Alan “Alfie” Pettit, aka Arial Trampway, the Inimitable Drag Queen of Palm Springs, Educates Others About the Epidemic From Firsthand Knowledge
by Dann Dulin
I was totally bulldozed…by the bodaciously bawdy performance of Arial Trampway at Palm Springs’ Hard Rock Hotel! Her namesake is the desert city’s iconic tourist attraction, the Aerial Tramway.
At the top of the show, the curtains part and Arial cruises in swiftly on a motorized hoverboard. She glides gracefully in and out through the eager crowd, flapping huge feathered pink fans in each hand, all the while lipsynching a song. How does she maintain her balance?! This pro has the audience wrapped around her bejeweled pinky finger.
Back on stage, Arial showers the crowd with captivating repartee and hilarious blue jokes. Next, Arial, as emcee of the show, DRG BRNCH (Divas of Rock Glam Brunch), introduces the first drag performer.
Arial seamlessly maintains the high-energy pace. Midway through the show comes “Pass The Purse,” where she asks the crowd to call out the names of “volunteers,” who will be dressed in drag on stage, and usually it will be a couple of straight guys. When the two men are brought on stage, Arial chats with them, while performers outfit the participants in wild wigs and flashy costumes. The audience roars.
Ms. Trampway announces the charity of the day, and sends the guys out in the crowd with big purses. They sashay through the audience collecting money for a new charity each week. Thus far, they have raised over $13,000 for various organizations including Desert AIDS Project (DAP), Hurricane Relief, Angel View, and Coachella Valley Rescue Mission. DRG BRNCH T-shirts sell for $29.95, with proceeds going to DAP.
DRG BRNCH premiered February 2017 and was so popular that Hard Rock moved it from their dining area, simply known as “The Kitchen,” to the ballroom upstairs to accommodate more people. Many are led to this extravaganza through a huge promotional billboard of Arial Trampway, located on Rte. 10 just on the outskirts of Palm Springs.
The creative man behind Arial is Alan “Alfie” Pettit. This year Arial celebrates her twentieth birthday. Maintaining this persona is a full-time job that Alfie works on tirelessly, as he approaches 10,000 followers on social media. The show attracts a very mixed audience, and the afternoon I attended the show, it was mostly heterosexual—and SRO, as well.
After the production, Arial and the performers come into the lounge area to sign autographs and snap pictures with fans. In the midst of the bustle, Alfie whispers in my ear, “This is our last show.” I was dumbfounded. She continues, “I’ll tell you over lunch tomorrow.”
The next afternoon I meet Alfie at Eight4Nine, a restaurant in downtown Palm Springs. When I arrive, he’s already seated at a high round table, wildly dressed in colorful hand painted blue jeans, decorated hi-top Converses, a black DRG BRNCH T-shirt (spelled out in pink letters), and topped off with a black cap, “DIVA” inscribed in faux sparkling diamonds. The Diva blends nicely into the chic décor and friendly ambiance of the eatery.
Alfie tells me that the restaurant is built on the historic site where the first Palm Springs post office once stood. He takes pride in his city. “I enjoy its history, mid-century architecture, the mountains, the windmills, and the sacred Native American land that adds an overall magic,” he says with conviction.
After we order drinks, Alfie confides that he was fired by Hard Rock because the owner apparently didn’t want to “turn his hotel into a gay venue.” The news is still raw and hurtful, and Alfie is plainly in shock.
A waiter appears and we order. Several women enter, espy Alfie, and come by for hugs. Alfie introduces everyone, then briefly chats about the Palm Springs AIDS Walk he participated in yesterday. Alfie acquired HIV at age nineteen, but more on that later.
Born in 1969, Alan Pettit’s love for drag grew out of the eager attention his mother and sister gave him as a kid growing up on his grandfather’s dairy farm in Ridgefield, Washington. When Alfie was seven, the family moved to Vancouver, Washington. Still married to Alan’s father for nearly fifty years, his mom, with whom he has a symbiotic relationship, would outfit him in frocks, heels and wigs, and apply makeup. “At seven, for Halloween,” giggles Alfie, “mom dressed me up as Shirley Temple and I came back Dolly Parton!” He pauses to nibble on a shrimp from his ahi tuna poke entrée, and concludes, “Arial Trampway was heavily influenced by my mother—classy but trampy.” (Another inspiration was the incomparable Divine.)
