‘It’s OK to not be OK’
Jennifer Hughes is the people’s Duchess in a wonderfully imperfect place

Jennifer Hughes smiles at her wedding to childhood sweetheart Joe. COURTESY PHOTO

Jennifer Hughes smiles at her wedding to childhood sweetheart Joe. COURTESY PHOTO

Jennifer Hughes is flawed and wants you to know that’s OK. Even better, she wants you to discuss your flaws, too. Jenn burst on to the scene in 2018 with her family-friendly campaign to capture the title of Fantasy Fest Queen. This mother of three quickly garnered supporters as an underdog and particularly candid candidate. Now she keeps it honest about the power of communication through struggles and the state of the island’s working class and shares insight from her time at the iconic American eatery, Denny’s.

Kevin Assam: What food palaces do you frequent in Key West?

Jenn Hughes: Food. My favorite subject. I love Denny’s. I could be biased since I worked there. Garbo’s Korean BBQ tacos make me smile. Our friends have dinner at Salsa Loca after Aqua Idol every Tuesday. Nancy has the best guacamole.

KA: Does Denny’s get a bad rap because it’s perceived primarily as lowbrow or working class cuisine?

Hughes is a proud member of the Key West Mile Markers Smart Ride Team, which rides to raise money for HIV/AIDS agencies. LARRY BLACKBURN / COURTESY PHOTO

Hughes is a proud member of the Key West Mile Markers Smart Ride Team, which rides to raise money for HIV/AIDS agencies. LARRY BLACKBURN / COURTESY PHOTO

JH: Sometimes, but come on! Denny’s has dinner specials, a great happy hour, some of the sweetest bartenders, and a full bar — when it took over from T.G.I. Friday’s it took the liquor license. The quality of food is fantastic and consistent. Denny’s is corporate but still locally owned and operated. The produce is fresh, the meat is high quality, and there are healthy options. Not everyone can afford to eat at higherend restaurants. Denny’s offers you an affordable choice with quality products.

KA: Is Key West predominantly working class?

JH: It’s a mix of rich, retired, blue collar and financially struggling people. I am blue collar and able to pay my bills and still have money to give to charity or spend the weekend on the boat. I grew up poor so having a few bucks in the bank makes me feel secure. In middle school, I wore hand-me-downs while the other girls wore Guess and Z Cavaricci.

KA: What were the conversations about finances like in your household?

JH: I grew up in Chicago’s outer suburbs. I moved several times. My mom never talked about finances. When you went from a two-bedroom apartment to a motel room, you knew things were bad. However, I was happier there with my mom and sister than I was in the apartment with my mom’s ex-husband. He was an abusive drunk, just like my father. It was an out of control time.

KA: When did you feel comfortable enough to pursue a romantic relationship with men?

JH: That’s a whole other ordeal (laughs). Sex and being romantic are separate. I was in self-destruct mode from the age of 12 until 16. I had my first consenting sexual encounter when I was almost 15. I remember it was late 1989 (laughs).

KA: Did it give you hope for the possibility of healthy long term relationships with men?

JH: Not until much later. I had two failed marriages before I married my high school sweetheart, Joe. It took us three tries. We dated in high school, but we were too young. In 1996, we reconnected and had a baby. The stress of three kids and unhealthy communication skills led us to split in 2000. We were always best friends, but couldn’t cut it that time. In 2013, we tried again. We finally had what we needed and got married in 2017. I think we figured it out. Don’t you? (laughs).

KA: Why did you move here?

JH: Joe worked winters here for many years. Six years ago, he brought me for Fantasy Fest and I fell in love. Then our youngest son, Jordan, came that February and also fell in love. We sold everything we owned and moved here. It will be five years on Aug. 13.

KA: Were you concerned about the ubiquity of addiction in Key West?

JH: No. I already put the sex, drugs and rock n’ roll demons to bed. In 1990, my mom and stepdad moved me to northern Illinois for a fresh start. It worked. I fell in love with Joe there. I did have a short-lived relapse after Joe and I split in 2000. I fell into the wrong group of friends. I saw what I was doing and changed it very quickly. Now in my 40s, I don’t drink at all because it makes me physically ill.

