When it comes to stories of survival, love, and giving back, not many compare to that of Carl Max. OUTWORD.Today sat down with the Executive Creative Director of Diamond Entertainment, reigning Chester County Pride Queen, and Southern New Jersey Pride Ambassador to learn about his childhood, his advocacy work, and how a little boy from New York became a Whitney Houston female impersonator and an advocate for transgender community members and LGBT homeless youth.
Where did you grow up?
I was born in Long Island, NY and grew up mostly in Brentwood, NY. I excelled in school and was involved with my ROTC. I call those the “good years.”
At age 16, everything changed. I found out that my father was not my father, but rather my step-father, who had adopted me at birth. Around that time, he had an affair and it changed my mom. She became an obsessed detective, tracking his every move. She broke down. Sadly, she relied on drugs to cope and eventually prostitution to survive financially.
The pressures at home pushed me out. I knew it was in my best interest to leave. I ran away from home and lived on the streets of Manhattan for a few months. I did what I needed to do to survive as a homeless teen.
Do you have any type of relationship with your mom now?
No, I don’t. I haven’t had contact with family since the age of 21. I recently reached out to my middle sibling and we had a brief conversation, but I haven’t heard from him since.
How did you escape the streets?
I slept in a little park in the East Village in Manhattan. One day, a very attractive guy came and sat next to me. He said, “It looks like you need a friend.”
Immediately, I assumed the worst. “Listen, I’m homeless, but I’m not selling myself for sex.”
He assured me that he didn’t want sex and instead invited me to a local diner for food. After our meal, he took me to Barney’s New York and bought me a few outfits.
After a long, fun-filled, Cinderella-like day, he took me back to the park and handed me $500 dollars. I reiterated that I would not sleep with him. He smiled and said, “I don’t want that. I just want to help.” He handed me his name and number and asked that I keep in touch. It turns out that he was a fairly famous celebrity. While I won’t share his name, I have connected with him a few times since meeting him that day in the park.
I think about that moment quite often as a changing point in my life. The money helped me get to Atlantic City, where my career and advocacy work began.
How did you get involved with female impersonation?
In Atlantic City, I found work where I could. In 1994, at the age of 18, I found myself in a little bar on New York Avenue called The Rendezvous Lounge. A bartender, by the name of Sandy Beach, told me that I was an attractive man. He named me “Ipa Nima Beach,” which means “Black Sand.”
Sandy asked me if I would like to perform in a show as a female impersonator. After learning more about the show, and working through my concerns, I found myself on stage as Diana Ross.
The night of the performance, a producer from La Cage Aux Folle in Atlantic City asked me to audition for their show as Whitney Houston. I got the job and performed with them for two years. I later went off to Las Vegas and eventually came back to New Jersey to work with the Wildwood Follies.
I eventually ventured out on my own. I’ve done shows for many celebrities, including Whitney Houston herself. I’ve also performed for presidential candidates.
I followed Whitney ever since she picked up a microphone. The very first time I saw her was at a church in Elizabeth, NJ. She sang and I fell in love with her. Every time she opened her mouth there was a meaning behind what she said.
She was a loving and giving person, and to me, a mentor of sorts. I’ve performed as Whitney for the past 18-20 years.
I am close with the family, once had dinner with Whitney Houston, and also attended her funeral.
While I didn’t have a “pick up the phone” relationship with Whitney, she was quick to share with friends and family that I most closely resembled her as a female impersonator in looks and lip-synching, although definitely not height.
What is your favorite part about performing?
I love having a platform on which to speak, not only about Whitney Houston’s life, but about things going on in life that people often put aside. I get to touch people just by being her; whether it’s a child or someone who sees me and is moved to tears during a performance.
Can you share a performance experience that has had a lasting impact on you?
Two years ago at Philly Pride, I was the Southern New Jersey Pride Ambassador. I was in the parade and there was a young man in the crowd. I don’t know why, but I gave him a thumbs up. His mom later sent me a text and told me how I touched her son with my gesture. Apparently, he was newly out and my thumbs up meant something more to him. We invited him to a House of Legends show and celebrated his coming out. That’s when I knew I could influence someone with my work.