Coming from a home that was riddled with abuse and infidelity, Alfie began using drugs at thirteen. “I was in constant trouble with school, both due to my drug use and a lack of parental discipline,” he says. The teenager was placed in different schools and eventually was suspended until he completed a thirty-day drug treatment program. Alfie would be in and out of rehab many times in the coming years.
At fifteen Alfie ran away from home, and began prostituting himself. In 1989, at age nineteen, an ex-boyfriend, Daren, who had tested positive for HIV, contacted him. “Me being the only person [Daren] had been with, it was clear to me that I was HIV-positive, too,” he offhandedly recounts, sipping a cold brew.
At the time Alfie was a waiter at Red Lobster. “Because of my newfound status, I took time off from work. When I tried to return, Red Lobster (owned by General Mills at the time) offered me money not to return to work. They wanted to pay me to stay home!” He quickly adjusts his cap then twists his body a tad sideways crossing his legs. “I hired a lawyer and came to an agreement for a lump sum, for-life weekly checks, and made a verbal agreement that when the time came that I needed it, they would insure me.”
When the Red Cross confirmed Alfie’s HIV-positive status they told him, “You probably will only live around two years.” He went into a devastating tailspin of drug use once again. Eventually, the mother of one of his boyfriends saved him. “She said to me, ‘This doesn’t have to be a death sentence, Alfie,’ and she guided me through health and wellness to sobriety, clean eating, and herbs.” With his new lifestyle, he decided to speak with school kids and people living with HIV in various venues. The money he acquired from public speaking enabled him to move to Los Angeles, California.
In 1992, Alfie established a popular business in L.A., Alfie’s Autographs of Hollywood. A Los Angeles Times reporter ran a story about Alfie and his company on the front page. They coined the then-twenty-five year old, “Paparazzi with a Pen,” as he would obtain photographs signed by the celebrity—in person! The newspaper exposure sent his business soaring, which led Alfie to appear on several national television programs.
His unique approach to getting autographs heightened business. Alfie was sneaky and snoopy, probably giving new meaning to the word, “stalking.” At Tom Petty’s home, Petty signed his photograph, putting a spin on one of his songs, “Don’t follow me no more.” Alfie had his own system, but simply put, he would show up at events, luncheons, benefits, preems, hotels, and film sets.
He followed Jack Nicholson into a private golf club, where Jack blurted, “You know and I know that you’re not supposed to be in here.” He then agreed to sign a few pictures. Alfie got on the set of Don Juan DeMarco and approached Marlon Brando. His quick retort was, “Go fuck yourself.” For Elizabeth Taylor [A&U, February 2003], he nabbed her at the filming of The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson. Alfie slipped through security and landed backstage, eventually spotting her. Alfie asked, “Miss Taylor, can I please have an autograph?” The legendary star signed.
The demands of Alfie’s rising business caused another drug relapse. Ironically, this is when Arial Trampway was created. In 1998, Alfie and a bunch of his friends drove down to Palm Springs to attend the White Party. For the first time, Alfie hired a professional makeup artist—and voilà, Arial was born!
In the early 2000s, Alfie began to experience extreme fatigue and was treated with an anti-HIV cocktail that inevitably made his condition worse. He was finally diagnosed with MAC (Mycobacterium avium complex). Downtrodden, Alfie moved back to Washington to be with his family. “I believed that these were my last moments…,” he laments, offering that he sold his home in West Hollywood and closed Alfie’s Autographs of Hollywood. (Of autographs Alfie obtained, he treasures Dean Martin’s the most, which the star signed to Alfie’s mom.)
In and out of hospitals, Alfie underwent several simultaneous antibiotic treatments that caused permanent damage to his body. “Since these were my last days,” he says, “I said ‘fuck it’ and bought a car, a boat, and a lakehouse.” He lived life to the fullest, even going about town connected to his IV and walking on painful feet.
Alfie and I peruse the dessert menu. Alfie trumpets, “Hell, let’s go all out.” We split two dishes, the Chocolate S’mores Fondue and the Cardamom Candied Apple Crème Brulee.
