Instinct Magazine has an exclusive interview with Jeff March, the President of South Carolina’s “Famously Hot” Gay Pride, to talk about the controversy surrounding this year’s big return celebrating LGBTQ+ visibility after having cancelled last year’s festivities due to COVID.
Buck Jones, a contributing writer to Instinct and a South Carolina native, caught up with Jeff March this week.
Buck Jones: Hi Jeff, before we get into the controversy surrounding this year’s celebration, let’s fill our readers in on the history of South Carolina’s Gay Pride. It all began in 1989, didn’t it? Who came up with the tag-line “Famously Hot”?
Jeff March: Hi Buck, yes we began in 1989 with about 1,500 people who gathered in front of the Statehouse here in Columbia, and the festival took place at the nearby Finlay Park. The “famously hot” we “borrowed” from the city of Columbia. It used to be their tag-line. By 2019 we had grown from those humble origins into a two day weekend of festivities that welcomed over 100,000 people.
Wow! Not bad for a city of only 500,000 residents in its metro area. As for it being famously hot, yes, I concur. Summer in Columbia ain’t no place to be! (laughing) But I know that Columbia has a thriving LGBTQ+ community, with a significant boost from the local University of South Carolina which boasts on their website that 1 in 7 of its incoming freshmen are LGBTQ+. Things have certainly changed since I was a kid!
I agree. I moved to South Carolina when I was 16 years old, and things have really changed for the better. Today we have an amazing relationship with the local city and county who provide us grants, as well as the local corporate community who sponsor our festival and President’s Ball each year.
Let’s talk about this year’s Pride…
… and let me just add, as much as I love a big city Pride like in West Hollywood, there is something truly fun and special about going to a smaller city’s festival like back home in South Carolina. You really feel a part of the community, and everyone comes together to pull it off because it takes an enormous amount of money, and volunteers, to do something like this even under the best of circumstances pre-COVID.
Absolutely! Choosing headliners every year is a complicated puzzle. COVID turned everything upside down in this department as well.
I searched and began negotiations with many that just wouldn’t travel during Covid, especially if they were from outside the U.S. I had already secured the Latin group Sweet Sensation, which has been on our radar for years due to many folks around here requesting to bring them, then after other requests came in for Neon Queen, an Abba cover band from Atlanta, we were able to get them signed as well. But with it being a year that was questionable whether we would be able to return or not, I decided to hold off on booking any others. In fact, the popular concert after the Night Parade on Friday night I decided to take a different route due to musical artists being a little shy to fly. We decided to bring another night of the Rupaul’s Drag Race hour to Friday night as well as another to close out things on Saturday night. So, with our board member Phoenix hosting both hours, she will add another 4 different queens per night to her shows. But all of this came about not just because of COVID, but funding was going to be an issue too.
Yes, I saw that a couple of my favorite queens will be performing! I love Heidi N’Closet, probably one of my top five from all of the seasons. And of course, Sharon Needles is a legend!
Sponsors that typically support us were hesitant to come back this year. We had some, but not enough to do our usual gigs. That brought on the $1 campaign earlier this year, where we asked the community to donate just a dollar a person if they have ever attended a Pride. Can you imagine? A dollar per attendee would generate $100k to pride! It’s that simple. So many people donated more, thank goodness, even having a “Grand” option, where a few folks donated $1k each!!
So to date, we have raised an additional $7k from this campaign that is still ongoing. But as time went on, sponsors DID come back, and as all the Pride festivals around us started bowing out (note: there is an Upstate Pride, an Augusta, Georgia, Pride, as well as a Black Gay Pride), our support grew more and more the closer it came to Pride. We knew we would be financially sound to move forward, so onward we committed to go. We tested the waters in June with OUTFEST, and ended up having the strongest turnout to date, 4 times as many attendees as the last one in 2019. And the profits from that event matched that with 4 times the income! The event went smoothly, and it was clear that everyone was so ready for our return in the fall. Then the President’s Ball did amazingly well too. Our annual dressy night saw profits like never before, making it the most successful to date of its 10 year history. So with everyone’s encouragement, I decided we could go ahead and bring in another headliner.
Which brings us to the controversy! (laughing) So tell us how you ended up with Vanilla Ice, who I should note, played at Trumps infamous New Year’s Eve party at Mar A Lago this past January during the peak of the COVID pandemic.
