferred to limit my contact with my dad anyway.

The thing I notice as I revisit my memories of Andre is that he was drawn to the image he saw of me on stage. He always admired my talent, but I could see he wanted to be on stage too. He was a gifted singer, but he had no confidence.  On occasion, I would have Andre sing a song to open my storytelling shows, and he always sounded wonderful.  But he always looked like a dear in the headlights!  He joined the James Cleveland Men’s Gospel Workshop chapter of Baltimore, and excelled as a choir member.  Still, he lived vicariously through me, wanting more of the spotlight. 
I will never forget the time he drove twelve hours with me to North Carolina, when I went to audition for a role on NBC’s Unsolved Mysteries.  His boss fired him from his part-time job because he chose to be there with me instead of showing up for work. When I booked the job, the producers offered him the role of an extra in a hospital scene, after teasing him about being my bodyguard.  Andre was so excited -- you would have thought he’d gotten the lead in a Spike Lee movie! 

The day our episode aired, he threw a huge party for everyone to see him walk across the background, pushing a wheelchair. I thought it was cute, at the time.  When I got my job as a host on QVC and had to move to Pennsylvania, he retired from his job of twenty years to move there with me and take care of me. One of the first things I did when I learned of my job offer was to pay to have Andre’s gold tooth taken out.  With his new, improved smile, he immediately had headshots taken.  He decided he was going to pursue a career in entertainment along with me, while he cooked, cleaned, and managed my career. 

Andre was always thinking of ways to use my celebrity to make a better life for us. It was his idea to start a doll business after I designed handmade, cloth African dolls for a silent auction at an AIDS benefit party. Starting a business seemed to give him something to do and it also gave us something in common.  But it was a lot of work because, although Andre had a lot of ideas, he lacked the business skills needed to execute them.  I felt pressured to make it happen for him and, at times, I felt it took me away from pursuing what I wanted to do.  And that was to get better roles in film and television.

Once the dolls became popular, it was like a rollercoaster ride. I sold the dolls to QVC, produced a show for QVC on African art, and began traveling to doll shows all over the country to sell our line.  When I was booked as an extra in the movie Philadelphia, I “pitched” our dolls to the background casting director, referencing their popularity on QVC.  This led to Andre being cast as a street vendor in a scene where he would be selling the dolls outside of Denzel Washington’s law office.  The scene did not make it into the movie.  Neither did my own background role as a random client in the law office, but it was a big thing for us at the time.  I also gave the dolls as gifts to various celebrities or entertainment professionals I hoped to work with.  After I saw that one of the characters on the sitcom Martin had black dolls in her bedroom, I sent a doll to Hollywood casting director Robi Reed, who I believed was casting the show at the time.  When Andre told me that Ms. Reed called to personally thank me for the doll, I was ecstatic.  I kept thinking she would fly me out to guest star on Martin, but that did not happen.

We named our business A.N.D., which stood for Andre-n-Dale but also for Art-n-Design Productions. It suddenly became all about the business and nothing in our relationship was about us as lovers. I was so unfulfilled.  There were times I would complain to Andre, saying, “I’m giving you everything you want, when are you going to give me what I want?” I used to remind him, “I came into this relationship for love, nothing else, and if I don’t feel loved then there is no reason for me to want to stay.”

It’s my turn

Yes, it’s my turn

And there ain’t no use in holding on
When nothing stays the same

He would cry and tell me how much he loved me, then would fix me a wonderful meal or buy me a beautiful leather coat.  He was difficult to talk to about problems. One time he got mad at me and couldn’t express what he was feeling, so he punched his fist through a door.  He knew from my past experiences that if he raised his hand to strike me, there would be no more relationship.  And he valued that more than anything else.
When my contract with QVC ended, Andre was already planning the next phase of our lives. We would open African gift stores, one in Virginia and another in Baltimore.   It was frustrating writing the business proposal because, although he was a fifty percent partner, he was not helping me do any of the paperwork.  But when the loan came through, he knew exactly what he wanted to buy.  He was quick to spend funds, but not quick to do the accounting involved.
I went along as usual.  Andre was loyal to me and I did want him to have the things he deserved in life. He had sacrificed so much for me, I just kept thinking that if he could get ahead, stand on his own, and make a success of the business, then maybe he would not need me. I loved the idea of moving back to Baltimore. I did not like living in West Chester during my years at QVC. What made the idea of moving back even more appealing was that Baltimore had become a hot bed of television shows and movie locations.  The television series Homicide: Life on the Street was shooting there regularly. Bruce Willis was there completing photography on the film Twelve Monkeys, and months after that, Jodie Foster would be in town to direct Home for the Holidays. 