KA: You ran for Fantasy Fest Queen in 2018 in collaboration with A.H. Monroe and were ultimately crowned Duchess of Fantasy Fest. Do you remember the moment you decided to run?

JH: We were getting ready to leave for the SMART Ride that was postponed by Hurricane Irma. I told teammates I wanted to do more for our community and that I would run.

KA: Is there a particular experience with the AIDS epidemic that’s seared into your memory?

JH: A few years ago, I did an ancestry search and found that my grandfather passed away in San Francisco from complications of pneumonia in 1977. This was pivotal because we knew he was gay. In the late ’40s, he was kicked out of the army for sexual misconduct with a fellow soldier. He ran away from his wife, child and remaining family. In the very early stages of HIV/AIDS, they used vague wording on death. I mean, the man was 58 years old! I feel sad that society made him ashamed of who he was.

KA: Do you ever feel ashamed of who you are?

JH: Yes and no. I am not ashamed of my past but I am ashamed that I didn’t speak out about my mental illness sooner. I am a clinical depressive with anxiety and I suffer from (body) dysmorphia, which I think is connected to abuse suffered as a child.

KA: Are hotlines and peer counseling lacking intimacy and adequate staffing? The wealthy or more resourceful aren’t flocking to hotlines in their times of need.

JH: They can be lacking intimacy but offer anonymity. Keys Bridge is well staffed and teaches the community what to look for and ways to help those who may be suicidal. Financially, most not-for-profits are struggling. Fundraising events like November’s Out of the Darkness Walk maintain awareness.

KA: Are we sharing too much of our lives through Facebook?

JH: We share too much “fake.” We only put our “good” face forward. I am over the political hate. If you share your opinion, make it yours without attacking someone else. If you share your life on social media, then post the “real” stuff along with the good. When I posted about my struggle with depression, it wasn’t to get sympathy. It was to increase the awareness that it is OK to not be OK. I do, however, keep my relationship off of Facebook because no one should be a part of that except my husband and me.

KA: How differently did you structure your Fantasy Fest Queen campaign from past candidates? Were there glaring mistakes in hindsight?

JH: Mine was very family friendly. I ran a campaign that was less about the rewards of winning and more geared towards A.H. Monroe’s mission. I made mistakes, but don’t we all? I don’t think I let enough people help me nor did I ask enough people for help.

KA: Did your campaign prove revelatory in who your friends and supporters really were?

JH: Yes, the crazy and fake friends weeded themselves out. I had one person who turned crazy, not clinically crazy, just obnoxious and exuberant at inappropriate times. We would set an event then that person would change it. When I switched it back, they would argue and get embarrassing and drunk at events. They were cut off from the campaign early on.

KA: Is there a song that captures your soul?

JH: “Man in the Mirror” by Michael Jackson.

KA: Was he right in that song? Do we really need to address whatever minor flaws we might have before we can turn to those around us with more egregious behavior?

JH: Absolutely. How can we love others if we don’t love ourselves? How can we help others if we don’t help ourselves? Charity and change begin at home.

KA: Take an artist like Michael Jackson. Do you personally separate the artist’s work from alleged wrongdoings?

JH: I do. His talent had nothing to do with the allegations against him. I believe the allegations could be possible. More than anything, he may have had a developmental disability — as if he thought he was Peter Pan.

KA: Does Key West demand a hands-off approach to parenting your sons who reside here?

JH: I really can’t “parent” them anymore as they’re over 21. Now it’s more like I am their friend. However, when we moved here, Jordan was still in high school and I was very hands on. I have a comfortable relationship with them where they can talk to me about anything — even sex. It may be awkward, but I would rather be awkward than risk an STI, unwanted pregnancy or HIV. I believe in being open with my sons. They deserve that.

KA: What is the best bar to go to if you’re a non-drinker?

JH: I love Aqua, Glitch and Mary Ellen’s. Glitch has video games, movies and trivia. It’s a blast.

KA: What’s at the bottom of your bucket list? What’s at the top?

JH: Top of my bucket list is going to Germany to see all the beautiful castles. Bottom of my bucket list is to travel around America in an RV.

KA: What road will you follow out in your RV?

JH: All of them. Just flip a coin and go. ¦

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