In 2002 with improving health, Alfie moved to Thailand. To raise money for charity, he donned Arial and took to the stage. Proceeds from one event went to those who could not afford HIV medications. Alfie also began buying properties and needed more revenue to support his real estate investments. What would he do?
One night at a club, a gentleman paid Arial to be a dominatrix. “The idea was quickly born,” thunders Alfie, waving his arms in the air as if performing a magic act. “Arial discovered she had hidden talents, which took her on a whirlwind tour!” Alfie had a friend who was a transvestite dominatrix and they decided to travel together. “My first weekend in New York City I made over $5,000,” reminisces Alfie amid relived exhilaration.
In 2008, while working in Washington, D.C., Alfie experienced intense stomach pain, after returning to the hotel. “I was rushed in an ambulance to the hospital…in full drag,” he playfully points out. “I was admitted into emergency surgery for an air bubble in my abdomen, caused by a burst tumor in my small intestine. I had high-grade non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma.” Fortunately the cancer has never returned.
After this health scare, Alfie did some somber soul searching. He decided to return stateside and sell his properties in Thailand. It was 2010, and after years of a lingering love affair with Palm Springs, he settled there. “I wanted to maintain a more spiritual lifestyle, in contrast to the hedonistic way I was living in Thailand,” he informs. “I yearned for a peaceful community where I could regain full health and drug recovery.” On 11/11/11, Alfie said farewell to drugs, and he’s been clean ever since.
“I’ve dabbled in everything that didn’t involve a needle,” he confesses. Alfie momentarily glances out the window that peers onto Palm Canyon Drive. “When I was clubbing, it would be Ecstasy. Meth probably hit me the hardest. It dropped me into a state of psychosis and led to an arrest,” he says straightforwardly. “This last time I was just tired of waking up and medicating, staying that way throughout the day, then doing it all over again the next day. I wanted a different lifestyle…. ” He trails off.
Alcoholics Anonymous got Alfie sober, and it taught him to be of service to others. “It’s built into every part of the program,” he explains. “I’ve had a very blessed life, and now I’m in a position to be able to give back.” He eyes me directly with his baby blues and flashes a knowing arched brow. “I have always had a zest for life and tried to live it to its fullest. Mom has played a major role in my life—still does—and it’s really helped to see me through some of the rougher spots. When you’ve been so close to death so many times, it changes your perspective on life.”
“Louise Hay’s [A&U, April 2010] book, You Can Heal Your Life, changed… my…life,” asserts Alfie, in a stern tone. “I gained a better perspective on many fronts, including how I view money and people. Abundance is unlimited, but there’s a respect and responsibility that comes with abundance. Money flows to me, through me, and is released unto the universe.”
Currently, Arial appears around Palm Springs at fundraisers and events, raising money for Desert AIDS Project, the LGBT Community Center of the Desert, and Sober in the Sun. The charismatic lady also serves as an honorary chairperson for the American Cancer Society. “Most of the queens who live here are involved with local charities,” he states with pinpoint exactness. “It’s a place of pride for all of us.”
In 2016, Arial received her well-deserved sidewalk plaque on Palm Spring’s Walk of Stars.
Alfie now lives a balanced life, taking his meds, vitamins, and Chinese herbs. He even quit smoking. One of his colossal joys in life is his pug, Petunia. “Animals ground me, and have a way of drawing out the negative energy.”
Checking in with Alfie several months after our meeting, I learn that with the lawsuit against the Hard Rock Hotel heating up, he put his condo up for sale to pay for the attorney fees. (Since this interview, Alfie had filed a lawsuit against Hard Rock Hotel Licensing, Inc. of Orlando Florida and, as we go to press, the case has been resolved.)
“Initially, when this whole mess happened, I was embarrassed and confused…,” confides Alfie about the litigation, offering that he’s also auditioning for RuPaul’s Drag Race. “There is no place in Palm Springs for discrimination—nor anywhere!” he exclaims fervently. “Everyone has a place in this world.”
Alfie takes a beat. “I wouldn’t change a thing about my life!” he radiates. “Every situation has led me here. I can’t think of anything bad that’s happened in the past that hasn’t led to something …beautiful.”
Follow Alfie on Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/ArialTrampway.
Dann Dulin is an A&U Senior Editor.