When William Armstrong found out he was HIV positive, he coped with it by becoming a drag queen.
Armstrong performed at the Divine Drag Show on Saturday night and is speaking at an AIDS candlelight vigil tonight, both as part of this week’s Sault Ste. Marie Pridefest.
Armstrong told his story to SooToday while preparing for Saturday's drag show.
It began in 2012 when Armstrong fell ill while living in Toronto.
He went to be tested for HIV at a free health clinic. Five minutes after taking a blood sample, the doctor came back in the room and said he had some bad news.
“Oh no! It’s a baby boy,” said Armstrong — he typically makes light of uncomfortable situations.
“Anything bad I try to make joke out of it,” he said. “There’s nothing wrong with crying, just, it doesn’t fix an issue. Humour does.”
The HIV came from his partner, who hadn’t told him he had it.
One of his first reactions was anger and sadness because he thought he wouldn't be able to have children, though he later found that wasn’t true.
At the time, Armstrong had the nickname ‘JWoww’ (a Jersey Shore personality) in the gay community of Toronto because he had a very abrasive personality when drunk.
A drag queen named Tracy didn’t like him because of this, but one day she saw how depressed Armstrong was and offered him advice.
“Try drag it will help,” said Tracy, who then became Armstrong’s ‘drag mom’ and taught him everything she knew.
Emerging from all this was Paris Gore, Armstrong’s monster-themed drag show queen act which took a lot of inspiration from the gross-out drag queen Divine, made famous by John Waters films.
He thought it was funny that Divine and John Waters ran around chasing a dog on set until it pooped and then filmed Divine eating it.
“She was so ugly,” said Armstrong flatly -- without insult.
Usually drag queens take their time before entering competitions but that wasn’t Armstrong’s style.
Two months in, he entered a drag competition in Toronto and, although he kept getting all the audience votes, the judges disapproved of him pouring blood all over his mouth and letting it drip down his whole body.
“They said it was too much Sharon Needles,” said Armstrong, referring to a well-known drag queen whose act includes blood and gore.
They might not have liked him at that show, but the next year Armstrong won the first Queen of Halloween competition and went on to do maybe 50 shows over the next few years.
“I wanted to do something with my life. I never take tips. All money (I made) went to People With Aids and (in the Sault) all my tips go to Sault Pride. In my opinion you have to give back,” he said.
In 2015 Armstrong moved back to the Sault and, until Saturday night, hadn’t done drag since Toronto.
After two years he was very excited, all his sisters were going to watch him.
He’s so pumped up he’s already organizing a Halloween ‘Dragula’ contest for some time in October.
A typical Paris Gore performance involves several outfits and lip-synching to rock and roll songs with a bit of comedy mixed in.
It takes hours of preparation before a show to put on his elaborate makeup and prepare several outfits.
To have more of a female figure, Armstrong wears padding around his thighs and hips, and in the chest adds silicon ‘chicken cutlet’ pads and scrunched up dollar store teddy's bears wrapped up in nylon stockings for stuffing.
He looks like about a C-cup with, by his own description, a ‘Kim Kardashian ass’.
The hiding of his male parts involves pushing two particular things into the body, duct tape, and one big tuck backwards.
For anyone curious how it’s done, there’s how-to videos on Youtube.
“But don’t look, you’ll faint,” he said.
Armstrong said that, to his surprise, life with HIV wasn’t that different.
After his diagnosis he was put on meds. The one he says helps the most is Truvada, something he takes everyday.
As the Truvada began to bring the HIV levels down in his blood he required blood testing every three months and when it finally brought the HIV down to undetectable levels the tests were just once a year.
Other than that he has to eat healthy and can’t get binge drink — regular habits that everyone should probably be following in any case.
Armstrong decided to speak at this year’s AIDS Vigil because he wanted to end the stigmatization of people living with HIV and AIDS, and to promote the possibility of ending them in his lifetime.
In a typed copy of the message he'll be reading at the candlelight vigil, Armstrong warns that if he can catch the disease from a partner whom he knew well, it can happen to anyone.
‘Thanks to those who came before us, our generation is in the unique position of being the first generation with the opportunity to wipe out AIDS. Use condoms. Get tested. If you are positive, disclose it to your partners and feel no shame when you do,’ he wrote, before adding his humorous flare and reminding people they have interesting options like flavoured condoms.
The candlelight AIDS vigil is 8 p.m. tonight at Bellevule Park Pavilion.