Can you share a funny story about performing as Whitney?
I performed as Whitney at Splash Bar in Manhattan. After realizing that I left my fake breasts at home, I improvised. I filled up balloons with water and headed to the stage. During the performance, a balloon popped. I went completely out of character, acknowledged the name of the bar, removed the balloon from my chest, and “splashed” everyone in the audience. The crowd roared. It was the highlight of the night!
When you aren’t performing, where can we find you?
I work hand-in-hand with Diamond Entertainment Company. Outside of my work as a female impersonator, I am an activist and public speaker, focusing on the meaningless deaths of transgender community members and LGBT youth homeless. I do everything I can to improve LGBT rights and equality.
Your life and work are one in the same, which can be exhausting and non-stop. How do you take a break?
I usually don’t go out in the public when I need a break. I have a very tight-knit group of friends that I associate with. If I do go out, I just ask people to respect my need for time away from Carl and Whitney.
Tell me about your experiences as Pride Royalty
It has been an amazing experience in so many ways. I have been given titles as 2015-16 Southern New Jersey Queen Ambassador and 2016-2017 Chester County Pride Queen. This year, I will step down as the reigning Chester County Pride Queen Ambassador and again become Infinity Queen Mother of both Royal courts, which gives me the opportunity to mold, advise and assist the upcoming Royal Monarch.
Being Pride royalty allows me ongoing opportunities to educate on the platforms most meaningful to me, and to make sure the pride royalty of tomorrow uses the crown and honor in meaningful ways. Pride Royalty should always be able to answer the question, “What do you stand for?”
President Obama. I’m not really a person who follows or talks about religion and/or politics, but Obama had such lasting impact on the LGBTQA community, in addition to other lives touched, during his eight-year term.
Hats off to our former President Obama!!
What motivates you in a divided political world where activism seems exhausting and never-ending?
I just pay attention to how I touch people and it keeps me motivated. Children especially keep me motivated. I want children to know that they’re loved and supported. Smiles and reactions during shows also motivate me. I don’t do this for the money or the limelight.
It’s a long one, but this one’s my favorite:
“LEAF PEOPLE: Some people come into your life and they are like leaves on a tree. They are only there for a season. You can’t depend on them or count on them because they are weak and only there to give you shade. Like leaves, they are there to take what they need and as soon as it gets cold or a wind blows in your life, they are gone. You can’t be angry at them, it’s just who they are.
BRANCH PEOPLE: There are some people who come into your life and they are like branches on a tree. They are stronger than leaves, but you have to be careful with them. They will stick around through most seasons, but if you go through a storm or two in your life it’s possible that you could lose them. Most times they break away when it’s tough. Although they are stronger than leaves, you have to test them out before you run out there and put all your weight on them. In most cases they can’t handle too much weight. But again, you can’t be mad with them, it’s just who they are.
ROOT PEOPLE: If you can find some people in your life who are like the roots of a tree then you have found something special. Like the roots of a tree, they are hard to find because they are not trying to be seen. Their only job is to hold you up and help you live a strong and healthy life. If you thrive, they are happy. They stay low key and don’t let the world know that they are there. And if you go through an awful storm they will hold you up. Their job is to hold you up, come what may, and to nourish you, feed you and water you.” – Tyler Perry, Madea.
A few of Carl Max’s upcoming events:
On Friday, February 10th from 8PM-9PM, Max will perform an “Always Love You Concert” at the Rodeway Inn in New Hope, PA. The event is organized by the Mid-Atlantic Trans*perience Community (MATC).
On Friday, March 24th, as the Executive Creative Director with the House of Legends, Max will kick off the grand opening of the new House of Legends performance venue, the Quality Inn in West Chester, PA.
And on April 30th, Max will perform and act as a judge at LGBT Equality Alliance’s Chester County Pride Pageant.
To see his full event schedule, click here.
To learn more about Carl Max as Whitney Houston, click here.