With her blond bouffant, ample bosom, and meticulous lipstick, Yolanda Mapes might look like a stereotypical church matron, but the five o'clock shadow and big-boned feet betray the truth: she's no lady. Billing herself as the "alien love child of Louise Hay and John Waters with a splash of Dolly Parton," this cross-dressing minister of God brings her sassy brand of gospel music to New York City this month with a series of musical performances at the Duplex Cabaret.
Reverend Roger Anthony Mapes, the man behind Yolanda's thick pancake makeup, sat down for an interview with me this week.
Stroud: How do you describe yourself when you're dressed as Yolanda?
Mapes: Well, for easy reference, I'd say drag performer, although really what I am is a man in a dress. I'm not trying to necessarily give you realness or make you think that I'm a woman. I'm just having fun.
Stroud: Do you dress as Yolanda off stage?
Mapes: Not really, no. I'll show up in church with a little bit of makeup and glitter, but I'm not a person that sits around at home dressed up. It's about special occasions and performing is definitely a special occasion.
Stroud: How did Yolanda come into the world?
Mapes: On a dare. My cousin lives here in New York--we both moved here from Alabama--but one year we were having a gay pride party and he dared me to get dressed up and come back in drag. When I walked in, he just stood up and said, "Yolanda!" It just was so funny, it stuck.
Stroud: The Deep South can be a tough place for queer folk. How was your childhood?
Mapes: I loved growing up in my family--and in Alabama.
Stroud: When did you realize you were gay?
Mapes: Oh, the day I had consciousness!
Stroud: How did your family and friends react?
Mapes: It wasn't reflected back to me in a way that bothered me because I didn't care what anybody thought. If you think there's something wrong with me, it's your problem. That doesn't mean I didn't get my feelings hurt. When I journeyed through the traditional Christian church, it did hurt my feelings that I was rejected.
Stroud: What happened?
Mapes: I moved to a Christian commune when I was 18 years old, and I fell in love with my roommate. That was the first time I had ever really experienced a sexual feeling of any kind, like I wanted to have...a sexual act. Of course, that was not acceptable, and it caused a problem. I had to leave. So, that was the first time that I really understood there was something culturally bothersome about having a same-sex attraction. I went on to college after that. But I wound up falling in love with my big brother at the Sigma Kappa Fraternity. I just, I couldn't help myself. I would have crushes on guys. Finally, I just moved to New York City and found the gay community.
Stroud: How old were you?
Mapes: I was about 25. I was graduated from college and had gotten a Master's in Theater and I moved to New York to become a star.
Stroud: When did your interest in music start?
Mapes: When I was really young. We used to gather around the piano in my house and sing gospel songs. I loved going to church. I was in gospel bands from early on--from the time I was 16 until right before I moved to New York City. I've always been a spiritual person, and so really all I ever wanted to do was be a music minister. As I went on in my life and became involved in theater, I realized that performing is a ministry.
Stroud: When you arrived in Manhattan, did you have to go into the closet about your faith?
Mapes: Yes! I put my spiritual aspirations on hold. My sexuality was awakened in a way I had never experienced before when I moved to New York City. [Laughs.] There were tons of gay men in the city, so I wanted to get my share. I did, and I wound up, you know, having HIV.
That whole journey of exploring my sexuality sort of took me away from my spiritual aspirations because I thought that that's how it had to be. I didn't realize until I began to read Louise Hay and find out about Marianne Williamson and A Course in Miracles. I didn't realize that the two things, spirituality and sexuality, could be one thing.
Stroud: For anybody who doesn't know Louise Hay and Marianne Williamson, what are their messages?
Mapes: God is in you. You are a divine expression of God. You don't need to be saved--there's nothing wrong with you. Everything that you're seeking is inside of you. And so, as Louise was beginning to come to the forefront because of the AIDS epidemic--all over the place, and certainly here in New York, I began to go to meetings and learn affirmations and also went to hear Marianne Williamson speak. This was a new message, different than I had heard from the traditional Pentecostal church that I grew up in.
Stroud: You were talking about A Course in Miracles. How has it affected your life?
Mapes: My husband and I started studying it many years ago together and it has affected my life in amazing ways. I'll say it this way: my function is forgiveness--forgiveness of myself, forgiveness of others. That doesn't mean I don't have boundaries, but my function is to experience the world through the eyes of love and understand that what people do, they're only doing because they think that it will make better life for them, even the horrendous things.
Stroud: You mentioned you and your husband studied together. How did you meet?
Mapes: We met in a group called the Radical Faeries, which is a spiritual group of gay men who are very involved in earth-based connections. So the spirituality is connected to Pagan and Wiccan practices.
Stroud: What do you consider yourself?
Mapes: I consider myself more of a Pagan than a Wiccan. What we truly believe is that all life is one. So if the tree is alive, it's as alive as I am alive. I remember from very, very young being upset about people cutting down trees.
Stroud: And yet, you're an ordained minister, right? Was that through a Christian church?
Mapes: No, I am ordained as an interfaith minister. I went to One Spirit Interfaith Seminary. I wanted to get a broader understanding of many of the world's religions and belief systems.
Stroud: Do you find reluctance from the faith community to accept you as a drag performer?
Mapes: Yes, actually. At the end of my seminary program, when we were ready to graduate, I wanted to wear makeup and jewelry--people got a little upset.
Stroud: Why did they get upset?
Mapes: I wore makeup, some glitter, a purple hat, and a long beautiful purple robe with white robes underneath it. I had high heels on and was planning to walk the ceremony in my heels when one of the elders of the seminary really frowned upon that. I compromised, but I wish I hadn't. That's the reason why I'm doing Reverend Yolanda's Old-Time Gospel Hour--because this is my ministry. People need to see me in drag, being myself, not holding anything back and talking about God: my belief in God, my experience with God, and the songs that I love to sing that really minister and touch people's hearts.
Stroud: What's the Old-Time Gospel Hour like?
Mapes: I'm so thrilled about it. It's a celebration of old-time gospel music and new gospel music that I have written. I've taken some favorites and changed the lyrics to reflect my experience.
Stroud: Can you give an example?
Mapes: [Singing to the tune of "How Great Thou Art"]
I walk this path in six-inch heels and platforms,
And then sometimes, in manly rugged boots.
I know that God is ever-present in me,
And now I say, my God in you, how great thou art.
I want to reframe these old songs that speak of a "God-out-there-somewhere" and bring it back and help people resonate with the idea that we are each divine expressions of that which we call God.
Reverend Yolanda's Old-Time Gospel Hour
A Gender-Bending GOSPEL Celebration for the NEW THOUGHT Generation
Directed by: Rev. Shawn Moninger
Starring: Rev. Roger Anthony Yolanda Mapes: vocals and acoustic guitar
Kenneth Gartman: Musical Director/arrangements, piano, vocals
61 Christopher Street, New York, NY 10014
Sunday, August 5th, Thursday, August 16th, and Sunday, August 26th, 2012.
Sunday shows begin at 6:30 p.m.; Thursday show begins at 9:30 p.m.
$20 cover with a two-drink minimum.
For reservations, visit http://www.theduplex.com/
For more information about Rev. Yolanda Mapes, see www.yolanda.net