Turning Grief Into Giving
Performer Will Harrell Shares How His Drag Alter Ego, Candy Samples, Helped Him Give Voice to AIDS Awareness
by Rob Zukowski
Photographed Exclusively for A&U by Alina Oswald
One mid-fall, in Stone Mountain, Georgia, a little Southern spitfire by the name of Will Harrell was born. His parents, Robert, or Bob for short, and Mary, were good Christian people. These were folks who loved a good sweet tea, were involved in the community, and went to church on Sundays. They had close friends, family, and hospitable neighbors. But life beyond the streets of Stone Mountain was not quite so kind and picturesque.
Will was an only child and as such, did a lot with Bob and Mary. They read the newspaper and magazines together and watched the evening news. It was the 1980’s and everywhere you looked was another story about HIV/AIDS. People like Ryan White and the Ray brothers gained international attention with their stories. But there were many other stories. Will recalls those stories, those other people, who may not have gotten worldwide attention, but still had important tales to tell. He remembers the phobia, discrimination, and fear. There, on the television screen, and written in the pages of newspapers and magazines, he was seeing gay men for the first time.
Will notes, “I was seeing interviews with people with AIDS, and I was seeing myself, because I was seeing gay people for the first time. I saw myself in those people. I saw resilience in those people and I knew that was my tribe. With the hate that was coming through at this time I just assumed that this was going to be my disease. This was going to be my path.” Will refers to ACT UP activists as his heroes because they struggled and fought, literally, for their lives. They were a legendary force in HIV/AIDS activism. They demanded to be heard and Will listened. Many took fear and panic from the tragedies that were unfolding in front of the world’s eyes, but Will saw something else. He remembers seeing strong, brave gay men, fighting this disease and at odds with a world that misunderstood them.
Will tells the tale of an ice storm. Everything was frozen as far as the eye could see. The wind howled and frozen droplets pelted the house and windows. The Harrells had been in their new home for less than a year. “In January, 1988, we had a blizzard, a really bad ice storm, like six inches of ice. Atlanta just shut down. My father had a brain hemorrhage and starting convulsing in the middle of the night. It was like two or three in the morning. My mother yelled for me, she called for help, and I woke up hearing him convulse.”
Will remembers the sound of 911 being dialed on an old rotary phone. He was told to go downstairs and open the door for the paramedics when they arrived. Mary promised to call him as soon as she could. Back in the day, one could only sit by the landline, tethered to wall by a curly cord, and wait. When Mary returned from the hospital she sat Will down and said, “I need to tell you something.Your father is HIV-positive. Do you know what that means?” He did. Bob had received many blood products over the years as a result of his hemophilia. When he was hospitalized, he only had eight T cells. His immune system was highly compromised. The family was not the type to panic. They were clear-thinking, educated people who didn’t overreact, but Mary, a calm, collected, bright and well educated woman, told Will that no one could know or they’d be burned out of their house. “This was big stuff.” as Will puts it. “We can handle this,” Mary told him “the rest of the world can’t.”
Bob recovered from this episode and came home. But at some point within the first year of coming home, he developed melanoma. Successful surgeries and treatments followed. There were other ongoing medical problems. Bob took a variety of medications, one of which was prednisone, which had been prescribed for both the cancer and the HIV. Among other side effects, the drug made him a diabetic, as prednisone commonly increases blood glucose. Will remarked how his father had to give up sweet tea. Even with the ongoing medical problems and assorted medications, this was not the HIV/AIDS that Will saw on television. “My father maintained his weight, and there was no Kaposi ’s sarcoma or bouts of pneumonia. I felt like we dodged a bullet.” says Will.
Even at a young age, Will was no stranger to managing medical conditions. He had Hodgkin’s lymphoma and had undergone treatments and radiation. His father never had radiation for his cancer and Will saw that as promising. But even with promise, there came fear and confusion. One night, Will, was playing with his father’s pocket knife and cut himself. It was not a deep wound that would have required a hospital visit, but Bob and Mary had him soak his hand in bleach. That pocket knife, you see, was the one his father used to cut his apples and eat from. It was a different time then. We did not have the information that we have now about transmission. As Will puts it, “We just didn’t know.” On Memorial Day of 1991, Bob Harrell passed away from melanoma. Will was just fifteen years old.
