Fans of singing competitions with biting judges and lavish costumes will be thrilled to hear that the annual iteration of Aqua Idol to benefit the Royal Candidates for Fantasy Fest has returned to Aqua Nightclub on Tuesday evenings. As always, a talented group of singers has been handpicked by the candidates themselves to entertain a packed house week in and week out. Each season of Aqua Idol benefits a different charity representing a wide variety of local philanthropic causes, including the Key West Realtors’ Association, the Waterfront Playhouse and, as in this case, AH of Monroe County.
AH does incredible work providing case-managed health care, food programs, counseling, housing and clinical and other supportive services for members of the Florida Keys community living with AIDS and HIV. The organization also increases the amount of affordable housing available to the AIDS/HIV-affected community by acquiring, developing and maintaining low-income housing for those in need. In addition, AH is committed to educating the community about AIDS/HIV and linking individuals to opportunities for care. Because of the amazing aid AH gives to the AIDS/HIV-affected population, the yearly competition leading up to Fantasy Fest is always a weekly highlight in the hot end-of-summer months (as are Aqua Nightclub’s amazing A/C and ice-cold beer).
This iteration of Aqua Idol began on Aug. 28 with 10 vocalists — two per candidate for Fantasy Fest King or Queen. The starting lineup included both seasoned Aqua Idol veterans and newcomers alike, including Larry Blackburn and Laura Richardson (yep, that’s me) for Larry Blackburn for King, Dora Gholson and Daniel Wiggins for Diamond Dave for King, Rebecca Balcer and Mathias Maloff for Jennifer Hughes for Queen, Jodyrae Campbell and Shawn Montogomery for Bernadette Restivo for Queen and Carla Lee and Keith Franx for Mike Syring for King. Each has a distinct style and performance personality, and audiences have been dazzled by them all so far. The dazzling continues until the grand finale on Tuesday, Oct. 16.
The Aqua Idol singers may have committed their Tuesday nights to AH for eight full weeks of irreverent vocal entertainment, but the candidates for King and Queen of Fantasy Fest have essentially signed up to devote every waking moment to raise much-needed funds for the vital community organization. And each candidate has compelling reasons for doing so.
At a self-described “5 feet, 19 inches,” Larry Blackburn is a hard guy to miss. The piercing blue eyes, the booming voice, the small silver hoop earrings … he’s been Key West’s version of Mr. Clean, except with a camera, for nine years.
“As a photographer, I have the privilege of meeting and talking to so many in our community,” Larry says. “Some believe HIV can’t happen to them. They’re not tested; they don’t know their status. Many aren’t aware of the amazing work AH does … the health care clients receive, the housing for those in need.
I want to educate everyone about how to prevent the spread of HIV. I want to promote awareness about where to go for help. I also want to educate people that the agency is more than a treatment and prevention entity. It’s inclusive of everyone, providing vast guidance and access to affordable health care and housing for everyone.”
The dad of daughters Katie, Sarah and Sydney and devoted husband to Stephanie Hellstrom (owner of La Rubia-Authentic Panama Hats on Fleming Street), Larry has served on local boards as varied as Samuel’s House and The Sister Season Fund and continues to serve on the boards of the Key West Firehouse Museum and the Key West AIDS Memorial. Each organization demonstrates “how caring this island chain is,” he says. “Eight weeks running for King is a small sacrifice when I see amazing people, sometimes with very little, give so much.”
Diamond Dave (the royalty-tinged alias of Dave Bevens Jr.) came to Key West in 2009 from Columbus, Ohio, to help his parents, Dave and Leslie, open local craft beer bar Cork and Stogie on Duval Street. The move from landlocked Ohio and its long, sunless winters to the Southernmost City is one he’s never regretted.
“I am lucky,” Dave notes. “No one close to me has been infected with HIV, yet we’re all affected by it. I am very conscious of this community and how it gives.” When an injury displaced him from work for a month, The sister Fund helped him.
The fund, he adds, “includes quite a bit of former Fantasy Fest royalty” (he especially cites Ginger King and Julie Hanson). “That was my first real taste of how this island not only steps up but lifts up.”