I needed to bring someone to the stage for the straight folks to enjoy. What? Straight folks? But this is Pride? Yes it is. And pride is a useful tool to gain allies along the way. It’s something in my past 10 years I have always done, beginning with my first stunt by bringing Joan Rivers to our Koger Center for the Arts. Joan is certainly an LGBT ally, but she at the time, she was also loved by everyone, and she had just come from winning Donald Trumps Celebrity Apprentice. For the very first time in our Pride history, we stamped our logo all over this event. All profit would go to Pride. We marketed this everywhere. And everyone came to OUR event, so many straight people too, for our largest pride fundraiser at that time! It was a stunning night. And the repercussions from that were beneficial for all our future prides. Now people would come to pride when they see the likes of Sheena Easton, Berlin, Jordin Sparks, Lil Kim, Silento, Lisa Stansfield, Lorrie Morgan, and so many more entertainers that are not only loved by the gay community, but also the general population as well.
Yes, I remember that Lil Kim, as well as Kathy Griffin, have both been to Pride.
So I began to search again for a big named draw, and I found exactly what I was looking for. Vanilla Ice would be appearing in North Carolina the night before and my agent saw an opportunity to “route him in” to SC Pride the next night. This technique occurs often for small venues wanting to draw bigger names. If someone is already on the road and performing 3-4 hours away or less, you have a chance to “route your venue” into their tour, possibly for less money than they would normally charge. When the topic came, I had to sell it to my board. They were a bit hesitant. After all, it wasn’t too long ago that Vanilla Ice had performed for Trump at his New Years Eve event in Florida and it made headlines, along with our other returning favorite, Berlin. They both were PAID to be there to perform and nothing more. It was a gig. Another one of our divas and regular to Pride stages, Taylor Dayne, it was reported, had PAID the high price ticket to attend. There is a big difference there. Especially since this NYE was during the shut downs of COVID and no one was working anywhere. There were no concerts. Entertainers like Berlin weren’t working. If a paid gig comes along, I completely understand why they would take it. After all, all the acts I mentioned above that have performed at our Pride take the gig and the check on their way out. That doesn’t make them gay, or necessarily gay supportive. It’s a paid gig. Vanilla Ice is no different. But some gay folks thought he was.
Wait. (Laughing) People actually thought Vanilla Ice was gay?
Social media reactions were swift to speak to the news of Vanilla Ice. Most were strongly positive, but you had a few negatives, and a few ignorant statements as well. Things like “Is Vanilla Ice Gay?” “He is a Trump Supporter!” “He has one hit from the 80’s!” “A performer for Trump!” As I read them, I smiled, even laughed, and said to myself, “It’s working”.
That’s right! Now you have everyone talking!
Some things you have to change with the biggest of public displays. Often our LGBT community is demanding understanding of who we all are in all our complexities, but when it comes down to it, we aren’t very welcoming or understanding ourselves. I have been out to change not only the minds of straight folks (and build allies with them), but also the thoughts of gay people as well. Is Ice Gay?? What the hell? Not a single headliner I mentioned above is gay, and not a single person has ever asked if any of them were gay. Was Joan Rivers gay for performing for Pride? Is Deborah Cox? No. So why when you put a straight male up there would you even think that? And this from a community that has a straight woman’s name on it’s LGBT center, as well as a straight woman running it’s Drag Queen Story Time hour from that very same LGBT center. Come on, I thought we were more open minded than this?
And the Trump angle?
Is he a Trump supporter? I did my research. He has publicly stated that he is not committed to a political party. Does that make him a Trump supporter? I don’t know. Maybe, but again, and I hate to break it to my community, but a lot of those headliners mentioned above are Republican.
And South Carolina is a very Republican state…
As a Pride leader, I was not aware I was voted in to the position of President by just Democrats. There are gay Republicans and this is as much their Pride as anyone else’s, and it is my job to represent all of my community, not just who I select. I don’t have to agree with them, but I respect them just the same, and I have many friends and supporters in my life that are Republicans. By maintaining these friendships, I have been able to have healthy discussions with them, and they have become my allies, in my personal life as well as Pride. For every person that comes to Pride for their first time because of Vanilla Ice, we have the opportunity for them to see us and understand us a little better. They will leave a little more comfortable around us, and that will trickle down into the people in their lives. Maybe a gay relative they never spoke to, or a trans coworker they avoided. One thing I know for sure is that when straight people leave from their first Pride, they almost always return to support and celebrate along with us. Vanilla Ice will bring these people to OUR stage. It is our duty to treat them the way we expect to be treated, and to change the world around us one step at a time.
Well said! Best wishes to all of you as you celebrate this year. For any of our readers who are able to attend, the fun starts on Friday, October 22nd and goes on through Saturday the 24th.
Originally from South Carolina, Buck Jones emigrated permanently to Paris, France, in 2006 where he lives with his husband and slightly spoiled Jack Russell. He is the founder of the Club Littéraire du Marais.