Melissa St John and Eartha Kitt at the Kravis Center
Melissa St John and Eartha Kitt at the Kravis Center

On a Thursday evening a few minutes before 6PM, I parked on 24th Street and entered Sunset Grill in Northwood Village to meet with entertainer and female impersonator, Melissa St. John.  Upon entering, I took in the surroundings — red walls lined with vibrant paintings, above the bar… a color changing lamp, the menus themselves, were covered in with art. Our waitress arrived, poured a glass of water while I ordered a root beer martini.

It was at Northwood’s Mango & Music Festival that I had the pleasure of officially meeting Melissa, where she participated as the master of ceremonies.  Prior to that, I’d caught a performance at Arts Garage in Delray Beach as part of their Divas in Art feature.  She walks in dressed in a black shirt, tan slacks  and loafers.  Though not in character, her mannerism was the same… still graceful, still lithe.

As she ordered a glass of pinot grigio, I rummaged through by purse for my notebook and questions.

Born and raised in Pleasant City, a few streets south of where we were, Melissa tells me that she’s been performing for over 30 years. An only child, she started sewing in the 7th grade after taking a “Bachelor Survival Course” at her mother’s urging.  “I think she knew something,” she jokes.

Her father, she recalls, moved to Florida with few possessions and worked his way up to become the Executive Chef at The Colony Hotel, and  264 The Grill.  These days, her parents live in Okeechobee.

“How did you earn the title First Lady of Palm Beach”, I asked.  “That’s not a title I gave myself”, she answered. After losing many friends to the AIDS epidemic, she became involved in promoting awareness through Mother Cupboard, Comprehensive Aids Program (CAP), and other local organizations.  This, along with the fact that she’s a veteran performer and acts almost as a mother to newer entertainers, is probably what earned her the nickname.

As she spoke, I jotted down notes and took sips from my drink.  “I’m just talking,” she’d say… “feel free to stop me and ask your next question.”

The waitress stopped by with bread and flavored butter. Melissa ordered spring rolls.  She reminisces about PBs, now Shout Karaoke in downtown West Palm Beach. Her first gay bar, Kismet — formerly located at Southern and I95 — where she saw her first drag show, then later entered and won the title Ms. Kismet after a performance of “I’m So Excited”. She showed me a picture taken with Eartha Kitt at the Kravis Center in the mid-90s.

As far as inspiration, she names Whitney Houston, Dione Warwick, and Shirley Bassey, specifically for her theatrical costumes and voice.  One of her favorite songs is Nikka Costa’s remake of “Funkier Than a Mosquito’s Tweeter”; originally by Nina Simone.  I looked puzzled at hearing the title.

On Saturday nights, you’ll find Melissa in character at HG Rooster’s in West Palm Beach.  Twice a year, she and long-time friend Ricky Rollick perform at Chesterfield Hotel‘s Dinner and a Show (Leopard Lounge).  The next show will take place August 9.

Before leaving, I asked for her favorite drink. ‘Tito’s and coke”, she answers.

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