Jennifer Hughes, who prefers the more casual Jenn, knows too well how past and present informs the future of HIV, and it’s those very personal stories that define her Queen candidacy for Fantasy Fest 2018. It began with her grandfather, who was expelled from the Army in 1949 for sexual misconduct with a fellow soldier. The family’s shock was all-consuming. Jenn’s own mother never had contact with him again.
It was only through an ancestry search that Jenn learned the bitter coda to his story: He died in San Francisco in 1977 of complications from pneumonia, the generic phrase used before the acronym AIDS had emerged.
Flash forward to now: Jenn has three sons, one of who is gay.
“I am so grateful Damien could come out in a kinder, more accepting world,” she says. “My grandfather didn’t have that option. He faced hated, stigma, shame.”
Coming to the Keys four years ago, she and her husband Joe, the high school sweetheart she reunited with after more than a decade apart, became involved with The SMART Ride, working as road crew for the Key West Mile Markers, which they’ll undertake again this year. Rider Tommy Ryan, 2016 Duke of Fantasy Fest, was an inspiration; from his campaign, Jenn learned about AH and the evolving array of health and housing services offered to Monroe County residents. “Raising money to improve my community’s health … and to expand everyone’s opportunities for affordable housing?” she says. “I’ll drink to that!”
Bernadette Restivo, better known as “Attorney Bernie,” has been practicing family law since 2000 and is perhaps best remembered as the lead attorney for Aaron Huntsman and Lee Jones’ Florida same sex marriage case; she handled the winning case pro bono.
An Ohio native with an education and legal career that has taken her from Washington, D.C., to Florida, she’s a mom of three adult children, John, Maria and Anna. She officially moved to Key West in 2015 from Key Largo, but her presence has been felt throughout Monroe County for years as a former senior attorney for DCF and counsel for the Guardian ad Litem program.
Bernadette’s commitment to civil service is as fierce as her commitment to the scales of justice. “Running for Queen, to me, is a natural progression,” she notes. “I was a professional fundraiser. I see the immense need. I’m ready to help pull this county together, from Key Largo to Key West, for AH.”
Mike Syring is the first to laughingly point out that, “I’m better known as The Carpet Lady … and The Floor Guy.” A Keys person for 25 years, he’s originally from Toledo, Ohio, where he was “almost mayor,” he recounts, in 1973. (He also, coincidentally, knew fellow Buckeye and Queen candidate Bernadette Restivo’s father there.)
Mike and his wife, Leslie, raised three children and now have six grandchildren. His connection to AH of Monroe County and HIV/AIDS is an emotional one; his brother William was a victim of AIDS-related complications 25 years ago. In the mourning process, Mike learned something about himself.
“I’ll admit it: I was very pissed off at my brother … for being gay … for dying …for keeping it a secret that he was going to Montreal, anywhere, everywhere, looking for a cure, even a reliable treatment, that didn’t exist then.”
He pauses. “I still get choked up talking about it. When we moved to Key West, to a duplex on William Street, I met the gay men who also lived there. They were the best. They helped me ‘come out’ of my homophobic shell, to appreciate the LGBT community.”
Each week of Aqua Idol features a distinctive theme as well as two distinguished guest judges. Past themes have included songs from the 1980s, country hits, love ballads and show tunes. Guest judges like former Fantasy Fest Queens Mary-Lynne Price and Martha Robinson, as well as weekly judge Tony Konrath (insert boos here), offer (occasionally tongue-in-cheek scathing) feedback to the contestants and also often delight the audience with a number or two.
Although it is free to attend Aqua Idol, the contestants rely on donations from the audience to advance from week to week. Traditionally, the contestant who gets the least money from the audience each week is eliminated. However, in an effort to raise as much money as possible for AH of Monroe County, instead of eliminating an artist each week, this year every artist will perform until the end of the competition. At the end, all of the singers’ tips and donations will be added and the totals will determine the top finishers. The main focus is raising as much money as possible for the individuals served by AH.
The show runs from 6:30-8 p.m. every Tuesday. Be warned: The room fills up fast, so the organizers recommend you get there by 6 p.m. at the latest to stake out a prime spot.
If you can’t make it to Aqua Idol on Tuesday night but want to donate to AH of Monroe County in honor of one of the contestants, you can do so via Pay- Pal. Each candidate has a separate page on the AH website at www.ahmonroe.org. Online donations will be taken into account when the judges evaluate the singers’ totals at the end of the competition. ¦