As I walked into Monica Van Pelt’s memorial service, time seemed to slow down. Everything was in slow motion, from opening doors to seeing Christopher resting peacefully, surrounded by a plethora of gorgeous photos of him as Monica.
I realized in that moment that I wasn’t nearly ready to say goodbye and it would be much more difficult than I’d imagined. I went into a “zone” where I started to think about every single moment we had shared together and all the long conversations we had throughout our friendship. I intended to speak that day, but found myself at a loss for words. The day of Monica’s funeral, I wanted to say something in her memory, but I just couldn’t do the moment the justice it deserved. My throat was tight and my heart ached terribly. I’m honored now to have been asked to write this column, so I can say what I couldn’t that day to remember my dear friend.
Monica started drag when she was 17 after a few theater friends dared her. That first performance, where she performed “She Bop,” got her started on an amazing 30-year-long journey as an entertainer. During her career, Monica entertained thousands of people. She was a show director, a multi-title holder, Miss Atlanta Grand Diva ’14, and Miss National at Large ’01. She also appeared at Lips Atlanta since its opening, making her an integral part of the Lips family. If you’ve been to Lips over the years, you’ve seen Monica’s influence in the décor and ambiance.
Not only did Monica host shows, but she also entertained all over the city — you could say that she was the Energizer Bunny of drag. She has worked, as I recall, in almost every venue and festival in the city, including Backstreet, where Charlie Brown gave Monica her start in the Atlanta drag scene. She always told me that if it weren’t for Charlie Brown and Shawnna Brooks, she wouldn’t be the entertainer she became.
Monica’s community involvement was one of her best attributes. Not surprisingly, she grew to have a chosen family with her own children: LJ Van Pelt, Hayden Van Pelt, Gavin Storm, and Taylor Van Pelt, as well as Candy O’Hara. Monica spoke fondly about her family and those who had helped her. She had so many stories of the Atlanta gay scene, and she constantly talked about former queens who had made an impact on our community. Just as Monica told me stories about people in her past to keep their memory alive, I want to do the same for her and share a bit of Monica’s life with you.
Christopher and I met years ago at a photoshoot for the drag issue of this very publication. He was quiet and shy, and I had only been photographing for a few years, but I could tell he was very nervous. The concept of the shoot was to capture the process of getting into drag before doing a full-on drag shoot. When I work with clients, I like to try to connect with the person to get a sense of how to capture their essence. As I made jokes, he’d laugh or respond back with another joke; he immediately got my quirky sense of humor.
When it came to the shoot, Monica was nervous in front of the camera. We had a brief conversation in which I explained my process and said that I was there for her, to make her look amazing. I put her on a grand piano and directed her as I took a few shots. Then I showed her what I had captured. I recall vividly the look in her eyes as she smiled and said, “Biiiitch that’s sickening!”
We worked together from that day onward, and I even had the honor of photographing her wedding when she married the love of her life, Brett.
Monica was a truly genuine person. She didn’t judge others, but simply loved people for who they were. I will never forget the time she told me she felt like a movie star in front of my camera. She was a true friend, who lifted you in your darkest moments and celebrated your victories as well. If you needed help or money, she would go to the ends of the Earth to help you. Monica was an incredible human being, and the community has lost an amazing entertainer and community leader. Like many of us, I lost a true friend who always gave me a smile and told me how much she loved me. If you have stories about Monica Van Pelt, please share them with the world so her memory lives on.
For the time being, I’ll leave you with this quote Monica gave in an interview back in 2001: “If you want something, you have to go to get it, because life is too short — you don’t know when it’s gonna be over.”