The first time Will did drag was when a friend, who was conducting for the Atlanta Gay Men’s Chorus, needed someone to do Shirley Temple drag for a rendition of “Good Ship Lollipop.” Will, who is small in stature, standing at only five-foot-four and a half, calls himself a “pocket cub.” A tiny “twink” at the time, he looked just perfect in the costume and found that he had a knack for entertaining in drag. He fondly recalls doing a little soft shoe across the stage carrying a giant, ten-pound lollipop. It wasn’t long after that when Candy Samples was born. It was 1995 and Will was a sophomore at Emerson College. Some friends from his community theater circle convinced him to compete in the Miss Pool Slut Pageant, which, as campy as it sounds, was a benefit for Project Open Hand, a local HIV/AIDS organization that provides nutritional services. Will put together a hodgepodge of drag for the event. A girlfriend did his makeup, he borrowed a wig, and even his mother played a role. Will mentioned to her that he would be competing in the pageant and that it was a benefit for an HIV/AIDS organization. “You have to do it,” she told him, and helped him ready a dress. Will poured his heart and soul into the competition and at nineteen years old he won the pageant and was crowned Miss Pool Slut of 1995. Yes, the drag, the title, and the pageant itself were all fun, but there was more to it than that. Will was helping to raise funds for HIV/AIDS. That was the encouragement he needed to move forward with Candy and let her evolve into what she is today. While attending Emerson College, Will started to immerse himself more into the drag scene. Over time, he started to do some shows here and there. He was, at heart, a singer and songwriter, and liked to perform his own original work among the pop song lip syncs. He enjoyed performing and it helped pay the bills. All of this was good, but still, he had the sense that Candy could do more.
After Will finished college, he returned home to Georgia and he retired Candy for a while. He gave away his drag gear and wanted to focus on a career in singing, songwriting and acting. Not long after returning home from college, Will left home once again, for New York City.
While working towards his career goals, an opportunity arose to host Friday night karaoke at his neighborhood gay bar, Albatross. “Kind of as a joke, we said, we should do it in drag, and the owner was like, I would love to see that!” In March of 2002, he, along with a drag queen friend, took the job and something important happened. This small, neighborhood bar in Astoria, Queens, was where Candy began to see her path. Candy sang and she hosted, but more than that, Candy preached. Will found that Candy could use her voice, not just for singing, camp and comedy, but to reach a community about essential topics and worthy causes. Candy engaged her audiences, not only with her Southern charm and signature baritone voice, but with the issues facing the community. Candy talked about a lot of things, such as politics and current events, but she also talked about HIV/AIDS. In time, Candy began to tell Will’s story and the story of Will’s father. People thanked him for sharing his story. It made them fell a little less alone when the fabulous redheaded songstress on the stage could really relate. Will had written a song about his father when he was in high school. He called it simple and childlike when he spoke of it. But he brought “Everybody’s Missing Someone ” to Candy’s stage. He explained its origins to his audiences and people took it to heart. Will says, “Candy has always been a woman of a certain age. Even when I was in my twenties, Candy was forty-five.” That maturity, the path Candy would take, and the reasons why were evident, even in high school lyrics: “And now I’ve grown a little older. I’ve learned to find my own place. Where I can go and look back on our times. Where I can see a friendly face. Everybody’s missing someone. Like I’m missing you. Somewhere another heart is aching. To mourn the loss for the one they knew.”
One night Will pondered with his roommate what more Candy could do in the struggle against HIV/AIDS. His roommate at the time worked for GMHC and recommended that Candy start her own AIDS Walk team. By the time Will agreed, his roommate had already gone online and created a team—the CandyWrappers were born. What started out as a seven-member team, has grown to over seventy members at last count. To date, the CandyWrappers have raised more than $150,000. This was only the start. Next came Southern Decadence, an annual six-day event held in New Orleans by the gay and lesbian community around Labor Day. Will remembers attending just to watch guys, be friendly, flirt, and have fun. Over time, the friends he made at the event encouraged him to take Candy on the road and bring the show to New Orleans. Ten years ago he began doing “Sunday Services,” a benefit show for the New Orleans AIDS Task Force’s Food for Friends program. Candy didn’t stop there. “An AIDS Walk team member told me about Braking AIDS, an annual Northeast AIDS Ride supporting Housing Works, and said, ‘This is a place where Candy needs to be involved.’ I asked, ‘You want Candy to set up a lemonade stand and give refreshments to riders?’ I thought this was the silliest thing that I had ever heard, but still, I wanted to know more. I spoke to the organizers and they loved the whole idea. This was life-changing. I [learned that I] wasn’t by myself. I [had] always felt alone. I never felt like I had people in my life who understood what I went through. Through all these things that I was doing, I realized I wasn’t alone.” Candy has raised more than $15,000 for the ride. “Everyone on the ride has a story,” shares Will. “You don’t have to feel alone.”
Candy always says to “use your powers for good.” That’s her catchphrase, the creed by which she lives. She doesn’t perform for personal profit anymore; it’s mostly fundraising, and it’s a long haul. A good six months of the year, if not more, is dedicated to HIV/AIDS fundraising, and, in between all the walks, rides and festivals, there are even more shows and benefits. He remembers a coworker who would give up his vacation time, two weeks out of the year, to dedicate to the cause, and Will says he wondered if he could ever give that much of himself. We have our answer.
Where does he find the resources to be such a devout activist? He remembers. He remembers his father and his story. He remembers what it was like all those years ago and he knows that the struggle continues. “I’ve taken those feelings,” Will says, “and used that energy to, as a man and drag queen, do all I can for HIV/AIDS awareness and fundraising.”
Rob Zukowski writes The Whole Perspective column for A&U.