By Shaley Howard, PQ Monthly
Say hello to the gorgeous, hilarious, and oh-so-talented Ms. Poison Waters! If you haven’t heard of her, well, my goodness—where have you been? She has not only been performing phenomenal drag shows for 29 years, she is also a co-host at Darcelle XV, performs in Oregon Ballet Theater’s Nutcracker, emcees major galas and has spent years volunteering for Cascade AIDS Project and HIV-affected children and their families.
I first saw Poison perform at Darcelle’s years ago when I was a new gay, and I remember being blown away. Her stage presence was mesmerizing. Needless to say I was thrilled to speak with this local celebrity and, dare I say, legend. In additional to her overflowing talent, it turns out that Poison Waters a.k.a. Kevin Cook happens to be one of the sweetest, most thoughtful and community-conscious people I’ve ever had the pleasure of interviewing.
What was your first experience in drag?
In the late 80’s after I graduated high school, I used to go dancing at the City Nightclub—the all ages gay club in downtown Portland. They had drag shows at midnight, which I used to dislike back then as they interrupted my dancing! They were new to me and I didn’t understand, as I’d never heard of a drag queen before. Then one time a group of all black drag queens did a special show, a big medley from the musical Dreamgirls, and it REALLY got me interested as I realized I hadn’t really seen a black drag queen before. A couple of months later, Rosey Waters asked the audience if anyone of us wanted to learn to be a queen and I raised my hand. That was 29 years ago!
I feel like Kevin was more reserved and Poison had license to be more social and forward. I love that both are me; I don’t really differentiate anymore.
What were the influencing factors that led you to drag?
Experiencing and befriending those beautiful queens that night (Rosey Waters, Lady Elaine Peacock, Misty Waters and Ceresa XIV of All of Alaska) instilled in me the idea of combining grace, beauty, humor and personality. While I’ve had many mentors, these four were the ones that let me realize I wanted to be just like them—and could be. I think of them daily and remember to honor them in what I do.
What is it like being a celebrity behind the persona of Poison Waters?
To be honest, in the beginning it was so bizarre to me when people would call me Poison when I wasn’t in drag. But now I’m proud that the persona and the person are accepted and welcomed as one. Initially I feel like Kevin was more reserved (even though I’m naturally an outgoing and funny guy) and Poison had license to be more social and forward. I love that both are me; I don’t really differentiate anymore. Both funny and serious, flippant and thoughtful, casual and formal, organized and spontaneous.
What are some of the accomplishments you’re proud of throughout your life personal and/or professional?
Remaining active and visible for coming up on 30 years in our community brings me great pride, but also great appreciation. I can be as delightful as I think I am, but without all the support and acceptance where would I be? So all of my accomplishments are a product of the symbiotic relationship between me and our community.
I’m realizing my true potential; the voice and platform I have and share is bigger than myself and has become a strong and valuable tool in educating others about the communities I identify with.
From your perspective how have you seen the LGBTQ and drag community change over the years?
I feel the change has been constant and gradual and a product of the times. As we all know, LGBTQ folks and drag queens have always been. Visibility has increased out of necessity, thankfully, as well as a result of increased exposure in the media. The changes are from hugely brave folks pushing the boundaries and challenging norms. Drag used to look like Darcelle and me, all glitz and glam and not necessarily “real” looking. There are so many facets of drag and no “one” way to do it. Who’s to define such an ever changing art form? With this change in attitude, now there’s room on stage for everyone!
Drag has become much more accepted and appreciated in mainstream culture today. Could you have imagined that when you started that someday you’d be sought after as the “IT” person to emcee all of these prestigious events?
I certainly never would have dreamed drag would become so visible and accepted, but I’m awfully glad it has! Working with the various nonprofit groups and emceeing events in “mainstream society” has become a dream come true, though a dream I never had for myself. It’s been a happy road of opportunity and self-discovery. I’m realizing my true potential; the voice and platform I have and share is bigger than myself and has become a strong and valuable tool in educating others about the communities I identify with.
How would describe the mix of that particular brand of humor that’s so characteristic of Poison?
My humor is sincere, in the moment, and responsive to what is in front of me. I guess you could say it’s reactionary. I’m not good at rehearsed jokes; ad lib is my strength. Of course my quick wit is what people love, but also can catch people off guard. In today’s hypersensitive society, making off the cuff remarks with little to no forethought can raise a few eyebrows. I’ve always been smart and fast on my feet, and loved that type of humor that is “what’s on everyone’s mind but not appropriate to actually say out loud.” Have I intentionally set out to hurt someone’s feelings? Perhaps when I was younger. These days I value my position and the opportunities I have to emcee and host these fantastic events and while there definitely was a learning curve and I’ve learned to be as mindful as possible, I still love to keep the sass and evoke the reaction of, “OMG, did she just say that?”
What’s something about you that no one knows or people get wrong?
People do not believe me that I sincerely have no idea what I’m going to say until it leaves my mouth. I don’t necessarily get nervous, but I do get anxious thinking, “What if this is the time I can’t think of anything funny to say?”
Any final thoughts you’d like to share?
Just a reminder that we are going into what for many is the loneliest time of year and those of us in relationships, with families and full social calendars really need to take time to reach out to and include our friends who may not have many invitations, or considerations when it comes to social outings. Even a simple call or invite to lunch or dinner or a play.
And lastly and most importantly, what does Poison Waters want for Christmas?
Poison Waters would like a full booking schedule in 2018, please and thank you!
To check out all of Poison’s upcoming events, go to www.poisonwaters.com/calendar.