I was looking forward to returning to my hometown with the fame of having been a television show host.  I though it would mean I would get offered better parts for film and television roles.  Because Andre would take up residence in Virginia Beach, I could finally have a place of my own that I could decorate as simply as I liked. No more statues and glass chandeliers.
When I got back to Baltimore, I rented a small apartment in the building above my store. I was happy with my leopard throw pillows and my futon across the floor, and now every piece of my Diana Ross and the Supremes collection hung on all the walls.  On the work front, however, the acting agents seemed less than impressed with my QVC success.  I was still being offered only extra work.  I played an African dignitary in a scene with Brad Pitt and Bruce Willis in Twelve Monkeys, a drag queen prostitute on Homicide, and yet another drag queen on a pilot called Falls Road.  The production people from Home for the Holidays were very impressed with my store, and even rented some of the African masks I sold for a museum scene.  Yet when it came to my being cast for the film, I was relegated to playing a background driver stuck in traffic.
Although the store kept me very busy at first, the absence of a constant companion in bed with me at night had my eye wandering. Andre wasn’t the greatest sex partner, but I always told him that he was great for snuggling up with on cold nights. One day, a guy rode past my store on his bicycle. We made eye contact and he came in and started talking. I learned he was a janitor at a local apartment building. He said he was living with a woman with whom he had no sexual relations, although they slept in the same bed.  He said his life had no sexual passion, and I realized neither did mine.
We started having an affair and it got very kinky.  I would dress him up in ladies’ panties and take pictures of him.  One afternoon, he stayed in the back of my store dressed like a maid, and I would have sex with him in between waiting on customers. The excitement gave me such a rush.  I looked forward to the fantasies we would create on his visits.  I kept dressing him in female clothing.  The contrast of his muscular, masculine body in lace and fishnets was a fetish I never knew existed in me before.

On occasion, I would drive to Virginia Beach to check on Andre and his store.  Snuggled in bed next to my secure, safe bodyguard, I dreamt of the kinky sex I would have with my little “panty man” and would suddenly produce a wet dream. At thirty-eight years old, there I was having a wet dream. I seriously began to rethink my future with Andre. 
Andre came to visit me in Baltimore, shortly after my visit to Virginia, and made it very clear he wanted to have sex.  I did everything I could to avoid it, but when I finally succumbed, I had to fake an orgasm so it would end quickly. The clock was ticking on our relationship, but I did not know how to bring it to a close.
 While in the midst of production on my one-man show, I could see how many of the incidences in the show were mirroring my own life. I had placed myself in a self-imposed prison of a relationship, and I needed to release myself from my own chains.  My show was about personal freedom and self-realization, and each night that I recited my monologues on stage, I built up a little more courage.
I was not looking forward to Easter weekend when Andre would come for his next visit.  However, being that Easter is a time of resurrection and new birth, I felt it would be the perfect opportunity to free myself.  That day, as I waited outside my store for Andre to arrive, I kept thinking of what I would say.  I was nervous, but I knew what needed to be done.  Finally, I saw his car approaching the corner.
“Let’s go to Red Lobster,” I said as he drove up.  He opened the passenger side and we gave each other a quick hug.
The drive was pretty quiet. I needed to save what I had to say until we were in public. I was not sure what he would do if I tried to break up with him in the car.
When we arrived at the restaurant, the waitress brought us those delicious garlic cheese bread muffins.  I reached for one and waited for him to start the conversation.
“Dale, so what’s going on?” he questioned. “You’ve been so quiet. I know something’s up. I’ve had a strange feeling driving all the way up here from Virginia.”
 “I don’t know any other way to say it other than to just spit it out,” I confessed.
“Is there someone else?” he asked.
“No,” I lied.  But the lie was true by my own justification. That little maintenance guy on the bike who I was fucking was not the reason I wanted out of the relationship. I needed to be out for me.
“Andre, I am different,” I continued.  “Doing this show has brought out things in me I never knew were there. I need to explore this cross-dressing issue that’s going on inside of me.”
The tears started flowing. I could see the salty water from his eyes stain the garlic muffins. The waitress cautiously asked if we were ready to give our order.
“I’m not hungry,” Andre sobbed, as he got up to leave.  I followed him out to the car. “I knew you were gonna do this to me,” he cried.  “I could feel it all the way on the drive here.”
He cried all the way back to my place. He dropped me off and drove right back to Virginia that same day. I was numb, but relieved that I had done it in person, face-to-face, instead of through a letter or a phone call.
My relationship with Andre was the most secure relationship I had ever experienced with a man, and I was giving it up.  Seven years with a partner who had worked hard to provide and make a better life for us, and I was giving it up. Seven years of things, but no passion. Seven years of looking good on the outside, but not feeling anything on the inside. 
He did not fight me on my decision. It ended as soon as our lawyer, who was his sister, had us sign off on a legal agreement that separated our stores and business properties into individual entities.  The only things left between us were a huge business loan and a few credit cards that Andre ran up and stopped paying after we broke up.  You would think that by that point I would have known to run a credit check on a man before letting him move in.  Leaving Andre, I felt like Diana Ross leaving Berry Gordy.  He had believed in me and had been the biggest supporter of my dreams, but I was missing something and I needed to find “my turn.”
It’s my turn
With no more room for lies
For years I’ve seen my life
Through someone else’s eyes

And now it’s my turn
To try and find my way
And if I should get lost
At least I’ll own today
“It’s okay to grow up and step out on your own. Just remember to say ‘thank you.’”